How to Appreciate Sour Beers
A cicerone shares how New Belgium converted him to a sour beer lover
As a Level II Certified Cicerone and supposed "beer expert," I get weird looks from beer geeks when I admit I have never really enjoyed sour beers. To them, it makes me look like the beer equivalent of Peter Griffin. The truth is that I have struggled to fully appreciate sours and have long been seeking a way to better understand their complexity. Enter the six course New Belgium Creator’s Dinner at The Kitchen Denver.
This event featured beers from the Lips of Faith series paired with a specially created food dishes. Sours have a reputation as being amazing with food, so I thought this would be a perfect way to explore them. However, the really unique part of the evening was that the actual New Belgium brewer who conceived of and created each beer would present it and tell it’s story. I would have an actual guide what to look for as we sampled each beer! What better arena to experience a sour epiphany.
Chef de cuisine Dennis Phelps and his team put together a amazingly fresh and unique menu that was served family style, and knocked it out of the park with every pairing. But better than the food was seeing New Belgium CEO Kim Jordan, brewmaster Peter Bouckaert, wood beer specialists Eric and Lauren Salazar, assistant brewmaster Grady Hull, and Elysian Brewing owner Dick Cantwell all in the same room together, taking turns opening their hearts about their labors of love. Toasts were often emotional, as each one discussed their beer inspirations. It felt like a wedding — albeit a beer-soaked one.
With the creators leading the way, I can truly say I gained a new appreciation and fondness for sour beers. In the past, I’ve found them puckering and one dimensional. This was not the case with New Belgium’s offerings. All had the expected tart bite up front, but then revealed fantastic additional layers as they opened up. Kick, created by Jordan and Cantwell, contained hints of pumpkin and cranberry. Bouckhardt’s La Folie had tart cherry and wood notes and Eric Salazar’s Eric’s Ale tasted like white fruit, peaches and a bit of black pepper.
My favorite beer of the bunch was Lauren Salazar’s Le Terroir, a dry-hopped, barrel-aged sour that may have had the best aroma of any beer I’ve ever sniffed: full of apricots, tropical fruit, piney hops, and a musty tartness, with a flavor to match. Phelps’ pairing of duck confit with mushrooms and apricot mustard was also my favorite of the night — so much so that I can still recall the taste.
I didn’t know a single person in the room, but amid all of the hugging and warm sentiments exchanged between the New Belgium family, I felt right at home. Several of us had fun comparing notes as well as sharing oohs and aahs after each bite and sip. The acidity of sour beers tends to mellow out with fatty or rich food, and what you’re left with are lingering fruit, wood, and spice nuances that are fantastic. I’m sure the brewers were thrilled to see so many people enjoying the fruits of their hard labor.
The dinner converted me to the sour side, and not just because I got to see the soul of these beers through the brewers' eyes. They are challenging, complex, and demand attention, but are damn fine beers. Lauren Salazar called them "gifts from the past," as they are the culmination and continuation of centuries of ancient brewing traditions.
Every time I drink one of these beers I’ll think of the stories that were shared about the time, care, and patience it takes to brew sour beers well. I’ll think of the look on Eric Salazar’s face when he presented his ale like it was a piece of him. In fact, every time I drink any beer I’ll think about what it’s story might be and what kind of love and pride it might contain. I encourage everyone to do the same as beer becomes much more interesting this way. Thanks to New Belgium and The Kitchen for giving us all a glimpse, if just for a moment, of the soul of your treasures.
— Dan Imdieke, The Drink Nation
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