If you’ve browsed the selection at your local tap or beer shop recently, you may have noticed a few newcomers amidst the dizzying array of IPAs. Sour-style beers have been around for centuries, but once considered niche, they’re growing in popularity and becoming a staple of brewery lineups. Refreshing, decidedly tart, and sometimes funky, sours bridge the gap between bitter-loving IPA devotees, casual wheat beer drinkers, and nearly every beer fan in between.
Humans have been brewing beer for a long time and “it’s likely that most beers in brewing history were, indeed, sour because acid-producing bacteria exists everywhere¹.” Only with science and innovation were beers able to be brewed to not be sour. “A sour beer is one that has deliberately been brewed to achieve high levels of acidity. This elevated acidity delivers a predominantly sour flavor to the beer as opposed to the bitter or sweet flavors found in standard ales and lagers².” Certain bacteria are considered “beer spoilage organisms,” but sour beer producers use them to achieve a sour taste without spoiling the result.
“Sour” is more a broad category with a variety of styles falling within it, rather than a style itself, though it’s just as common to see “sour” in the name of the beer as any other style. “Oud bruin, an aged Belgian brown ale; Flanders red ale, an aged Belgian ale; lambic, a Belgian ale in which fermentation occurs spontaneously through ambient yeasts; Berliner weisse, a tart wheat beer from Berlin, and gose, a tart wheat beer from eastern Germany flavored with spices and salt³” all fit into the sour category, and you’ll see many of them on beer menus today.
American wild ale is also an increasingly common variety that is similar to lambic or Oud bruin, but with the presence of a wild yeast like Brettanomyces (“Brett”). “Be it through barrel-aging, open air fermentation, tossing in of fruit, or by inoculating with wild yeasts and bacteria, brewers are pushing into this untamed world as never before⁴.” The acidity in sour beers comes from certain strains of lactic acid-producing bacteria so not all beer containing Brett is a sour beer, but its presence can contribute a distinct flavor and aroma characteristic of sour beer.
All of these styles can vary drastically in flavor, color, and ABV, but they share a tart, pungent, and sharply acidic nature that is common across the category.
Cascade Brewing started 1998 in Portland, Oregon brewing traditional ales, but shifted to producing almost exclusively sours a few years later. Speaking via phone, Head Brewmaster Kevin Martin credits Cascade’s dominance in the sour category to founder Art Larrance and former head brewmaster Ron Gansberg. “They identified the untapped niche and then made the investment in to it. At the time, Cascade was doing standard beer and it was hard to stand out. They decided that sour beer was one area that no one was really doing anything with.”
Cascade’s sours were immediately popular, but Martin says it was a slow climb to where they are now. “We didn’t become a sour powerhouse overnight. Initially we just released 1-2 sour beers out of 10 taps. There was apparent interest and then we won some awards.” Because the process of making sour beers can cause contamination (especially with open-air fermentation), Cascade opened a sour production facility in 2010 and “that’s the point where we went to full-on dedicated sour program,” Martin says. “It used to be that we made 10% sour beers to 90% non-sours, and now it’s 90% sour and 10% non-sour. By 2014-2105, we were all-in on sours.”
Cascade focuses on what they call Northwest-style sour. “It’s our focus on clean and fruit-forward sours and we’re not as reliant on funk. Our beers showcase the fruit and bounty of Oregon,” says Martin. Part of what’s so exciting about sours is that there are so many wildly different options. “Everyone — brewer and consumer — has to find their own identity and what they like on that spectrum of sour and funky-sour beers,” he says.
Crooked Stave out of Denver takes a more data-driven approach to their beer, with the basis of the company coming out of founder Chad Yakobson’s master’s thesis, The Brettanomyces Project. Founded in 2013, when, according to Yakobson, “You could count on two hands breweries that were making exclusively sour beers.” Crooked Stave focuses mostly on beers brewed with the wild yeast Brettanomyces, a yeast that used to be considered a contaminant and often avoided in the production process. Speaking with Yakobson, he said he often gets the same question when discussing why he doesn’t try and avoid the presence of Brett: “Why would you want to put something in a beer that we worked so hard to keep out?”
Walking around the Crooked Stave brewery is like a tour through a winery-lab hybrid. Many of Crooked Stave’s sours are fermented in giant oak foeders or retired wine casks, and a visit to the brewery could be mistaken for a vineyard. In other sections of the brewery there are beakers and lab goggles to dive deep into different yeast strains, while steel pipes run along the ceiling to transfer clean, brett, and sour beers to the right place without cross-contamination; all a nod to the fact that Crooked Stave was born out of Yakobson’s master’s thesis.
