Ever made the face above after taking a sip of wild ale, gose, Berliner weisse or any of the other brews broadly referred to as “sours?” We sure have.
Every day, it seems, another beer comes to us that’s so acidic Walter White probably could’ve used it to melt bodies. And we have to wonder: Are people actually enjoying this? Do people actually like the sensation of having the enamel stripped from their teeth? Is it the brewers’ intention to create beers so tart?
In short, is there even such thing as “too sour?”
The short answer to that is yes. “A lot of people bring us samples of sour beer, and it’s tough to drink some of them,” says Troy Casey, founder of Casey Brewing & Blending in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. “I think we’re at the point with sour beers like we were 10 years ago with IPAs, where people were just trying to make the most bitter beer. Now, what I see in the industry is people don’t care about bitterness units anymore; they care about hop flavor and balance and drinkability.”
While many brewers in the U.S. are doing their best to replicate the wild ales of Belgium, Casey says, they’re also neglecting a major aspect of the best lambic producers’ approach.
“I visited Belgium in 2012, and one of my biggest takeaways was that the lambic producers over there view acidity as an off-flavor,” Casey says. “They use the blending process to create balance with that acid. One of the things I like to think is the reason they blended young and old is because they couldn’t sell the old stuff. And it seems like a lot of American brewers have decided to sell just the old stuff.”
Could be that it’s just the American way; if we like something a little bit, we want it all.
“I think that for American consumer in general, flavor intensity is the first thing that kind of gets everybody hooked,” says Walt Dickinson, head blender and owner of Wicked Weed Brewing. “And then after everybody’s tried the uber-hopper, uber-bitter IPA, they decide that maybe 120 IBUs isn’t really necessary, and you can get more hop flavor at a lower IBU level. I kind of equate that to acidity.”
It could also be the result lagging expertise on the part of the brewer. According to the brewers we talked to, it’s actually pretty easy to make overly acidic beer. The equipment used, temperature control practices, the types of bacteria added to the beer, the amount of oxygen picked up in the brewing process or when the beer’s being transferred into tanks or barrels—any and all of these can quickly lead to a screamingly sour beer.
“If you think you can be less careful making sour beer because it’s already infected, that’s not the case,” says Pete Batule, VP of brewing operations for Upland Brewing Co. “We take just as much care, if not more care, with our sour beers than our clean beers.”
And then there’s the possibility of acidity threshold drift. Alex Wallash of The Rare Barrel explains: “If you just look at who’s making the beer and what their threshold is, it’s possible that if you have people drinking the same beer every day, they can get accustomed to very acidic beers. If you only have one person on your blending team, and they’re calling all the shots, maybe that one person’s threshold is very, very high for acid, and they might be releasing beers that are more sour than if you had eight people on the blending team, and there’s more of a conversation.”
Still other brewers think that there isn’t more ultra-sour beer being produced relative to beers with more restrained acidity; there’s just more sour beer being produced, period.
“It’s my feeling there is probably more sour beer being packaged now than quite possibly any time in the previous 100 to 200 years,” says Tomme Arthur, founder of The Lost Abbey. “I suspect that there is a wide range of acid bases ranging from moderately tart to evident throat burning.”
As with ingredients for cooking—hot sauce, for instance—having an entire industry land on one intensity level isn’t necessarily good for the consumer.
But there has to be a line, right? If the brewers agree that there is such thing as a beer that’s too sour, where do they personally draw that line? What would make sour beer producers—arguably the people with the most exposure to acidic brews on a regular basis—pour out a bottle?
“For me, too sour is this: If I can’t comfortably drink a full 13-ounce pour of a beer, and the acidity is at a level where I’m not enjoying it by the end, that’s too much,” says Dickinson.
Wallash concurs with this volume-based quality assessment: “For me, my acid appreciation level has gone down a little bit, and my bar for enjoyment has changed from ‘Can I try a few sips of this?’ to ‘Can I drink a full glass of this, and really enjoy it?’” he says. “My main, high-level check is if I finish the beer—which is usually a 10-ounce pour—and if I want another one.”
Then again, says De Garde Brewing head brewer Trevor Rogers, there is a place in the market for beers of every acid level, and though he personally prefers beers of a more balanced tartness and has worked toward restraining acid production in his own beers, there are some well-established brewers who are just fine with acidity.
“It’s funny, but if you talk to a lot of older European beer connoisseurs, you’ll find quite a number who fondly remember when the acid beers of Europe were more aggressively sour,” he says. “When Peter Bouckaert (not to call him old!) from New Belgium visited us and tasted through a number of our offerings and heard me talk about our efforts to lower the perceived acidity, he disagreed on the necessity and reasoning. Beers were not sour enough.”
Just as there have always been beers that range from aggressive acidity to tame tartness available from traditional European brewers, Rogers says, there will be different ranges of beers made by American producers. What’s too sour to one person might be just right for another, and if the demand for beers on either end of the spectrum is there, brewers will continue making them. So perhaps the most acidic beers are still to come—though we hope not.
“I already take an acid blocker each day,” Arthur says. “I would hate to think an increase in dosage would be warranted.”