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A Lambic Primer

Part One, from Dan Shelton
Features May 11, 2006      
Written by Daniel


When Eric Asimov, the chief wine writer of the New York Times, announced a couple of weeks ago in his web log that he would be publishing the results of a lambic beer tasting in the Paper of Record on the 3rd of May, I got very worried. It wasn’t just that he talked about ‘the sweet lambic beers’ in a not unfavorable light. After all, he made it clear that he found the drier, more intense ones much more interesting. What bugged me was the accompanying photograph, which pictured a big bottle of Chapeau Apricot Lambic front and center, boldy upstaging two timid bottles from the Cantillon and Boon breweries, peeking out from behind.

How could anyone even compare that simple, sweet, soda-pop-like stuff to the real article, the beers that justly lay claim to the ancient tradition and romance of lambic brewing? I mean, people have the right to drink what they want, and it is arguable that these sweet things ‘have their place,’ as Eric eventually wrote, but should they be tasted alongside classics from the likes of Cantillon? They’re completely different animals; apples and oranges; sheeps and goats; wheat and chaff! This New York Times article would very likely be the first thing – and probably the last – that millions of people would read about lambic beer. The wrong words could set the unofficial campaign for real lambic back for decades.

I began calling everyone I could think of, looking for a way to stop this stylistic train wreck before it happened. After some days of spinning wheels, Joe at Spuyten Duyvil, a great beer bar in Brooklyn, made a simple suggestion: Why don’t you just call Asimov? I did, and I could hardly believe it when he answered the phone. It’s that easy to reach the chief wine writer of the New York Times? (Please, everyone, don’t go trying your own luck on this.)

Lambic is very close to my heart, and I have been known to be highly excitable (the kind word is ‘passionate’) and occasionally a bit abrasive when lambic is the topic. Yet Eric Asimov very patiently and fairly offered me the chance to state my case and provide some supporting evidence, which I did, mostly in pages and pages of e-mails. (This is sometimes called the ‘Dan Shelton Experience.’) When I called him again, the day before the article would run in the Times, with still more information, he finally cried ‘No mas!’ and pronounced himself thoroughly ‘lambiqued out.’ ‘Let me know what you think when you read it,’ he said. Since I could hear him opening his mail while I blathered on, I cleverly retreated.

Of course, when the article came out, it was clear that all of my fantastically interesting material was left on the cutting room floor, and I expected that. But there was, at the end, an acknowledgment that there was some controversy over whether those ‘sweet lambics’ were lambics at all, and that is all I wanted. Thank you, Eric Asimov, for setting the table. Now let the feast begin!

In the next few weeks, as time permits, I’ll try to give a little summary of some of that material that didn’t make it into the pages of the Times. I would like to explore this question of what is and what isn’t ‘lambic’ – and what fairly constitutes lambic ‘tradition.’ I’d like to talk about how different breweries make their ‘lambic’ beers. Perhaps I can explore a little bit of the history of lambic. I certainly want to talk about tasting lambic beer, and what the taste tells you about how the beer is made. I will start now by giving some background and an overview that will probably strike most people on Rate Beer as rather boring. Please bear with me. It will get better later.

I would never claim to be an expert on lambic beer. There’s so much to know about how lambic makes itself – with the assistance of some very talented human beings – and so much more that is, and should remain, unknowable. But I do know whom to call when there’s a question, and there have been a lot of questions about lambic recently. I’d like to give lambic lovers the benefit of some of the insider information I’ve gathered here and there.

So, about lambic . . .

Lambic is the oldest existing style of beer in the world. Since at least the 3rd Millenium B.C. up until the mid-19th Century – when yeast was finally identified and cultivated by scientists – beer was fermented by wild yeasts carried on the open air. This mysterious fermentation by invisible wild yeast is often called “spontaneous fermentation.” For millennia, people who witnessed the regular transformation of steeped grains into a warm, sour, intoxicating drink considered it a form of magic, and in a way, of course, it really is. Surely earlier civilizations must have agreed with Benjamin Franklin, who wrote more recently that beer is proof of the existence of a loving and benevolent God.

At some time in the murky Middle Ages, the beer fermented by wild yeast in an area ranging from Brussels to the nearby Senne Valley countryside became famous around Europe. It was then known as “yellow beer,” and there are lively and colorful images of peasants enjoying the stuff, lovingly poured from earthen jugs, in the works of Breughel the Elder in the 1500’s. Eventually, “yellow beer” became known as “lambic” – a word derived from Spanish, a relic of the long period when Spain ruled over the Netherlands and Flanders. Today, real Belgian lambic is the only beer entirely fermented by wild yeasts that is still brewed commercially.