“Sour beers are really unique and creative,” says Yakobson, which is evident in the wide range of sours that Crooked Stave produces. Relying heavily on fruit in the fermentation process, Crooked Stave’s lineup includes the popular Sour Rosé, a bubbly and bright sour that is fermented with raspberries and blueberries. It’s easy drinking and an excellent introduction into wild, fruit-forward sour beers. The Petit Sour series are also fermented with local fruit and primarily fermented with a mixed culture of wild yeast, are released year-round depending on what’s in season. Other sour varieties are spontaneously fermented by the wild yeasts and bacteria that hang out in the brewery, resulting in beer that’s uniquely specific to Crooked Stave.
Brooklyn-based Grimm has been producing innovative and exciting sours since 2013, but due to previously complex laws in New York State, Grimm was a “nomadic brewery” until 2018, when they opened a dedicated home for Grimm. They developed recipes in their Brooklyn kitchen and brewed wherever they could find a home, making limited runs of many types of beers.
“Five years ago, I shied away from putting gose on our beer labels because nobody knew what that was,” Co-founder Lauren Grimm tells me, “Now, I hear people saying ‘I love gose.’” Grimm brews a lot of different varieties of beer and they are most known for their wide range of sour beers. Of their 100+ varieties that they’ve brewed, over half fall under the sour category. From dry-hopped sour, to gose, to Berliner weisse, to barrel-aged golden sours, Grimm is consistently pushing the boundaries of sour beers. “It’s an evolving process...everything we do is in a state of flux,” Lauren says, “The way we brew is to brew many one-off beers which allow us to have a certain amount of agility and to shift, change, and refine our process and ingredients.”
“We maybe have 3 main recipes that we are always tweaking,” she says. Some varieties, like the Berliner Weiss are “a shorter turn-around and are less complex because they’re not aged.” Others, like those that are barrel-aged “are much more complex and take years to make,” and in their new brewery, they have the space to experiment with beers that take longer to develop.
These longer-developing beers also tend to cost more, but in a market that is becoming more interested in sours “they want to experiment with different tastes and are willing to pay more for new and exciting options.” There are a handful breweries like Grimm that focus mostly or exclusively on sours, but many breweries are starting to develop their own sours which “will push sour producers in the US to make better and better sour beers,” Lauren said.
Breweries like Cascade, Crooked Stave, and Grimm are leading the charge in breweries that focus largely on sours, and the data shows that it’s a rapidly growing category. According to the Brewers Association, just 45,000 cases of sour beer were sold in the US in 2015, and by 2016 over 245,000 cases were sold⁵. In a recent survey conducted by Nielsen, just 4% of men surveyed consider sour ale/American wild ale as their favorite type of beer, while 7% of women consider it their favorite, meaning women are 75% more likely to list sours as their favorite type of beer⁶.Those are small numbers, but there was a point where essentially no one listed sours as their favorite. In the same period, Nielsen found that the sour category generated annual sales growth of 73%, which was the second higher category.
Similarly, name and term recognition are helping the rise in sour popularity. A 2017 Nielsen analysis showed that “Sour styles have bloomed, with an additional 236 sour-labeled products coming to market, helping boost sales by a CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of 61.7%.” In 2013 there were only 33 brands with “sour” as a key label trait, in 2017, there were nearly 270⁷”
As the sour category grows in popularity, it can still seem like a polarizing style among some beer drinkers. In a small sample size of my beer-drinking friends, I’ve got a few mega fans like me, and even more that are warming to the category as they venture out from their wheat beers. Only a few passionately dislike the sours they’ve had, although given the variety of characters that a sour can take, I’d bet with more experimentation they’d find something they enjoy.
Sour beers are still a tiny dot in a world heavily saturated with hop-heavy IPAs, and though it sometimes feels like sours are everywhere, there’s a ton of growth still yet to happen to make the category as prominent as other major styles. But as breweries start dialing back on intense bitterness and heading more towards drinkable and funky brews, sours will find themselves going beyond just niche and positioned to become a major beer category.
Editor’s note: There are hundreds of craft breweries in the United States and many of them are dabbling in sours. Cascade, Grimm, and Crooked Stave are well-known sour breweries, but there are many other options that we didn’t mention. Russian River is known for their barrel-aged sours, and Anderson Valley and Westbrook have delicious lineups of goses. Other breweries with excellent sours include Avery, Oxbow Brewing, Odell, Allagash, and KCBC. A quick internet search will find many more options as well. Get out there and try as many as you can!
Brianna is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Hook & Blade. She is based out of New York City where she enjoys exploring the city, trying new foods, and people watching. She works as the Global Email Marketing Manager at Global Citizen, and tries to travel as much as she can.