This week I’m hosting my fifth annual 43 Hours of Sours at The Birch, a craft beer bar in Norfolk’s Chelsea neighborhood. And while sours continue to grow in popularity, I still field a fair amount of questions about them.
So here is a little tutorial. The term “sour” applies to beers that taste acidic, vinegary, funky, or tart. There are a variety of techniques to make one, but the foundation is based on the yeast or bacteria used. Bacteria metabolize sugar in the wort and produce lactic acid. Brewers will use a combination of bacteria to obtain the desired acidity, and in most cases end up blending different batches together.
The second aspect to making a sour involves the manner in which bacteria are added to the beer, and how it is aged. Historically, German brewers would throw malt to get a lacto sour going because the husks are loaded with lactobacicullus.
The kettle sour method and barrel aging are other methods of the process. Sours can take on the flavors from the liquids that were previously in the barrels. Plus the barrels also hold microflora and microorganisms, which will also affect taste.
Making sours is not easy and in some cases takes years. But they can be worth every second of the wait. I’m convinced there is a sour for everyone, but the search may take time.
First, identify you flavor profile. If you are more of a wine drinker, there is a good chance you will prefer wine barrel-aged sours. But if you like Sweet Tarts or Sour Patch Kids, you might want to steer toward a Berliner Weiss or a dry-hopped sour IPA.
Here are some classic sour styles and their tasting notes for you to use as a guide:
•Flemish Reds: smooth, slightly sweet, sometimes fruity
• Goses: salty, tart, light
• Gueuze: bitter greens, vinaigrette
• Berliner Weiss: refreshing, lemony, crisp
• Wild Ales: dry, funky, can be fruity or tart
• Basque Ciders: tart, vinegary, olive
At our 43 Hours of Sour festival, we create tasting notes for every beer on draft and customers can opt to get a 4.5 oz taster pour instead of committing to a whole glass. Some other great places to find sours in the area are Esoteric, The Lynnhaven Pub, Dog Street Pub, and The Bier Garden, or Total Wine, Grape and Gourmet, Bottlebox, and Exception(Ale) for take home.