Beer Guy for July-August 2019

Sours’ sweet success

Sours are the cool new thing in beer. But they’re really not new at all.

by Peter Bailey


Before the late 19th century most beer was at least a bit sour. And by sour we mean acidic. It was only after Louis Pasteur discovered how fermentation worked that brewers understood the role of yeast and bacteria in brewing. In his 1876 book Études sur la Biére Pasteur identified bacteria as the source of the souring in beer. After that, pasteurization, sanitation and refrigeration helped modern brewers keep unwanted sourness out of their beer.

Some Belgian brewers shrugged and continued brewing the way they had for centuries. For them, sourness was a feature, not a bug. We’re talking old world sours—complex, unique beers made slowly and with care. Lambic is the king of sours, a wheat ale spontaneously fermented by wild yeast, brewed in and around Brussels. Cantillon is the most well-known lambic brewer. Spontaneous fermentation is done by cooling wort (unfermented beer) in a large, flat vessel called a koelschip (coolship) overnight, opening the windows wide to allow wild yeasts and bacteria to act on the beer. It is then transferred to foeders (large wooden vats) where it ferments and ages for many months. The resulting beer is potent and acidic and is usually blended with younger beer to make gueuze, with sugar to make faro, or with fruit to make fruited lambics such as kriek (cherry), framboise (raspberry) or pêche (peach). West from Brussels is Flanders, home of Flanders Red and Oud Bruin. Both are beers soured by aging in oak foeders for two to three years. Flanders Reds such as Rodenbach are tart, funky and fruity. Oud Bruins are malty and sweet. Head west to Germany for two German sour beer styles. Berliner Weisse is a light, fruity, tart, and unaged wheat ale from Berlin. Gose is a tart, dry wheat ale from Leipzig, made with added salt and coriander. Both beers are soured by lactobacillus bacteria.

And the New World? It’s also about lactobacillus, but it’s a whole new ball game. Aging beer for years? Ain’t nobody got time for that! American craft brewers invented a short-cut called kettle souring. Lactobacillus or other microflora are added to the wort as it sits in the brew kettle before boiling. The brewer monitors the pH of the wort as the acidity rises, starting to boil the wort when the desired sourness level is reached. This process is quick, clean and cheap. Purists say kettle sours don’t have the complexity and depth of old world sours. That may be true, but kettle sours are a game changer. My wife hated beer, from pilsner to IPAs to stouts. She tried a Dandy Ales Cherry Sour, loved it and hasn’t looked back. She’s not alone – sours have brought many to beer.

The sour surge shows beer tastes have come a long way in a short time. It wasn’t long ago that the bar manager at my local pub said he was going to remove a local pale ale from the taps. He claimed customers were sending the beer back, saying “It tastes soapy.” My barstool pals and I responded with a drink-in, ordering that beer and only that beer on every visit. Years later we’re still ordering that beer and it remains on tap at the pub. Not all heroes wear capes.

Sour six

Alberta brewers are producing some great sours – mostly kettle sours, but some made traditionally too. Blindman Brewing has made spontaneously fermented beer with a coolship and a foeder. Blind Enthusiasm’s wild ale and sours brewery offshoot, The Monolith, opens this fall.

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Annex Bright Nights Sour Wit
Annex Bright Nights Sour Wit

Annex Bright Nights Sour Wit, Calgary

A great summer sour from Calgary’s innovative Annex Ale Project. This is a diverse beer, a Canadian kettle sour married to a Belgian wit with Norwegian kveik yeast, orange peel, coriander and oats. Soft, fruity, tart and very quaffable. Find a sunny deck for this one.

Dandy Wild Sour Ale, Calgary

From the start, Dandy Ales has boldly gone where other breweries fear to tread. Their sours are second to none, including the flagship Wild Sour Ale. This is a bold, malty, fruity sour ale soured with lactobacillus and fermented with a wild yeast strain.

Ribstone Creek Prairie Pirate Gose
Ribstone Creek Prairie Pirate Gose

Ribstone Creek Prairie Pirate Gose, Edgerton

Ribstone Creek is doing some interesting beers with their Prairie Pirate series. Their New World take on gose is a kettle sour with Himalayan salt and coriander, soured with a lacto culture from a collaboration with The Old School Cheesery in Vermillion. Light and bright for summer.

Grain Bin Barrelled Wild Ale II, Grande Prairie

There are strange things done in the midnight sun—and also some excellent beer gets made. At the 2019 Alberta Beer Awards Grain Bin’s Barrelled Wild Ale II not only won gold for Best Sour in Alberta but won Best in Show too. A big, complex sour for those cool northern summer nights.

Blindman Lemon & Limes Fruited Kettle Sour
Blindman Lemon & Limes Fruited Kettle Sour

Blindman Lemon & Limes Fruited Kettle Sour, Lacombe

Blindman Brewing co-founder Hans Doef told me their second beer was a sour—not to be edgy but because it’s a style they all loved and wanted to make. The Lemons and Limes Kettle Sour takes their base sour and adds the zest and juice of lemons and limes. It is a supremely refreshing summer beer.

Town Square Beets by Sinden Sour
Town Square Beets by Sinden Sour

Town Square Beets by Sinden Sour, Edmonton

We love this old world borscht, New World kettle sour mashup, like a beer version of Gogol Bordello. Brewer Drew Sinden uses chopped beets in the kettle and again during fermentation. It’s tart, earthy, fruity and looks pretty in pink in the glass.

As a kid, Peter Bailey’s soft drink of choice was Bitter Lemon. Sour beer? Bring it on. He’s on Twitter and Instagram as @Libarbarian.