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Seeing Dubbel

Belgian Dubbels date back to the Middle Ages, where they were brewed by monks in monasteries, as a few still are today. The style lost popularity for a period but was revived after the Napoleonic era by the Trappist Abbey of Westmalle in 1856. The new brown beer was stronger and darker than the Abbey's previous brews and in 1926 it was again reformulated and became even stronger. After World War II, Westmalle's "dubbel" beer became popular in Belgium and began to be imitated by other breweries, Trappist and secular. Thus the Dubbel style emerged.

Dubbels are moderately strong (6 to 8.5% ABV) brown ales with an understated bitterness, a full body, a distinct dark fruitiness, a rich malty character and mild alcohol warmth. They are complex with hints of chocolate, nuts, raisins, dates, plums, spicy phenolics and pronounced yeast flavors and aromas. Caramelized candi (beet) sugar syrups contribute rum and dried fruit flavors and give the beer a dry finish. Dubbels are traditionally bottle-conditioned (refermented in the bottle), giving them a dense, persistent head.

Trappist dubbels include Westmalle, Koningshoeven/La Trappe, Chimay and Achel. Abbey dubbels include Affligem, Grimbergen, Maredsous, Corsendonk and St. Feuillien. Allagash, Ommegang, New Belgium and The Lost Abbey are among the many American craft breweries making traditional dubbels.

The Bruz tasting panel gathered recently to taste a selection of Belgian and American dubbels. Included were Westmalle, Maredsous, New Belgium, Ommegang, Lost Abbey, and Bruz's offerings. The panelists' scores and rankings are shown below.

The Ommegang Abbey Ale, Maredsous Brune and Westmalle Dubbel were all within two points of each other. Ommegang came in at number one with its beautiful balance, dried fruit and pepper notes and silky texture. Maredsous was number two with a big, rich malt complexity, caramel notes and creamy texture. Westmalle was number three - rich and malty with dark fruit esters, creamy mouthfeel, pleasant carbonation and dry finish. Bruz Trubbel was number four - complex with cherry, plum and dried fruit notes and a soft creamy texture. The panel found New Belgium's Abbey to be well-made but lacking complexity and Lost Abbey's Lost & Found was infected and off. 

When we think of Belgian beers, we often think of monks and monasteries, and few beers live up to that image more than Belgian Dubbels. With cooler weather approaching, they're just the thing for a chilly autumn night!

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Blond Ales - Belgium's Golden Abbey Beers

Before the 1840s, all beers were either dark or hazy. Around that time, maltsters developed ways of indirectly heating their kilns and made pale malts possible. When Czech brewers in Plzen created Plzeňský Prazdroj (Pilsener Urquell) - the first clear golden lager - in 1842, they set off a major transformation of European beers. Beer began to be served in glasses rather than wooden, metal or earthenware vessels. Pale golden beers became all the rage in Europe, to the detriment of darker brews. In response to the "blond invasion" many brewers began to offer competing products. This was the case with Belgium's Trappist and Abbey breweries.

Belgian Blond Ales

Blond Ales are among the most popular of the Trappist and Abbey beers. Blond ales are clear, golden, moderate-strength ales with a subtle Belgian complexity, a slightly sweet flavor and a dry finish. They are typically between 5.8 and 8.0% alcohol and some, but not all, examples have a pronounced hop bitterness. Blonds are very drinkable beers - good on their own or with a variety of foods.

While there are a few Trappist Blonds, most of them are Abbey beers. Abbey beers differ from Trappist beers in that none of the abbeys owns or operates its own brewery. Brewing is contracted with independent brewers - many of which have been acquired by large brewing conglomerates in recent years. Trappist beers, on the other hand, are brewed in working abbeys by actual monks.

Singles, Doubles and Triples

Back in the day, most monastery beers were dark, malty and not well attenuated or alcoholic. They were primarily a food source for the monks, especially during Lent when the monks were not allowed to eat during the day. Malt sugars are nutritious, alcohol is not. To this day, the beer served with meals at monasteries is around 3.0% ABV and is rarely seen outside the monastery. Stronger beers might be served on religious holidays, offered to guests or sold commercially. 

