Saturday, May 09, 2009

Beer Styles 101: Lambic

Cleanliness is next to Godliness.

Not to a Belgian Lambic brewery and the Lambic brewer. After all, cleanliness is no godliness, and woe be upon he or she should they disturb the centuries old micro-flora climate that has established its domain in your brewery. Nay, the cobwebs are to be left undisturbed and dust is not to be dusted. From the old, drafty rafters to the worn racks and time-tested barrels to the abandoned broom in a dark, dank, musty corner, every part of a lambic brewery is a living marvel not of mankind, but nature. A living beer needs a living environment in which to survive and thrive.

Man may live within nature, possibly with even the blessing of nature, but when it comes to creating the miraculous Lambic, there is an occultist aura of sacredness. From its simple beginnings to now, not much if anything at all has changed in how brewers work with nature to give the gift of life to Lambic. We are no more in control of how Lambics are brewed as we are in control of nature. Instead, centuries past, around the 17th century to be exact, the stubbornly prideful citizens and brewers of a small region in Belgium discovered a beer style unlike no other. Choosing to understand and work with nature, Lambics are at their heart a very down-to-earth beer which, as we all know, results in one of the most intriguing and invigorating beers to be supped.

It didn’t take long for our Lambic forefathers to learn how to work in union with the whims of nature to eek out a wee bit of control over the wild beers they were brewing. Fast-forward from the first Lambic to now, 2009, and not a single thing has changed. There is more variety and diversity in ingredients used, but the method of brewing, aging, and blending Lambics has not changed. If it aint broke, don’t fix it.

Lambic – "Unlike conventional ales and lagers, which are fermented by carefully cultivated strains of brewer's yeasts, Lambic beer is instead produced by spontaneous fermentation."

That is the textbook definition of Lambic.

If I have learned anything over the years though, there is usually very little meat of any worth to a textbook definition.

Let’s break down what Lambic means heart, body, and soul.

Everything and everyone has a beginning, and for Lambics it all began about 400 years ago in the small area of Payottenland in Brussels, Belgium. Follow a small river known as Zenne further south and one will come across a little town known as Lembeek. As the hometown of Lambic, it is only right that their beer should be named in their honor. No matter where you are and whom you may be drinking with, that Lambic you hold in your hand is a living testament to the artisanal brewers of Lambeek, Belgium, past, present, and future. Not too shabby for a tiny country in the middle of Europe which has had more usurpers and rulers than it would care to remember. Belgium is a free country now, but for centuries that was not the case. Would that make Lambic a beer of rebellion against oppression?

As the oldest recorded fermentable beverage of mankind, beer traces back to 5000BC and possibly even further, yet the beer we drink today is nothing like the beer of our early ancestors. We may be able to analyze preserved evidence of drinks past and brew a modern approximation of the popular beer of that day and age, but a momentary revival is not the same as a continuous living heritage. Lambics are very unique in that in the 400+ years since they have been brewed, the Lambic has changed very little, if at all. Midas Touch from Dogfish Head is a delicious historical beer, but it is still a modern replica. The Lambic may very well be the real deal; four centuries of continuous brewing is nothing to sneeze at.

The Belgians have immense pride in their culture, their country, their history, and their beer. Lambic is one of the few long-standing examples of living beer. Their living nature and personalities are owed greatly to one very fascinating example of nature at work:

Brettanomyces Lambicus and Brettanomyces Bruxelensis.

These are the two main Brettanomyces (Brett) yeast strains desired in the creation of Lambic. Lactobacillus is also highly welcome along with upwards of 200 different strains of Brett. Within Mother Nature’s diverse melting pot, these work tirelessly to breathe life into your Lambic. It is the Brett family of yeast strains that Lambic brewers respectfully desire in their wild, living beers. Wild because the yeast strains are not test-tube babies, but instead natural products of nature and nurture (remember, don’t disturb the cobwebs or the dust). Living because even after boiling, fermentation, maturation, and bottling, the Lambic in your loving care is still living, breathing, and working it’s magic to reveal its age with finesse and care.

Remember those dusty rafters and faded windows? Good. Your grist (wort), the collected recipe of your beer has been measured and boiled and is now ready for fermentation. A gentleman of great standing once said that man makes wort; yeast makes beer. No simpler statement could be so grandiosely significant. Yeast is Mother Nature giving her blessing to the beer we desire to create and to sup. In a modern marvel of hospital-grade stainless steel and sterility, that yeast is a prisoner of mankind’s singularly thinking machinations. That isn’t to say that I don’t drink great beer on a regular basis from modern craft and import breweries, but there is something to be said for the wild frontier of uninhibited Lambic brewing. Or maybe it’s akin to creationism? From the air to the dust to the cobwebs new and old to the barrels in which Lambic matures, life flourishes. We are humble stewards of a craft which proudly boasts of its acidic, sour, complex nature in defiance of modern trends.

