Is Sour the New Hoppy?

Hang around a good taproom long enough, and eventually you'll hear someone observe that "sour is the new hoppy." Indeed, in a market characterized by novelty and trends, sour is having its moment. Sour ales are getting quite a bit of press and have lately been named to quite a few "best of" lists. Breweries like Jolly Pumpkin, Allagash, Russian River, and Cascade all have been feted for their exotic sour beers.

So let's grant that sours have achieved "trend" status--does it follow that they're the new hoppy? It's hard to see how. Hoppy beers aren't a trend, they're the dominant player. As a useful snapshot, I just had a gander at the taplists for Bailey's and Belmont Station. Three of Bailey's twenty taps are sour beers, and one of Belmont's sixteen. I'd guess that's about usual--in the finer taprooms around the city, maybe ten percent of the pours are sour. Compare that to the seven taps at Belmont and six at Bailey's--over a third. And all of this is looking at taprooms, where diversity is a goal.

Sours are just a trend. A better analogy would be to say that sours are the new witbier. Or red ale. Or ESB. All of these styles had moments, but now have settled back down to proportional representation. Sours have achieved a level of appreciation that will allow them--I hope!--to maintain commercial viability, but it will be a snowy day in Bombay before we see a third of a pub's tap space regularly devoted to them.

Hoppy beers, on the other hand, are here to stay. Up and down the West Coast, but particularly in the Northwest, hops have become the dominant regional characteristic. Whenever the topic comes up, I point to Double Mountain as an illustration. When they first opened their doors three years ago, Matt Swihart and Charlie Devereux seemed keen to offer a broad range of beers. But now, with the addition of Vaporizer, they have three (!) IPAs in their regular line-up.

While this drives some people crazy, it's actually a good thing. Regions that manage to establish robust beer culture do it on the backs of a relatively narrow range of beers. In England, they don't sell a lot of saisons or bocks. In Belgium, cask milds and hefeweizens aren't common. And in Germany, you won't find a lot of taps devoted to tripels and barleywines. (There's the matter of the popularity of industrial light lagers, but that's a different post.)

The maturation of the American market will inevitably mean a self-selection of a portfolio of styles. In the Northwest, the process is well underway. Lagers don't sell well here. Belgian styles seem to have a pretty low ceiling. Ales, hoppy, strong, and/or dark--that's how locals like beer. But we also appear to have an appetite for variety, and so we are constantly on the hunt for the next new thing. Double Mountain, for instance, still sells a fanciful seasonal sour kriek. It isn't the new hoppy--Hop Lava doesn't sweat the arrival of Devil's Kriek--but there are enough of us who like novelty that we'll happily line up for a new experiment.