“A lot of beer nerds who go to Belgium and visit Brasserie Cantillon come away moved by the magic of the place,” says Jester King Brewery (Austin, Texas) Founder Jeffrey Stuffings. “The ancient building, the ancient technique … I was awestruck.”
That ancient technique is spontaneous fermentation—cultivating conditions in which airborne microorganisms ferment wort, creating complex beer over time, often several years. These spontaneously fermented beers coming out of Brussels, Belgium, are called lambics, and much like champagne or tequila, they are specific to their region.
In the book Wild Brews, Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewer’s Yeast, author Jeff Sparrow dives into a question that’s being asked more and more in the United States: Does a lambic have to be brewed in or around Brussels? “The answer,” he writes in the first chapter, “depends on the definition. A lambic is a spontaneously fermented beer produced with unmalted wheat and aged in wood.” Lambic beers were traditionally created via turbid mashing and hopped with aged hops, as well. One well-known style of lambic beer is gueuze, a blend of young—usually one-year-old—and old—two- to three-year-old—lambics that are then bottled for secondary fermentation. Sparrow points out that because of production costs and uncertain results, most brewers in the twenty-first century haven’t attempted these beer styles.
At least not until recently, that is. In 2007, Allagash Brewing Company (Portland, Maine) installed a coolship (a vessel for cooling unfermented wort that’s open to the air to allow for spontaneous fermentation) and would become known as the first brewery in the country to attempt to emulate the traditional lambic brewing process via coolship. “We were both nervous and interested in how the reaction would be from Belgian brewers when we started this experiment,” says Allagash Brewmaster Jason Perkins. “Belgians are very proud brewers, as they should be. Generally, the reactions have been very positive.”
Almost a decade later, many more breweries are fermenting beers in coolships, notably Jester King Brewery, Libertine Brewing Company (San Luis Obispo, California), Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales (Denver, Colorado), de Garde Brewing (Tillamook, Oregon), Block 15 Brewing (Corvallis, Oregon), The Veil Brewing (Richmond, Virginia), Anchorage Brewing (Anchorage, Alaska), and Russian River Brewing Co. (Santa Rosa, California). “It seems everybody has a coolship these days,” jokes Tyler Clark, the founder and head of operations at Libertine Brewing Company.
These American breweries might have coolships, but arguably, they are not making lambic beers. While not legally restricted in the European Union or the United States, that appellation is regarded by many as tied to a very short list of breweries making beers in and near Brussels (and the Pajottenland southwest of Brussels), such as Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, and Boon. In an effort to preserve the geographic sanctity of lambic, a new term is in development to define lambic-style beers produced outside the region—it’s called méthode gueuze.
This name came about through Jester King Brewery’s relationship with Brasserie Cantillon. Stuffings came home from Brussels inspired to pursue this ancient brewing method at home. He and his team installed a coolship, began a hops-aging program, and sourced raw malts from a small maltster. Fast-forward three years and his first spontaneously fermented beer, accordingly named SPON, was almost ready to go to market. But before it did, he wanted Cantillon’s owner, Jean-Pierre van Roy, to taste it.
“Jean is the expert, the modern-day godfather of lambic and gueuze,” Stuffings says. “So I made an appointment to see him, threw a bottle in my suitcase, and flew to Europe.”
Stuffings admits that he felt bashful even approaching van Roy because “this method is his family’s thing.” That first tasting was nerve-wracking. “Van Roy was very pensive,” Stuffings remembers. “He sat there for what seemed like an eternity, and I could see his mind turning. He finally told me, ‘This is something you should be very proud of.’ ”
During that tasting, Stuffings asked van Roy what in the world to call this style of beer. “I wanted a neat phrase that implied the process without the whole explanation of turbid mash, extended boil, aged hops, coolship inoculation, straight to oak, blended across three years, and naturally fermented. My fear was that it would become too long-winded and people wouldn’t necessarily get it.”
That was when van Roy threw out the term méthode gueuze. “Jean was progressive-minded and open suggesting this name,” Stuffings says. “He ultimately protects and shines a positive light upon the prestige of his own tradition.”
In addition to Jester King, we asked the brewers at Allagash, Libertine, and Black Project to share their perspectives on spontaneously fermented beers in the United States. They gave us the skinny on the ingredients, the process, and the nomenclature of what’s becoming both a prominent and controversial topic among craft brewers across the globe.
