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Sour Beers: Is Your Palate Ready?

They’re all the rage, but they’re not for everybody (yet)


Evangeline Grapefruit Gose from Pure Project | Photo by Bruce Glassman

“I don’t like beer.”

I can’t help myself, but every time I hear someone say that, I take it—just a little bit—as a personal affront. Not that people aren’t entitled to their own opinions, of course, but saying you don’t like beer—to my way of thinking—is like saying you don’t like soup. What kind of soup? There are hundreds of kinds. Creamy soup? Broth-based soup? Spicy soup? You can’t possibly hate them all! Same with beer. Like most brewers, I’m convinced that, if you think you don’t like beer, you just haven’t found the right beer.

In my limited sampling of the population, I have found that most people who say they don’t like beer are reacting to one of two common characteristics: they either don’t like the “bitterness” or they don’t like the “heaviness,” which can also be construed to mean the “maltiness.” That’s fine. Of course, there are wildly varying levels of bitterness and maltiness in beers, but even if you rule all those beers out, there are still two other major categories of beer to consider. The first is the Belgian styles, which can range from light bodied to heavier bodied and exhibit a “spicy, bready, and ester” character from the distinctive strains of yeast that are used. These beers, by and large, are not very bitter (most are not aggressively hop forward), nor are they typically “roasty” and “malty” the way stouts and porters are—the beers most people associate with being “heavy.” The lighter Belgians—along with their first cousins the Saisons—are the styles I always urge my beer-skeptic wine-loving friends to try; these beers actually have a lot in common with champagnes and white wines.

Natura Morta Cherry from Cellar 3 | Photo by Bruce Glassman

The fourth major category in the beer universe is sours. These beers, though they share much of the same preparation processes as the other beer styles, are really in a world of their own. In their world, the flavor and aroma experience is not about hops or malt, it’s about fruitiness, tartness, earthiness, and all kinds of funkiness. [For the lighter styles, think Kombucha with more carbonation and a light alcohol kick.] Because sours are so different from their brewery brethren, I often advise people who don’t like the characteristics of the other more common styles to give sours a try.

Now, there are plenty of experienced hardcore craft beer fans who love a wide variety of styles and still can’t wrap their taste buds around the sours. I found that, in the evolution of the serious beer drinker’s palate, sours are often the final frontier. So, like anything worth achieving, getting your palate to appreciate sours takes some perseverance. If you’re up to the task, here is my suggested game plan for evolving your palate into a super sour-loving experience center. I’ve constructed the following program with the complete sour novice in mind—meaning it starts with the mildest styles and works toward the serious stuff. If you’re already on your way to liking sours, feel free to jump in at any level!

PHASE 1: Get to know Berliner Weiss.

If you’re the kind of person who wants to dive right in, try this light, crisp, refreshing style on its own. It has a relatively low sourness level [like the tartness of lemonade] and is low in alcohol. If you want to go with the “training wheels” first, get a splash or two of flavored syrup added (don’t feel silly; this is how they do it in Germany). Many places that serve Berliner Weiss will offer a selection of syrups that range from peach and apricot to vanilla to almond to macadamia nut.

Good places to try Berliner Weiss include Bitter Brothers (Berliner Weiss), 32 North (Landfall), Half Door (Bearleener), Division 23 (Berliner Weiss), Ballast Point (Sour Wench), and Fall (Jazz Hands).

Landfall Berliner Weiss from 32 North | Photo by Bruce Glassman

PHASE 2: Go for the Gose.

This is another sour style that is light, crisp, refreshing, and low alcohol. Traditionally, a Gose will have notes of coriander and some brininess as part of the flavor profile, but a number of brewers in San Diego are experimenting and riffing on the traditional recipes. Hitherto relatively unknown in these parts, Gose has become San Diego’s most recent “it beer,” with popularity soaring all over the county.

Good places to find Gose include Modern Times (Fruitlands), Second Chance (What Gose Around Comes Around), and Pure Project (Evangeline).

PHASE 3: More sour power.

At this stage, your palate is probably ready for more aggressively sour beers, which also deliver more complexity of aromas and flavors. This is a good point to start tasting sours that are also barrel-aged and, perhaps, blended with fruit and fermented with Brettanomyces, which is a form of wild yeast that produces an infinite variety of earthy, barnyardy, funky, aromas and flavors.

Good places to find more complex sours include Council (Beatitude), Karl Strauss (Rella Wild Sour Ale or Control Point Fruited American Sour), The Lost Abbey (Framboise de Amorosa), and Cellar 3 (Natura Morta).

PHASE 4: Seriously sour.

Here’s where you jump off into the abyss. At this stage, you’re ready for almost anything and you’ll want to try beers of all kinds—brews fermented on all kinds of yeasts— including barrel-aged, blended, and fruited. Here’s a place to add a couple of other styles to your portfolio, including Gueuze, Lambic, Kriek, and Flanders styles. Most beers produced at this level are rather limited in quantity and are often only available at the brewery for a short time. The locations that will most reliably always have some barrel-aged sours available include Karl Strauss in Pacific Beach, Cellar 3 in Poway, and The Lost Abbey in San Marcos. You can also usually find a selection of at least one or two sours at the quality craft beer bars in town.

Good luck on your palate-evolving journey. I hope you find an exciting new world of flavors here and—if you do—more sour to you!

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