“Funky, some overripe fruit, leaning more into barnyard flavors, dried hay, grass...horse blanket, horse-like...a little bit of cheese rind...blue cheese, parmesan...”
That description sounds more like the fetid smell of a (cheese?) farm’s decaying compost heap than a cold beer. But for Anthony Accardi, a brewmaster at Long Island City’s Transmitter Brewing, “barnyard flavors” is a compliment. For sour beer freaks, wild tastes are sought out.
Calling something “sour beer” is like defining pornography: You know it when you see it, but there’s no hard definition. Lambics, Flanders red ale, and gueuze are the most common categories, but plenty of sours defy categorization.
“Generally people think of sours as beers that use a form of Brettanomyces, which is a wild strain of yeast,” Accardi told me. “But I think of sour beers as having wild yeast in them.”
What the hell does that mean? I’ll explain.
Yeast is an ingredient in all the greatest carbs, and its importance to brewing sours cannot be overstated. Most beers are made with a type of yeast called Saccharomyces, which you’ll know if you bake—the same stuff you use to make bread can also get you Paz de la Huerta-on-a-red-carpet levels of smashed. But forget about Saccharomyces. It’s the Selena Gomez of yeasts. Popular, fine, totally fine, but maddeningly boring.
Brettanomyces is more like Miley Cyrus—volatile, sometimes skeezy, but capable of excellence. Brettanomyces is one of the “wild” yeasts Accardi talked about. It can’t be tamed! Unlike Saccharomyces, ‘Brett’ has not been domesticated. It grows on fruit skins, and can run amok and contaminate beers made with the more docile Saccharomyces.
Sours are made with the gnarly weeds of the yeast world, pungent and powerful yeasts and bacterias that mainstream brewers often strenuously try to avoid. If brewers at the Coors factory found Brett lurking in the mass-produced beermaker’s enormous foudres, they’d have to dump out their batches. Same thing if they find two bacterias that can be used in sours, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus.
But one brewer’s dumpster-suds is another one’s blah blah blah, and the beer-makers who work with wild yeasts and bacterias like Lactobacillus today are deliberately infecting their brews with these wild ingredients that scare other brewers off. The goal: Yield intensely flavored adult beverages. Hence “barnyard” as the ultimate compliment.
Sours are gnarly on several levels. They’re usually on the lower side for ABV (4-6%), but they’re far more acidic* than most beers, and the flavors can be extreme. Sometimes they look cloudy, like the urine of someone who should probably go to the doctor’s. Since the yeasts they use are more volatile, they’re harder to get right—there’s a fine line between “pleasing umami note of hay” and “decrepit stable literally full of horse piss” and amateur brewers can easily cross it. Plus, sours usually take longer to make.
But no risk, no reward. Sours are for closers.
Sours are trendy as shit right now, but they’ve been around for a long time. (“I KNEW ABOUT SOURS BEFORE THEY WERE COOL!”- ghosts.)
“It’s not one of the newest methods of brewing,” Barnstormer Brewing Company’s Brad Ariss, from Barrie, Ontario, told me when I asked for a history lesson on sours. “It’s actually one of the oldest.”
Before modern refrigeration and sanitation techniques—before macrobrewed pilsner took over the drinking world—beers were sours by default, mostly because brewers couldn’t find a way to keep pesty wild yeasts like Brett out of their batches.
When Sophocles knocked some back at a symposium, he was probably chugging sours. Shakespeare likely got down with some balsamic-tasting brewskis.
Serious Eats has a great list of the best sours, including Supplication from California’s Russian River brewery. It has sour cherries, Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus in each barrel, which produces a flavor I would describe as “alcoholic Warhead beer.” I mean that as a compliment.
Ariss recommends Peekskill Brewery’s Simple Sour, and I can attest: The cloudy, pale brew is delicious, and it’s a good starter sour if you’re scared of the hardcore funk.
If you’re in New York, go over to the Transmitter Brewery. They know what they’re doing. They only do small-batch sours and rarely repeat, so the menu is always changing. You can also get Transmitter’s sours and a variety of others at Blind Tiger in Greenwich Village. Monk’s Cafe in Philadelphia is like an orgiastic feast for sour fans.
I learned everything I told you today by asking people smarter than me, and there are people who go ride or die for sours and can tell you a lot more about the difference between Saccharomyces and Brettanomyces. There’s a podcast called Sour Hour where Jay Goodwin, brewer at Berkeley’s The Rare Barrel, talks about the brewing process. There’s a delightful blog about sours run by a pharmacist who calls himself “Dr. Lambic.” And your local microbrewery definitely has some dude who will be very eager to tell you about why sours are the new IPAs.
Please tell me how wrong I am about sours in the comments! Or tell us all your favorites.
*Correction: I originally said that pH levels were “far higher” when I meant to say they are acidic. Which is dumb because more acidic means lower pH. I made a stupid! Sorry.
Art by Sam Woolley