Nick Carr on June 30, 2020 0 Comments Belgium is known the world over for its whimsical, fly by the seat of your pants approach to making beer. Their only guiding light being experimentation, unencumbered by any thought of defining what they produced by any strict rules, they worked their magic. The result is a varied and complex set of styles that stand out as singular and unique. But, even here there is one style that stands apart in its distinctiveness, in its utter disregard to any “standard of beer character.” Say hello to Lambic. If you haven’t met before you’re in for quite the surprise. Lambic History Lambic’s Uncertain Origins The history of Lambic has long been interpreted and written the same way: One of the oldest ales (HORAL, the High Council of Artisanal Lambic Beers and the American Beer Museum website both call it the oldest style. That may be up for dispute depending on what you mean; oldest ever, oldest continually brewed commercially, etc.), with the oldest known recipe written by city recipient Remi le Mercier of Halle, Belgium in 1559: “Nobody is allowed to make a batter without putting in 16 cereals, namely 6 wheat and 10 barley, as they used to do.” But is this really a recipe for Lambic? On his website, Lambiek 1801, Raf Meert has extensively researched the references used to build Lambic’s history and come to the conclusion that it is, in fact, not. He states the 1559 brewing directive so often referenced, doesn’t even mention the name Lambic, which in and of itself doesn’t mean much. Many times styles are brewed long before they start to carry the name we know them by today. But he points out a couple other interesting things. First, the above quote is incomplete. It seems the 1559 brewing directive included oats; as in, “…16 cereals, 6 wheat and 10 barley and oats…” It is in a 2000 brochure that the oats first disappear. No modern Lambic contains oats. Second, Mr. Meert questions the measurements, saying the measuring system described in the 1559 document is one percentage of content, while modern standards are by weight. And because wheat is heavier than barley (oats would be lighter), the math is wrong. According to his math, the 1559 amount of wheat is closer to 40 than 30 percent. This becomes an issue when we look at the Belgian royal decrees to protect Lambic. Protecting the Lambic Name Decrees were put in place in 1965 and 199 to set protection for the use of the Lambic name and some legal standards for its brewing. These standards were as follows: a minimum of 30% wheat, use aged hops, employ spontaneous fermentation, and the beer must be brewed within 15 kilometers of Brussels. But, why say 30% minimum when they could have played it closer to the supposed first recipe and said 40% minimum? Was it a conscious decision? Mathematical error? Mr. Meert contends that the standards of the Royal Decree are contemporary standards, and the “30% wheat minimum” was then made to fit the 1559 directive, allowing it to be called the earliest Lambic recipe. There’s also the possibility that a long history might have lent weight to the proposed protection status. The inconsistent measurement opens up questions. Never mind the name Lambic never being mentioned, or that Lambic recipes of the 1800s and onwards do not seem to make any use of oats as a brewing grain. Lambics of the 1800s Interestingly, Ref Meert has also compiled a chart showing the drop in wheat used in Lambics since his earliest found recipe, dated 1801, up to the present. It shows a drop from an average of 63% in the 1800s to 30% today. This lessening of wheat in Lambic recipes may have been an attempt to increase profit in the face of higher taxes. Whatever its cause, the downward trend proves that an exact percentage of wheat does not a Lambic recipe make. And if followed back through time, would mean a 1559 Lambic would quite possibly contain much more than the modern standard of 30% wheat. Ref Meert goes on to call the 1559 directive a recipe for white beer. But, he seems to be basing this conclusion solely on the use of oats in white beer recipes in the 1800s, which, given the 250 year gap (1559 to 1800), may be a bit of a leap on his part. Maybe it isn’t a white beer or Lambic recipe, but an ancestor, something different, something now lost to time. Who’s to say? It seems likely that, at least the Lambic of the 1800s onward would fit into a “yellow beer” category in the historical context of categorizing beer in that region as white, yellow, or brown. Yellow and brown beer were kept or aged longer, contained only wheat and barley, and may have been more heavily hopped. So, we may have a pretty good idea where Lambic fit from the 1800s onward, but