Sour Wheat Beers: American Innovation Meets Old World Invention

By Ashley Routson

Pale, tart and crisp—sour wheat beers are some of the least alcoholic and most refreshing beer styles. Although these styles are not brewed in the capacity that they once were, they have seen a mini revival in the past decade—especially in the U.S.—where some craft brewers have not only adopted the traditional German and Belgian brewing methods, but also modernized them with the addition of interesting herbs, fruits and spices.

As you can probably infer, what makes sour wheat beers different from their non-sour counterparts is the use of souring agents including Lactobacillus and wild yeast, or a combination of both in the fermentation process. Made with a blend of pale malted barley and wheat, sour wheat beers tend to be extremely low in alcohol with a lemony, almost yogurt-like tartness and can sometimes be a bit funky.

Although most Americans today enjoy these styles of beer on their own, in the past, they were all often served with flavored syrups, fruit purees or some kind of sweetening agent to cut their tartness. In fact, many of them are still served this way in Europe.

It is important to note that sour wheat beers are not exclusive to any particular group or heritage, many variations abound, but the purpose of this post is to look at three specific styles: Berliner-style weisse, Leipzig-style Gose and the Belgian-style lambic.

Berliner Weisse

As its name would suggest, the origin of the Berliner weisse is most commonly attributed to Berlin, Germany. Although beer experts debate the exact location and date of its origin, the first evidence of weisse-making in Berlin dates back to 1642. Upon discovering the Berliner weisse in 1809 while occupying Germany, Napoleon himself has been rumored to refer to the highly effervescent style as “the Champagne of the North.”

It was the most popular style of beer in Germany by the 19th century, being brewed by nearly 700 different breweries. However, by the end of the 20th century there were only two breweries left in Berlin, and a handful in the rest of Germany producing the style.

Much like the terms Champagne and Bordeaux are exclusive to wines produced in those respective regions of France, the term Berliner weisse is highly regulated in Germany, only to be used by beers brewed in Berlin. Today, many American breweries have adopted the style and actively use the Berliner weisse name in labeling German-style Berliner weisse beers.

The style is a tart, highly effervescent and low alcohol ale fermented with Lactobacillus (the same bacteria found in yogurt). Because it is most often brewed with pale malts, 25-30 percent wheat and bottle conditioned, the Berliner weisse tends to be moderately hazy and pale yellow in color. Its typical alcohol range is 2.8 – 3.8 percent ABV.

Traditionally, the Berliner weisse was served with a shot of raspberry or woodruff-flavored syrup to lessen its sour taste. Although still served this way in Germany, Americans typically drink it straight.

Commercial Examples

Gose

Although most commonly associated with the town of Leipzig, the Gose (“Goes-uh”) was first brewed in the early 16th century in the town of Goslar, where it gets its name from the river Gose that flows through the town. What makes the Gose most unique and unlike any other beer style is its slightly saline character that comes from the style being brewing with salted water.

It is brewed with a blend of pale malts and wheat and can be spiced with both coriander and hops. Although traditionally spontaneously fermented, modern versions undergo a more controlled fermentation with both ale yeast and Lactobacillus. The result is a tart, fruity, spicy and crisp ale with a slightly salty finish.

Only three breweries in Germany still brew a traditional Gose, but many American craft breweries have revived the almost-extinct style, adding their own unique twists to the traditional recipe.

Commercial Examples

Lambic

Quite possibly the most fascinating and complex of the sour beers, lambics hail from the Pajottenland region of Belgium—just southwest of Brussels. Lambics are 100 percent spontaneously fermented, setting them apart from just about every style of beer on the planet. Instead of a temperature-controlled fermentation with typical brewers yeast in tightly sealed tanks, lambics undergo an open-air fermentation with naturally occurring yeast and bacteria in a flat fermentation vessel called a koelschip (pronounced: cool-ship).

Over eighty types of wild yeast, bacteria and microorganisms can be involved in the fermentation of lambic beers—the most noteworthy being Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Brettanomyces lambicus, wild yeasts known for producing barnyard-like (funk) aromas and flavors. Another unique characteristic of lambic beers is the use of aged hops instead of fresh, which allows the beer to benefit from the preservative nature of hops, without absorbing too much bitterness.

Traditional unblended lambics typically take three years to ferment, although younger versions are enjoyed fresh and used to blend into other styles like gueuze. The various subcategories of lambic include: unblended, gueuze, faro, mars, kriek and other fruit blends. Unblended lambics tend to be the most tart of the group, while gueuzes tend to be the funkiest, with the strongest wild yeast (barnyard) character. Fruit blends tend to be the sweetest and most abundant, while faros and mars are rare and can be hard to find.

Commercial Examples

What Pairs with Sour Wheat Beers?

The high acidity and the very light and effervescent body of sour wheat beers makes them a rather difficult style to pair with food. Summer salads with vinaigrette-based dressings, ceviche, ripe berries, fresh and ripened cheeses, goat cheese, roasted chicken, white fish and some fried foods all make a good match for these delicate, yet complex beers.

Ashley Routson, known amongst the craft beer community as The Beer Wench, is a self-proclaimed craft beer evangelist and social media maven on a mission to advance the craft beer industry through education, inspiration and advocacy. She is currently the “Director of Awesomeness” at Bison Brewing in Berkeley, Calif., as well as the founding editor of DrinkWithTheWench.com, BeerMixology.com and IPADay.org.

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