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The Year Sour Beer Became a Sensation

Today, virtually every brewery of note has a sour in their portfolio. Just a decade ago, that was hardly the case. Aaron Goldfarb on how “sour” became an overnight sensation.

Best Sour Beer

The town was called Pleasantville, but I was having a pretty unpleasant time. Hungover on a Saturday morning, I wandered through neighborhoods full of McMansions, early morning power-walkers observing me curiously, cyclists in ill-fitting Livestrong gear breezing by. This was before I owned an iPhone; armed only with a Katana flip-phone, I’d written directions on a piece of scrap paper. MapQuest had told me Captain Lawrence Brewing Co. was mere blocks from the Metro-North stop, but I’d clearly taken a wrong turn.

I eventually righted my ship, and by noon I was clad with four bottles of Cuvee de Castleton, not only the first beer I ever stood in line for, but the first sour beer I ever tasted.

Back in 2007, only six so-called “sour” ales placed on BeerAdvocate’s top 100 list (courtesy of the Wayback Machine), including New Belgium’s La Folie at No. 53 and Girardin’s Gueuze 1882 Black Label at No. 99. My first sip of the vinous and tart Cuvee de Castleton, a Belgian golden ale fermented with muscat grapes and aged in wine barrels with Brettanomyces—a word I’d never even heard before then—was a shock.

Before the 2010s, in America, sours were strictly the domain of a few avant-garde breweries like Russian River and The Lost Abbey, who had been inspired by old-timey—but by then mostly-ignored—Belgian lambic-makers like Drie Fonteinen and Cantillon. Because of what it takes to make these beers, they inherently have to be produced in limited quantities. Wild ales and lambics are usually spontaneously fermented in open-air koelschips, or inoculated with captured “wild” yeast, then aged in barrels. And, while “sour” isn’t a flavor profile that necessarily turns people off (see: Sour Patch Kids) the vinegary and acidic sour ales that existed a decade ago were not exactly crowd-pleasing beers. Something had to change, both for geeks and the common man.

I still recall the days—about six or seven years ago—when you could buy Cantillon at Whole Foods. The real geeks had always known about Cantillon, at least since Joel Shelton, of the famed Shelton Brothers importers, had stuffed some bottles in a green duffel bag stowed in his flight’s overhead bin, back around 1993. (“The first taste I had of their Gueuze had the effect of the heavens opening up, with full violin section,” he recently told me.) But Cantillon never quite tipped into the mainstream.

Unlike the IPA-ization of America—which begins with the release of Russian River’s Pliny the Younger in 2005—or the dessert-ifying of imperial stouts—which owes its beginnings to 3 Floyds’ Dark Lord, circa 2004—the “souring” of beer palates in this country doesn’t seem to have one watershed moment that turned the tide. Ultimately, it was the gradual deification of Cantillon that acted as the bellwether for the upcoming sour revolution.

Before 2013, only one Cantillon beer had ever appeared on the Top Beers list: Saint Lamvinus, a limited-edition lambic made from merlot and cabernet franc grapes. In 2013, though, a whopping 11 Cantillon beers suddenly jumped into the top 250—pretty much every single beer the Brussels brewery produced, the vast majority of them packed with fruit, like the apricot-heavy Fou’ Foune (No. 11 in 2013). Cantillon was, in the pop music terms, an “overnight sensation.”

For the less geek-inclined, 2013 also saw the release of a more accessible, canned sour: Westbrook Gose. Westbrook didn’t just bring notice to an archaic German style, it also brought sour beer to the masses, proving that there was a market for sessionable sours. Less aggressive and complex than Cantillon, it was a critical success and a commercial smash. It also didn’t hurt that this type of beer could be quickly soured in the brew kettle, wherein the bacteria Lactobacillus is added to “acidify” the wort; no need for open fermentation or lengthy barrel-aging.

A kettle sour explosion would immediately follow, making way for the success of beers like Peekskill’s Simple Sour and Anderson Valley’s The Kimmie, The Yink, & The Holy Gose (both also released in 2013). A host of new breweries opening that year—from Berkeley’s The Rare Barrel to Firestone Walker spin-off Barrelworks—focused entirely on sour beers. These beers became such a sensation that, by the late summer 2013, even The New Yorker felt the need to explain the trend.

Fast-forward a few years and virtually every brewery has a sour in their portfolio. In fact, eight out of ten breweries I highlighted in my recent “Who’s Who of Beer Cool” specialize in sour, and there are now 35 sour beers in the current BeerAdvocate’s top 250, spanning such styles as American wild ale, lambic, gueuze, Berliner weisse, Flanders red ale and saison.

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