Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Bars & Spirits

Beer lovers: It's time we sour on use of the adjective 'sour'

It wasn't long ago that even serious beer drinkers considered "dark beer" a legitimate way of describing their preferences. As these drinkers have become more savvy, dark beer has been replaced with actual styles - stout, porter, dunkelweizen, barleywine, oud bruin - and a range of flavor profiles so wide that they demonstrate how unnecessarily broad and undescriptive the term dark beer was in the first place.

Nowadays, few in-the-know beer drinkers will tell you that they love to drink dark beers, but many will gladly do so for a similarly vague term: sour beer. Even serious aficionados will tell you they tend to gravitate toward sours, and respectable beer bars are staffed by folks who will eagerly explain to you that the beer you want a sample of is a sour.

"Sour" is about as meaningful as "dark." Both terms are woefully lacking in information, and they unfairly lump dissimilar beers together, simply because they share a single, arbitrary attribute.

We can do better.

For example, take Berliner weisse. This style of tart German wheat beer is often reminiscent of a mild lemonade, with a crisp tartness and a wheaty finish. Its Leipziger cousin, gose, is similar in composition, but modern versions include additions of salt and coriander, creating a unique mouthfeel and a spiciness lacking in Berliner weisse.

These are two closely related styles, but I think we can all agree they deserve to be recognized independently, no? Why do we insist on lumping them in under the sour-beer banner with styles as diverse as lambic, Flanders red and American wild ale? If we can differentiate between a sour stout, a Lichtenhainer, and a gueuze, then why wouldn't we?

This isn't strictly pedantry. The unnecessary reliance on the sour-beer umbrella creates much confusion and miscommunication amongst budding beer enthusiasts.

Many excited new beer drinkers are sold on the concept of sour beers and quickly develop a taste for styles such as lambic and gueuze, spontaneously fermented Belgian ales that some consider the ale equivalent of champagne. But when these same drinkers - armed with a newfound appreciation for "sour" beers - encounter other Belgian styles like Flanders red ale, they often incorrectly assume that the beers aren't good because of the presence of acetic acid, a signature of excellent Flanders reds.

Acetic acid - vinegar, frankly - is a huge no-no in lambic, gueuze, Berliner weisse, and gose. It's even a mistake if it features too heavily in oud bruin, a style from the east side of the Flanders region that shares more similarities with its western red-ale counterpart than not. But it's a standard and welcome flavor (in reasonable quantities) in Flanders reds and similar wild-ale styles from around the world.

Drinkers who start with Flanders reds and move onto the comparatively mild Berliner weisse and gose often mistakenly criticize those beers for a lack of complexity, when in reality, comparing Flanders red and gose on a complexity scale is about as useful as doing the same with brown ale and barleywine.

Appearances and attributes may share similarities at times, but lumping them in together as a result is not helpful.

Here's another reason why we should ditch "sour beer" as a catch-all for such a diverse range of unique beers: we need that catch-all for beers that don't fit into well-established and recognized styles.

Of course, we have American wild ale as a somewhat vague category that encompasses beers fermented with wild yeast and sometimes bacteria (which may or may not be sour at all), but non-wild, soured versions of traditional styles like IPA, stout, saison, and blond ale are becoming increasingly common, and these beers can quite accurately and meaningfully be described as sour beers.

Instead of talking about your love of, or distaste for, sour beers, try talking about the actual styles that you love or hate, and the specific characteristics that make you feel that way. After all, many people will have different preferences for the different beers that typically are described as "sour."

Just as we have moved beyond the naive dichotomy of light versus dark beers, we should give unique beers the respect they deserve. "Sour" is just one of many attributes that you'll find in these beers.

For the sake of the quality of dialogue, as well as your own journey to become a better beer drinker, let's consider some of the others, too.

Contact Justin Grant at [email protected]; Follow @WordsWithJG.

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