Category Archives: beer education

Pucker up! An intro to “sour” beer styles

Whether you’re toasting the night to friends, drowning your single sorrows, or enjoying a romantic dinner with your loved one, pop open a deliciously tart brew or two this Valentines.

For a long time, I didn’t really like so called “sour” beers – the tartness was just too much. My husband, always the early adopter, loved them. I’d usually take a sip of his, just to try it, and after a couple years of sampling, my  palate has changed. I distinctly remember my first tart true love, Oro de Calabaza from Jolly Pumpkin. It beguiled me with it’s complex fruitiness and funk.

tart and tasty "sour" beer

Sour beers, also labeled “wild,” are made by intentionally inoculating the wort (sugary liquid that turns into beer) with wild yeast strains. These beers can be anywhere from slightly tart to massively sour.

Any beer can be made “sour” and there are various ways to accomplish the task. One way, often utilized by Belgian brewers is to “open ferment” in coolships, or large shallow vessels used to cool the wort with nothing but open night air. This technique allows wild organisms (bacteria and yeast) to settle on the wort and feast on the sugars. Other brewers will choose ahead of time what types of wild yeast they want to add to their beers and will simply add a culture of that bacteria or yeast to the fermentation vessel. Barrel aging can also add a sour characteristic to beer, as wood is the perfect breeding ground for wild organisms.

Different beer styles have varying degrees of tartness, and those that don’t fit within traditional style guidelines, are a mix bag. According to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines there are six recognized styles of sour beer: Berliner Weisse, Flander’s Red, Flander’s Brown (or Oud Bruin), Lambic, and Geuze (also spelled Gueuze), plus “Fruit Lambic”. Farmhouse saisons, depending on the yeast(s) used to ferment, may also offer a low to moderate tartness, but isn’t considered one of the classic “sour” styles.

Berliner Weisse’ heritage lies in Berlin, Germany as you might guess. Classically, it is a pale in color, low ABV beer made mostly of wheat that is tart and refreshing. It’s brewed with traditional ale yeast and lactobacillus, one of our “wild” friends responsible for the pucker. Very few German breweries produce the classic style anymore, but some American craft breweries have adopted it with their own interpretations, such as Dogfish Head ‘s Festina Peche, and Three Floyd’s Deesko. On a sour scale of 0 (not sour) to 10 (the most sour thing ever consumed) I’d rank Berliner Weisse a 2 – 3.

the beautiful Duchesse

Flander’s Red Ale is a very complex, oak aged beer, historically produced in West Flanders. It is typically a deep red or reddish brown color with flavors and aromas of dried fruits, cherries, and a pleasant sweet-tart balance. ABV is usually in the 5-7% range. The so called “Burgundy of Belgium,” this beer is the most wine-like of all beers. It would be a good introductory beer for the wine lover in your life. Rodenbach is perhaps the most notable producer, but other excellent versions exist. One of my favorites is the Duchesse de Bourgogne by Brouwerij Verhaeghe. In terms of tartness, I’d rank Flander’s Red as a 4 – 6 on the sour scale.

Flander’s Brown Ale, or Oud Bruin (indigenous to East Flanders) differs from Flander’s Red in that it is typically less sour, less fruit forward and not usually oak aged. The malt flavor comes through more in these more mellow beers. Flander’s Browns have a wider range of ABV’s and are usually darker in color than Flander’s Red. Flander’s Brown ales offer a more elegant and refined sour flavor perfect for the adventurous craft beer lover who wants to start off with a more demure sour flavor, a 3 – 4 on the sour scale.

Oude Gueuze Tilquin

Lambic is a wild, spontaneously fermented beer made only in the Senne Valley of Brussels, out of unmalted wheat, Pilsner malt and aged hops (the aged hops offer no flavor but are used for their preservative powers). They are golden in color and extremely complex. Lambics are typically uncarbonated, single year versions, where Geuze, is a blend of three different years of Lambic that is highly carbonated. They are both refreshingly tart with aromas of hay, horseblanket, and flavors of tart pear. Oud Geuze Tilquin is an excellent version of a traditional geuze – very complex and tart but with a balanced flavor, light body, and clean after taste. Lambic and geuze can offer substantial sour flavors, usually a 5-7 on the sour scale.

Fruited Lambics may be sweet and not very sour at all. The most common versions are kriek,  or cherry lambic, and framboise, or raspberry lambic. Lindeman’s Framboise, is a popular example (though not truly a traditional “sour” lambic – it pairs excellently with chocolate desserts).

American sour beers
American style wild ales and sours

American Craft Breweries have started to create their own versions of sour styles which are typically referred to as “wild ales,” or even labeled using names of the organisms they use. They range in their level of sourness from just barely tart from a touch of Brettanomyces to bracingly sour, just loaded with wild microrganisms like pediococcus and lactobacillus.

Locally in Cincinnati, the Quaff Bros and Rivertown lead the pack in terms of sour and barrel aged beers, though Fifty West has made some sours and now MadTree is testing the sour waters.

