Toer de Geuze 2013

Toer de Geuze, a Belgian beer tour celebrating the regional gueuze beer style, is held in Flanders every two years. This year’s tour was held on April 21, 2013. And while Aschwin has taken the tour a couple of times before with his father Theo, this was my first time to tag along. Since we have been enjoying the style in general and beers from breweries on the tour specifically for at least 5 years now, I am actually quite happy that I was not able to attend earlier. I was able to appreciate the tour that much more, and with considerable knowledge already at my disposal.

We attended a music festival in the Netherlands before going on the tour, but since that is not the subject of this review I will start with our arrival in Dworp the evening prior. Aschwin’s father, Theo, met us in Leiden late in the evening and drove us to our lodging – a massive building on a large estate, all of which gave me the impression of it being the home of a wealthy English family. Since we did not want to incur international or roaming charges on Theo’s Dutch mobile phone, Aschwin had written down directions to our destination. Somehow, though it was the dead of night and we used no GPS, we made it to the hotel flawlessly.

The next morning did not go as well. Using the same strategy, we quickly became lost and began going in circles. Aschwin and his father argued in Dutch the whole time, occasionally pulling over to accost a pedestrian and inquire for information. Finally, someone was able to guide us to our destination.

Aschwin and Theo prepare to mount our trusty steed, Tour Bus Number 6.

Aschwin and Theo prepare to mount our trusty steed, Tour Bus Number 6

We pulled into the parking lot and got on the appropriate bus for the route we had chosen. We had decided to take the tour visiting Hannsen’s, 3 Fonteinen, Oud Beersel, Boon, and Tilquin. Everyone on the bus looked pretty happy and excited. The tour guide came over the loud speaker and, thankfully, addressed us in English, the universal language. “Are you awake? Yes? Are you ready to start drinking?” he asked. It was 10:00 am, and time to get the show on the road.

Hanssen’s

Enjoying the farm scenery at Hanssen's

Enjoying the farm scenery at Hanssen’s

Our first stop was Hanssen’s, where we visited from 10:20 – 11:00 am. Hanssen’s is an old brewery housed in a barn and surrounded by farm animals. Our first beer was a “straight” lambic – one which has not been blended – tapped directly from a cask into into our waiting glasses. I was not able to ascertain the age of the brew, unfortunately. It was very straightforward, being quite still (i.e., uncarbonated) and tart, the defining characteristics of a straight lambic.

A very old bottling machine still in use at Hanssen's today.

A very old bottling machine still in use at Hanssen’s today

We followed the straight lambic with a gueuze, which we carried with us as we wandered the brewery observing the old machines that are still used to bottle Hannsen’s brews and rows of ancient barrels crusted with the foamy eruptions of the beer fermenting inside. Some newer barrels were in use too, which looked oddly out of place in what was otherwise a display of ancient brewing tradition.

Fermentation in a very old barrel.

Fermentation in a very old barrel

Outside, there were a few booths offering edibles. We decided to have some sausage, thinking it wise to put something in our bellies before continuing our long day of alcohol consumption.

3 Fonteinen

Staff poured gueuze and straight lambic for thirsty tourists.

3 Fonteinen staff poured gueuze and straight lambic for thirsty tourists

After quick ride down the highway to the town of Beersel, we were allowed 50 minutes at our next stop, 3 Fonteinen. Some of you may have heard about the storage place thermostat disaster at this brewery in 2009 which resulted in the loss of close to 100,000 small bottles of beer. I remember wondering if they would be able to recover from this event.

The good news is that they eventually did. An all new brewery, financed entirely by beer sales, enables them to produce more great beer than ever – up to 4,000 liters at a time. I savored a 1 year old straight lambic while I took the English tour and heard about the new equipment and the design of the brewery.

4 x 1000 liter coolships at 3 Fonteinen

4 x 1000 liter coolships at 3 Fonteinen

Four enormous 1,000 liter capacity coolships were among the most impressive sights. In the barrel room we also saw washed rind cheeses aging on a rack. At the end of the tour, we saw these cheeses for sale along with 3 Fonteinen beers.

