An ancient brewing technique produces this complex beverage.
LAMBIC: A WILD, OLD STYLE
“Forget everything you know about beer.” That’s the surprisingly sound advice that tourists are given at the beginning of a tour at Cantillon’s lambic brewery in Brussels. Cantillon is one of few breweries that continues to craft lambic style beers using age-old methods.
Lambic is a distinctive Belgian beer style with an astounding degree of complexity. There are many variations within the style, but traditional lambics tend to be dry and acidic with a sour aftertaste. For the uninitiated, the first taste of lambic can be off-putting. That’s because it bears no resemblance to your typical brew. In fact, due to its complexity and character, lambic is often compared to fine wine.
Terroir and Tradition
The earliest written documentation of this unique beer style dates back to 1320. Lambic originated in the Senne Valley of Belgium, which includes Brussels, as well as the Pajottenland—a scenic rural area west of the capital. Authentic lambic derives its characteristic tartness from specific microorganisms that thrive in the region—as well as in the wooden barrels used for aging the beer and within the walls of the old breweries.
These microorganisms, which include wild yeast, are a prerequisite for the lambic brewing process. They activate a natural—or spontaneous—fermentation process, which is what distinguishes lambic from other, more modern beer styles. All beer is made with yeast, but the vast majority of beer is made with cultivated yeast, with fermentation occurring in a sterile, enclosed environment. By selecting a particular yeast strain and exercising control over fermentation, brewers are able to achieve a consistent product.
Traditional lambic brewing, on the other hand, is a more natural and variable process. In a critical stage of lambic brewing, the wort (a liquid mixture containing sugar that will be converted by the yeast into alcoholic beer) is cooled in the open air. This gives airborne bacteria and wild yeast access to the solution and triggers fermentation. Use of spontaneous fermentation means that the brewer has less control over the final product. One batch of lambic can vary considerably from the next, which is why lambic brewers who consistently produce a good product are viewed as skilled artisans.
Before the cultivation of yeast, all brewing —dating back to ancient Egypt —relied on this method of spontaneous fermentation. But now it’s restricted almost exclusively to Belgium. Most brewers are wary of wild yeast because, once introduced to the brewing environment, it could forever change the beer produced there.
Though European Union hygiene regulations have frowned upon this manner of brewing, it is currently protected. The Beersel-based Hoge Raad voor Ambachtelijke Lambikbieren (High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers) is a group of brewers and blenders devoted to promoting and protecting the lambic tradition.
Sour beers have enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity worldwide. A number of adventurous brewers have been experimenting with brettanomyces, a variety of wild yeast that imparts tart, earthy flavors.
Lambic is not considered mature until it has aged for two years. As lambic ages, its complexity increases. Lambic is a still beverage that ranges in color from pale yellow to golden. Its alcoholic content ranges from 5 to 6.5 percent ABV. It is rare to find traditional lambic on tap, but you can find some specialized places in Brussels and Pajottenland that have it. There is some lambic that is bottled and exported, but more readily available are variations on the lambic style.
Gueuze is a sparkling beverage that is sometimes referred to as the “Champagne of Belgium.” It is golden-colored and ranges from 5-8 percent ABV. It is a complex and intense beer, often described as vinous, funky and dry. To make gueuze, aged lambic (2-3 years old) with a distinct character is blended with younger lambic that has enough sugar to trigger further fermentation in the bottle. Blending lambic requires a high degree of skill and an experienced palate; many view it as an art form. Gueuze can be cellared for 10-20 years or more. Like fine wine, as it ages it improves. Oude (aged) gueuze is highly prized by aficionados.
Faro is a lambic that has been sweetened, with Belgian candi sugar or brown sugar. Historically, faro was a low-alcohol mix of young lambic and a lighter, fresh beer. Today, faro is a blended lambic sweetened with brown sugar and pasteurized. It is sometimes spiced with orange peel and coriander.
Kriek or framboise—cherry and raspberry lambics respectively—are traditionally made by steeping whole fruits. The resulting beverage brings out the fruit flavor, but is meant to be tart. There are also other fruited lambic varieties such as peach and strawberry.