All of this is fantastic news – a well done sour beer is absolutely delicious. It can take years for the flavors to come together the way the brewers want, and can even require blending of different beers/years. A labor of love indeed.

Tips for “beer clean” glassware at home

If you saw my recent piece about beer glassware, then you’ll remember that “Beer Clean” is a technical term for glassware that undergoes a proper washing with the right detergent at the right temperatures. It makes for a beer that not only looks great, but tastes great too.

So, perfect! Now you know exactly how a bar should clean your beer glass (and know if they didn’t). But some of you asked: since I don’t have the requisite three tub sink or a high heat dishwasher specifically used for beer glasses, how do I get the best beer clean glassware at my own home??

Great question! I’m ashamed to say that I’ve honestly never thought much about what I was doing to clean my beer glasses beyond air-drying. So, I took to Google. Unfortunately I found that there is not much advice out there for those of us who want perfect beer clean glassware at our home. Abita has some tips on their website, and certainly many of the same rules apply at home that do for a bar/restaurant. For example, air drying really is key, and should be done on a dishrack or somewhere that air will circulate. For quite some time now, we’ve washed all of our glasses by hand with regular old dish soap and a sponge, and let them air dry upside down. We mainly do this because we don’t want the logos to come off, but after doing some research I also learned that dishwasher detergent will ruin head/lacing on beer. Continue reading Tips for “beer clean” glassware at home

Tasting and evaluating beer

I’ll be playing beer judge this Saturday at the NKY Homebrewer’s Association Moerlein Cup in Cincinnati. I’m excited, but a little nervous too since I’ll be judging for the first time. See, the only thing more intense than the Certified Cicerone exam is the Beer Judge Certification Program; Their tagline is “it’s tough, but fair” – these guys don’t mess around. I’m a Certified Cicerone, NOT a BJCP certified judge, so I’ll be paired up with one to guide me through the official, competition process. In preparation for my debut, I thought I’d freshen up by sharing a little of my knowledge about proper beer tasting and evaluation. They say that teaching is the best way of learning, right?


Proper evaluation, especially at the competition level, is no laughing matter. There are strict rules at play. Definitely take a look a the BJCP Style Guide before even thinking of evaluating beer, especially if its a competition.

Whether you are preparing for a competition, or hosting your friendly neighborhood beer nerds for a casual beer tasting, there are things you should remember. A full belly is your friend, don’t be drinking a bunch of beers on an empty stomach (but don’t eat a fiery burrito right before hand either). Your palette should be fresh, so no chewing gum or smoking, or even chapstick wearing – and ladies, it might be super cute, but no lipstick either. God knows I love a smokin’ hot red lip, but I’ll save that for date night. Also, ditch the perfume or cologne. Basically anything that may interfere with your sense of smell or taste is bad bad bad. If you’re doing a lot of sampling like at a competition, make sure plenty of water and unsalted pretzels are available to cleanse the palate.

Now that you’re prepped and ready, pour yourself a beer! (Of course, proper glassware can aid you in the best sensory experience.)

Continue reading Tasting and evaluating beer

On beer, women, and the continuing need for advocacy

Beer is in the midst of a cultural shift – the craft beer industry is booming and beer tastes are changing for men and women. Despite some growth in the female beer market, it remains that only 25 – 29 percent of American ladies like beer.

Historically, brewing was considered the responsibility of women. Back then, brewing was mainly done in the home. Starting in the 18th century, beer became a major business, and quickly became dominated by men. Despite gains, beer continues to be seen as a man’s drink and business. This fact is perhaps most evident by the way beer is marketed, aka the sexy pin-up or Bud Girl. Most often when beer is marketed to women it is low-calorie, “lite” beer. Even the craft beer industry is guilty of this kind of beer sexism. Take, “Tramp Stamp,” a Belgian IPA brewed by the venerable Clown Shoes out of Massachusetts. If the name and label isn’t telling, the description is even worse: “Like a stamp on a tramp, this beer is about not so subtle seduction. Soft but complex malts, Chambly yeast, sweet orange peel, Columbus, Amarillo, and Centennial hops have merged to create a bodacious Belgian IPA.” Not only is the beer clearly intended for men, this wreaks of “not so subtle” female objectification. This is only one of many examples.

Continue reading On beer, women, and the continuing need for advocacy

A clean, perfect glass for your beer.

There are certain things I really appreciate when it comes to drinking beer at my favorite local watering holes. In addition to the beer’s quality (a given), I relish a beer served in a clean, appropriate glass.

How do I know my glass is really clean, you ask? Well, several things. First of all, “beer clean” is actually an industry term used for a glass that has been cleaned in a very specific way. There are certain techniques and cleansers that must be used. The Brewer’s Association’s Draught Quality Manual goes into great detail on this subject (see page 46). If manually washing glasses, better beer bars should have a three tub sink, if not, they should use an automatic machine with the appropriate cleanser at the right temperatures. I won’t bore you with every detail, BUT the good news is, there are ways to tell if your glass is really clean.

Continue reading A clean, perfect glass for your beer.