HomeSour Beers and Wild AlesSour Beers and Wild Ales

Sour Beers and Wild Ales

Photo of four sour beers in snifter glasses at Toolbox Brewery

Sour beers and wild ales are becoming increasingly popular among experienced craft beer drinkers who are looking for new tastes and flavors. These beers can be an acquired taste, but the styles allow for more flavor variety, which is the good news.

Sour beers and wild ales

In the beginning of beer, all beers were sour. The flavor in sour beers and wild ales is due to wild yeasts and bacteria. Ancient brewers used them unknowingly until the late 19th century when modern brewers learned to isolate and control the yeast cultures they preferred for more predictable brewing outcomes, i.e., beers without a sour taste.

Sour beers have been made in Belgium and Germany for hundreds of years. They are now gaining in popularity in America because beer lovers are realizing there are other beers to drink besides hoppy, West Coast-style ales. Plus, the innovative American craft beer scene continues to evolve, allowing brewers to experiment with new techniques and methods to create “new world” beers.

Wild ales and sour beers

Making a sour beer or wild ale is more difficult than brewing a non-sour/non-wild beer, and they take a lot of time to produce. Sours and wilds take months and even years to make, compared to days or weeks for regular beers. These unique creations are typically aged in white wine barrels which impart oak and wine characteristics to them. Brewing sour and wild beers also requires blending, which makes them true works of art.

So, just what is a sour beer and wild ale? And what is the difference?

According to The Oxford Companion to Beer by Garrett Oliver, a “wild beer” is a beer that displays the earthy, barnyard, funky characteristics of Brettanomyces yeast, regardless of the beer’s color. If Lactobacillus delbrückii is added to a beer made with Brettanomyces, then the beer is known as a “sour.”

Brettanomyces yeast is called a “wild yeast” because it occurs naturally in the environment, especially on the surface of fruit. Like Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus also lives naturally in the environment, and it is what causes the soft, mild acidity in a sour beer. Sourness is the taste our tongue perceives when taste buds come in contact with acidity.

Garrett Oliver says that when sour beers are well made, “they can be among the most complex and refreshing beers, terrific with food and easily pushing the boundaries of what the modern beer drinker thinks of as ‘beer.’”

Photo of a Berliner Weisse beer in a glass in front of flavorings.

Berliner Weisse style beers currently being brewed at many craft breweries are perfect examples of a sour beer. This style of beer, which Oliver says originated from the region around Berlin, Germany in the 17th century, is made by using both Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus during the brewing process. Once finished and ready for drinking, a Berliner Weisse has mild sour and tart characteristics.

Legend says that when Napoleon occupied Berlin in 1809, he and his troops loved drinking Berliner Weisse so much he called it “Champagne of the north.” Regular Berliners of the time just called it “the workers sparkling wine.”

According to the German Beer Institute, “Berliner Weisse is a sour, tart, fruity, highly effervescent, spritzy, and refreshing ale,” and low in alcohol (2.8%-3.8% ABV).

Due to its tartness, the German Beer Institute says Berliner Weisse is almost never consumed straight. Instead it is drunk “mit Schuss,” that is, “with a shot” of raspberry or woodruff-flavored syrup. Add about a jigger of syrup into a wide-rimmed, bowl-shaped chalice and pour the Berliner Weisse over it. A good example of a Berliner Weisse in San Diego is Division 23 Brewing‘s Sour Superintendent (3.2% ABV).

Photo of craft beer in a tulip glass on the bar at Division 23 Brewing San Diego

On the other hand, a good example of a “wild ale” is Framboise de Amorosa (7.0% ABV) made by The Lost Abbey in San Marcos.

Photo of a beer in a glass at The Lost Abbey brewery in San Marcos.

From the brewery: “Framboise de Amorosa is our first foray into the world of raspberry beers. It begins as Lost and Found ale and is sent into freshly emptied red wine barrels. The beer spends over a year in the wood during which time it is spiked with three additions of raspberries.”

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