So, what in the hell makes something sour? The simple answer is organic acids. Acids are found in almost every food and drink we ingest, including the beer we love — even non-sour beer. Organic acids are present in malted grains and are created by yeast and other microbes during fermentation2. This is why the pH of beer is relatively low (~4 for non-sour beer, down to ~3 for sour beer). It is beneficial to have acids in beer. Acidity augments flavor, affects viscosity, hinders microbial growth, stabilizes flavor and has an influence on perceived hop bitterness2,4.
This still doesn’t explain what makes something sour. Is there really such a huge difference between a pH of 4 and a pH of 3? Yep, but it’s more complicated than that. pH is a measurement of free protons (H+; hence the H in pH) in a solution. Acids lower the pH of a solution by releasing protons when dissolved. The pH scale is logarithmic, so each number represents a 10x increase in the concentration relative to the number before it. The last thing we need to know about pH is that the scale works in the opposite direction you expect it to — the lower the number, the higher the concentration. So, a pH of 3 is 10x more acidic than a pH of 4, meaning it has 10x the concentration of H+. Despite this, two different beers that share a pH can be vastly different in their sour character and intensity. pH plays a role, but this tells us that there is more to it1,3,4.
Organic acids are comprised of at one least carboxyl group (-COOH) attached to an endless variety of structures. The carboxyl group is where our free protons come from, as the hydrogen on the carboxyl group gladly gives up its electron in exchange for a life of free lovin’ in solution (-COO- and H+). Studies have found that solutions of different acids at the same pH do not result in the same intensity of sourness1,3. The sour character is also distinct between different acids. For example, acetic acid — the main component of vinegar — has an unmistakable vinegar character to our taste buds, while lactic acid tends to be described as “clean” and “tart”1. This reveals to us that it is not only the pH of a beer that causes sourness, but the identity of the acid. The structure attached to the carboxyl group clearly influences beer in a way that is detected by us through our sense of taste — specifically, our taste for sour1.3,4. Despite knowing that different organic acids result in various sour flavors and intensity, the mechanism behind why and how is still unclear4. Ph.D. project, anyone?
Now that we have a better understanding of sourness, how do we get to sour beer? There’s an easy way, and a complex way. The easy way is to add an organic acid to beer until it tastes the way you want. Homebrew shops — including little ol’ us — carry lactic acid solutions that can be used to lower the pH of any beer and add that “tart” flavor common to most sour beers. The traditional way is to use microbes. Brewers, including homebrewers, have access to non-yeast microbes that are used alongside yeast to create sour beers. The two most popular microbes used are Lactobacillus and Pediococcus. They are closely related genera of bacteria that create lactic acid and other byproducts during fermentation, creating a sour character that yeast is incapable of developing on its own. Microbes add a layer of complexity to the flavor of sour beers that pure acid solutions don’t provide. A Belgian lambic or Flanders red would not be the same without the massive diversity of microbes that perform their collective metabolic magic. Microbes create a smörgåsbord of organic acids that can accentuate fruit and malt characters already present in beer and provide a swathe of flavors ranging from funky to fruity5,6.
The major disadvantage of using microbes is the length of time it takes for their character to develop. It can take months or even years for a sour beer to fully develop, but techniques such as kettle souring can drastically shorten the length of time required to achieve sourness via microbes. A kettle soured beer merely takes hours to days for souring to occur. Another disadvantage is the potential for cross contamination. Breweries and homebrewers alike fear occasional infected batches. Using microbes intentionally increases that chance by bringing them into the same space as clean beers. Despite this, if you practice solid sanitation technique or maintain a second set of plastic equipment the chance of infection stays at the same level it would be if you only fermented clean beers.
Whether you’re a homebrewer or someone who just enjoys drinking beer I hope you can go forth with a new appreciation for all things sour. Maybe take a crack at making your first sour, or buy yourself a nice Belgian masterpiece crafted by tradition and dedication. Either way, let us enjoy the spoils of — intentionally — sour beer together. Cheers!
"I went on a diet, swore off drinking and heavy eating, and in fourteen days I lost two weeks." –Joe E. Lewis
- Hartwig, P. and M.R. McDaniel. 1995. Flavor characteristics of lactic, malic, citric, and acetic acids at various pH levels. Journal of Food Science 60(2):384-388.
- Li, H. and F. Liu. 2015. Changes in organic acids during fermentation. J. Am. Soc. Brew. Chem. 73(3):275-279.
- Makhlouf, G.M. and A.L. Blum. 1972. Kinetics of the taste response to chemical stimulation: a theory of acid taste in man. Gastroenterology 63:67-75.
- Neta, E.R.C., S.D. Johanningsmeier, and R.F. McFeeters. 2007. The chemistry and physiology of sour taste—a review. Journal of Food Science 72(2):R33-R38.
- Snauwaert, I, S.P. Roels, F.V. Nieuwerburg, A.V. Landschoot, L.D. Vuyst and P. Vandamme. 2016. Microbial diversity and metabolite composition of Beligan red-brown acidic ales. International Journal of Food Microbiology 221:1-11.
- Spitaels, F. A.D. Wieme, M. Janssens, M. Aerts, H. Daniel, A.V. Landschoot, L.D. Vuyst and P. Vandamme. 2014. The microbial diversity of traditional spontaneously fermented lambic beer. PLOS ONE 9(4):1-13.