Sour times

Sour beers are the hot ticket

Imbib specializes in barrel-aged brews, including the Raspberry Nevada Weiss.

Imbib specializes in barrel-aged brews, including the Raspberry Nevada Weiss.

Photo/Eric Marks

Statistically speaking, odds are you or someone you know is in the community genetics study being conducted by Renown, DRI and 23andMe. I have spit for science, but I don’t have results yet. While I wait, I’ve been answering questions on the 23andMe website about my background, health and traits to help build their database of what genes link to particular characteristics. One was whether I like cilantro or find it soapy tasting. Researchers have found that certain olfactory genes are linked to the “cilantro tastes like soap” trait.

I find science wildly fascinating, especially the sense of taste. Our general aversion to bitterness is an evolutionary trait meant to deter us—and other animals—from eating toxins. As good foods spoil from bacteria, they turn sour, so a tendency to avoid that is to be expected as well. That being the case, why are IPAs, with their often remarkable levels of hop bitterness, the most popular craft beer style in America? And if you look at current craft breweries, why is sour the next hoppy? Just like kids loving SweetTarts and Lemonheads, we, as a species, seem to shun our evolutionary red flags and embrace the danger of sour—bacteria be damned.

Yes, sour beers are the hot ticket now. But even though it seems like a new trend, history is merely repeating itself. Quick lesson: prior to the microbiological work of Mr. Pasteur, knowledge of yeast and bacteria was virtually nonexistent. The modern, gleaming stainless steel brewing vessels didn’t exist, and fermentation was done in barrels made of porous wood, riddled with germs. It’s safe to assume a lot of beer was sour to some extent, depending on the season and freshness.

The craft brewing world loves its own history, so revisiting that history is popular. The world of sour beers is a complex European family tree, swirling with strains of yeast and bacteria, barrels and fruits. Broadly speaking, there are quick sours and aged sours. Quick sours are almost everywhere now, most commonly the German Berliner Weisse style or its close relative, gose. Both have a wheat-heavy base and a tart tang from the lactobacillus used in fermentation, but gose traditionally includes coriander and salt in the recipe. Locally, Imbib Custom Brews is the go-to for their many fruit variations of Berliner Weisse (recently rebranded “Nevada Weisse”), but you’ll also find Under the Rose’s bottled Berlinerbeer and Great Basin’s traditional Berliner on draft.

The aged sours are where things get weird, in a good way. Often using wine barrels in combination with various strains of yeast and bacteria, brewers rely on traditional methods where time, wood and “bugs” work for months or years before being ready. Given the time and risk required, barrel-aged sours are a specialty you won’t find everywhere. Brasserie Saint James specializes in European old-world brews, including their version of Belgian lambic in bottled Grand Cru and Plum varieties, a wine barreled version of the funky 1904, and soon, a soured version of their award-winning Daily Wages saison. Imbib ages in barrels as well, with a rotating variety of brews coming out of their 450-gallon foeder (a giant barrel). Further afield, Truckee’s Tahoe Mountain Brewing bottles a number of barrel-aged sours—I suggest the Recolte du Bois series or Viejo Rojo fruit lambic. Under the Rose and Great Basin also have wine barreled sours.

Given our embrace of flavors our DNA tells us to avoid, is this evolution in progress?