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December 16, 2013

Sour Hits the Sweet Spot in Beer

What would sweet-and-sour chicken be without the sweet? Or hot and sour soup without the hot.

That’s right. Sour.

On the other hand, there is sour cream. Sour Patch Kids. Grapefruit. So, maybe sour isn’t, well, all sour.

Especially if you’re talking about beer.

Sour beers are the newest passion of craft brewers, which falls into the everything-old-is-new-again category. Sour beer is one of the oldest, if not the oldest style of beer-making. “The Belgians invented this style called lambics,” says Bill St. John, a wine writer and educator in Chicago, who has an interest in the style because of his Belgian heritage. “It’s an ancient way of making beer, using wild yeast from the air.”

The process in making sour beer is similar to making sourdough bread, with yeast and bacteria working their magic to produce that special tang. “Beer really is just liquid bread,” says St. John. In making sour beer, the yeast is added to the grains to ferment the sugars. Then the brewers add “good bacteria” to the mix. As with lambics, they might also try adding different fruits to balance the flavors.

Although they could kick it old school and just let the yeast and bacteria in the air settle in, most commercial brewers aren’t going to take a chance. Sour beer has to be aged from one to three years, so wild yeast could become a “wild card,” if it turns out that the final brew is more scary science project than distinctive flavor.

Still that leaves plenty of room for innovation. St. John compares beer-making to wine-making in that you have the same variables - aromas, flavors, texture and acidity- to play with that will make the beer interesting. “Beer doesn’t have the acidity like you have in wine; instead you have the hops that are like the acidity in wine. They finalize the taste and frame it – the same goes for sourness. Think of it like making a vinaigrette. You add a different vinegar to a vinaigrette – balsamic, sherry vinegar, white wine vinegar – they’re acidic, yes, but you add a different vinegar to make it interesting. You want something in your mouth that’s interesting.”

And speaking of interesting, it might surprise you to learn that many people will describe sour beers as bitter and vice versa, mostly because people often have trouble distinguishing bitter from sour. As it turns out, there’s a reason. Scientists have discovered a gene linked to our ability to taste bitter, so what some people find bitter – coffee, weird leafy greens bitter beers – may not be as bitter to some as to others. And if you don’t like the bitter beers, which are defined by their hops, then you might like the sours that often have no hops at all

St. John says he believes that sour beer is just the current latest and greatest in beer-making and that it will have a life cycle. “A few years ago, it was all these hops IPA, dry hop, wet hop - that was all cool and everyone was talking about that. I think it’s another way of playing with flavors. I think brewers just go through ways to change flavors. After this, you may see something like different kinds of barrels for aging.”

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