Sailing on the S.S. Lambic
Growing up in Southern California, in the shadows of Disneyland, I learned from our numerous visits each year the meaning of patience. There were always lines for the best rides. My favorite was Pirates of the Caribbean: It seemed to take forever to get in. But it was always worth the wait, because the story mattered and defined the experience.
As a craft brewer, I am lucky that beer doesn’t require that kind of patience. Most of the beer we produce can be consumed after the 17th day of production. And like most craft breweries, our modern equipment and technology allow us to operate with a high level of precision.
But like Walt’s Magic Kingdom, there remains a place where a brewer’s disbelief is suspended and consumers come looking for that magical beer experience. This place is Brussels, Belgium, where brewing is shrouded in a heavy mystery. As a brewer of wood-aged beers, I have made Brussels my adult Disneyland, and it never disappoints.
In and around the city of Brussels and the Senne River Valley, brewers make a heritage specialty beer known simply as lambic. It remains one of the most romantic beers produced in the world. And like the best rides at Disneyland, it has a narrative, a protagonist and an antagonist. But most importantly, the production methods reach out and engage your senses.
Lambic brewing remains a controlled appellation, requiring a production method of making beer through spontaneous fermentation. Unlike New World techniques in which pure yeasts are added to each batch of beer, lambic is revered for the fermentation yeasts descending like manna from the heavens. Unseen microbes and wild yeast in the air populate the brew, leaving it more magical and mystical than Doc Terminus riding into Passamaquoddy looking for Pete’s Dragon.
In theory, spontaneously fermented beers can be made anywhere, though the best still come from Belgium. Many brewers outside Belgium are now attempting to make their own lambic-like beers by opening their breweries’ sugary wort to the native flora surrounding their brewery. Some have been enormously successful. Others have been epic failures. But it’s this sense of adventure I prize most as a brewer, and it’s also the very thing that drew me to visit the lambic producers of Belgium.
While I had read plenty about the families who produce lambic, my first brewery visit transported me to a fantasy-like world the moment I walked through the doors of the brewery known to most as Cantillon, and to the locals in Brussels as the Museum of Gueuze. This was a brewery that had been making lambic since 1900. I went in thinking it would be like every other brewery I had visited. I left convinced artisanal lambic breweries like Cantillon are places of wonder and amazement.
I wasn’t sure what I would see when I first crossed the threshold into the Museum of Gueuze. I stood there, frozen in time. I marveled at the sights, sounds and actions around me. The first 10 minutes of my visit were pure chaos, with equal parts beer production and theater going on. Members of the Roy family, the owners of Cantillon, were hard at work producing lambic and greeting guests. I half expected the entire family to stop and break into song, as if a Belgian production of The Pirates of Penzance was going on during the open brew day.
The brewery is multi-leveled. With the exposed wood beam construction and trap doors between levels, in many ways it feels very much like stepping into the belly of the Niña, Pinta or Santa Maria. The first person I saw was a young man playing the part of the captain. Always on the move, he was affable and respected by the staff and consumers alike. Breezing through the room, he approached and stuck his out hand, as if to say “Jean Van Roy, Captain of the S.S. Lambic. Glad to have you aboard on our journey today!”
His first lieutenant checked in periodically to give details about the preparations for the day. Below the wood deck, crewmembers worked to secure the supplies and move barrels and sacks of barley. It appeared the S.S. Lambic was sailing well at that moment.
Jean’s father, in the role of the ship’s doctor, greeted new travelers, documenting where they were from. One by one, he opened their bottles of lambic and sent them off to meet their fellow passengers. The queen mother tended to the storefront, where provisions and trinkets signifying the journey were being sold, gathered for takeaway back to the visitors’ home countries. All of this theater-in-the-round took place while brewing continued in the back of the building. It was a scene like no other brewery tour I have been on.
After the introductions, I took a seat in the galley and watched the barmaids chase down nonpaying customers. Off to starboard, I managed a glimpse of a mangy old mutt sleeping next to his owner, who had clearly overindulged. He reminded me of Disney’s blithering idiot in a rocking chair, hiccupping after too much grog. Next stop, Never Never Land.
I have now attended open-brew day at Cantillon on four occasions, and, like an epic amusement ride welcoming new riders, this scene repeats itself throughout the day. There is always a group of new enthusiasts boarding the ship, setting sail on the sea of lambic with Jean and family calmly navigating them through the waters. Disneyland has nothing on this place. Did I mention they sell beer here?
But in reality, this is but one day in the life of lambic, one of many in which the show must go on. Once the lights come up, the crew will swab the brewhouse decks and prepare provisions for the next journey. Artisanal lambic producers, such as Cantillon, do not set sail by brewing each day. Old vessels and systems need a chance to rest. Cantillon only produces about 20-21 brews per year, solely between November and March. This short brewing season forces the organisms to work together in a concerted effort, with no one organism able to dominate.
All of the beer is made during the winter season and left to slumber in oak barrels for no less than 12 months and up to three years before being released. Lambic production requires multiple years and vintages to achieve the goal of blending a great batch of beer. So much of what makes a lambic blender great is his ability to predict the future, to sample barrels of young beer and know how they will behave in years to come. The best producers can be thought of as lambic whisperers. As Jean Van Roy has told me on numerous occasions, the lambic speaks to you when it’s ready.
A living and breathing creation, lambic is very much a live beer, hellbent on always evolving. This is due to airborne yeast and organisms that refuse to take “no” for an answer. In many ways, the micro-organisms and wild yeasts that populate the air near Brussels (Pediococcus, Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces) are the Pirates of Wort Spoilage. Universally derided by modern brewers, these voracious critters are rarely invited to set sail in breweries. Yet, every fall we can count on the Roy Family taking to the stage and casting these very same Pirates of Wort to spin barley sugars into liquid gold in a very Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me fashion.
Where once I was intimated and nervous to invite these souring organisms into our brewery, we are now on a first-name basis. Patience has become our friend when they come to visit. It’s true that our methods of production have a decidedly less Old School feel to them. Still, the results speak for themselves. We’ve come to understand the best barrel beers take time. Kind of reminds me of Disneyland like that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go speak to Captain Jack Sparrow about his drinking.
Tomme Arthur is director of brewing operations at The Lost Abbey Brewing Co. in San Marcos, CA.