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Tag: Beer Styles

Sour Beers: The Newest Oldest Craze that Almost Didn’t Happen

 ‘Hey, have you ever heard of a beer called IPA?  Apparently it’s a really bitter…’ — And that’s when your face goes dull with that ‘You so 2000 and late’ look and you stop listening.  That’s being nice- you’d probably tune out at ‘IPA’.

Just like how Christopher Columbus thought he was the first to discover America, so too are foodies, trendies, and fledgling craft beer enthusiasts of late discovering sour beer.  Hipsters heard about them after NPR broke the story on sours in October of 2013, but then promptly gave up drinking them a week later out of principle.  My mom even forwarded me a snippet from February’s Bon Appétit magazine¹ where the author dishes out food pairing advice, remarking how the “elegant Champagne fizz and acidic twang” of this sour style, beloved by “beer nerds” [thanks?], “chainsaws through fatty or salty foods, yet is delicate enough for sushi.”  Domo arigato Mr. Foodboto, but having an appreciation for sour beer does not qualify one as a “beer nerd” (whatever that means) any more than eating at a food truck makes one a culinary aficionado.

The truth is that if NPR, Bon Appétit, USA Today, the New York Times, and my mom have already heard about them, sours have officially reached critical mainstream mass.  Though to be fair to the late comers, sour brews have only gained this new found pop culture popularity over the last two or three years.  Prior to that, sour craft beers were something of a rarity stateside, let alone the majority of the modern beer drinking world.

Go back 150 years though, and sour beers weren’t simply a regional specialty or a brewer’s attempt at passion-driven innovation, nor were they altogether uncommon.  Even so, it was seldom the brewery’s intention to pour their publicans a sour pint.  In fact, in many circles of the brewing industry, sour beer was often referred to as “diseased beer” and was almost without exception considered the bane of the brewhouse.  Because once a brewery noticed one of its beers becoming unintentionally sour, to its helpless devastation, it was usually only a matter of time before the rest of the production line followed sour suit, thereby risking the life of the brewery itself.  And beer wasn’t the only fermentable becoming “diseased”.  Nope, wine and some spirit producers suffered the same fate as well.

That was until 1866 when Louis Pasteur, under the commission of Emperor Napoleon III- nephew to the Napoleon (oh my), published his book Etudes sur le Vin (Studies on Wine) as a remedy to both the economic and reputational loss within the French winemaking industry due to diseased wine.  Both brewers and winemakers alike were plagued by “spoilage”, or the unintentional souring of their products, and it was Pasteur, doctor of boozeology, who identified that the culprits responsible for the souring were primarily tiny black rod shaped lactic acid producing micro-organisms presumably introduced into the fermenting beverages via germ-ridden dust in the air (an idea that was largely groundbreaking for the day).


[Lactobacillus bacteria responsible for producing lactic acid.]

What was Pasteur’s solution to these ATDs (Aerially Transmitted Diseases)?  Practice safe fermentation.  Clean up the winery and the staff, limit exposure of the wine to the souring critters in the air, and last but not least, master the art of Pasteurization, i.e. heating the wine to about 122-144 °F for a specific period of time in order to kill off any potential souring microorganisms.  Many of these tactics were soon adopted by the brewing industry along with other methods including temperature control, increased hopping rates, and yeast purification, all of which were prescribed in Pasteur’s follow-up blockbuster (and Amazon Best Seller of 1876) Etudes sur la Bière²; literally “Studies on Beer”, but masterfully translated into English as “Studies on Fermentation: The Diseases of Beer”.

Studies on Fermentation: The Diseases of Beer by Louis Pasteur

And with this, the days of sour beers appeared to be numbered; however the final curtain call wouldn’t come from Pasteur, but rather a man on an island over 600 miles away.

