Increasingly, craft beer brewers and patrons have turned toward lagers – pale, dark, Pilsners, Helles, bocks – as the breezy de facto alternative to the God Emperor of the craft industry, the IPA. People want options, and they want beer they can recognize immediately as “beer” as codified by America’s relationship with Big Beer dating back decades. Mostly they want to sit down with their pals over drinks and not get sloshed before making a dent in their second round. Lagers fit that bill. All hail the lager.
But now, sour ales would like a word.
Sours, unlike, say, amber ales or brown ales, haven’t fallen out of vogue; the craft beer world hasn’t forgotten about the puckering pleasures of the style and its associated sub-styles. But trends have a way of erasing whatever else isn’t on the same trajectory as the popular kids in class, and so sours have been shunted somewhat to the margins of craft at a moment when an option feels necessary, after the IPAs and lagers. There’s an argument out there that sour ale done well is more complex, more nuanced, and requires more finesse than competing styles. There’s another argument one might make that the hardest part of brewing sours is selling them, because the word “sour” is self-defeating. It’s hard, for some, to get excited about a beer whose name is synonymous with unpleasantry.
The truth about sours is that they’re entirely pleasant, and though individual taste varies, the same statement about sours can be made about beer writ large: There is a sour out there for everyone. Think about pouring one of these sours if you’re in need of a beach beer that hasn’t been excessively hopped or necessarily cold conditioned.
Faded: Brockton Beer Company, Brockton, MA
Brockton, Massachusetts, is nothing if not diverse. Brockton Beer Company reflects that diversity through the team running the joint, but embraces that diversity through their commitment to honor the many different cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds that make up the whole of their city. Case in point: BBC is celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month by reintroducing their beloved fruit sour, Faded, with the addition of calamansi, a Phillipines citrus hybrid best thought of as a Venn diagram of lemon, lime, and mandarin orange. Like its cousins, calamansi is highly acidic, but with its pH level comes additional floral character absent in lemons and limes; this gives the 2023 Faded run a blossomy quality on the nose, a fresh and uplifting precursor to the actual beer, where acidity is mellowed out by the sweetness of the accompanying blood orange and mango. Crack a can to toast May, but save the rest for your beach days and barbecues.
Key Lime Pie: WeldWerks Brewing Co., Greely, CO
Adding “pastry” to “sour” puts five extra pounds on a style typically characterized by lightness, and summertime is the last time anyone needs an extra five pounds. Someone on the WeldWerks crew clearly has a killer low-fat key lime pie recipe, then, because the Colorado outfit’s take on this well-tread marriage of “sweet” and “suds” exceeds the brief. The 5.1% ABV keeps the beer just on the “easy there” side of “crushable”; the attention paid to the flavor profile brings the full experience of the Florida-born dessert to the palate, right down to the part that’s hardest to fake: that irresistible graham cracker crust. Skip the pie. Drink the beer..
Tart ‘n Juicy Sour IPA: Epic Brewing Company, Salt Lake City, UT
Like with any other product, the threat of decision paralysis in craft brewing is real; the 1990s craft beer boom, which led to the 2000s craft beer boom, which led to the 2010s craft beer boom, has yielded unto consumers an embarrassment of riches and more choice than most taprooms can fit under one roof. What do you do when you heart wants a sour but your taste buds want an IPA? You hope that the nearest brewery has a sour IPA as good as Epic Brewing’s Tart ‘n Juicy, that’s what, and barring that, you hope that these Mormon State brewers deliver to your zip code. “Sour” and “IPA,” like “clean” and “coal,” “nuclear” and “medicine,” or “honest” and “golfer,” are two words that don’t belong together, and yet – and yet! – Tart ‘n Juicy justifies this hybridized style’s existence almost singlehandedly; all the tart fruitiness expected of a sour blend seamlessly with the gravity, the bite, of an IPA, with undertones of salt that push the beer toward gose territory. It isn’t gose, of course; it’s a sterling synthesis of two contrasting styles, balanced and delicious, and packed into a slim 4.5 percent ABV body.
Squeezebox: Urban Artifact, Cincinnati, OH
Now for everyone’s favorite game: Category distinctions. You may read Urban Artifact’s website and wonder what, exactly, defines a “Midwest Fruit Tart” ale. The brewery’s CBO, Brett Kollmann Baker, has you covered. The features separating their Midwest Fruit Tart ales from standard sours and sour sub-styles matter, and have meaning, and Baker’s post is well worth diving into, not only for the primer on how Urban Artifact landed on this appellation, but for a broader background on sour beer; at the same time, we can simply shuffle these beers under the big pungent umbrella that covers all sours, and enjoy them for what they are rather than nerd out over what they aren’t, and what sets them apart in the tradition of sour beer. Urban Artifact brews a bunch of different Midwest Fruit Tart ales, and seemingly has one for all occasions. With summer around the bend, Squeezebox feels most appropriate, a strawberry jamboree worth enjoying solo and tang to cut through your fattiest summertime dishes. (Just mind that deceptive 8.6 percent ABV.)
Coolship Resurgam: Allagash Brewing Company, Portland, ME
Two words come to mind for describing Coolship Resurgam: “The greatest.” If you’re more the humble type, “the hardest” works, too. Allagash, indisputably a massive influence on American craft brewing since making their first batch of Allagash White back in 1995, didn’t have to go as hard as they did to make Coolship Resurgam, but they did, and we should all be thankful. This is an old-school beer, in the sense that the techniques used to brew it date back to late 1700s Belgium, though “leaving your beer to the elements’ mercies” isn’t a “technique” so much as “a massive environmental roll of the dice.” Still: That’s where we get wild ale from. Coolship Resurgam is likelier to induce wildness, at 6.3 percent ABV, but the brew is a thinker; brimming with dried stone fruit notes (think apricot) plus George Clinton levels of funk, the beer steps right up to the edge of contradicting its flavors, right before they find their harmony. If you want the full lambic experience, book a trip to Pajottenland. Alternately, head to Portland, and to Allagash, for the next best thing.