The World's Oldest Beer Style

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 22, Issue 3
July 1, 2001 By

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.

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.

Making Lambics

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).

It’s a Soup

Up to 120 different yeasts and bacteria have been found in the cooled wort. They’ve entered from the outside air and also from the old wooden timbers and slate tiles in the brewery. For this reason, lambic brewers are wary of changing anything at all in their brew houses. If a new roof must be built, a number of the old, original tiles are mixed in among the new. If a new brewhouse and coolship are added, a certain percentage of the wort is pumped to the old coolship in the old building—just to be sure that the wort is inoculated correctly, as it has been for years.

Because lambic production is reliant on airborne wild yeasts and bacteria, the production of this beer is undertaken only during the cool months of the year, roughly the months containing the letter r, September to April. In recent years, the brewing season has been condensed to October to March. In warm weather, especially during the heat of the summer, too many of the “wrong” kinds of bacteria are in the air. Lambic produced at this time would be far too sour, even for lambic, and funky. The Belgians say it would have a “summer taste,” and they avoid this.

The morning after the wort has cooled, the lambic brewer pumps the inoculated wort into wooden barrels where it will age for one, two or three years. Maybe longer. In these barrels, more magic occurs. There’s a frothy, initial fermentation, with foam spilling out of the top hole of the barrels, down its sides and onto the cellar floor. The barrels have their own resident yeasts and bacteria, and over time, the lambic undergoes many transformations, its pH constantly changing, allowing the various yeasts and bacteria to do their work.

Fruit flies are attracted to the sweet foam, but the flies bring unwanted bacteria. To keep their population down, lambic cellars are filled with spiders. (There’s an abundance of webs in all of them.) The spiders eat the flies as the yeasts and bacteria munch on the sugars in the wort.

No Two the Same

Once the initial fermentation is complete, usually in less than a week, the open hole at the top of the barrel is sealed with an absorbent cloth held in place with a wooden bung. Now the lambic sits, changing and aging, waiting for its final purpose, which is to be blended with others of its kind to produce an aged lambic, a gueuze, a fruit lambic or perhaps a faro.

Because of the variables in the process, no two lambics are ever completely the same. To begin with, each wort is exposed to different yeasts and bacteria during its nighttime of cooling. Even those that emerge from the same coolship will vary because of differences in the resident yeasts and bacteria in the wooden barrels. Storage in dusty farmhouse cellars, most often with one rack of barrels on top of another, results in lambics that are exposed to differences in temperature and humidity. The art of blending creates the final product.

Pipes, Tuns & Foudres

Wooden barrels made of oak are the traditional fermenting and aging vessels for lambics. They come in various sizes. The Brussels Tun is the smallest, at an average size of 250 liters. Next come the pipes, ranging from 600 to 850 liters. Most pipes are used port wine barrels that came into wide use in lambic production after World War I when port became a popular drink in Belgium. The wine was shipped from Portugal to Antwerp and, most often, transported to Brussels where it was bottled. Since the bottlers had no use for the empty barrels and the wine makers didn’t want them returned, local lambic makers bought them. The largest barrels, the foudres, hold an impressive 1,000 to 9,000 liters of beer.

Almost all barrels used for aging lambics were formerly wine barrels. There’s a wonderfully symbiotic relationship here. Wine likes to age in new wood, full of tannins. But after a few uses, the tannins have been leached from the wood and the winemaker discards the barrel. Lambic makers, on the other hand, don’t want the tannins entering their beers. A used wine barrel fits their purpose perfectly.

Types of Lambic

The blender (steker, in Flemish) of lambics is the person who creates the final product. Lambics brewed in different years are continuously sampled throughout their aging process. The blender uses all of his or her senses (yes, there is one woman in this business) to determine which casks will blend best with others, and in which percentages, to create the final product. It’s an art, more than a science, utilizing the blender’s eyes, nose and taste buds.

Lambic

Although not so common anymore, a still, uncarbonated lambic can occasionally be found on draft in a café or in bottled form. These are usually young lambics of less than a year in age, perhaps only six months old. Several traditional breweries and blenders offer aged lambics in bottles.

Faro

If several casks of young lambic are blended and sweetened with dark candy sugar, they’re called a faro. In the bottled version, a faro is pasteurized so that there is no additional fermentation in the bottle. In days gone by, café owners would serve a still, young lambic from the cask and place sugar and a mixing stick in front of the customer.

