Like kombucha, pickles, and orange wine, the recent trendiness of sour beer exemplifies a fascination with fermentation and all things old-world, as well as that badge of cool the city’s epicurean elites attach to all “acquired tastes.” Sour beers originate in several regional traditions in Belgium and Germany, in which wild yeasts, in particular Brettanomyces and sometimes native bacteria, are added before fermentation. The result is a tart, high-acid beer with a variable degree of sourness and barnyard funk. Each place has “its own naturally occurring cocktail” of flora, which is akin to terroir in wine, says beer expert Rich Higgins.
To put it simply, sours aren’t for everyone. They’re often food-friendly because of the acid factor. “But there are so many different ways that a beer can be sour, and this leads to a lot of debate about what’s good,” says former Bar Tartine beverage director Vinny Eng. Some, particularly Belgian gueuzes, are wickedly puckery and prized among beer geeks for their aromas of sweat socks and “wet dog in a phone booth”—neither of which you might want on your dinner table. So, for newbies to this genre, it’s all about balance.
A Sour Beer Primer:
Rodenbach Grand Cru
A rounded and easy-drinking example of the Flemish red style of sour beer. Find it at Toronado (Lower Haight) or The Monk's Kettle (Mission).
Brouwerij Verhaeghe Vichte duchesse De Bourgogne
An excellent beginner’s sour with cherry and balsamic notes. Find it at Bar Tartine (Mission), City Beer Store (SoMa)
Briem ‘1809’ Berliner Weisse
Bright and yogurt-tart. Find it at Bar Tartine
Bayerischer Bahnhof Leipziger Gose
Refreshing, lemony, barely sour, with a bit of salinity. Find it at The Abbot’s Cellar (Mission)
Russian River Brewing Company supplication
Aged with cherries in pinot barrels, from the progenitor of the sour beer trend stateside. Find it at the Russian River Brewing Company (Santa Rosa), The Trappist (Oakland), Healthy Spirits (Castro)
sour in the rye
A ripe and ultra-tangy option from this Orange County brewery, founded by Patrick Rue, which specializes in Belgian-style beers and makes several sours. Find it at Ales Unlimited (Pacific Heights)