If you’re into craft beer, you’ve probably had at least a few sour beers. In the last five years, it seems like almost every brewery in the world has released a sour. Sour beer has been around for centuries but its recent boom in popularity has infiltrated the beer world much like IPA in the early 2000s.
There are many styles and flavors of sour beer. From Belgian lambic to innovative American interpretations, the world of sour beer is vast and evolving. In this article, we’ll guide you through what to look for in a great sour beer and list our 10 favorites.
If you’ve never tried a sour beer, your first sip could be surprising. Expect anything from light and fruity tartness to lip-smacking sourness. The style can be polarizing. If you are a sour fan, these wild and funky qualities are what keep you coming back.
Sour brewers use bacteria called lactobacillus, brettanomyces, and pediococcus. These bugs, along with brewers yeast, ferment and sour their beer. The range of complex flavors come from each brewery’s unique blend of yeast. Because of this, beers can take on many different characteristics.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the major styles within sour beer:
Considered the holy land for sour beer, Belgium has a long tradition of funky brewing. Around Brussels, in the Senne Valley, lambic producers have been brewing for centuries. In fact, like Champagne, lambic is a protected name. To call your beer lambic, it must be brewed in the region surrounding Brussels.
Lambic is brewed using barley malt and raw wheat. A labor-intensive mash, called a turbid mash, produces a cloudy and dextrinous wort. Aged hops are boiled for 4 hours to impart bitterness and preservative qualities. After the boil, the wort is transferred to a coolship. This is a large open top cooling vessel where the wort chills overnight.
During this time, wild yeast and bacteria native to the Senne Valley enter the brewhouse and inoculate the wort. This is known as spontaneous fermentation, as no yeast is directly added to the wort. The beer is left to ferment for years inside oak barrels. Wild yeast and bacteria slowly chew away at the sugars and dextrins over time.
The resulting beer is called lambic. It’s usually around 5-6% ABV, slightly hazy, and very delicious.
Straight lambic can be consumed flat which tastes funky, cider-like, and sour. Gueuze (or geuze) is a blend of 1, 2, and 3 year old lambic. It’s highly carbonated in the bottle and is very acidic, funky, and refreshing.
Other popular bottled lambic beers are blended with fruit to create fruit lambic. Kriek (cherries), framboise (raspberries), and other types of fruit lambic are available from any of Belgium’s 10+ lambic breweries.
In Flanders, sour beers have a distinct and recognizable characteristic. Aged in large wooden tanks called foeders, Flemish sour beers are either red or brown and have an acetic sourness kind of like balsamic vinegar. Combined with oakiness and sweet dark malts, Flemish sour beer is unique and tasty.
Beer in Germany has not always been centralized around ultra-clean lagers. Historically, regional breweries focused on refreshing and light, tart beers. In Berlin, Berliner Weisse was their interpretation of a wheat beer. Low alcohol and slightly sour, Berliner Weisse is refreshing and funky. Farther south in Leipzig, brewers used local water which had a high salt content. This resulted in a lightly salted and sour beer called Gose.
In the last 20 years, during the boom of craft beer, American breweries have taken sour beer to the next level. What was once a rare and underground style has surged to the mainstream. American brewers have created a mix of historic and modern interpretations to make completely new sour beer styles.
Sour beer’s huge range of styles and flavors offers drinkers a massive choice. With their recent popularity, the market’s been flooded with sour beer.
When choosing a sour beer, there are a few things to look out for.
- Barrel Aged: Most traditional sour beer is aged in oak barrels. That might mean oak wine and spirit barrels or large foeders. Oak provides sour fermentations the perfect amount of oxygen to allow for a slow souring process. Oak also can provide beer with flavors of vanilla as well desirable tannins.
- Kettle Sour: These beers have been soured in the brew kettle and then boiled and fermented like any other beer. This means that there are no souring bacteria in the finished product. Kettle soured beer is quick to produce. Breweries use this technique to make a large range of sour beers like Berliner Weisse and Gose. Kettle souring is much faster. Brewing a sour beer takes the same amount of time as a typical ale.
- Fruited: Sour beer and fruit go hand in hand. The acidic base beer combined with fruit develops into a beautiful end product, often tasting closer to wine than beer. Fruited sours can be complex and elegant. The yeast and bacteria ferment through sugars in the fruit to produce interesting flavors unlike any other product.
All sour beer should be balanced and complex. Overly acidic examples are usually a sign of improper blending or an aggressive bacteria culture. Unless the beer is brewed in the Flemish style, vinegar and acetic flavors are undesired. What we love in great sour beers is balanced sourness, full body, and a pleasant funkiness.
Sour brewing requires patience, creativity, and -- most importantly -- a good palette. A sour fermentation doesn’t follow any timetable. It’s done when it tastes right, and that could be years.
Here are our picks for the best sour beers from around the world. We chose beers that help define what is great about sour brewing and show how diverse the world of sours can be.
3 Fonteinen is a lambic producer and blender from Pajottenland in Belgium. They’re famous for their complex and funky beer. Their beers are some of the most sought after in the craft beer world.
Cuvee Armand Gaston pours a bright orangey-golden with a slight haze. The lively carbonation pushes a puffy foam above the glass. Acidic and funky, 3 Fonteinen has crafted the quintessential gueuze. It’s an amazing tribute to the brewery’s original founder Gaston Debelder, and his son, now-retired master blender, Armand.
Most people know Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing for Fat Tire, an amber ale. Where they shine, though, is in their sour beer program. In 2000, they started brewing Belgian style sour beers aged in wood barrels.
