Last year was the year of sour beer in Atlanta, although you might not have noticed.
In some places, the change was subtle. Restaurant beer menus, the kind that offer only a few options between pilsners, ales and IPAs, began to stock an occasional Berliner weisse or tart saison.
On the other hand, Atlanta’s brewpubs, the beer-centric bars that stock phone book-length selections, were the epicenter of the craze. Draft menus were overwhelmed with tart, dry and otherwise acidic brews from both near and far.
So, what’s the fuss? For starters, while American craft brewers long have put their mark on IPAs and Belgian-style ales, there hasn’t been as much domestic experimentation with sour beers until recently. In part, that’s because they’re simply hard to make.
“The sourness is coming from lactic acid-producing bacteria, which means that yeast is no longer the only microbe we’re working with,” said Jason Pellet, brewmaster of Orpheus Brewing.
Controlling that bacteria, typically lactobacillus (the same stuff that might be in your yogurt), can be a challenge. “These styles can get funky, in a bad way, without good technique,” said Blake Tyers of Creature Comforts Brewing Co. in Athens.
When it does work, sour beer can be a revelation. A well-made Berliner weisse can possess the easy-drinking body of a pilsner but offer the complex flavors of a dry, mineral-forward glass of white wine.
That combination — lighter body and brighter flavor — can make for particularly interesting pairings with everything from light fare like seafood to heavy, fried dishes. When aged for years in barrels, sour beers can produce deeper, even more complex flavors, but, considering the nascent age of the trend, most local sours available are quick, kettle-soured brews.
If 2015 was sour beer’s breakout year in Atlanta, is 2016 the year that it goes mainstream? Maybe not quite.
“We regularly have people in our tasting room who have never tried one before, so there’s still a lot of room for growth,” Pellet said.
Still, Georgia brewers are producing a number of impressive sour beers. Here are three of the best and most popular:
Athena, Berliner Weisse, Creature Comforts Brewing Co., 4.5 percent alcohol by volume
Brewed inside a cavernous former car dealership in downtown Athens, Athena is Creature Comforts’ nod to one of the most classic sour styles.
“We wanted a refreshing, tart beer that paid close homage to the old Berlin wheat beers, popular long ago and nearly extinct now. We experimented with process for quite some time to get the acid levels balanced and to where we wanted,” Tyers said.
This lightly fruity, supremely balanced wheat beer might be the best introduction to sour beer that Georgia has to offer. Available year-round in six packs and on draft.
Atalanta, Tart Plum Saison, Orpheus Brewing, 5.25 percent abv
Georgia’s first available canned sour beer is still one of the best.
The plums, cold-pressed by local juice shop Arden’s Garden for Orpheus, put a stronger fruit-forward note into the flavor but don’t compromise the supremely dry saison finish.
Pellet said he started Orpheus in part because of the lack of sour beer availability in Georgia. Now, Atalanta outsells his IPAs. Available year-round in six packs and on draft.
General Joe’s Quickstep, Imperial Berliner Weisse, Burnt Hickory Brewery, 5.5 percent abv
This Kennesaw brewery recently brought on Greg Niznik to expand its sour brewing program.
Burnt Hickory is expected to release a number of sour beers later this year, but Niznik calls its first sour beer, General Joe’s, an imperial Berliner weiss because of the 5.5 percent abv, slightly stronger than your average.
The result is a heftier and less tart brew, but still possessing that drinkable, acidic essence. Available a few times a year in 22-ounce bottles and on draft.