Duluth—Tart. Fruity. Lemon. Sweet with a sour finish. These aren’t the usual sorts of flavors associated with beer—at least not a finely-brewed craft beer served at one of the North Shores favorite brewpubs—but New Belgium’s Tart Lychee, currently being served as a guest tap at the Fitger’s Brewhouse, is exactly all of those things. Like a liquid lemon drop, the Tart Lychee is refreshing, complex, and pairs inexplicably well with a poutine burger and fries. Complimenting a meal with a cool pint of this wood-aged sour is an experience that, whether you’ve acquired a taste for sours or not, will leave you intrigued as you walk out of the Brewhouse.
So what’s the deal with sour beer? Spurred on largely by the ongoing craft beer movement, sours have become increasingly sought out over the past 10 years by brewers and casual beer drinkers alike. Within the broad category of sour beer there are a variety of styles (Lambic’s, Gose’s, and Flanders Red’s to name a few), all with differing flavors ranging from sweet-apple to leather (seriously, an actual ‘desired’ flavor) and brewed using a variety of methods. What unifies this diverse group of beer is both the voodoo-like brewing processes used in producing the beer, as well as the wild strains of yeast and bacteria, often drawn from the air itself, that lend the styles their unique layers of flavor.
“Sours are a hot style in a lot of ways because they bridge that gap between beer and wine,” says Jason Baumgarth, head brewer at Voyager Brewing in Grand Marais. “Frequently, you’re seeing people who aren’t traditional beer drinkers warming up to sours because of their complexity and depth of flavor; not unlike a fine wine.”
When you pair that layered-complexity with the unpredictable ‘brewers-magic’ quality of the beer, a good sour is truly in a league of its own. Many ‘cold-side’ sours need to age for years while wild yeasts and bacteria run rampant before (hopefully) hitting that perfect balance of flavor. Brewing a palatable sour beer requires equal parts skill, patience and luck, which is a big reason why so few breweries give brewing sours a go.
But despite the recent surge in popularity, sours are far from new and are among some of the oldest styles of beer in existence. In fact, prior to the 19th century nearly all beer was sour to some degree.
Lacking the luxury of modern refrigeration, sanitation, and fermentation techniques, brewers had a difficult time effectively keeping the bacteria and wild yeast strains responsible for the sourness of sour beers out of the fermentation process. As a result, most beers tended to contain the Lactobacillus, Pediococcus, and Brettanomyces agents that lend sour beer its namesake sour flavor. The sourness of those early beers was unpredictable, unintentional, and almost always undesirable. As technology improved and brewers gained more control over the fermentation process, most breweries eradicated the souring agents from their beer in order to produce the styles and flavors that have come to define beer as we know it today.
That being said, not all breweries opted to do away with traditional processes and the souring agents that they produced in the face of modernization. Cantillon Brewery in Belgium, for instance, has been around since the early 1900s and continues to use spontaneous fermentation (a process that involves exposing the wort to wild yeasts and bacteria in the air by using shallow, open-top vats known as coolships) and oak fermenters to produce its famous selection of lambic beers.
Breweries across the North Shore have also begun to try their hand at the ancient craft of souring beer. The Thirsty Pagan in Superior, for instance, has a great sour program that has produced a number of noteworthy sours, such as their Reinhold Berliner Weisse, Bell+, and Yukon mixed sour red. Blacklist Brewery in Duluth also offers a good sour with its Sour Wit.
Though still rare in comparison to other styles of beer, sours are starting to become more readily available in breweries, pubs, restaurants, and liquor stores along the North Shore. So, if you find yourself looking for something new and different at your favorite local brewpub, ask to try a sour.—Eric Weicht