To sour or not to sour—that should not be a question. We don’t know much about suffering slings and arrows a la Hamlet, but we do know that enjoying this distinctive and lip-puckering (and lip-smacking) booze won’t cause any suffering at all. Sour beers date back for centuries, but they haven’t really been explored in the U.S. until recently. And now there are plenty to choose from. This is both exciting and daunting. While we support investigating all the options out there, you might want a starting point to help cut through all that sour noise. So here, we present our take on Cascade’s Manhattan NW Style Sour Ale as well as some info on sours. Cheers, y’all.
To get you rolling, we’ve started with Cascade Manhattan NW. A little background. Cascade Brewing has been cranking out sour beers since 2006. Founded in 1998 by Art Larrance (owner) and Ron Gansberg (brewmaster) and based in Portland, OR, they create only barrel-aged beers, using French oak, Kentucky Bourbon and Northwest wine barrels. Not willing to stick to mere hoppy-flavored beers, Larrance and Gansberg decided to use what was in abundance in the area—lots of wine barrels from wine country and a whole lot of fruit. And so the Northwest sour ales were born. They’ve perfected their methods over the years and the end result is tart, fruit-forward, complex flavors made from Northwest-grown ingredients. Sounds good, right? It is.
BUILD A BEER
The Manhattan NW blends sour quad and blond ales aged for up to two years in 12- to 24-year-old Kentucky bourbon barrels with sour pie cherries and apricot noyaux (French for the kernels found in pits of fruit stones, such as cherry, apricot, peach and plum—in this case, the apricot variety. Oui). An homage to the much-loved and much-imbibed Manhattan cocktail, Manhattan NW combines bourbon, bitter almond and maraschino cherry flavors along with some malty sweetness to make a fine drinking sour.
A FEAST FOR THE SENSES: SEE, SMELL, TASTE, FEEL, DRINK!
Time to get down to the nitty-gritty. The Manhattan NW pours a reddish hue with a white head that reduces to a spotty, lacy sort of cap and is medium bodied offering medium effervescence. Don’t let all that medium-ness worry you—the Manhattan NW is an excellent wild ale that's full of flavor and complexity. It’s got big tastes of tart cherry and some other fruit sensations, some musty funk, a hint of hay and straw, a dash of pepper and some oak earthiness. At the same time, don’t let all of those flavors frighten you off—it’s robust, but its smoothness balances the tartness, mixing fruit, funk and acid well. It’s easy on the nose, with aromas of, again, sweet and tart cherries, some fruits, bourbon and toasted almond. All in all, this is a very good sour: light and dry and not too much of a pucker. At 9.6% ABV, it’s pretty boozy, so it’s best to approach it as a slow sipper, since it’s somewhat dangerously easy to drink.
When you say sour, we say fat: Sour! Fat! Sour! Fat! Seriously though, the acidity of sours go well with fat and who doesn’t like a little fat anyway? Think charcuteries for this one: some nice creamy cheese, pickled onions (or pickled bits of any variety), and fruit or jam are good. And, of course, meat sticks always work (the more adventurous among you—and you’ve already proven you’re bold by diving into the sour pool to begin with—might opt for something a little more exotic than the usual meat charcuterie selections). Now just invite some pals over, maybe throw in a couple of other beers to taste for good measure and have a properly sour time.
Time to dive in a little deeper. So what are sour beers, you ask? They’re funky and flavorful, for sure, but they’re also many other things. Their unpredictable nature, a hallmark of the style, makes each drinking session a unique experience. Yields can change in flavor and complexity from year to year, and every bottle tends to appeal differently to different drinkers. But in general, sours are brewed to achieve high levels of acidity, which results in a sour flavor (as opposed to the sweet or bitter flavors of other beers, like ales and such). They’re tart, acidic and sharp and, while not made for every tongue, they deliver in a big way for those who enjoy a bit of adventure with their beer drinking.
Sours offer a nice range of beers—there’s Lambic, Kriek, Gouze, Flanders Brown, Flanders Red and Oud Bruin, all of which date back to when sours weren’t necessarily sour on purpose. Back in the day, acid-producing bacteria were kind of everywhere—on the ingredients, in the air, in the vessels—so most beers were automatically sour to a certain degree.
Eventually brains, science and sanitation caught up and folks figured out how to prevent beer from turning sour. And then they decided to make it sour on purpose. And beers became sour once more.
There is more than one way to make a sour, but the most common is to start with unfermented beer (also known as wort), which is then introduced to acid-producing bacteria, like lactobacillus, acetobactor and other weirdly named things. Once the beer gets a’fermentin’, it is kept in oak barrels or stainless steel tanks for a given amount of time (could be months, could be years). During this period, brewers may or may not add other ingredients—fruits and/or spices mostly—to get the flavor they want. After that, various barrels will be selected and combined into a single tank, which is then popped into bottles and kegs and, eventually, your gut.
There are other twists and tricks that brewers can use to make sours, and it is all that play that leads to such variation among yields. It’s also what makes it a little more expensive than other beers. Between the non-basic equipment and the chance that once the barrel is cracked, it may taste, well, awful, the costs of making the stuff can run high. But the payoff of a seriously unique and complex bottle with sophisticated flavors and aromas makes that extra cash pretty quickly forgotten.
Now that you’re armed with some sour stats and science, you can start investigating this style of beer on your own. Which is sweet.