Photograph by Jeremy Liebman
Sour Beer: Brewing’s Next Frontier
What's the next big thing in craft beer? Sour beers, made for centuries in Belgium and now gaining popularity stateside, are just what they sound like: brews that have been given a tart, funky flavor during fermentation by the introduction of bacteria and, in some cases, wild yeasts. While your first sip might make for a mouth-puckering, nose-wrinkling moment – like taking a shot of pickle juice or biting into a strong blue cheese – that acidity and tang draw you right back for another taste.
"Sour beer really opens your mind about what beer can be," says Joe Osborne, of Colorado's Avery Brewing Company, one of a growing pool of American craft breweries producing it. "Sours are interesting and aromatic, like wines. They can be a gateway for non-beer drinkers." As with wines, their complex flavors are great for pairing with food. They complement vinegary salad and stinky cheeses, and they cut the richness of fatty, cured meats.
There's only one obstacle to sour beers becoming ubiquitous: They're extremely difficult to make. Bacteria and wild yeasts are volatile – they can contaminate regular beer, so brewers need separate equipment, storage, and even staff for sours. The process is so delicate that when success strikes, it's hard to duplicate. Then there's the patience required for the final step: aging in wood barrels for anywhere from a few months to four years. It's a complicated undertaking, but brewers are aiming to meet the surging demand. "Only a few breweries in Europe have really mastered the style, and they've been doing it for hundreds of years," says Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, beer consultant at Tørst, in Brooklyn, which has an extensive sour menu. "We're just starting to make some really exciting stuff here in the States." Here are five to try. Most sours are limited release. If you can't find these, ask for the brewers' latest.
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– Stacy Adimando