One thing that struck us in France and Italy is that sour beer is as popular as in the UK but with more range in what constitutes ‘a sour’.
In particular, we got the impression, based on limited data points, admittedly, that there’s more overlap with the flavours and character of wine.
When Jess ordered Odissea by Birrificio Menaresta in a craft beer bar in Milan (pictured above) she was warned about the sourness by the staff. Presumably they’ve had one too many customers complain. But it really wasn’t what we in the UK would think of as a sour beer at all. It was more like beer (golden) with a shot of red wine in it. It had fruit tannins rather than fruit acidity. Looking it up later we learned that it is brewed with “top quality Mantua Lambrusco must”.
On the opposite end of the wine spectrum was Viti Vini Vici by Brasserie Dunham. Dunham is a Canadian brewery but we drank it in Les Cuves de Fauve, Paris. We understand this to be a series of beers matured in grape barrels but didn’t get a note of the particular batch we had – 12, maybe, or 14? But it certainly used a white grape and, boy, did that come through in the flavour. It was also intensely sour, with a character very like beer from Cantillon.
At Birrificio Italiano Polock en rouge was described as a 4% sour fruit Grodziskie. This presented a challenging, almost vinegar sourness, reminiscent of Duchesse de Bourgogne. It’s interesting that DdB is such an iconic beer and yet there are so few clones. But perhaps there’s an obvious reason for this.
We did also find some sours that were like the ones we get at home, and resembled fruit juice or fizzy pop. For example Peace Connection Unitaire by Sainte Cru tasted like a fresh tropical juice drink from a can, as purchased at the local corner shop. Nothing like beer but a nice thing to drink after seven hours on the train from Milan to Paris.
In contrast, Yoyo by Effet Papillon, at La Binouze in Paris, was described as a mango and redcurrant sour, but really wasn’t especially sour, or even sweet. There was a very subtle fruitiness but this suggested papaya or guava, and was barely there. It also had a hefty body, a proper head, and a good bitter aftertaste, all of which are quite unusual in our experience of sours.
Then there was also some playing around with sour notes in beer styles not badged as sour. For example, Blue Edith by La Debauche was a salted raspberry stout, where the raspberry aroma was noticeable but the flavour was extremely subtle. Raspberry often gets lost in beers; here, it added a pleasing layer of complexity.
And finally, we’ve been talking about wine influences in beer, but what about beer influences in wine? We took the opportunity in Italy to visit a few wine bars. We absolutely do not want to “get into” wine, because we already overthink beer and want to keep wine just for fun.
But we did find ourselves intrigued by Mare d’Inverno, a natural wine refermented in the bottle which therefore came with a little fizz and a small head. Fizzy reds are not unusual in that part of the world but it was interesting how funky this tasted. Our tasting notes make it sound more like an imperial stout: tobacco, leather, cocoa…
When we wrote Brew Britannia in 2012-14 the idea of hybrid beer-wine-cider struck us especially interesting. It’s never quite become A Thing – beer drinkers want beer, wine drinkers want wine – but we still wonder if there’s potential here.