american sour beers

American Sour: Unveiling the Secrets of this Unique Beer Style

American Sour is a unique category of beer that has captivated the taste buds of many beer enthusiasts. Originating from traditional European sour ales, American Sour Ales have developed their own distinct identity, combining various brewing techniques and wild yeast strains to create a broad spectrum of flavors and aromas. Ranging from tart and fruity to funky and earthy, these unconventional brews offer beer lovers an adventure in every sip.

american sour beers

The history of American Sour dates back to the early days of brewing when wild yeast and bacteria were used in the fermentation process. Modern craft brewers have embraced this age-old practice, experimenting with various fermentation techniques and ingredients to create new and diverse sour beer styles. Whether it’s an American Wild Ale featuring spontaneous fermentation or a Gose brewed with salt and coriander, American Sour Ales offer a wide array of flavors and diverse characteristics that set them apart from traditional beer styles.

Key Takeaways

  • American Sour is a category of beer that offers a diverse range of flavors and aromas, from tart and fruity to funky and earthy.
  • The history of American Sour Ales can be traced back to traditional European sour ales, which utilized wild yeast and bacteria in the fermentation process.
  • Craft brewers continue to experiment with ingredients, techniques, and yeast strains, resulting in a constantly evolving and expanding assortment of American Sour Beer styles.

History of American Sour

The origin of sour beer can be traced back to Europe, specifically Belgium, where traditional brewing styles like lambic and gueuze were crafted using spontaneous fermentation. The Cantillon brewery in Brussels, founded in 1900, is recognized for brewing some of the most uncompromising examples of these sour ales.

The introduction of sour beer to the United States can be attributed to the growing craft beer movement. American brewers began experimenting with sour beer styles, infusing them with local ingredients and flavors. This led to the creation of American Sour, characterized by the presence of lactic, acetic, and other organic acids. These acids are either developed with acidified malt in the mash or produced during fermentation by the use of various microorganisms.

Over the years, American Sour has gained popularity and expanded into various styles, often featuring local ingredients and unique flavor profiles. Some breweries even specialize in sour beer production, dedicating their skills to the art of crafting the perfect blend of acidity, sweetness, and complexity.

The impact of Prohibition cannot be ignored when discussing the history of American Sour. Prohibition severely hindered experimentation and growth in the United States beer industry. Once Prohibition was repealed, it took time for the American beer scene to recover and regain its former creativity. The eventual resurgence of the craft beer movement in the late 20th century provided the ideal environment for brewers to rediscover and redefine sour beer styles.

Beer Styles

American sour beers are a diverse category encompassing several traditional and modern styles. In this section, we’ll explore some of the most common and popular styles found in the United States.

Berliner Weisse is a German-style sour beer characterized by its light body, low alcohol content, and sharp tartness. It’s typically brewed using a mix of barley and wheat malts, with the sourness coming from the use of Lactobacillus bacteria during fermentation.

Gose is another German-style sour beer that shares some similarities with Berliner Weisse. However, it includes the addition of coriander and salt, resulting in a slightly more complex flavor profile. Historically, Gose was spontaneously fermented, but nowadays, many American breweries use controlled fermentation with Lactobacillus or similar bacteria.

Lambic is a Belgian-style sour beer traditionally produced through spontaneous fermentation in the Pajottenland region of Belgium. Open-air fermentation with wild yeast and bacteria contributes to this beer’s unique flavor profile, which includes notes of barnyard, earthiness, and mustiness. Many Lambic varieties also undergo prolonged aging, with some brewers even blending old and young Lambics to create complex, flavorful beers like Gueuze and Kriek.

Flanders Red Ale originated in the Belgian region of Flanders and is known for its deep red color, malty sweetness, and tart, fruity flavors. This style is often aged in oak barrels, which imparts additional complexity and tannin-like structure. Compared to other sour beers, Flanders Red Ales tend to have more prominent malt character and a balance between sweetness and sourness.

Oud Bruin is another Flemish sour ale that offers a different flavor experience than Flanders Red Ale. While still tart, Oud Bruin typically has a more pronounced caramel or chocolate malt backbone, and its sourness is less acidic than other sour styles.

Lastly, American Wild Ale is a catchall category for sour beers produced in the United States that don’t fit neatly into traditional European styles. These beers often showcase creativity and experimentation, using various microorganisms, ingredients, and aging techniques to create unique flavor profiles. Some notable American Wild Ales incorporate fruit, spices, or other adjuncts to enhance the beer’s complexity and appeal to a broad range of palates.

Flavor Profile

Tart and Acidity

American Sour beers showcase a distinct tartness and acidity, which result from the use of wild yeast strains and bacteria during the fermentation process. This characteristic sourness can range from mild to quite assertive, depending on the specific beer style and brewing techniques employed.

