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17 - Sour Ale
17 - Sour Ale

Sour Ale beer styles

Are you a fan of sour ales? Do you know the various different ways to create sour beers? Read on to find out…

17 - Sour Ale
17 – Sour Ale

Previously we examined Belgian and French Ales, in this article we will cover BJCP Category 17, Sour Ales, which includes the following Beer Styles:

First we will cover the history of the category, then take a look at the specifications of each style highlighting the similarities and differences. We then sample commercial examples of each style.

History

17 - Sour Ale (additional examples)
17 – Sour Ale
(additional examples)

Berliner Weisse is a a regional specialty of Berlin within Germany that according to the BJCP was referred to by Napoleon’s troops in 1809 as “the Champagne of the North” due to its lively and elegant character.

Flanders Red Ale originates from West Flanders in Belgium whilst Flanders Brown Ale originates from East Flanders. Flanders Reds are usually aged in oak for about two years and get their sourness from the barrels. Flanders Browns are usually warm aged in stainless steel vessels.

Lambics are spontaneously fermented and are brewed in and around Brussels in Belgium. Traditionally a Cool Ship, which is a long and wide shallow copper vessel, is used to allow the inoculation of the beer as it cools in either the spring or fall/autumn time of year by opening flaps in the top of the brewery to allow the airborne bacteria to enter.

Overview

Sourness in beers is generally achieved by one of these main methods:

  • Creating a mash by steeping the grist (milled grains) with hot water and once it has cooled to around 100 deg F throw in a handful of grains that naturally have bacteria on them and let it sit for a period of time e.g. overnight or even a few days.
  • Similar to the previous method but instead of souring the mash the wort is brewed then allowed to cool to 100 deg F then either a handful of grains are added and allowed to sit or the beer can be naturally inoculated from airborne bacteria and/or yeasts.
  • Brewing a beer and fermenting it with a yeast appropriate to the particular style and then adding some kind of bacteria to change the character of the original beer. This effect is usually subtle and adds an additional dimension to the original beer brewed.
  • Brewing a beer with bacteria, or a cocktail of yeast(s) and bacteria, in the initial fermentation. This effect is usually more pronounced than the previous approach.

According to Jamil Zainasheff in his book, Brewing Classic Styles, these beers should be as follows:

  • Berliner Weisse – a very pale, sour, low-alcohol wheat ale.
  • Flanders Red Ale – a complex, sour ale with hints of red wine character.
  • Flander Brown Ale – also known as a Flanders Oud Bruin and is a malty, fruity brown ale with touches of sourness and age.
  • Straight Lambic – a complex sour/acidic, pale, wheat-based ale that is unblended.
  • Gueuze – a complex, pleasantly sour/acidic, balanced, pale, wheat-based ale.
  • Fruit Lambic – a complex, fruity, pleasantly sour/acidic, balanced, pale, wheat-based ale fermented by a variety of Belgium microbiota.

The following tables* show how the 6 styles of Sour Ales vary:

Characteristic Berliner Weisse Flanders Red Ale Flanders Brown Ale
Original Gravity: 1.028 – 1.032 1.048 – 1.057 1.040 – 1.074
Final Gravity: 1.003 – 1.006 1.002 – 1.012 1.008 – 1.012
ABV (alcohol %): 2.8 – 3.8 4.6 – 6.5 4.0 – 8.0
IBU’s (bitterness): 3 – 8 10 – 25 20 – 25
SRM (color): 2 – 3 10 – 16 15 – 22

 

Characteristic Straight Lambic Gueuze Fruit Lambic
Original Gravity: 1.040 – 1.054 1.040 – 1.060 1.040 – 1.060
Final Gravity: 1.001 – 1.010 1.000 – 1.006 1.000 – 1.010
ABV (alcohol %): 5.0 – 6.5 5.0 – 8.0 5.0 – 7.0
IBU’s (bitterness): 0 – 10 0 – 10 0 – 10
SRM (color): 3 – 7 3 – 7 3 – 7
(varies with fruit)

The above tables show that Berliner Weisse has the lowest alcohol content and starting gravity of all the Sour Ale styles. The Flanders Red & Brown Ales have the highest bitterness levels and are the darker beers in this category.

All three Lambics (Straight, Gueuze & Fruit) have similar starting and finishing gravities, alcohol contents, bitterness, and color. The Gueuze can have the overall highest alcohol content and together with the Berliner Weisse they are all very light in color.

Unusually the Lambics can have zero IBUs which is due to the use of aged hops that have fading alpha acid levels over time. These aged hops do still have preservative properties and the acidity of these beers balances out the malt.

In the following sections we will look in more detail at each of the above Beer Styles.

Berliner Weisse

Full Sail Berliner Weiss
Full Sail Berliner Weiss

Commercial examples of this style include Schultheiss Berliner Weisse, Berliner Kindl Weisse, Nodding Head Berliner Weisse, Weihenstephan 1809 (unusual in its 5% ABV), Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse, Southampton Berliner Weisse, Bethlehem Berliner Weisse, and Three Floyds Deesko. We decided to sample Full Sail Berliner Weiss and New Belgium Yuzu.

