By Suds Sister
I have a confession to make: I have grown to love what most people find repugnant.
It’s not as though I have a girly palate. I’m a hoppy girl at heart, swilling Imperial IPAs with enough IBUs to take the enamel off your teeth, slap you across the face and say, “I’m Rick James, bitch.” Ballsy, bitter beers were my first foray into extreme beer tasting. And I was happy here in Beervana, with its hop-infusing Randallizers, and each brewery trying to out-hop the others. I am not sure when I made the leap into lambics, but now I am sold on the sour.
The sour beers styles that have captivated me are lambics and gueuzes, farmhouse ales, saisons and Flanders beers. For those of you unfamiliar with the styles, here’s a little primer. A lambic is fermented using wild yeast and stale hops. The hops act as kind of a preservative as the beer ages in cobweb covered casks for years at a time. A gueuze is nothing more than a mix of old and young lambics. Farmhouse ales are exactly like they sound: rustic, artisinal ales originally intended for farm laborers. Saisons are country beers also, but are brewed seasonally, intended for summer consumption. Flanders beers (Flanders Red or Flanders Brown) come from that region of Belgium. It can be a lot more complex than this, but brewery tours bore me, so let’s drink!
Sour beers are the kind of beers where after the first taste, you say, “eeuuw.” Most people taste them and think that something has gone terribly wrong with the beer. They are like stinky cheeses, once you get past the initial funk factor, there are a lot of interesting things going on. While sour beers have been around forever, I have only recently, in the last few months, become accustomed to their taste.
Years ago, I had tasted Cantillion, as well as Petrus and the sour beer by which all others are measured, Rodenbach. They did nothing for me other than make me pucker. But then, at the beginning of summer during a heat-wave, I opened up a bottle of Rogue’s Festive ale. It’s a saison that was originally bottled as a Christmas seasonal. It has this odd tartness, and a really wild, almost funky nose. Refreshing. It’s a frisky and crisp beer. This is the beginning of my summer of sour.
The next one to wow me was a Belgian saison from the brewery Fantome. Their labels usually have ghosts on them. I have tried a few other Fantome beers, but this saison is by far their best. It makes me throw my hands up in the air and sing, “we want the funk, gotta have that funk.” The flavor is loaded with fruit, but it has this barnyard essence, this utter earthiness. It is a lazy summer day in a glass, a veritable roll in the hay.
The summer beer festivals brought out even more samples for me to expand my palate. With a fistful of tickets at the International Beer Festival, I began to explore. I tried almost all of the sour imports, and some local varieties. New Belgium Brewing poured two Flanders red beers: LaFolie and Eric’s. Eric’s is described thusly:
“a peach-lambicesque sour beer that underwent 4 separate fermentations involving a strong golden ale, their original Bier de Mars, 2-year wood aged Bier de Mars, and peaches.” Eric’s was really good, a lusty fruit bomb with an oaky aftertaste.
Also at that festival, Walking Man Brewing poured Blootvoetse Bruin, a Flanders red that does not use any Belgian yeasts or fruit, rather, the sour comes from ‘the Kombucha tea fungus.’ Described as a ‘hybrid freak-show sour,’ it definitely has some vinegar undertones but its tart crispness makes me want more.
Last weekend’s Oregon Brewer’s Fest was also the first showing of Rock Bottom’s Ned Flanders, a Belgian-inspired ale aged in five different bourbon and wine casks. Hi-didly-ho, neighbor-eenie! Some beers snobs out there may turn their noses up at Rock Bottom, but the seasonals are usually great. This one was one of the best in the festival for me. Complex and interesting.
The thing all of these beers have in common? There is usually a fruit component, and most people hate them at first. But if you think of yourself as having and adventurous palate, then I think you can come to appreciate the sour side of beer.
Want to try? I’d suggest starting with the Fantome Saison, which is available at Whole Foods for a limited time. Others to taste include Cantillion, Duchesse De Bourgogne, Rodenbach, Panil Barriquee (Italian) and Vichtenaar. Look for these beers at restaurants like Higgins and Blue Monk, or at bottle shops like Belmont Station and John’s Market, or grocers like New Seasons and the W. Burnside Fred Meyer.
These beers are high in acid, tart and crisp and go well with food. Try tasting them with cheeses, grilled meats and seafood.
Suds Sister is a budding beer scholar and beer tourist.
What a great article about beer! We need good beer writers in this town! (Ken does a great job with the wine articles)
I too really enjoyed the Ned Flanders from Rock Bottom which I tasted at OBF. Although, it did make me crave a glass of burbon later on.
The Fantome is fabulous with a cheese plate… mmm triple creme St. Andre…
Is it HH yet???
Crazy Saquatch says
I too loved the sours that were at both the brew festivals. Another great place to pick them up is at Beaumont Market. they have a really good selection of all things Belgium.
Great article. Finally, someone else who enjoys these beers. They’re an acquired taste, certainly. Most of the time I can’t convince people to even try ’em, and when I do, 90% of the time I end up stuck buying them a different beer as a replacement. Oh, well. More for us diehards that way, I guess.
Lambics are just about the only kind of beer I like. Believe it or not, Stumptown on SW 3rd has a decent selection of lambics and other hard to find Belgian beers including some on tap, and for a while they had a cute little brochure with all the types and detailed. Apotheke in NW also is a good place to give them a try.
For more reading, the NY Times did an article on lambics in May.
Finally, try cooking with the gueuzes somtime. They are a wonderful substitute for wine when steaming shellfish and braising meats.
