Tart, fruity, refreshing: sour beers have grown in popularity across North America in recent years, with many craft breweries producing these pints alongside ever-popular IPAs, pilsners and porters. What differentiates sour beers from other styles is the fermentation process: they are soured naturally by bacteria and yeast.
Sour beer was first produced in Belgium in the 18th century and is made by pouring beer into big, open-air vats, allowing airborne bacteria and yeast to drop into the liquid and start the fermentation process spontaneously. The beer is then aged, often for more than a year, in barrels that contain souring bacteria. This traditional style is called lambic and variations include gueuze (various lambics blended together), kriek (fermented with cherries) and fruit varieties like framboise (raspberries).
Other styles of sour beers include Berliner Weisse, first brewed in Germany, which is lighter than a traditional sour and made with a lactic acid bacteria, and Gose, also from Germany, which is a blend of sour and salt—thanks to the addition of coriander and salt—giving it a refreshing profile.
European sour beers have been available in North America in a limited fashion since the 1970s, and, by the late 1990s, craft breweries around the continent began experimenting with their own varieties. In the past decade, North American brewers have adopted a hybrid version called “kettle sours,” where beer is kept at a warm temperature in the brew kettle, accelerating the souring process so the beer is ready within four to eight weeks. Fruits or well-aged hops are sometimes added to emphasize the fruity flavours.
There are now hundreds of craft breweries across North America producing sour beers. Here are a few standout spots to try.
Strange Fellows Brewing, Vancouver, B.C.
Try: Reynard (6.5% ABV)—an oud bruin with a complex cherry-like flavour, even though no fruit was used in the brewing process. It took home a gold medal at the 2016 B.C. Craft Beer Awards.
There’s a high concentration of craft breweries producing sour beers in Vancouver. At this East Van spot, brewmaster Iain Hill makes several different styles, including kettle sours and traditional wood-aged brews.
New Belgium Brewing, Fort Collins, Colorado
Try: Transatlantique Kriek (6.5% ABV)—a unique blend of sour cherry lambic from Oud Beersel brewery in Belgium and New Belgium’s own sour golden ale.
Denver is a well-known hot spot for craft breweries, but its neighbour to the north also has a growing list of breweries. New Belgium Brewing’s inception was spurred by its founder’s bike trip through Belgium in 1988, resulting in a whole host of traditional ales.
The Lost Abbey, San Marcos, California
Try: Framboise de Amorosa (8.5% ABV)—a barrel-aged sour (it spends more than a year in wooden barrels) that is a deep, ruby red and bursts with sour raspberry flavour.
Southern California is an epicentre of sour beer production in the United States and The Lost Abbey is one of the area’s most exciting breweries to check out. Its lineup of Belgian-inspired beers includes a range of outstanding sour and conventional styles.