  • Alcohol: Varies, but generally the ABV ranges from 4.4% to 8.4%.
  • Bitterness: Sour beers usually have a low to moderate bitterness, with IBU ratings between 25 and 45.

Fruity and Funky

These beers often exhibit fruity and funky aromas and flavors. The fruity esters can be moderate to intense, yet balanced, while the funky, earthy notes are derived from the presence of wild yeast and bacteria, such as Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus. The flavor profile can include a variety of fruit notes, such as citrus, stone fruit, and berries.

  • Esters: Fruity ester aromas are commonly present in American Sours.
  • Phenols: Phenolic compounds can contribute to the overall funky character of these beers.

Color and Appearance

The color of American Sour beers can vary greatly, ranging from pale gold to deep amber or even darker shades, with SRM values typically falling between 5 and 7. In some cases, roasted malt, caramel-like, and chocolate-like notes may be subtly present, especially in darker versions. The appearance of these beers can be hazy or clear, and the head retention can vary from low to moderate.

Fermentation Process

Yeast and Bacteria

The fermentation process in American sour beers involves several microorganisms, including yeast and bacteria. Wild yeast strains, such as Brettanomyces, contribute to complex flavors and aromas. Souring bacteria, including Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, are responsible for producing the characteristic acidity that defines sour beers. These microbes work together during fermentation, consuming sugars and producing alcohol, acid, and other flavor compounds.

Barrel Aging

Barrel aging plays a significant role in the development of American sour beers. The barrels used for aging these brews are often previously-used bourbon, whiskey, or red wine barrels. The interaction between the beer and the barrel imparts unique flavors and allows the microflora within the wood to contribute additional fermentation. As the beer ages, it undergoes a slow, secondary fermentation and picks up characteristics from the wood, including vanilla, oak, and tannins. The length of aging can vary, with some sour beers spending months or even years in barrels.

Coolship Fermentation

Coolship fermentation is an older technique utilized in the production of traditional Belgian-style sour beers, now adopted by some American craft breweries. A coolship is a large, shallow, open container that allows the hot wort to cool down naturally. As the wort cools, it is inoculated with the ambient microflora, including wild yeast and souring bacteria, that are present in the brewery environment. This spontaneous fermentation process imparts unique regional characteristics to the beer, creating a “terroir” effect. Once the wort has cooled and fermentation begins, the next step is often to transfer the beer to barrels for further aging and development.

The fermentation process in American sour beers relies on the collaboration of yeasts, bacteria, and the careful choice of aging vessels. With techniques like coolship fermentation and the use of various barrels, these beers acquire distinct flavors and complexities reflective of their regional microflora, ensuring that each one is as unique as the process itself.


In this section, we will discuss the key ingredients used in crafting an American sour beer. We will specifically focus on the importance of malt and wort, as well as hops in the brewing process.

Malt and Wort

The foundation of any beer, including American sours, is the malt and wort. The malt consists of grains, typically barley, that have been germinated and dried. This process allows enzymes to break down complex sugars into simpler ones, which are essential for fermentation. The choice of malt can influence the beer’s flavor, color, and body. In American sour beers, a blend of different malts is often used to create a balanced base for the sourness to shine.

To create the wort, the malt is mixed with water and heated. The enzymes in the malt convert the starches into fermentable sugars, which will later be consumed by yeast during fermentation. For American sours, it’s crucial that the wort has a well-rounded malt profile to support the sourness from the fruits or bacteria used in the brewing process.

Some common malt varieties used in American sour beers include:

  • Pilsner malt: Adds a light, crisp character
  • Wheat malt: Contributes to a creamy mouthfeel and hazy appearance
  • Munich and Vienna malts: Provide a subtle caramel sweetness and reddish color


Hops are another crucial ingredient in the brewing of American sour beers. They are the dried flowers of the hop plant and contribute to the beer’s bitterness, aroma, and flavor. The different beer styles require different hop varieties and quantities, resulting in a wide range of bitterness levels and flavors in the final product. The balance between the malt and hops helps in achieving a harmonious taste in American sour beers.

Since American sours primarily rely on their tart character, brewers typically use hops sparingly to avoid overpowering the sourness. Some of the more popular hop varieties used in American sour beers include:

  • Cascade: Offers citrus and floral notes, commonly used in American Pale Ales
  • Saaz: Adds a mild and spicy flavor, often found in European Lagers
  • Hallertau: Contributes to a delicate, herbal aroma, widely used in German-style beers
  • Citra: Imparts a strong tropical fruit character, popular in IPAs and Pale Ales

In addition to the malt and hops, American sour beers often incorporate other ingredients like raspberries, blackcurrants, black cherries, and other berries to enhance the fruity and tart flavors. These ingredients are usually added during the fermentation process, allowing the beer to take on the unique characteristics of the fruits. This results in a variety of American sour beer styles that capture the imagination of beer enthusiasts.

