Sweet and Sour
Our “Beer 101” series is finally upon one of my favorite styles; one that sees much casual indifference among many craft beer fans who’ve never taken the time to experience the joys of its better examples, and often shied away from by relatively new drinkers unprepared for some of the key aspects to its glory. I’m talking about Lambic beers today of all types, from the ripest fruit-infused Kriek to the sharpest, most sour Gueuze. Bear in mind that I do want to go further into the subjects of both sweet and sour beers at some point, but for this week let’s just focus on Lambic, okay?
Lambic is among the oldest styles of beer produced today. Hailing from the area of Belgium southwest of Brussels (with the Cantillon brewery operating in Brussels itself), Lambic production can be traced back to the 15-16th Century, depending on who’s research you put the greatest stock into. Not much has changed from those days as far as the beers themselves go: Lambic are generally brewed with a grain schedule of around 70% malted barley to 30% unmalted wheat. Yeasts are imparted through spontaneous fermentation, with the natural yeasts and bacteria finding their way into the tanks to get the process started.
Spontaneous fermentation is a key factor in Lambic’s tart, cider/citrus notes and sour feel. After fermentation has begun its work, Lambic are moved into sherry, port, or occasionally wine barrels to develop and age for 1-3 years. You may find it surprising to discover just how much hop is used to make a Lambic, seeing as they aren’t particularly piney or bitter in any traditional sense of how we think of beer. The trick is that Lambic brewers use dried hops for the sake of preserving the Ale during the aging process, and they don’t have the powerful resins that young hops do. In fact, dried hops (if you ever get a chance to grab a handful, do so) have a sort of cheese-like aroma to them, which they impart to the final beer itself.
It’s what happens to these Ales after their time in the barrel begins that determines what form of Lambic they’ll eventually end up being. Here are some of the most common Lambic styles, how they come to be, and some worthwhile examples for you to seek out. These beers may not always be easy to find, so don’t hesitate to ask your local merchant for some assistance; we’re always happy to help.
Lambic: Seems an obvious place to start, no? Not so fast: Lambic itself is aged three years before bottling, and is still kind of a rare treat to find. The best examples are Cantillon’s Iris, 1900 Grand Cru, or their standard Lambic but best of luck finding them in our area. Oud Beersel’s Lambic is occasionally found in the wild, and is a great beer. The hallmark of classic Lambic is its lack of carbonation and its sharp, sour feel.
Gueuze: One of my absolute favorite styles of beer, though it took me some time to get there. Those expecting the sweetness of a Kriek or Framboise tend to find the shock of Gueuze and its bitter, sour palate too much and swear off it immediately rather than delve deeper into what makes these beers great. Gueuze is made from a blend of 1-3 year old Lambic, given a secondary fermentation and then bottled for anywhere from a year to two years to develop. Everything Lambic is, Gueuze is more; more sour, more citrus, more vinous, and yet richer in feel as well. Try the recently opened Tilquin Oude Gueuze to see what the style is like at its highest level. Lindeman’s Cuvee Rene is a classic as is the outstanding Girardin 1882 (known colloquially as Black Label). Drie Fonteinen makes some beautiful Gueuze as well.
Kriek, Framboise, Pomme, Peche, etc: We had to get around to it at some point—the fruity stuff. It’s true that there are some fruit-flavored Lambic that are overly sweetened and simply unpalatable, but I’m here to tell you that it gets better. You just have to be careful about what you try: I recommend trying the Kriek from Oud Beersel, Cantillon (and if you find it give me a call—I miss that beer dearly), and the wonderful Liefman’s Cuvee Brut, which is made with a base Oud Bruin (sour Brown Ale) rather than Lambic. Lindeman’s is the brand you’re most likely to find on your local shelf, and there’s a lot of debate as to the merits of their fruit beers. Frankly, I don’t see what the fuss is about; they make outstanding Gueuze, and their Cassis is one of my favorite ‘once-in-a-while’ treats. Their Kriek (cherry), Framboise (raspberry), Pomme (apple), and Peche (peach) Lambic are fun beers that are a great alternative to ciders or cocktails and they even come in half-bottles if you’re worried about having too much on hand. I say that’s a win/win.
If you don’t know a lot about Lambic, but you think you do, give some of these a try before writing off the style completely. Especially as we get into the warmer months there really isn’t anything quite like the right Gueuze, at the right temperature on the right evening, to make it seem as if everything really is ok with the world and maybe — just maybe – that moment can last forever. Until next time.