At Libertine, where Clark and crew are dedicated to using as many regional ingredients as possible, local malt has become a large part of the foundation of the beers. That’s not because of beer-style guidelines, though; it’s because of brewing philosophy. “We want to brew something uniquely us, to this region,” Clark says. “By next year, we’ll be able to say that more than half of our malt comes from the San Luis area that once used to be the breadbasket of the West Coast. Local heritage (or raw) malt works perfectly with our plan and mission.”
“We did just brew a batch with 100 percent local ingredients, but realistically, we couldn’t have done that in 2007 or even last year,” Perkins adds. “Local malt adds flavor and terroir, but I don’t feel that to fall within this style, the beer needs to be brewed with local grain.”
“We support the local-grain movement because of sustainability, nutrition, and great flavor,” says Stuffings at Jester King. “But I want to be perfectly transparent about our process—as of 2016, we now have access to Texas-grown malted barley, but when we started this program in late 2013, Blacklands Malt had access to only local wheat. The barley we used was grown in Colorado.”
Stuffings says using local malt represents a fine line between access and locality. “We’re always having that internal debate,” he says. “We love cherries and raspberries, but we can’t get those from Texas, so they come from Oregon and Michigan.”
Local malt and fruit might not be necessary for the méthode gueuze style. However, aged hops indeed are. “For traditional authentic gueuze or lambic, aged hops are an absolute necessity,” Stuffings says. “I always thought that musty-attic, root-cellar aroma of these beers was just a product of fermentation. But now, having had the opportunity to brew this style of beer, smell the wort, and taste the beer throughout the whole process, I realize those aged hops are a major flavor and aroma component. I assume Belgian brewers first used them out of necessity or practicality—either not having fresh hops or making use of older hops.”
Hops are important to spontaneously fermented beers because “having those preservative qualities is important without cultured yeast,” Perkins further explains. “We don’t want a lot of bitterness for that kind of beer because it takes away from acidity balance. Aged hops help us achieve that.”
At Black Project, the flagship coolship product, OXCART, doesn’t exactly meet the ingredient specifications that Allagash, Jester King, and Libertine suggest. “For example, we use a portion of unaged American hops, and a portion of the grist is oats,” says Brewer and Blender James Howat. “While we do have some coolship beer in barrels that meets the requirements, my goal has never been to do a ‘Belgian-style gueuze in America.’ It has been to make ‘American gueuze,’ which implies an inspiration by the Belgians, an evolution from their processes in some areas, and a preference toward creating something new that fully encapsulates our terroir. To me, using a Brussels water profile, European-aged hops, and Belgian malt is not American terroir.”
Turbid mashing, a multistep mash process that produces cloudy, starchy wort, is often used before spontaneous fermentation because it creates dextrins for airborne yeast and bacteria to snack on. “It makes a heck of a lot of sense,” says Perkins. “It creates a sustainable and complex food source for the microbes, which in our case, need to eat for two-plus years.”
If there’s one firm style guideline for méthode gueuze, it’s undeniably that the microbes fermenting the wort must be naturally occurring and airborne. “At the heart of traditional lambic and gueuze production, as well as méthode gueuze, is open-air inoculation without pitching yeast or adding anything to the wort,” Stuffings declares. “Pitching mixed or pure cultures disqualifies beer from fitting in this really traditional process.”
Perkins agrees. “A scaffold for méthode gueuze is 100 percent spontaneous fermentation,” he seconds.
Clark thirds. “I want to hammer this down. We use coolships, and we don’t add yeast.”
Howat at Black Project presents a thoughtful analogy for spontaneous fermentation. “To me, making single-culture beers is like yeast ranching. You have to know how to treat one strain and nurture it in the right way to get the characteristics you want and keep the yeast happy,” he explains. “Spontaneous fermentation is like that, but crazier. I’m not a rancher; I’m more like a rain-forest ecologist. The microbes in a spontaneous fermentation each have their own preferences and requirements. But unlike with lab yeast, I don’t know the ideal temperatures, attenuation, flavor characteristics, etc., for each strain. Heck, I don’t even know what species or even genre is present. Not to mention hundreds to thousands of strains that are present and contribute to a spontaneous fermentation.”
After spontaneous fermentation and barrel aging, these rain-forest ecologists put on their mixologist hats to execute the blending process.
“Blending is super important,” Howat continues, “especially for coolship spontaneous ales. Individual barrels have flavors that are too strong, too one-note, or are just unpleasant on their own. When you take small bits of the ‘too strong’ or ‘too sour’ or quite frankly, ‘whoa that’s weird’ barrels and combine them with the ‘good’ barrels,’ you end up with a product that is insanely complex. There’s just a beautiful depth of flavor when done well, and that’s ultimately what I’m personally looking for when blending.”
