More About Lambic Beer

We barely scratched the surface of these seriously off-piste beers last week. Let's look at them in a little more depth.

We barely scratched the surface of these seriously off-piste beers last week. Let's look at them in a little more depth.

But for the dedication and stubbornness of a handful of small brewers, lambic beers might have gone the way of the dodo, Pierre Celis and the Strangeways Brewery. By the 1970s lambic beers, a speciality of the Senne valley just to the southwest of Brussels (and possibly named after the town of Lembeek), had become something of a niche product even in Belgium and were almost an anachronism as commercial brewers had long since learned how to keep the sourness, which for centuries was a major component of all but the freshest beer, out of their products. Beer is made from water, malted barley and hops so it makes sense that the primary flavours in beer should be derived from those ingredients (unless intentionally soured), not forgetting that yeast will add nuances of its own too.

With lambics, though, the majority of their flavour profile (tart, acidic, funky) comes from the yeasts and the bacteria which ferment them, flavours that most other brewers were doing their best to eliminate, which is why today we can enjoy the roasted maltiness of a mild ale, the orange and coriander in a witbier and the chocolatey richness of a Russian Imperial Stout without having to get past acidic and funky flavours first – a Good Thing. Modern brewing techniques have bred the sourness out of beer and over the years this has modified the palate of the beer-drinking public. No-one remembers or wants sour beer any more.

Well, mostly. The taste for lambics (and a few other styles of sour beer) stuck around in Belgium just long enough for the revival of real ale in the UK, which got a few people interested in traditional beers from outside Britain as well as British cask-conditioned beer, and then the US craft beer boom which has opened up a massive new market for lambic brewers and led to a lambic renaissance. There was a problem in that most of them were relatively small (Cantillon, one of the best known and most respected lambic brewers, was still only producing 800 barrels a year in 2006 – I think that would have classed it as a nanobrewery) and are making a product whose manufacturing techniques and processes can't be scaled up quickly because of the lag that comes from long ageing. Despite the extra effort needed to make these beers a few brewers outside Belgium have dipped their toe in the waters of the lambic brewing tradition, including Allagash.

You heard Jason Perkins talking about hops in that clip. I imagine you're all familiar with the influence that powerfully flavoured American hops have had on brewing in recent years, and the lengths some brewers and beer geeks will go to in order to make sure their beers, especially the hoppiest ones, are consumed as fresh as is humanly possible. Indeed, a beer fresh from the brewery with its hop flavours and aroma still zinging around the glass is something really rather special, particularly if hops are a prominent characteristic of the beer as is the case with, for instance, German and Czech pilsners, American pale ales and west coast IPAs.

Lambic brewers use hops, of course, and up to five or six times as much as conventional brewers (except maybe for Dogfish Head when they're brewing 120 Minute), although you wouldn't know it from tasting their beer because the hops they use have been aged for two to three years to eliminate almost all their flavour and aroma. While most brewers are using hops as beer seasoning, lambic brewers are adding hops for their preservative and antibacterial properties because of the length of time their beers can spend in the barrel. Conveniently, and thankfully, this doesn’t inhibit the bacteria which give lambic beers their flavour.

By the way, that's aged hops, not stale. If anyone tells you they're stale (I've seen them described thusly here and there), please correct this misinformation. Yes, the word 'stale' has changed its meaning over time and centuries ago might not have had the same connotations (food gone bad) that it does today, especially with beer, but if someone nowadays says that a foodstuff is stale it usually means that food hasn't been properly looked after and has spoiled, or at least dried out in a way not intended, like stale bread for instance. That's not the case with the hops that go into a lambic beer.