The brewing method to produce monastery beers involved a strong mash and then running three charges of water to rinse all the fermentable sugars from the grains. The first runnings produced the strongest beer - the Triple (Tripel). The second runnings produced the Double (Dubbel) and the third runnings produced the Single (table beer). While originally all three of these beers would have been dark, the need to compete with Pilsners caused brewers to lighten some of their beers. Tripels nowadays are golden beers. Dubbels are traditionally dark, but some double-strength beers - in a trend started by Leffe - are now golden in color and are known as Blonds. Most of the Abbey brewers have a Blond Ale in their lineup.

Abbey Blonds

Leffe Blond was the first Blond Ale and is still one of the most popular. It is clear and golden with clove aromas, orange fruitiness on the palate, a dry finish and is 6.6% ABV. Leffe Abbey dates back to 1152. Their current licensing agreement with the brewery that produces the beer is believed to have been the first of its kind.

Another well-established Blond is made by Affligem - which dates back to the 9th century and is located in what was once a thriving hop-growing region. Affligem Blond has a clean fruitiness with citrusy notes, a dry maltiness and a crisp, fragrant finish. Affligem also produces several beers, including a Blond ale, for the abbey of Postel. 

Other Abbey Blond ales include Grimbergen, Ciney, Het Kapittel, Maredsous, St Feuillien, Val-Dieu, Augustijn, Pater Lieven, Petrus, Ramee, St Bernardus, and Witkap. The styles of these beers vary somewhat and range in strength from 6.5 to 8.0% ABV.

There are also four Trappist Blonds. Westvleteren Blonde - at 5.8% alcohol - replaced the abbey's other low-gravity table beers. Achel Blond - from Belgium's newest Trappist monastery - comes in at a hefty 8% ABV. La Trappe Blond - from the Koningshoeven Abbey in the Netherlands and Stift Engelszell Benno - from the only Trappist brewery in Austria - round out the Trappist Blond Ale lineup.

Of course, Belgian-style Blonds are brewed by many U.S. craft breweries, a number of whom rival their European counterparts in terms of flavor and quality.

Rating Belgian Blond Ales

Bruz Beers recently conducted a tasting of Belgian Blonds. Our panel of five judges tasted and rated five Belgian Blonds and Bruz's Blond Ale offering. The judges rated the beers on a 25-point scale and commented on their key characteristics.

The panel liked Leffe Blond best, calling it "Classic - crisp and well-balanced with banana and pepper notes and a dry finish." Bruz Blondy came in second. The panel found it "Clean, complex and a bit spicy with nice fruit and floral notes and light carbonation." Number three was Engelszell Benno, with "A very pleasant aroma and hints of maple, caramel and olives in the flavor profile." Maredsous Blond was number four and described as "Clean with a dry finish, but lacking complexity." The sample of Achel Blond had picked up a bacterial infection (gusher) and was "Hazy with oxidized flavors and aromas." The panel liked the Bink Blond least, calling it "Dry, overly bitter and one-dimensional with grass and cardamom flavors." Overall, tasting these beers back-to-back was an excellent opportunity to taste and compare these beers together - allowing a comparison of subtle nuances and variations on the style.

Belgian Blond Ales are interesting and refreshing beers that offer true Belgian character and drinkability.

 

 

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Belgian Tripels - Divine Golden Ales

When Pilsener Urquell introduced its clear golden lager beer in 1842, it started a revolution in European beer. Beers no longer had to be dark and cloudy or be hidden in pewter or earthenware drinking vessels. Over the decades that followed, the clear golden beers began to be served in glasses and became the rage in Europe. Everyone wanted pilsners. Darker beers - including many of the great traditional beers of Belgium - were waning in popularity. Belgian brewers needed to find ways to compete.

In the early 1930s, brewing scientist and yeast specialist Hendrik Verlinden of the Drie Linden brewery experimented with a golden ale to compete with pilsners and other popular golden lagers. In 1932, he released Witkap Pater, a tripel ale. He also helped the Westmalle Trappist brewery develop their Tripel, which they had been working on for some time.

