Sour beers are having a moment and that’s great for beer lovers everywhere but also for people who go, “well, I don’t like beer.” To those people, I hand them a sour beer.
Sour beers can be tart and tangy or they can incredibly complex with notes of fresh hay, tart apple, sour cherries and leather. The sourness can come from fruit and/or it can come a variety of acids imparted by bacteria. They can also have a funkiness from wild yeast like Brettanomyces. Sours can barrel aged for years or they can be soured in as little as 24 hours.
Sales of sours are just starting to be noticed by large sales firms like Circana (formally IRI) whose job it is to look over beer sales and chart growth and decline of the industry.
“This segment hit its volume peak in 2020 (2.6 million cases, ~190,000 BBLs equivalent) but hit its peak of share of chain retail craft in 2021 (it was 1.44% in 2020, 1.47% in 2021),” says Bryan Roth, an analyst for Feel Goods Company and editor of its newsletter, Sightlines+. “It’s since declined *slightly* to 1.4% in 2022 and is 1.3% so far in 2023.” In the grand scheme, beer sales are down about one percentage point overall so this drop in sales tracks with overall beer sales.
“What lots of people have discovered in recent years is how much they enjoy the style if it’s combined with fruit flavor,” notes Roth. “The category is having challenges like many other craft styles, but it has a built in benefit of being a natural extension of flavor-forward, fruited beer.”
Here are five sours I recommend for beer lovers and beer newbies alike.
The Sours Beers of Rowley Farmhouse Ales
If you love sour and crave award winning beers, a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico should be in your plans. John Rowley and his team brew some of the best sour beers in America. Rowley is a chemist by trade (and still has his day job at Los Alamos!) and brings his precision and technical knowledge to the brew floor with spectacular results. His sour farmhouse ales (farmhouse is a catchall term here in America that usually means the presence of funky wild yeast and/or souring bacteria like lactobacillus or acetobacter) is soft and not sharp, leaving you wanting more. Last year, the brewery won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in the Belgian fruit category, their fifth medal from GABF and their second gold.
New Belgium Brewing Company La Folie
An American classic, New Belgium La Folie is a sour brown ale with notes of plum, tart apple and cherry. One of the first American sours on the market and ahead of its time upon its initial release in 1997, New Belgium’s mixed fermentation (regular ale or lager yeast + bacteria and/or wild yeast = mixed fermentation) program is stellar, with a dedicated staff and unbelievable attention to detail. If you want to see their sour program used in a completely different way, try their Dominga mimosa sour, a canned beer that uses their wood aged sour golden ale in a blend for tasty, brunch worthy results.
Allagash Coolship Resurgam
Portland, Maine based Allagash Brewing Company was one of the first breweries in America to try their hand at “spontaneous” ales made similarly to the lambic beer styles of Belgium. They leave unfermented beer (called “wort”) overnight in a shallow metal pan housed in a small shed attached to the brewery. The yeast from the air (yes, yeast is all around you right now) go to town on the tasty sugar water and inoculate it spontaneously, meaning no yeast is added to this beer at all. The wort is then put into oak barrels to allow for aging. Resurgam is Allagash’s blend of one, two and three year old barrels for a sour golden ale that’s incredibly complex.
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Seaquench
Seaquench from Delaware based and Boston Beer Company owned Dogfish Head is a take on a German ale style called a “gose” which is a sour ale made with sea salt and spices. Seaquench adds black limes, lime juice and sea salt for a refreshing beach beer that’s a great starter sour for people just dipping their toes into craft beer. Most people like lemonade/limeade/margaritas so asking them to think about those flavors when drinking styles like this will get them more accepting of beer.
Revolution Freedom Series
Another great beach option is the Revolution Freedom series, which comes in a fruit variety pack so you can try the whole rainbow of fruit flavors with names based on the First Amendment like Freedom of Speach (with peach), Freedom of Assembly (blueberry/ginger), Freedom of Press (blackcurrant), and Freedom of Expression (strawberry/rhubarb). They also have two Freedom Lemonades, one regular and one with strawberry. The Freedom series is labeled “session sours” which means all of them are under 5% ABV; perfect for beach days, baseball games and other outdoor activities.
The world of sours is vast and delicious! If you are new to beer or think you don’t like beer, try a sour and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Beer encompasses so many different flavors! Cheers!