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.
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