A specialty of lambic makers is fruit lambics. Typically, lambics of one “summer” in age are chosen, and whole fruit is added into the casks. The fruit macerates in the beer, adding flavor, aroma and color, and creating a secondary fermentation from its sugars. Additional flavors come from the wild yeasts and bacteria on the skins of the fruit. Cherries and raspberries are the fruits most traditionally used.
A dry, bitter cherry grown northwest of Brussels, the Schaerbeek variety, is the traditional cherry used to make what is known as a kriek. Whole cherries are added to the cask, including the stones, which impart flavors to the beer after the fruit has dissolved. Today, production of Schaerbeek cherries in Belgium is limited and there are not enough cherries for all the lambic producers. Some have taken the Schaerbeek to countries in eastern Europe, where farmers have happily planted orchards to serve the Belgian lambic market.
Several lambic makers use only the juice from the cherries, along with a small quantity of crushed stones, while others rely on cherry syrup, the latter resulting in a less than satisfactory kriek, say the purists.
If whole fruit is added to a cask of lambic, a typical ratio might be 100 kilograms of cherries to 650 liters of lambic, but each maker has his or her own idea of what works best. As the secondary fermentation begins, the bung is left in place, but a second, smaller hole next to the bung, which releases carbon dioxide gas throughout the aging process, may be filled with twigs. This allows the gas to escape, but not the cherries as they rise to the top of the barrel.
After a period of fermentation and further aging in the barrel, cherry-filled casks of lambic are lightly filtered, blended and bottled. In their purest form, a traditional lambic is not pasteurized and is allowed to mature in the bottle for an additional six to nine months.
The addition of raspberries results in a beer called a framboise, frambozen or framboos. Peche (peach), cassis and apricot lambics have also been produced in recent years, and one brewer has put out a line of lambics blended with exotic fruits not at all native to Belgium, such as banana, plum, pineapple and lemon. These latter beers have raised the ire and condemnation of many traditional lambic makers and drinkers, while at the same time, brought a smile to the brewer who makes them. They add a tidy sum to his ledger books.
A lambic by any other name is not necessarily a lambic. It used to be that a bottle labeled “gueuze” might be a traditionally produced beer—unsweetened, unfiltered, unpasteurized and re-fermented in the bottle. But another bottle labeled “gueuze” might just as well be the exact opposite. Consumer, beware. Then the Belgian government stepped in. A Royal Decree of May 20, 1965, set down the first legal rules for lambics. The law stated, among other things, that lambics had to: Contain a minimum of 30 percent unmalted wheat, Use aged hops, Employ spontaneous fermentation, Be brewed within 15 kilometers of Brussels in the Senne Valley.
What the law didn’t address, however, was the difference between traditional and nontraditional lambic. That had to wait until 1998 for a European Union regulation to say that traditionally made lambics could use the word “old” on the label. The sweetened, filtered and pasteurized versions could not do so. So, today, an old lambic, old gueuze, old kriek or old framboise designation means that the beer has been made the traditional way.
Nine of the 12 lambic brewers and blenders in the Payottenland have banded together to protect their craft. In 1997 they formed Hoge Raad voor Ambachtelijke Lambikbieren (HORAL, High Council for Traditional/Artisanal Lambic Beers). In addition to setting standards for themselves, they created a forum where they meet, exchange ideas and talk through common problems. They also put together a biannual Tour of Gueuze. These are open brewery days at members’ breweries and blending operations, when the public can come to see the processes and sample the results.