Are you a wine drinker that won't even think about drinking a beer? Do you drink beer but won't step out of the realm of ciders or mass-produced fizzy yellow beers? Are you a beer snob looking to explore the latest trend stretched beyond the Imperial Stouts and hopped-up Double IPAs? If you answered yes to any of these questions, do yourself a favor by entering the world of sour beer. These extremely rich ales use a long but very intentional process of using natural yeast and bacteria to create beers that will make you pucker up.
Rob Davis of House of Brews in Mt. Pleasant says sales of sour beers have been spiking, especially with wine drinkers looking to venture into craft beer. A lot of sours have already been brewed and are now maturing and waiting to be bottled, so don't be surprised if some more mouth-quenching brews hit shelves within the next year or so. Local brewmaster Ed Westbrook of Westbrook Brewing has experimented with making sour brown ale, and if we're lucky, we just might get a taste late next year.
There are many variations of sour beers, starting with the popular Flanders Red and Oud Bruin (meaning "old brown") that have been brewed in Belgium for hundreds of years. American craft breweries like Allagash, New Belgium, Russian River, Odell, and Cascade have been branching out and creating sour beers of their own.
We sampled 15 sour beers available for purchase at local beer stores in the Charleston area and picked six of our favorites. It's worth noting that we limited the selection to beers that can be purchased in bottles, which means that top-notch sour beers like Cuvée de Jacobins were not included in this assessment. Here's the lowdown:
6. Petrus Aged Ale (7.3 percent abv.) by Brouwerij Bavik of Belgium This is the sourest beer of the bunch. Appearing lighter than a traditional Oud Bruin, this beer smells of sour apples, pears, and small amounts of oak. It's extremely tart up front with citrus and sour apple flavors that will make you pucker up. Though it gets easier to drink as your palate adjusts, this should not be the go-to beer for those new to drinking sour beers, unless of course they are up for the challenge.
5. Duchesse de Bourgogne (6 percent abv.) by Brouwerij Verhaeghe of Belgium This traditional Flemish red ale is smooth with a rich texture and interplay of grapes, cherries, and cocoa and a long, dry acidic finish. It's definitely not as tart as the other five beers, but it's easy on the palate and serves as a great option for first time sour drinkers.
4. Barriquée (8 percent abv.) by Panil of Italy Another Flanders red ale, but this one is "triple fermented." Primary fermentation begins in stainless steel; the beer is then matured in cognac barrels for three months, followed by additional fermentation and aging in bottles. No sweeteners are used so it's a bit dry, but a jolt of sourness hits you, followed by hints of cognac after every sip.
3. Cuvee-Brut (6 percent abv.) by Brouwerij Liefmans of Belgium This is the fruitiest beer of the group. It's a kriek (cherry), but not your typical kriek lambic. Liefmans adds almost one pound of whole cherries to every gallon of old brown beer in the batch. The beer ages for about a year until it's blended with Liefmans Goudenband and Oud Bruin of different ages. The result is a refreshing, very delicious reddish-brown sour ale with an explosive cherry flavor.
2. La Folie (6 percent abv.) by New Belgium of Colorado And finally we have a sour brown ale made right here in the United States. Move over Fat Tire, La Folie is winning over the hearts of many beer lovers. There's no question that New Belgium Brewing Company knows how to make great sour beer, and they haven't been doing this for nearly as long as the Belgians. Last year they featured three sour beers (La Terrior, Tart Lychee, and La Folie) at Charleston Brewvival, all of which are top tier sours, but it's La Folie that is readily available for purchase in the area. This is an extremely tart beer up front with a little bit of lingering oak and funk. We sampled both the 2010 and 2011 varieties, and it's amazing what a year of maturing will do to this beer. While the 2011 is quite tasty, if the option is there, pick up the older of the two, or just let a bottle sit for a year before opening. You won't regret it.
1. 2009 Vintage Oak Aged Ale (7 percent abv.) by Brouwerij Bavik of Belgium This is by far the most balanced beer of the group. Earlier this year news sparked that Rodenbach had come back into distribution in South Carolina, and boy are we lucky to have them. While tart like the popular Rodenbach Grand Cru Flanders Red, the Vintage offers a much more complex array of flavors after being aged in oak barrels for two years. It's chestnut dark-brown with hints of red and a bouquet of sweet caramel, cherries, apples, and strong balsamic vinegar. After one sip, it's hard not to love this beer, as it truly defines what a Flanders Red Ale should be. Although sour at first, the moderate carbonation and flavors of oak, vanilla, and scant sweet cherries blend beautifully with the tart cherries and apple. The beer finishes a bit dry with lasting woodiness and lingering cherry tartness. This is an incredibly well-balanced beer that can't be missed.