One Yeast Strain to Rule Them All

Around the time Pasteur was releasing his book Studies on Beer, Danish scientist Emil Hansen was set with the task of separating out unwanted microorganisms in a yeast culture in order to cultivate a pure strain of yeast. But this was no random undertaking in the vacuum of science.  No, Hansen was employed by the Carlsberg Laboratory in Copenhagen, a facility created in 1875 by the founder of the Carlsberg Brewery and established for the purpose of advancing biochemical knowledge particularly related to brewing.  It turns out that Hansen was triumphantly successful at his task and in 1883 he was able to isolate one very particular yeast strain that would go on to form the basis of a certain style of beer that quickly dominated the world.

This singular variety of yeast in conjunction with the techniques Hansen used to ensure a pure culture brought about not only the absolute monarchy of a single beer style (which established the reign of at least one King of Beers in the U.S.), but also led to the growth of multi-billion dollar corporations so powerful that it would take a revolution to even slightly loosen their soul-crushing stranglehold on the industry.

The beer style in question is none other than lager.

Hansen’s pure lager yeast was offered to other breweries when their beers turned sour, and eventually this lager yeast made its way around the world, changing the entire landscape of beer along with it.  In honor of Hansen’s industry revolutionizing accomplishment, the Carlsberg Brewing consort named this world-famous pure yeast strain after him, calling it “Saccharomyces Carlsbergensis”— wait, umm, well close enough.

But it was to be Hansen who would have the last laugh as S. Carlsbergensis was later renamed, to the delight of Francophiles, “S. Pastorianus”, which of course is Latin for “let’s pretend that Pasteur figured out how to produce pure yeast cultures and give no credit to Hansen”.  I guess if you really wanted to get technical, Hansen actually “borrowed” his yeast separating technique from German microbiologist Robert Koch.³  So if I were Germany, I’d throw my vote in for renaming the yeast “S. Kochianus”, but that’s just me.

Brewers became so efficient at isolating and controlling souring bacteria and yeast that with the exception of a number of breweries in Belgium and a few regional ones in Germany, sour beers nearly went extinct.

Certainly some sour styles of beer did go extinct, and perhaps more would have if it weren’t in large part for the craft beer revolution sweeping the globe today.  Country after country is walking up from its lager/pilsner saturated slumbers and realizing there’s something else out there.  Something better.  Something sour.  And we want it.

It’s said that a full 70 percent of the production of the world-renowned Belgian sour beer producer, Cantillon, is exported to the U.S.  To those who’ve ever had the pleasure of sipping a sour from Cantillon, you’ll know why the U.S., as with other desirable finite commodities, wants as much of it as we can get our greedy little fingers on.

Cantillon Beer

And sours aren’t just the realm of traditional continental breweries or the more specialized Russian River or Crooked Stave types in the U.S.  Big names are getting in on the action too.  Boston Beer Company, Sierra Nevada, Widmer Brothers, Flying Dog, Magic Hat, Odell, Avery, Anderson Valley, Great Lakes, Bell’s, Allagash, Ballast Point, Deschutes, New Belgium, Goose Island, Three Floyds, and Grand Teton have all brewed sours or have one in the rotation.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see a weak, watery pseudo sour in the pipe from one of the mega un-craft breweries trying to cash in on this craze, albeit disguised in the predictable faux-craft fashion as is now the custom (think Bluemoon and Shocktop- brewed by Coors and Anheuser Busch respectively, and both go out of their way to hide that fact on the bottles).  Alanis couldn’t have written a better irony.

To be honest, I’m shocked that the last major brewery in Berlin that still brews Berliner Weisse hasn’t gotten the message.  As far as I know, the Berliner-Kindl-Schultheiss-Brauerei GmbH (yeah, yeah, German words are long), doesn’t even distribute their sours to the U.S., let alone much outside of Berlin.  Talk about missing Das Boot.

Berliner Weisse

Despite the bandwagon, sour beers aren’t universally welcomed.  To this day, some breweries are so concerned about the souring boogiemen bacteria, many brewmasters have sworn that they will never brew a sour beer lest their entire brewery become infected. I know of at least one brewery owner who told me that not only will he never brew a sour, but that sour beers will never become popular enough to sell.

I guess only time will tell if sour beers ever catch on.

