Sour beers tap into a wine-lover’s mar­ket

Trend­ing flavour isn’t bit­ter but fruity with an acidic kick, draw­ing long lines to the pub


Most of Luke Prestl’s cus­tomers at Bell­woods Brewery, a trendy West Toronto brew­pub, are beer lovers. But not all.

“We have a lot of peo­ple com­ing through be­cause we’re a cool spot to hang out. Some­times we have wine drinkers come through,” the brewery’s co-owner said.

And that presents a bit of a prob­lem, be­cause the pub doesn’t serve wine, or spir­its or cock­tails. But they do of­fer sour beer — a very old bev­er­age that is get­ting a new life in the craft-brew­ing era.

Sour beer is not bit­ter but very fruity, with a tart, acidic kick rather like dry cham­pagne, said Crys­tal Lux­more, a Toronto beer som­me­lier, beer judge and co-founder of the Beer Sis­ters web­site and beer-tast­ing busi­ness.

Sour beers are a “bright spot” of growth in the larger craft beer mar­ket, which is lev­el­ling off after years of boom, ac­cord­ing to the 2017 Beer Mar­ket Re­port from Bev­er­age In­dus­try mag­a­zine.

Two broad cat­e­gories of beer are sour, Lux­more ex­plained. True soured beers are spiked with lac­to­bacilli, the same bac­te­ria used to fer­ment milk into yo­gurt. They’re very tart, “racy” and “le­mony.”

Then there are wild ales, some of which are quite sour (though oth­ers aren’t sour at all). They’re a “whole third fam­ily of beer” along­side ales and lagers, Lux­more said. They’re made with a huge va­ri­ety of un­usual strains of yeast and bac­te­ria, some­times us­ing the old­est fer­men­ta­tion tech­nique there is: let­ting the wort, or liq­uid prod­uct of the mash­ing process, cool in the open air, trap­ping wild micro­organ­isms.

A huge va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent beers can be made this way — cloudy or clear, funky or fruity. Bel­gian lam­bic is the ar­che­typal beer made by this method.

“It’s a trend that’s been on the rise for a lit­tle while. It’s al­ways ex­isted, but it’s very, very new in North Amer­ica,” Lux­more said.

“Drinkers to­day are not just drink­ing beer or wine, they’re drink­ing both. When they find out beer can have acid­ity, too, es­pe­cially those who like it in wine, it’s like an a-ha mo­ment.”

Al­though Bell­woods has had sour beers on tap since it opened in 2012, there was a “learn­ing curve” for drinkers and brew­ers alike, Pestl said. It’s chal­leng­ing at first, given that “sour” is syn­ony­mous with “yuck” in many peo­ple’s minds.

“It’s quite dif­fer­ent than what peo­ple are used to. Servers have to ex­plain what the beers are — that they’re not bad, they’re sup­posed to be sour,” he said. “Sours are eas­ier to pitch to wine drinkers.”

Now Jelly King, a hoppy sour ale, is one of the pub’s top sell­ers, out­selling their IPA. Peo­ple line up for lim­ited-run, bar­rel-aged sour beers and they sell out in hours, Pestl said.

The flavours range from notes of “cherry pie,” to “leather,” to “horse blan­kets,” he said, adding, “Our cus­tomer base is seek­ing ex­actly those types of things.”

What’s the ap­peal? “It’s sort of a cheap way to ex­per­i­ment,” Pestl said. “Fif­teen dol­lars is our most ex­pen­sive beer and that’s as high-end as it gets. Whereas with wine, you can spend hun­dreds of dol­lars.”

Lux­more be­lieves the craze for all things sour is be­hind the trend.

“We’re in a time where ev­ery­one wants wild fer­men­ta­tion. We’re mak­ing kom­bucha and pick­ling our own veg­eta­bles,” Lux­more said. “Our thresh­old for acid­ity and our de­sire for sour flavours is in­creas­ing, more even than five years ago, when kom­bucha wasn’t in ev­ery con­ve­nience store.”

What should you drink sour beer with? Just about any­thing, Prestl said. Lux­more had an un­con­ven­tional sug­ges­tion for the up­com­ing hol­i­day sea­son.

“It may sound crazy,” she said, “But some sour beers are great with tur­key din­ner. They’re highly car­bon­ated and dry, and they can cut through gravy, dress­ing and veg­eta­bles. It can be a fun twist on Christ­mas.”


Luke Pestl, of Bell­woods Brewery, pours a glass of Jelly King, a hoppy sour ale that’s one of the brew­pub’s top sell­ers.


Luke Pestl is a co-founder of Bell­woods Brewery, a trendy brew­pub in West Toronto.

Sour beers such as the Duchess de Bour­gogne, left, Nec­tarous and Jelly King are get­ting new life in the craft-brew­ing era.

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