I’ve written it before, and I’ll write it again: there’s really no better reason to be a homebrewer than that we get to brew things we can’t readily find on tap. Lambics might be easier to get today than they were a generation ago but they’re still definitely uncommon. Given that, why not brew them yourself?
On that score, though, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that this is a pretty simple beer to brew. The bad news… I know what you’re thinking. “He’s going to say, ‘the bad news is that they’re easy to brew but hard to get right.’” Wrong. The bad news isn’t that they’re hard to get right – it’s that they take a long time to mature, so you’re going to need to show some patience here. They’re worth it, though: in exchange for a couple of hours each year, you can develop a steady rotation of complex and flavorful (and surprisingly drinkable) sour beers.
What are you waiting for?
Some beer styles are invented (hello, Black IPA). Some beer styles are preserved (how’s it going, Classic Rauchbier?). Some beer styles are. This last category is where we find the Lambic, which is what it is because that was what you got when you brewed beer in the Senne River valley in Belgium, thanks to the local microbiota. Dating back perhaps as far as the Roman Empire, spontaneously-fermented beers from this region have not changed all that much since the days before we knew how beer fermented.
Comprising a combination of Pilsner malt and wheat with virtually no hops character, these are light-bodied, sour, dry, and with complementary funky flavors that should not include smoke/ash or vinegar-like flavors.
They are also typically served uncarbonated. A blend of souring bacteria and yeast keep the beers from being one-dimensional, though, and the flavors usually develop more complexity with time.
Oddly enough this was a fairly early style for me. I jumped into Berliner Weisse within a about 30 batches (or as a second-year brewer, to put it in context), and just after making my first Berliner I thought, “well, if I’m going to have bugs in the brewery, I might as well do a few sours in a row.”
I imagined a world in which I had contamination throughout the brewery thanks to my carelessness, and while I was lucky and this never materialized it was still a good idea to get those long-aging sours started! In any case, I want to thank Jamil Zainasheff and John Palmer (and Steve Piatz) for their great guidance in Brewing Classic Styles on this recipe, and I’ve had little cause to modify it over the years.
This beer is easiest (and best) as an extract recipe. Fourpounds (1.8kg) each of Wheat and Pilsner liquid malt extract, stirred into about 6 gallons (22.7L) of warm water does the trick.
You’ll need a specialized hops product: debittered or aged or “Lambic” hops, which have been aged and abused in a controlled setting to yield a product with the preservative qualities of hops but none of their flavor or bittering potential from alpha acids. Once upon a time we had to “make” these ourselves, but now you can buy them pre-treated (and dirt cheap – I get them for about 25 cents an ounce). Three ounces at the top of the boil will do just fine.
This beer is all about bugs, but getting them doesn’t need to be complicated. Start out your beer with a pitch of Wyeast 1007 German Ale yeast, and then add in either the Wyeast 3728 Belgian Lambic Blend. I made one version of this recipe with the Roeselare blend (3763), and I liked it, but it felt very thin.
That could have been a batch-specific effect, of course, but at one batch of this per year I wasn’t willing to roll the dice on it again, and I reverted back to the 3728. You might also consider building up a starter culture from a favorite commercial example, but I prefer to keep it simple.
To start, fill your kettle with water. Stir your extract into warm water until fully dissolved (the water can be warm to near-boiling, just make sure you’re not directly heating it – the extract might scorch on a hot pot bottom). Bring to a boil and add your hops, and boil for 90 minutes. Chill and pitch the German Ale yeast, and ferment for a week at 66F (19C).
At that point, pitch the bug blend and move your fermenter (glass, if you have it, to minimize oxygen pickup during extended aging) to a quiet, temperature-stable space. If you have a spot under a stairwell in a basement, that’ll be perfect. A consistent temperature is vital, though – walk-in closet, guest bedroom, really anywhere with few drafts and without big daily swings in temperature.
Don’t worry about it being too warm, so long as the temperature is relatively stable at somewhere between 62F-80F (17-27C).
You’ll see a pellicle form (a thick, snotty, bubbling layer) on top of the wort within eight to twelve weeks, and you’ll age the beer for at least nine months (and preferably about a year, when you brew your next Lambic!) up to a year. At one year, package and serve. There’s no need to carbonate it, and a very small amount of residual fermentation might make your bottled and aged samples slightly petillant (kind of half-carbonated).
Don’t feel like you need to drink this all right away. It will prove very drinkable from day one (well, day 366, really), but you can store these for years. If you have the patience you can also store several years’ worth to blend your own Gueuze! For now, though, enjoy the fruits of your year-long wait.