what about before the 1800s? How old is Lambic really? Did it even exist before the 1800s? Where in this region did it truly originate? These questions will remain unanswered until new references come to light. At the very least, the 1559 directive seems an unproven peg to hang the whole of Lambic history on. Origin of the Lambic Name Even the origin of the name “Lambic” is uncertain at best. Etymologically, the name could come from several sources. Some say it was named for a piece of distilling apparatus called a alambic, either because it was considered quite harsh on the palate, or as others claim, because the alambic was used during the French occupation as a cover for illegal distilling (as in, “we’re brewing beer not hard alcohol”). It could also come from the Flemish “Lembeek” or the French “Lembecq,” but Meert has a reference from The Etymological Dictionary of Dutch which claims the “Lembeek” connection, at least, is unlikely because of the “i” in Lambic. It also may have come from the Latin verb lambere (to sip). No doubt, there are several other possible sources for the name Lambic. Again, we are left with no good evidence supporting one of these to the exclusion of all other possibilities. The oldest reference to the Lambic name, according to both Raf Meert and Thierry Delphlncq who wrote “Les brasseries de Lambic” is from 1794 and comes from Brussels not the town of Lembeek in Halle. This, at least anecdotally, seems to be evidence of the name not being derived from Lembeek. Lambic’s Ancient Brewing Technique Jean Guinard who wrote the book Lambic points to similarities, referenced by the beer historian Marcel Gocar, between modern Lambic and sikaru, a beer brewed by the Sumerians 5,000 years ago (at least in the ingredient composition). A Sumerian tablet reveals that sikaru was around 37.5 percent wheat and 62.5 percent barley, spontaneously fermented, and considered an expensive beer. The ratios of wheat and barley may simply be a coincidence; they’d almost have to be, considering the evidence showing Lambic hasn’t always used the same proportions of wheat. However, the comparison of these two beers makes one thing quite clear; many of the brewing techniques still used today to brew authentic Lambic have been around for ages. Allowing wort to spontaneously ferment is a pretty novel idea for most brewers today (though it is becoming more common), but accidental spontaneous fermentation is how we got beer in the first place. And allowing wort to naturally cool would be seen as an egregious misstep to most modern brewers because of the possibility of infection, but of course, it was the only way to do it before the invention of refrigeration. Lambics today, at least in their native home, are often still allowed to naturally cool, which goes hand-in-hand with their spontaneous fermentation. Wort is put into long shallow tubs, called coolships, located on the upper floors of the brewery. Here the wort is open to the night air. It cools overnight while being inoculated by the native yeast and other microscopic organisms that make lambic authentic. In the morning the wort is run into wooden fermenter, another throwback to an earlier time in brewing. Here they are exposed to another microorganism populace that has taken up residence in the wood. Fermentation is a long process, taking a year or more. Each group of organisms takes its turn working their individual magic on the wort; the end result being a product of beautiful nuance and deep complexity. Lambic Today Wars are never kind to beer history and it was no different with Lambic. During World War II many smaller Lambic brewers were forced to close their doors or sell out to larger breweries. After the war brewers found the native populace’s taste had shifted. Much like the sea-change brought by prohibition in the U.S., milder, less assertive, and sweeter drinks had taken the hill of popularity. In 1900 there were at least 300 (some references claim as many as 3000) small-scale lambic brewers in Brussels and the surrounding region of Pajottenland. Today there is only a handful. Lambic has never regained its former popularity, but it has managed to avoid complete extinction, even enjoying a slight comeback in recent years. Michael Jackson, the beer writer and historian, and other advocates for the style played no small part in its survival; bringing the style to a larger audience and sparking curious beer drinkers the world over to seek out this strange throwback. That curiosity has only grown with the craft beer movement and it looks as if, at least for the moment, Lambic is safe as a style steeped in anachronistic brewing technique and loved for its riddles of