In 2012, Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, founder of then-nomadic brewery Evil Twin, decided to see what would happen if he loaded up a sour pale with hops. While it would hardly be his most attention-grabbing trial recipe—that honor belongs to the fried chicken-infused IPA—it may have been one of his most significant. Called Sour Bikini, the beer was a gamble that paid off in a big way.
“We took an IPA recipe, but then did a sour mash and it came out awesome,” Jarnit-Bjergsø says. “It was really an experiment just to see what happened if you hopped a sour beer like an IPA. We’d never heard of anyone doing it before. It really brought out a lot of grapefruit notes that played well with the sourness and hops.”
Even in its early years, Evil Twin was already becoming something of a household name in craft beer circles and the usual, tart 3% ABV beer became an instant classic. “Sour Bikini is simultaneously strange and familiar, suited for IPA die-hards looking to escape a bitter rut, or intrepid drinkers eager to explore the sour waters, an accomplice to good times as endless as July sunshine,” declared beer writer Joshua Bernstein several years later.
Fast-forward to 2020 and sour IPAs still make regular appearances on the taplist at Evil Twin’s permanent digs in Queens. Sour IPAs may once have been a niche style, but these days, they crop up at taprooms from New Belgium to Wiley Roots. One of Evil Twin’s most recent iterations, The Sour IPA Is Dead, Long Live the Sour IPA!, is a ruby red beer brewed with passionfruit, raspberries, dragonfruit, almonds, and marshmallows, spiced with loads of nutmeg and cinnamon.
“We started out doing it as a very clean style, but now it’s evolved to the point where you can do whatever you want,” Jarnit-Bjergsø says. “Sour IPAs can be all over the map. You can do triple or double IPAs or pale ales. You can add different fruit or spices. How do you define a sour IPA compared to a sour beer with hops or a milkshake IPA that’s also slightly sour?”
While sour IPAs may have entered the mainstream, there’s no hard rules about what constitutes one. Generally speaking, the term refers to a hoppy sour, sometimes hazy, ale. It might have a touch of sweetness from lactose or it might not. Fruits, spices and, yes, marshmallows, are all allowed, but not essential.
We took an IPA recipe, but then did a sour mash and it came out awesome. It really brought out a lot of grapefruit notes that played well with the sourness and hops.”
“The term IPA encompasses such a wide range of flavor profiles that fall under the category. Now you have all these modifiers—black IPAs, brut IPAs, West coast IPAs, New England IPAs, milkshake IPAs, sour IPAs,” says Jake Guidry, brand director of Hopewell Brewing in Chicago. “As the American craft beer scene has grown, we’ve definitely run with that as the style.”
Indeed, the term IPA has gotten so broad that some have complained the term has become all but meaningless. Still, even if brewers don’t have a concrete definition of what makes a sour IPA, they tend to recognize its tart, tropical hop-forward flavor profile when they see it.
“A lot of the sour IPAs don’t have the same qualities as a traditional West Coast IPA,” Guidry says. “To me, many of them read more like sour beers, with all those fruity, tropical flavor profiles that are so in vogue right now.”
Jarnit-Bjergsø generally prefers to amp up the hop character on a sour beer. Meanwhile, Hudson Valley Brewery, which specializes in sour IPAs and has collaborated with Evil Twin, generally opts for a different approach. Since founder Jason Synan has long been fascinated with cocktail culture, he emphasizes blending batches together to achieve the desired results.
“After I had a particular one from Hudson Valley Brewery, I learned that they were actually blending beers to make the composite final product,” Guidry says. He was so intrigued that Hopewell adopted a similar method for Hopewell’s sour IPA, Something Or Other.
“When you’re doing the kettle sour method, you have less control over the final product,” Guidry says. “This way, we know that the sour ale is stable and what level of acidity it will maintain. There’s a lot of tasting along the way.”
Since sour ales rely on Lactobacillus and other wild yeast cultures for their signature funk, they also force the brewer to cede a certain amount of control. Hopewell has a substantial barrel-aged sour program and, according to Guidry, around 15 percent of the sour beer ultimately goes down the drain because it fails to live up to their standards.
“There’s always an element of a chance when you’re brewing sour beer,” Guidry says. “You’re almost always aging them in different vessels and the individual batches might not all be great. The blending process is where you really hone that in. It’s that final combination where the magic happens.”
Whether or not it’s blended in the final stage, what sets a good sour IPA apart from its hoppy brethren is that delicate tightrope-walk of sweet, sour, and tropical hop notes. It’s a rare flavor profile, one that often appeals to beer-drinkers who might shy away from a more mouth-puckering gose.
Part of our mission is growing the craft beer audience for people who don't think that craft beer is for them. Sour IPAs help bridge the gap.”
“When you’re talking sour, there’s a broad spectrum from brightly tart to bracingly acidic,” Guidry says. “In terms of flavor profile, it kind of reminds me of cocktails, where you’re bringing in all these different elements. If you have lime in a cocktail, you need a hint of balancing sweetness. Then the tropical, fruity flavors of the hops help tie it all together.”
Although sour IPAs are currently beloved by craft beer aficionados, that cocktail-adjacent profile also has the potential to lure over drinkers who might shy away from comparatively bitter, boozy triple IPAs like Pliny the Elder (or Younger). For LeAnn Darland and Tara Hankinson, co-founders of Talea Beer Co. in New York, that represents a huge opportunity.
“Part of our mission is growing the craft beer audience for people who don't think that craft beer is for them,” Hankinson says. “I think that sour IPAs present a canvas for beers that offer an opportunity for newer craft beer drinkers, just because the flavor profile is so expansive. For many people who say they don’t like beer, sour IPAs help bridge the gap.”
Mangotango, one of the brewery’s recent sour IPAs, has already been scooping up accolades. Talea has released several variations on the style in the brief time since the brand launched. The team considers sour IPAs a worthy style in its own right, as well as something of a gateway IPA to introduce newcomers to craft beer to a broader, more complex range of hop expressions.
“One of the first sour IPAs was called Tropicberry Tart Deco,” Daland says. “That really put us on that map. It was really well received among craft beer enthusiasts, but where we also saw huge potential was in taking it to audiences who thought all beers were super bitter, 10% ABV barrel-aged stouts and craft beer just wasn’t for them.”
To be clear, the fact that these beers are accessible doesn’t mean they’re dumbed down—or that they’re lacking in technical finesse. Regardless of how it’s produced, a sour IPA requires a finely tuned palate and a willingness to tinker with a formula in order to get it just right.
“Different breweries sort of have their different equilibrium points, how full-bodied or hop-forward or fruit-forward they like their iterations to be,” says Johnny Osborne, head brewer at Talea Beer Co. “What led us to that area that we settled into for a lot of ours, was a lot of bold decision making. It was a lot of, ‘Let’s see if we can push this flavor element that much further’ and then push other elements further in order to keep it in balance.”
Photo courtesy of Talea