I’m a big fan of sour beers. I like what they do to my brain, in terms of their inherent deliciousness. But also — and I say this as a bartender, host-of-tastings, and general observer of the business — part of the fun is what they do to the brains of other people. Nothing more efficiently upends a newbie’s naïve understanding of “what beer is”,1 and nothing seems so capable of making professionals spout nonsense. After a few recent articles and tasting sessions,2 I just want to take a moment to defend sour as a character and as a category.
People seem to get squeamish about the word “sour” for one (or both!) of two reasons: a kind of tactical / cautionary concern about the word itself, and a sort of taxonomic / classificatory complaint about it not really denoting a “style” or “type” of beer at all. Local writer Neil Miller started a peculiar ‘trendspotting’ article in an industry rag with a quote from the Oxford Companion to Beer3 which included both, and lodged the topic in my brain for a while:
While a certain level and quality of acidity is widely considered desirable in wine… acidity is usually considered a flavour fault in modern beers. When speaking of beer, the word ‘sour’ is usually pejorative. That said, there is a range of older beer styles that are traditionally acidic, and together with modern styles inspired by them, they have been termed, perhaps a bit rakishly, ‘sour beer’.
Moa’s [David] Nicholls has created two of New Zealand’s best-loved sour beers. Still, he is uneasy about the term. “For most people, it has a negative connotation: something sour, it’s unpleasant,” he says. “I think with ‘sour’, we’ve got off on the wrong foot.”
To me, this just rings completely hollow. It’s not really a worry that I’ve run into in my life on the front line of selling this stuff. People just aren’t afraid of that word. Go ahead and ask ten friends to name their favourite candy; at least one of them is going to say sour something — around here, they might even cite “sour worms” specifically, which is surely proof that people aren’t easily spooked by words that are gross in some contexts. They know the difference between sour milk and sour cream, and happily order sweet & sour sauce, or sourdough bread.
(It really was a great introductory article, though. I’ve complained a lot about the pitfalls of ‘outsider’ writing before, and they were avoided, here. Without coming across as touristy or breathless or clueless, it just lays out what these beers are, and why people are enjoying making them and drinking them. It certainly stood in admirably-stark contrast to the pile of nonsense published a day later in the Guardian, which included such howlers as “traditionally, all beers would have been sour (that is, naturally fermented)”, which is wrong on the history5 and the raw meaning of words, and “the interest in sour beers reflects a reaction against some oversweet, cloying craft brews we’ve seen in the last few years”, which is even-more-bananas trendwatching and almost exactly upside-down.)
But the other worry is worse. It’s there in the OCB’s “perhaps rakishly”, among other scattered appearances, and it flared up most famously last year with a much-vaunted “Stop calling beers ‘sours'” article in draft,6 which complained that:
The word “sour” reduces a broad swath of the world’s most fascinating, deep, diverse, old-fashioned-and-newfangled drinks to one of the five simplest tastes that our tongues can detect. […] Some labels help us make sense of a complicated world. Others just make us dumber.
There’s something to this; “sour” is a broad church — in terms of the making of beer (oversimplifying, there’s quick, front-end, kettle-souring and there’s slow, back-end, barrel-souring), the origins of various styles (in various regions and/or historical periods), and the overall balance of flavours (you can have relatively austere ‘pure’ sour, or it might be one note among a balance of malt or fruit or hops or all three). But the undercurrent is just such snobbish bullshit that it’s hardly worth dignifying. People shouldn’t be obligated to study the fine-grained technicalities before they’re allowed to use a generally-useful word. “Sour” is a perfectly good starting point for someone seeking to find — or to avoid — a beer to drink; the details can come after and are precisely what bartenders and beer labels are for.
And the nonsense of it. As if “sour” fails as a category because it’s too broad and there are different kinds underneath it. Really? Fuck off. “Red wine” and “white wine” seem to get along just fine as ways to organise your menu or your bottle store shelves. And I don’t recall much of a similar campaign against “lager”7 — or “ale” or “wheat beer” or any other useful-enough terms that can form some part of our understanding and communication. If you push this line hard enough, if “sour” is somehow an empty term, then “beer” is too. Just try and write out an all-encompassing definition — especially if you’re guilty of previously cheering or sharing that draft article — which doesn’t lead to absurdity at the edges. I wager you’ll fail.8 Because this is how language works. And yet we survive. “I feel like a sour beer” is a valid sentence. Context and implicature — e.g., “Netflix and chill” — and basic human sympathy help drag meaning out of noise. Snobbery helps no one.
- I don’t mean this as an insult. Everyone starts ignorant of basically everything. I drain-poured my first proper sour beer, assuming (to my continued shame-in-hindsight) that it was fucked.
- In particular, I was lucky enough to get along to Zwanze Day at Garage Project, which was nicely previewed by Luke at Ale Of A Time. Then, on the weekend, I dropped in to Hashigo when they had six Almanac hoppy sours on tap — though I only had time for one, myself.
- He describes the OCB as “authoritative”, which should’ve perhaps been a warning sign: it’s a deeply flawed book. And the rest of the piece is, frankly, bananas. The three ’emerging’ categories he cites are: sours (fair enough, in context), session beers (two years too late; the law change which prompted their explosion, here, was in 2014), and smoked beers — citing two beers released more than five years ago and one brewed with toasted coconut.
- I’m reliably informed that some of the results are properly excellent, but still haven’t had a Moa beer in several years, myself…
- I am, of course, not a historian. But this is (at least) an overstatement. Before modern sanitation and yeast culturing and such, there would’ve been all kinds of microbes in all kinds of beer, sure. But there’s a difference between (e.g., Bretty) funk and (acidic) “sour”, and the latter especially often takes a while to develop in ageing. It is, as ever, complicated. But “all beers were sour” is, I submit, going way too far. Happy to be corrected, though…
- Which Luke from Ale Of A Time (again) gave a good dressing-down at the time.
- But if it has happened — and I suppose it probably has, somewhere — it can fuck off, too.
- This is what we do, in analytic philosophy. We try to hammer out the real meanings of things, the necessary and sufficient conditions behind a category, and we test candidates by slinging weird counterexamples at them. It’s a strange kind of fun.