Full Sail Berliner Weiss has the following characteristics which are slightly high for both alcohol strength and bitterness:

  • ABV = 4.0% (max 3.8% for style)
  • IBU’s = 9 (max 8 for style)

This beer is from Full Sail’s Brewer’s Share series and is light golden in color with a white head that stay around a bit. A slightly fruity aroma with a sour and tart flavor. Moderate carbonation and a thin, crisp mouth-feel followed by a clean finish.

New Belgium Yuzu has the following characteristics which is too high for alcohol content but within style for bitterness:

  • ABV = 8.0% (max 3.8% for style)
  • IBU’s = 6
New Belgium Yuzu
New Belgium Yuzu

This beer is from New Belgium’s Lips Of Faith series and is light golden in color with a white head that goes. A fruity aroma. Flavor is sweetish, creamy and fruity with only a slight sourness. Low carbonation with a slight oily mouth-feel.

Typical ingredients used when brewing this style include the following according to the BJCP Style Guidelines:

  • Wheat malt content is typically 50% of the grist (as with all German wheat beers) with the remainder being Pilsner malt.
  • A symbiotic fermentation with top-fermenting yeast and Lactobacillus delbruckii provides the sharp sourness, which may be enhanced by blending of beers of different ages during fermentation and by extended cool aging.
  • Hop bitterness is extremely low.
  • A single decoction mash with mash hopping is traditional.

Flanders Red Ale

Commercial examples of this style include Rodenbach Grand Cru, Bellegems Bruin, Duchesse de Bourgogne, New Belgium La Folie, Petrus Oud Bruin, Southampton Flanders Red Ale, Verhaege Vichtenaar, Monk’s Cafe Flanders Red Ale, New Glarus Enigma, Panil Barriquée, and Mestreechs Aajt. We decided to sample Rodenbach Klassiek.

Rodenbach Klassiek
Rodenbach Klassiek

Rodenbach Klassiek has the following characteristic which is within style for alcohol content:

  • ABV = 5.2%

This beer is deep red in color with a tan head that stays for a while. A slight sour with tart cherries aroma. More of a tart cherries than sour flavor. Moderate carbonation with a clean mouth-feel and finish.

Typical ingredients used when brewing this style include the following according to the BJCP Style Guidelines:

  • A base of Vienna and/or Munich malted barley, light to medium Cara-malts, and a small amount of Special B are used with up to 20% maize.
  • Low alpha acid continental hops are commonly used.
  • Saccharomyces, Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces (and acetobacter) contribute to the fermentation and eventual flavor.

Flanders Brown Ale/Oud Bruin

Alfa Oud Bruin
Alfa Oud Bruin

Commercial examples of this style include Liefman’s Odnar, Liefman’s Oud Bruin, Ichtegem Old Brown, and Riva Vondel. We decided to sample Alfa Oud Bruin, Bourgogne de Flandres and Liefman’s Goudenband.

Alfa Oud Bruin has the following characteristic which is too low for alcohol content:

  • ABV = 2.5% (min 4.0% for style)

This beer is Red in color with a tan head that lasts a while. A slight roast aroma with a sweet and sugary flavor. Moderate carbonation with a lingering sweetness. Not sure which beer style this is actually meant to be as it does not taste like a Flanders Oud Bruin due to the lack of sourness.

Bourgogne de Flandres
Bourgogne de Flandres

Bourgogne de Flandres has the following characteristic which is within style for alcohol content:

  • ABV = 5.0%

This beer is deep red in color with a tan head that does not last very long. A slightly sour with tart cherries aroma. A fruit tartness in flavor that lingers. Above average carbonation.

Liefman’s Goudenband has the following characteristic which is at the top of the style for alcohol content:

  • ABV = 8.0%
Liefman's Goudenband
Liefman’s Goudenband

This beer is brown in color with a low head. A strong tart aroma and a very tart flavor with lingering acidity accompanied by an alcohol burn. Moderate level of carbonation.

Typical ingredients used when brewing this style include the following according to the BJCP Style Guidelines:

  • A base of Pils malted barley with judicious amounts of dark Cara malts and a tiny bit of Black or Roast malt.
  • Often includes maize.
  • Low alpha acid continental hops are typical.
  • Saccharomyces and Lactobacillus (and acetobacter) contribute to the fermentation and eventual flavor. Lactobacillus reacts poorly to elevated levels of alcohol.A sour mash or acidulated malt may also be used to develop the sour character without introducing Lactobacillus.
  • Water high in carbonates is typical of its home region and will buffer the acidity of darker malts and the lactic sourness. Magnesium in the water accentuates the sourness.

Straight (Unblended) Lambic

Commercial examples of this style are difficult to obtain as according to the BJCP Guidelines the only bottled version readily available is Cantillon Grand Cru Bruocsella of whatever single batch vintage the brewer deems worthy to bottle. De Cam sometimes bottles their very old (5 years) lambic. In and around Brussels there are specialty cafes that often have draught lambics from traditional brewers or blenders such as Boon, De Cam, Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, Lindemans, Timmermans and Girardin. We were therefore unfortunately unable to obtain an example of this style for the purposes of this article.

