You’ve probably heard of sour beer by now; after all, it’s one of the hottest new trends around. And the style sounds self-explanatory — it’s just beer that has gone sour, right?
In a very literal sense, that may be true. But it’s a subject that gets more complicated the deeper you dive into it. Sour beers may be sour, but they come from a family of beer styles that are among the most complex beverages in the world, relying upon the unpredictable powers of wild yeast and bacteria.
Sour beers can range in flavor from lightly tart to bracingly acidic, balanced and simple to multi-layered and wild, all depending on the brewer’s intention. One might sometimes find drier beers — farmhouse ales like saison, for instance — to offer slight tartness in the finish, without approaching mouth-puckering acidity. Simpler sour styles like Berliner Weisse and Gose can be more sour-forward, with a succulent, lemonade-like tartness that’s incredibly refreshing, as acidity stimulates salivation. And though they may be harder to find, aged sours, often barrel-aged for years and blended, can range across the entire spectrum of flavor, showcasing the multi-layered nuances of wild fermentation. The best of these aged sours are becoming collector’s items in the craft beer world due to their unrivaled flavor — nearly impossible to describe, as there’s simply nothing else like it. Certainly, sourness is a major characteristic, but it’s the subtle fermentation nuances coloring in the corners that make these beers a subject of such fascination.
Fortunately, a few Hudson Valley brewers are so passionate about all types of sour beers, they’re overcoming the technical challenges of producing them on a regular basis. Indigenous, from the Brewery at Bacchus in New Paltz, is an aged sour ale that demonstrates the complexity and depth such beers can achieve — one of the best I’ve ever had in New York, in fact. At its farmstand in Fishkill, Plan Bee Farm Brewery releases a few limited aged sours every year, often aged on local fruit to create a mingling of juice and funk. Switch out your wine with one of these beers the next time you’re having salad and steak, and prepare to have your mind blown as these acidic ales cut through salt and fat and tame tart dressings in totally new ways.
Beers with a particularly funky side to them from wild yeast happen to be among the few beverages that can stand up to and complement a good stinky cheese — Peekskill Brewery’s Simple Sour, for instance, has become one of the most accessible sour beers made in New York, with a lighter, citrusy sour character. Keep an eye out for similar sours made by Newburgh Brewing and Sloop Brewing as well. Both often experiment with adding unusual ingredients, showing off the incredible versatility of these beers in a culinary function. Such sours go great with clams and oysters — not least because Newburgh’s Black Oyster Cult includes them in the actual recipe.
While beers can range widely in their levels of acidity, a sour beer should ultimately be refreshing and balanced, above all. Sourness in general may not have the best connotations, but it’s hard to argue with refreshment. Who would turn down a cold glass of lemonade on a summer day? Sour beer quenches that same thirst.
Derek Dellinger is the creator of the brewing blog Bear-Flavored.com, brewmaster at Kent Falls Brewing Co., and author of The Fermented Man, out 2016. He leads homebrewing workshops and classes in the Hudson Valley with Beacon Homebrew.