If you have no place in your life for geeky semantic quibbles, leave now. This piece is not for you. The rest of you, please continue not doing your jobs and listen: There is no such thing as sours — not if we are talking about beer.
I hear you in the bars. I read you on social media. Hell, I even see what you have named your latest special releases. Stop it. Because the word “sour” reduces a broad swath of the world’s most fascinating, deep, diverse, old-fashioned-and-newfangled drinks to one of the five simplest tastes that our tongues can detect. You lift sours, bro?
I suggest that the word causes more harm than good… and that maybe — we’re smart people, right? — we should all try to think a little harder.
We need to categorize. I get that. This age of fetishistic beer variety — walking into a taphouse with 50 seemingly different things on draft, exotically named and priced, and knowing that one but not those other ones and what if that one is brilliant, oh but it might be terrible — we’re overwhelmed. We need to make sense of it. The simpler the categories, the easier it is to distill the endless variety into something comprehensible.
We can do better.
Sour is relative and subjective. One person’s “sour” is another person’s “tart.” I have heard Americans refer to the Belgian Trappist ale Orval as “a sour.” Orval is not sour, and it has never been sour. It can develop a lightly acidic edge from its brettanomyces bottle conditioning. Tasting something sweet before drinking it would accentuate the acidity — but that is part of the problem. Our senses differ not only from others, but from ourselves 15 minutes ago. Our taste is utterly mutable.
There is risk of a sour arms race. The word “sour” conditions us to expect something really sour, and we might be disappointed if it’s only “sharp.” Bro it says sour but it’s not even sour yo! So imagine living — Don LaFontaine voice — in a world where brewers are making things as sour as they can, to hell with balance or other interesting flavors. Remember when those jerks were trying to see how many IBUs they could squeeze into one beer? Screw that. We grew up. None of that shit was drinkable. Let’s not go back there.
Hell, this is probably already happening anyway. I don’t want to know.
It’s not about “sour” and it never was. Great drinks are more interesting than that. An excellent gueuze is an amalgam of many different sensations, including dryness, lively bubbles, musty lemon or horse blanket aromas and flavors — and things that are stranger, more difficult to describe. Sometimes over a glass of gueuze I catch a whiff of the sea. Which makes no sense. Ah, but it’s just another sour, right?
An interesting exercise, if you can afford it, is to compare Rodenbach Vintage or Foederbier — the pure, unblended stuff — with Rodenbach Grand Cru, which is a blend of two-thirds oak-aged and one-third younger, sweeter stuff. Again this is subjective, but I find the Grand Cru far more interesting. The light sweetness gives you perspective on the acidity. It provides depth. It’s like the difference between looking at a mural close up or standing back to see the whole thing, or the difference between hearing one note and then three-chord punk rock. It’s the difference between noise and music.
So what to call these things? It depends on the beer. There is not just sour and not-sour, there is a wide range of acidity out there. More importantly, there is a whole range of backgrounds, contexts and processes that get lost when we lump too many things under simplistic words. Each beer has its story, I would like to know that story, and if that story is just “sour” then I’m not interested.
I am not alone. I was trying to scribble down thoughts like these when I saw a tweet from Boulevard’s ambassador brewer Jeremy Danner.
Some labels help us make sense of a complicated world. Others just make us dumber.