A monk takes a reading in the Westmalle Trappist brewhouse

A monk takes a reading in the Westmalle Trappist brewhouse

At the time, it was commonplace for Trappist breweries to name their beers based on strength with the designations enkel (single), dubbel and tripel - corresponding to 3, 6 and 9 percent alcohol. All three strengths would have been darker beers. When Westmalle released its first Tripel in 1934, it was a strong golden ale - and proved to be a real game-changer. In 1956, Westmalle changed the recipe slightly to include more hops and it has remained unchanged since then. To this day, many consider Westmalle Tripel to be the standard by which all other tripels are measured. And there are many to be measured - from Trappist, abbey, secular and American craft breweries.

Tripels

Tripels are strong beers that are bright yellow to deep golden in color with a big, dense, creamy ivory head. They have a spicy phenolic, fruity and complex aroma with a distinct Belgian yeast character. They aremalty and evenly balanced with hops and alcohol. Tripels get their rich maltiness from a high percentage (as high as 100%) of Belgian pilsner malt with a small percentage of specialty malts such as aromatic and light crystal. Some tripels - like Tripel Karmeliet - add small portions of wheat and oats as well. Tripels also include as much as 20 percent Belgian candi (beet) sugar to lighten the body of the beer and produce a dry finish. Tripels are typically in the 8 to 12 percent alcohol range. They have a complex, rich, sweet, malty flavor that finishes dry and clean.

Tripels are hoppy in their aroma with a substantial bitterness - up to 40 IBUs. The hops and the malt are generally in balance with additional bitterness provided by the alcohol, which tends to stay well-hidden. Hops are typically floral and herbal varieties from Germany, England, France, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Belgian yeast definitely leaves its mark on tripels with spicy phenols (clove, nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon) and fruity esters (banana, apple, pear, apricot). Some brewers add small amounts of actual spices to their brew kettles for added depth of complexity. Most Belgian tripels are bottle conditioned (naturally carbonated in the bottle), which produces a soft texture, gentle carbonation, big pillowy head and added complexity.

Tripels are majestic beers. Both simple and complex - with high alcohol and restrained intensity - tripels are truly divine!

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Flanders Ales: Tart, Complex and Wine-Like

The town of Roeselaire - home of Rodenbach - in West Flanders

The town of Roeselaire - home of Rodenbach - in West Flanders

One of the most interesting varieties of Belgian beer is often less like a beer and more like another fine beverage - wine. Often referred to as the "Burgundies of Belgium," Flanders ales are the most wine-like of any beers in the world. In fact, their sister region in France is the Bourgogne (Burgundy) region. Aged for between eight months and three years in oak casks in the presence of microorganisms like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus (bacteria), Acetobacters (vinegar) and Brettanomyces (wild yeast), Flanders ales have a tart acidity that gives them a unique flavor profile.

Wine-like Complexity

Flanders ales tend to be very complex with distinct fruit flavors of cherry, plum, prune, raisin, raspberry or orange. They typically derive vanilla and spice notes and tannins from the oak casks they are aged in - contributing to their wine-like character. Since hops and sourness do not complement each other, Flanders ales are light on hops - less than 10 IBUs. Alcoholic strength is generally 4% to 6% or slightly higher.

Blending for Consistency and Flavor

Like many fine wines, Flanders ales are often blended. Because sour beers tend to vary quite a bit from barrel to barrel, brewers will blend different casks together to produce a consistent "signature flavor profile." Older beers (up to three years old) are often blended with younger beers (as young as six months old) to round out the intensity of the older beer and make it more drinkable. This was a technique Flemish brewers borrowed from English porter makers in the 19th Century and adapted to sour beer production.

West Flanders Red Ales

Flanders ales fall into two distinct camps. West Flanders Red Ales are produced in the western part of Belgium, near Bruges, and have a distinct lactic tartness, stone fruit flavors, a deep reddish-brown color and enormous complexity. The best-known examples of Flanders Red Ales are from Rodenbach, in the town of Roeselare. Other good Flanders Reds included Duchesse de Bourgogne, Vichtenaar, Cuvee des Jacobins Rouge and Monk's Cafe.

