As part of my quest to expand my palate, I have been tackling beers beyond my usual English/Irish/Scottish-style ales. For the past little while, I’ve been sampling beers from the continent, enjoying German weisses and witbiers, but most particularly—Belgian sour ales.
Sour ales are very different from what we do at the Black Creek Historic Brewery. Down here, we cool our wort very quickly—it’s quite an endeavour to get it from kettle to cooling ship to cask as soon as possible. See, wild yeasts and bacteria naturally occur everywhere. If you’ve got a piece of fruit nearby, you probably have some wild yeasts, too! Not all yeasts are created equal: some create very odd flavours indeed. Likewise, some bacteria devour the sugar in wort and turn it into acid.
So generally speaking, we try to avoid those microorganisms getting into the beer. However, sour ales specifically seek them. Sour ale brewers deliberately encourage bacteria like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus and wild yeast strains like Brettanomyces to set up shop in their wort. These microbes impart a tartness and sourness to the beer that’s very different from our ales here at Black Creek. An article on NPR phrases it very well: “Sour beers are to the adult beverage world what yogurt is to dairy. It’s beer that’s been intentionally spoiled by bacteria—the good bacteria.”
Some of the most common varieties are lambics, gueuzes, and Flanders red ales. Lambics are a variety of spontaneously fermented Belgian ale. When cooling, the wort is exposed to open air overnight. Unlike our “crash cooling,” this allows those sourness-producing bacteria to help ferment the beer. Gueuzes are blends of various older and younger lambics, while Flanders red ales are an ale often inoculated with the Lactobacillus bacteria, and left to mature in oak casks.
So what do these beers taste like? They remind me very much of red wine. It’s a fruit-like tartness—I’ve gotten a lot of cherry and raspberry. The level of hop bitterness is noticeably low: practically absent in some places. Certainly not an unpleasant taste, just a very unusual one, particularly for someone so used to our historic ales!
That being said, it’s worth remembering that early Victorian beers likely would have had some sourness. By the 1870s, breweries were the largest consumers of harvested ice, and the science of fermentation was much better understood thanks to Pasteur’s work in the 1860s, but prior to that it’s quite likely that brewers would not have been entirely able to keep their wort free of wild yeast and bacteria.
My favourite sour ale so far? A Berliner Weisse from our friends over at Beau’s All-Natural Brewing. It’s still very tart, but more like citrus than cherry. Like so many things in beer, it’s down to personal preference. 🙂
What unusual beers have you tried lately?