Sours can take some getting used to depending on your preferences for beer. I can say without blushing that this was surely the case for me at first. I just couldn’t wrap my head around them.
My craft beer journey began with Widmer Brothers’ Drop Top Amber Ale. It was the first beer I had that didn’t make me cringe. It smelled good and had enough pleasing flavor that I could willingly take another sip. My young, early college palate didn’t agree with the Budweiser and MGD I’d tried before, but Drop Top worked. It was moderately sweet and easy and I was hooked.
It didn’t take long for the Pale Ales and IPAs to take hold. Deschutes’ Mirror Pond and Sierra Nevada Pale were bitter but pleasant and refreshing. Bridgeport’s Hop Czar took it a step forward, and for whatever reason, I could get down with the hops. I was too young to care about “extreme hopping” or to know what an International Bitter Unit was, but I was drawn further down a road of hoppiness that I couldn’t escape, and for the most part, still haven’t.
When a friend of mine started telling me about sour beers, I was baffled. What’s a sour beer? My mind literally couldn’t grasp it. I knew about bitter. I knew about sweet. But sour? Why would someone want a sour beer? This just didn’t make sense in my formative years.
That friend invited me to Cascade Brewing’s Raccoon Lodge in a Portland suburb one summer to give it a try. We ordered a paddle of tasters and I did my best to keep pace, but they just didn’t grab me. Cascade Brewing has been at the forefront of the American Sour revolution since they began their efforts back in 1998. There was nothing wrong with the beer – the awards confirmed as much – but I just wasn’t ready for them.
There’s plenty of nuance here, from the appearance of the beer to the nose.”
I continued to explore after that day, but avoided the sour stuff. After a while, I could tell my hops apart. I could pick up the notes of bourbon and oak on a Stout. I loved any Porter with coffee and/or chocolate. My palate was taking shape and the nuances were becoming more and more clear. Eventually I found my way to Saisons, and I was in love. They were light, elegant and sometimes funky. But there was a hint of tartness to a few, and those were alright with me.
Looking back all these years, the Saison was my gateway to (back to) Sours.
Farmhouse ales forced me to abandon my insistence on loud notes of hops, a huge malty backbone, and the absence of adjuncts. They forced me to listen to subtler tones. They forced me to reconsider all that I’d known about aggressive American beer styles. They forced me to discern.
When I finally found the courage to come back to sours, I was prepared. I sipped Highland Park Brewing’s Yard Beer #1 a few years ago, a Sour Ale with rosemary, sage and eucalyptus. And there I was, enjoying a true Sour, trying to pick apart the herbal notes complimenting the obvious sourness. It was in that search that I came around, because through all of the pucker you could actually search out the essence of the herbal additions. It was a challenge, one that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Fast-forward and Sours are now something I seek out and enjoy. After stints in Seattle, Phoenix and Los Angeles, I’m right back in Cascade’s backyard, living in Portland. When Cascade Brewing’s Tim Larrance offered to share a few bottles, I jumped at the chance. The Cascade Barrel House is a frequent favorite of PDX locals and beer tourists alike, and while the lines can be a deterrent, the beer never is.
Cascade’s 2016 Kentucky Peach is no exception. Pouring a light, golden orange with lacing and some foam, it has a beautiful presentation in the glass. There’s plenty of peach, apricot, and tangerine notes on the nose as it boasts fruit from the get-go. Faint notes of alcohol compel a sip, and on the palate, I found plenty of ripe peaches, tangerine, some orange zest, and a touch of balancing sweetness. Oaky tannins are evident as the initial sour factor fades, coming with a touch of bourbon and bright fruit.
There’s plenty of nuance here, from the appearance of the beer to the nose and culminating with a complex experience as it goes down.
And this is what can come from delicious Sours – an amalgamation of styles and experiences wound together in a single presentation. Kentucky Peach is, at its core, a blend of Wheat Ales and Quadruples. The Wheat Ales are aged in wine barrels and the Quads are aged on bourbon. Add fresh fruit and it offers spectacular characteristics that other styles can never accomplish.
Other drinkers may have had an easier experience gravitating towards Sours than I did. But what I’ve come to appreciate most about sours is the vast array of practices, bases, adjuncts and more that can give Sour beers a most-unique profile.
If you’re looking to really challenge your palate, there may be no better place to search for a vast array of complex, yet interwoven, characteristics in a single beer than can come from a well done sour beer. They’ll forever be part of my drinking repertoire, and for that, I’ll forever be grateful.