Deliberately Sour: Lambic, Gueuze, and Oud Bruin
With few exceptions, modern brewers shun the micro-organisms that can turn a beer sour. However, this was the character of the world’s earliest beers, and that heritage is preserved in two distinct styles of Belgian brewing: spontaneously fermented lambic beers and deliberately soured Flemish ales.
Belgium’s lambic beers are produced by spontaneous fermentation, which occurs when wild yeasts in the air (not conventional brewing yeasts) ferment the sugars in cereal grains such as barley and wheat into alcohol. It is a rare style of brewing in the present day, practiced mainly by a handful of breweries in a region of Belgium to the south and west of Brussels, known as the Payottenland.
At the famous Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels, much like at most of the other lambic breweries, hot wort (basically, unfermented beer) is pumped to a rectangular shaped vessel located at the top floor of the brewery. As the wort cools overnight, wild yeasts settle in the wort and ferment it. The fermenting wort is then transferred to wooden (oak) barrels, where it may be aged for a period of six months to three years.
When lambic is drawn directly from a wooden cask to be served, it is called straight draught lambic. These beers typically have low carbonation, a very soft body, and can range from mildly sour to very sour. Generally, the longer a lambic beer matures in an oak barrel, the more sour it will become.
Blending lambics creates real, traditional gueuze or oude gueuze. Generally, most gueuzes are blends of one and three year-old vintages. How does it work? Picture a master craftsman attempting to create the perfect brew by melding the flavors of different beers. This is very hands-on work.
The best gueuze beers vary from mildly tart to mouth-puckeringly sour. These brews should be very complex, fruity and refreshing. It may take a few tastes for the uninitiated to appreciate them, but the reward is well worth the research.
Another class of lambics is imbued (soaked) with fruits, such as cherries and raspberries. The fruits impart their own unique character to the beer. Kriekenlambic (lambic with cherries added) and oude kriek (basically, oude gueuze steeped with cherries) can be breathtakingly complex, tart and oh-so satisfying.
A separate group of beers, the red and brown ales of Flanders, also show off a tart character—basically, an alternative to hops for balancing the sweetness of beer.
Sour brown ales, or oud bruins in Dutch, originated as early as the 1300s in the provinces of East and West Flanders, where there is a strong tradition of aging brown ales in oak barrels, or foeders. Though there are just a few breweries left that use oak to age and mature brown ales, the style is going through a mild resurgence in Belgium, and is starting to be more than a fad with more experimental American breweries. Wine drinkers may find the transition to these sour beers easiest, as Flemish sour ales are perhaps the most wine-like of brews.
The level of sourness varies with the beer in question. Rodenbach is the brewery most closely associated with the Flemish sour brown style, and has nearly 300 huge oak barrels—each of which can hold tens of thousands of gallons of beer.
Excellent straight lambics include Boon Lambiek, Cantillon 100 Percent Lambic, De Cam Lambiek, Drie Fonteinen Lambiek and Girardin Oud Lambiek, among others.
World-class traditional gueuzes to seek out are Boon Oude Gueuze Mariage Parfait, Cantillon 100 percent Gueuze Lambic, De Cam Oude Gueuze, Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueuze, Girardin Oude Gueuze, Hanssens Oude Gueuze, Lindemans Cuvee Renee Oude Gueuze, Mort Subite Oude Gueuze and Oud Beersel Oude Gueuze.
Top examples of cherry-infused lambics include Boon Oude Kriek, De Cam Oude Kriek, Cantillon Kriek 100 percent Lambic and Lou Pepe Kriek, Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek and Schaerbeekse Kriek, Hanssens Oude Kriek, Mort Subite Oude Kriek, and Oud Beersel Oude Kriek.
A fine introduction to the oud bruin style is Rodenbach Classic, a mildly tart, refreshing, burgundy colored ale. Its big brother is Grand Cru, which consists of a blend from several foeders, averaging 18 months in oak. Most of the sharp sourness and reddish color of Rodenbach Grand Cru is imparted to the beer during its maturation in foeders.
Other fine Belgian sour brown ales include Petrus Aged Pale and Old Dark from Bavik, Bellegems Bruin from Bockor, Liefmans Oud Bruin, Ichtegem’s Grand Cru from Strubbe and Vichtenaar from Verhaeghe.
The superb La Folie from New Belgium in Colorado has quickly become the American classic sour brown ale. Given La Folie’s authentically traditional quality, it may not be a surprise to learn that brewmaster Peter Bouckaert used to brew at… yes, Rodenbach.
