Dish of the Day: UK Sour beers

Rory Elsome

sour beer 300x300 Dish of the Day: UK Sour beersA year ago if you were served a pint of acidic beer, your typical reaction would be to return it to the bar and tell the licensee that their cask was off, but this is 2013 and it will be known as the year the UK’s beer began to go sour – deliberately – and with some very satisfying results.

Soured beers, to give a brief introduction, have long been a part of the brewing traditions of Belgium and Germany. Their tartness comes from the strains of ‘wild’ yeasts or lactic acid bacteria used during the fermentation process.

Belgian brewers, such as Cantillon, are the masters of sour beer, and their lambic beers are the quintessential definition of the style. They are traditionally made through spontaneous fermentation – surely one of the most bizarre brewing techniques ever conceived. Normally, brewing is a precise science with every step of the process being carefully controlled in sterilised conditions by the brewer. Lambic beers turn that on its head. The warm unfermented beer is laid out in a sort of shallow swimming pool called a ‘koelschip’, the windows of the brewery are opened and the beer is left to be spontaneously inoculated with whatever yeasts and bacteria naturally occur in the air. These species of wild microorganisms are what give lambics, and indeed most other sour beers, their sourness and unmistakeable character.

These beers are well known to anyone who has ever been to Belgium or Germany and tried some of the local offerings, so I have found it slightly odd that there has been a sudden interest in producing them in the UK. But this new wave has not come from across the channel, but rather from across the pond.

Sour beers have found a new life in America, with many of the much idolised American craft breweries, such as Dogfish Head and Russian River, now experimenting with the style. This wave of sourness is seemingly borne out of their admiration of the great continental sours and their desire to show that they can hold their own against the Belgian masters of brewing. Sour beers offer a whole new starting point for American craft brewers and much creativity is afoot.

Queue the updated and thoughtful branding that attracts the younger generation and introduces them to this traditional beer style. UK craft brewers are open in their idolisation of their American counterparts and, as with hop-led IPAs before them, are now importing the latest American trend onto these shores.

But spontaneous fermentation of beer is not just something you can start doing overnight and most UK sour beers will be created in controlled conditions using the necessary microorganisms. It will be interesting to see if UK brewers get into experimenting with spontaneous fermentations, as Allagash Brewery have in America, but if the Belgian brewers have perfected it why not just use their beer?

Indeed one brewer I spoke to recently had just returned from a trip to Belgium, bringing back 200 litres of live lambic beer to blend with his own – capturing the wild yeasts and bacteria that ferment the lambics in the process. After blending, the beer will be aged for at least a year in the brewery before release, and it will be interesting to see how close to the lambic style the end product sits. This is perhaps a sign of things to come and, with sour beers in their infancy in the UK, I can see brewers pushing to master the traditional Belgian techniques – especially if the American craft brewers can do just that.

If all this talk has got you hankering for a chance to practice your best lemon face, here are a couple of great UK sour beers to get you started. Magic Rock’s Salty Kiss (5% ABV), is a tribute to the German Gose beer style. Traditionally Goses were brewed in Leipzig where the water has a relatively high salt content, giving Gose beers a distinctly salty edge. Magic Rock have infused different fruits into Salty Kiss throughout the year, the current incarnation being infused with Gooseberries, and the beer is refreshingly tart with the smallest hint of saltiness. Buxton Brewery’s Wolfscote Sour (3.3%) is a barrel aged black sour that, for the incredibly low ABV, is complex and layered. There are enough roasted malts in there to give a toasted-smoky flavour that is perfectly dissected by the sharp sour edge of the beer.  Look out for them and other sours at the taps of your local, and get familiar with the modern incarnation of one of the world’s oldest beer styles.

Follow Rory at @RoryElsome

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  • Phantomflinger

    There’s an old brewing joke that Australians called their beer “XXXX” because the Americans couldn’t tell the difference between that and p*ss (in reference to the low alcohol of some American beers)

    To me what made a good pint was a pint of the dogs, Firkin brewery Dogbolter, a lethal, slightly sour, pitch black devil of a pint, I got a few of their kits back in the 90’s and brewed away, using the open air technique and went the German route a little of adding more sugar and yeast as time went by, forgetting that there had to be a point of not adding more sugar and yeast and the resultant brew was lethal, my friends grandfather a real bitter fancier and a blind octogenarian was found several miles from his home singing to a telephone box after consuming one litre of it and it was a good beer looking back now at the fun with it :)

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