This piece appears as the Drink Essential of Paste Quarterly #2, which you can purchase in print here. Paste Quarterly can also be found at bookstores such as Barnes & Noble.
Here’s the thing about exploring the world of craft beer: You can’t ever afford to settle on a definition to the term “beer.”
“Beer” is a multifaceted thing. The entire convention of “beer styles” is a modern concept, and one that was never deemed particularly necessary in certain brewing traditions, such as those of Belgium’s monastic beer roots. The vague concept of beer as a fermented grain product and the world’s oldest and most consumed alcoholic beverage may be a suitable starting point, but simply saying the word “beer” tells us little more about the liquid in the glass than saying the word “fruit” in reference to a bowl of apples, oranges and alien-looking durian.
Perhaps then it becomes easier to understand how the proliferation and popularization of sour beer styles has helped to transform not only the American craft beer scene, but also the demographics of the American craft beer drinker. In a consumer base that grows increasingly diverse on a yearly basis, and continues to grow closer to parity in terms of the gender divide, it’s impossible to discount the influence of sours. They regularly function as a route into the world of craft beer for drinkers who have never before discovered a beer style that speaks to them.
Among sour beer producers, Austin, Texas’ Jester King is routinely recognized as among the best in the world by both critics and fans. Renowned for their delicate blends of wild ales, produced via wild yeast borne on the air of their native Texas Hill Country, Jester King has created especially sought-after beers within the field of fruited sours. Typically, our picks for an Essential within the field of Paste Drink would be limited to a single beer, but here we will make an exception for two of these fruited sours that are each a transcendent expression of the heart and soul of their respective fruits: Aurelian Lure (apricots) and Atrial Rubicite (raspberries). Both are created from matured sour ales, which are then aged in oak with fresh fruit, which is allowed to re-ferment to dryness.
And “dryness” truly is the operative word, here. These are not the sickly sweet, saccharine “malternative beverages” you remember from your dorm days; nor are they anything like the cheap berry wines you can buy at your local winery, loaded down with residual sugar in a brazen attempt to hide the ABV. These are elegant drinks for the oenophile-aligned palate, easy to enjoy but rewarding to contemplate.
The first, Aurelian Lure, is the more delicate and slightly more acidic of the two, less bombastic in its delivery of “apricot essence” but quite bright and lively. Compared with the Atrial Rubicite, there are greater reminders here of the oak it was aged upon, with a more earthy background of funk and a light touch of wood and vanilla. Stone fruit blossoms on the nose, followed by a shock of tartness on the palate, which puckers the lips but then quickly and cleanly fades away. Dry and sophisticated, there’s nothing “dessert” about this fruit beer—it seems more like something one would drink with a plate of briny, citrus-accented ceviche.
Atrial Rubicite, on the other hand, is perhaps Jester King’s most sought-after beer; a liquid paen to the glory of fresh raspberries that delivers intensity of raspberry flavors while still avoiding the cloying, artless nature of more syrupy raspberry beers. An initial rush of juicy raspberry coats the tongue with a velvety smoothness and jammy red fruit flavors. The brewery’s marketing copy brags of a beer “devoid of sweetness,” but that’s not entirely true—compared with the Aurelian Lure there is certainly a natural sweetness brought forth by the fresh fruit that is wholly necessary, a vital dimension in a beer that still closes with an elegant, dry finish.
If you’ve never sampled a fruited sour of this caliber, it can be difficult to picture a beer that simultaneously provides a decadently fruity experience while containing hidden multitudes. That’s why they’re essential. Few styles are so likely to utterly redefine your personal concept of “beer.”
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer zealot. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drink content.