Jotting down some notes while enjoying an Oude Gueuze on our 3 Fonteinen stop

Jotting down some notes while enjoying an Oude Gueuze on our 3 Fonteinen stop

A venue across the road was also open and serving beer to accommodate the unusually large number of people visiting the brewery. We stopped in to enjoy an Oude Gueuze before leaving. The crossing guard was happily directing traffic with a beer in his hand. Only in Belgium!

Oud Beersel

Though Oud Beersel stopped brewing in 1992, they do still produce and sell beer. Here’s how: they give their recipe to another brewery, Boon, which brews the wort. Oud Beersel then obtains the wort from Boon and blends their own gueuze in small batches. In fact, they are one of the smallest “breweries” on the tour, as evidenced by their coolship, which resembles a very large bathtub.

Oud Beersel's 2400 liter coolship

Oud Beersel’s 2400 liter coolship

Oud Beersel is known for their mild lambic, which we enjoyed as we took a guided tour through their gueuze museum. This little museum was quite spectacular, with lots of examples of old machinery, diagrams of traditional brewing practices, and even a couple of small rooms set up to resemble parts of the brewery in days gone by.

A room in the Oud Beersel museum

A room in the Oud Beersel museum

Like any good museum, the tour ended in the gift shop. There, Theo bought us shirts before we headed outside to enjoy Oud Beersel sponsored festivities across the street, which included a marching band, a bagpipe band, and a whole pig being roasted on a spit.

Boon

We arrived at Boon a little before 2:00 pm and were given an hour to return to the bus, which I think was not really long enough. Boon is a large brewery and there were a LOT of people there, making it a much more raucous affair than the breweries we had visited earlier in the day. After standing in line for 10 or 15 minutes, we were able to take a tour of the facilities, which included plenty of large volume stainless steel mash kettles, lauter tuns, fermenters, and other types of tanks as well as a fancy bottling machine.

Several large volume stainless steel tanks at Boon

Several large volume stainless steel tanks at Boon

The Boon brewery also hosted the largest barrels of any brewery on the tour. These positively enormous casks appeared to be around 10 feet in diameter and each brandished a label with its numerical identifier.

Boon's truly massive 10,000+ liter barrels

Boon’s truly massive 10,000+ liter barrels

After the tour, we had a few moments to enjoy some beer in the tented beer garden on the premises. We had a 3 year old straight lambic to start, followed by Boon’s Vat 44 “mono blend” (90% from “Big Barrel No. 44”). Vat 44 was brewed on December 3-4, 2008, and fermented in cask No. 44, an oak barrel of 10,300 liter capacity that is over 100 years old. On August 31, 2010, Boon bottled 20,522 bottles of this brew.

Boon's Vat 44

Vat 44 mono-blend

Vat 44 smelled of brett and dust, but also a bit fruity and sweet. The taste, however, was quite dry and tart with a short finish and a bitter end note. It’s light mouthfeel made it an easy drinker despite the 8.5% ABV rating. It was good enough that we grabbed a few bottles from the store on our way back to the tour bus. I like Boon lambics myself but Aschwin doesn’t quite appreciate the bitter notes in them.

Gueuzerie Tilquin

Our last stop of the tour was at the rather new business of Gueuzerie Tilquin. Located in Bierghes, in the Senne valley, Tilquin is the only gueuze blendery in the Walloon region. Since we were no longer in Flanders, this was also the only French-speaking gueuze site we visited that day.

Tilquin, like Oud Beersel, is a blendery. In 2009, they started purchasing freshly brewed lambic from various producers (including Cantillon!) and putting into old oak barrels they had acquired for fermentation for 1, 2, or 3 years. The lambics are then blended and bottled to produce their signature brew, the Gueuze Tilquin à L’Ancienne.

Tanks and barrels at Gueuzerie Tilquin

Tanks and barrels at Gueuzerie Tilquin

The tour for this small facility was actually rather long, and we wound up having to cut out of it early in order to make it back to the bus before it left us behind altogether. But the staff seemed very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. They’ve even begun making a beer from the spontaneous fermentation of destoned fresh purple plums (The Questsche Tilquin à l’ancienne). We did not have time to try it, but it sounds really interesting!

The Aftermath

While we were at least smart enough to eat a few things here and there throughout the day, we really didn’t have any other liquids (like WATER) besides beer the whole day. I honestly don’t even recall water being offered at any of the breweries we visited, but perhaps I wasn’t paying close enough attention. And though it seems the Europeans were all perfectly okay with this beer-only approach, I noticed a dull headache just before the last brewery visit.