When the grist, or wort, is ready for those wonderful bugs of nature to eat their fermentable sugars and to create the sacred beverage known world-wide as beer, a modern medical grade brewery would open their freezer drawers and dispense of their test-tube yeast, as volatile and valid as their wild brethren, but bridled and predictable. Lambic thrives in the wild. It makes sweet sudsy fermentable love to the wild. Just as Mother Nature has given the breath of life to Brett, so too does Brett return that favor by giving the breath of life to Lambic.

Romantic? Maybe. But then, that is at least half of the appeal of Lambic. The Lambic breweries and brewmasters of Payottenland, Belgium and abroad must be doing something right because 400 years later the Lambic is still thriving. In fact, it would seem that the American craft beer scene is starting to catch the Bretty bug, which is all fine and dandy with me.

Notable Belgian Lambic Breweries:
  • Cantillon
  • Lindemans
  • Drie Fonteinen
  • De Ranke
  • Fantome

Notable American Craft Breweries Brewing with Brettanomyces:
  • Port Brewing/Lost Abbey
  • New Belgium
  • Ommegang
  • Russian River
  • Jolly Pumpkin

Lambic is the designation familia for a rustic, endearing beer style, and within the Lambic family are various offshoots of Lambic styles. All can be brewed to a variation of tastes and styles based on the brewery, brewer, and the Brett micro-flora that have established their domain in the brewery. American craft brewers rely more on Brett inhabited barrels then the whole brewery to create a Lambic or Brettanomyces influenced beer. The latter is the most common example of Lambic influenced American craft sour ales, though there is a slowly growing trend towards brewing more traditional lambics. Currently, if you want a traditional Lambic, go to Belgium. If you want a well crafted, Brettanomyces influenced sour ale, go to America.

Within the familia Lambic, there is the Geueze, Oude Lambic, Unfiltered Lambic, Faro, and Fruit Lambic.

Geueze/Gueze – In simple terms, a blend of old and young Lambic. It tends to have a bit more carbonation in its body than a straight Lambic, but it is still far from heavily carbonated in comparison to what the majority of mass-market consumers are used to. The overall ratio of young to old is determined by the blender so it can vary from brewer to brewery to batch. Each young and old batch of Lambic is going to mature and age differently in subtle and major ways. It is the skill and desire of the blender how he wants his marriage of batches to work together. Like all good relationships, there needs to be an open understanding of flexibility and camaraderie.

Straight Unblended Lambic – For the true lover of tart, acidic, and complex beers, this is for you. Very few breweries release a straight, unblended lambic. Cantillon is one of the few and could possibly be the only one. Typified by virtually no carbonation, its clean, bracingly tart and acidic complexity lends all the uplifting character its palate needs.

Blended Straight Lambic – Am I confusing you yet? The difference between this and the two listed above is that the Lambic is blended with no specified ratio of young to old. It could be young to young, old to old; it’s all up to the blender. It may even spend some time in a barrel after the blend to create additional layers of complexity and character. Lambics are really all about blending. Establishing an intimate relationship with your micro-flora climate, Mother Nature, and the nature of the beer itself allows a Lambic brewer to combine all aspects of each batch of Lambic, good and bad, to create an exquisite masterpiece like no other.

Faro – A Lambic, most often a Guerze, that is traditionally sweetened with dark candy sugar, or with a sweet fruit extract, the latter more commonly done in the glass.

Fruit Lambic – After the Brett bugs have performed their magic and you have a Lambic ready to barrel and age, one has the opportunity to create a beer that blurs the lines once more between beer and wine. Today, Fruit Lambics come in many varieties, but traditionally they Kriek, Framboise, and Peche. Or, respectively, black cherry, raspberry, and peach. One can also now find Muscat Grape, Cassis (Blueberry) and Pomme (Peach) as common additions to the Fruit Lambic portfolio.

All Lambics will have to varying degrees notes of musty earthiness, wood, leather, barnyard funk, tart acidity, sour lactose, bright tropical sweetness, citric esters, and more. How all of these varying factors are laid out for your tastebuds and palate to savor is a combination of the house micro-flora replete with dozens of Brett yeast strains, grist/wort, and barrel-aging. These factors are guided and watched over by a skilled brewmaster. I would like to think that it is one of the most enduring examples of harmony between man and nature.

I have no doubt that 400 years from now, Lambics will still be brewed in the same loving, time-honored way possible under Mother Nature’s watchful eye. Why have I brought Mother Nature into this so much? In an age of too many temporal modern conveniences, we run the everyday risk of losing our touch on the pulse of Life. It may seem simple, petty, or stupid to include beer, specifically Lambic, in that fragile pulse of Life, but is it? At the end of the day, what will last longer: 400 years of brewing tradition, pride, and gourmandian pleasures, or the newest blog entry that will be passé before it is even posted?

I write this, ironically, as a blogger myself. It could be my way of willfully living on the edge between temporal and tangible, ever careful not to lose my touch on the pulse of Life. Or maybe not. As I pour myself a Cantillon Vignerone, my eyes drift close as I willfully lose myself upon her wild and crazy trip.

(an original written work by Kristyn Lier. plagiarism is not tolerated)

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