Sour beer is one of the hottest trends in craft beer right now. Sours aren’t new to the scene by any means. However, they weren’t very easy to find, even just a few years ago. Recently, they have become ubiquitous, showing up on the menu of nearly every brewery I’ve visited. Many brewers are only creating one-off sours, but others have made it their focus, becoming experts in the genre. One such brewery is Upland Brewing Company.
I had never heard of Upland until a couple months ago, when I received an invitation to participate in a special tasting of their sours going on in Denver. A complimentary tasting of beer? The chance to discover a new brewery? Who was I to say no? So, I ventured to the Highlands neighborhood to meet the crew from Upland and sample their sours.
The passion and dedication they have for their craft is incredible, and what I tasted transformed my opinion of sours from appreciation to full-on admiration.
A Background on Upland Brewing Co.
Upland Brewing Company calls Bloomington, Indiana, home. Those who have heard of it probably know it best for its flagship beer, the Dragonfly IPA. (Their Champagne Velvet, and Wheat Ale, are also popular menu items.)
Upland has been brewing beer for almost 20 years, and it got into the sour game a little over 10 years ago. Since dipping its toe into the sour pool in 2006, Upland has worked tirelessly to create innovative, distinct flavors that have made it one of the leaders in the genre. This year alone, they’ve made 48 sour beer varieties – I don’t know what the standard is, but that sounds like a lot. We obviously didn’t get to taste all of them, but the ones we did try left me eager to taste the rest. But before I get into our tasting experience, let’s dive into a quick lesson on what sour beer is.
What is a Sour Beer?
Believe it or not, all beers were sour at one point in history. This isn’t because the brewers of old had a knack for creating tart, acidic beer. It’s because they lacked the technology we have today for a sterile brewing environment. So naturally occurring bacteria and wild yeasts made their way into the beer during the brewing process, usually from the barrels, resulting in sours.
In the modern brewing world, experts intentionally expose beer to wild bacteria and yeast. It’s these elements that give sours their distinctive taste and funky quality. Many brewers will add fruit in the aging process to give it even more tartness and flavor. There are a few different styles of sours, the most common being Lambic, Flanders, American Wild Ale, Gose and Berliner Weisse.
This information was useful during our tasting, and I appreciated the Sour 101 course the Upland crew provided. Their passion and curiosity for brewing sours came through so intensely as they presented each beer to us, which made the experience even more special.
Tasting the Sours
Upland brought a number of beers for the tasting, most of which were created from the same base beer. However, different barrels impart unique characteristics, and the various lengths of fermentation and conditioning make each beer distinctive in many ways. As we sipped the sours, my palate picked up these differences, taking note of the nuances. It helped to have the Upland team providing background on the brewing process for each, allowing us to decipher the various flavors they mentioned.
First up in the tasting was Revive. This is a younger sour from a new realm of American sour that veers slightly from the traditional Lambic style. This mixed culture is aged in white oak barrels, with hints of pineapple and chamomile. The bright and deeply complex beer has a strong floral scent. This is the kind of sour I believe most wine lovers would enjoy. It lacks the hoppy, bitter flavor of traditional beer, but the acidity and tartness are extremely subtle.
Next up was Hopsynth. This sour features hops more prominently than the others. They create it by dry hopping the Upland blonde sour ale. That results in a lighter, hoppier sour with full-bodied aromas of pine, tropical and citrus. The hint of tartness gave it just the right amount of bite. This was one of my favorites. I could have sipped that the rest of the night and been content.
But we had to move on to the Cherry. This barrel-aged fruit sour is more of a classic style of the Lambic beers. It was one of the first sours Upland created in their program. They use locally sourced cherries from Michigan, and add them to the sour ale base and let it ferment for about three months. The result is a deep, rich and acidic sour, with the cherries coming through strong in aroma and taste. Hints of wine and nice dry finish complemented the fruitiness.
We followed that one with the Blueberry. While not a conventional fruit used in Lambic beers, the blueberries create a unique blend that’s best enjoyed on a warm summer day. Similar to the cherry, the blueberries are added to the fermented base blonde ale, and aged for a few months before being bottled. The floral, fruity notes are distinctive and strong. This is a very limited release for Upland, and it may not be distributed in many places.
The next sour on the list was the Sour Reserve. This is a representation of a Gose style beer. Once again, the base beer is the sour blonde, but this blend matures in a way that really shows what the grains can do. Upland has seen a lot of spontaneous and wild yeasts create subtle mutations in the cultures from barrel to barrel, and this beer really showcases that. We could pick up the tropical and floral notes, but also a bit of toastyness from the grain.
The final beer in the lineup was Darken. This sour had a dark color (hence the name), and much more malty flavor than the others. It’s a beer that pays homage to the classic style of Oud Bruin. The twist on it, according to Upland, is that it’s spiced with ginger, star anise, coriander, grains of paradise and black pepper. The richness of the malt and the intricacies of the blend made it easy to drink. But be careful, it’s deceivingly potent coming in at 9.7% alcohol by volume.
My Take Away
I loved every sour Upland served. If I had to pick a favorite, the Hopsynth and Sour Reserve come in at the top, but the Darken definitely gave them a run for their money. Not only were the flavors distinctive, but so were the bottles. The tagline for Upland’s sours is “a blended work of art” and that comes through in the brewing process, as well as in the designs on the labels, which were created by a Minnesota artist named Michael Cena. The labels are meant to represent what is in each sour beer, and I’d say these definitely stand out on the shelf.
Upland has clearly blazed a trail in the sour industry by making really dynamic and flat-out-good beers. They don’t want to strip your teeth off with acid or make your lips pucker in a tart overload. They simply want to put out a beautiful representation of what sour beer can be. And they do that very well.
If you want to try Upland’s Sour Ales, there are a few places you can sample them. There are three locations in Bloomington (Bloomington Brew Pub, Wood Shop Sour Ale Brewery, and Production Brewery & West Side Beer Bar), as well as locations in Carmel, Indianapolis and Columbus, Indiana.
Upland is also expanding their distribution across the country, bringing sour ales to millions of people all over America. Check the distribution map to see if they’re available in your area. Unfortunately, they’re not in Colorado yet. However, the Upland team tells me we’ll be seeing those colorful labels on shelves in early 2018. I’m keeping my fingers crossed!
Upland Brewing Company invited me as a guest for this complimentary tasting. All opinions are my own.
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