Hello Sour Beer Friends!
Today we get to talk about something that doesn’t usually play a significant role in sour beers… Hops! While hops are a critical component in the recipes for a vast majority of both the classic beer styles and styles developing in the American craft beer scene, they typically take a back seat in the formulation of sour beers. This is the case because when hops are utilized in the boiling process the bitterness they add can clash with the acidity developed in a sour beer.
In fact, when thinking about how ingredients in a food or drink recipe are utilized, one typically uses either sour flavors or bitter flavors to balance sweetness. In beer, the malt or other cereal grains provide sweetness in the form of both fermentable and non-fermentable sugars (often referred to as a beer’s “malt backbone”). When hops are boiled they produce bitter alpha-acids which then balance this sweetness. Without something to balance the malt, even light bodied beers would taste cloyingly sweet as well as bland and one-dimensional. Contrasting hop-bittered beers, sour beers utilize organic acids produced during the fermentation to balance malt sweetness. In this way, the flavor profile of many sour beers share commonalities with wine, in which natural acidity from the grapes balances both residual sugar sweetness and perceived ester sweetness also from the grapes.
There are examples of beers in which a combination of bitterness and souring do taste good together, but these tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Gueuze, a style blended from lambics of differing ages, comes to mind. Some very good gueuzes can actually be slightly bitter in addition to being sour. Keep in mind that this is relative to no bitterness whatsoever. These gueuzes may contain on average as many as 10 to 20 IBU’s (International Bitterness Units, a way of measuring alpha-acid in a beer). When compared to styles like American Pale Ale (30-45 IBUs) or India Pale Ale (40-70 IBUs), we see that these sours are still significantly less bitter than many common types of craft beer.
Barrel aged stock ales which have been left to sour are another style of beer that can combine bitterness and souring in a pleasant way. A very nice example of one would be Bitter and Twisted Zymatore by Harviestoun Brewery. This is an English IPA that has been aged and allowed to sour in the barrel. Historically, all barrel stored (stock) British ales would have developed some level of souring and/or Brettanomyces character as they aged. These soured or funkified ales would sometimes be blended into young fresh beers to add flavor complexity and product consistency. I should note that the reason these soured stock ales tend to be pleasant is because while aging their bitterness level does decrease as their sour character increases. Don’t expect to find a sour version of an 80 IBU American Double IPA that tastes like anything but a train-wreck.
But when it comes to the hop’s role in beer, bitterness isn’t the end of the story… Enter the realm of hop flavor and aroma. Essential hop oils, the component of hops that add flavor and aroma but not bitterness, are highly volatile substances. When hops are added to boiling wort, these flavor and aroma components are extracted, but then evaporate out of the mixture rather quickly. Brewers combat this effect by adding these “character” hops late in the boil, thus extracting oils but not boiling long enough to drive them away. Another method brewers use to add hop aroma to a beer without contributing bitterness is called “dry hopping”. Dry hopping involves the addition of hops into a beer after it has finished fermenting and it is this practice which has huge potential in the realm of sour beer production.
While still fairly uncommon, dry-hopped sour beers are awesome! They combine delicious sour beer flavors with the floral, herbal, piney, and/or citrus aromas and flavors of hops. These hop additions often enhance certain characteristics produced by Brettanomyces fermentations, like earthy aromas, wet hay and grass, or flavors of mango, pineapple, and other tropical fruits.
Recently, I drank two vintages of Cantillon’s Cuvée Saint-Gilloise (2012 & 2014) with a group of friends including two authors for this site, Cale Baker and Carlo Palumbo. Cuvée Saint-Gilloise (CSG) is a specialty gueuze produced from a blend of two-year-old lambic which is then dry hopped for 3 weeks in casks with Hallertau hops and bottle conditioned using Belgian candi sugar. I first tried CSG several years ago and it was my first introduction to dry-hopped sours. It is an excellent example of the style and well worth seeking out.
CSG pours slightly hazy with a golden straw color typical of Cantillon gueuzes. The 2012 vintage had less hop aroma overall and smelled lemony with a slightly cheesy / waxy character. The 2014 vintage was much brighter in hop aroma, with lots of noble hop character being apparent. Notes of tropical fruit, cantaloupe, honey, and floral fabric softener were all present.
