Sour beer. What is it and why has it been sprouting up (however quietly) in Seattle in 2010? More importantly, how can thirsty Northwesterners find the stuff in Seattle’s sometimes labyrinthine milieu of food and drink? A friend of mine has a joke about Seattle’s drinking scene. Because Seattle doesn’t yet have a national reputation as a great bar town, visitors are often surprised at the volume and variety of our watering holes. So, this friend of mine likes to tell visitors, “Welcome to Seattle! Have a drink!.. now walk up a hill.” Indeed, if one were to stop into even a fraction of the unique drinking establishments found in any given neighborhood, navigating Seattle’s more vertical segments would be ill-advised, if not impossible.

But Why? What is it about the culture of Seattle that fosters our ever-growing number of cocktail lounges, wine rooms and brew pubs? Short of being a city full of lushes, it’s probably thanks to our appetite for the unusual, the excellent and the unknown. We don’t just want coffee, we want an unforgettable roast from a perfectly cultivated plot of land in Ethiopia. We don’t just want chocolate, we want hand-made artisan treats with locally-sourced infusions. Of course, when it comes to beer we don’t just want any old brew, we want a beer that routinely knocks off socks with powerful top notes and lingering personality. That, my thirsty readers, is why Seattle is embracing Belgium’s little-known invention, the sour ale.

Sour ale is a special kind of beer created by using the culture lactobacillus in the fermentation process. Lactobacillus is the heroic microorganism responsible for yogurt, cheese, various kinds of pickles and other delicacies. Beer enthusiasts will also note that some strains of lactobacillus are the culprits in the spoilage of their suds, but that doesn’t mean that Belgian-style sour ale is just beer gone to seed. Especially when combined with the fruity tones of a Lambic or the wine-like complexity of a Flanders Red, that sourness ends up making the ale more rich and lively.

One of Seattle’s most seasoned sour beer crafters is Dick Cantwell of the Elysian Brewery. He has used his facilities at Elysian Tangletown in the Greenlake neighborhood as a sour ale lab, beginning in 2003. It took around five years to bring out the first sour on the menu, which he called Pandemonum (featured during the 2008 Seattle Beer Week), followed by his pumpkin-themed Mr. Yuck, a precursor to Pumpkin 8472. With that knowledge and experience, Dick Cantwell has given the world Krokus (a saffron-based sour ale) and has plans to return to the pumpkin patch with an as-yet-unnamed sour with a cherry finish. These are definitely Belgian-style sours, but they’re not exactly traditional. They’re the result of Elysian’s stated mission to “take a precept and propel it into an unexpected realm”. Well, cherry and pumpkin side-by-side is definitely unexpected.

Cantwell and company will have some friendly competition in the sour ale market in 2011. The small but savvy Fremont Brewing Company began souring a batch of its Universale in Cabernet barrels just a few months ago where they’ll rest for a year and come out nice and tart. They have master brewer Matt Lincoln formerly of the Goose Island Beer Company in Chicago to make sure they get their sours right the first time.

Pairing sour ale with food is a fairly intuitive process. Because it has a common culture with cheese, match it with a plate consisting of sharp blue cheese and mild goat cheese. It also performs excellently with entrees that traditionally work well with fruit, such as lamb. Personally, I think it has a lot to offer to rich, tender dishes like slow-roasted oxtail. The fatty meat really comes alive with the layers of the beer. As always, you’re likely to find your favorite pairing with some hands-on experimentation. Sour ale deserves a little TLC for beer enthusiasts, so pair it with whatever feels right. Beer, after all, is a thoroughly democratic drink.