Cherry Sours: Hanssens vs Cascade

Eno Sarris, August 11, 2015

Sours have the highest average score, something we've contemplated here before. If you ask the makers of sour about the phenomenon, they are just as mystified -- it might be the Amazon zero-star or five-star treatment, or it might be that our collective taste buds haven't quite graduated to the point where we can spot the off flavors in a sour. But, after having two fairly different cherry sours from very different brewers, I wonder if it's more about the maturity of the market. 

I had Hanssen's Oude Kriek and Cascade's Kriek sours. At their heart, these are two cherry red sours aged in oak barrels, so it's a fair comparison. And though the breweries represent the old world (Hanssens is from Belgium) and the new world (Cascade is in Oregon), they were similar beers and the differences were nitpicking, maybe. 

And they're right in the nexus of beers that might not do well on our leaderboards despite great average scores. Cascade's version has a 100 Style+, meaning it's exactly average for the style despite an average score over four. Hannsen's version does slightly better (104 Style+), but both have Beers Above Replacement scores below five despite costing well more than a dollar per fluid ounce and having some notoriety in the craft beer scene. 

Hard to separate yourself when everyone gets four stars in your category. So the question is, do they both deserve four stars. Do most sours deserve four stars. 

In this particular case, I'd say yes. 

What they had in common was impressive enough. Both poured with a nice head and had some effervesence, but neither was remarkable for the bubbles and after a few seconds you might even call em both flat. And yet, the tartness provides some of the refreshing, crisp finish to a beer that you might get from bubbles or hops in another beer. Both were easy to drink, and any syrupiness from the fruit was mostly countered by the sourness. 

Both were mellow on the cherry, so that it was there but it wasn't cough syrup in your face. Both had the nice thickness that you would associated with your oak-aged sours with Lactoballicus or Pediococcus in it, though they might have gotten there differently. Neither had a taste of butter or the off favors that can upset bad sours, though I'm not sure I've ever had a buttery sour, and that seems germane to this discussion. Both had nice smooth and thick mouthfeels with multiple developing flavors before the tart finish that makes you want to have more.

If this were a BeerSport, the difference would have to come from the small things I wanted these beers to do better.

The Hanssens I would guess came from a mix of Brettanomyces and Pediococcus. I guess that because there was a tiny bit of funk at the back end of that beer, and that's the harbinger of Brett. Brett cleans up the bad tastes that can come with Pediococcus, but it brings the funkiness of Brett with it, and in this case, that gives the oak on the after taste an extra something strange. People call it horse blanket, but when combined with wood, I'm not sure that's the word here. Maybe not my favorite part of the beer. 

Cascade is only Lactoballicus, and so it came with none of that funkiness on the back end, and yet the same thick mouthfeel and tart finish. The taste of oak comes through cleaner, but the tart finish may not have been as tart. Definitely not as sour, actually. And that contributed to more of a syrupy thickness with Cascade, while Hanssen's seemed more drinkable and refreshing. 

But both my brother in law and I agreed that we enjoyed the two sours very much and anything was nitpicking. We might have given the Hanssens a 4.2 and the Cascade a 3.9, but in the end, they both ended up at four on untappd. 

And so we circle around to the initial set of questions about sours and their high scores. 

Was I rewarding myself with a pat on the back for picking good beers by giving these four stars? Was I caving to hype? I dunno, I've had a few sours and I didn't even buy one of these myself. In fact, I've told people that there are three Cascades sours worth spending the price of admission on, and this hasn't traditionally be one of them. And still I gave it a four.

Is my palate mature enough to find bad tastes? That's a hard one to answer from inside my own head. I've rated 12 lambics and given three of them scores under four, and four of them five stars. I've had 28 sours and seven of them were below four stars, and three of them were five stars. 

In total, that's about average, according to the pictogram linked above. But I'd at least say that writing about beer forces you to come up with more adjectives for those tastes and helps you develop you palate, and that I have at least discovered some sours I don't like. 

But my own theory is that the market is not saturated yet. If you look at the breweries that have elicted less than four star reviews from me, many of them are newer breweries looking to establish themselves as purveyors of sours: Paradox Beer Company, Hermitage Brewing, Oceanside Ale Works, Santa Clara Valley Brewing, and even New Belgium have brewed three-plus star sours in my book. 

This isn't to bag on these breweries, who themselves run the gamut of experience levels. And this isn't only about experience -- I love almost all the sours of The Rare Barrel and they were established in 2013.

This is about the market. Sours are selling well, and they have a nice price point. We'll see more of them, and from breweries like the above just as much as from established, excellent sour breweries like Cascade and Hanssens.

And the more we see, the more likely we'll find something about the sours that we dislike enough to give the beers two and three star scores. Even if we paid $30 for them. Even if they have some notoriety. Even if our own palates are only developing.