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Sour beers: The disgusting but trendy summer drink

Carrboro's Steel String Brewery makes a Zupfen, a sour German beer that’s light, cloudy and low in alcohol and hops.
Carrboro's Steel String Brewery makes a Zupfen, a sour German beer that’s light, cloudy and low in alcohol and hops. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Leave it to Carrboro to be on top of the latest trend.

More and more people are hearing about sour beer and asking what it is, exactly. There’s a wide range of flavors, styles and intensity when it comes to the increasingly popular sour beers.

Also, they’re almost all gross.

I had first written “they’re all gross” and then I tried one last beer while writing this column and found that I actually liked it.

Zupfen, from Steel String Brewery in Carrboro, is a textbook gose – a sour German beer that’s light, cloudy and low in alcohol and hops. Crisp with a bit of tartness, it’s almost like a cider without the sweetness.

It’s brewed with sea salt and coriander, though neither flavor is overly obvious. That’s good because if you’re a brewer thinking, “This sour beer would be better if only we brewed it using water from the ocean,” then please just stop.

You’ll probably read more about sour beers as 2016 heats up; they’re widely regarded as a summer beer. Zupfen, at least, was good on a hot day. Pair it with a vinaigrette-dressed salad, like I did; the light, tart flavors of both go well together.

But still, I can’t understand why sour beers are so trendy. So I called Steel String brewer Will Isley and asked him to convince me I’m wrong.

“I think it’s just part of every beer drinker’s progression,” Isley said. “I don’t think I would neccessarily want to convince you because you’ll get there yourself.”

Isley knows. He’s been on that journey himself and only got into sour beers after brewing some saisons (which I wrote about loving in February’s column), making them more and more acidic, and then decided to take it from there.

“I was actually against sours when we first opened three years ago,” he said. “I never thought I would brew a sour.”

Personally, I’ve tried probably two dozen different ones, including a couple made using yeast from bugs.

Yeah. You’re welcome, readers, for putting myself through this so you don’t have to. But at the same time I wonder if I just need to drink more – like black coffee, will sour beers grow on me after the initial painful experiences?

Sour is hot

But sour is all the rage right now. In a recent column on Big Boss Brewing’s success in Raleigh, writer Daniel Hartis noted how the brewery is investing in its future by “stocking the industrial building with barrels that once held bourbon, scotch, rum and wine.”

While most barrel-aging makes beer smokier or earthier, wine barrels accentuate sour flavors. But what makes a beer sour? Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, which typically go by nicknames.

“There’s basically only three souring microbes,” Isley said. “There’s Brett, which is a yeast, lacto, which is a bacteria and pedio, which is a bacteria.”

Isley said skeptics like me should stick to sours beers made only with Lacto, “the approachable one.”

The bacteria give the sour flavors; yeasts like Brett lend a funkier taste. The New York Times said it “makes flavorful beers,” but The New York Times also told us to put peas in our guacamole.

If I had to give a second place award it would go to Myrtille, a tart blueberry beer from Wicked Weed, the undisputed champion of sour beers in North Carolina. The Asheville brewery even has a sour beer “Funkatorium” taproom, a torture chamber run by hipsters, for hipsters.

I had Myrtille at a sour beer fiesta last month at Durham’s Glass Jug bottle shop. My poor fiancee came along and helped me fight through a handful of half-pours the bartenders were offering. Being a supportive partner, I took funny photos of her contorted face when she tried each one.

With their German roots, perhaps it’s fitting that about the only thing sour beers are good for is schadenfreude.

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran

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