If you want to be taken seriously as a craft beer connoisseur whilst also gaining the upper hand on your mates who proudly drink India Pale Ale and Imperial Stout, then you need to start drinking “Sours” – or at the very least saying you drink them.
Because, to the uninitiated, sours are daunting drops that are bound to dumbfound conventional beer drinkers. Ranging from Berliner Weisse and Gose (brewed with salt) to Flemish Reds and “wild” brews, sours is a term referring to tart, acidic beers fermented using wild yeast or bacteria such as Brettanomyces, lactobacillius or pediococcus.
The most iconic ‘sour’ beers come from Belgium and are known as Lambic beer or Gueuze (a bottle-fermenting blend of old and young lambic). They are brewed in and around Brussels and what distinguishes them from your ‘conventional’ contemporary beers is that they’re spontaneously fermented with naturally-occurring, local, airborne yeast.
Closer in character to cider or fino sherry, Lambic is brewing at its most raw, it’s what brewing used to be centuries before Louis Pasteur had his light bulb moment and is the oldest beer style in the western world.
It’s hailed by some as the most quixotic and cultured expression of the brewing art and dismissed by others who simply can’t understand the attraction of something so tart that tastes a bit like a goat smells.
The journey from lager to lambic is not one undertaken in a single leap. They may both be beers but just because you once cried along with Gazza to Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma doesn’t mean you’re ready to plunge yourself into Wagner’s Ring every night.
There are many obstacles to full seduction reckons Armand Debelder, owner of the lauded lambic producer Drie Fontienen. Like a truly epic album or a classic novel, its true greatness doesn’t reveal itself immediately, it requires investment.
In an interview for Boutique Beer, a book what we wrote and is still available from this site, he said: “When you take your first sip, clean the mouth with the lambic and wait a few seconds.
“Then take a second sip and truly taste it, roll it around the tongue and completely clear your mind of what you expect beer to taste like. And then take a third sip. If you don’t like it, perhaps it’s not for you right now,” he said, before adding: “But, one day, I think it will be…”
What distinguishes lambic from your usual conventional contemporary beers is that it’s spontaneously fermented with naturally-occurring, local, airborne yeast – that happens to be hanging around the brewery.
Lambics and gueuze are often shuffled into this category of “Sours”, a convenient umbrella term for any style of beer, new world or old, that is tart and acidic. “It’s a relatively new term for people who like to put things in boxes,” said Mark Tranter, the man behind the brewery and blender Burning Sky. “Brewers in Belgium have been making these beers for generations, but they never call them or consider them ‘sours’.
“These beers appeal to white wine drinkers – especially lambic and gueuze.,” he added. “It’s about palate development, there’s lot of intrigue and they are usually limited in availability which appeals to the collector nerd. And there is an element of the unknown – they are beers that we can’t control.”
Drie Fontienen, Oude Gueuze, 6% ABV
On the 16th May 2009, thousands of litres of lambics, languidly maturing in Drie Fontienen’s warehouse in Beersel, exploded. A dodgy thermostat had failed to turn off a heater, the Mercury rose to more than 140 degrees Farenheit and 5,000 bottles shattered in the heat.
Worse still, more than 80,000 bottles of Geuze were ruined – oxidised and unfit for consumption. It bankrupted owner Armand Debelder and, within months, he’d lost the lease on the brewery.
Thankfully dogged devotion, blind faith and a healthy contempt for basic business economics are core characteristics for a lambic brewer and Armand has breathed life back into a family business that began in 1953.
“It was very hard,” recalls Armand. “We thought very seriously about calling time on the beers but we kept going. There was a concerted campaign to keep Geuze alive and we weren’t really allowed to stop.”
Thank goodness they did for, today, the love for Lambic has seldom been stronger and Drie Fonteinen beers, incredibly sought after among connoisseurs, blend lambiscs from Girardin, Boon and Lindemans – bringing bitterness, balance and Brettanomyces respectively.
While Armand endeavours to create Drie Fontienen’s “green apple” signature every time, using a blend of 1, 2 and 3 year-old lambic, he concedes his is not a quest for consistency.
“Nothing is exact,” he says. “That is what’s so exciting, creating new tastes every time with no pressure to conform. I do what I want to do. I’m a free man who can brew what I want to brew. Certitude is not fun for me – I like it when anything can happen”
3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze Golden Blend is his top cuvee and such is its rarity, buyers are restricted to one bottle per person.
Hailing historically from Leipzig in Lower Saxony, Germany, Gose is laced with lactic acid, coriander and salt.
It’s sharp, it’s sour, it’s sometimes served with syrup and, just like Keith Richards, only just survived the 1960s. In its early years, Gose was delivered in frothing barrels to more than 90 Gosenschenkes (Gose Taverns) where locals would often chase it with a liqueur made with cumin.
Never more than a local niche, it went missing during the World War II, slowly re-emerged briefly in the 1950s, and then slipped back into the shadows during the 1960s under Communist Rule.
While there are now two Gose breweries in Leipzig, it is the from Huddersfield where this fresh and fruity Gose is brewed. Using sea buckthorn and sea salt, there’s a terrific tingle of tartness and a superb salty send off – like a Gooseberry margarita with a salt rim.
Burning Sky brewer and founder Mark Tranter isn’t mucking about, he’s doing things properly. You’ll find the former head brewer of Dark Star on the edge of the Sussex Downs, in a small village called Firle, where he has created a working shrine to wild yeast and wood.
Not content with being the first British brewer to install several enormous oak foudres, Burning Sky has also installed its own bespoke coolship in which naturally occurring yeasts floating in the Sussex air fuels the fermentation – and after the initial spontaneous innoculation, the beer is then aged in oak.
This latest Coolship release, a blend of spontaneously fermented barrel aged beers, features just the right amount of funk, tart fruit, balanced bitterness and light acidity all underscored with some chunky oak. Complex and contemplative, this is superb stuff.