Do you enjoy the mouth-puckering acidic sensation of sour beers or do your taste buds scream stop? Influenced by a range of European styles including Berliner Weisse, Gose, Flanders Red, Lambics, Gueze and Kriek, sour beers still divide opinion. At a recent beer tasting the comments ranged from “good but not like a beer,” and “more like cider” to “like chewing a wet towel.”

Author: Jaine Organ
Pictures: Jaine Organ

An acquired taste is often used to describe food or drink that is initially disliked then gains a growing appreciation. Jan Dorpmans used the phrase on a tour around Cantillion, the revered Van Roy family-run brewery in Brussels, admitting that he wasn’t a fan of Gueuze-Lambics when he first joined Cantillon.

I was lucky to visit on a public brewing day and it was packed with beer aficionados as well as tourists keen to visit a brewery founded in 1900 and still using production methods dating from the 1600s. Guided round the atmospheric interior with its ancient copper vessels, billowing steam, narrow staircases, banks of bottles and aged oak barrels, we were told how the wort is exposed to the local airborne yeast resulting in spontaneous fermentation and shown elements of the brewing process: filtration and hopping, cooking of the wort, pumping of the wort into the coolship and traditional methods of barrel cleaning.

Cantillon Kriek has always been difficult to get hold of in the UK, which I assumed was due to taste and lack of demand however it seems more to do with volume and production. Jean Van Roy has said that he can’t meet current demand and it can only get worse. It’s a labour-intensive and expensive process, from the volume of organic cherries used in the Kriek to the price of the wooden barrels that can cost up to 1,000 euros each. And there’s another factor, not only does the weather have an effect on the quality and ripeness of the fruit, it’s also affecting the brewing period. Magali Van Roy said; “concerning global warming, we have noticed a change. Our grandfathers brewed from October to May and we brew today from November to March!” Jean Van Roy is passionate about defending traditional Lambic brewingagainst the pasteurised versions he regards as unauthentic and has campaigned for the name to be given Belgian PDO status (Protected Designation of Origin).

Craft brewers use ‘sours’ to describe a wide range of beers brewed under the banner. Elgoods brewery in Wisbech, east England has a similar pedigree to Cantillon; the brewery dates from 1795 and is run by fifth generation Elgood family with some equipment dating from 1910. Following a visit from the Belgian Brewers Association, they were encouraged to use their copper coolship trays to brew a lambic-style beer. They were more than successful, winning two international awards in 2017 and a gold SIBA award in 2018 for their Coolship English Sour Ales.

Sours might not taste like the high strength, ultra-hopped beer predominant on the craft beer scene but there is a growing interest. Eebria Trade UK beer distributors, reported an increase in sour beer sales of 2.4% to 6.4% in 2018. Mother Kelly’s in east London held their fifth annual sour festival in May showcasing an eclectic range of sours from Europe and the UK brewed with herbs and spices and fruits too numerous to mention – Beetroot Berliner Weisse anyone? My favourite of the night, from Norway, Lindheim Ølkompani Farmers Reserve: Avalon Plum Sour Ale 7.6% ABV, with a gorgeous caramel aroma, tart and fruity and a finish reminiscent of mineral white wine.