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.