When tasting these two vintages, the 2014 bottle stood out to the group as distinctly better. Some of the flavor complexity and fresh hop notes are lost to more aggressive Brettanomyces funk as the beer ages. I would definitely recommend drinking this beer relatively fresh. The 2014 CSG tasted lemony, with flavors of white peaches, green tea, and herbal notes from the Hallertau hops. The souring of both vintages was fairly equivalent and moderate, about the tartness of unsweetened lemonade. The 2012 vintage was more astringent and assertively funkier, with sharper grass-like notes. There was still hop character present in the older version, but it had begun to take on a somewhat cheesy / papery note. I will point out that in these comparisons, the 2012 CSG was still a delicious beer, however the 2014 version was world-class. Amazingly, for spontaneously fermented products, the flavor intensity of souring, overall Brettanomyces character, vinegar content, and dryness were all identical between the two vintages. This is a testament to Jean Van Roy’s palate and blending skills.
There has never been a more exciting time in the world of sour beer. Brewers are not only beginning to experiment with these beers, but many are consistently producing excellent or even world-class examples. Hops have been a key flavor component in so many of the greatest examples of American and European craft beers that it only makes sense to see creative brewers and blenders utilizing hops in their sour-beer projects as well.
If you get a chance to try Cantillon Cuvée Saint-Gilloise, definitely take the opportunity to do so. Additionally, check out our list of other excellent dry-hopped sour beers! And if you know of a hoppy sour that I didn’t list, please comment on the article and recommend it to our readers.
- Also check out these great dry hopped sour beers!
- Want to make your own hoppy sour beer?
- Example Recipe:
Pizza Boy Hop Tart
The Rare Barrel Egregious
Jester King Das Überkind
Prairie Artisan Ales Funky Gold Mosaic
Elysian DePeche Mode
When brewing and blending your own dry hopped sours, the first thing you need to do is produce a base beer that you are happy with. Your base beer should be fully soured, attenuated, and aged to the complexity you desire before adding the hops. Basically you want to have created a sour beer that would be great to drink on its own before you dry hop it. Don’t expect hops to cover up vinegar, fecal aromas, DMS, or other brewing flaws.
Once you have a base beer that you’re happy with, add your dry hops at a rate of 1 to 2 ounces per 5 gallons. You should store the beer warm while these hops are in it, between 65 to 72 degrees F is ideal. Also, make sure when adding the hops to flush your keg, carboy, or bright tank with CO2, as oxygen added during these processes could lead to vinegar or other problems with your beer. The right amount of time to let your dry hops stay in contact with the beer varies by hop variety and oil content, but a good average is 7 to 10 days.
There is still much experimenting to be done when it comes to what hop varieties to use in various types of sour beer. However, it seems that noble varieties are generally a safe bet. Newer American varieties such as simcoe, amarillo, and citra could work well in sour beers without significant amounts of caramelized malt in their recipes. The citrus and tropical fruit profile of some newer hop varieties may work well with sours that utilize Brettanomyces in the primary fermentation.
Once you produce a tasty dry hopped sour beer it’s best to serve it fairly fresh. While your sour beer may have a good shelf life and positive flavor attributes for many years, the hop character will diminish over time. Usually within 3 to 6 months you will notice a significant decline in hop character.
This recipe targets an original gravity of 1.050 with an SRM of 6-7. Attenuation should be greater than 90%, resulting in an ABV of 6% or slightly higher. Character will vary somewhat based on individual batches but should be moderately tart, with both floral and fruity Brettanomyces notes (longer aging will result in greater levels of leather, must, and sourdough, if desired). The Hallertau dry hop should add pleasant floral and herbal aromas which complement the characteristics of Brettanomyces bruxellensis.
1. Mash the following at 150° F:
- 60% Pilsner Malt
- 30% White Wheat Malt
- 9% Flaked or Malted Oats
- 1% Midnight Wheat or other low-roast color modification malt.
- Optional: 1 ounce of your choice of low alpha-acid hops added to the mash per 5 gallons (Required for commercial brewers to satisfy US T.T.B. requirements)
2. Boil for 90 minutes, add any desired kettle finings and yeast nutrients, cool and transfer to fermenter.
3. Oxygenate wort and pitch an appropriately sized amount of both Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Lactobacillus delbrueckii or brevis.
4. After approximately 2 to 3 weeks (allowing time for primary fermentation to slow or stop and for beer to be in contact with the yeast cake for an additional week) transfer beer to an aging vessel and age between 60-70° F until appropriate levels of souring and complexity develop (usually around 6 months).
5. Transfer the beer to a bright tank or dry hopping vessel under a blanket of CO2 and dry hop with Hallertau at a rate of 1.5 ounces per 5 gallons. Allow this to remain in the beer for 7 days while storing at around 70° F.
6. Cool the beer to serving temperature and transfer off the dry hop into the final serving vessel and carbonate to approximately 2.4 to 2.8 volumes.
7. Enjoy Fresh!