Horse blanket. Barnyard. Old Leather. Musty. Cheesy. Cidery. Fruity. Tart. Acidic. Lactic. Dry. Put them all together and you’ve found yourself a lambic. And a damn good one, at that.
It’s safe to say that traditional lambic—real lambic, if you will—is an acquired taste.
Lambics—whether straight lambics, faro, gueuze or fruit based—are a Belgian specialty. They’re beers produced only in one particular area of Belgium, the Senne River Valley, south and west of Brussels. Most important of all, they’re beers that are spontaneously fermented by the airborne wild yeasts and bacteria present in this valley and nowhere else on the face of the Earth.
Lambic is more than an appellation. It’s a work of nature—and of nature specific to only one spot on the globe.
It’s safe to say that traditional lambic—real lambic, if you will—is an acquired taste, as perhaps are all wonderful new flavors in food and drink. It’s equally true to say that all other lambics—the non-traditional lambics that are not necessarily mass-produced, but produced for the masses—are most certainly not an acquired taste. If you like Coca-Cola, you’ll like these lambics.
That’s not to say that they taste like Coke. Certainly not. But many lambics are sweetened almost as much as Coke. This is a great lament of lambic makers, both the died-in-the-wool traditional producers, who may use the Flemish or French equivalent of an English four-letter word to describe sweetened lambics, and also of those who sweeten their beers.
Almost each and every lambic producer bemoans the fact that the current generation demands sweet lambics, if they’ll drink a lambic at all. Heard over and again, is: “What can we do? We now have at least two generations raised on Coke and other sweet drinks. If we make only traditional lambics, they won’t drink them. So we sweeten them, and we have sales.”
And how can one blame them? They must stay in business. Food on the table, a roof over the head, clothes on the back and all that. At least two current lambic brewers are responsible to corporate owners, who in turn are responsible to shareholders. A lambic maker’s gotta do what a lambic maker’s gotta do.
However, traditional lambic—unsweetened and unpasteurized—is considered the top of the craft. All the producers agree with this. And there are several lambic makers who refuse to give in to the tastes of the masses. A few are purists and make lambics the old way. These traditional lambics are wonderful—if you’ve acquired the taste, of course.
At the same time, by no means discount the lambic makers who sweeten their beers for popular appeal and increased sales. Each of these producers makes at least one—and often several—traditional lambics. For these brewers, it’s a point of pride and honor to include the classics in their portfolio.
The Senne River Valley
The lambic-producing area of Belgium through which the Senne passes is called the Payottenland and is part of Flemish Brabant. A highway named the Ring surrounds Brussels and marks a clear line of demarcation. City becomes country almost immediately, unlike the slow blending-in of suburbs found in many US cities. The Payottenland is flat farmland, with the occasional gently rolling hill. It’s land that has historically provided food and drink for the citizens of Brussels.
The Senne starts north of Brussels, then passes underneath the city, reappearing to the southwest as a small river. In times past, many lambic brewers could be found on both sides of the Senne, both in Brussels and in the countryside. There were even lambic brewers on the eastern side of the city, but these have long since disappeared. In 1900, there were at least 300 lambic makers in the region. Today, only 12 remain. One is in Brussels, on the western edge of the city. The others are in the countryside. Ten of these are brewers; two are blenders.
Spontaneous fermentation is the major difference between lambic and other styles of beer. Another important difference is that lambics are wheat beers using unmalted wheat, rather than the malted wheat found in German and American wheat beers. Lambics use anywhere from 30 to 40 percent wheat, with the remaining grain being malted barley.
Another difference between lambic and traditional beer production is the mash method employed, the process by which the grains are steeped in hot water before the boil. No English-style infusion or German-style decoction mash for lambics. These beers utilize a turbid mash, in which a milky-white froth caused by the unmalted wheat is pulled off the top and heated separately before being added back at the end of the process.
After the brewer drains the sweet liquid created by the mash and rinses the grains, a lambic beer undergoes a three- to six-hour boil, much longer than for other beers. Added to the boil are hops, as in beer making all over the world, but here the lambic maker takes another twist. He uses massive quantities of aged hops, often three years old. No fresh aromatic hops for these beers. The old hops retain the necessary preservative qualities, but they impart no bitterness, aromas or flavors. There are plenty of those to fill the bill during the fermentation and aging periods.
At the end of the boil, the wort, as it is now called, is pumped into coolships—broad, shallow open vessels of copper or stainless steel—on the top floor of the brewery, which is often an attic or gable. The windows are opened and perhaps louvered vents are also opened in the roof. Here, overnight, the wort has maximum exposure to the air and is inoculated with the yeasts and bacteria unique to the Senne River Valley: the yeasts Brettanomyces bruxellensis and lambicus, saccharomyces (cerevisiae, globosus, dairenis, pediococcus, suvarun bayanus), candida, torpulpis, hansenula, kloeckera, and bacteria (entero, lactic acid, acetic acid).