Ok, Desert Island time:


[¹Bernstein, J. M. “Sour Beer Primer: How (and Why) to Drink These Funky Wild Ales” bon appetit 26 Feb., 2014. Web. 10 July, 2014; Pasteur, L. (1879) Studies on Fermentation: The Diseases of Beer, London. Macmillan & Co.; ³Rogers, A. (2014) Proof: The Science of Booze. Boston, MA. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]

Like this blarticle? Well, thanks- you’re far too kind.  Want to read more beer inspired thoughts?  Come back any time, subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Twitter at

Or feel free to drop me a line at:

Hi, I’m Dan: Beer Editor for Beer Syndicate, Beer and Drinking Blogger, Gold Medal-Winning Homebrewer, Beer Reviewer, AHA Member, Beer Judge, Shameless Beer Promoter, and Beer Traveler.  Interests? Beer.

Daniel J. Leonard

A Brief History of Beer Styles

Like Moore’s Law applied to brewing, the number of variations in craft beer seems to double every two years, which can leave the modern consumer moderately perplexed when happening across the next Kentucky Bourbon Barrel-Aged Double Decoction Trappist Imperial Gueuze dry hopped with Woodruff and blended with Russian River’s Supplication. (A concoction courtesy of The Craft Beer Trend Predictor.)

Long gone are the days when the average beer consumer could get by with the notion that somehow the true essence of any beer could be discerned via the all-revealing dichotomy of “domestic” or “import”.  Alas, in order to meaningfully talk about beer nowadays, it is virtually impossible to do so without referring to and having a general awareness of the basic beer styles.  And because beer, like mathematics, builds upon itself, if you missed the basic algebra of beer styles, you’re probably gonna run into some trouble when it comes to the present day calculus of beer.  So let’s take it back to beer basics in an attempt to demystify the oft esoteric realm of modern craft beer.

Beer Styles: The Dirty Little Secret

Ask the average craft beer fan to name their top five favorite styles of beer, and they might say something like IPAs, Porters, Belgians, Sours and maybe Wheat Beers. Ask that same question prior to 1977, and it’s doubtful anybody would have known what you’re talking about. Well, anybody except Michael Jackson.  Fine, I’ll say it: No, not Michael Jackson the pop singer, Michael Jackson the beer guy from England— the apparent real-life inspiration for Michael Bolton’s character from the movie Office Space.

Michael Jackson (the beer guy), flat out invented the term “beer styles” more or less as we understand it today when he first introduced the concept back in 1977 with his vastly influential book The World Guide to Beer.

That’s right; the term “beer styles” is no older than Orlando Bloom and is just as made up as Legolas of the Woodland Realm.

To be clear though, classifying and differentiating beer is not a new concept by any means. An ancient Sumerian tablet dating back to 2050 BC turned out to be a receipt for beer, documenting that the purchaser received a “best” ale, which suggests there were at least two “styles” of beer back then: “best” and “not the best”.

Alulu Beer Receipt

[Sumerian tablet dating back to 2050 BC is actually a receipt for beer.  The text translates as “Ur-Amma acknowledges receiving from his brewer, Alulu, 5 sila (about 4 1/2 liters) of the ‘best’ beer.”]

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that at any point in history were beers more systematically and extensively classified as they are today, a trend which is most likely to continue until Armageddon, i.e. April 21st, 2053.

Not long after the release of Jackson’s seminal book, the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) was created, an organization known for defining and judging world beer styles.  Beginning in 1985, the BJCP ran with the idea of beer styles (supplemented by Fred Eckhardt’s book The Essentials of Beer Style in 1989), and as of 2008, has “officially” recognized 23 classic styles of beer, and 80, yes 80, sub-styles which fall under the 23 classic styles. I say “officially” because as of the time of this writing, 80 is the number that the BJCP has acknowledged as significant enough to be deemed worthy of appearing on its list.  The reality is, though, there are quite a few well established sub-styles of beer being brewed today which haven’t yet been canonized by the BJCP (just in case 80 wasn’t enough to keep track of).

