We Americans have a problem with the concept of subtlety, and that’s as true with our beer as anything else. Understated, traditional flavors don’t seem to cut the mustard for the committed American craft beer geek.
For years, ‘hoppy’ was the mantra. Every newly crowned king brew had more hop aroma, more hop character, more tonsil-twisting, palate-ravaging lupulin-charged musk and bitterness than the last. Some beers got so bitter that the human palate could no longer register that level of bitterness. That’s kinda silly, but the beer community slurped them up happily enough.
Amazingly, though, even hoppy got boring. And a quick, inspirational look at the wild beers of Belgium pointed the way to the next frontier: sour beers.
It might seem strange, considering that sourness is a flaver most people find averse in anything but pickles and yogurt (and mostly not even in yogurt), but sour beers are the current darlings of the irritatingly insular craft beer community.
Sourness in beer is nothing new–the Belgians have been brewing them since before their country became a war-torn hellscape. Even today, the finest sour beers reflect the brewing tradition of Flanders, in which wild environmental yeast is allowed to settle into open fermentation vessels and innoculate the beer with all kinds of neat-o strains of bacteria (among them lactobaciullus, brettanomyces, pedacoccus and other sundry microorganisms. The resulting beers range from the exquisitely tart Cantillon Gueuze, to the subtle, yet vinously complex Rodenbach Grand Cru (one of the best beers in the world, seriously).
Naturally, American brewers had to take a stab at things as well, and many breweries sport at least one unique bottle-conditioned sour in their product line. Some shops are now using souring microorganisms in practically all their beers, from stouts to witbeer, with decidedly mixed results.
The question “Is sour the new bitter?” frequently arises among beer people, and the answer really has to be no. Whereas bitterness can dominate a beer’s profile, rarely does it exist without a supporting cast of malt sweetness, floral esters and robust body. Make a beer too sour, and it pretty much crowds every other flavor out, leaving little more than the biscuity tannic flavor of sadness to dissipate on the tongue.
That is, unless you’re a sour beer lover. There’s a lot of them, and more than one beer geek expressed bemused pleasure at finding that a seemingly unappealing flavor profile could become addictive over time.
Ultimately we beer lovers are richer for having Belgian and American sour ales on our store shelves and taplines. We have more flavor experiences to choose from than ever before, and you never know when you just might be in a sour mood.
In other beers
The Naked Dove Brewing Co. released a superb Helles a few weeks ago, and you can find it on tap all over Rochester. Good Bavarian-style Helles (light) lager is a rarity from US craft brewers–they take more fermentation time in the tank, and the clean flavor renders any brewing mistakes glaringly obvious. This iteration from Canandaigua-based Naked Dove is one of the finest examples in recent memory.
The guys from ROC Brewing went back down to Boston and brewed a collaboration beer with The Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams) as part of BBC’s Brewing + Business Experienceship. It’s a dark, spicy pint with generous fruit notes, and represents the growing partnership between the two breweries. The Boston Beer Co. continues to look for additional fledgling craft brewers to enter the experienceship under the ‘Brewing The American Dream’ program.
Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.