What is Sour Beer? Origins, Production, and Brands

Sour beer, which has been around since the earliest days of brewing, is noted for its distinct tart taste.

In fact, many consider it to be the oldest type of beer in history, as most beers tended to be at least somewhat sour before pasteurization and sterilization became widely understood.

These unique brews are experiencing a resurgence in popularity, thanks in part to their pleasantly acidic profiles and intriguing complexity.

To create the signature sourness in these beers, brewers intentionally introduce living bacteria such as lactobacillus and pediococcus to the fermentation process. The art of crafting sour beers proves to be both a science and an adventure, as each brewer seeks balance between acidity, texture, and aroma.

With a variety of styles and regional influences, the world of sour beers offers a wide spectrum of flavors and experiences for drinkers to explore.

What is Sour Beer

Sour beer is a unique and diverse type of beer that is characterized by its distinctively tart and acidic flavors.

This style of beer has a long history, tracing its roots back to ancient brewing practices before the advent of pasteurization and sterilization techniques. Sour beers are often referred to as wild beers or Brett beers.

The sourness in these beers can vary greatly, from mildly tart to intensely puckering, and they are brewed as both ales and lagers. The brewing process for sour beers typically involves the use of wild yeast and bacteria strains.

These acids provide the characteristic sour taste of the beer, while the wild yeast strains, like Brettanomyces, contribute complex esters and phenols, adding depth and character to the flavor profile.

Many sour beers are also brewed with fruit, including raspberries, cherries, and peaches, which can balance the sourness with a touch of sweetness and enhance the overall flavor complexity. These beers can range from light and crisp to full-bodied and rich, depending on the specific style and ingredients used in the brewing process.

With their wide range of flavors and styles, sour beers offer a unique and complex tasting experience that appeals to both seasoned beer enthusiasts and those new to the world of craft beer.

History of Sour Beer

Sour beer is one of the oldest types of beer, dating back to as early as 4,000 B.C.

Before the understanding of pasteurization and sterilization, nearly all beer used to be at least somewhat sour. The process used to create sour beer is less structured than that of modern beer, which contributed to its early start.

Over time, sour beer has evolved as an acquired taste for many beer enthusiasts.

The production of sour beer is a risky and specialized form of beer brewing, often requiring expertise in Belgian-style beers. The Rodenbach Brewery of Roeselare, Belgium, established in 1836, is one of the oldest breweries still in operation producing sour beer.

In recent years, sour beer has seen a resurgence in popularity, particularly among craft beer lovers. Traditional sour beer making techniques have been combined with modern brewing methods, resulting in a wide range of flavor profiles for sour beers.

Sour Beer Production


Sour beers primarily use the same ingredients as standard beers, including malted barley, hops, water, and yeast.

However, the key difference in sour beer production lies in the introduction of specific bacteria and yeasts that contribute to the beer’s sourness.

These special microorganisms typically include Lactobacillus, Pediococcus, and Brettanomyces.

Fermentation Process

The fermentation process for sour beers is different from traditional brewing methods.

top of a fermentation tank

It often involves a longer fermentation period and the use of wild yeasts and bacteria. The introduction of these microorganisms causes the beer to develop acidic, tart, or funky flavors, contributing to the sour taste profile that characterizes these beers.

Traditional sour beer styles are made with spontaneous fermentation techniques, where wild yeast and bacteria present in the environment inoculate the wort, giving rise to the specific sour flavors.

Modern techniques may utilize a controlled process in which specific strains of bacteria or yeast are intentionally added to the wort to achieve the desired sourness.

Aging and Blending

Sour beers often undergo a long aging process, which can last anywhere from a few months to several years.

The aging process allows the acidity and other flavor compounds to develop and mature, enhancing the beer’s overall complexity and depth of flavor.

Aging occurs in various vessels, such as oak barrels or stainless steel tanks, that may house other microbes, further contributing to the beer’s flavor profile.

Barrel aging, in particular, can impart additional flavors and aromas to the beer through interactions between the wood and the liquid. Furthermore, beers aged in barrels that were previously used for other beverages, such as wine or whiskey, can acquire unique characteristics from the residual flavors of the former contents.

Blending plays an essential role in sour beer production, particularly in traditional styles like lambics and gueuze.

Brewers skillfully blend different batches of sour beer, varying in age and flavor profile, to achieve a balanced and harmonious final product. This process ensures consistency across batches and showcases the artistry and expertise involved in creating sour beers.

Styles and Varieties

Sour beer is a diverse brewing style that encompasses a range of flavors, techniques, and regional traditions.

a gose beer and a sour beer side by side

In this section, we will explore different types of sour beers, from classic European varieties to modern American interpretations:


Lambic is a traditional Belgian wheat beer that relies on spontaneous fermentation to achieve its distinctive sour and tart flavor profile.

This type of beer is brewed using open-air fermentation, allowing wild yeasts and bacteria from the environment to inoculate the wort. Lambic is often aged for extended periods in wooden barrels, contributing to its unique complexity and depth of flavor.