I felt okay through the end of the tour, but as soon as we reached our car in the parking lot things took a turn for the worse. By the time we reached De Heeren van Liedekercke (which is known for its extensive vintage lambic and Orval menus) for dinner I was absolutely miserable. I am certain that this was the worst headache I have ever experienced in my entire life, as the pain was near-crippling.

The last smile I was able to muster, just as the throbbing in my head began

The last smile I was able to muster, just as the throbbing in my head began

Before heading to the bathroom to writhe in pain in private for a few moments I asked Aschwin to order some WATER for me. Upon my return, I was chagrined to find sparkling water in my glass. Still, I was thirsty. So I drank it.

Aschwin and Theo had ordered more beer (!!!) and were looking the menus over. I didn’t want anything – it all made my stomach turn. My head was throbbing. The common simile of a jackhammer on the skull would have been a royal understatement. I was increasingly sensitive to light, sound, and motion. Everything caused severe pain.

I must have looked pretty bad at that point. Finally, Theo offered the keys to the car so I could go lie down. But moving around so much did something to the carbonated contents of my stomach….

When it was over I felt quite a bit better (though certainly not great) and was able to lie down and get some rest until Aschwin and Theo returned. Riding back to the hotel with my head in Aschwin’s lap I marveled at what had happened.

Alright Toer de Gueuze, I’ve learned my lesson, but I’m not going to let it get me down. I’m bringing some water bottles with me next time.


Health benefits of lambic beer

For a long time I have wanted to write a blog post on the (possible) health benefits of lambic beer. I am not sure if one could argue that lambic is healthy in terms of extending the average human lifespan (let alone the maximum human lifespan!), not to mention the risk of alcoholism, but there are a number of aspects about traditional lambic beer that compare favorably to most other beer styles.

1.  The most obvious characteristic of lambic beer is that it is the product of both yeast and bacterial fermentation. As a result, lambic beer is much more of a probiotic than most other beer styles and may contribute to healthy gut flora. In addition, if you believe that humans do best to adapt to a diet and lifestyle closer to our ancestors (such as adherents of the Paleo Diet), lambic beer is a more logical choice (or, at a minimum, the least harmful) than modern pasteurized and bacteria-deficient beers.

2. Another interesting characteristic of lambic beer is that it is typically fermented bone dry with little residual sugar (Cantillon beers are a good example). This does not make it an “ideal” drink for diabetes patients, but you can certainly do a lot worse by drinking beer styles that have a lot of residual sugars such as imperial stouts or barley wines.

3. Another interesting aspect about lambic beer is that is has relatively low amounts of hops. The phytoestrogens in hops have been identified as potent inhibitors of testosterone, which supposedly contributed to hops becoming dominant as the sole herb (at the exclusion of more, well, “sexually potent” herbs) among Protestant reformers. When we think of testosterone we usually tend to think of body builders and juvenile aggression but testosterone has a number of important physiological roles in the human body for both males and females. One interesting question is whether the tradition of contemporary lambic brewers to use oxidized hops makes a difference, too.

4. Lambic beers are typically lower in alcohol. Unless you are an American “wild ale” brewer who believes that “more is more,” or you are a lambic brewer called Boon, lambic beer usually has a modest alcohol percentage between 4.5% and 6%.  Alcohol is a strong diuretic and, like hops, has been associated with lower testosterone levels, too.

5. A number of lambic brewers (yet again, Cantillon) lean strongly towards the use or organic ingredients and abhor the use of artificial ingredients or processes.

Caveats and additional thoughts:

Clearly, this post is not the final word on the health aspects of lambic beer and some of these benefits may need to be further qualified or may turn out to be non-existent or only applicable to certain populations, genders, and age groups. It should be obvious that almost everything that I have said here applies to traditional lambics, not the pasteurized, sweetened beers that, unfortunately, use the same name. It should be rather obvious, too, that most of what is said here also applies to many American “wild ales,” provided alcohol and hops are kept at reasonable levels and added fruit is allowed to ferment to dryness.

Instead of thinking of lambic as a specific beer style we can also think of it as a framework to approach brewing in general. This opens up the possibility of reinventing many traditional beer styles and allowing elements of the lambic brewing process to play a role in these other kinds of beer. For example, the use of wild yeast to lower residual sugar in a beer or the addition of (wild) bacteria.

