Trends of the Year: 2) Sour Beers

Northwest beers are famous for being robust and, particularly, robustly hoppy. Breweries could be charged with giving other ingredients short shrift: except in a small minority of cases, malts are essentially a pedestal used to showcase the hops; Oregon water, so close to rain, is elementally neutral--no Burton-on-Trent minerals here; and except for stunted forays into lagering, yeasts are almost uniformly descendents of English ales.

I don't expect hops' supremacy to wane anytime soon, but 2009 will be noted as the year breweries started to get funky. Breweries have messed around with Belgian yeasts in the past, but mostly the safer ones--abbeys, biere de garde, wit, strong goldens. This year, they went sour. Off hand, I can think of at least five examples:
  • Cascade/Raccoon Lodge's range of funky beers
  • BridgePort Stumptown Tart
  • Double Mountain Devil's Kriek
  • Deschutes Dissident
  • Roots Flanders Red
The difficulty in souring a beer, what to speak of the danger, is demonstrated by Roots' entrant, which while it was announced months ago, hasn't actually been released yet. I haven't a clue why, but it's not surprising. Souring a beer isn't an exact science, like bittering it. Breweries have a few methods available to them, but they are at best unpredictable. At worst, as when Deschutes danced with wild yeasts, they can actually screw up other beers. If you are working with fruit, that will affect the sourness. When Ron Gansberg soured his blackberry and cherry beers, the blackberries actually made the beer more tart. I'm not sure how BridgePort soured their Stumptown Tart, but it wasn't an entirely successful effort. I found it to have a chemical signature. So it's not easy or safe work.

My guess is that we won't see this evolve into a major trend. Sour beers are niche beers. Even the companies that make only sour beers are small by international standards. Lambics, so beloved, are obscure enough that most Americans won't even have heard of them much less seen or tried them. But there may well just be enough nuts like me to make it worthwhile for a few NW breweries to continue to experiment with this high-risk, low-reward genre.

(In any case, the trend was so well-established this year that it prompted me to make the Sour-o-meter, one of my favorite innovations of the year.)