Gose is a German wheat beer with a signature tartness and slight saltiness.

Its refreshing and effervescent character stems from the addition of coriander and salt during the brewing process. Traditionally brewed using a top-fermenting yeast, some modern Gose recipes incorporate lactobacillus bacteria to impart additional sourness and complexity.

Berliner Weisse

Berliner Weisse is another German-style sour wheat beer characterized by its light, delicate tartness and low alcohol content.

Lactobacillus bacteria give Berliner Weisse its sourness, while the use of top-fermenting yeast contributes to its refreshing, fruity esters.

This beer style is often served with flavored syrups or fruit purees, allowing drinkers to customize their taste experience.

Flanders Red Ale

Originating from the Flanders region of Belgium, Flanders Red Ale is a distinctive and complex beer style.

Usually aged for extended periods in oak barrels, this ale develops a sweet-tart balance with flavors reminiscent of red wine or balsamic vinegar. The aging process also imparts a notable acidity, which complements the malty backbone and fruit notes of this elegant beer.

American Wild Ale

American Wild Ale is a modern interpretation of traditional sour beer styles, often combining brewing techniques from both Europe and the United States.

This category is characterized by its use of wild yeasts and bacteria, which can be either locally-sourced or added intentionally during fermentation.

These beers often exhibit a wide variety of flavors and intensities, reflecting the creativity and experimentation of American craft brewers.

Sour beers are an increasingly popular choice among beer enthusiasts, offering unique flavors and refreshing taste profiles.

Here, we will explore some of the top sour beer brands available for those looking to expand their palate.

  • Dogfish Head SeaQuench: This session sour beer from Dogfish Head has gained a broad following since its introduction in 2016. SeaQuench is a blend of three distinct styles: a kolsch, a gose, and a Berliner weisse. Its popularity has resulted in nationwide distribution in both 12 and 19 oz. cans.
  • Allagash Tiarna: From Allagash Brewing comes Tiarna, a sour beer that combines two beers produced using different Belgian yeast strains. This brew boasts a fresh, green, and tart flavor that manages to be both sweet and sour at once.
  • Westbrook Gose: A popular gose-style sour beer known for its tartness and refreshment.
  • Breakside Brewing Passionfruit Sour Ale: A distinct fruity twist on the sour style, making for a thirst-quenching option.
  • Cantillon Lambic: One of the world’s most famous sour beers, originating from the 1900 Belgian brewery.

While these brands are just a sample of the many sour beer options available, they represent a diverse range of styles and flavors that cater to beer enthusiasts seeking a unique and refreshing alternative to traditional beers.

Pairing Sour Beer with Food

Sour beers, known for their acidity and earthiness, offer unique flavor profiles that enhance and complement various dishes.

When pairing sour beers with food, consider the beer’s style and specific characteristics, such as the level of acidity, fruitiness, or tartness.

One helpful approach to pairing is to match the flavors of sour beers with dishes that can hold their own against the beer’s tartness.

For example, foods that are salty, fatty, or acidic tend to work well with sour beer, as they balance each other and create an enjoyable dining experience.

Here are a few recommended food pairings for different styles of sour beers:

  • Gueuzes and Lambics: These beers are known for their tart and funky flavors. Try pairing them with rich, creamy cheeses, such as blue cheese or brie, to counterbalance the beer’s acidity.
  • Flemish Reds/Browns: Earthy and mildly acidic, these beers work well with hearty, comfort-style dishes, like stews or braised meats.
  • Fruited Sour Beers: The fruity and tart notes in these beers can accentuate the flavors in a variety of dishes, making them ideal pairings for seafood, salads, and lighter appetizers.

Finally, it’s important to remember that personal preferences play a significant role in successful food and beer pairings.


In summary, sour beer is an ancient and diverse category of beer that has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years. Originating from Europe, these beers embrace unique flavor profiles, combining intentional acidity, tanginess, and tartness with various ingredients to provide a distinct drinking experience.

As traditional methods of brewing sour beers involve employing wild yeast strains and bacteria such as Lactobacillus or Brettanomyces.

This inherently complex and varied flavor landscape allows for creative experimentation, leading to innovative combinations with fruits, spices, and other ingredients.

Sour beers are produced globally, with Belgium often recognized as a leading proponent of these styles.

They vary in alcohol content, bitterness, and color, with ABVs ranging from 2.8% to 11% and a spectrum of colors from pale to dark. This broad array ensures there is a sour beer to suit virtually any palate.

For those looking to venture beyond traditional beer styles, sour beers offer a bold and refreshing alternative. Their unique characteristics and the vast array of flavors available make them an excellent choice for curious beer enthusiasts seeking something different.

Please drink responsibly, be fully accountable with your alcohol consumption, and show others respect.

Written by Lauren McKenna

Lauren is a soon to be Temple University graduate. Her love of travel has introduced her to food and drinks from all over the world. She provides MyBartender with a global view of all things alcohol.

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