By means of a 1993 Belgian Royal Proclamation, any beer can be labeled a “lambic” if it contains even a trace amount of lambic beer. Chances are, if you have had commercially available fruit lambic, it was sweetened with sugar, fruit juice or syrup to appeal to a larger market. Some brewers have also added sweeteners to gueuze to make it palatable to a wider audience in recent years. Conventional lambic brewers frown upon these practices. Thankfully, a more recent European Union regulation gives some protection to this extraordinary class of beers. If one desires a taste of authentic lambic, look for the labels “Oude” or “Vielle.” Only traditionally produced lambic or gueuze can bear these names.
What's your favorite lambic? Tell us in comments!
Canning the American spirit one craft beer at a time.
WALK INTO 21ST AMENDMENT BREWERY in San Francisco's historic South Park neighborhood and you may think the pub has been a neighborhood watering hole for decades — the floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed grid of wooden rafters, and Americana art just feel authentic and familiar. Hung on the wall on the left, a faded oil painting of a proud pair of brewmasters with mutton chops and a handlebar-mustache adds a touch of mystique, like seeing a portrait of the grandfather who founded a successful family business and wondering who this man was. Where did he find his ambition and stamina? But upon discovering the clean-cut reality of the duo portrayed in the painting, brewery co-founders Shaun O'Sullivan and Nico Freccia, and the disco ball spinning above their brewing facilities, you realize that this pub has effectively modernized traditional brewing culture into a humorous, creative experiment, and you're just along for the ride, brew in hand.
When we opened the pub, the 21st Amendment meant a lot to us as this ethos of reestablishing the essence of the neighborhood gathering place that was wiped out by Prohibition,” says Freccia, over a watermelon-wedged pint of summery Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer. “We wanted the pub to be a neighbor- hood gathering place and to have that warm, comfortable and timeless feel.”
And gathering place it has become — it’s late afternoon on a Monday in June and already, San Francisco Giants fans have flooded the pub, hoping to watch the game with better beer and a friendlier setting than what the nearby ballpark has to offer. From baseball to beer, American culture has been at the heart of 21st Amendment Brewery since the very beginning, when Freccia and O'Sullivan opened their doors in 2000.
We just felt like the 21st Amendment was really about this notion of celebrating the spirit of Americans, the American pioneering spirit, of being innovative and different, of doing our own thing, of pushing through adversity regardless to make things happen,” explains Freccia.
Like any new project, founding the brewpub wasn't free of challenges. In addition to raising enough funds and coming up with creative brews people wanted to drink, Freccia and O'Sullivan had to convince customers that canned craft beer is just as tasty as that out of the glass bottles they were used to. O'Sullivan knew that it would take more than an education of the advantages of canning — increased protection from light and oxygen, greater transportability and recyclability, and even faster chilling time — to win over customers.
We really wanted to shock and awe people with what you are capable of doing in a beer can,” says O'Sullivan.
A venture to Belgium was in order, where they toured small, traditional breweries to come up with their next brew. Enter Monk's Blood, 21st Amendment Brewery's unique take on a dark Belgian-style ale, brewed with eight malts, cinnamon, vanilla bean and dried black mission figs. While they had brewed it once for San Francisco's Strong Beer Month a couple years prior, Monk's Blood's canned debut wowed customers with its rich mahogany hue, notes of caramel and spice and deep bitter flavor.
It really blew people's minds and they didn't know what to think. We spent so much time when we first started just talking about the can and not the liquid inside. This really forced people to say 'Oh my god! You really can have good beer in a can!'” recalls O'Sullivan.
The brewery soon started to focus on a new tactic to drive people to pick up the cans and take a sip: clever, stylized labels to match the witty beer names. O'Sullivan and Freccia channeled their hard-rock cores when they christened their midnight black IPA “Back in Black,” complete with a bad-ass illustration of Paul Revere making his legendary midnight ride — on a Harley Davidson. They also pay tribute to Ham the Space Chimp from the early American space program on the packaging of their pale gold session ale “Bitter American.”