Alcohol Content and Characteristics

American sour beers are known for their distinct acidic flavor profile and a wide range of alcohol content levels. The alcohol by volume (ABV) can range from as low as 2.8% to as high as 11%, depending on the specific type of sour beer.

ABV and Body: In general, the body (or mouthfeel) of a sour beer is influenced by the ABV. Lower ABV sour beers tend to have a lighter, more refreshing body, while higher ABV sours can be more full-bodied with a stronger alcohol presence. However, the exact correlation depends on factors such as the brewing process and the balance of flavors.

Acidic Flavor: The hallmark of an American sour beer is its acidic flavor, which sets it apart from other beer styles. This characteristic tartness comes from the production of lactic and acetic acid during the fermentation process, often achieved through the use of wild yeast or bacteria. The acidity imparts a tangy, puckering sensation on the palate that can range from mildly sour to intensely tart, depending on the beer.

Some popular American sour beers include:

  • Bell’s Oarsman Ale, known for its wide distribution, affordability, and a milder sour profile with a 4.0% ABV.
  • Russian River’s Supplication, a barrel-aged sour with an ABV of 7.0% and distinct flavors imparted from aging in Pinot Noir barrels with cherries.
  • The Rare Barrel’s Ensorcelled, boasting a deep, complex sour flavor and a 5.8% ABV, created through blending various dark sour beers aged in oak barrels.

Sour beers can be enjoyed for their unique characteristics, and the broad range in ABV and body allows for a diverse selection to suit various preferences and occasions.

Pairings and Serving


When it comes to food pairings with American sour beers, consider dishes that complement the unique flavors of these brews. Some popular choices include:

  • Pizza: The acidity in sour beers can cut through the richness of cheese and tomato sauce, making them a great match for pizza.
  • Strongly flavored cheeses: The tartness of sour beers pairs well with bold, tangy cheeses, such as blue cheese or aged cheddar.
  • Creamy desserts with fruit: The acidity in sour beers can be a refreshing contrast against rich, creamy desserts with fruit, like a lemon tart or a berry cheesecake.

Remember to experiment and find your own favorite combinations, as American sour beers can vary significantly in flavor profile depending on the brewing process and ingredients used.


When it comes to serving American sour beers, proper glassware is essential for showcasing their unique characteristics. A goblet or chalice is the recommended glassware for these brews. Serving your sour beer at a temperature of 40-50°F (4-10°C) will help to enhance its flavors and aromas, offering the best possible tasting experience.

Popular American Sour Beers

New Belgium Brewing, based in Fort Collins, has gained quite a reputation for its sour beers. Their New Belgium Sour IPA is a standout example, showcasing an excellent balance of tartness and hoppiness. Another popular sour from New Belgium is their La Folie, a Flanders-style sour brown ale aged in oak foeders, giving it a rich, complex flavor profile.

In San Diego, you’ll find The Rare Barrel, a brewery specializing in the production of sour and wild ales. Their offerings often feature creative flavor combinations, such as berries, spices, and other fruits, resulting in a unique and innovative take on the sour beer style.

Rodenbach, a Belgian brewery known for its Flemish red-brown ales, has inspired several American breweries. For instance, Jester King Brewery in Texas produces a variety of sour beers influenced by Rodenbach’s traditional techniques, incorporating aspects like barrel-aging and mixed fermentation methods to create distinct flavors.

There are plenty of other noteworthy commercial examples of American sour beers. Here are a few favorites:

  • Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project Sour Rosé: Best Overall Sour Beer in 2023 according to, this rosé showcases an exquisite blend of bright fruit and tart flavors.
  • Revolution Freedom of Expression: Selected as the Best Fruited Sour, this beer combines strawberry and rhubarb to create an unmistakably fruity and sour drink, perfect for those hot summer days.
  • Two Roads Persian Lime Gose: A refreshing take on the gose style, incorporating Persian lime and a hint of sea salt to enhance its thirst-quenching qualities.
  • Wicked Weed Serenity: This American wild ale from Asheville, North Carolina, stands out for its 100% Brettanomyces fermentation, resulting in a funky and tart profile.

These examples showcase the diversity and excellence within the world of American sour beers. With each brewery bringing its own philosophy and technique to the table, there’s a sour beer out there for everyone to enjoy.

Cocktails and Mixed Drinks

Whiskey Sour

The Whiskey Sour is a classic cocktail that perfectly balances sweet and sour flavors. It’s a staple in the world of mixology and has been enjoyed for centuries. The key ingredients for this cocktail are whiskey, lemon juice, and sour mix. To make a traditional Whiskey Sour, you’ll need:

  • 2 oz whiskey (such as Wild Turkey American Honey)
  • 0.75 oz lemon juice
  • 0.75 oz sour mix

To create this drink, combine all the ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into a glass filled with fresh ice. To elevate the presentation, garnish the drink with a lemon wedge or a cherry.

