Why the hell do you want to drink a Belgian Sour?
A valid question many people are afraid to ask when they taste a classic or new-style Sour beer for the first time. First of all let’s be very clear. A Sour is not every beer which tastes sour, tart or acidic. In many cases this not intentionally and is caused by a problem in making the beer, storing or handling the beer or just because the beers hasn’t aged well or is way past it best before or use by date. The beers I’m talking about were brewed with the clear intent to add this acidity, through a variety of brewing techniques and purposes. Sours are probably the oldest way of making beer by interfering as least as possible in the fermentation of the beer. Instead of pitching yeast to the sugar rich wort in sterile vacuums of the fermentation tanks, avoiding any contact with air as this contains bacteria which can spoil the beer, brewers of the Sours have embraced this gift of nature for centuries, which used to be known “as god is good”. In the old days of brewing was considered something magical, with a divine intervention which could change hot water and grains into alcohol and at the same time something which was refreshing, nutritional and tasted good as well. Never wondered why you often see a star or should I say a pentagram in the brewery or brand logos of many beers around the world? Da Vinci Code or what?
The best way for me to explain how this works is by referring to something you have done yourself. At one point in your life you have left the milk outside or too long in your fridge so it went bad and guess what it tasted sour. When you opened the milk you allowed it to be in contact with air containing wild yeasts and bacteria which started the natural process of fermentation. Don’t wait for your milk to turn into alcohol as it needs more than some floating bits in the air to do this, but what I want you to take away from this is the fact that this process delivers the sourness and acidity. Sour beers however don’t taste like milk that has gone bad, but undergo a similar process of wild or spontaneous fermentation.
As with everything in brewing there is functionality in the madness and in many cases it was created by necessity, which we all know is the mother of all inventions. Besides the fact that the brewers didn’t have the luxury of refrigeration, there was another important reason to let their beers go sour. Look at it this way. In order to preserve their beers before the use or lack of accessibility to hops, which we all know are used as a natural preservative besides enhancing the sensory characteristics of the beer, the brewers used the technique of the Sours to pickle and therefore extend the shelf life of the beer. After the boiling the hot wort would be cooled down not in a closed tank, but in open fermenters or copper baths to allow the pro-biotics (for those of you who freak out by the mentioning of bacteria) to kick start the wild or spontaneous fermentation, which could and still only can be done in colder climates. Another way is to allow the beer you just have made to be in contact with air during the maturation to allow exactly the same process to take place. This is where the Sours differ from each other.
A Lambiek beer, from the region of Brussels in the Zenne valley, is produced by 100% open or spontaneous fermented wort made from a mixture of malted barley and un-malted wheat, matured in oak casks over time to create different vintages which can either be drunk on their own or blended to create other Lambiek beers like Geuze.
A Flemish Red, from the region of West Flanders, is made by maturing a dark, red Ale beer in oak tanks, not casks, for up to 18 months or longer, after which it is blended with a similar younger, oak aged beer.
A Flemish Old Brown Ale, from the region of East Flanders, is made by allowing a dark, brown Ale beer to be in contact with air during the secondary fermentation and maturation in tanks, which either can be drunk on its own or blended with a similar younger beer.
All three of these Sours were traditionally softened and sweetened by adding real fruit to the beer during the maturation using common farmhouse summer harvest fruits like sour cherries, raspberries or grapes. Again a way of preserving your fruit. There is only so much jam or preserve you can make. The fruit also adds again wild yeasts and bacteria which contribute to another wild or spontaneous fermentation.
Or for the foodies amongst you think of the Belgian Sours as follows. Lambiek beer is your white wine vinegar (granted a tad harsher than your regular dressing), Flemish Red is your balsamic vinegar and your Flemish Old Brown is more a malt vinegar.
Hopefully this gives you a better insight and understanding of the Belgian Sours, hoping that if you didn’t like them the first time round you give them another chance. But very important you don’t have to like them as I fully understand that these beers are not everyone’s cup of tea, but … before you send it back to the bar reflect on the fact that you have a glass of history and brewing heritage in your hand, that the brewer for hundreds of years wanted the beer to taste like this and who knows it might be a piece of the Da Vinci Code puzzle.