Typical ingredients used when brewing this style include the following according to the BJCP Style Guidelines:

  • Unmalted wheat (30-40%), Pilsner malted barley and aged (surannes) hops (3 years) are used. The aged hops are used more for preservative effects than bitterness, and makes actual bitterness levels difficult to estimate.
  • Traditionally these beers are spontaneously fermented with naturally-occurring yeast and bacteria in predominately oaken barrels.
  • Home-brewed and craft-brewed versions are more typically made with pure cultures of yeast commonly including Saccharomyces, Brettanomyces, Pediococcus and Lactobacillus in an attempt to recreate the effects of the dominant microbiota of Brussels and the surrounding countryside of the Senne River valley. Cultures taken from bottles are sometimes used but there is no simple way of knowing what organisms are still viable.

Gueuze

Commercial examples of this style include Boon Oude Gueuze, Boon Oude Gueuze Mariage Parfait, De Cam Gueuze, De Cam/Drei Fonteinen Millennium Gueuze, Cantillon Gueuze, Hanssens Oude Gueuze, Lindemans Gueuze Cuvée René, Girardin Gueuze (Black Label), Mort Subite (Unfiltered) Gueuze, and Oud Beersel Oude Gueuze. We decided to sample Drie Fonteinen Oud Gueuze.

Drie Fonteinen Oude Geuze
Drie Fonteinen Oude Geuze

Drie Fonteinen Oud Gueuze has the following characteristic which is within style for alcohol content:

  • ABV = 6.0%

This beer is cloudy golden in color with a lively white head that keeps being generated due to the high level of carbonation. A tropical fruits aroma with a sour fruit flavor that is sharp and accompanied by passion fruit and grapefruit. A high level of carbonation.

Typical ingredients used when brewing this style include the following according to the BJCP Style Guidelines:

  • Unmalted wheat (30-40%), Pilsner malted barley and aged (surannes) hops (3 years) are used. The aged hops are used more for preservative effects than bitterness, and makes actual bitterness levels difficult to estimate.
  • Traditionally these beers are spontaneously fermented with naturally-occurring yeast and bacteria in predominately oaken barrels.
  • Home-brewed and craft-brewed versions are more typically made with pure cultures of yeast commonly including Saccharomyces, Brettanomyces, Pediococcus and Lactobacillus in an attempt to recreate the effects of the dominant microbiota of Brussels and the surrounding countryside of the Senne River valley. Cultures taken from bottles are sometimes used but there is no simple way of knowing what organisms are still viable.

Fruit Lambic

Belle-Vue Kriek
Belle-Vue Kriek

Commercial examples of this style include Boon Framboise Marriage Parfait, Boon Kriek Mariage Parfait, Boon Oude Kriek, Cantillon Fou’ Foune (apricot), Cantillon Kriek, Cantillon Lou Pepe Kriek, Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise, Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus, Cantillon St. Lamvinus (merlot grape), Cantillon Vigneronne (Muscat grape), De Cam Oude Kriek, Drie Fonteinen Kriek, Girardin Kriek, Hanssens Oude Kriek, Oud Beersel Kriek, and Mort Subite Kriek. We decided to sample Belle-Vue Kriek and Framboise Boon.

Belle-Vue Kriek has the following characteristic which is towards the bottom of the style for alcohol content:

  • ABV = 5.1%

This beer is dark pink in color with a pink head that lasts. A cherry aroma and flavor which is a bit dry. Moderate carbonation and a clean dry finish.

Framboise Boon has the following characteristic which is within style for alcohol content:

  • ABV = 5.5%
Framboise Boon
Framboise Boon

This beer is red in color with a fine white head that lasts due to the high carbonation. A raspberry aroma and a dry tart fruit flavor. A high level of carbonation with a clean mouth-feel and finish.

Typical ingredients used when brewing this style include the following according to the BJCP Style Guidelines:

  • Unmalted wheat (30-40%), Pilsner malted barley and aged (surannes) hops (3 years) are used. The aged hops are used more for preservative effects than bitterness, and makes actual bitterness levels difficult to estimate.
  • Traditional products use 10-30% fruit (25%, if cherry). Fruits traditionally used include tart cherries (with pits), raspberries or Muscat grapes. More recent examples include peaches, apricots or merlot grapes. Tart or acidic fruit is traditionally used as its purpose is not to sweeten the beer but to add a new dimension.
  • Traditionally these beers are spontaneously fermented with naturally-occurring yeast and bacteria in predominately oaken barrels.
  • Home-brewed and craft-brewed versions are more typically made with pure cultures of yeast commonly including Saccharomyces, Brettanomyces, Pediococcus and Lactobacillus in an attempt to recreate the effects of the dominant microbiota of Brussels and the surrounding countryside of the Senne River valley. Cultures taken from bottles are sometimes used but there is no simple way of knowing what organisms are still viable.

What next?

Our next article will look at BJCP Category 18, ‘Belgian Strong Ale‘, where we will examine the five styles making up this category.

If you have any questions or comments about this article, please do not hesitate to contribute to the discussion below.

* Beer Styles’ data is courtesy of BJCP.org.

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