Jason also mentioned wheat in the video. Lambics are wheat beers, just like German hefeweizens and Belgian witbiers. The wheat is unmalted, and a minimum quantity (30%) is required by the regulations although brewers often use more. The mash for a lambic is four or five times thicker than that of most other beers (ie, there's four or five times as much grain in it – it's called 'turbid' mashing). This was originally a way around a tax imposed by the Dutch (Belgium was part of the United Kingdom of The Netherlands at the time) which was based on the volume of the mash tun. By keeping the tun relatively small but adding more grain to the mash (and grinding it more finely so they could fit even more of it in the tun) brewers found a sweet spot where they could extract the maximum fermentable sugar from a single brew and avoid paying a higher duty. When the tax was repealed in 1885 (Belgium had been an independent nation for 55 years by then) they stuck with the procedure they’d spent the previous 62 years perfecting since it was introduced, partly out of inertia and partly because it made very good beer.

Lambic beers are very highly attenuated (most of the sugar has been consumed by the yeast) and are therefore especially dry with little or no residual sweetness. The extended time they spend fermenting in the barrel is one reason, but it's also because the wild yeasts picked up from the air and the Brettanomyces yeasts plus the bacteria present in the barrels are able to digest more of the sugars that were extracted from the grain than regular brewers yeast can. This, along with the crispness that comes from the wheat that's in the grist and the acidic flavours generated by the yeasts and bacteria, all goes toward making a very refreshing and thirst quenching beer.

Brewing lambics can be a risky business because of the unpredictability of the yeasts and other organisms which ferment them. Most other brewers have a near 100% certainty of getting the result they intended because they use a cultured strain of yeast which does the same thing every time. Lambic brewers don't have that luxury. The wild yeasts they employ will usually make the flavours they're looking for; lactobacillus and pediococcus bacteria will add acidity (think yoghurt), and Brettanomyces will add earthy, musty barnyard notes, but sometimes a rogue acetobacter takes hold and adds too many vinegary flavours. That's pretty much the end of the road for that batch.

There are some producers of lambic beers who aren't even brewers – they're blenders. They buy wort from local breweries and age it in their own barrels. This was once a common practice around Lembeek and the Senne valley; café and bar owners bought wort from brewers after it had spent the night in the koelschip (aka coolship) and picked up its dose of wild yeast, then sold it from their own barrels. One or two enterprising individuals took it further and started doing this on a larger scale. Hanssens Artisanaal is possibly the last of the commercial lambic blenders who label beers under their own name. A pity, because it seems like a good idea to me – a blender would sometimes obtain wort from more than one brewery, age it and then bring those together to produce a beer that neither of the original breweries would have. A collaboration, of sorts.

So what exactly can you make from lambic beer?

Unblended lambic

This usually means young lambic straight from the barrel, unblended and unfiltered. Young is a relative term here. Aside from a handful of darker, high ABV styles, most British and American ales are made to be consumed within a month of being brewed, but a young lambic is one which has been in the barrel for only (only!) a year. Even so, it has still has some carbonation although the complex full flavours of a three-year-old lambic won't have developed just yet. It used to be quite difficult to get hold of unblended young lambic beer unless there was a brewery nearby. It's not much easier today but there are more brewers, Belgian and American, who are selling it. I say selling it rather than making it because it's something that all lambic brewers make, but it doesn't often find itself outside the brewery walls in its native state because it's usually blended with older beer to make other lambic derivatives such as gueuze.

In the first episode of Michael Jackson's Beer Hunter series, lambic brewer and blender Frank Boon takes Michael to a little place called the Café Congo, not far from the Boon brewery in Lembeek (I really, really want a mailbox like that), where they enjoy a glass of unblended lambic. Frank explains that it was considered a beer for the working class – “a peoples' beer” – while gueuze and kriek became luxury items. They go on to talk about those paintings of peasant life by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and how it's very likely to be beer that's in the barrels and earthenware jugs, not wine. And quite possibly lambic beer. Leastways, Michael wanted to think so.

