Beer and Pavement

The Sour Session

Posted in Beer by Zac on August 5, 2011

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The sour beer never made sense to me. I understood sweet. Bitter came later, but I got it, that and everything in between. However, the idea of a sour beer seemed wrong.

I started running with a beer-centric crowd just as sours were beginning to take off. I tried this and that, but none of it made sense to me. What was the big deal? The beers were either not that sour (Ommegang Bière de Mars[1]) or were frankly too sophisticated for my naive palate (anything from Russian River[2]). In a world of bitter hop bombs and syrupy imperial stouts, the sour was at least a respite from such abrasive flavors, not their equal.

As time went by, I began to appreciate sour beers, though. Of course, “sour” as a style barely began to describe these beers. Some were tart from processes in the mash. Others were soured with the addition of fruits or unique yeast strains. Still, others were soured in the barrels of beer’s sworn enemy: wine. The variations and multitude of supplemental flavors opened up my senses to a whole other world of craft beer enthusiasm.

However, something was missing. There wasn’t the equivalent of a Mikkeller 1000 IBU, Southern Tier Crème Brûlée, or Dogfish Head 120 Minute. Somehow, the imperial and extreme approach passed over sour beers. Sours are known for their subtlety. The goal with sour beer is not to make you pucker until your lips fall off. Instead, a sour is meant to tease the senses with a complex variety of flavors that recall tart berries, oak barrels, and ye olde farm house[3]. Although I really enjoy the ethereal qualities of a sour beer, sometimes I want the extreme to contrast the typical.

For me, the sour beer that best fills this want is New Belgium’s La Folie.

La Folie is a controversial beer. People either love it or they hate it. It’s straight sour. You can pretend to sense other flavors with your nuanced taster, all you really get is Sour Patch x 100 without the sugar.

The beer is flat, nearly dead with it’s thin ring of foam that circles the brown pucker juice within your glass. Maybe New Belgium couldn’t figure out how to carbonate this beast or maybe they didn’t want to. One can only imagine the fury this truly arrogant bastard[4]. would unleash on your tongue if there was even a few more bubbles to carry the sour further.

And if this truly is the extreme sour beer I crave, it’s remarkable that alcohol only accounts for 6% of its volume. Typically, beers with extreme flavors come correct with an extreme ABV. New Belgium knew what they had when they first poured La Folie down their gullets. Booze would only taint the sour with sweetness, a la those aforementioned Sour Patch Kids.

Of course, aside from supplementing flavors with some wooziness, alcohol is mainly there to slow your roll. It makes you sip a beer that’s meant for sipping, not chugging. Let the flavors linger. La Folie doesn’t need ABV. The sour slows you down on it’s own.

For this little sour session[5], I pulled out a La Folie on which I’ve been sitting. I really wasn’t aging it. It’s just that no one really wants to take that beer on and suffer the consequences.

It’s an intimidating beer. I’d be lying if I pretended that I wasn’t…I’m not still intimidated. The current packaging is way less ominous with its annual redesign[6]. When I first tried this beer a couple years ago, it came in the big 750 mL bottles, corked and baring only a tag and a little red stamp of the New Belgium bicycle logo. It took me two days sharing it with another dude to swallow it down.

This recent La Folie was less daunting. Maybe it was the smaller, cuter packaging. Maybe it was the last two or so years exploring Jolly Pumpkin, Boulevard, Captain Lawrence, Russian River, Stillwater, Odell’s, and more New Belgium[7]. Whatever it was, I enjoyed sipping that La Folie over pizza and while I brewed an imperial stout of my own design.

Love it. Hate it. Fuck it. It may or may not be a sour to you. It may or may not be drinkable. Whatever. La Folie is a benchmark for me when it comes to sour beer. Maybe it’s extreme, maybe it isn’t. All I know is that it’s more interesting, more controversial, more sour than whatever’s in your glass right now[8].

Notes:
1Is this even considered sour? That may be my first problem.
2Well, anything not named Pliny.
3Or a wet horse blanket, maybe even vagina.
4Yes, that is a tiny jab at friend of the blog Greg Koch whose Stone Brewery hosts an infamous sour beer event despite no sour beers of their own. It’s time Stone got on this, Greg.
5Or is it session of sours?
6my bottle looked like a wood barrel. Anyone know when those were bottled?
7Lips of Faith indeed. I could mention a long list of old Begians, but I never commit those beers to memory…aside from the Duchess. Sweet and sour, succulent Duchesse.
8This footnote is here just to let you know that I composed most of this post – footnotes and all – on my iPhone in a bar without a beer in hand and while local punk bands played on stage.

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15 Responses

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  1. Steve said, on August 5, 2011 at 6:37 am

    Thanks for a great post. Anything that makes me thirsty is a great post.

    Upon your recommendation I’ve tried a couple of saison beers, that have kind of had the sour thing going on, but in a reasonably subtle way.

    I picked up a Urthel Saisonniere as it at least sounded like a saison and really enjoyed it, and also picked up a Kernel Brewery Saison, which was excellent. I completely agree on the sourness acting like the alcohol-y-ness of other beer to help you slow down and appreciate the flavours. I also think a certain sourness is refreshing, which makes for a great summer beer, yet stops you chugging it down and not fully appreciating the beer/making yourself ill. I shall certainly continue my sour beer adventures.

