Lambic, one of the world’s most fascinating beer styles, is under threat. At the end of January, lambic brewers were due to meet with the Belgian government in an attempt to protect their production methods from a small army of bureaucrats from the European Commission who, determined to eradicate unhygienic food processing, could destroy a method of brewing that is centuries old.
Lambic is made by spontaneous fermentation. A mash of barley malt and wheat is boiled with aged hops that have little bitterness and are used primarily for their antiseptic qualities. The extract known as wort is then left in shallow vessels in the attic of the brewery where it is inoculated by wild yeasts in the atmosphere. Once fermentation is under way, the wort is transferred to wooden casks where more natural yeasts and micro-flora in the wood attack the sugars in the wort. Several fermentations take place before the beer is ready to drink.
Lambic is a rustic form of brewing, its origins lost in time. It is based in the Senne Valley region of Belgium, the only location offering the cocktail of wild yeasts that can create true lambics. And it’s the ancient and bucolic brewing methods that have upset the food hygiene officers employed by the European Union.
“Harmony” in the EU
Formerly known as the Common Market, a free trade group of western European countries, the EU has its own currency, the euro, and is the biggest trade competitor to the United States. The EU’s attempts to “harmonize” trade have caused other problems in recent years. The British pint, beloved by beer drinkers, came under attack as a non-metric measure. A change has been shelved, but only temporarily. Similarly, Britain’s “tied trade,” in which brewers directly own pubs, has also been attacked but given a temporary “opt out.”
The attack on lambic beer will create more of a rumpus because it strikes at brewing practices in and around Brussels, where the European parliament meets. Food hygienists employed by the European Commission, the EU’s full-time bureaucracy, want to phase out production methods that involve food coming into contact with wood, on the grounds that wood harbors bacteria.
At first it seemed lambic was doomed, as its fermentation and storage methods require a direct link between liquid and unlined oak vessels. This fear has been allayed as the EU inspectors’ primary concern was leaking casks. Many lambic brewers use the same casks for decades. Wear and tear lead to leaks, and casks that drip sweet fermenting beer attract fruit flies.
Brewers traditionally allowed spider webs to grow between casks as spiders kill fruit flies. Even before the latest hygiene scare, lambic brewers had been forced to clean their breweries and remove the spider webs. When I visited Cantillon, one of the best-known lambic brewers, in Anderlecht last year, I was struck by its spick-and-span appearance. It is no longer a spider-happy zone.
The Cost of Cleanliness
But the food inspectors are not only at war with leaking casks. Lambic breweries must have washable walls, granular and porous walls are banned, and wooden supporting beams are similarly verboten. The costs of covering walls with washable materials and replacing porous bricks and wooden beams will be considerable. With the exception of Interbrew’s large Belle-Vue lambic brewery, most producers of the style are small and will have difficulty making these changes.
Last year, even before the food inspectors launched their campaign against wood, one revered lambic producer, Oud Beersel, closed down. The brewery owners were just tired of being smothered by red tape. Another lambic producer, Girardin, based on a farm, was rumored to be on the point of closure in January.
It’s likely that, in true EU style, some compromise will be reached. But, in the meantime, how many more lambic brewers will just give up in disgust?