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Are Sours Under-Rated?

Eno Sarris, April 22, 2014 -   

The five-point rating system is ingrained by now. Appearance. Smell. Taste. Mouthfeel. Overall.

Have you raised a sour to your nose recently? Usually, there are very few olfactory hues to greet it.

And yet smell is there, listed as an aspect that all beers should be judged upon, on two of the biggest rating sites on the internet. Sours have to be a step behind, by definition. The best you'll get out of an aroma review of a sour is usually "vinegar" or "pungent." Maybe, among the very best, you'll get a mention of fruit aromas. Not generally a style known for smelling great. And definitely not a style that boasts the benefit of smell-heavy hops, added late to the boil.

If you look at Beer Advocate's top 250, no sour makes the top 10. Five make the top 50. 34 in the top 250 is actually a decent number. Obviously it's not on par with the IPAs and stouts of the world, but 34 is more than saisons (three) and barleywines (nine). Those are two beer types that share great history and boast a few standout beers, but it's not surprising there are more popular sours on this list. It probably "should" be so. It would at least reflect the market place correctly.

Rate Beers' top 50 is about the same -- four sours in the top 50 -- though the highest-rated sour checks in at 22. Sours are among the world's most sought-after beers, though. Cable Car, Fou' Foune, Consecration, these are the names that make lines. These are the names that can bring you back anything you like in a trade. None are in the top 20?

Hopefully, by judging beers against their style here at BeerGraphs, we're putting sours back on even footing. No smell, for the most part? Fine. You're up against other beers without much aroma.

So how do we do?

Sort by BAR:

  • Fou' Foune is tops at 30th.
  • One in the top fifty.
  • Four in the top 100.
  • 23 in the top 250.

That's... worse than the other lists, if you're pro-sour. But of course BAR has a popularity component that rewards check-in quantity. Sours aren't well-distributed and are expensive. Perhaps sorting (popular beers) by Style+ will make a different list?

  • Top sour at 38th.
  • One sour in the top fifty.
  • Five in the top 100.
  • 13 in the top 250.

Well that was no better.

We have to consider the fact that perhaps people don't like sours. The theory behind Style+ is so simple -- how does the beer do against the beers of its style -- that it's remarkable that sours don't do any better when just judged against themselves.

Unless...

Yup, the replacement level for sours is impossibly high. The highest replacement level belongs to Imperial/Double Stouts, and second is American Wild Ale, which is where sours often are categorized. Flanders' Red Ale is sixth. Oud Brouin is twelfth highest. Sour is thirteenth. There are 138 styles listed on untappd, and sours have the highest replacement levels other than the heavy stouts and IPAs.

So what happens when you have a high replacement level, but price and availability conspire to keep check-in counts low? You suffer on both Style+ and BAR, the two derived metrics on our site. And it's hard to figure out exactly how to account for this, even if it doesn't have anything to do with aroma. Would price work as a proxy for desirability? Would we even want to reward a beer for being expensive once we get our hands on some price data?

More questions, all raised by sours. It may not be the fault of the nose, but sours do fall in a weird spot: Popular among those that get their hands on them, but not popular enough to rise in the ranks.

Thanks to instagram user Instapint for the header image.

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