Rarely do our noses lead us astray. The perfume of ripe peaches is downright narcotic, beckoning us to bite the ambrosial flesh. The pungent odor of expired milk is repulsive, commanding us to send it swirling down a drain.
But occasionally a scent confuses our snouts, perplexes our taste buds. Durian fruit may smell like gym socks, but to many, its custardy taste recalls almonds. To some, herbaceous cilantro tastes of soap. Beer can be equally confusing. I’ve opened countless past-their-prime lagers and ales that are skunkier than Pepé Le Pew. But in a brewer’s practiced hands, sour ales can be as complex and sublime as the finest wine.
Category-wise, sour ale is a catchall, encompassing a laundry basket of beer styles. For centuries, sour ales have been equated with Belgian beers such as tart lambics and cherry-esque krieks. In recent years, American brewers, too, have begun earnestly channeling their inner mad scientists, dosing beers with wild, unruly yeasts and bacteria during fermentation or the aging process and sending them to slumber in wooden barrels.
Within the dark, wet wood, the microscopic critters get to work devouring sugars and carbohydrates. Over months, sometimes years, they tweak the suds’ DNA, slowly creating earthy, offbeat flavors of Band-Aids, stinky cheese, or perhaps musty horse blanket. Don’t gag. Sour ales reward drinkers who make it past the first offbeat sip with a refreshing tartness, Champagne crispness, and a pucker that’s as pleasurable as a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade.
These sour ales are not restrained by geography. In California, Russian River Brewing Co. uses Brettanomyces to craft terrific, Belgian-style sour brews including the sour-cherry-spiked brown ale Supplication and woodsy blonde ale Temptation. Up in Portland, Ore., Cascade Brewing relies on Lactobacillus (it transforms milk into yogurt) and freshly plucked fruit to create sour treats such as the sharp, potent Apricot Ale. And in Michigan, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales focuses exclusively on oak-aged ales fermented with wild yeasts, such as the tart, orange-kissed Calabaza Blanca and the earthy, wine-like La Roja.
Sour has never tasted so sweet. Give these 10 lip-scrunchers a taste.