Now, I know this won’t be a big surprise for most readers but sour beer is a thing. It’s actually been a thing for quite some time but now I suppose it’s getting enough traction that places like NPR affiliates can start running articles about how sour beers may be the next big thing.
I’m going to say they aren’t.
Now, I’m not the biggest fan of sour ales but I believe I can recognize a good beer when I taste one and it is absolutely true that there are some fantastic sour ales being made. The Cascade Ale house in Portland is well known for such beers-and I had one of the best beers I’ve ever had there. There are and will continue to be excellent ales made in this style.
But to me, there is a big difference between the IPA craze and any sour beer interest that may arise and in no small part because sour flavors are so dominant.
The thing about IPAs is that you can balance them in the nose and the body and the mouthfeel, a consideration of how much you hop and how often, and so forth. This is true for sour ales too but with a few caveats:
1) IPAs don’t have to be blended. Nearly every sour ale is blended with something else to get the flavors the brewer wants. This means more beers used to make one product. The drawback is that sour ales are more expensive.
2) Sour ales take longer to ferment. First the regular sugars have to be eaten and converted into alcohol, and then a sour strain of yeast or bacteria needs to be introduced in order eat any remaining sugars and ‘infect’ the beer and that process takes anywhere from months to years. Again, because of the time involved the expense goes up making a purchase a little more risky for neophytes.
3) Acidity. This is more personal but there is a point on the sour scale where beers become the equivalent of drinking vinegar. For me, that point is a lot lower than for others people but I doubt that I’m alone. One overly sour ale and I don’t want any more of it or, in some cases, anything else at all.
4) Replication. A few paragraphs before I said that I’d had one of the best beers I have ever drank at the Cascade Ale House. When I had it a few months later, it didn’t taste at all like the beer I’d had before, despite still being a good beer. I have never seen the beer I loved, nor tasted anything close to it since then. That doesn’t mean that one cannot try (and many do) to repeat the success of past beers but from what I understand, it is very difficult to reproduce the same sour ale, time after time, year in year out.
All of these things present some pretty relevant barriers keeping sour ales from becoming as popular and ubiquitous as IPAs. Nothing against the style: I hope brewers continue to develop and experiment with all styles but sours have a pretty steep hill to climb to attain a similar level of popularity as IPAs, which nearly every brewer in the NW feels they have to have.