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The IPA may be trendy, but the sour is timeless. These beers make for great gateway beers for wine drinkers, pair beautifully with food, and help break up a fridge full of hop bombs. While sour beers only became popular in the last decade in the US, they provide the foundation of beer’s history. “There is nothing new about sour beer,” says Shanna Greenleaf, bar manager of Goed Zuur, a sour-focused beer bar in Denver. “Civilizations have been making beer since long before Louis Pasteur discovered the role of yeast in fermentation. Some breweries older than that discovery are still producing beer today.”
When talking about sour, there are two distinct schools. There are the Old World sours, which are usually spontaneously fermented with wild yeast and spend time aging in barrels. “I find these Old World sours to be largely overlooked these days, with the craze of American fruited kettle sours,” says Suzanne Schalow, the co-founder, and CEO of Craft Beer Cellar. “But these are some of the true gems of the beer world, with precise brewing techniques, some near-perfect fermentations, bacteria from the night air, or from those living in old wooden vessels, only to be awakened by the liquid that finds a resting place for months or years.” One of the reasons that these sours have lost their shine is because of the type of sour flavor they possess: an acidic and almost verging on vinegary flavor.
The sour beer most likely to appear on your grocery store shelf is a new school kettle sour. These sours don’t require as much time and attention as a spontaneously fermented sour, but are no less delicate. Here, the sourness of the beer comes from bacteria—likely lactobacillus—that is added by the brewer. Fruit is also a common addition in these beers. Schalow prefers to call these beers “tart” rather than sour, reserving the latter term for the more traditional brews. However, that doesn’t mean there’s not enough room for both at the bar. Here's a collection of some of the best sour beers from bottles to cans, traditional and contemporary, according to our sour brewing experts.
Best Overall: Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze
Picking the “best” sour beer is kinda like picking the best beer in general. Due to the breadth of the category, the right sour beer for one person might be off-putting for another. Brouwerij 3, however, is widely regarded as the ultimate (as well as one of the oldest) traditional sour blenders. Its Oude Geuze is made with a blend of one, two, and three-year-old lambics, resulting in a dry beer with a sharp sourness that’s perfect for uncorking with dinner or popping for a special occasion.
Best Sour IPA: New Belgium Sour IPA
This year, the sour IPA moved into the spotlight as the new, must-try IPA, dethroning last year’s brut IPA trend. New Belgium released its take on the trend earlier this year and it quickly became one of the most widely available and highly regarded interpretations of the style. “[It’s] a perfect balance of hops and acidity,” Greenleaf says.
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Best Fruited Sour: Urban Artifact The Gadget
Urban Artifact, a small brewery located in the basement of a cathedral in Northside, Cincinnati, focuses solely on sours. The crown jewel of its collection might just be its “Midwest Fruit Tart” ale. “Urban Artifact The Gadget is downright amazing,” Schalow says about the beer made with 1,200 pounds of blackberries and 1,200 pounds of raspberries per batch.
Best Gose: Two Roads Persian Lime Gose
The Gose is a wheat beer made with coriander and salt. Although American drinkers only came wise to its intriguing mix of sour and salt, it’s been part of the German beer canon for centuries. Two Road’s Gose uses Persian limes for some extra acid with each sip. “[It’s] such a delicious twist on this traditional style,” Greenleaf says. “Light-bodied and dry, with just the right amount of pucker.”
Best Berliner Weisse: Firestone Walker Bretta Rosé
A few trademarks of the Berliner Weisse are its lower ABV and refreshing tartness. If you’re drinking one of these in Berlin, it will likely be served with flavored syrup. Contemporary Berliners skip this step by adding fruit to the brew. “This is one of my favorite beers,” Greenleaf says about Firestone Walker’s Bretta Rosé, a Berliner Weisse aged in French oak with raspberries. “It has just the right amount of fruit, pours a beautiful pink color with the most amazing aroma. It is perfectly tart and dry.”
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Best Session Sour: Dogfish Head SeaQuench Ale
Dogfish Head debuted its session sour SeaQuench in 2016 and since then, due to popular demand, the beer has made its way into 12 and 19 oz. cans across the country. “This beer is technically a blend of three distinct styles: a Kolsch, a Gose, and a Berliner Weisse,” Greenleaf explains. “Black lime, lime juice, and sea salt are added to make this taste like a day at the beach.”
Best Gueuze: Lindemans Cuvée René Oude Gueuze
Beer is often compared to Champagne. In the case of Lindemans Cuvée René Oude Gueuze, the comparison is less of a marketing plot and more a commentary on the beer’s bone-dry body and bright acidity. This traditional Oude Gueuze, a blend of aged and young lambics, made its way stateside in the early 90s and is considered to be one of the beers that introduced the US to the wide world of sours.
Best Lambic: Allagash Coolship Resurgam
For a true lambic experience, look to the Belgians. However, beers from these prized producers, such as 3 Fonteinen or Cantillon, can be difficult to find. Thanks to its coolship program, Allagash has become a go-to for those seeking US-made lambics using traditional fermentation techniques. “Seek out beers from Allagash Brewing,” Schalow says. “Anything in its Resurgam line, which offers one brewery’s unique perspective on using a coolship to cool its beer and introduce it to microflora from the cool Maine air.”
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Best American-Style Sour: Sierra Nevada Wild Little Thing
Sierra Nevada changed the IPA game when it released Hazy Little Thing, a hazy IPA that you can find in airport bars and taprooms alike. Recently its sister, a “slightly sour” ale hit the market with the appropriate moniker Wild Little Thing. This kettle sour ale is brewed with guava, hibiscus and strawberry to create a beer that’s equal parts fun and refreshing.
Best Flanders Red Ale: Rodenbach Classic
A little bit of old school meets new with the Rodenbach Classic. The brewery, which has been specializing in sours since 1821, decided to can its flagship Flemish red ale for the first time in 2019. It’s a rare move for such a historic and traditional brewery. That means this textbook foeder-aged ale can be enjoyed via six-pack.
Best Flanders Brown: Liefmans Goudenband
Lesser known than its rose-tinted cousin, the Flanders brown ale, or Oud Bruin, comes from the eastern side of the Flemish region of Belgium, while Flanders red ales can be traced to the west. The dark malt base of these beers leads to a softer, rounder sip. With Liefmans Goudenband, that means plenty of caramel and malt flavors with some mild acidity.
Best Made-in Colorado: Crooked Stave Sour Rosé
According to Greenleaf, there are two breweries that helped turn Colorado into the epicenter for all things sour in the US: Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project and Casey Brewing and Blending. Both started out brewing exclusively small-batch sours, while the former has made a few of its beers available to the masses. Crooked Stave Sour Rosé is an unfiltered wild ale that undergoes fermentation in large oak vats with raspberries and blueberries. The result is a fruit-forward sour beer that is crisp and bright. At 4.5% ABV, it makes for an easy-drinking sipper.
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Sarah Freeman is a food and beverage writer based out of Chicago. She has been writing about, as well as frequenting, restaurants and bars for the past decade—from learning about what makes a perfect piece of cocktail ice to the exploring art of beer label design. At the moment, she doesn’t have enough room for food in her refrigerator, because it’s filled with cans of beer and bottles of wine.