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Sour Beers Are Pretty Sweet

November 17, 2010

Sour beers are one of those subgenres of craft beer that is so outside the norm that they require a minor leap of faith to get into, but afterwards they reveal a whole other side of beer that most people don’t know exists. Like so many other great beer styles, some of the best examples of sour beers come from Belgium. “Flanders red ales” are a traditional style of sour beer from Belgium, which are created by using various fermentation and aging techniques that give the beer a distinctive acidic quality. Rodenbach Original, once the flagship beer of the Rodenbach brewery (but now owned by Palm Breweries), is one of the most well-known examples of the Flanders red style, and is still one of the best. At 5.2% abv, it is a blend of 75% “young” ale and 25% ale aged in oak barrels, which results in a reddish-colored brew with flavors of tart cherry, a mild, vinegar-like acidity, and subtle flavors of apple cider and some oak. The mild acidity of the beer, combined with the rich blend of subtle flavors, makes Rodenbach the rival of any fine wine, and the perfect introduction to sour beers. There is also a Rodenbach Grand Cru which, although blended, contains less young ale, resulting in a richer beer with tart fruit flavors and a light carbonation rounded off by slight oak and vanilla notes.

“Grand Cru” translates roughly from French as “great growth,” and the term is used for beer to indicate a more elaborate version of a brand. Lindemans, the Belgian brewery known for its assortment of lambics, has a Grand Cru called Gueuze Cuvee Rene. A blend of young and old lambics, it is then bottled for a second fermentation, which results in a lambic beer that is very dry, with a bold lemony sourness, a slight flavor of sour apple, and a very subtle hint of Belgian yeast at the end.

But as with all obscure beer styles, leave it to American craft brewers to take it to a whole new level. Last summer, the New York-based Ommegang brewery released Zuur, their version of a Flemish Sour Brown Ale, which was awesome, but sadly was only a limited release. Fortunately, the White Birch Brewing Company in Hooksett, NH, is still carrying the flag for sour beers, with their version of a Berliner Weisse. The Berliner Weisse style, as the name implies, originates in northern Germany, and was once referred to as the “champagne of the north” by Napolean’s troops, because of its light, elegant character. At 6.4% abv, White Birch’s Berliner Weisse has a light, champagne-like crispness with a distinctly dry, lemony sourness and a funky wheat aftertaste.

Sour beers are a rare breed, but are absolutely worth a try. You may find that you love them, or hate them, but at the very least you’ll gain an appreciation for just how versatile beer can be.


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