Dear Brewers, Please Make More Lambic Beer

A beer with terroir. 

Sometimes the inspiration for these posts can come from out of the blue. I had something else lined up for this week but a chance remark in a conversation made me change tack and hold that one off for another time.

In the European Union you can't legally call any sparkling wine champagne unless it comes from the Champagne region of France. Likewise, hundreds of foodstuffs including Roquefort, Parmigiano Reggiano, Chianti, Cumberland sausage, Plymouth gin, Prosciutto di Parma, Port, kölsch, kielbasa and Le Puy green lentils all have protected status of one kind or another under EU law. These regulations are similar to the appellation contrôlée part of French wine labels with which you might already be familiar and which pre-date the EU, in that they let you know that the product you're buying comes from where it says it does, and should (hopefully) be of a certain standard.

Incidentally, it's tempting to think that the French, with their long history of wine production and the reverence with which they treat the grape, would have been the first to enact such regulations as far as wine is concerned. Not so. Although some French food regulations go back as far as the 15th century, and champagne was protected by the 1891 Treaty of Madrid (which was all about trademarks rather than geographical origin), the French Institut National des Appellations d'Origine wasn't created until 1935. Meanwhile, the Hungarians had been classifying their own vineyards since 1730.

There are similar regulations in the US too. For instance, Tennessee Whiskey is bourbon which must be produced in Tennessee, and while bourbon doesn't have to be made in Bourbon County, KY (a misconception that's still fairly common), there are rules about the way it's made, and if it doesn't conform to those rules it ain't bourbon.

There are three types of protected status in the European Union: PDO, PGI and TSG.

The first two, protected designation of origin and protected geographical indication both tie a food product down to a defined geographical location, but the difference is that the qualities or attributes of the PDO food have to be significantly or exclusively affected by the local environment and/or some aspect of local human activity particular to the area and therefore can only be prepared, processed and produced within the designated area, and with traditional methods. A PGI foodstuff has to be historically associated with an area and must be partially or entirely manufactured within the designated area, again with traditional methods.

The really interesting one, for me (I'll explain why later), is TSG – traditional speciality guaranteed. The factors determining a TSG product aren't tied down to a location but lie within the product itself, so as long as it's definably unique and relies on traditional methods of production, it can theoretically be made anywhere and still use the designated name.

Since these are EU laws they don't apply outside the borders of the European Union (unless there's been a bilateral agreement between the EU and another country), which is why you can buy, for instance, American-brewed kölsch and American champagne. Legally speaking it's not true champagne but the word has almost become a proprietary eponym for sparkling wine (think Google, Jell-O, Hoover), and as long as it's made by the méthode champenoise (a term which is no longer used and has been replaced by méthode traditionnelle) it'll probably be pretty good and it'll certainly show some terroir. The only people who are likely to fret about it are the snobs, the purists and maybe a French winemaker or two (and their lawyers).

Speaking of terroir, something not usually associated with brewing, there are certain kinds of beer, such as farmhouse-brewed beers and styles that have grown out of the farmhouse tradition, which could put up a good argument for having the beer equivalent of this important aspect of wine making, because they would once have been made with their own unique strain of farmhouse yeast which was originally derived from the local wild yeasts floating around the neighbourhood and which, after decades of being used at that one farm, might be subtly different from that used to make the beer at nearby farms and farms in the next valley, even though they haven't purposely done anything to it to make it so. Yeast is a highly adaptable creature which can change according to its environment, and when yeast changes so can the flavour and character of the beer it's fermenting.

It's difficult for me to think of a commercial brewery's yeast in quite the same way, even though it might be unique to the brewery, because it has probably been carefully cultured in a laboratory. Even if they were to do something which caused the yeast to change, like using a Burton union to ferment the beer, I think I'd call that house character rather than terroir because it doesn't come directly from the environment – it's man-made.

Of all the beers I can think of, Belgian lambic has at least as much beer terroir as those saisons and farmhouse ales because it's so reliant upon the indigenous yeasts of the Senne valley in Pajottenland. They are a big part of what gives lambic and the beers made from it (gueuze, faro and the various fruit lambics such as kriek and framboise) their character, and this is where the TSG – traditional speciality guaranteed – designation comes in. Lambic and its derivatives have been accorded that status under EU law. Given its reliance upon local wild yeasts I would have thought PDO would be more appropriate, but TSG it is, and that opens up potential for experimentation.

There was a time when all beer was spontaneously fermented with wild yeasts. At some point in brewing history it was realised that a stick used to stir one batch of fermenting beer would set off another batch, and also that the barm (foam) which developed on top of a batch of fermenting beer could be collected and used for the same purpose (some of it was also taken away by bakers to leaven their bread). The brewers and alewives (and bakers) of centuries past didn't yet know they were dealing with yeast but they had an idea something was making the ale ferment and the bread rise, and for a time the barm came to be known as godisgoode because they believed that it 'cometh of the grete grace of God.

Yeast sticks and barm collecting were just small, but helpful, refinements on the road towards getting a more consistent product by transferring yeast from one batch to the next, thus building up a house strain, but wild yeasts were still getting in. It wasn't until yeast was discovered (which happened before Louis Pasteur was around – it was being mentioned in brewing books of the 1700s) and the importance of cleanliness and sanitising the equipment was fully understood that beer started to be brewed in the way it is today, although the science of microbiology and the ability to culture and isolate individual yeast strains was still a way off.

So let's suppose an American or a British brewer decides to make a beer with a turbid (thick) mash which is then boiled for far longer than most other beers and kept overnight in a koelschip (open fermenter) so that wild yeasts can get at it, they use aged hops in the recipe (and maybe five times as many hops as other beers), ferment it in wooden barrels for at least a year and the resulting beer fits the description in the EU document giving Belgian lambic its TSG status (pdf). Would that be a lambic, or a lambic-style?

By the very fact that it relies so heavily on local wild yeasts, and because it's been given TSG protection rather than PDO or PGI, I have to come down on the side of those who say it's okay to call such a beer lambic rather than lambic-style, wherever it's brewed, as long as it abides by the traditional recipe and methods for brewing a lambic beer. A beer simply brewed with wild yeast, such as an American wild ale, isn't the same thing, although it's definitely a step in the right direction.

I honestly wish more breweries would try it. In fact I encourage them to do so, although given the extra costs involved, the investment in time and barrels together with the increased opportunity for spoiled batches, not to mention the extra skills required (including that of beer blending), it's unlikely that too many will take up the challenge. A pity, because lambics and their derivatives are some of the most interesting and complex beers to be found. What's more, 'buy local' seems to be the mantra of the moment, and in the world of brewing it doesn't get much more local than fermenting a beer with the wee beasties that waft in through the brewery's windows.

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