East Flanders Brown Ales - "Oud Bruins"

East Flanders Brown Ales - sometimes referred to as "Oud Bruin" (Old Brown) are also tart, but less so than their West Flanders cousins. They are maltier, deep brown in color, quite complex and sometimes a bit higher in alcohol. Oftentimes Flanders Brown ales are aged in stainless steel rather than oak and lack the oak characteristics of their cousins to the west. The definitive example of an East Flanders Brown is Liefmans Goudenband. Others include Vander Ghinste Oud Bruin, Petrus Oud Bruin and Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck Bacchus Flemish Brown.

Flanders-style American Sour Ales

Not surprisingly, with the popularity of sour beers on the rise in the United States, many craft breweries are taking on the challenge of producing Flanders-style ales. New Belgium, The Lost Abbey, Russian River, The Bruery, Odell's and a host of others are producing excellent - and quite authentic - versions of West and East Flanders ales. Look for that trend to continue for many years to come.

Flanders Beer Cuisine

Belgian cuisine is, without question, some of the finest in Europe. While the French, Italians and Spanish like to cook with wine, the Belgians prefer to cook with beer. One of their most-loved dishes is Carbonnade Flamande - Flemish Beef Stew. The beer it's made with? You guessed it - Flanders ale. Carbonnade is one of my all-time favorite Belgian dishes and I feel compelled to share the recipe here, because the cold winter months are the perfect time to enjoy it. One thing I'll mention now. There is a fair bit of debate over whether the beer to use should be a West Flanders Red or an East Flanders Brown. There are merits to both and one of the best batches I ever made used a small bottle of each. Whichever beer you go with, once you try it, you'll be hooked!

Carbonnade Flamande

Ingredients

  • (3) pounds chuck roast - cut into 1.5" cubes
  • (2) 11.2 oz bottles OR (1) 750 ml bottle of Flanders Red or Brown ale
  • (4) slices bacon - diced
  • (3) onions (medium) - sliced thin
  • (4) cloves garlic - chopped
  • (4) Tablespoons olive oil
  • (3) Tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • (1.5) cups beef broth
  • (2) bay leaves
  • (4) sprigs fresh thyme
  • (1) Tablespoon whole grain mustard
  • (1) Tablespoon dark brown sugar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • (1) cup chopped parsley plus more for garnish

Instructions

  • Marinate the beef for at least two hours or overnight in the beer, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt and the bay leaves.
  • Remove the beer and pat dry with paper towels. Reserve the marinade.
  • Heat the olive oil in a dutch oven and, working in batches, brown beef on all sides. Set aside.
  • In the same dutch oven, fry bacon until crisp and golden. Set aside with beef.
  • Lower heat and fry onions in bacon grease until caramelized - about 20 minutes.
  • Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until flour is browned.
  • Add the beef broth and scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the marinade, the beef, the bacon and the thyme.
  • Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 1.5 hours.
  • Add the brown sugar, the parsley, the mustard and freshly ground pepper. Cook for another 30 minutes.
  • Sprinkle with fresh parsley and serve with buttered egg noodles or french fries and a bottle of Flanders ale!

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Merry Christmas from Belgium!

Christmas beers are a long-standing tradition with Belgian brewers, and the practice of making a special brew for the holidays has quite a history in other parts of Europe and a growing appeal with American craft brewers as well.

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Scandinavia's tradition of Christmas beers goes back to the Vikings, who celebrated the Winter Solstice with Jul (Yule) beers, which each household was required to brew by law. Wassailing (the predecessor to Christmas caroling) was the practice of going from house to house and singing songs in exchange for strong beers. If the beer was not strong enough, there were consequences for that house. Later on, 19th Century brewers in Britain, Germany and Belgium traditionally offered stronger beers during the holidays as a "thank you" to their loyal patrons. The Belgians, who already used non-traditional ingredients in their beers, often added fruits, herbs and spices to their holiday offerings.

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Beers like Gouden Carolus Noel, Stille Nacht and Scaldis Prestige bring unique flavor profiles to the Christmas season. When Stella Artois was first introduced in 1926, it was a special Christmas beer. "Stella" means "star" - the Star of Bethlehem.

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Christmas beers are less of a style than a tradition. There are hardly two alike, although most are stronger than their year-round counterparts and often have some combination of fruits, spices or flavorings added to give them a seasonal festiveness. 

