I can remember the first time I drank a legitimately tart beer and didn’t recoil in horror.
It was 2011. I was just one attendee among thousands at Three Floyd’s Dark Lord Day, the first and only time I’ve attended that annual bacchanal of beer sharing and line-standing. I was of course there, like everyone else, to purchase bottles of the famed imperial stout (one of which remains in my closet to this day), but the true value of Dark Lord Day, and indeed most other large festivals, is the chance to share and try new and rare beer with geeks from around the country.
And that’s where I had it. Something fruit-infused, I am sure. Something that was nothing less than a total shock to the senses. Face-puckering. Warhead candy-like. But undeniably delicious.
And that was it for me; I was hooked on sours. Of course I’d had them infrequently before that point, but had been put off by some harsh, astringent examples. It wasn’t until the eye-opening experience I had in Munster, IN that it became clear why I was hearing more and more craft beer people evangelizing about sour beer.
It seems absurd that this was only four years ago, but that’s how things move in the craft beer world. Sours have of course since that point been one of the many beer trends anointed as “the new hoppy,” and one might even argue this title has since been passed on to new fads. But sours are undeniably still hot, still rising and are now being produced in much larger quantities by much larger breweries. That’s the true bellwether of how much tart beer has grown—it’s gone from something produced largely by small, farmhouse nanobreweries to a product that pours from the large-scale foudres of some of the country’s biggest craft breweries.
Likewise, sours have diversified. The rediscovery of styles such as Berliner weisse and gose have helped establish sub-styles of tart beer in American craft brewing: So much so that in ranking American sours, we decided to give Berliner weisse and gose each a ranking of their own. And even removing those two from the table, it’s a daunting task to compare beers that vary greatly in strength, barrel-aging, fruit additions, yeast strains and dozens of other differentiating factors. To illustrate this point, we sampled four different fruit sours from Crooked Stave earlier this week.
Nevertheless, we pressed on. Ultimately, we gathered 40 great American sours in one place for this tasting, and the face-puckering results will unfold below.
Rules and Procedure
Every one of these beers is at least somewhat tart. If it’s not sour, it’s not on the list. Everything else is fair game, except Berliner weisses or goses, which just had their own rankings. There was a limit of two entries per brewery. Yes, there are well-known beers that are missing. Yes, we tried to get something from say, Hill Farmstead. If it’s not here, it’s probably because the brewery chose not to participate. Feel free to add suggestions in the comments and we’ll do our best to include them in the future. Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery and brewpub owners, restaurateurs and assorted journalists. Badass, Paste-branded glassware is from Spiegelau. Beers were judged by how exemplary they were as individual experiences, and given 1-100 scores.
I can’t stress enough that this tasting contained the highest level of overall quality we’ve ever had for a ranking at Paste. There were some seriously heavy hitters present here, and even among these beers in “the field” that didn’t make the top 25, we really enjoyed almost all of them. Only in a few did we detect any sort of unpleasant off-flavors or imbalances that would make us think twice before drinking them again. It was simply not easy to crack the rankings—this competition was ultra-fierce.
Given that these tastings are about discovering the best beers rather than detecting flaws, the following beers are simply presented in alphabetical order. They are not ranked. I repeat, these beers are not ranked. They’re included simply so readers can see everything we tasted.
Almanac Beer Co. Dogpatch Sour
Avery Brewing Co. Raspberry Sour
Dogfish Head Brewery Kvasir
New Holland Brewing Incorrigible
New Belgium Transatlantique Kriek
NOLA Brewing Co. Lowerline
Orpheus Brewing Atalanta
Sam Adams American Kriek
2nd Shift Brewing Grace
Sun King Brewing Cherry Busey
10 Barrel Brewing Strawberry Cayenne Sour
Uinta Brewing Co. Birthday Suit (Sour abbey ale /w plum)
Upland Brewing Co. Cherry Lambic
Weyerbacher Brewing Co. Tart Nouveau
Yazoo Brewing Co. Perception of Reality
Next: Rankings! Sour beers #25-10