Story last updated at 4/2/2014 - 5:52 pm
Undeniably, the India Pale Ale is one of the hottest beer styles on the market these days. Who can deny the enjoyment of a big beer that's just bursting with flavor?
Another style that's growing in popularity comes with a twist. Sour ale, once a forlorn style only experienced by those with a brave palate, is making a huge splash in the beer market these days, and I'm a big fan.
One of my favorite beer stories is my first experience with sour ale. It was at a beer dinner at Humpy's years ago, and I wasn't prepared for this first puckering sip. I almost spit it out. I thought I was drinking a beer that had gone bad. The beer was a Flemish red ale made by a classic producer.
Rodenbach is a brewery in Roselare, a small town in the West Flanders region of Belgium. The brewery was established in 1821. The beer I sampled on that palate-turning night at Humpy's was Rodenbach Alexander, which isn't produced any more, although the brewery still produces other sour ales. Undeniably, Rodenbach Grand Cru is one of the most sour beers around today. We're lucky to get it here in Alaska.
Sour beer can impart tartness that ranges from very light - to downright acidic and vinegar like - in intensity. The sourness comes from purposeful "infection" of the beer with a little bug (akin to a strain of yeast) called lacobacillis. Most examples use a wheat beer as a base, and wheat can add a distinct tartness as well.
Certainly, the enjoyment of sour ale is an acquired, sometimes slow palate acceptance. Even some seasoned craft beer lovers never grow a taste for the stuff. My initial reaction to sour ale may have been more tempered if I'd been served something a little milder than Rodenbach.
Just a decade ago, you'd have had a tough time finding the stuff anywhere in Alaska, although the style's been hugely popular in Europe for centuries.
Today, a foray into just about any liquor store is bound to turn up one or two examples, and our better grog shops are likely to carry well over a dozen different sour ales. Virtually all of Alaska's craft breweries have made them, although few currently produce them on a regular basis and treat them more as occasional specialty beers.
Some national craft breweries specialize in the style. One of the most noteworthy is The Bruery in Orange County, Calif. Their incredible lineup is also available here in Alaska, I'm proud to report.
I've got a recommendation for an excellent starter beer when you're brave enough to grace your palate with sour ale for the first time, or if you're looking for a great sessionable beer that's not so sour that it takes a ton of getting used to.
New Belgium Brewing Company is one of America's most prestigious breweries. The brewery is located in Ft. Collins, Colo.
Alaskans have wanted New Belgium beer up here for a long time, but we couldn't get it because the beer was in such demand that we were "number 500 ... behind California" in line to get the brand, according to John Burkett, division manager of Odom/Great Artisan Beverage, one of our distributors up here.
The official launch happened in March 2013, when New Belgium showed up in Alaska with a slow, calculated release of the brand. We started out with 22-ounce bomber bottles of their legendary Fat Tire Amber Ale, Ranger IPA and a couple of others.
Six-packs followed, and we are just starting to see draft products show up on the more discerning tap lines.
Recently, I was browsing one of my favorite grog shops and chanced across a recent addition to the line: New Belgium Snapshot. Snapshot is a sour ale with training wheels.
Like many others in the style, Snapshot is made using both pale and wheat malts. Cascade hops add some spice in both the flavor and aroma. The beer is also lightly dosed with coriander and grains of paradise for an additional flavor kick. Our friend lacto shows up in the beer's finish with a nice little sour kick that makes the beer refreshing indeed.
What's interesting is that two base beers are actually made, then blended together in the end for the desired effect.
According to New Belgium's website, "add lacto (souring bacteria) to a portion of the overall wort, which produces lactic acid that gives a characteristic sourness and mouthfeel. That acidic portion is then added to other portion of the wort that was fermented with ale yeast. So two worts - a sour and a regular - are blended together to make Snapshot."
Snapshot is an unfiltered beer, meaning you can expect some haziness when this straw-colored beer is poured into your favorite glass.
A nice head rocks up, and it's paper white. It hangs around through the life of the beer and leaves some nifty lacing in the glass as the beer's consumed.
A hint of sourness is easily found in the nose, along with the pale and wheat malt presence. The coriander and hop contributions are background and the grains of paradise can be discerned with a little careful sniffing.
Across the palate, the beer starts out sweet. The wheat and pale malt add a soft, almost bready character to the center and the grains of paradise and coriander are more sensed than tasted. The grains of paradise give the beer a very slight, almost peppery sensation that really helps to launch the light sour kick at the end.
The other thing Snapshot's got going for it is a soft, light, almost creamy mouthfeel. The sour snap at the end makes the beer downright quenching.
Sour beers are often used for palate cleansers during a beer dinner to reset the palate after a spicy dish. That's all fine and good, but I love the quenching qualities of Snapshot and think I may have found my helper when I start the annual chore of shoveling snow off the lawn. Weighing in at 5 percent alcohol by volume makes more than one OK with me.
Once you grow a taste for sour ales, you'll fall in love with them just like I did. From there, branch out and try some more aggressive stuff. New Belgium's beers within the brewery's Lips of Faith Series are a good place to start. Look at some of the sour ales that our own Anchorage Brewing Company produces as well. Fear not! Pucker up and give sour ales a kiss.