Gueuze

The height of the blender’s art is the production of gueuze, a blending of lambics from casks that are at least one and three years old (or one and three “summers” in age, as lambic makers say), often with a two-year-old added for good measure. This blending creates an additional fermentation in the corked bottle, as the yeasts alive in the aged lambic eat the sugars present in the young lambic. The result is a slightly higher alcohol beer (an average of 6 percent alcohol by volume versus 5 percent for other lambics) and, most important, carbonation.

Gueuze is the champagne of lambics, produced in almost the exact same manner as the sparkling wine. The major difference is that in gueuze, the yeast sediment is not removed from the bottle as it is in champagne.

The blending to create a gueuze may contain 60 percent one-year-old lambic, 30 percent two-year-old and 10 percent fully aged three-year-old cask. Sometimes up to seven different lambics may enter the blend. The blender makes his or her best guess as to which casks to use in which amounts. Then it’s up to nature to do the rest. The corked bottles (often using champagne corks and wire cages) are laid to rest for anywhere from three months to a year before being sold.

Fruit Lambics

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.

The Law

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.

HORAL

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.

Why a Lambic

Why a Gueuze?

The name lambic (also spelled lambiek and lambik) has several possible sources. During the Napoleonic era, when Belgium was under the control of the French (parts of the country were made departments of France), the name lambic was in existence. Distilling equipment of this period was called an “alambic,” and many distilleries also brewed beer. Perhaps the French tax authorities, always right behind the conquering army, thought the brewers were making a “biëre d’alambic.”

Along similar lines of thought, Belgian writer Jef Van den Steen (in his recently published book, Lambi(e)k en Geuze) notes that another Belgian, Maurits Sacre, thinks that lambic comes from the Spanish “alambicar,” which means “well cared for beer.” The Spanish ruled Belgium in the 1500s and 1600s.

English beer writer Michael Jackson has written that perhaps there’s a link between the word lambic and the Latin verb “lambere” (to sip).

Lambic brewer Frank Boon, located in the town of Lembeek, believes that the name lambic comes from his town. The sound of the two is certainly close enough for one to believe this version.

The word “gueuze” has an equally interesting and curious origin. Michael Jackson has postulated that gueuze comes from words related to gas or geyser, because of the release of carbon dioxide on opening a bottle of gueuze. Jackson and others write that the Gueux, a liberal political group that opposed Spanish rule, gave the name to the beer because it was their favorite drink.

Jef Van den Steen takes the political approach further. He writes that in the late 1800s, liberals in Belgium called themselves Geuzen. “Considering that almost every village had a Catholic brewer and a liberal brewer, geuze-lambik could mean that the first who came upon the idea to bottle lambik was a liberal: lambik by the geus.”

The Farm

When made in the country, lambics were the winter activity of working farms. After the late summer or early autumn harvest, the farmer would begin lambic production. This kept his farmhands—who often lived year-round on the farm and needed work to stave off idleness—busy during the winter months.

To this day, most of the remaining lambic breweries and blenders are housed in old farmhouses. These are sturdy, stone buildings that are warmer than the outside air in winter and cooler than the heat of summer. They’re perfect places for aging barrels of lambic.

Many lambic brewers continued farming up until the 1960s, and at least one family of brewers still grows their own wheat.

A Love of Lambic

Lambics are without doubt an acquired taste, and not everyone acquires it. Jef Van den Steen writes in Lambi(e)k en Geuze: “In 1864, Baudelaire, the French writer who had found asylum in Brussels, wrote that the people of Brussels drank their Faro twice: ‘The Faro is being tapped from the big latrine, the Senne. This beverage is prepared from the excrements of the city, and so for centuries Brussels people have drunk their own urine.’” Ouch. These are hardly the sentiments of a gourmand.

Baudelaire was wrong. Today’s faros, and all lambics, can be absolutely wonderful. The traditional, “old” lambics are by far the most powerful in terms of aroma and taste. Not everyone can drink them, but they’re well worth a sniff and a taste. The sweetened and filtered examples may not please the traditionalists and purists, but they provide a useful stepping stone for novices to the style.

Horse blanket, barnyard, old leather, musty, cheesy, cidery, fruity, tart, acidic and lactic aren’t for everyone.


Gregg Glaser
Gregg Glaser is the news editor for All About Beer Magazine.