An Intro to Sour Beer: Four Fruits from Crooked Stave

Drink Features

If you’ve been paying attention to recent Paste beer style tastings and rankings—Berliner weisse and gose just got their own tastings last week—then you’ve probably put together a theme: June, for us, has been all about sour beer. In short, if it’s tart, we’ve probably tasted it at some point this month.

But even among the craft beer geeks, sours can be a bit of a mystery. I know this to be true, because I certainly wasn’t an immediate fan of tart beers the first time I was exposed to them, a few years back. Everyone has their own route into the heart of beer, but my own wound through just about every other conceivable style before an appreciation grew for sours. It was a long, slow adoption, and I suspect it was the same for many others as well. And the first step is the simple admission or realization that the catch-all term “beer” is significantly wider in what it encompasses and implies than you previously allowed to be true. “Beer” can mean everything from a hoppy IPA to a roasty stout to a face-puckeringly sour, barrel-aged wild ale—they’re all equally valid.

Nor does “sour” simply work as a descriptor on its own. Tart beers can vary spectacularly in their flavor profiles even before fruits and other additives are considered, both through the strains of souring bacteria present and the way they’re introduced. Sourness can be induced at multiple different steps in the process and the actual level of tartness can fluctuate from barely discernable to barely drinkable. The fact that we felt the need to split Berliner weisse and gose off into their own rankings speaks to the level of variation going on in the American craft beer landscape when it comes to sours. They burst onto the scene in earnest within the last five years and rapidly became emblematic of the industry’s maturity. Not all of them are great, but the superlative ones are unforgettable taste experiences.

Having handled Berliner weisse and gose, then, Paste’s next upcoming, large-scale tasting/ranking will tackle all other American sours—nearly 40 of them, almost entirely from lauded, world-class breweries. It might very well be the most extensive, highest-quality tasting of sour beer ever put on in the state of Georgia. Suffice to say, it’s pretty exciting.

But before we get to the results of that big tasting, let us first examine a mere four beers to see how much even very similar sours can vary from one another. More specifically, let’s look at four different versions of the same fruit beer from Denver’s Crooked Stave. The brewery was kind enough to send us a bushel of different sours in Atlanta, and we were able to both enter two of them into the main competition (the limit is two per brewery) and use these four variations of their Petite Sour for this alternate purpose.

A tasting of four sour fruit beers from Crooked Stave

Each of the Petite Sour examples in our possession—Raspberry, Cherry, Boysenberry and Passionfruit—were identical in ABV, at 5.5%. Each is also described the same way on the label: “Mixed fermentation ale, aged in oak with ______.” They are, from a functional standpoint, identical except for which fruits were introduced in each batch. And that makes them perfect for a tasting lineup.

Petite Sour Raspberry

Of the group, the raspberry sour was probably the most cleanly expressive of the fruit on its label. The raspberry flavor pierces through, true and authentic, with no component that makes us think of candy or artificial raspberry flavor. Acidity and tartness are moderate to high, making for a zingy, prickling mouthfeel. It may have the best pure aromatics of the group—raspberry has often been called one of the easier fruits to brew with for a reason, because it lends its flavors readily and they stay potent for quite a while in the bottle. This one does smell heavenly, like plucking ripe-to-bursting raspberries off the vine and popping them in your mouth, one at a time.

One might criticize it as being somehow one note, but it seems to us that “one-note” is really the idea of this whole series. It’s meant to enable a tasting just like this one, to see how the base sour ale plays with each fruit addition. In the case of the raspberry Petite Sour, the base beer may be overwhelmed slightly by the fruit flavors, but they’re deliciously juicy, perfectly captured fruit flavors. It’s hard to seek anything more than that.

Petite Sour Tart Cherry

The fruit flavor of the Petite Sour Tart Cherry is somewhat less well-defined than in the raspberry version, and it falls a little bit flat in its delivery. Cherry is a somewhat more difficult flavor to mesh and capture in its “juicy” and “fresh” aspect without getting other flavor components as well that come off as musty or cheesy. In particular, there was a medicinal quality to this version of the Petite Sour that few of the tasters cared for. It also feels somewhat flatter in its acidity and tartness, as if the cherry had leached away a little bit of the pep from its step. All in all, this was probably our least favorite of the lineup—it also happens to be the lowest-rated of the four on Beer Advocate, for what little that’s worth. Of course this is all relative—if we had simply been tasting this one on its own, we may have all enjoyed it significantly more.

Petite Sour Boysenberry

I was looking forward to trying this one just out of curiosity—how often do you really see boysenberry outside of syrups on an IHOP table? Hell, I had to look up what exactly defines a boysenberry before I started this entry—turns out they’re a four-way cross between raspberries, blackberries, dewberries and loganberries. So there you have it.

Understandably, then, this version of Petite Sour displays some pleasant, darker fruit flavors. The aromatics are definitely blackberry-like, but in flavor it brings forth attributes that are more jammy—almost grape jelly at times. Very round, with soft edges, the tartness of this one is also a small step below that of the raspberry, but it’s integrated with the fruit somewhat better than in the tart cherry example. It’s still fairly dry (all of these sours are pleasantly dry, none were cloying), and drinks very easily. Perhaps not quite as assertive as the raspberry, but pleasant and unique in its own way.

Petite Sour Passion Fruit

Passion fruit seemed like the obvious outlier among the flavors of Petite Sour we were presented—with the other three, you expect a sort of sweet, jammy, “berry-ness”—they’re all apt to end up in a pie. And no one’s making passion fruit pie, as far as I know. So we correctly surmised that it would probably be the most unique. As it turns out, though, this may also be the best of the group.

Petite Sour Passion Fruit presents itself in a completely different manner than the other entries, full of white wine and citrus flavors, strong grapefruit-like presence and a plethora of other tropical notes. The lactic acid suits it perfectly, adding liveliness to the fruit flavors—handled perfectly, tartness breathes life into fruit like nothing else. It takes flatter, “flabbier” impressions, as they might say in the wine world, and discards the insulation to really bring forth authentic-tasting flavors that remind you of the fruit in question. This beer, although moderately tart, is light on the palate, effervescent and perfectly summery. It’s a sparkling example of how the choice of fruit accompaniment can radically transform the impression of an American wild ale.

Tasting these four variations on Petite Sour couldn’t help but get us excited for the prospect of a tasting that is 10 times larger, incorporating an even larger degree of diversity. Check back at Paste Drink later this week to see the results of that tasting, including more beer from Crooked Stave, Allagash, Cascade, Jester King and more. It’s going to be a dogfight for the top spot.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he was able to briefly put aside his annoyance with cork and caged bottles to taste quite a few sours this week. You can follow him on Twitter.

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