Faro

There are a few variations of faro. It's usually made from straight unblended lambic but it can also be a blend of young lambics, or a blend of young lambic and another unaged brew called meertsbier (which doesn't seem to be around any more). Whichever way it's done there'll be an addition of some kind of sugar, typically either Belgian candi sugar, molasses or brown sugar, which takes some of the edge off the sourness. It was usually lighter in ABV than unblended lambic (not necessarily the case today) so maybe it was faro rather than straight young lambic that all those Belgian peasants were knocking back in Bruegel's paintings. Faro is a style which, like young lambic, was for a long time served mostly in the local area and was prepared on the premises from the beer in the café's own barrels. Bottled versions are becoming more common and easy to get hold of; Lindemans Faro, for example.

Gueuze

I reckon you could say that gueuze is the pinnacle of a lambic brewer's art, and they're sometimes called The Champagnes of Belgium. It's not easy in the first place to brew lambics because of the unusual brewing process and the unpredictability of wild yeast, but gueuze throws another spanner in the works because it also relies so much upon the skill of beer blending. Gueuze is a mix of young (usually at least a year in the barrel) and old (two and three years) lambics in just the right proportion to produce a beer that has sour, tart and funky flavours perfectly balanced. Gueuze is usually bottled after blending, and since the younger beer still has some sugar in it which haven't yet been appropriated by the yeasts, a secondary fermentation takes place which carbonates the beer in the bottle. It may still be possible to get single-barrel unblended gueuze (in other words, straight three-year-old lambic), and that's something I'd love to try. While not bottle-conditioned in the usual sense of the phrase (a little extra sugar added at the time of bottling), gueuze is an excellent candidate for ageing, for years though, not for decades.

If you have a week or so to spare in April you could travel to Belgium for the 2013 Tour de Geuze, a biennial event.

You'll need a Dutch interpreter for most of that one, but I think you'll get the gist.

Fruit lambics

Fruit lambic isn't simply a fruit-flavoured beer. The fruit should be incorporated in such a way that it becomes a harmonious part of the whole rather than singing its own melody and overpowering the acidic, funky character of the beer. It's usually added to a barrel of ageing lambic after about 18 months to two years. The sugar in the fruit is a new source of food for the yeasts still in the beer and another round of fermentation is kicked off, followed by another year to 18 months of further maturation, after which it's blended with beer from other barrels, like a gueuze.

That means some extra skill is required here. If the brewer isn't careful there could be an explosion of beer like the one at BrewDog a few years ago when they made a strawberry beer (not a lambic) but forgot to account for the sugar present in the fruit itself. The yeast already in the beer went on a spree, eating up the newly introduced saccharides and making a lot of extra carbon dioxide, so when the barrel was un-bunged for a tasting there was a fountain of pink liquid and strawberry pulp. Icky.

In the best fruit lambics the fruit will be left to macerate until there's very little of the flesh left, just the pits or stones. If whole cherries are used and left in the barrel long enough before bottling, the beer might pick up notes of almond from the stones. The most common fruits are cherries (kriek) and raspberries (framboise), as well as peaches (peche), blackcurrants (cassis) and apples (pomme). In the past grapes would have been used to make druivenlambik, and one or two breweries still do.

In recent years some lambic brewers have been moving away from tradition by blending their beer with other, non-lambic beers, by filtering and pasteurising their beers, or by by making their fruit lambics with fruit juice or fruit syrup instead of whole fruit, which has caused some consternation among the purists. Perhaps they're doing it to soften the sourness and appeal to a wider audience, or maybe, in the case of blending with non-lambics, to stretch it further and keep up with the increasing demand. Lindemans is the brewery most often cited for such practices (although Lindemans Cuvée René is a bona fide traditional gueuze, and a pretty good one), whereas Cantillon is the brewery usually held up by beer geeks as Protector of the Tradition. Both the Cantillon and Boon websites are well worth the read for lambic history and info (that's the same Boon from The Beer Hunter episode mentioned above), and while their website is in Dutch and will need a Google Chrome browser or Google Translate, 3 Fonteinen is another fine lambic brewery whose beers are worth hunting down.

By the way, all lambics are (or should be) sour and funky, but not all sour and funky beers are lambics. Oud bruin and Flanders red ale are two more types of Belgian sour beer... but that's a story for another time. Long may the lambic renaissance continue.

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