I raised the pale, cloudy beer to my lips, ready to try something new. The beer was a Berliner Weisse. Most of Germany’s famous brews hail from Bavaria in the south, but this beer was once the most popular alcoholic drink in Prussia. As the heavily carbonated wheat beer hit my tongue my lips puckered up like I was sucking on a lime. The Berliner Weisse is a sour beer, with additional fermentation by lactobacillis bacteria. This produces a very tart drink. In its home country it is usually served with fruit syrup which helps offset the intense sour flavors. I didn’t have any of that, just a pint of amazingly sour beer to finish!
While my first encounter with a sour beer was rather shocking and not altogether pleasant, it did get me thinking about the various styles that fall under the “sour” umbrella. It also got me thinking about a local brewery that is at the forefront of American craft sours, Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project. I made it a point to head out to their tasting room in North Denver and give their range of barrel aged sour and wild beers a try.
Crooked Stave is located in The Source, which some have called a “hipster mall.” While long beards and tattoos are not required for admission, they do help you fit in! The reconfigured warehouse is home to Crooked Stave, a taco shop, butcher, bakery, liquor store and cheese shop, so you have some solid one stop shopping opportunities.
One thing quickly became clear as we worked our way through the tasting flights, these were not your usual beers. The most “normal” was probably the Hop Savant, an IPA that is fermented with 100% brettanomyces. Each version is dry hopped with a different hop variety, this batch with Amarillo. While most IPAs finish with lingering hop bitterness, this beer started hoppy and finished with some brett barnyard funk. It was a nice break from the actual sour beers.
Crooked Stave does a lot of Saisons, but with secondary bacterial fermentation to add more tart and sour flavors. I tried both the Vieille and the Surette Saisons, but what really stood out was the Vielle with Cranberry and Spice. This was Crooked Stave’s holiday beer this year, and was brewed with cinnamon and nutmeg. The cranberries added their own tartness to the mix, making for one really puckering brew. However, once my palate adjusted the subtle spice flavors came out, and I ended up enjoying it. Another saison was the Colorado Wild Sage. The sage added a very interesting spice character that helped augment the hops, I really liked it.
The most interesting and complex beer there was the newest Nightmare on Brett Street version. These beers have a dark base, Beer Advocate calls them Baltic Porters, and then each are aged in different casks. Previous versions have used port barrels, local whiskey barrels and more. This edition used red wine casks, and tasted amazing. The nose was dark fruit and plum, and the initial flavor was all sour. Once that faded though plum and spice and dry oak came through. There was a lot going on in those flavors.
I don’t think I would ever find a sour beer to be my “go to” beer, but they are fascinating beers to have on occasion. Complex, flavorful, and refreshing, they certainly have their place. What sour beers have you tried? Which do you like? Let me know in the comments!