Traditionally, lambic is aged for one to three years in oak wine barrels. The result is a dry, sour, earthy, and complex drink that hardly resembles beer made with laboratory yeast. Unlike scientifically cultured yeast strains, the wild yeast and other bacteria in lambic (many of which come from the wine barrels during the long fermentation) produce a lot of acids, in addition to alcohol and other flavor compounds that are common in modern beers. Mostly, they produce lactic acid, and lots of it. (Sometimes they produce a lot of acetic acid, or vinegar, but if the vinegary sharpness becomes a bit over-powering, any conscientious lambic brewer will throw that batch of beer out.) Now of course, very few brewers will stand by and allow their yeast strains to produce acidic flavors; they go to great lengths to keep any stray bacteria out of the process. But for millennia the wild yeast and bacteria that naturally found their way into beer had free rein, and all beer was, to varying degrees, sour. The lambic brewers today revel in this sourness, and recognize it for what it is – a continuous, living link to thousands of years of human history.

Real lambic is never filtered or pasteurized, and is therefore a living, natural beer, with the yeasts continuing to do their work after bottling – with the result that the flavors continue to evolve for many years.

Occasionally, aged lambic is bottled straight from its wooden cask, in which case it is nearly still and flavorful in the extreme. (Old lambic is so thoroughly fermented by the time it leaves the cask that there is little sugar left for the yeast to consume, which means that there is little or no carbonation, a byproduct of yeast activity.) More often, lambics of different ages are blended and re-fermented in the bottle to make Gueuze, a spritzy beverage vaguely resembling very dry champagne. (The sugars still remaining in the younger lambic feed the yeast, which not only changes the flavor of the beer over time, but generates high carbonation as well, assuring a healthy pop of the cork.) Fruit may be added to casks of aged lambic prior to blending to make fruit beers such as Framboise (raspberry) and Kriek (cherry). Sometimes less traditional fruits are added these days; you will find beers made with real grapes and apricots for example. (As with Gueuze, the fruit beers are blended with young lambic, resulting in carbonation in the bottle.)

Sadly, few lambic breweries adhere to traditional methods. Many brewers call their beers “lambic,” but now skip the oak-aging, shorten the fermentation period, use laboratory yeast cultures rather than spontaneous fermentation, add huge proportions of non-lambic to the beer (leaving as little as 10% lambic in the final product), use syrups, artificial flavors, or essences rather than real fruit, and add saccharin or other artificial sweeteners – all to soften and sweeten their beers for a less sophisticated clientele. There are no standards in Belgium, or the U.S., to prevent any of these gross insults to the true tradition of lambic brewing. One lambic brewery, Cantillon, which is generally acknowledged as the most rigid in its adherence to traditional methods, has proposed an appelation controlée law that would prevent breweries making artificially flavored and sweetened alco-pops from calling them ‘lambic beer.’ But the power in the industry lies elsewhere, of course, and this proposal has never found any traction.

Whether or not you will like traditional lambic, in all its funky sourness, is hard to say. Many consider it an acquired taste. But you will, hopefully, appreciate the difference between these real lambics and the fakes and posers. There are two important clues to keep in mind.

Real lambic and Gueuze should be fermented and then re-fermented very thoroughly, leaving no sweetness whatsoever to taste. Lambic should be perfectly dry. If you find even a hint of sweetness on the palate, there is something not entirely natural going on. Yeast, you see, eat the sugars that come from malt and convert them to alcohol and other compounds. That’s what fermentation is all about. Wild yeasts and the other bacteria that are found in real lambic are famous for eating all the sugars around, even some sugars that normal beer yeast can’t digest.

Similarly, if the brewer is using real fruit, instead of syrup or essences, the resulting natural fruit flavor will be tart and not so prominent on the palate. Real fruit, fermented in beer, is not fruity-sweet, in the same way that wine does not taste like fresh grape juice. If you taste in a beer purporting to be ‘lambic’ the kind of fruitiness that you might find in candy, soda pop, jam, or cough syrup, you will know that you have been handed some kind of artificial fruit cocktail. What a shame! In a real lambic all the sugars of the fruit will have been consumed by the wild yeast and other bacteria, leaving some of the natural flavors of fruit – especially in the aroma – but no fruity sweetness. They will also create new flavors that you wouldn’t taste in fresh fruit – which is why, as with wine, real lambic is so much more interesting than mere fruit juice . . .

The only producers of lambic beers that are consistently making authentic, natural products are Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, and De Cam (which is not available in the U.S.). One or two of the beers of Girardin and Hanssens are, well, mostly traditional. As for the rest – as they say, if you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all.



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