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Monday, June 14, 2010

Is Sour the New Hoppy?

Hang around a good taproom long enough, and eventually you'll hear someone observe that "sour is the new hoppy." Indeed, in a market characterized by novelty and trends, sour is having its moment. Sour ales are getting quite a bit of press and have lately been named to quite a few "best of" lists. Breweries like Jolly Pumpkin, Allagash, Russian River, and Cascade all have been feted for their exotic sour beers.

So let's grant that sours have achieved "trend" status--does it follow that they're the new hoppy? It's hard to see how. Hoppy beers aren't a trend, they're the dominant player. As a useful snapshot, I just had a gander at the taplists for Bailey's and Belmont Station. Three of Bailey's twenty taps are sour beers, and one of Belmont's sixteen. I'd guess that's about usual--in the finer taprooms around the city, maybe ten percent of the pours are sour. Compare that to the seven taps at Belmont and six at Bailey's--over a third. And all of this is looking at taprooms, where diversity is a goal.

Sours are just a trend. A better analogy would be to say that sours are the new witbier. Or red ale. Or ESB. All of these styles had moments, but now have settled back down to proportional representation. Sours have achieved a level of appreciation that will allow them--I hope!--to maintain commercial viability, but it will be a snowy day in Bombay before we see a third of a pub's tap space regularly devoted to them.

Hoppy beers, on the other hand, are here to stay. Up and down the West Coast, but particularly in the Northwest, hops have become the dominant regional characteristic. Whenever the topic comes up, I point to Double Mountain as an illustration. When they first opened their doors three years ago, Matt Swihart and Charlie Devereux seemed keen to offer a broad range of beers. But now, with the addition of Vaporizer, they have three (!) IPAs in their regular line-up.

While this drives some people crazy, it's actually a good thing. Regions that manage to establish robust beer culture do it on the backs of a relatively narrow range of beers. In England, they don't sell a lot of saisons or bocks. In Belgium, cask milds and hefeweizens aren't common. And in Germany, you won't find a lot of taps devoted to tripels and barleywines. (There's the matter of the popularity of industrial light lagers, but that's a different post.)

The maturation of the American market will inevitably mean a self-selection of a portfolio of styles. In the Northwest, the process is well underway. Lagers don't sell well here. Belgian styles seem to have a pretty low ceiling. Ales, hoppy, strong, and/or dark--that's how locals like beer. But we also appear to have an appetite for variety, and so we are constantly on the hunt for the next new thing. Double Mountain, for instance, still sells a fanciful seasonal sour kriek. It isn't the new hoppy--Hop Lava doesn't sweat the arrival of Devil's Kriek--but there are enough of us who like novelty that we'll happily line up for a new experiment.


  1. Session will be the new sour. Wait for it.

  2. Yes, indeed...BUL180!

    It might be time to revisit the Doc's predictions for 2010. A post done back in January.

    Although not claiming to be the next Jean Dixon, the Doc predicted a Sour Beer trend as well as other future predictions. Playing Devils advocate, lets question the beer scene of the future.

    While American Hoppy beers have been a mainstay in America since Sierra Nevada and a few others started producing Hoppy Pale ales, there has been a constant evolution of the American beer palate. First evolving into other European ales and tweaking those style into American originals. We've seen lagers evolve in the Midwest and so on. Belgians came into vogue around the early 90's and have been growing ever since. American innovation has continued to develop new styles and new twists on old and new brewing concepts.

    Belgian beers may be a newer trend in the NW, but Beer Bars in the Midwest, West, East Coast and the South have been carrying decent selections of Belgian Beers for quite a few years now and thriving.

    While sour Belgians are a relatively new TREND in the NW, these beers have been long appreciated by beer geeks for many decades now. Lambic and other sour styled beers are over 500 years old and have been in constant production. This alone displays that Sour beers are beyond a trend in the world beer market.

    You mention a Kriek as a "novelty...experiment." Kriek's and Lambics have been brewed for hundreds of years. While America brewers are still trying to produce decent copies of the original Belgian Lambics, I don't think the style of Kriek can be considered a Novelty or experiment in the history of brewing.

    Hoppy beers with the exception of the British IPA which was only moderately hoppy compared to today's American hop monsters, are a relatively new concept; A definite "Novelty" in the history of beer. Are they here to stay? To some degree, yes. But the beer evolution continues all around our diverse country. Will they lose their luster? Probably. The history of hoppy beer is still a young one within the history of beer. Hoppy beers could become the Steinbier or Rauch or Mild of tomorrow.

    At one time Milwaukee was considered the Brewing Center of America... Now it's just a memory. Can we really survive with a narrow public focus on Hoppy Beers? What happens when and if the Hoppy trend bottoms out? Will the NW wish they had broadened their beer horizons? Could the NW become the new Milwaukee or are they on the bus for the next lengthy Hot trend in beer? Could the NW Hoppy beer become dinosaurs? The bigger question, is the public ready to move on to different styles and innovations when the times and trends change? Popularity is a fragile thing... Hip Hoppy Trends of today can become tomorrows novelties and dinosaurs of antiquity.

    Some thoughts to ponder.

  3. Intriguing, indeed. I don't think the hoppy beers need to watch their backs. I come across many people who began drinking and/or began drinking craft beer in the PNW so often a hop leaning beer is what beer is SUPPOSED to taste like. Just like those of us who cut our teeth on AMerican light lagers. To them, that IS beer, so many in the PNW know no other. I WISH Wild Beers (I prefer that designation over sour, thank you) would take over cuz I love them dearly, but you'd have a hard time convincing most of the 100+ brewery owners in Oregon who know that an IPA that is finished in 14-21 days (or faster) that is assured of being consumed even faster, is a worse idea than buying barrels, racks, and the beer, and then sitting on it for 6 months to 3 years. Especially when many consumers in our area are not willing to pay a premium for said time (and quality). Of course an over priced Oregon made wine purchase can be made without blinking an eye. With that being said, I think I'll go sample out of some pinot barrels. Great Post. Peace!

  4. I personally haven't caught on to sour beers. Although I do love trying them, they haven't quite hit that sweet spot (no pun intended)

  5. Isn’t it funny how trends end up becoming standards... just like IPA's became when England started brewing it in the 18th century. One could say that this was a trend which happened to help preserve the beer (AKA British October pale ale at that time) on the long voyage for export to India.
    I don't see sours (trend, or not) going away anytime soon.
    And what is this claim that sounds "don't taste like real beer"!? What does real beer taste like? A Budweiser Lager? A Heineken Pilsener? A small craft saison? A Widmer Hefeweizen (WITH an orange/lemon slice which isn't traditional at all)? A Trappist made Belgian beer? Who's to say what real beer tastes like? I suppose, it's in the palette of the drinker. For instance, my father thinks real beer is Coors. I'd disagree vehemently, but, it's what he thinks.
    I appreciate the argument on sours and I do not see them going away anytime soon. It should be fun to see how history plays out and if this blog post holds any merit in the future.
    I mean, at one point in time the trend (and ‘dominant player’, so to speak) was to claim that the world was flat.
    Thanks for the Puckerfest, Belmont Station. See you tonight for my 3rd visit!