Friday, 5 August 2011

The Session #54: Sour Beer

The first sour beer I drank was one of the worst drinking experiences I’ve ever had.

We’d gone to Croydon for the day. It had become some kind of mythical beer wonderland in our young estimations, but I have no idea why (I think it was just one of those places that we often spoke of going to but never thought we actually ever would). The reason we wanted to go was the Beer Circus.

The Beer Circus is now closed and I only went there once. It was a bar lifted from the pavement of Brussels and dropped on the edge of Croydon’s greyest area. I was only just getting into decent beer when we went so to see a list of bottles with so many different pages, and to see each beer coming in a unique glass, was a great experience. After a few bottles (including a Kwak so we could get the cool glass), we ordered something at random from the list. I have no idea what the beer was. All I know is the warning the barman gave us:

“Have you had that before?” he asked.

We hadn’t.

“It’s a flat as a witches tit and as sour as fuck.”

I think this was meant to put us off, to warn us onto something else. Obviously it didn’t. We ordered it. When it arrived I don’t remember it being flat because I was so, so shocked by how sour it was. It was as sour as fuck, as warned.

And I hated it and couldn’t drink it.

I didn’t drink another beer like it for a few years until I tried a Cantillon lambic. But Cantillon isn’t really a starter beer of its style as is particularly puckering. Why did people drink these things that suspended your forehead in a pained frown?

But then things changed.

It was Boon Geuze which did it. So bright in the glass it could’ve illuminated a dark night, so full of flavour, peppery, dry, sharp but not aggressive, a depth of woody, savoury oak; I drank it in my back garden on a hot day while reading a good book. I suddenly got it.

Now I love it. I went to Belgium to the Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation, a beer festival like nothing else, serving just lambic and gueuze and varieties with fruit. There I saw how different and spectacular these beers could really be – quenching and full-flavoured but still delicate with a stunning depth to them, a tickle of sweetness, a tongue-smacking sharpness and, the thing which I love the most, the flavour from the wood, savoury and dry and woody. Then we went to Cantillon. The most handsome and magical brewery I’ve been to, oak casks lined up in dark, cool cellars, waiting. In America I couldn’t resist the sour selection at Russian River, with Temptation being the one I’ll always go back to first. And then Lovibonds’s Sour Grapes, drunk dry at the Rake in minutes. A stunning British sour beer. Then this week at GBBF the Revelation Cat Laphroig lambic; an insanely brilliant mix of sour and smoke.

What I like most about these beers is the story behind them. Beers brewed and deliberately left open to airborne wild yeast or beers which have those funky yeasts added to them. Beers which aren’t ready in three weeks or three months but need years to mature, hanging out in great oak casks, pulling complexity from the wood, depth of flavour, and then either served as a single vintage as lambic or blended for gueuze. Or with cherries for kriek. Or other fruit for something different – blueberries, strawberries, rhubarb.
Sour as fuck? Fuck yeah!

This month’s Session is hosted by The Brew Site. I should add that I don’t like all sour beers. I love the lemon sharpness of lambic and gueuze, but I can’t stand the vinegar sourness of beers like Rodenbach and Duchesse de Bourgogne. It catches my throat and burns. No thanks.


  1. I tried the Revelation Cat Laphroig lambic last night at the GBBF, on the recommendation of a now ex-friend.

  2. Have tried lambics several times. Make me feel sick and I've never finished one but good luck to you!

  3. My first sour beer (besides a few sweeter lambics) was the Jolly Pumpkin Oro de Calabaza. It immediately became one of my favourite beers. I was either ready for it, or the Calabaza is just one sumptuous piece of magic. I still go back to it over and over.

    At the Alibi Room in Vancouver they serve the "Storm Insane 12 Year Old Lambic" . It is brutally sour, but after half a glass of climatization you can't imagine drinking anything else.

    I think sours are to beer what blue cheese is to cheese. You need to be ready for it or you could turn yourself off it for years.

  4. We’d gone to Croydon for the day. It had become some kind of mythical beer wonderland in our young estimations

    Dear God, where were you from? I grew up in Coulsdon, and even we didn't think of Croydon as the mythical wonderland for anything (well, apart from record shops).

    I like Rodenbach and some lambics, but I've never got into gueuze - too much like hard work.

  5. Boon Geuze is one of the beers that we have tp explain as we sell it - we once had an old chap bring a bottle back, complaining that it was off. Now, we tell people in advance that it's off.

  6. Hah! Beer Circus, I remember that place! Must admit, I've not really tasted *many* sour beers (only a Rodenbach a while back) so maybe it's something I need to rectify.

  7. Rodenbach Grand Cru is currently the lowest rated beer on my chart.


    Because it's not a beer - it's a bush-tucker trial.

    A trial which I failed, incidentally.

    I still vividly remember shrieking - "I'm a beer lover - get me out of here!"

  8. Rodenbach Vin de Cereale is super sour, 10% barley wine, mmmmm.....

  9. I think Duchesse de Bourgogne is brilliant. Massive apple sourness. It almost verges into cider vinegar territory.

    I realise that I may have just put a load of people off ever going near it now.

    I love sourness in beer. Well, in the right beer.

    In the same way that I seek out an American IPA when I want huge hopiness and tropical fruit flavours, I reach for lambics, guezes and the like when I'm fiending for that tart sourness that only they can bring to the table.

    It's worth persisting with sour beer – you'll be rewarded with a whole new world of flavour.

  10. Phil - I grew up in Chatham, which probably explains a lot... It became one of those joke places that we thought we'd never go to. "Where shall we go drinking today?" someone would say and the shout would go back "Croydon!" I have no idea why!