Soured: Craft Beer's Misplaced Obsession With Bugs and How to Deal With It

I like sour beer.  Hell, there are sours that I love (I'm lookin' at you, Rodenbach Grand Cru and Nodding Head Berliner). But craft beer, you've gone too far.  You're obsessed. I also happen to know that in many cases you don't even want to do it.  But you've clearly bought into the sour beer trend hard, and it's starting to irritate (I almost said "bug") me.  

This isn't, "oh, everyone loves sour beers so I need to be all post-modern and say I hate them" time.  I'm not writing this because I want to poke fun at trends to show how edgy I am (I'm not).  I'm writing it because a lot of you brewers are making these and, well, they're not good.  Your batting average on sours sucks.  Sure, some of you are great at them - but you're a very small minority.

The rest of you should probably knock it off.  It's might hurt your brewery, and it's definitely wasting your time.

In the meantime, I'd also like to talk to you drinkers about a reasonable approach to drinking sour beers.

So, a little something for everyone this week!

The Trouble with Sours

If you're a brewer these days, you probably want (and need) to stand out, for purely economic reasons if nothing else.  So you put together your lineup, and identify a "workhorse" beer that'll pay the bills while you brew your passion projects and more-interesting beers.  So why sour beers?  Because you love them, right?  Wrong.

I just got back from the National Homebrewers Conference, and the Opening Night Kickoff Party features pro brewers.  When I asked those who had a sour why they brewed it and why they brought it, not one said anything about their love of the flavors and complexities of sour beer, or the challenge of making them.  They all said some variation on "they're a way to get attention" or "because people kept asking me whether I had one."

OK, I can buy that.  Peer pressure plus marketing utility can equal a powerful incentive.  The trouble is that sours are hard beers to make.  Even if you know that, you still might mess yours up.  And once you do, are you going to dump a beer that, because of the sluggishness of Brett or the contact time needed in that barrel, took you six months to a year to make?  

I doubt it.  You might not even notice, depending on how familiar you are with sours.  And even if you do, I think you'll serve it anyway.  

Soured

The sour beer I'm drinking these days isn't good.  When sours were much more rare in the marketplace, I'd say that three out of four were definitely worth a try, and even that fourth was usually good-but-not-what-I-wanted.  

Today?  Well, I drank between 15 and 20 sours between Thursday and Friday and...one.  One was a good beer.  The mass of them were adequate, but not really something I'd want to drink a pint of (and I certainly wouldn't order them again).  Two were downright awful and got poured immediately after provoking a gag.  Now, to be fair, about half of them were home brews and half were pro brews, but as a preponderance of "quality" the homebrewed versions were better (and there was one "gagger" from each gaggle).  

Those concerns a couple of weeks ago about brewer quality?  Yeah - amplify those times ten when we're talking sour beers.

Sours are hard to make.  The microbiota are less-predictable, the process is longer, and most brewers are pairing these beers with fruit and wood and who knows what else which also increases the degree of difficulty.  

My advice?  Don't do it.  You risk turning off a large pool of prospective customers for the sake of satisfying a few beer geeks that were attracted to nothing more than the novelty of that sour.  Don't chase a dream of long lines awaiting your next bottle release of an impossibly complicated sour.

A Rudyard Kipling Moment

It's time to do a little allowance-making for their doubting, too (see the poem "If - "). 

Because the best beer I had at the conference, all week, homebrewed or not, was a sour.  A sour from Neshaminy Creek Brewing Co., to be precise.  It was a sour Saison whose German-ish name I can't remember [UPDATE: It's "Kleinevriend," and it's Dutch!] and isn't listed on their website yet, and it was incredible.  Moreover, a number of other people told me the same.

So does that mean I'm wrong, and sours are a great hook?  Does it mean that maybe the real issue here is that the flavor profile of sours is idiosyncratic and tuned to particular palates and one person's Orval is someone else's Goat Urine?  

Maybe.  But I think that it's much more likely that breweries like NCBC are just good at what they do, and so their sours are good, too.  

An Approach to Sours for Beer Drinkers

In any case, let's take a moment and consider some advice for navigating the sometimes-troubling world of sour beer.

Stick to breweries that you already know make good beer.  Don't take too many fliers on "never heard of them" breweries' sour beers, even if your super-beer-geeky friend says you "just have to try it."

Don't buy into barrel-aged sours (with some exceptions).  They're bad more often than they're good, in my experience. Barrel-aging adds a whole new universe of ways to muck up a beer that's already hard enough to make.  Your established Lambic breweries are probably worth giving the benefit of the doubt, but if it's from a new-ish place and/or is bragging about the kind of barrel (i.e., Bourbon Barrel Wild Ale), then maybe try their Berliner first.

Don't believe the style labeling.  I'm not sure that most brewers have even had the "style" of beer they're emulating.  Every Gose I drink these days is just a Berliner Weisse - it's an intensely sour pale wheat beer - or it's a salt bomb.  Neither is accurate, and while I love the idea of a Gose revival (or any endangered beer style, really) it's baffling to me why brewers bother calling them that if they're, you know, not that.  

Keep it simple (duh).  Beers that are a "soured ____________ " where that blank is some style you already might recognize are usually better than the generic "Wild" beers.  A "Soured Whatever" is probably just the base beer plus lactic acid, however derived, which is easier to get right, because it's simpler.

Trust fruit.  I'm not usually one for fruit beers, but for some reason in simple sours, it seems to work well.  Cherry Gose.  Apricot Berliner Weisse.  Mango Sour Saison.  Since fruits often impart tartness or acidity on their own, it's a natural pairing.  

Share.  If this is a bottle you own, open it with others.  These things are often good in small doses, but terrible in larger quantities.  

Experiment - but moderate your expectations.  If this is a new beer from a new brewery, don't judge them too harshly.  Give their Pilsner a try before you write them off for good.  Remember, this brewer might not even have really wanted to make that beer.

Others, I'm sure, have other strategies, but I'm confident that these won't hurt you.  Oh, and consider Tums to avoid "sour stomach."  The chewable kind seem to work well.

Moving On

Sour beer obsession might just be a fad, and I certainly hope it is.  When it passes, those who care about it will keep doing it, while those who were groupthought into it can move on to something else - and those that care are probably the ones doing it best. 

It isn't that I want sours to go away - I just want them to be better.  I don't want to keep wasting $6 to $36 for a pint or bottle of a bad beer that took years to make.  Dare to dream?

I've heard that Craft Lagers will be the next big thing.

Now there's something to dream about...

Keep it simple.

JJW