There’s little that will prepare for your first sour beer, outside of understanding that it’s not going to taste like the beer you’re used to. Last night, at Bros Brasserie, where New Belgium hosted a Lips of Faith-themed dinner, barrel master Lauren Salazar told us to imagine biting into a large sour apple - imagine the tartness, sweetness and intensity - and even that doesn’t quite live up to the hype.
Truth is, there’s nothing quite like a sour beer - a weird approximation of the drink you’re used to, tarted up and sweetened to the point of cider. And that’s because brewing a sour beer is the antithesis of everything you learn when you begin brewing - namely, that your beer must live and breathe in a completely sterile environment in order to control not only flavor and consistency, but to keep out the funky goobers that will ruin beer in just a few days.
I’ve found that sour beers fall in two taste profiles: sweet and fruity - things like Monk’s Cafe Flemish Sour Ale or Duchesse De Bourgogne, which are so far away from the typical “beer” taste as to seem mislabeled - or tart and funky - the result of wild yeast like Brettanomyces, like Boulevard’s Saison Brett or New Belgium’s La Folie.
Either way, it’s both a dangerous exposition as a brewer - what with the wild yeasts and the higher probability of a total screw up - and an exciting trend for us beer drinkers: creation of new taste profiles in an area where the old standbys have been pushed to the limit.
That’s not exactly correct, though. These aren’t new taste profiles - they’re just seeing a renewed awareness and appreciation. In reality, sour beers - especially like Flanders red ale or lambics - were the standard bearer of beers in the days before sanitation caught up with the brewing process. Open to the air and free to take on whatever it wanted, these beers would be overly sweet and tart (and sometimes totally ruined) by the wild mix of organisms that floated by.
This technique is still being used today - take, for example, Transatlantique Kriek, one of the Lips of Faith series beers we tasted last night. While the Lips of Faith line isn’t exclusively sour, there is a tendency for these experimental beers to take on some of those sour notes. Transatlantique is made in the old style of a lambic - sky open to the elements, ready to take on all comers - and for that reason it lands outside of the expected, taking on a sour, super-carbonated taste that pairs perfectly with its 45% cherry blend.
It’s a testament to the beers we had last night that Transatlantique - delicious as it is - was my least favorite. There were two fantastic takes on Belgian styles - a tart Tripel called Heavenly Feijoa and a dry maltbomb called Cascara Quad - that expertly took the experimental nature of Salazar’s barreling barn and paired them with old-style Belgian maltiness. And that’s without talking about Cocoa Mole, a nearly extinct beer that won the award for most inventive and best tasting beer of the dinner (pictured above).
But those sour and tart flavors showed up to party, led by New Belgian’s flagship Lips of Faith beer: La Folie. There is no mistaking its tendencies - this is a sour that pretends to be nothing else, overpoweringly tart with a bite that knocks your taste buds into submission. Not the best beer to start with, but a great beer with which to wish away the night. Pair it with a fancy cheese plate and you’ve got a dinner and drink to get excited about.
And that’s what sour beers are all about - pairing a bold flavor profile with the traditional beer ingredients. So while the Lips of Faith beer dinner wasn’t necessarily a celebration of sour beers, it was a celebration of good pairings: the pairing of the supertasting Lauren Salazar with the subtlety of barrel aging; the pairing of great beers and great food; the pairing of traditional styles and experimental twists.
Most of all, it was about the pairing of Bros Brasserie and the beer dinner - friends, drinks, food and location. Nothing sour about that combination at all.
Editor’s note: If you missed last night’s beer dinner, fear not: Lauren Salazar will be hosting a sour beer symposium at 7 p.m. tonight over at Monk’s. For $20, you get four unique sour beers, including GABF 2011 winner Le Terrior. Purchase tickets at Monk’s. Seating is limited.