complexity. Types Of Lambic Straight Lambic Americans tend to automatically associate fruit with lambic; fruit lambic often being our only connection to the style. But, traditional straight lambic, both vox (foxy or young- usually less than six months old) and vieux (old- aged up to four years) is still produced and sold, though it is rarely imported to the U.S. Instead they tend to remain close to home, being served uncarbonated, straight from the cask in cafes around Brussels; sometimes with lumps of sugar to offset the high levels of sourness, making it Lambic doux (sweet lambic). Faro Faro is usually a lower alcohol lambic. It is made by blending young lambics together, then sweetened using candi sugar or any other available sugar. Sometimes herbs are added. It is still made today, but hard to find outside of Belgium. Gueuze Gueuze is a mix of young and old lambic. The spontaneous fermentation of lambic creates a product of constant variability; variability between batches, and even between casks of the same batch. It’s this variability that makes blending these creations an art unto itself. The final product’s profile is also quite variable, there is no standard, and it depends entirely on the tastes of the blender producing it. Blending it often as a three-way mix of one, two, and three-year-old Lambic; with a quantity range of 1/3rd each, all the way up to 70 percent young lambic – and everything in between. Once blended, it is roughly filtered for added clarity without removing all the microorganisms. The young lambic still contains sugar, so a refermentation is kicked off once it is bottled. Strong champagne-style bottles, corks, and wire are used, because the natural carbonation can be quite substantial. The bottles are then conditioned for three to nine months, which needs to include one summer; the warming temperatures being paramount for the right flavor profile. Gueuze can continue to age well after this initial conditioning. Many are kept for two to five years before drinking. Fruit Lambic Like many of the techniques used in Lambic brewing, the use of fruit in brewing has been around for a very long time. In fact, fruit appears in some of the earliest brewing evidence. So, it’s likely even Lambic’s post 1800s predecessor made use of fruit now and again. But, the specialty known today as fruit lambic, along with the use of various names (based on the type of fruit), isn’t any older than the 1800s. The fruits most often added to Lambic include cherries (Kriek), raspberries (framboise), black currants (cassis), grapes (muscat), and peaches (pêche). To make these specialty Lambics the fruit is crushed and added, often along with the fruits’ pits, to young Lambic. It is then allowed to go through a second fermentation and conditioned for several months – even a year in certain cases. When bottled, a measure of young Lambic is added again, this time to allow natural carbonation to take place in the bottles. At one time only whole fruit was used, and there are still those traditionalists that believe it is the only way to make a true fruit Lambic. But today, in an attempt to save time and money, and play to an audience who increasingly likes sweeter libations, fruit concentrates, juices, or syrups have largely taken the place of whole fruit. Some of these modern examples are even force carbonated in steel tanks. CHARACTERISTICS The guidelines for the Lambic style are set by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Committee. The below details are a summary of what a Lambic should represent. The BJCP separates Lambic into three distinct categories “Lambic” Gueuze (blended Lambic), and Fruit Lambic. They are classified under category number 23, “European Sour Ale” and can be found in the guidelines as sub-categories 23D, 23E, and 23F. Other beer styles under this category include: 23A – Berliner Weisse 23B – Flanders Red Ale 23C – Oud Bruin Lambic Profile Appearance: Color ranges from a light straw yellow to a richer, deeper golden. Color will usually darken as the beer ages. Lambics tend to have small caps of white foam with little retention. Clarity can be hazy or clear and often depends on the age of the beer. Younger ones tend to be hazy, while those with some age will likely be clear. Aroma: Aromas tend toward the sour with no real input from the hops. Young examples are usually sour in the nose. Age brings a blending of other aromas, such as earthy, hay, goaty, barnyard, and horse blanket, which quiet the sour element. There should be no cigar-like, smokey, cheesy, or enteric (fecal) aromas. They may have a low fruity-citrus aroma and older versions tend to have more fruity aromas, often of apple or honey. Mouthfeel: