The Difference Between ‘Sour Beer’ and ‘Wild Beer’

Russian River Sour Ales

Russian River Brewing Co. makes some of my favorite sour ales

It took me quite some time to acquire a real taste for sour beer, but now that I have one, sour beers are pretty much all I want to drink—except for IPAs; I still love my hops. (Check out my lists of sour ales and Flemish red/brown ales for details on my favorite sours.)

In my quest to try every sour beer I can get my mitts on, I’ve encountered quite a few “wild ales,” some of which were sour and many that were not. I also read the word “Brettanomyces” or “Brett” a lot. Brett is a wild yeast strain used in many wild and sour ales.

At first, I assumed that sour beers and wild ales were one in the same, but after tasting many wild ales with Brett that were not at all sour, I did some research to determine the difference between the two.

First of all, there are no concrete definitions of sour beer and wild beer. But here’s what The Oxford Companion to Beer says on the subject:

“The development, largely by American craft brewers, of entirely new categories of beer [that use wild yeast and/or bacteria] during the past decade, has resulted in the need for a new nomenclature to describe them. This nomenclature is surely unsettled, but the two terms in general use are ‘sour beer’ and ‘wild beer.’ ‘Wild beer’ is generally used to describe any beer that displays earthy characteristics of Brettanomyces yeast strains, regardless of whether the beer is a light golden ale or a strong dark stout. If the brewer adds acidifying bacteria to the beer, it is termed a ‘sour beer.’ If both Brettanomyces character and bacterial acidity are in evidence, then the beer is generally deemed to fit both categories.”

So, to sum that up. Beers with funky, Brett character but no acidity from added bacteria are commonly referred to as “wild ales,” and they are not necessarily sour. If a brewer opts to add bacteria to a beer made with wild yeast the beer will take on an acidic, sour flavor. These beers are called sour beers. Wild ales can be sour, but not all of them are. The difference between the two is the addition of bacteria during the barrel aging process—the two most common bacteria used in the process are Lactobacillus and Pediococcus.

There you have it, wild beers are not necessarily sour beers; some just taste “funky” due to the wild yeast used during fermentation. And many sour beers, but not all, can be called wild, because they use wild yeast, as well.


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5 thoughts on “The Difference Between ‘Sour Beer’ and ‘Wild Beer’

  1. Sherwood Cox says:

    I started perfecting my beer nerdery with porters and stouts then I discovered hops….oh how strong the love. My curious nature pushed me to explore further and I discovered Belgians…specifically Saison. Late last year sours tickled my taste buds and when Tustin Brewing Company, my local home away from home celebrated it’s annual Russian River Week in February it was heavy on the sours. Consecration, Supplication Damnation, Temptation 2011 and 2012 and of course there own in house sour Light of Tartness.Yes there was plenty of Pliny (including Pliny the Younger) but I was sipping sours and I will keep looking for more.


    • Hey Sherwood.

      As I wrote, I didn’t immediately take to sours, but now that I’ve developed a taste for them there’s no turning back. I’m a big fan of lambics, as well, especially lambics from Belgian brewers including Cantillon and Drie Fonteinen. Definitely check them out if you haven’t already. Cheers.

      P.S. I’m jealous you got to try Pliny the Younger. I still haven’t had a chance to try it.


  2. […] Sour beers aren’t for everyone. They’re definitely an acquired taste, and not everyone will acquire the taste for tart ales. Those who are daring enough to push their beer boundaries a bit, however, will very likely be rewarded. (Check out this post for details on the difference between “sour beer” and “wild beer.”) […]

  3. […] you could ever want to know about beer. I consult it constantly, to clarify beer terminology, do research for posts on this blog and much […]

  4. […] to a short article by the Urban Beer Nerd, I went on my own little journey to determine what the defining characteristics of sour and wild […]

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