La Roja from Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter, Michigan, is another worthy contender.
American Flavor: Belgian-inspired American Beer Trends
The influence of Belgian brews on the United States and Canadian craft beer scene is unmistakable. Some North American breweries are devoted exclusively to brewing Belgian-style ales. Many other breweries and brewpubs emulate Belgian brews with dubbels, triples, white ales and more.
Other breweries take Belgian-style a step (or three!) further with American ingenuity and inventiveness. These brewers stress that they do not set out to copy Belgian ales, but to take inspiration from them. Aging Belgian-inspired beers in wine or whiskey barrels and/or adding Brettanomyces (a wild yeast associated with sour beers) has become common with breweries known for experimentation.
Two fine examples of American improvisation on Belgian-inspired brews, among many others, are Russian River and Lost Abbey, both located in California.
Russian River Sanctification Ale is 100 percent fermented with Brettanomyces yeasts, which give the beer a distinct horse-blanket character, not unlike Orval Trappist Ale. Their Beatification ale is entirely spontaneously fermented in old oak barrels that are clear of any wine or oak: wild yeasts in the barrels ferment the wort. This might be called an American lambic by some, though authentic lambic can only originate in the area of the Payottenland.
Russian River Supplication is another special brew: a brown ale brewed with several yeast strains, with sour cherries added, and aged in French oak pinot noir barrels.
Lost Abbey Brewing, from the San Diego area, produces a number of excellent brews, including Cuvée de Tomme. This beer has a brown ale base, and is fermented with candi sugar, raisins, sour cherries and malted barley. The beer is then aged in bourbon barrels for one year, where it undergoes a further fermentation from the Brettanomyces yeast strains that are inoculated into the barrels. The result is an incredibly complex, rich brew of 11% abv. A new American world classic.
Lost Abbey also crafts several other wood-aged beers and a spontaneously fermented brew, as well as a saison, sour cherry ale, Belgian strong ale, and others.
Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales of Michigan has also been crafting a fine lineup of Belgian-inspired brews, aging in oak barrels and using spontaneous fermentation.
Brewery Ommegang in upstate New York has partnered with Brouwerij Bockor of Bellegem, West Flanders, to create Ommegang Rouge, a Flemish sour/oud bruin ale. Bockor has a number of large wooden foeders, as at Rodenbach. The beer is very good and quite refreshing, with a pleasant tartness. Other breweries across the country are experimenting with spontaneous fermentation and blending sour and other ales.
Belgian Beer…Emerging Styles in “The Beer Country”
All this cultural beer exchange is not unidirectional. America’s microbrews are having an effect on what beer lovers drink in Belgium—and what gets exported to the United States.
Hoppy, bitter beers, rare in Belgium 20 years ago, are becoming much more commonplace. Small artisanal breweries like Achouffe (with Houblon Chouffe), Alvinne (with Gaspar), De Ranke (with XX Bitter), Brasserie de la Senne (with Zinnebir) and De Struise (with Mikeller) are setting the standard for hoppy and bitter in Belgium. Many existing beers are getting a bump up in hops as well.
Strong stouts are also gaining ground in Belgian beer circles. Brews like Alvinne Podge Belgian Imperial Stout, De Dolle Export Stout, De Struise Black Albert and Ellezelloise Hercule Stout are signs of a growing trend. Buffalo from Van Den Bossche (6.5 percent ABV) a stout first brewed in 1907, has spawned a 9 percent ABV big brother, called Buffalo Belgian Stout. It is aimed primarily at the U.S. market.
While there are only two breweries producing “champagne-style beers” in Belgium, these brews are welcome additions to the beer scene in “The Beercountry.” Malheur Brut Reserve and Dark Brut, from Brouwerij De Landtsheer in Buggenhout, are remarkably complex, contemplative brews. The Dark Brut, 12 percent ABV, is aged in American oak barrels to impart a subtle wood flavor to the beer. DeuS, from Brouwerij Bosteels, is very light bodied for its 11 percent-and pairs well with many foods. All these brews are packaged in French Champagne bottles with real champagne corks. Splurge for a Belgian Brut beer on a special occasion.
Christmas and winter beers continue to gain in popularity as well, as do other seasonal brews. Many smaller artisanal breweries are experimenting with spices and other ingredients.
The beers of the great country of Belgium—and the Belgian-inspired brews being crafted on this side of the Atlantic—deserve attention and appreciation. If you have an idea which class of flavors you enjoy—whether earthy, spicy, sour, sweet or strong—you are on your way to new adventures in flavor.