Style VS Sub-Style

You probably noticed I’m throwing around the terms “style” and “sub-style” without having given much explanation as to what the difference is with respect to beer.  To be sure, the use of this predominately BJCP nomenclature is purely conventional and is used as an organizational tool for the purpose of categorizing beer.  For example, according to the BJCP Style Guide, India Pale Ale (IPA) is a “beer style”, and American IPA is a “sub-style” of IPA.  In fact there are actually three sub-styles of beer which fall under the style of IPA: American, English and Imperial IPAs. Notice that these sub-styles don’t only refer to a specific country like the U.S. or England, but also to the qualitative nature of a beer as with the Imperial IPA which is basically a stronger version of an IPA (American or English) in alcohol content and usually in hop and malt character as well.  To make a quick comparison, you might think of the Hot Dog as being a “style” of American Food, and Chicago, New York, and Chili Dogs as being “sub-styles” of the Hot Dog.  Hungry yet?

On the whole, the BJCP tends to take a mixed approach in defining beer styles by either country of origin like the “American Ale” style category which contains only beers originating from the U.S., or by common sensory characteristics shared by a group of beers such as “Sour Ale” which includes sour beers from multiple countries.  True, this method of grouping beers may sound a bit inconsistent, but there is one simple little trick you can use to categorize almost every one of the 80 “classic” beer sub-styles that appear on the BJCP’s list.

80 Sub-Styles of Beer on the Wall: The Big Picture

Even though 80 sounds like a pretty daunting number of beers to familiarize yourself with, there are basically only three main types of beer under which pretty much all of the 80 sub-styles fall: ale, lager or hybrid.  For simplicity’s sake, ales and lagers are distinguished by the two different species of yeast used to ferment the beer: Saccharomyces cerevisiae (ale yeast) and Saccharomyces pastorianus (lager yeast). Generally, ale yeasts ferment at warmer temperatures producing beers that are often described as more flavorful and sometimes fruity (estery), whereas lager yeasts ferment at cooler temperatures commonly producing cleaner, crisper beers.

Ok, so the difference between lagers and ales has to do with the two different yeast strains used to ferment said beers, namely ale yeast and lager yeast.  Easy enough. So does that mean “Hybrid” beers are a hybrid or a mix between the ale and lager yeast strains?  No.  Hybrid beers, at least according to the BJCP, are not distinguished by different kinds of yeasts, but rather the process of how those yeasts are used during fermentation. This is simpler than you might think. Remember a couple sentences back when I said that ale yeasts are typically fermented at warmer temperatures, and lager yeasts are fermented at cooler temperatures?  Well a hybrid beer does the opposite of this and ferments ale yeasts at cooler temperatures and lager yeasts at warmer temperatures, yielding lagers with ale-like characteristics and ales with lager-like characteristics.  Yep, it’s that simple.  But just in case you’re like me and appreciate pictures to help explain things, here’s a color-coded diagram that illustrates just what we’ve been talking about (click to enlarge):A Simple Illustration of Beer Styles and Sub-Styles

This has been your crash course in the algebra of beer styles.  If you feel you’ve got a somewhat better understanding of beer styles and sub-styles, then I’ve done my job.  But again, this was just the algebra of beer styles and I’ve intentionally left a lot of meat on the bone.  But for now just relax, enjoy your summer break while kicking back with your favorite sub-style of beer, and when we come back, we’ll dive into the a calculus of beer styles.  By the time we’re done, I’m confident you’ll be able to deconstruct every piece of some of the most convoluted varieties of beer on the shelves today, not to mention the hypothetical ones like “Kentucky Bourbon Barrel-Aged Double Decoction Trappist Imperial Gueuze dry hopped with Woodruff and blended with Russian River’s Supplication.”

And just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, we’ll pull the rug out.


Like this blarticle? Well, thanks- you’re far too kind.  Want to read more beer inspired thoughts?  Come back any time, subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Twitter at

Or feel free to drop me a line at:

Hi, I’m Dan: Beer Editor for Beer Syndicate, Beer and Drinking Blogger, Gold Medal-Winning Homebrewer, Beer Reviewer, AHA Member, Beer Judge, Shameless Beer Promoter, and Beer Traveler.  Interests? Beer.

Daniel J. Leonard

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