Sour ales make ya’ pucker!
A customer returned to the store, noting that a bottle of ale they’d purchased was sour. Upon further investigation, we discovered that the bottle in question was Vichtenaar, a Flanders red style.
Some beers, such as Flanders red ales, are supposed to taste sour. For example, Vichtenaar is a refreshingly sour ale that’s matured in oak casks for a minimum of eight months and bottled without any further blending. it’s a traditional ale with intentionally fruity-sour-oak notes and refreshing aftertaste. And, as the brewer describes it, this beer is lively and layered with notes of Madeira, vanilla, and oak.
An intentionally sour beer…really?
Sour may be a crazy descriptor to attract people to beer, but what about “bitter”? There are tons of hop-heads out there seeking the next big bitter. Like bitter, sour has a drying effect on the palate. Sour can be like the biting fruit of a lemon, sweet vinegar, or even sour wood — hence, sour beers have a wide range of flavors.
About Belgian & American sour ales
Belgian sour ales are interesting and balanced, with fruit and wood notes that make them refreshing. Belgian brewers age their sour beers in unlined wooden vessels instead of modern stainless-steel. The wild yeasts and microflora that live in the crevices of the wood take their time and create a complex, tart result.
American craft brewers started experimenting with sour in the mid 1990s; generally attempting to copy Belgian lambics, a style with sharp acidity, barnyard funk, and fruity notes.
Why do sour ales cost more than a typical beer?
Sour ales cost more for a few reasons— the wild yeasts and bacteria are slow, some take 18 months or longer to reach fruition; and the wild yeasts and bacteria are tenacious, so brewers have to take care to isolate them from the rest of the brews or risk cross-contamination and all-out funktification of their brewery.
Serving sour ales
Serve sour ales in a flute, snifter, tulip, or oversize wine glass. Drink them at cellar temperature (45–50°F).
About sour beer styles
Oud bruin ales/Flanders brown ales are light to medium-bodied, deep copper to brown in color. Extremely varied, these beers are characterized by a slight vinegar or lactic sourness and spiciness to smooth and sweet. A fruity-estery character is apparent with no hop flavor or aroma. Low to medium bitterness. Oak-like or woody characters may be integrated into the overall palate — and while Flanders red ales are aged in oak, the brown ales are warm-aged in stainless steel. Typically old and new Brown ales are blended, like lambics. These are old ales and have roots back to the 1600s when they were brewed as a “provision beer” that would develop some sourness as it aged. 4-8% abv.
Note: We had the opportunity to sample a young and 20-year vintage of Liefman’s Goudenband, a delicious oud bruin, at an industry beer tasting event in 2007. While the young beer had its characteristic sour, the flavors in the vintage had melded, was incredibly smooth, and exhibited a reduced sour character.
Flanders red ales are commonly referred to as the “red” beers of West Flanders. Belgian Red Beers are typically light-bodied brews with reddish-brown colors. They are infamous for their distinct sharp, fruity, sour, and tart flavors that are created by special yeast strains. Very complex beers, they are produced under the age old tradition of long-term cask aging in oak, and the blending of young and old beers. This style is indigenous to West Flanders, Belgium, and was typified by the products of the Rodenbach brewery, established in 1820. 4-8% abv
Gueuze is a traditional Belgian blend of young and old Lambics, which are bottle after blending, then aged for 2-3 years to produce a dryer, fruitier, and more intense style of Lambic. There is no hop character, some are filtered and force carbonated. They have an intense sourness. Gueuze and lambics stem from a farmhouse brewing tradition that is several centuries old. 4-6% abv
Berliner Weisse is a very pale, sour, refreshing, low-alcohol wheat ale. This style is a regional specialty of Berlin, and was referred to by Napoleon’s troops in 1809 as “the Champagne of the North” due to its lively and elegant character. Only two traditional German breweries still produce the style. 2.8-5% abv
Sour beers to explore on your next visit to 99 Bottles
1809 Berliner Weisse: This beer is refreshing, tart, sour and acidic, with a lemon-citrus fruit sharpness and spritzy carbonation. I like to think of it as a “lemon beer spritzer.” Rotating availability. 5% abv. Brewed at Brauerei Weihenstephan in Germany.
Bam Bière: This sour saison comes to us from Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin Artisanal Ales. It’s earthy and fruity with sour notes of green apple and lemon. This complex saison is yeasty with juicy light bittering hops and a mild sweetness. 4.5% abv
Calabaza Blanca: This sour witbier also comes to us from Jolly Pumpkin Artisanal Ales. It’s crisp, with spritzy carbonation and has flavors of tart lemon-orange fruits, with corriander spice and earthy hops. Dry, gueze-like finish. This baby’s aged in oak casks and referemented in the bottle. 4.8% abv.
Cascade Blackberry Ale: A semi-sweet Flanders oud bruin, with notes of tart semi-ripe blackberries, vanilla, and wood and a drying finish. 5.4% abv. Brewed at Raccoon Lodge and Brewpub in Oregon.