Spontaneous fermentation means a serious lack of control, Perkins points out, so blending becomes critical. “Blending is our attempt at quality control and consistency in this process,” he says. “In Resurgam, our interpretation of gueuze, blending beers with multiple ages is super important. You need the young beer for healthy yeast and sugar contribution and the old beers for complexity.”
Beyond complexity, Stuffings adds, blending creates a balance of acidity. “Acid has such a major impact on how we perceive flavor. We blend for fairly modest acidity, and that’s just a personal preference thing, as I think a lot of American-style sour beer can be too sour. After we blend, the resulting beer might be lackluster, but bottle condition that beer for nine months, and it will evolve to a more sour, more funky state. While I’m on my soapbox, the bottle-conditioning phase for méthode gueuze is massively important for adding interesting flavor and aroma. It’s just as critical as its time in the barrel.”
Méthode gueuze raises questions not just about what to call the lambic-style beers coming out of the United States, but also about the term “wild ale” that has recently crept onto the scene. The brewers here would never recommend calling anything made outside of Brussels a “lambic,” and they err on the side of caution when using the term “wild.” Generally, wild implies the use of yeast and bacteria beyond standard Saccharomyces and not necessarily spontaneous fermentation, but each brewery seems to have a slightly different take.
“We have embraced the word ‘wild’ for better or for worse, which is not always accurate because sometimes we pitch yeast,” says Perkins. “For lack of a better explanation, it’s easy to understand for consumers. In Allagash terms, non-wild beers are fermented with Saccharomyces only and wild implies something other than Saccharomyces. That’s just the way we’ve chosen to define it, and I like it because it gives definition while keeping the term open. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Belgian brewers or Belgian beer consumers say, ‘good call not calling it lambic because we would have really ripped you a new one.’ ”
Perkins is hesitant about beer styles in general because they put beers in boxes. “I am struggling with my support for the méthode gueuze mark,” he says. “I am personally still grappling with the concept—the need for it, how strict it is, etc.”
At Libertine, Clark calls his beers San Luis Wild Ales. “That’s our wording to designate us as a region like when you look at the Belgian lambic region,” he says. “We’re not Belgian or from the lambic region, but we’re emulating what they’re doing with our own local twist. We try to reflect our sense of place.”
At Black Project, Howat uses the word wild to describe beers made with yeast or other microbes that were captured from the air, but that are not coolship spontaneous ale. “Other people use it to describe a beer made with a single strain of Brettanomyces that they bought from a lab who isolated it from an infected beer many years ago,” he says sarcastically. “You can probably guess that I don’t agree that a strain from a lab can make a ‘wild’ ale, but I feel that fight has been lost. A large part of the problem is that Brett was basically called ‘wild’ yeast for so long as an agent of infection in clean beer that when labs started selling those same strains to be used intentionally, that term stuck around.”
Howat’s rhapsody continues. “I think méthode gueuze is a great start, but I will say that I think it still has some work to be done on the requirements. As it reads right now, it describes a very specific thing—Belgian-style gueuze that is made in America (or elsewhere). I’m actually working on a separate mark or standard similar to méthode gueuze but focusing on American innovation and local terroir versus emphasizing the Belgian methods and ingredients.”
The conversations and controversies continue, but one thing’s for sure—don’t call it a lambic unless it was brewed in Brussels by Belgian brewers. “This is a narrow tradition kept alive by a few families who kept it from going extinct,” says Stuffings. “We owe them our debt and gratitude.”
Stuffings references a rock climbing mantra in relationship to brewing spontaneously fermented, wild, and sour beers. “Getting to the top of the mountain means nothing, but being open and honest about how you got there means everything,” he says. “There’s no cheating if you pull on your gear unless you tell people you free-climbed. There are no rights or wrongs here; it’s just a social beverage that we’re here to enjoy.”
What’s in a Méthode Gueuze Brew?
While the exact definition of méthode gueuze is still developing as the creators push to codify it as a service mark, Jeff Stuffings of Jester King has so far defined it as beer with these ingredients and processes:
- Traditional grist of malted barley and raw wheat
- Turbid mash and extended boil with aged hops
- Overnight cooling and inoculation of the entire batch of wort in a coolship or similar vessel
- 100 percent spontaneous fermentation in oak barrels
- A blend of one-, two-, and three-year-old barrels or older
- 100 percent natural refermentation (carbonation)
PHOTO AT TOP: COURTESY ALLAGASH BREWING COMPANY