Sour beers are a prime example of the "sounds weird, tastes awesome" phenomenon. It's no brewing mistake—these beers are intended to taste tart or acidic, a flavor they owe to the wild yeast or bacteria used in the brewing process. The science is complicated, but the results are some of the most interesting and refreshing beers on the market. And they're not just for beer geeks anymore; they're on tap and on shelves around the city, if you know where to look. With more Chicago-area breweries jumping on the sour bandwagon, now's the right time to try this sought-after style. Here are some expert tips for sour skeptics.
1. Try them with food.
At West Loop restaurant The Publican, beer director Michael McAvena has been blending his own lambic doux—a Belgian style of sour beer—for years, and he also presides over a beer list that spotlights other sour styles. Still, they're not always an easy sell. "The easiest way to present it is with food in a pairing that highlights the beer," McAvena said. "Flemish sours are amazing food beers because they are sweet and sour and they go with almost anything. I think the Flemish sours are a good way to start because they're not as jarring." McAvena recommends a Monk's Cafe Flemish sour ale with The Publican's charcuterie plate, or a lambic alongside oysters.
2. Seek out a deal.
At Binny's locations, assistant beer buyer Kyle Fornek has seen an increased interest in sour styles over the past few years, though he says it remains a niche market in part due to the beers' sometimes high prices. "There's not that many breweries that make [sour beers] and a lot of them are really expensive, too, around $20 to $30 a bottle," Fornek said. He cites Chicago-based brewery Pipeworks' three Berliner weisse beers as popular, as well as sour styles from Placentia, Calif.'s The Bruery. But if you're looking for a deal, he suggests Belgian bottles such as Brouwerij Bavik's Petrus Oud Bruin and Brouwerij Rodenbach's Grand Cru, which can retail for around $8-$10.
3. Flip your expectations.
Sours definitely don't taste like the pale ales, pilsners and lagers most people are used to. Matt Potts, CEO and brewmaster at Normal, Ill.'s Destihl Brewery, tries to prepare newcomers for his Saint Dekkera line of sour beers by explaining what they can expect before they sip. "I will often first ask if they like sour candy like Shock Tarts to prepare their palates before tasting our sours," Potts said. "I have known Miller drinkers that became hooked on sours in one night. It's hard to get a bigger and quicker conversion than that." He adds that wine drinkers often love his sours, too, because the Saint Dekkera beers have a refreshing, light body. And if the first taste is too surprising? "I'll generally ask people to try at least three sips of it in case the first sip is too shocking."
4. Know what style to look for.
Sour is a category of beer that includes many more specific styles (see sidebar). Each has its own flavors, from fruity sweetness to vinegar dryness. Sample a few until you find the one that suits your taste, then keep an eye out for it on menus and store shelves. "Saying a beer is a sour beer is similar to saying a beer is a hoppy beer. There is so much else that can go into it," said Tom Korder, a brewer at Penrose, a brewery that plans to open in west-suburban Geneva, Ill. in the late summer or early fall with a focus on sour beers. "That's why usually I clarify it even further: There's lambics, Berliner weisses, goses, all with their own characteristics."
The sour rainbow
Sour is an umbrella category that, according to beer judging criteria, includes the following styles:
Berliner weisse: A German style of pale wheat ale with tart flavors
Flanders red ale: An aged Belgian-style beer with red wine-like flavors
Flanders brown ale/Oud bruin: An aged Belgian-style brown ale with malty and fruity flavors
Straight (unblended) lambics: A less common style of lambics that is complex, sour and uncarbonated
Geuze: A balanced blend of one-, two- and three-year aged lambics with light carbonation
Fruit lambic: Often a blend of multi-year lambics, but with the addition of fruit such as cherries, peaches, raspberries or grapes
Keep an eye out for sour beers from two Chicago breweries. Off Color Brewing's gose, Troublesome, will be on tap soon at bars such as Map Room, Hopleaf and Big Star, while Goose Island's peach sour, Halia, will be released in October.