"Sour" beer is a difficult category to measure, which is why you don't hear a lot of statistics about it. When it comes to sales data tracked in major retailers, a significant portion of ''sours'' are incorrectly classified, or they cross over into another style and are housed there instead. In IRI, these crossovers include Seasonal, Special Release, Belgium Ale, IPA, etc., instead of the "Wild or Sour Ales" bucket. Lagunitas' Aunt Sally for example, falls under Seasonal. So a significant chunk of data gets lost, leaving you with a painful exercise to truly understand how well sour is actually selling in the US.
The American Wild Ale (AWA), barrel-aged/mixed fermentation, component is even more of a mystery, with most of its sales traditionally taking place direct-to-consumer through taprooms, or in small, independent stores not tracked by Nielsen or IRI. As a long time fan and someone who keeps close tabs on AWAs, I feel confident in saying that these high-end sours are hurting in sales, both in attracting new fans and maintaining the ones who bought so many cork & cages from 2012-2015. To confirm or deny my suspicions, I reached out to my friend Dave Hawley who owns The Beer Cellar in Glen Ellyn, IL. Dave and I met in 2014 while sharing a bottle of Veritas 014 from Lost Abbey, an oak-aged golden ale with cherries, so he was the perfect friend to team up with on this topic.
So what happened to the long lines and quick sell-through of AWAs? After polling a beer forum full of current and former sour drinkers, and retracing my own steps from the past 5-6 years, here were the most common themes:
So how do we turn things around and ensure that enthusiasm for American Wild Ales continues to grow?
"I think we need more approachable sour beers available," Hawley suggests. "Let's go back to Orchard Wit from The Bruery. Every novice beer drinker knows what a German Weiss or Belgian Wit is, even if they only know Blue Moon or Hacker Pschorr. I believe that lower price point, smaller format single bottles of fruited Gose, Berliners and Wheat beers will help the newer sour drinkers get into the category with a slightly different take on the styles they are comfortable drinking already."
Earlier, I mentioned Veritas 014 from Lost Abbey, which I shared with Dave nearly 5 years ago. Well, my interest in that series has continued all these years and just last weekend I opened a Veritas 021. This batch caught my eye because it deviated from their typical single fruit versions, or familiar combinations like Peaches/Apricots/Nectarines. V021 introduced two new flavors to the series, featuring raspberries, with vanilla and cinnamon. This blend knocked my socks off and rekindled my love of the series, which was beginning to feel a little stagnant. The last few blends had shown significant restraint on the acidity side, with 021 achieving another level with its evolution of flavor.
I understand anyone's skepticism around the concept of a "pastry sour" and how it may be construed as bastardizing the style and traditions. I also understand the doubt that fans of these "crazy" versions will venture into the more orthodox, traditional examples that many seek to brew. However, as Proximo said to Maximus in Gladiator: "Win the crowd. And you will win your freedom." Earn their respect, and they'll lend you their attention, visit your taproom and try other offerings that you're passionate about. Cave a little to the evolving tastes of the latest crop of beer enthusiasts that we are all still trying to figure out.
I've seen this work firsthand at Revolution, where we prefer our barley-aged stouts, barleywines, etc. to let the base and barrel do the talking. By still being willing to dabble in occasional single adjuncts like coffee, vanilla, and fruit, interest in the barrel program has grown exponentially while leaving the majority of the offerings adjunctless. In turn, our fans have seen how excited we get about the barrel-focused projects and have quickly grown to appreciate them as much as we do. Sour beer is a niche, American Wild Ales even more so. It doesn't take much for the style to fall into or out of favor with craft beer enthusiasts. As someone who desperately wants these barrel programs to continue to expand, I'm advocating for the following changes to become even more so the norm:
Big thanks to Dave Hawley for chatting sours with me. You can check out The Beer Cellar's great selection of packaged beer and drafts in the beautiful town of Glenn Ellyn, and just announced, his second location coming soon in Geneva.