Another type of Belgian holiday beer that goes well at Christmas or New Years is Biere Brut or Champagne beer. These are very pale beers that resemble fine champagnes and are made using traditional champagne processes. Deus and Malheur are the two most well-known names, and Infinium - a collaboration between Samuel Adams and Weihenstephan - is also excellent.

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There are lots of great Christmas beers out there and no holiday season is complete without enjoying a few of them on these cold winter nights or at your holiday table. Raise a toast to the season!


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Another Great American Beer Festival

Well, another Great American Beer Festival is in the history books and this one was the biggest ever! I'll not bore you with the impressive stats of breweries and numbers of beers, but will say that if you love craft beer, Denver was the place to be this past week. From special limited offerings to great beers you just never get to try in your area, you could find it at GABF.

I could write posts for a week on just the high points but I'll keep it to a few standouts. Firestone Walker - as always - was a cut above the rest. Their Feral One Lambic-style sour beer was exceptional but the star of the line was their Anniversary XVIII beer. Absolutely stunning! Rich, complex, multi-layered and exquisitely balanced. Along the same lines, but even more over the top, was Samuel Adams Utopias - a magnificent blend of rare, old, barrel-aged treasures delivering wave after wave of flavor and a big alcohol punch.

Sours were huge this year at GABF and some of the better ones were at Asheville, North Carolina's Wicked Weed booth. They had several barrel-aged sours that made it clear why the lines were long and they ran out early. 

Every year, I discover a brewery I have never heard of that produces some truly exceptional beers. This year it was Brasserie St. James out of Reno, Nevada. They had several authentic Belgian Lambic-style beers produced by traditional methods and properly aged to perfection. Their delicate complexity and layers of rich flavors are not to be missed if you ever find yourself in that part of the world.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention how much I enjoyed tasting my way through the Pro-Am entries. If you're not familiar with these, they are collaborations between professional breweries and amateur homebrewers. The beers have usually taken top honors at sanctioned homebrew competitions before being brewed at the pro breweries. From ale brewed with carrots to Belgian-style tripel with muscat grapes, these brews epitomize the creativity and innovation that gave birth to the vibrant craft beer scene we enjoy in America today.

Sad to see the Great American Beer Festival come to an end, but the 2016 festival is only 364 days away. Cant wait! 

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Trappist and Abbey Ales - The Cornerstones of Belgian Brewing

When many think of Belgian brewing, images of monks and monasteries often come to mind. The monastic tradition of brewing beer goes back many centuries. St. Benedict (480-547 AD) started the modern monastic movement and his rule, "Live from the work of your hands," is a foundation principle of all monasteries.

Hard work and self-sufficiency are the rule and products produced (including beer) are used to fund the monastery's works. 

How did religious orders get into making beer?

Back in the middle ages, pilgrims, crusaders and well-heeled travelers dared not stay in taverns or roadhouses, where the clientele could be pretty rough. These travelers stayed instead in monasteries, which were charged with providing food, drink and shelter. It was a logical next step for many of these brewing monasteries to make and sell beer in their local communities, and religious orders soon became a force in beer production.

In those days, before bacteria and sanitation were understood, water was a constant source of infection and disease. Beer - because it was boiled and contained alcohol - was a much safer alternative and was consumed by adults and children alike. 

Many of these beer-producing monasteries are still around today and are still producing world-cvlass beers.

Trappist vs. Abbey

The designations "Trappist" and "Abbey" have very different meanings and are often confused. A Trappist beer is made by actual monks in a working monastery. Abbey beers are not made by monks, although they are often made in defunct abbeys or churches. These abbeys license their names to commercial breweries who produce beers on their behalf. In some cases, Abbey beers are named after fictitious abbeys or local saints. While Abbey beers are often very similar in style to those of Trappist breweries, they cannot carry the "Trappist" designation.

Trappist and Abbey Beer Styles

The Trappist breweries have established a family of beer styles, which are brewed by Abbey breweries as well. Not every brewery produces every style but has a slate of two or three to half a dozen offerings. Most Trappist and Abbey beers fall into one of the following styles.

Single or Enkel beers are low-alcohol beers - often from second runnings - that are intended to be consumed with meals at the monastery. They are often not available commercially.

