Last year craft beer went double digit – claiming 11% of the overall beer market. It was a big hoppy milestone, fueled largely by the wildly popular IPA. This chart from the Brewers association illustrates just how consistent IPA sales are year round, even when competing with the timely seasonal releases. Everyone loves a winner. Like anything that popular, its style has split and multiplied – in the IPA’s case into DIPAs, TriIPAs and [QuIPAs].
There has been talk – from the sort of people who say these things – that the reign of the IPA is coming to an end and the next beer style to win our hearts will be the relatively new category of Craft Sours. As a stand alone style, it is new – although it is a variant on the very old school lambic beers.
Your local tap room or bottle shop is likely highlighting a sour or few this month or the next. So, I called Michael Sellers, one of the good people at Birmingham’s Good People Brewing, about the new trend. “I like sours, I’m a beer guy. But they are sour, they aren’t for everybody. It’s a niche.” He laughed, “The IPA isn’t going anywhere.”
I poured myself a Rodenbach Grand Cru, with it’s elegant bottle and Champagne style cork. It was – words fail me – sour. They come in a variety of styles, but a true dyed-in-the-wool sour is a lambic – one of the ancient styles using any one of a number of “God will’s it” strains of yeast. This is really old school stuff – and I don’t mean Warby Parker selling Buddy Holly glasses old school – this is blood letting to relieve the spleen’s “foul humours” old school.
These beers also go a long way in explaining some of the weirdness those medieval clerics were always going on about. You can almost taste the medieval Belgian monks drinking this stuff to perfect their penitent grimace. Hieronymus Bosch was not drinking Mic Ultra when he painted whatever the hell it was he painted. Erasmus would hardly have written something called In Praise of Folly in such an unsociable year like 1509 without a belly full of lambic sour, which is hardly the point.
Sours are very interesting – and any self-respecting beer nerd needs to give them a try. They aren’t terribly heavy, but they pucker and pack a punch. But the good Mr. Sellers is right – these sours aren’t for everyone.
The Good Damn Beer scene is about to be flooded with variants on the sour, so you might as well see what it’s all about. But visions of an apocalyptic end of the IPA as depicted in a Bosch painting is a bit premature. The taste for the hops is almost certainly not waning – and the data point this out.
What may well be waning is the trend for the endless variants on the IPA, rather than the style itself. Sours are here, and they are a novelty. The great thing about craft beer – with its short command loop from brewing, consumption and feedback – is that sour beer will hang around as the prettiest girl at the dance for exactly as long as it needs to. The good ones will stay and the bandwagon beers will fade away, which is fine. We really don’t need another Hieronymus Bosch.