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updated: 9/11/2013 1:50 PM

U.S. brewers wake up to the taste of Germany's sour ales

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  • A passion fruit/dragon fruit Berliner: vibrant in both color and taste, is is example of a growing category of brews known as sour ales.

      A passion fruit/dragon fruit Berliner: vibrant in both color and taste, is is example of a growing category of brews known as sour ales.
    The Washington Post

 
By Daniel Fromson
The Washington Post

The two beers on the picnic table could hardly have seemed more different. To my left, as I sat in a beer garden during a recent trip to California, was a bottle of Russian River Brewing's Blind Pig: piney, citrusy and a popular example of the most popular craft-beer style in America, the India pale ale. On the right was a glass of a style defined largely by its obscurity. Its aromas and flavors were just as mysterious: It smelled of sourdough bread and coriander, and it tasted fruity and tart, like lemons and nectarines with a hint of salinity.

But the beer on the right, Almanac Beer's Flowering Gose, did have one thing in common with its counterpart. For decades, American brewers have infused foreign beer traditions with boldness and innovation -- by re-imagining the moderately bitter English IPA as the hop-saturated Titan of the U.S. craft-beer pantheon, for example. Now they're doing it again with Germany's little-known sour ales -- its goses and Berliner weisses, primarily -- reviving their characteristic lemony acidity and often pairing it with other ingredients, from fresh coriander flowers (in Almanac's case) to passion fruit. The result: low-alcohol beers whose intensity of flavors are matched only by their ability to refresh.

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Like their most famous sour brethren, the lambic beers of Belgium, Germany's sour ales arose during the centuries before modern sanitation, when naturally occurring bacteria and yeasts made beers throughout Europe at least slightly tart. Two principal styles, made with added wheat and fermented by lactic-acid bacteria, eventually emerged: gose, associated with the city of Leipzig and usually spiked with coriander and salt, and Berliner weisse, associated with Berlin, usually unflavored but sometimes served with herbal or fruit-flavored syrup.

The irony is that the de facto homeland of these styles is now America. "People expect, in Germany, that beer can taste bitter, sweet, malty, whatever -- but not sour," says the appropriately named Sebastian Sauer of the Cologne-based sour-beer brand Freigeist Bierkultur. "But in the U.S., people are really interested in that kind of beer, so we now have a chance to revive those beers from a past German age and give people a chance to drink it."

The revival he speaks of -- call it a Great Sour Awakening -- has already swept through the District of Columbia, where brewers have embraced German sours with characteristic playfulness. Consider the Black Berliner Techno Weiss, a chestnut-dark take on the pale-as-straw style, brewed last year by Virginia's Devils Backbone Brewing in collaboration with the forthcoming D.C. brewery Bluejacket. Or 3 Stars Brewing's rye gose, a collaboration with Oliver Breweries of Baltimore, featuring a grain that, near the banks of the Rhine, would typically go into bread, not beer.

Dave Coleman, the president of 3 Stars, says interest in German sour beers is booming at beer bars such as Smoke and Barrel in D.C. and among the enthusiasts in the local beer-blog and home-brewing communities. "And not even just us nerds," he adds. "I meet people who are just getting into craft, and they say, 'Oh, I had this sour! I had this gose!' They have just such a different flavor profile."

As Coleman and other brewers are imagining the future of the styles, they're also looking backward. Washington area home-brewer Mike Stein, for example, teamed up earlier this year with D.C. beer bar Meridian Pint and Baltimore's Union Craft to brew a "barleyweiss," an all-barley Berliner that was a riff on the pre-Prohibition sour beers that, according to Stein's research, might once have existed locally. "We're here, we love sour beers, so we kind of put those two things together," he says.

A regional reinterpretation is also emerging in a place where it might be the No. 1 thing about the local beer scene: Florida, where fruit-flavored Berliners are sometimes called "Florida weisse." Passing through the state in February, I tried a couple of the much-hyped creations of Miami-based home-brewer Johnathan Wakefield, whose Berliner-centric J Wakefield Brewing is slated to open early next year.

Wakefield's passion fruit/dragon fruit Berliner, a more vibrant shade of fuchsia than nearly anything else in the craft-beer color wheel, was as exciting in the mouth as it appeared in the glass. Maybe more impressive, however, was the beer he calls Phat Bottom, a Berliner packed with tart apple, a flavor that rarely comes across so vividly.

Additional fruit-flavored German-style sour beers: the Evil Twin Justin Blabaer, for example, which is the beer equivalent of a lemon-blueberry spritzer. The fruit-cocktail approach will also be evident at Bluejacket, which will feature a plum-nectarine Berliner weisse when it opens in D.C. this fall.

Coleman, too, hopes to do his part to keep Washington in German-style sours. He says 3 Stars has been tweaking its gose recipe with the goal of rereleasing the beer this fall. Meanwhile, however, you might be better served by reaching for a widely available Berliner. My favorite is the Professor Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse, which showcases aromas of lemon and apple, with a taste that fades from maltiness to a bracing but not overpowering tartness.

It's a beer worth getting to know. The Great Sour Awakening, after all, isn't about to disappear, and Sebastian Sauer, for one, thinks he knows where things are headed. "I'm very sure," he says, "that sour ales will be the new IPA."

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