La Folie is the beer that started their funky line-up. Fermented and aged in foeders, La Folie is a Flemish Brown. Notes of tart green apple, vanilla, and lightly toasted bread make this beer complex and tasty. This Colorado brew isn’t just great for an American sour, it’s probably the best Flemish-style sour ale in the world.
Berliner Weisse is a style that almost died during the rise of lager beer. Recently, Schneeeule Brauerei (Snowy Owl Brewery) has started re-creating the traditional Berliner Weisse.
Marlene is brewed with 100% wheat and fermented with a blend of brettanomyces and lactobacillus. This 3% ABV, glowing pale brew is slightly acidic with a subdued funkiness from the brettanomyces. A refreshing beer for a hot summer’s day which pays tribute to the tradition of Berliner brewing.
If you’re a craft beer drinker, chances are you’ve heard of Cantillon. They’re considered the best sour beer brewery in the world. The small Brussels brewery has been family owned and operated since 1900. If you can get your hands on any bottles of Cantillon, don’t hesitate. They’re all amazing in their own way. Our favorite is Foufoune.
Foufoune is a lambic beer blended with fresh apricots. The fruit and lambic are left to ferment for about 5 weeks before bottling. The smooth mouthfeel balances an assertive acidity allowing the fresh apricot flavor to shine through. Layers of complex funk, acidity, and subtle malt coat the mouth. The snappy carbonation helps wash it down.
Foufoune challenges the concept of fruit beer. It serves as an incredible inspiration for many sour brewers worldwide.
Black Label Gueuze Girardin is an often overlooked example of an outstanding lambic. Young, this full-bodied gueuze offers lightly charred oakiness and a soft, pleasant funk. With some age, the funkiness starts to shine through giving a more perceived dryness.
Girardin also makes a filtered gueuze known as White Label. It’s fine, but lambic lovers should seek out the unfiltered Black Label version for a more traditional product.
Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes, or BFM, is a small, innovative Swiss brewery specializing in sour and wild beers. Operating since 1997, they’ve received world-wide acclaim for their beers.
L’Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien is an 11% ABV dark ale that spends a year or two aging in wine and spirit barrels. The result: a very sour, funky brew that threads the needle between beer and wine. Owner and brewer Jérôme Rebetez is a trained oenologist so we can imagine this has influenced this beer’s unique characteristics.
Sour, funky, hoppy, complex -- Juicy by Hill Farmstead ticks many boxes. Starting with a base of Saison, Juicy spends 10 months of conditioning in wine barrels with Hill Farmstead’s signature house culture. Before packaging, the beer is dry-hopped with the finest New Zealand hops. In a perfect symbiotic relationship, the yeast, bacteria, hops, and oak work together to form a product even bigger than the sum of its parts.
Juicy is a very unique sour beer. Hill Farmstead brings to life a truly amazing sour ale that is refreshing, thought-provoking and -- yes -- juicy.
At Russian River, Vinnie Cilurzo has been using a coolship for spontaneous fermentation since 2012. Considered one of the best American sour breweries, Russian River producers a very solid line up of Belgian inspired wild ales.
True to its name, Beatification is a saintly libation. As Russian River’s ode to Belgian lambic, this beer is 100% spontaneously fermented and aged in oak wine barrels for several months.
Beatification is a sour golden ale with assertive funkiness that balances well with the up-front sourness. Like most Russian River beers, the mouthfeel is spot on. This helps make Beatification refreshing and highly drinkable.
Jester King is a farmhouse brewery from just outside Austin, Texas. Yeast and alternative fermentation has always been their claim to fame. They make some of the best Belgian-style beer brewed in the U.S., focusing on rustic flavors, funk, and acidity.
Originally called Méthode Gueuze, the name of the beer changed to Méthode Traditionelle. This came after consultation with a group of Belgian lambic producers. The new name honors the age-old tradition of lambic brewing without claiming to be a Belgian product.
SPON blends 1, 2, and 3 year old 100% spontaneously fermented and barrel aged beer. The result is the closest to traditional gueuze outside of Belgium. Golden color, effervescent, balanced, sour, and funky, SPON is a perfect homage to Belgian lambic brewing.
Casey Brewing and Blending specializes in sour and wild beer. Using almost all local, Colorado ingredients, Casey ferments only in vintage oak barrels. They’ve made a name for themselves with their impressive line-up of fruited sours.
Casey only uses whole fruit in their beers -- no flavourings, purees, or frozen fruit. Fruit Stand comes in two variants, Blackberry and Apricot. Both beers are outstanding but the blackberry version is a world-class representation of sour fruit beer.
Pouring a hazy pink-red with a fleeting head, first scents are intense blackberry. The flavor is funky, sour, and packed with fresh blackberry. The base beer provides a malty sweetness and subtle bitterness. Loads of fresh blackberry flavor jumps out the glass.
Most sour beers can be aged and flavors will evolve and develop over time. The best beers for aging are unpasteurized bottle conditioned sour beers. Kettle soured beers are not ideal candidates for aging as there are no live bacteria in the bottle.
Over time, the yeast and bacteria in the beer will continue fermenting. This leads to complex funkiness, sourness, and often higher carbonation. Most sour beer can easily be aged for 1 to 2 years. Belgian lambic beers, like gueuze, can be aged for 5 or 10 years. Good luck staying away from your bottle collection for that long!
Most sour beers have live yeast and bacteria inside the bottle. This means saccharomyces (brewers yeast), lactobacillus, brettanomyces, and pediococcus. Many believe these bacterias are good for the gut much like other probiotic drinks or food.
Of course, sour beer does contain alcohol so you should always drink in moderation.