One of the most memorable beers of my life appeared after we’d had a few. It was about a decade ago on a cold November day in Brussels following the first snow—a perfect day to brew lambic. I had arrived at Cantillon that afternoon, at the moment fifth-generation Owner-Brewer Jean Van Roy was shoveling sodden green heaps from the hopback. He was near the end of the brew day and soon would be relaxing with those (two) of us who showed up to witness the magic of brewing spontaneously fermented beer.
I recall drinking faro, the rustic, lightly sweetened lambic that once slaked thirst in every pub in the city, poured from a traditional ceramic pitcher. We tried other beers, lost to memory. But I mostly remember how, after Van Roy had discussed his beers with gusto, he went to the cellar to retrieve a five-year-old bottle of the brewery’s gueuze. In this type of lambic, stocks of different vintages are blended together. As lambic ages, it changes, so blending young and old batches creates a beer of surpassing complexity.
Of all the permutations of lambic, “my preference is for gueuze,” Van Roy said, “and for such a beer, between two and five years.” He presented the bottle as an example. It was electrifying, with the lemon-rind character typical of the brewery, wood sap, earth, a hint of vinegar, and joyful, roiling effervescence. No beer can approach gueuze in complexity or, when the balance is just right, accomplishment. It was the first profoundly good gueuze I’d tasted; it was a world away from what anyone was doing in the United States, and it changed the way I thought about beer.
The Wonder of Lambic
We might describe the history of modern beer as the endeavor to keep wild yeast and bacteria from interfering with the brewing process. Lambic brewing, on the other hand, demands them. A wort made from a laboriously long mash is boiled with aged hops and transferred to a wide, shallow pan called a coolship. The aged hops add some microbiological protection, but no bitterness, to prepare the wort for what comes next. As the wort cools overnight, the sugary solution attracts uncountable microorganisms from the air and brewery environment, and they will plunge into the wort and begin feasting. The next morning, the brewer transfers the wort to wooden vessels, which become contained ecosystems where all those tiny creatures thrive. They, in turn, will transform the wort into a beer containing dozens of the different flavor compounds they release.
It’s a process most brewers instinctively fear. Nearly everything the brewer does is simply preparation—the flavors come from the yeast and bacteria, not malt and hops. Brewers make the wort, it is often said, and the yeast and bacteria make lambic. This requires a Zen-like approach, a self-removal from the process, the ability to relinquish control. Jason Kahler, who makes spontaneously fermented beer at Solera Brewery in Parkdale, Oregon, says, “That’s something that you have to get over, your fear, if you’re going to try these beers. You can’t lose sleep over something like this.”
Van Roy, the brewer-philosopher, agrees with this. “In French we have a sentence. We say, ‘Tout est dans tout.’ If I translate it: ‘Everything is in everything.’ In this brewery, everything is playing a role in the final product. Everything.”
Lambic-maker Frank Boon, whose brewery is a short walk from the Senne River, tells a funny anecdote highlighting the perversity of lambic-making. “The old English books will tell you if you’re going to build a new brewery, put it on the top of a hill and make the opening of your cellars from the north—to keep the wild bugs out. So if you put it close to the river and put the openings to the south … you will have many more wild yeasts.” To become a brewer of lambic, you must unlearn all the rules of brewing conventional beer.
A Short History
Lambics are like sharks: one of those entities you imagine might have been around a long, long time. The first beers humans brewed must have been spontaneously fermented and not terribly dissimilar to straight lambic. And indeed, lambic comes from a family of beers that were entirely typical of Belgian brewing stretching back hundreds of years. All beer styles evolve, however, and both the style we now call lambic and the name itself have disputed origins. Versions of these beers may have been made with oats or without hops, and the production methods have changed and varied before becoming codified decades ago. Lambic is old enough that it’s hard to nail down the precise details. About gueuze, however, we can say more definitively: it’s not especially old.
The practice of blending young beer with old was common in Belgium in the early- to mid-19th century. When the first gueuze beers (sometimes spelled “geuze”) started coming out in the 1830s and 1840s, they were bottled—but not blended. Those gueuzes were made stronger than typical lambic and were considered more special. Blending them came later, nearer the end of the century. Although gueuze is now the best-known product of unfruited lambics, in the early 20th century, it constituted only about 10 percent of lambic production.
Beer of Place
Europeans are particular about their beverages and cuisines, and Americans often roll their eyes when protections are invoked. Everyone is aware of Champagne and of the verbal contortions Americans must use when making sparkling wines. Kölsch beer has certain protections, too, though Americans don’t often honor them when they lager an ale in the manner of Cologne. The European Union also protects a number of the lambic products, including gueuze, as traditional specialties. In this case, the designation is warranted—but poses challenges for brewers outside Payottenland.
Because the yeast and bacteria are the starring actors in the drama of gueuze, the question of origin is especially salient. When I toured Boon’s brewery, I mentioned research I had seen describing the tango that different microorganisms danced throughout the life cycle of aging lambic. I asked if his was similar. He knew the research and reported that scientists at the University of Leuven had been studying just that question—and no, his lambic didn’t behave the same way. Jean Van Roy likewise pointed out that even in the small footprint of Lambicland, the microorganisms varied. He had seen photographs of Brettanomyces cultures from different breweries. “They analyzed lambic from seven, eight different breweries,” he said. “All the pictures were different.”
The lambic tradition, however old it is, is particular to the area around Brussels. Even in Belgium, other breweries that make spontaneously fermented beer usually won’t call their products “lambic” or “gueuze.” In the United States, breweries are discovering their own strains of Brettanomyces and wild Saccharomyces. It’s possible to reproduce a kölsch virtually identical to that made in Cologne. Lambic and gueuze are different; they express the place they come from, and when Americans use identical techniques, their beers taste different.
A product of microbiology and time, straight lambic is already one of the most complex beers in the world. Gueuze, which uses different ages and vats of beer, accentuates and refines that complexity. Great blenders are like painters, composing gueuzes with precise amounts of this lot and that one, adding a skosh of sharper old lambic to deepen vibrant, fruity young lambic, adding dabs of flavors until everything is just right. It is an astonishing beer and a remarkable tradition—and when you explore it yourself, I bet they’ll change the way you think about beer, too.
Photo: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com