Cuvée du Jongleur: A blend of select barrels of Flanders reds, tripels, and blond quads that have undergone lactic fermentation and barrel aging up to 18 months. It’s then bottle-conditioned 4 months before hitting the shelves. Complexly sour-tart, with notes of oak and fruit: cherries, apricots, and citrus. 8.41% abv. An American wild ale brewed at Raccoon Lodge and Brewpub in Oregon.
Duchesse de Bourgogne: The queen of sour beer and a 99 Bottles favorite! This ale’s got a wine-like puckering sourness with fruity flavors of currant, passion fruit, and apple peel, plus notes of oaky dryness. Sweet–sour; woody dry finish. 6.2% abv. A Flanders red ale brewed by Brouwerij Verhaeghe of Belgium.
Fifteen Anniversary Ale: Tart, funky, jammy, herbal, and spicy. Made with black mission figs, hibiscus flowers, white pepper, and a very unique strain of brettanomyces yeast. 7.68% abv. A limited-release American wild ale — brewed for their 15th anniversary — from Avery Brewing Co. of Colorado.
Ichtegem’s Grand Cru: Aged for two years in wooden casks from the Bordeaux wine area of France, then blended with a young beer.Sour, dark cherries and berries, and oaky wood. Notes of vanilla, bread dough, almonds, and toffee. 6.2% abv. A Flanders red ale from Brouwerij Verhaeghe of Belgium.
La Folie: “The Folly”; beautifully balanced. Toffee-like start followed by notes of apple, passion fruit, cherries, and oak. Quite sour finish. Let this ale breathe for 10 minutes before pouing to allow the firmness and acidity to come to the fore. Hand-bottled and individually numbered by New Belgium staff. 6% abv. A Flanders red ale brewed by New Belgium Brewing of Colorado.
La Roja: Another wood-aged sour beer from Jolly Pumpkin Artisanal Ales, but this one’s a bière de garde (French farmhouse) style. La Roja is a blend of two to ten-month old oak-aged ales and has flavors of caramel, earthy hops, spice, and sour fruits such as apple and cherry. It’s rustic with sweet and woody notes, and has a slightly dry finish. 7.2% abv
Monk’s Cafe Flemish Red Ale: Named after the famous Monk’s Cafe of Philadelphia, Penn. This Flanders red ale has flavors of sweet–sour black cherries joined by the wood. 5.5% abv. A Flanders red ale brewed by Brouwerij Van Steenberge (brewers of our beloved Gulden Draak!).
Ommegeddon: Silky mouth-feel. Sweet and sour fruit notes of pear, peach, and apricot, with cracker malts and hints of spice, wood, vanilla, and clover. Dry finish. A rotating release from Brewery Ommegang of New York.
Oro de Calabaza: This sour bière de garde comes to us from Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin Artisanal Ales. This beer is sharply sour–tart fruit with flavors of pear and apple, spicy–peppery Belgian yeast, floral hops, and notes of oak. It won a 2004 gold medal & 2005 bronze medal at GABF. 8% abv
Panil Barriquée, 2006 Vintage: This vintage has mellow-to-still carbonation. It has flavors of sweet, warm caramel with a blast of slightly puckering sour cherry. Notes of dry, earthy woody oak. Vinous character. 8% abv. Brewed by Panil of Italy.
Petrus Oud Bruin: Oaked with notes of sour brown and lambic-kreik. Tart/bitter citrus with biscuity malts and sour cherries. Quirky; interesting. 5.5% abv. A Flanders oud bruin style brewed by Brouwerij Bavik of Belgium.
Vichtenaar Flemish Ale: Mild tart cherry with tones of whiskey, vanilla, and oaky-basalmic woodiness. Carbonated, spritzy mouth-feel. 5.1% abv. A Flanders red ale brewed by Brouwerij Verhaeghe of Belgium.
Zoetzuur Flemish Ale: Woody and yeasty with creamy vanilla; musky, tart cherries and green grapes. Lightly sour, with a subtle caramel maltiness and soft spicy alcohol bite. 7% abv. A Flanders red ale brewed by De Proefbrouwerij of Belgium.
Answers to customer questions about sour beers
Rodenbach and Rodenbach Grand Cru are not currently available through any Washington State distributor. Any you find in Washington retail stores are vintage have been on the shelves since at least early 2008, when the label changed importers and lost its distributor in our state.
In late 2007, our distributor shared with us the news that Rodenbach has discontinued their Redbach cherry beer—we also liked that beer and share your sadness about that loss!
Liefman’s Goudenband and Liefman’s Kriek are not currently available through any Washington State distributor. Liefman’s was purchased by Duvel in June 2008 and the Liefman’s beers have since disappeared from the Washington market. We have not heard any information as to their reappearance in our market.
Read more about Duvel acquiring Liefmans »
Read more about sour beers
Pucker up, buttercup – Lew Bryson on sour beers for Portfolio.com
Oud bruin and Flanders red ale – The online guide to Belgian beers
Flanders sour brown ale – All About Beer magazine, January 2002
Sour beer studies – Alan McLeod’s tasting blog feature on sour beers
Rodenbach juggles its tuns – Michael Jackson on Rodenbach, Feburary 2001
Sour ales – 2008 Beer Judge Certification Program