Sour Ale

Guide to Sour Ale

Though they have long had a devout following of loyal advocates, sour ales have only just recently reached the mainstream in terms of their popularity and level of awareness.

Now, with so many craft breweries all over the world producing some example of a sour ale, it is important to note that not every sub-style of sour ale that exists is the same, as you'll soon discover below.

Sour Ale Characteristics

Differences will occur right across the spectrum in terms of production processes and specific flavour profiles, although all are defined by the mouth puckering sourness that is the hallmark taste of the category.

As a general guide, many of these beers will present as light to medium bodied in their nature, moderate to high in their amounts of carbonation, and often low to moderate in both their hop and malt profiles.

Where these beers really differentiate is in both the brewing techniques, including the particular yeast strains used or other additives required to induce the sourness found, and which strains and types of hops and malts, and their amounts, that are used in order to balance out and add flavour to the final brew.

For more on how these beers are brewed, consider this handy guide.

When examining this style, many sour ales are grouped under other categories of ale, such as Berliner weisse under wheat ales, however, the most prominent sub-styles that exist outside of other more fitting categories include:

  • Wild Ale
  • Saison Ale
  • American Sour Ale
  • Gose Ale
  • Lambic Ale

Wild Ale

Wild Ale Characteristics

Though they're often mistaken as a sub-style of sour ale, wild ales are not actually required to contain any amounts of sourness or acidity at all.

The reason that they're still defined as a sub-style of sour ale here is due to the fact that whilst it is not required, many examples of wild ales still do, with this almost always being due to the use of wild yeast strains or bacteria during the brewing process, lending them their name.

With wild ales being so variable in their production methods, there are many opportunities for brewers of this sub-style to experiment when crafting them, making it difficult to fit them nicely under one perfect general guide.

That being said, some of the common attributes include that they are often aged in oak, their malt and hop flavours and bitterness are typically held at moderate levels, and, most importantly, they possess incredibly funky and exotic flavours often reminiscent of barnyards, earth, and fruits.

In addition to these qualities, they will usually present as light to medium in their body, low to moderate in their amounts of carbonation, and possessing of low to moderate traces of tart acidity or sourness.

All of this combines to make them appropriate when paired with light dishes that contain a delicate amount of hot spice, or juicy meat dishes, particularly seeing as wild ales are often an amazing palate cleanser.

Saison Ale

Saison ales, or just “saisons” as they're more commonly known, are a sub-style of sour ale that originated in Belgium, though they're now brewed all over the world.

Saisons are often considered to be best served during summer or other times when the weather is hot as they contain light to moderate amounts of refreshingly tart acidity or sourness.

Their refreshing character is also often found within a light-bodied beer that possesses low to moderate amounts of both hop and malt flavours and bitterness, high amounts of carbonation, and flavours of funky fruit and exotic spice, such as clove.

When pairing food with these beers, it is best practice to match them with light seafood dishes, such as mussels, due to their light cleansing effect on the palate, or lemon-based desserts.

Saison Ale Characteristics

American Sour Ale

American Sour Ale Characteristics

American sour ales are another sub-style of sour ale that are incredibly tough to place under one simple guideline or flavour profile.

They can vary immensely from dark and roasty to light and hazy golden in their appearance, and they can also be highly variable in their bitterness and levels of alcohol.

That being said, the most defining feature of American sour ales is the moderate to intense presence of tart acidity or sourness, which makes them highly refreshing and a definite palate cleanser, even though they're often considered heavier in their body than many other examples of sour ales.

Generally speaking, the hop and malt profiles of these beers are kept to moderate levels, meaning the sourness or other funky flavours present in these beers are able to really shine through.

When looking to pair food with American sour ales, the palate cleansing and highly refreshing levels of acidity found in them means they are often best served alongside strongly flavoured foods, including strong cheeses or heavily sauced meat dishes.

Gose Ale

Gose ales are further examples of how wacky and unique the entire sour ale category can be.

Brewers of these beers will often use salty water during the brewing process, crafting beers with a distinct salty and refreshingly tart aftertaste.

In addition to using salted rather than filtered water, brewers will often include exotic spices, such as coriander, alongside hops when brewing, in order to further add to the flavour profile of the resulting beer.

Because malted wheat as well as malted barley are commonly included in the malt bill of these brews, they're often medium to high in their amounts of carbonation, golden to light amber in their colour, and medium in their body.

Overall, the malt and hop profile of these beers are quite low, with hoppy bitterness and fruit flavour being virtually non-existent.

Instead, the flavours of banana, green apple, coriander, and lemon commonly found in many gose ales arise from the use of special yeast strains or bacteria that the brewer uses during fermentation.

The salty and refreshingly tart flavour profile of these beers often pairs best with seafood dishes, such as smoked salmon or oysters, or citrus-based desserts.

Gose Ale Characteristics

Lambic Ale

Lambic Ale Characteristics

Lambic ales, which are brewed using naturally occurring wild yeast strains and bacteria, are famous for their tart fruit flavours and highly refreshing sourness.

Originating in Belgium, the brewing process for these beers is unlike any other, with the beer often spending considerable amounts of time out in the open and in oak before being blended prior to bottling.

As a general guide, lambic ales are almost always medium to full bodied beers, with a substantial portion of malted or unmalted wheat included in the grain bill alongside the more traditional malted barley.

The colour of lambic ales can vary drastically, with brewers often including whole fruits or fruit juices during the brewing process, adding colour, sweetness, flavour, and additional sourness to the resulting beer.

The level of carbonation is often moderate to high and the overall malt and hop profile is typically low, with there usually being imperceptible traces of hoppy fruit flavour, bitterness, or general malt character.

By far the most important attribute of lambic ales is the presence of tart sourness occuring thanks to the use of wild yeast strains and bacteria.

The specific flavours found in lambic ales vary according to the fruits, yeast strains, and bacteria used during production, with common flavours often including raspberry, apricot, cherry, plum, and oaky flavours of dried fruit and spice.

Explore Next

Want to know more about the world of beer in terms that you'll understand? Here's some of the best articles from our team exploring the topic.
Hazy IPA on Table

What are Hazy IPAs & How do They Taste?

If you’ve been following beer trends recently you would know that Hazy IPAs are all the new craze. Here, we explore what they are & how they taste & pair with food.

Read More
Row of Craft Beer Glasses

Getting into Craft: How to Begin Exploring Craft Beer

Interested in exploring craft beer but not sure where to begin? In this guide, we examine some of the best styles to start with for those looking for some quick guidance.

Read More
Beer Cocktail

Using Beer in Cocktails: Is It Possible?

Beer cocktails? Far from being a far-flung notion, using beer to create exquisite cocktails is strongly advocated for by bartenders the world over. Here, we explore some of the best.

Read More