Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Bars & Spirits

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

RECOMMENDED READING


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.

Comments
Five ideas for easy Thanksgiving appetizers

Five ideas for easy Thanksgiving appetizers

Thanksgiving can put a heavy burden on the host. We’ve assembled five appetizers that are quick and easy to prep. Some, like our risotto balls and goat-cheese figs, cater to vegetarian diets, so you can be sure to please all your guests. Even i...
Published: 11/21/17
Five ideas for cooking with fresh cranberries

Five ideas for cooking with fresh cranberries

Cranberry sauce has long been a fixture on the holiday table. According to the Chicago Tribune, Ocean Spray, the popular producer of cranberry sauce, cans about 70 million tins of the stuff a year, 85 percent of which gets sold between Thanksgiving a...
Published: 11/21/17
Tips for first-time Thanksgiving hosts (or really, any of us)

Tips for first-time Thanksgiving hosts (or really, any of us)

Take small bites.This may be the most crucial advice for Thanksgiving hosts who don’t have years of cooking and coordinating experience to provide the confidence that comes with leading the charge on the year’s biggest cooking day.It’s the first thin...
Published: 11/20/17
American wines red, white and sparkling for your Thanksgiving table

American wines red, white and sparkling for your Thanksgiving table

You’ve dusted off Grandma’s good crystal for the Thanksgiving table. Or you’ve pulled out all your mismatched stems to have enough for every place. Now what to pour?For this most American meal, based on foods native to America — turkey, pumpkin, corn...
Published: 11/20/17
How to make a pie from scratch: filling ideas, decorating tips, crust recipes and more

How to make a pie from scratch: filling ideas, decorating tips, crust recipes and more

Perfect your crust. Try new filling recipes. Learn some decorating tricks. And prepare for the biggest pie day of the year: Thanksgiving.   From apple to thyme You’ve got the crust down. Now it’s time to choose a filling for your holid...
Published: 11/17/17
Updated: 11/20/17
Thanksgiving 101: Everything you need to prepare for the big cooking day

Thanksgiving 101: Everything you need to prepare for the big cooking day

From appetizers to pies and everything in between, we’re here to help you put together a low-stress Thanksgiving spread. Here are a few ideas, and be sure to check out our Thanksgiving special report for more tips on preparing for the big day. ...
Published: 11/17/17
Updated: 11/20/17
Thanksgiving sides beyond the classics: corn casserole, Brussels sprouts salad, pecan pie carrots

Thanksgiving sides beyond the classics: corn casserole, Brussels sprouts salad, pecan pie carrots

There are probably a handful of essentials, things you must have on the Thanksgiving table lest some family members begin to riot. But I find there are often a couple of slots open for new things, chances to get weird or creative or, gasp, healthy. ...
Published: 11/17/17
How to make solid turkey gravy before Thanksgiving Day

How to make solid turkey gravy before Thanksgiving Day

As far as we’re concerned, anything you can make in advance of actual Thanksgiving Day is a good thing, and this make-ahead gravy fits the bill. Plus, Tucker Shaw of America’s Test Kitchen says it tastes just as good as if you made it wi...
Published: 11/17/17
How to plan your Thanksgiving menu

How to plan your Thanksgiving menu

Planning a really good menu is the stealth approach to being a really good cook. Here are some tips from the experts. New York Times Put some thought into the menu What leaves an impression is not only the dishes you can make, but also how they t...
Published: 11/17/17
Everything you need to know to prepare your Thanksgiving turkey

Everything you need to know to prepare your Thanksgiving turkey

The turkey is the unquestioned star of the Thanksgiving meal. It can be the most daunting part as well. But with a little planning and care, it doesn’t have to be.   Before you start • A decent roasting pan, one heavy enough that it wo...
Published: 11/16/17