Belgian Blond beers are golden beers that were developed fairly recently to appeal to pils drinkers. They are typically in the 6.0 to 7.5% ABV range with a subtle Belgian complexity, slightly sweet flavor, dry finish and an almost lager-like character. Leffe Blond, Troubadour and Affligem Blond are typical examples of this style. 

Belgian Dubbels are similar in strength to Blonds - 6.0-7.5% ABV - but are deep reddish-brown, malty and complex. They are variations on monastery beers that date back hundreds of years. Belgian yeast strains provide alcohol, esters and phenolics, while caramelized sugar syrups contribute rum and dried fruit flavors and a dry finish. Westmalle Dubbel is the definitive example of the style, along with Chimay Premiere (Red Label), Corsendonk Abbey Brown Ale, Grimbergen Dubbel and St. Feuilllien Brune.

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Belgian Tripels are another fairly recent style designed to go after the pilsner market. Tripels can be quite strong (7.5 to 9.5% ABV or more) with fruity esters, spicy phenolics and higher alcohols. They are complex with high carbonation and a dry finish. Westmalle Tripel was the original, but the style is popular with many Trappist and Abbey breweries. Other notable examples include Tripel Karmeliet, St, Bernardus Tripel, Chimay Cinq Cents (White label) and La Rulles Tripel.

Belgian Strong Golden ales are similar to tripels, but are even paler, lighter-bodied and crisper with a dry finish. They are spicy and assertively hopped but still complex and delicate - another beer style developed after WW-II to compete with pilsners. Duvel was the original beer of this style and others pay homage to Duvel ("devil" in Flemish, due to its strength and how it sneaks up on you) with devilish, pirate or mischievous names. Besides Duvel, examples of the style include Piraat, Lucifer, Judas, Delirium Tremens and Brigand.

Dark Strong ales or Quadrupels are dark, rich, strong and complex beers that are among the finest examples of the Belgian brewing art. A variety of malts and dark caramelized sugar syrups contribute to complexity and Belgian yeast strains add esters, phenolics and higher alcohols. The terms Dark Strong and Quadrupel are somewhat interchangeable. Dark Strongs are typically 8.0 to 11.0% ABV. Quads may be a little more alcoholic at up to 12%. Commercial examples include Westvleteren 12, Rochefort 10, La Trappe Quadrupel, Chimay Grande Reserve (Blue label), St. Bernardus Abt 12, Gulden Draak and Gouden Carolus Grand Cru of the Emperor.

Christmas and other specialty beers are brewed by many Belgian brewers, including many Trappist and Abbey breweries. These are often similar to standard offerings, but may be a little higher in alcohol (a thank you to their patrons) and may include special ingredients or spices. One standout Trappist that is like no other is Orval. Orange-gold and of moderate strength, it features spicy hops (some dry-hopped), a unique Belgian yeast strain and a touch of Brettanomyces for a citrusy tartness. 

In the coming weeks, we will explore Trappist and Abbey beers in more detail, including tasting notes on the various styles within the overall categories.

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Sour Beers - The World's Most Interesting Beer Styles

While IPAs still top the charts as the most popular beer style in the US, there is little doubt that sour beers are the up and coming genre of beer. Rare on this side of the pond only a few years ago, craft breweries large and small are now cranking out amazing sour beers. Sour imports from Europe - especially Belgium - are arriving in record numbers and supply is not keeping up with demand. In this post, we will take a high-level look at the range of sour beers. In future posts, we will focus on specific styles of sours.

What are Sour Beers and Why Are They So Popular?

Sour - or high-acid beers - actually go back hundreds of years with origins in Belgium, Germany and England. What gives them their distinct tart flavors and complexity are various combinations of wild yeasts and beneficial bacteria strains. 

Hops were not always the dominant flavoring agent of beer that they are today. The brewer needed something to offset the sweetness of the malt in their beers. Blends of bitter herbs, called gruit, were used to that purpose. Gruit often contained hops and eventually hops replaced the other bitter herbs. But, some Belgian and German brewers learned how to sour their beers, which also served to offset the sweetness of the malt. Because sour beers are labor-intensive and require long maturation times, they remained regional specialties - until recently. 

