Sud Savant: New Belgium Tart Lychee – Plenty of the Sour Flavors

The sour beer movement grows stealthily every day. However, despite its recent press and critic acclaim I still have a rather difficult time finding many at my local bottle shop. Granted, I live in midsize Midwest market, but it’s still rather surprising to see Duchess de Bourgogne as the only sour beer staple inhabiting the shelves (OK, and technically the lambics). For those unfamiliar, “sour beer” refers to those beers that are fermented using wild yeast of bacteria strains. As their genre name implies, they often have a sour, tart, and/or acidic taste. Typical brewing avoids these “contaminants” at all costs, but in sour beers they are welcomed. Some common characters used in brewing sours beers are Brettanomyces (a.k.a. “Brett”), Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus. Though the latter two are often known for their contribution to other foods besides beer: sauerkraut, yogurts, cheeses, pickles, cider, wine, kimchi, and sourdough bread to name a few.

Tart Lychee is beer that definitely steps outside any standard genre. It is a sour ale, or American Wild Ale to be specific, with 56% of the ale aged in oak and 44% brewed with lychee and cinnamon. Despite its pink exterior accents and sweet sounding ingredients, it still hefts a 7.5% ABV. I’m excited to see if this beer will be a sweet treat or something with a little more “oomph.” Let’s pour!

Aroma 10/12: Things begin, respectively, with a dusty barn smell, a note of the acid, and way back is a sweet, nectary fruit. A little time to warm in the glass yields much more of the sweet, nectary smell, which has now morphed into a strawberry Starburst/pink Kool Aid type sweetness, and it is battling with the sour acidic aromas. The acid does a superb job of balancing what appears to be a rather unyielding sweetness. It also lends a bit of dryness almost like a champagne. Overall, it’s a very nice trifecta of sour, sweet, and dusty horse blanket. Much to my surprise the cinnamon and oak are undetectable at this time. Further warming erodes the sugary sweet note and leaves mostly the sour note to stand alone.

Appearance 3/3: It appears brightly enough in the bottle, but in the glass this beer is a cloudy glass full of earth color yellows, golden straw, and other shades of orange-yellow not out of place on a monarch butterfly or a marigold garden. Ridiculously small bubbles flit and dance their way to the top of the glass to sustain a ivory head that left a bit too soon.

Flavor 18/20: Given the reputation of the lychee fruit and the sweet aroma that made up one third of the nose, one could expect the first tastes to be very sweet as they contact they tip of the tongue. Well, you know what Samuel L. Jackson says about assumptions…

The first flavors are actually quite neutral and sparkling with carbonation before the acidity takes the reins and refuses to let go. It fades in with a champagne’s dryness, but is instantly more acidic and sour once detectable. Holding this beer in the mouth is full of a salty mineral note and lemon’s acidity sans sweetness. There are also notes of green apple. It also grows more bitter in the mouth, leaving the hints of champagne further and further behind. The origin of the growing bitterness is a mystery, but undoubtedly aided by the oak and the earthiness from the cinnamon, even if at this time no cinnamon flavor is detectable. This is a nice wild ale combination of sour, funk, fruit, and the wood gently supporting them all. The finish is a lingering, mouth-watering swallow that finally shows the cinnamon in a very subdued and appropriate role both in its flavor and with a slight tingle on the back of the tongue. A good burp also brings back the cinnamon for a second visit. The aftertaste is more bitter than sour, but even that flavor is timid at best. However, despite the lack of lingering flavors, the mouth continues to salivate for quite some time.

Mouthfeel 4/5: This is a medium-bodied, highly carbonated beer, with invisible alcohol. There is a tingle after the finish, but this could be from any number of contributors: alcohol, cinnamon, or acids. Lots of flavor, but this beer never seems weighed down. It has a crisp, lively mouthfeel that make it a perfect candidate for summer days or when you need a simple quenching.

Overall Impression 8/10: Not a bad sour by any means, but it’s a far stretch from tasting like lychee. The lychee was certainly present in the initial aroma, but was found lacking in any other aspect of the brew. Color was typical for a sour and the carbonation, early on, went a bit beyond refreshing and bordered on distracting. Its positives are the aroma, the strong sour, green apple and funk flavors, hidden ABV, and the easy-drinking body. On a personal note, I really appreciated the subdued cinnamon as that particular spice has a tendency to overwhelm many of the beers to which it is added.

Total 43/50: Full disclosure, my experience with sours is limited. In that same vein, my recollection of what lychee fruit tastes like is vague and based on impressions from a long, long time ago. That said, this beer did not find cause me any trouble in getting to the bottom of the bottle. It was crisp, flavorful, and of course sour. Overall, its mostly sour with a bitter kick toward the end. Unfortunately, there’s not much sweetness to balance the sour and it results in what I feel is a rather simple creation. I don’t know when this was last bottled, but being that there is a large amount of sediment (and the high carbonation) in the bottle, I can infer that the yeast/bacteria continued to eat the sugars, perhaps leaving the beer much less sweet than when fresh. Maybe. Did anyone who had this beer fresh find the lychee and sweetness lacking? Please feel free to comment. There’s  but in a beer that promises oak, sour, cinnamon, and the exotic ingredient of lychee fruit, just “sour” won’t cut it.

Joel R. Kolander is the Cheif Blogger for Sud Savant, a beer-savoring blog for the rest of us. We’re not here to get plowed. We’re not here because we are world-famous beer critics. We’re here because we enjoy savoring a great beer with even better friends. Sharing great beer is just as amazing as finding it in the first place. Lets share!