Freccia explains, “NASA and the space program are obviously a very big part of our national pride and that, coupled with the fact that this particular monkey was probably the bitterest American because he was sitting somewhere in a happy lab in Florida eating bananas one day and the next day he's floating in outer space, like ‘What the heck happened to me?’ So we're trying to find new ways to have fun with American themes and put our own little twist. Like the watermelon wheat beer named Hell or High Watermelon, it sort of means that American spirit is 'come hell or high watermelon,' we'll get it done. We don't let things deter us.”
To design the striking art featured on the cans, 21st Amendment teamed up with Bend, Ore.'s, advertising company TBD — the same group that worked on art for Deschutes Brewery. O'Sullivan and Freccia say they don't view nearby brewers as competition, but rather as an opportunity for cooperation.
If one word could describe brewers, it's that we collaborate on every level,” explains O'Sullivan. “Whether we're making a beer together or whether someone needs ingredients like malt, hops, or some kind of technology that we might be able to offer or share. I think the craft beer world is about people who are doing it because they're passionate about it, because they love craft beer.”
In fact, this camaraderie is how the pair first discovered their mutual interest in opening a brewpub. Freccia, a Bay Area correspondent for Celebrator Beer News magazine in the ’90s, met O'Sullivan during an interview for a story. O'Sullivan was working as an assistant brewer at Berkeley's Triple Rock Brewery at the time, and later invited Freccia to become a guest brewer after they completed a short course on brewing together.
I remember Nico was mucking out the mash ton and I said, ‘Hey, what do you want to do with the rest of your life?’” O'Sullivan recalls.
Both homebrewers, Freccia brought years of restaurant industry experience to the table, while O'Sullivan developed a plan for funding, and 21st Amendment was born. The duo says that it was the perfect solution to paying the bills doing what they loved — and not having anyone to answer to.
Want to know what our philosophy on beer is?” says Freccia. “Whatever the hell we want.” And what they want is big, bold beer with surprising elements. O'Sullivan adds, “West-Coast-style beers are more hop-centric and hop-forward — they're bigger, they're bolder, they're stronger, there's more alcohol. I think we do it better than the rest of the world.”
Now, the only people they seem to disappoint are their partner distributors, who deliver the beer to 16 states and counting. O'Sullivan says shorting their orders is regular business, as they're brewing at maximum capacity in their limited space. Despite close quarters, they still brew enough to have at least six rotating beers on tap at the pub, perfect for pairing with their regular menu of grilled classics, artisan pizzas, killer burgers, and desserts. They also use their beer as an ingredient in some of their dishes (Back in Black Baby Back Ribs come slathered with black beer barbecue sauce). Where their creativity really thrives, though, is in the regular events they host at the pub.
We did a beer brunch this year, where we had a Belgian waffle with an imperial stout whipped cream and a watermelon beer syrup,” says Freccia. “We also did a chocolate dinner one night in here with [Pete Slosberg, founder of Pete's Brewing Company in Texas]. The whole restaurant was sold out, and we did nine courses. Every course, the food was made with chocolate, and we paired each with a different beer, including a number of chocolate beers. In fact, we made a lighter, paler beer that had white chocolate in it, and then we had chocolate stout and a salad with chocolate shavings on it. It was amazing!”
Whether they're celebrating the end of Prohibition at their annual Repeal Day party with 5-cent pints and a speakeasy-style bash or just kicking back with fellow brewers and sausages made with 21st Amendment beers for a Brewers' Sunday Tea (trust me, no one's drinking English Breakfast at this Strong Beer Week event), they still manage to find time to enliven the spirit of a traditional neighborhood pub with events to engage the community.
People drink beer whether they are happy or sad, whether the Giants win or the Giants lose, whether they have a job or they don't have a job,” says Freccia. “It's been a lucky time to be in this business and we're just grateful.” As for upcoming plans, O'Sullivan puts it simply: “Make more beer.”
This serving was originally published in our Grilling 2012 digital issue.