Beer of the Week: Le Merle Belgian Style Farmhouse Ale
I'm getting more and more sour in my old age.
By that I mean, I'm enjoying sour beers in a way I never thought I would.
What's a sour beer? Well, they come in a few varieties, but basically the name says it all. A sour ale is a beer that tastes sour, made so by a lengthy aging process as well as exposure to certain funky strains of bacteria such as the dreaded brettanomyces (dreaded by other brewers, that is). The words "bacteria" and "funky" might sound like a turn off to the majority of beer drinkers out there. But for an ever growing faction of aficionados, sour beers represent the final frontier in craft beer making; a place where flavor profiles such as fruity, champagne-like, and "barnyardy" are the norm, and each batch has the potential to backfire on a brewery, turning hundreds of barrels into undrinkable waste.
Sour ale styles like lambics, saisons, farmhouse ales, gueuzes, and Flemish reds have long enjoyed popularity in Belgium, France, and even Italy. But in just the past 10 years, these styles have started to migrate stateside. In 2002, the Great American Beer Festival introduced its first sour beer category, sporting a field of 15 beers. In 2009, that number jumped to over 100 beers in four different categories.
You may never be able to find a sour beer sitting next to the Budweiser at Publix, but chances are your local liquor store already carries them. You've probably even seen those fruity Raspberry and Peach Lambic bottles at ABC Liquors or Crown. Total Wine has an even more impressive selection of sours, including this fantastic Belgian saison, Le Merle, from California's North Coast Brewery.
Le Merle, or "the blackbird" in French, is a perfect sour for beginners. Not because it's overly simple (it's complex, in fact) or because it hides its true colors (it's bold). Rather, Le Merle is quite simply a damn fine beer reminiscent of tropical fruit and sparkling wine. It has a clean, crisp, sour/tart taste on the forward, but behind that is a rich malty-ness and a creamy golden body that reminds me of a full-flavor Belgian tripel (think Chimay Tripel).
As a food beer, Le Merle (like many great sours) pairs great with fish, pasta, and even salads. My fiancee and I split a bottle the other night, and drank it like a bottle of wine alongside a salad of grilled shrimp, apples, goat cheese, and lemon vinaigrette. The tart flavor jibed perfectly with the lemon, without overpowering the shrimp. Heavenly.
The only bad news about sours? Thanks to a more complex brewing process, they tend to be pricey compared to other beers. Le Merle will cost you about $12 for a 22-ounce bottle at Total Wine, but its worth it. Sure, you can buy a six pack of something else for that price, but this is more like investing in a bottle of enjoyable wine.