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Sour Beer: The Belgians Must Be Crazy

I don't like sour beers.

Why should I? In the litany of adjectives used to describe beer -- hoppy, malty, sweet, crisp, floral, roasted, spicy, refreshing, clean, dry, light, pale, dark -- none are so off putting as sour. Sour says there's something wrong. Sour says spoiled.

We've all had or heard about "skunked" beers. It's what happens when beer is exposed to light too long and goes bad. You know what the predominant flavor of "skunked" beer is? Sour. Beer is also susceptible to infection. What does an infected beer taste like? Yup, a soured beer.

So how have sour beers hung around for 1,000 years and what am I doing trying to like them?

My biggest problem is I'm a beer geek. I love everything about beer. I love to drink it, I love to learn about its history and the way it's made, and I love making it at home. As an enthusiast, I like to think I have a pretty sophisticated palate. While there are certain styles I prefer -- India pale ales and English bitters -- I like to think I can find the merit in any style. I can, save one: sour beers.

They're nasty and that's frustrating. Is it me or the beer? Are all these sour beer enthusiasts just screwing with me, or is my palate merely pedestrian?

I encountered my first sour beer, Duchesse de Bourgognes, a few years ago. It was a neat looking bottle with a Medieval broad on the label, so I decided to give it a go. When I got home, I popped the cork, poured a pint and took a nice big sip ... of the NASTIEST FUCKING SHIT (really, what is this?!!) I'd ever poured in my mouth. Rather than the familiar sweet and malty flavors I'm accustomed to in dark ales, I had a mouth full vinegar.

16520015 My wife, who likes vinegary things, said the beer tasted like Worcestershire sauce and refused to drink it. I struggled though a couple more sips until she said "Do you really want a beer bad enough to keep drinking that?" No I didn't. With that, my inadvertent foray into sour beers began and ended.

However, I haven't been able to completely get away from them. Sour beers originated in Belgium, and D.C. is a Belgian beer town. I also consume too much beer-related media, so I've read, watched and heard a lot about sour beers and how wonderful they are. Yet, every time the subject of sour beers is brought up, it comes with the same caveat: they're an acquired taste (which usually means it is tastes pretty shitty, but you'll get used to it).

So I got to wondering, is it possible to learn to love the unlovable? Can I acquire a taste for sour beers? I don't know, but I decided to dedicate a couple posts to the pursuit. If it turns out that I can, then anyone can.

The thing about sour beers is they are among the most interesting of all beers. Sour is an umbrella term that refers to Flemish red and brown ales (Duchesse de Bourgognes is a Flemish red ale), and lambics. Among lambics, you have gueuze, faro, mars, kriek, framboise, peche, casis and muscat beers. You could even include beers made with brettanomyces yeast among the sour beers. Brettanomyces, or brett, is the scourge of wine makers, but a favorite yeast strain for many American craft breweries producing sour beers (The Bruery, Jolly Pumpkin, Russian River, Allagash, Odell, and Victory, to name a few).

Sour beer is like no other style of beer. Obviously, the flavor is unique, but the way the beers are made is also unusual. Traditional lambics are one of the oldest styles of beer in the world. They're made in open vessels to allow wild yeast -- and whatever else is floating around -- to drift in and trigger spontaneous fermentation. Flemish red and brown ales are made by blending freshly brewed beer with beer that's been allowed to sour in infected barrels. Speaking of infections, brettanomyces is difficult to work with and can infect every beer in a brewery if the brewer isn't careful, yet it seems to be the latest trend in craft beer. 

Bill Catron is a Belgian beer knight, which makes him an expert on these sorts of things. Yet, I have trouble believing him when he says things like "sour beers are kind of like the Gatorade of the beer world." Seriously? Yup, the sour flavor, he alleges, is thirst quenching.

Because these beers are different and because there is an audience for sour beers, Bill said breweries are willing to specialize in them and in some cases risk infecting the rest of their product line to produce them.

16520019 To better understand sour beers, and to reacquaint myself with the Duchesse, I sat down with Matt LeBarron, Granville Moore's beverage director, who agreed to do a sour beer tasting with me (yippee).

"Not everyone's palate is the same, but those who love (sour beer) really love it."

And what about those who don't?

"It's an acquired taste."

For the tasting, I told Matt I wanted try the beers a sour beer enthusiast would order. Nothing easy, nothing for the novice. He responded with Petrus Aged Pale, St. Louis Gueuze Fond Tradition, Ommegang Zuur, Rodenbach Grand Cru, Monk's Café Flemish Sour Ale, Hanssen's Oudbeitje and, at my request, Duchesse de Bourgognes. If you order any of these beers at Granville Moore's you will be asked if you know what you're ordering. If you order a Stella, you get a Stella, no questions asked.

Still, it was the most interesting beer tasting I've ever experienced. If I learned anything, it was that not all sour beers taste the same.

16520018 Hannsen's Oudbeitje was revolting. The lambic was horrifically sour, extremely tart and dry as a litter box. I found it physically difficult to drink. Matt said Oudbeitje reminds him of white wine or Sweet Tarts (Matt obviously drinks some messed up white wine and has never tasted a Sweet Tart). On the other hand, Monk's Café was sweet, smooth and faintly sour. By far, it was my favorite of the evening. The menu at Granville Moore's says Monk's Café is the Dr. Pepper of beers thanks to its many subtle (read: enjoyable) flavors. Not surprisingly, Monk's Café was the most popular of the beers we tried.

The other beers fell somewhere in between. Duchesse de Bourgognes still tastes like something you'd put on steak rather than drink with it, while the Petrus was, well, dry. That's it, just dry. Think brut Champaign without the flavor or rainbows without color. Rodenbach Gran Cru had a similar balsamic vinegar flavor as Duchesse de Bourgognes, but more restrained, so other flavors, like caramel and dark cherries, came through. I didn't love the beer, but I could stop drinking it.

The gueuze was the biggest surprise. I've heard gueuze beers described as tasting like old sweat socks, dank locker rooms, Band-Aids, and wet barns, so I expected the worst. Instead, I found it tart and very dry. It wasn't my favorite, but it wasn't that bad. Unlike Oudbeitje, I could understand why someone would like the occasional gueuze beer.

"Most people will not have these as their go-to beers, but those who do have them will have them from time to time," Matt said.

Bill is one of those people. For a guy who's recognized for his broad knowledge of Belgium's many beer styles, his favorite is the nicheiest of them all.

"I think (sour beers are) one of the most interesting beers in Belgium."

Matt is much the same. When I asked him what his favorite beer was, he pointed to the Zuur, a Belgian-style Flemish brown ale that I found sour, dry and tart.

16520024 As for me, I still don't like the Duchesse, but I do like Monk's Café. I also have a better appreciation for sour beers. If nothing else, I now know that not all sour beers are the same. Far from it, in fact.

For the next post, I'll be talking to Franklin's brewer Mike Roy about the sour beers he's making in the Hyattsville brewpub and trying a few beers that might make the transition to sour beers a little less bumpy.



I am one of those who really LOVE sour beers--they are honestly what converted me to beer snobbery over wine snobbery. You hit on all my favorites--Duchesse, Rodenbach, Petrus Oud Bruin--but I can't wait to try some of the others you mentioned! Oudbeitje sounds awesome.

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