Sour. I have known sour-faced men and women (not that many though for who wants to spend that much time with them) for whom the world is one big frustration; the sort of person I would desperately talk to when I was younger and in a new part of town and attempting to become part of the crowd in a pub I laughingly called my local.
I have had a sour look from a stranger when I suggested that she might like to dance and maybe afterwards could I buy a drink for her (not surprising if you had ever seen me attempt to dance during my — not that enthusiastic — clubbing days).
Sour beer I have had, enough of it to flood an ark on with assorted fauna clambering aboard, a kind of Life of Pi in reverse. I was in a pub just over the border in Devon where the landlord was sitting drinking with his cronies. When I asked for a pint I heard him say to the barmaid ‘pull it through a bit, it’s not been used for a couple of days’. I couldn’t finish it as my face was making strange shapes while my Jack Russell was picking a fight with the pub dog. Meanwhile another pub on Exmoor had warm Exmoor Beast on tap — in the middle of July, in a village whose largely ancient inhabitants seemingly went to bed at 8pm (ever had lambic porter?).
On the other hand one of my favourite post pub meals was sweet and sour pork (especially when fried in batter), while my wife and son chew on gummy, sugary sweets called sours when we go on a long car journey — when I chew on these I always feel that my face makes the sort of shapes that if translated into physical exertion would be called jazz dancing. They’re quite refreshing though and take your mind off the price of petrol.
And then there’s lambic and gueuze — along with sweet and sour pork the acceptable face of sour. Though it did take me about 10 years to really get Cantillon — back in the 1990s I used to put a sugar cube in my Christmas morning bottle of gueuze.
I’ve been thinking about the word sour throughout the weekend, partly due to the fact I’m off to Sharps this week to brew a Black Gose (possibly) with Stuart Howe and due to a conversation I had with WildBeer’s co-founder Andrew Cooper on Thursday. I was writing a feature on them (and I will be honest, I regard them as one of the most exciting breweries in the country at the moment) and I’d called up to get some quotes, as you do. We got to talking about a sour beer that the brewery might be doing and then onto the semantics of the word sour.
‘Brett and I had a meeting today,’ Andrew told me, ‘and we were discussing what to brew and how to talk about it. We want to do sour beers in the spring, but there is the case of what language to use and how do we get it across to the public and try and keep a positive connotation. We haven’t made up our mind yet whether we should call them sour beers. There are lots of positive things that are sour, beautiful sour lemonade for instance, but it is something different to the audience.’
I like this thoughtful approach to beer. I’m interested in how some beers can be explained to drinkers beyond geeks (who might wet themselves at the thought of sour). Mention sour to people in my two local pubs and they might pull a face, but then you can ask them if they have enjoyed beef stroganoff (sour cream) or sauerkraut or just plain sweet and sour pork. It’s a bit like bitter. On it’s own, bitter is incredibly negative, but allied to espresso or Angostura bitters then it makes sense.
For me sour is similar to difficult music, literature and inclines in the mountains. It would be easy to walk away and think life is easier if I continue in the other direction, but on the other hand.
As I write I’m listening to some Benjamin Britten songs — sung in German, just piano and singer, slightly angular in their construction, not easy listening, possibly the musical equivalent of lambic or gueuze. I love them, I get something from listening to them, I don’t know what I get but there is something that stirs my soul about them. I struggled with these at first but I kept coming back and now they make some sort of emotional sense.
Sour beers are like that. Sure you can dismiss them and walk away, that’s fine. But on the other hand, they have a history and a provenance, a heritage, a small home base but by using the right words you can get them across to a wider audience — and by getting them across to a wider audience I believe it’s another way to help raise the profile of good beer.