Suds Sister says
CBF — I like Stumptown dowtown for beers too, but they just close so early. I was at Apotheke just the other day. They have the Duchess on tap (!!!), as well as several other ‘sours’ in bottle.
atul — Try starting novice palates on the Fantome Saison or the Rogue Festive (though that’s probably impossible to find, unless you are like me and bought two cases). They aren’t as sour as the true lambics.
For those of you have had ‘sours’ in the past and just didn’t like them, give them another try. Our palates are always changing. One beer style I just don’t get are Rauch beers or smoked beers. It’s just not an appealing flavor for me. But when someone else orders one, I take a sip of theirs just to make sure.
Has anyone been to the new bar Pi-Rem? I understand they have a nice Belgian list.
Here’s more reading from Saveur:
I have been to Pi-rem. The beer selection is awesome. 30-40 types of Belgian ales & quite a few from other less worthy countries :)
Here’s their website
Suds Sister says
Finally made it to Pi-Rem last night. For those of you who haven’t been, Pi-Rem is located in Chinatown and is only open on Friday and Saturday after 9pm. It’s run by two Intel dudes who are keeping their day jobs.
This basement bar features live and dj’ed electronica music. The interior is cheap industrial, though I do like the wink of using a computer tower as an end table. It’s just two rooms, one with the dj/band the other with a bar.
The dudes man the bar themselves, and only serve beer and wine. The beer list is very impressive. Maybe 30 or so Belgians, nearly all of the Canadian Unibroue beers, as well as an assortment from Germany, England and the US. All are bottled, no taps.
I was going to say that I think the beer list is a little timid, but the more I think about, the more I have got to give the guys props for opening up with so many good beers. It costs a lot to stock and store all of those lovelies. Maybe after they have been open for a few months, they will be able to afford to stock some seasonal beers or more obscure Belgians that I talk about in this article.
The beer prices are about that of Higgins (not as cheap as Blue Monk or Concordia). They serve no food other than the pretzels and rice crackers on the bar. It’s non-smoking. The crowd depends on the night, as I think most people are there for the music than the beer.
I think it’s a good addition to the neighborhood.
Suds Sister says
I mentioned Rodenbach beers in this article, but for the longest time they were kinda hard to find.
I was in Whole Paycheck today and they had the entire line-up. The Grand Cru, the cherry, all of ’em. And you know if W.F. has them, then everybody does.
Rodenbach was also on draft at Stumptown, downtown a few weeks ago.
This is a really great beer. It virtually defines the style. Seek it out and be rewarded!
The Rodenbach lineup just became available again this last month. The Alexander has (sort of) been replaced by the Redbach, a little 3.5% easy drinker. We picked up the whole lineup at La Bodega because we’ve had multiple requests – and because we’ve always had a thing for them. Now if only we can get the matching glassware…..
Suds Sister says
Thanks Chambolle, and happy anniversary.
Suds Sister says
I was at Higgins last night and noticed a few new beers on their list, most notably, Rodenbach on tap. It’s remarkably different on tap, softer and more balanced.
I also tasted a lambic that was new to me, Cherish Kreik Lambic from Brouwerij Van Steenberge. Its super-sweet nose belies the balanced tart/sweet flavor going on. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a puckering, sour beer, but it doens’t have the cloying, Jolly-Rancher sweetness of a Lindeman’s.
Also on the list was a new strange brew from Belgium’s Fantome, the Fantome Chocolat. I have seen a new crop of Fantome beers pop up at the bottle shops all over town, but not this one. It’s a saison brewed with cocoa and chili peppers. The flavors are very mild, and undectable in the nose. The chocolate is subtle note and the chili is not spicy at all, more like a aftertaste that lingers on the tongue.
In all my years going to Higgins I had never met their beer “sommelier”, but he was there last night. I chatted with him for just a few minutes before he ran off to help someone more important that me. I wanted to get an insight into the beers that they put on the list, but he gave us the brush off. Anyway, if you are reading this, Warren, please chat with us beer geeks next time. It humors us and makes us feel better about springing for that $80 bottle of Scaldis Prestige.
Suds Sister says
Belmont Station is devoting the next week or so to sour beers. The following is from their blog http://www.belmont-station.com/newbrewblog.html:
The Celebration of Sour aka “Puckerfest” will be running Monday July 16th through at least Sunday the 22nd. Given the number of kegs we have lined up (and the limited number of taps we have), I’m sure there will be a few stragglers on tap throughout the following week, but the bottled beer specials will only be in effect during the stated week.
We’re still working out some last minute details, but we have several things already on site, and a few more scheduled to arrive in the next couple days.
New Belgium – La Folie (Flemish sour)
New Belgium – Eric’s Lips of Faith (sour peach ale)
Issiquah Brewhouse (Rogue Ales) – Sour Frog (Arlen Harris’ last brew!)
Cantillon Fou Foune (apricot lambic)
Bj’s Jantzen Beach – 2005 Portlander Weisse (a sour German-style wheat beer)
Brouwerij Verhaeghe – Echt Kriekenbier (sour cherry ale)
There should be at least a couple other things, but I’d rather keep them under wraps until they hit our cooler. Better to under-promise and over-deliver, etc…
The details and sale prices are still being worked out but you can expect to see many of your favorites, and some things you’ve probably never heard of, on sale throughout the week; Lambics, Flemish Sours, Oud Bruins, Funky New World creations (like Jolly Pumpkin). If it’s sour, funky, or just plain unusual it’ll probably be on sale next week.
Stay tuned for more, and remember to pucker safely!