Traditional examples have no carbonation to speak of, but bottled versions pick up at least a little bit of carbonation with age. They also tend to become drier with age, making dryness a somewhat reliable predictor of age. Body will be light to medium-light, but the varied flavors keep the feel from being too watery. Usually not sharply astringent, but always has a moderate to high tart character. Taste: Young lambics will usually have a lactic-sour character to them. However, as they age this quality becomes more balanced with complex malt and barnyard-type flavors. Malt and wheat are usually moderately low and of a bready, sometimes grainy character. A pleasant citrus fruity flavor is sometimes present. Fruity flavors gain in complexity as the beer ages; appearing simple and bright in a young Lambic and taking on the more nuanced characters of light apple, rhubarb, or honey later on. Hop bitterness is low to non-existent and sourness takes its place as the balancing factor. It also has no hop flavors, is usually dry in the finish, and should not have flavors that are smokey, cigar-like, or enteric. Original Gravity: 1.040 – 1.054 Final Gravity: 1.001 – 1.010 ABV: 5.0 – 6.5% IBU: 0 – 10 SRM: 3 – 7 Gueuze Profile Appearance: Color will be some shade of gold. Beer should have an exceptionally long-lasting head of rocky white foam, often exhibiting mousse-like traits. Clarity will be excellent and carbonation high. Aroma: Shares many of the aromas of farmhouse ales, including leather, earth, hay, horse blanket, barnyard, horsey, and goaty. A sour profile may dominate, however a more balanced profile is considered the signature of a better gueuze. No noticeable hop aroma, but low oaky notes are looked upon favorably. Often has fruit notes of citrus, apples, even rhubarb or honey, but should not exhibit any smokey, cigar-like, cheesy, or enteric aromas. Mouthfeel: Very dry and light on the pallet, yet shouldn’t feel watery because of the complexity of flavors. The high carbonation will give it a spritzy, tingling step. May have lightly warming notes. Should have some tart notes, possibly even causing some puckering, but should not range into strongly astringent. Taste: Balance is generally provided by the sourness and not hop bitterness, but a very low hop bitterness is acceptable. Though some may have more of a dominating sour profile, those more in balance with the malt and barnyard characteristics of the profile are considered better representations of the style. May have a slightly sweet note to it, but traditionally this should remain quite mild. Fruity notes are common and are often tinged with a hint of honey character. Malt should be rather low with a bready and/or grainy quality. Hop flavor is absent. A whisper of vanilla and/or oakiness is considered favorable. Any Smokey, cigar-like, and/or enteric flavors are not acceptable. Finish should be dry, slightly tart, and crisp. Original Gravity: 1.040 – 1.060 Final Gravity: 1.000 – 1.006 ABV: 5.0 – 8.0% IBU: 0 -10 SRM: 3 – 7 Fruit Lambic Profile Appearance: Color will range depending on the fruit used and will tend to fade with age. Some lighter fruits will contribute very little color. Carbonation is usually high, but must be specified. A head of rocky foam, white, but sometimes taking on a tinge of the fruit’s color, builds to a thick stand and usually has good retention. Clarity is good, however this will depend on the type of fruit used – some will not drop out of suspension. Aroma: The most noticeable aroma should be that of the fruit used, and this aroma should blend well with the sour, earthy, barnyard, horse blanket, goaty, horsey, and/or hay-like aromas present. Should have no hop aroma and any cigar-like, enteric, cheesy, or smoky aromas are unwanted. Mouthfeel: Body will be light to moderate with a complex flavor character keeping it from ranging into the realms of being watery. It will have a low to high tartness, which may be somewhat mouth puckering, but shouldn’t be too sharp. Carbonation must be specified and can range from sparkling to almost still. Some versions may have a lightly warming alcohol character. Taste: The fruit used should be plainly present in the flavor. There should be a low to high barnyard character. Fruit flavors will become less intense with age and the lambic-sour character will increase, so Fruit Lambics really aren’t meant to be aged for long periods of time. Finish is usually dry with a low to medium sour flavor, sometimes verging on biting. A low sweetness is sometimes present in the finish with higher levels of sweetness being untraditional, but acceptable as long as the sweetness level is specified. With acidity doing the balancing, hop