Thursday, January 14, 2010

Review: Ska Sour

Sour beers are the latest craze to hit the American craft-brewing scene. A number of breweries, like New Belgium, Avery and Deschutes, like to stretch their creativity with sours. Others, like Russian River and Cascade Brewing, make it the core of their offerings.

It's a time-consuming, labor-intensive and expensive brewing method. The Belgian souring yeasts used to give these beers their character are cantankerous and can cause havoc if not properly restrained.

Ska Sour is Ska Brewing Co.'s aptly named entry into the category, and it is the first Durango beer to tackle this style of brewing. The beer spent the better part of a year in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels with Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus yeast knocking around.

Head Brewer Thomas Larsen said Ska simply wanted to experiment with the brewery's first sour beer. Ska unleashed it at last weekend's Big Beers, Belgians and Barley Wines festival in Vail.

Ska was exactly right to call Ska Sour a "Belgian-inspired sour pale ale." It may be inspired by Belgian brewing traditions - the Belgians have used Brettanomyces in beers like Orval for quite some time - but it is not brewed to any classic Belgian style.

Ska Sour comes in sizable brown glass bottles that top $9 each after sales tax. The stout price reflects the intensive brewing process.

The yeast are eager to play. As soon as I popped the cork, foam peeked out of the bottle top. When poured, the white head settled quickly atop a copper-amber body. It's a pretty beer.

Ska Sour landed at 6 percent ABV. More notably, it's aggressively hopped to about 62 IBUs. That's IPA territory. (By comparison, Ska's Modus Hoperandi IPA is 65 IBUs).

Ska Sour is dominated by two tastes: sour and bitter. The souring yeasts are readily apparent, but so are the aforementioned bittering hops. This is a peculiarly American creation. The Belgians would not hop their beers this aggressively, nor would the English mess with souring yeasts.

These flavors - sour and bitter - seem to be at war with each other within the beer. Some craft beer fans seem to love the combination of West Coast-style hopping and funky Belgian yeasts. Try as I might, I'm not one of them. I find the flavors not at all complementary.

Ska Sour is worth trying for the novelty, and to support the extraordinary time and effort that went into creating this beer. The brewery is in the middle of a flood of releases, with Snowdown's Hyper Fierce Gnar Gnar Hefe only recently unveiled and Orange Cream Stout and DIFF, a recurring seasonal witbier, soon to come.

And actually, Ska already brews an impressive Belgian-inspired ale that is too often overlooked: True Blonde Dubbel.

As for Ska Sour, I give it a C+. I'm curious how others will react. It's not for the faint of heart, but it might win some acclaim from the beer-geek set. Some beer drinkers, with apologies to George Clinton, will surely want to make their funk the Ska funk.

Please tell me your impressions by leaving a comment.


  1. I'm game to try this beer. Hopefully we'll see it sold along the Front Range. If I find one I'll let you know what I think of it.

  2. 2nd that chipper. I will be on the lookout at argo and post if they get any.

  3. Hey Chuck, did you know there's a new sour on tap about 100 yards south of your office? El Oso Agrio, meaning "Sour Bear" is a blend of Barrel-aged "Big Grizz" Barleywine and Sour Strong Ale. Tart cherry, assertive alcohol content, complex. Would love to see what you think of it!

  4. I've been meaning to try it. I'll try to get over there soon.

  5. I came out to CO to visit my cousin and picked one up from the store yesterday. Sitting here now enjoying it as the snow is falling. As peaceful as it is outside, I can't say the same for what's in my glass. I totally agree with the comment on the bitter & sour being at war. Even with the lengthy finish, I still sense the battle between the two. I'm not a huge hop person, and can rarely do ipa's unless I'm eating food, although I always thought Avery's ipa was pretty good. Anyways, I love sours i.e. flemish.. or even a Monk's Cafe (yum). This, not even close (I know they're not trying to assimilate). It seems as if I'm just going to have to keep hoping for a domestic brewery to not over-hop everything. haha hope-hop.. I'm sure I could come up with some sort of play on words there. Shoot, if a domestic brewery that was crazy about hops (ahem, Lagunitas) would dare to do something less aggressive with em, that'd be a GREAT name HOP(e)-less. Where's my dedication beer?! Anyways, it didn't say abv on bottle so I'm glad you informed me of the 6% before I drink this whole sucker. I concur with the C+ rating... drinkable, but let down that this "belgian-style sour" isn't even close to my expectations. The hops just get in the way of all those great sour flavors. I say if you're going to take the time and effort to do a beer like this, outside of your comfort zone.. then don't bring the extra hops, focus on that sour yeast! Although, now that I think about it... it is pretty unique in that sense.