Gueuze, an unfruited sparkling form of lambic and the epitome of the art of sour beer production. See lambic. Sometimes called “the champagne of Belgium,” gueuze is a blend of two or more lambics of different ages, with the younger beer providing the sugars needed for refermentation in the bottle. Gueuze almost certainly predates champagne and was probably originally served directly from casks. Today, with some rare exceptions, it is considered a bottled beer by definition. Just as some champagne producers buy either grapes or wine to blend their champagnes, so some gueuze producers buy lambic for blending. See blending houses. More often, gueuze is blended from different barrels within a brewery’s own production. The traditional gueuze flavor is dry, sharp, and earthy, close to that of unblended lambic, but bottle conditioning and the resulting carbonation give it perhaps even greater complexity and finesse. See bottle conditioning. Like blending wine or Scotch whisky, blending lambics to make gueuze is an art form. The base lambics having been spontaneously fermented, each barrel will have an individual character. Upon tasting, the blender will need to decide whether to use the beer now or hold it further; whether to use the beer for straight lambic or for gueuze; whether to use the beer for the best traditional gueuze or the more commercial variety most houses also produce. Highly aromatic old “stinky” gueuze is considered valuable and will be parsed out carefully in the cellar. These have barnyard aromatics reminiscent of washed rind cheeses; this is not surprising because some of the same wild yeasts and bacterial strains are at work in both the cheese and the beer. Young lambics provide fermentable sugars and bright vibrant flavors to the blend. Aged lambics lend complexity of flavor along with enzymes created by the dozens of microorganisms at work in the cask; these enzymes will break down complex sugars into simple sugars that yeast and bacteria can work upon to create carbonation. Thus, the gueuze blender must not only carefully manage the characteristics of taste and acidity of each different lambic but also make sure that the beer will attain the proper high carbonation desired after bottle conditioning.

The proportions of young and old lambic in gueuze differ from year to year and from one brewer to another. Some brewers use approximately 50% 1-year-old, 25% 2-year-old, and 25% 3-year-old lambic. Others prefer to use two-thirds 1-year-old lambic and one-third 2- or 3-year-old lambic. Special blends may include only 10% young beer. After blending, the beer is bottled and laid down in cellars for at least 4 to 6 months of refermentation. Some may not be released for many years. When they are eventually served, the bottles may come to the table in a horizontal position; this allows the yeast deposits to remain in place while the beer is poured out sparkling and clear.

Many people do not realize that champagne is essentially a cocktail; almost all champagnes are sweetened to make them palatable to a wider audience. This is not considered traditional for gueuze, but the fact is that it is widely practiced. Except for a few traditional producers, most lambic brewers produce a more profitable sweetened gueuze, and these beers often confuse gueuze consumers. In the late 1990s, some lambic brewers, having tired of what they considered adulterations, founded the association Hoge Raad voor Ambachtelijke Lambikbieren (High Commission of Traditionally-Made Lambic Beers, HORAL), presided over by Armand Debelder of the Drie Fonteinen Brewery in Beersel, Belgium. Every lambic producer and lambic blender is a member, except for Belle-Vue (owned by the multinational company ABInBev) and the ultratraditional Cantillon Brewery, which defers membership because not all members apply traditional methods. See cantillon brewery.

HORAL’s main goal is to protect authentic lambics with a proper denomination, adding the word oude (old) to the words gueuze and kriek; today the word oude generally guarantees that the beer in the bottle will be unsweetened. HORAL also periodically organizes the Toer de Geuze, an organized bus tour for which almost all gueuze makers open their doors to beer lovers from around the world. For lovers of lambic, it can be something akin to a religious pilgrimmage.

Only 15 or 20 years ago, it seemed that a tidal wave of market forces might sweep true gueuze from the scene, but today the future of authentic gueuze looks promising. At beginning of the 1990s, the total market for traditonal sour gueuze was around 1,500 hl (1,280 US barrels) but by 2006 this number had risen to 6,000 hl (5,130 US barrels). Belgian chefs often pair gueuze with food or cook their dishes following the tradition of “cuisine à la bière.” See cooking with beer. Gueuze, with its cleansing acidity, is a suitable aperitif before a fine meal. Many classical Belgian dishes include gueuze as a main ingredient. In his 2006 book La Gueuze Gourmande (The Delicious Gueuze), the Belgian food writer Nicole Darchambeau collected some of these dishes; mussels with gueuze, lamb liver with gueuze and mustard, gueuze-preserved goose legs, gueuze-jellied chicken, and guinea-fowl with gueuze and broccoli are all examples of Brussels traditional food. Finally, gueuze can be used as an ingredient in vinaigrette, onion jam, or pleurote mushroom sauce, for special breads, or, as dessert, made into spectacularly sharp, complex, and refreshing sorbets.