bitterness is often completely absent and there is no hop flavor. A whisper of vanilla and/or oak-like character may be present in some examples. Original Gravity: 1.040 – 1.060 Final Gravity: 1.000 – 1.010 ABV: 5.0 – 7.0% IBU: 0 – 10 SRM: 3 – 7 (varies w/ fruit-type) Pairing: It is near impossible to find traditional straight Lambic outside of Belgium, but if you happen to find a bottle, or find yourself in Belgium, know that most of the foods that work with gueuze will also work quite well with straight lambic. Gueuze and other lambics are balanced, not by hop bitterness, but by their sour character. This will be the guiding light for most of your pairings. Along with this sourness comes a drying mouthfeel. Put this all together and the best pairing will be any sort of seafood dish. According to Garrett Oliver in The Brewmaster’s Table, Gueuze, in Belgium, is often served with Moules frites, or mussels and fries, with the mussels often being steamed in Gueuze. Other dishes to check out include clams, oysters, and any type of oily fish, such as salmon. Gueuze can also work with sausage, cured meats, creamy sheep and goat cheeses, salads with creamy or acidic dressings, even funky blue cheese. Fruit Lambic comes in two forms and what you pair them with will depend somewhat on the type you have. The drier traditional fruit lambic is harder to find than the sweeter modern examples. Traditional fruit lambic goes nicely with some savory dishes, especially meat dishes that include some sort of fruit or berry sauce, such as venison, duck, wild boar, or chicken. The other, sweeter, fruit lambics, often made with fruit syrups or puree, are a great dessert in and of themselves. But, they can also be splendid with cheesecake, Belgian waffles, and any sort of chocolate dessert. Garrett Oliver warns about trying to pair this style with fruit dishes. Too much fruit tends to cancel out the subtleties of both the beer and the dish, turning the experience into something simply oversweet. If you want to pair cheese with them, go for the fresh and sweet, such as Feta, Chèvre, and Mascarpone. Serving: For best presentation and greatest appreciation, a Lambic/Gueuze/Fruit Lambic should be served at around 50-54°F in a Tulip, Snifter, Stange, or Flute. They are best stored at cellar temperatures away from light. Lambics and Gueuzes can be enjoyed young but will gain nuance as they age. Fruit Lambics, on the other hand, should be enjoyed young because the fruit flavor will slowly disappear with age. *Reference: The 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines AWARD WINNING EXAMPLES OF THE LAMBIC STYLE El Sur from Casa Agria Specialty Ales (Oxnard, CA) Great American Beer Festival Winner, Gold, 2017 and World Beer Cup Winner, Bronze, 2018. Availability: Unknown Other Examples of Lambic To Try Lambic from Rivertown Brewing Company Lambic from Brouwerij Lindemans Jung from Referend Bier Blendery Grand Cru Bruocsella from Brasserie Cantillon AWARD WINNING EXAMPLES OF THE GUEUZE STYLE Funk Yeah from Beachwood Blendery (Long Beach, CA) Great American Beer Festival Winner, Gold, 2018. Availability: Unknown Blended 2017 from Side Project Brewing Company (Maplewood, MO) Great American Beer Festival Winner, Silver, 2017. Availability: Unknown Oude Geuze Boon VAT 108 from Brouwerij Boon (Belgium) World Beer Cup Winner, Gold, 2018. Availability: Unknown Oude Geuze Boon Black Label from Brouwerij Boon (Belgium) World Beer Cup winner, Gold, 2016. Availability: Unknown Other Examples of Gueuze To Try Girardin Gueuze from Brouwerij Girardin Cuvee Rene from Brouwerij Lindemans Ville De Rivere Geuze from Rivertown Brewing Company Oude Gueuze from Gueuzerie Tilquin St. Louis Gueuze Fond Tradition from Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck N.V. AWARD WINNING EXAMPLES OF THE FRUIT LAMBIC STYLE Hexotic from Two Roads Brewing Company (Stratford, CT) Great American Beer Festival Winner, Gold, 2017. Availability: Unknown Cuvée René Oude Kriek from Lindemans Brewery (Belgium) World Beer Cup Winner, Silver, 2016 and 2018. Availability: Year Round Red Angel from Wicked Weed Brewing Company (Asheville, NC) World Beer Cup Winner, Bronze, 2016. Availability: Unknown Other Examples of Fruit Lambic To Try Lindemans Kriek from Brouwerij Lindemans Transatlantique Kriek from New Belgium Brewing Company Oude Kriek from Brouwerij Boon St. Louis Premium Peche from Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck Not all the beers listed here are Belgian, and thus aren’t actually true lambic, in that they don’t fulfill every standard under the protection decree, but they are still decent examples and easier to find than some of the true Belgian examples.