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To a novice, the idea of a sour beer might bring to mind an unpleasant mouth pucker, like you’ve just bitten into a lemon. But in truth, they’re delightful beers that have a wide range of flavors.
First, you have to get past the name.
“It’s not a great term for attracting new beer drinkers for me to what is a very approachable group of beers,” says Michael Tonsmiere, the author of “American Sour Beers.”
“Sour is not an appealing word. People say sour milk, people say sour grapes,” Tonsmiere explains. “But honestly, the pH in most of these beers is similar to a white wine and we don’t say sour when we talk about wine.”
Setting aside what some might say is an ill-fitting name, sour beers have a strong following.
“The first time I had a sour beer, I sort of felt like my mind was blown,” says Constance Young, who is a certified beer server.
She couldn’t remember what the first sour she sampled was, but describes it as “pretty tart.” While she wasn’t put off by the unique flavor, she says she’s seen others find sours unapproachable.
“I didn’t have the initial scare with sour beers that a lot of people have,” she says. “But when I’ve tried to introduce them to my friends, I see most of the do experience this sort of overwhelming palate sensation.”
Brewers and beer geeks are still figuring out how to describe and categorize wild, sour and funky beers as they continue to grow in popularity. Three of the most common strains of bacteria and wild yeasts used in creating sour beers are pedioccous, lactobacillus, and brettanomyces.
More traditional sour beers are most popular in Belgium, which is home to lambics and Flemish sour ales. Sours also have a strong foothold in Germany. Sour beer production in the United States began to pick up steam in the ’90s. Since then, brewers have been experimenting widely with different fermentation styles, yeasts and bacteria.
In 2002, the Great American Beer Festival introduced its first sour categories and brewers only entered 15 sour beers. Since then, the competition has expanded to multiple categories and gets hundreds of entries.
“People might think that they may be more similar to vinegar or something like that, but most sour beers are more on the lemonade end of the spectrum,” he says. “They’re more tart and tangy than sharp and vinegary.”
But despite the misconceptions — and the perhaps unfortunate moniker — sour beers have lots of fans, and breweries in the D.C. area boast a wide variety of options.
Baltimore, Md.-based Union Craft Brewing’s Old Pro Gose is a German style wheat beer with a delicate tart flavor and a hint of salt. Champion Brewing Company in Charlottesville, Va. produces the Face Eater Gose. Currently on tap at Meridian Pint, this beer is a tart wheat ale flavored with Himalayan pink sea salt during the brewing process.
“It has a very briny taste to it. It’s tart, it’s low alcohol and it’s very refreshing,” Young says. “It doesn’t have a pronounced hop flavor at all.”
She also recommends D.C. brewery Bluejacket’s Mothra, a funky farmhouse ale, which is also currently available on cask.
Bottle shops provide an opportunity to try some of the more traditional sour beers, which are most popular in Belgium. Look for beers described as “tart,” “funky” or “wild.” Consider trying classics like Flander’s Red Ale, Rodenbach Grand Cru or Petrus Oud Bruin.
While all these beers fall under the banner of so-called sours, they’re anything but similar.
“There’s a huge range. Just because you try one sour beer and it’s not to your taste doesn’t mean sour beer’s not for you,” Tonsmiere says. “People say I don’t like beer because I’ve had Budweiser and I’ve had Miller and I didn’t like either one of those. Sour beer can have the same problem. You try one of the more available ones and you go, ‘Well, sour beer’s really not for me”
Sour beers have exploded in this region and across the country in the last decade and a half with more breweries experimenting with the style. But devotees insist they’re not a fad. In truth, sour beers are among the oldest styles of beers. Back before there was a clearer understanding of microorganisms and sanitation, all beers were likely sour.
“Sour beers have the staying power. They’ve been around so long — centuries, really,” Young says.
But in the last 15 years or so, there’s been a resurgence in sour beers; demand has grown along with the growth of the entire craft beer industry.
Tonsmiere says just because sours are having something of a renaissance, don’t expect them to be the “next big thing.” Though sour beers have a unique flavor, they are also incredibly challenging, time consuming, and expensive beers to make for commercial brewers.
“The question I seem to get the most often is, ‘Is sour beer the new IPA,’ and definitely not,” Tonsmiere says. “I think sour beer might be the new Russian imperial stout. You know, the new sort of hot thing that people who are nerdy about beer really fawn over for a while.”
By DCist Contributor Juana Summers