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1–2 July 2024
Olympia London

Sour Beer: The weird and Wonderful

Among the many styles of beer out there, sour beers are among the most unusual. To achieve those sour flavours, brewers often make use of wild yeasts and bacteria, resulting in beers with unique flavour profiles, ageing potential and serious food friendliness.

Most brewers divide the world of sour beer into two broad categories. The first is the fresh, often fruit-flavoured style that’s bright, fresh and approachable, while the second style is aged, resulting in big, complex flavours.

Cambridge-based sour and wild beer specialist Pastore produce both. Chris Shepherd describes the first style as “highly accessible and quaffable”, explaining that these beers “undergo a fermentation using yeast which produces the alcohol, and a simultaneous lactic fermentation using lactobaccillus, which produces lactic acid and hence sourness”. These usually undergo a secondary fermentation with fruit puree. He adds that these are quick turnaround beers, by Pastore’s standards, taking about a month to produce.

Vault City in Edinburgh focus on this style for their fruited sour beers. “The combination of lactobacillus and saccharomyces creates a tart, tropical and citrussy base beer which we then condition on real fruit by the tonne,” says the brewery’s Richard Wardrop. “The fruit imparts a lot of flavour and bright eye-catching colours to the beer.”

Image: Facebook @VaultCityBrewing

The second style, meanwhile, can take up to three years. “Fermentation is done using a mixed culture containing interesting yeast variants such as Brettanomyces,” explains Shepherd, describing this culture as akin to a sourdough starter. “The hallmark of these kinds of fermentation is complexity and depth - however these gorgeous flavour profiles take time to develop.” These are aged either in stainless steel or in former wine, sherry or spirit barrels, and sometimes conditioned with local fruit.

There are numerous benefits to stocking both styles, as Brett Ellis of Wild Beer Co in Somerset explains. “They serve different purposes, and are for different occasions – they also offer different price points, at different ends of the price ladder. If you only stock entry level products, with nothing at the high end, you're not going to be able to upsell, other than selling more or switching them to cocktails.”

Reaching new demographics with sour beer

For Wardrop, certain sour beer styles can be a good introduction to the beer category in general. “We’ve focused on making sours more accessible using fruit forward flavours, and we’re now seeing more drinkers getting into craft beer starting with sours,” he says.

Shepherd agrees. “We find our ‘fresh’ sours often appeal to people who say they don’t like beer – they might be cider drinkers, or they might dislike the bitterness and hop characteristics of more traditional beer styles.”

The broad appeal of sour beers is key, believes Alex Handford of Hawkshead Brewing in the Lake District. “The appeal for us is to experiment with these wild materials not usually used in our beers, which gives us a different scope and flavours to target a wider range of beer drinkers.” 

Image: Facebook @HawksheadBrewery

There are other benefits too. “We have also seen people become more health conscious over the last couple years, so some sours within the category will have a lower alcohol content but still refreshing and full of flavour,” adds Handford.

Hawskhead is known for its Key Lime Tau sour beer, first brewed in 2015 with US-based Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, part of the Trans-Atlantic Rainbow Project. The beer has since been released annually on Tau Day (celebrating the number tau, equal to pi doubled, on 28 June, or 06.28 in the US). Production was halted for a few years as a result of the pandemic, but the beer made its return this year.

“More recently we have been experimenting with some wild yeast strains, such as the innovative Lallermand Philly Sour creating a Flemish inspired sour red ale which has a tartness with flavours of gooseberry from the malts and yeast,” says Handford.

Among Wild Beer Co’s many sour beers is its Modus Operandi, which Ellis describes as “a blend of red wine and bourbon barrel-aged sour beer, with sour cherry notes and hints of chocolate – it will go perfectly with anything that red wine goes with, and has a price point that's along the lines of wine rather than beer, so you can extend the beer category into the celebration occasion, for example.”

Sour Beer Food Pairings: Perfect match

Ellis, who was a chef before becoming a brewer, touches on one of sour beer’s most useful qualities – its food friendliness. Offering both acidity and carbonation, sour beers can match a variety of foods. “With that carbonation lifting everything, it's the perfect marriage that wine can't give, and nor can standard beer – but sour beer can. It opens up a realm of flavour combinations,” he says. As evidence of this, Wild Beer Co has held a number of food and beer dinners around the world, including with Michelin-starred restaurants.

Image: Facebook @WildBeerCo

For Shepherd, both broad styles of sour beer have their advantages when pairing with food. “There is no doubt that a crisp, fresh and tart sour beer goes stonkingly well with a curry, to give just one example,” he says. “Our wild and aged beers, meanwhile appeal to people looking for a more complex drinking experience, with lots to unpack, including the complex and ‘funky’ flavours from the wild fermentation, the ageing process, the characteristics inherited from the oak barrels and indeed from the way in which the beer has been blended and fruited.”

Shepherd likens these characteristics to wine. “As such, they stand up to being savoured on their own or to being paired with food.” The brewery recently released a beer aged on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir skins from a local winery, further linking the worlds of beer and wine.

And for dessert, Wardrop suggests a return to those lighter, fruit-flavoured sours. “In terms of food friendliness, some of our core range beers, like Strawberry Sundae & Cloudy Lemonade, are infused with strawberries and citrus, making them great companions for desserts, cheese platters, and fruit-based dishes.”

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