    I’ve tried a few super-sour Belgian beers in the past and found them a struggle. It seems a fine line between sour-interesting and sour-tastes-like-vinegar. But maybe I’m not cut out for the uber-extreme beers – I’d much prefer a beer with some subtly and nuanced character than a beer that does one thing very well but VERY LOUDLY.

    Thanks again. This blog is like my Beer Clinic or something.

    • builderofcoalitions said, on August 5, 2011 at 8:17 am

      Some traditionalist blowhards would scoff at your comparing of Saisons and Sours, but you have a good point. I especially think the funk of Brettanomyces in some Saisons begins to border on sour. The Saison is a much more drinkable Sour, IMHO, and it sounds as if you agree. It’s good to know what you like while stepping out of your comfort zone from time to time. Many a beer connoisseur would agree with your preference for subtlety over extremes. I happen to like both to help me gauge where my preferences and taste buds lie. As always, thanks for the kind words.

      • Steve said, on August 5, 2011 at 9:07 am

        I did suspect that I was possibly making some sort of faux pas comparing saisons and sours, but thought I’d go ahead anyway!

        I happen to like both to help me gauge where my preferences and taste buds lie.

        I can certainly appreciate that. There’s a part of me that likes to try more extreme flavours in food and drink, and perhaps I just try to rein that impulse in a bit. Certainly with beer it takes some careful planning when it comes to the more extreme stuff – I have to drink it last, as it would overpower anything that followed, yet extreme beers are often strong enough that having them late on in a session/tasting is probably unwise. I do also suspect that beer, much like music, needs to have a weird/experimental fringe in order to inform what happens in more mainstream-y circles (craft beer mainstream, if not corporate mainstream) and keep the beer interesting. Ah, the fun of booze!

      • builderofcoalitions said, on August 5, 2011 at 9:40 am

        All good points, Steve. I’m not a big fan of limiting certain beers to one style. I think that’s why I like the beers who push convention and hover somewhere in between. Check my reviews of Stillwater and Mikkeller. They’re two of the best breweries at pushing limits of style. Many a good Saison features tartness and funk, both qualities are found in Sours. No faux pas in my book.

        I am a firm believer in the fringe element pushing the mainstream a bit. I usually see it in political circles, but it totally makes sense in beer and music. La Folie is a fringe beer that has an important place in the realm of Sours.

  2. G-LO said, on August 5, 2011 at 9:12 am

    Great article! I have tried few “sours”. Need to explore them further. I love the Brasserie Dupont Saisons, so if sours are the next step, or a possible natural progression, then I must explore these further. I don’t think New Belgium is available in PA/NJ. Any recommendations?

    Cheers!
    G-LO

    • builderofcoalitions said, on August 5, 2011 at 9:45 am

      If you can find them, Russian River is distributed in PA. They are probably the best sour producers outside Belgium (and possibly inside Belgium). Lost Abbey is another California brewery that does some great sour styles. I hear the Belgium brewery Rodenbach does some good stuff, but I have yet to get my hands on some. Besides some of the breweries I mention in this post, check out Ommegang. They’re a good stepping stone.

      • G-LO said, on August 5, 2011 at 10:00 am

        Thanks for the tips! I’ve had the Russian River Consecration Ale. Fabulous! Saw it at the local beer store yesterday, but didn’t feel like dropping $15+ for a bottle. I had a sip of one of the Rodenbachs once. Very very interesting. Will have to re-explore it.

  3. Jack said, on August 5, 2011 at 9:47 am

    Cantillon will melt your face. In a good way!

    • builderofcoalitions said, on August 5, 2011 at 9:55 am

      Yes. I can’t believe I failed to name-drop them. Although Cantillon is pricey, I like that they sell smaller bottles for those of us not able to afford the 750’s.

  4. jeffmenter said, on August 5, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Great post!

    I know it’s not strictly a sour but Avery’s Brabant is the beer that helped me start exploring sour/funky/wild beers. I’m sad that it was a one-off and won’t be around again.

    I had a La Folie last night at Uprise. This beer helps me imagine what it must be like to be in a truly dysfunctional relationship. I “hate” it but I just can’t stop coming back to it.

    • builderofcoalitions said, on August 5, 2011 at 9:54 am

      Yeah, that Avery Brabant was good. I had two and wished there was more. Your take on La Folie is something that I was hinting at, but you came out and said it perfectly.

  5. Dave Butler said, on August 5, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    I think batches of La Folie tend to vary quite a bit. Some batches can be rather acetic and vinegary and others can be quite smoother.

    If you ever get a chance to attend one of Avery Brewing’s Sour Fests in the future – go! It has some of the best sour ales all in one place. Only the GABF has such a collection of sours – only there you have to work to find them.

  6. [...] Through Beer and Pavement, Zac Early is looking for the “extreme” sour beer and settles on New Belgium’s La Folie: “La Folie is a benchmark for me when it comes to sour beer. Maybe it’s extreme, maybe it [...]

  7. [...] like a ton of NB beers, Lips of Faith brews are always interesting and often quite good. You know what I think of La Folie and that’s just the beginning as far as this series is [...]


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