For a slight twist to the classic recipe, you can also add a splash of club soda. This creates a lighter, more refreshing version of the Whiskey Sour.

Raspberry Sour

A Raspberry Sour is a fruity and refreshing variation of the classic sour cocktail. This recipe incorporates fresh raspberries, creating a vibrant drink with a delightful burst of flavor. To make a Raspberry Sour, gather the following ingredients:

  • 2 oz vodka or gin
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • 1 oz simple syrup
  • 4-6 fresh raspberries

In a cocktail shaker, muddle the raspberries with the simple syrup to release their juices. Add the vodka or gin, lemon juice, and ice to the shaker. Shake well and strain into a glass filled with fresh ice. To enhance the appearance, garnish the drink with additional raspberries or a twist of lemon.

The Raspberry Sour can also be made with other spirits, such as whiskey or tequila, for a unique twist on this fruity concoction.

Although these cocktails feature different flavor profiles, they both showcase the captivating balance between sweet and sour that defines sour cocktails. The use of lemon juice and sour mix adds tang, while the different spirits, such as whiskey and vodka or gin, bring their distinct characteristics to each drink.

Challenges and Opportunities

American sour beers have been gaining popularity in recent years, offering unique flavors and inviting a resurgence of artisanal brewing techniques. However, brewing these beers can present a unique set of challenges and opportunities for both experienced and novice brewers.

Stress can be an issue for brewers working with sour beers due to the inherently unpredictable nature of the fermentation process. The wild yeast and bacteria strains responsible for the characteristic sour flavors can create a higher level of uncertainty when compared to traditional brewing methods. This unpredictable nature has the potential to lead to inconsistent results, posing a challenge for brewers aiming for consistent quality in their final product.

Despite these challenges, the world of American sour beers offers a vast landscape of opportunities as brewers experiment with different recipes, ingredients, and techniques. New and innovative flavor profiles can emerge from these experiments, expanding the diverse range of American sour beers available to consumers. Tasting sessions allow brewers to analyze and refine their recipes, ensuring the desired balance between sourness, sweetness, bitterness, and overall complexity is achieved.

The appearance and clarity of sour beers can also vary widely, as they range from lighter, more delicate colors to darker, richer hues. Brewers need to carefully monitor color development and ensure that their finished sour beers maintain the visual appeal that consumers expect. The use of certain ingredients, such as fruits or spices, can further enhance appearance and create unique visual presentations that intrigue consumers.

Essential aspects of sour beer production, such as temperature control and sanitation, must be strictly monitored to manage the risk of undesirable or spoilage organisms. Brewers must invest in the proper equipment and closely monitor their processes to ensure the quality and safety of their sour beers.

Frequently Asked Questions

What makes a cocktail an American sour?

An American sour, or simply a sour, is a cocktail characterized by its combination of base spirit (usually whiskey), citrus juice (typically lemon), and a sweetener, most often simple syrup or sugar. The resulting balance of flavors—sweet, sour, and alcohol—has made this a classic and versatile category of cocktails.

How does a New York sour differ from a Whiskey sour?

While a traditional Whiskey sour consists of whiskey, lemon juice, and simple syrup, a New York sour adds a float of red wine on top, giving the drink a richer flavor, smoother texture, and a visually appealing layered appearance. The red wine brings depth and complexity, setting it apart from the classic Whiskey sour.

What are some variations of the New York sour?

Variations of the New York sour include the Royal sour, which includes an egg white for a frothy texture and a creamier mouthfeel, and the Parisian sour, which substitutes cognac for the whiskey and introduces a richer, more luxurious taste. These variations highlight the flexibility and endless flavor possibilities within the sour family.

What are the essential ingredients in a sour cocktail?

The essential ingredients for a sour cocktail include a base spirit (commonly whiskey, but other spirits like gin or tequila could also be used), citrus juice (usually lemon), and a sweetener (like simple syrup or sugar). These three components are the foundation of a sour cocktail, and the balance between the sweet and sour elements is crucial for the success of the drink.

Which wine works best in a New York sour?

When it comes to selecting a red wine for a New York sour, look for a wine with bold flavors that can stand up to the whiskey and citrus. A fruity, medium-bodied wine, such as Malbec, Syrah, or Cabernet Sauvignon, usually works well in this cocktail, creating a harmonious balance between the various flavors.

What distinguishes a Chicago sour from other sour cocktails?

A Chicago sour is another variation of the sour cocktail family and is closely related to the New York sour. The Chicago sour introduces an additional layer of complexity by adding a small amount of Grand Marnier, an orange liqueur, to the mix. This subtle addition brings a hint of orange flavor, adding depth and sophistication to the classic sour base.

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