For all that I’ve learned about beer, wine and spirits since I started writing this blog, I am still learning.
Last fall, I interviewed Wild Rose’s brewmaster (yes, I know I’m overdue for another one of those), and he mentioned sour beers as a trend we’ll see more of here.
Before that interview I had heard the term ‘lambic’ and seen the beers with decidedly old-world labels on liquor store shelves, but I had never had a ‘sour’ beer or knew quite what it was.
Brian Smith from Wild Rose told me he expects to see more of them here, but as we’re talking about having to age beer in barrels, it could take awhile.
“It is an acquired taste,” he said.
It’s a style that traces its roots back to Belgium, and involves beer aged in wood casks. Some are fermented in open tanks with wild yeast, and flavoured with fruit such as sour cherry or raspberry.
Whether it’s a Flemish red ale or a lambic (or lambic-inspired), these beers are growing in popularity, especially as the craft beer scene grows south of the border.
A recent article at tablematters.com featured U.S. breweries experimenting with spontaneous fermentation.
So where do things sit in Canada?
Guy McClelland — an importer of premium European beers who was ‘knighted’ by Confederation of Belgian Brewers Association — says he’s seeing more interest in the product here, during what he calls “an exciting time in the industry.”
“This speaks to the consumer being more sophisticated,” McClelland told me.
“Is sour beer going to be as popular as IPA?” That remains to be seen, he says, but he thinks more people will gravitate toward to Flanders red ale or lambics as they look for something a little different.
“This is the missing link between wine and beer — oak maturation meets grain fermentation.”
But, for the uninitiated, how do these beers taste?
Calling them sour beers may scare people off.
They are, in fact, quite crisp and refreshing. You know the bite some white wines have? It’s kind of like that. But I’d argue it’s better, mostly because I’m not so much a white wine drinker.
“They get their taste characteristic from acidic astringency instead of hop bitterness,” McClelland said.
“It’s quite refreshing.”
Rodenbach Classic Ale, a Flanders sour ale, bears the title of “most refreshing beer in the world,” according to influential beer writer Michael Jackson.
It is aged in large oak barrels and is a blend of young beer (a few months in oak) and old beer (up to two years).
Whereas red ales garner their acidity from the lengthy aging process, McClelland says lambics get their flavour from the wild yeasts in the region where they’re brewed (where lambics get their name).
To cut the acidity, they’re commonly flavoured with fruit such as raspberry or kriek (sour cherry).
Even more so than with the red ales, the word sour is also a misnomer. Both the raspberry and cherry versions of Mort Subite are quite balanced. There’s the acidity coming through, but it’s quite light and is complimented by the fruit. These would make the perfect pairing with dessert, but are a treat all on their own.
As the consumption trend grows, I hope to see more Canadian brewers taking on the style, either instituting a barrel-aging program, or trying their hand at spontaneous fermentation.
They may be an acquired taste for some, but sour beers are more accessible than you might think.