A Wealth of Microflora

Most beers are fermented with pure strains of brewers yeast and brewers go to great lengths to keep those strains pure. Sour beers, on the other hand, rely on wild yeasts and bacteria for fermentation. These microorganisms give sour beers their distinct tartness, funkiness and complexity. Where do these microorganisms come from? They are in the air everywhere - especially during the summer months. Go into a vineyard. The white powdery stuff on the grapes is wild yeast. It's actually hard to find any place on earth that does not have colonies of wild yeast and bacteria in abundance. In the days before brewers understood yeast, bacteria and microorganisms in general, they didn't have to seek out wild microflora; the microflora found the beer. Probably the only thing that kept the wild stuff from souring all beers was the fact that the tartness and funkiness take a while to develop and most beers were consumed young.

Sour beers get their tartness from strains of lactic bacteria - predominately Lactobacillus delbrueckii and Pediococcus cerevisiae. They get their barnyard funk from various strains of Brettanomyces yeast, often referred to as "brett." In addition to these, many sours contain other microflora as well. In Belgian Lambic breweries, great care is taken to not disturb the environment of the brewery for fear that the unique combination of microflora might be altered or lost altogether, thus changing the unique personality of that brewery's beers. 

Brewing Sour Beers

Sour beers are brewed pretty much like regular beers - with various malted and unmalted grains, water, hops and yeast. The magic happens during extended fermentation. After primary fermentation, during which most of the beer's fermentable sugars are metabolized by the yeast, wild yeasts and bacteria continue to feed on trace sugars, proteins and any other nutrients to be found in the beer. This nutrient-poor environment stresses these microorganisms, causing the production of various compounds that give the beer its tartness and funkiness. This is a slow process that can take from 18 to 36 months, although modern brewers use various techniques like kettle souring and special yeast/bacteria strains to speed up the souring process. 

Sour beer fermentation takes place in stainless fermenters or, more traditionally, oak barrels. When barrels are used, the souring microflora imbed themselves in the wood of the cask and that cask becomes an ongoing vessel for the production of sour beers, adding flavor and complexity. Sour barrels are highly prized by brewers.

Following extended fermentation, the sour beers are often blended with other sour or non-sour beers. Blending is important because the souring process is often inconsistent - with significant variations from barrel to barrel. Blending allows the brewer to produce a consistent product year after year. Once blended, the beers are often bottled and given additional aging. 

Types of Sour Beers

Belgian sours are undoubtably the most classic styles of high-acid beers, with several major style categories. Lambic beers from the Senne Valley are intensely sour and very funky beers made from a combination of unmalted wheat and barley malt. They typically get up to three years of aging before they are released and are often blended. Some lambics are also mascerated with various fruits - notably tart cherries and raspberries - a practice that pre-dates hops as the primary flavoring agent for the beers.  

West and East Flanders ales are other styles of Belgian sour beers. Flanders Red ales from West Flanders are deep red beers with distinct stone fruit flavors, lactic souring and a touch of vinegar on the palate. Flanders Brown ales from East Flanders are darker, more brown, and maltier.

A number of other types of Belgian ales, including the Trappist beer Orval, employ wild yeasts and bacteria to impart a lighter citrusy tartness to the aroma and flavor profiles.

German Sours include Berliner Weisse - a low-alcohol wheat beer with a tart and effervescent profile. Berliner Weisse was dubbed the "Champagne of the North" by Napoleon's troops because it reminded them of Champagne. Another German sour - Gose - has a light tartness and a bit of salt, which enhances it.

American sours are the new kids on the block, but are fueling the current public interest in sour beers in the U.S. While some American sours are modeled after their European counterparts, the creativity inherent in the American beer renaissance is driving the creation of whole new styles of sour beers utilizing innovative ingredients and specialized brewing techniques.

We will explore all these styles of sour beers in detail in future blog posts.

Sour Beers are Here to Stay

Not too many years ago, the tradition of sour beers in Belgium and elsewhere was in danger of dying out. The beers took a long time to make, were labor intensive and sold for the same price as more ordinary beers. The American beer renaissance changed all that by driving U.S. demand for imported sours while creating a strong market for American versions of sour ales. This new generation of sour beer lovers will no doubt sustain the sour market for many years to come.

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