Most people do not drink beer for its health benefits, but it would be interesting to think about how to further improve the health aspects of lambic beer. What about using a different herb than hops to inhibit proliferation of undesirable bacteria and further enhance its health benefits (making a so called wild gruit)?  What about blending lambic with red grapes such as in Cantillon’s Saint Lamvinus, or blending it with wine or kombucha as some experimental brewers have recently done? It is conceivable that beer will always lose against red wine (of the “natural” variety that is) in terms of health benefits, a price that some beer drinkers will not mind paying. Then again, lambic drinkers often like wine too, so choosing the right proportions may be just what the doctor ordered (sic)…


Geuze en humanisme

One of the most curious publications in the history of lambic beer, and I suspect, the history of beer, is Hubert van Herreweghen’s ‘Geuze en Humanisme.’ Its full title translates to ‘Geuze and Humanism: presumptuous reflections on the excellence of the beer of Brussels and Brabant, and the people who drink it, embellished with illustrations by Maurits van Saune.’ In 1955 Leo van Hoorick asked Flemish poet Hubert van Herreweghen (1920)  to speak about geuze and humanism  for the Vlaamse Club in Brussels and the text was later by published and offered to the club members as a 1956 New Year’s present in an edition of 400 copies. Since its publication, Geuze en Humanisme had become something of a rarity and collectors’ item until it was reprinted in 2010 by the Belgium province of Vlaams Brabant and Uitgeverij P. on high quality paper with the original illustrations.

The title Geuze en Humanisme sounds rather pretentious and in a sense it is because the author starts his lecture with reflections on the death of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus in Switzerland and his final longing for the countryside of Brabant. This permits van Herreweghen to praise the people of Brabant and, of course, the beer known as geuze. Van Herreweghen entertains a number of theories about the name ‘geuze’ before he dismisses them, including the curious theory that the word geuze refers to the Geuzen who opposed Spanish rule in the Netherlands the 16th century. These freedom fighters used to carry beer on their belts and induced a second fermentation as a result of the shaking of the beer while walking in the sun! More likely, he admits, is that the name refers to the politically classical liberal brewers who released the beer in bottles. Notwithstanding the secular origin of lambic beer, the author confesses that the taste of the beer is quite catholic in nature.

Hubert van Herreweghen then resumes his treatment of geuze by characterizing the beer and its production. As do many historical writers on lambic, he emphasizes that the magic that spontaneous fermentation contributes to lambic is only possible in Brussels and its surrounding rural areas — and then only when brewing occurs during the winter months. We do now know that this is not entirely correct and this view has been replaced by the more modest perspective that spontaneous fermentation expresses the regional microflora and the Brussels area is quite favorable for the production of lambic. Without being too technical and boring to his audience, the author attempts to relay the microbiology that gives rise to lambic and concludes by observing that the production of lambic with all its (micro) struggles and uncertainties is like life itself. He also alludes to the subtle (regional) changes between various lambic brewers and the corresponding preferences and loyalties this phenomenon produces.

The most memorable part of the lecture is where he discusses the health benefits of lambic, part sincere, part ironic. He start this topic by pointing out that geuze is not a drink of alcoholics but a beer meant to be consumed at home with family or to socialize with friends.  We also know about the old doctor’s recipe of blending two eggs and geuze to create a medical potion to stimulate healthy blood cells – one of the illustrations features this concoction sitting on a nightstand. Outright hilarious is his description of a seriously ill farmer (Baldus) who was brought to the hospital for surgery. But upon opening the man the surgeons conclude that there is little hope for recovery and sent him home to die among his family. When the agonal farmer is asked if there is still something he wants he answers…”lambiek,” which is honored. After giving the dying man a young lambic the light slowly returns in his eyes. This lambic treatment continues for days and now the man still walks around as the living proof of the healthy and healing nature of lambic beer.

As can be expected from a poet ,Van Herreweghen concludes his lecture by reciting geuze poetry by other (Flemish) poets and contributes his own ‘Litanie van de schone uithangborden,’ which takes the listener through a list of renowned lambic establishments, many of which no longer exist:

Een Bundelke Wissen,
In het nuchtere Kalf,
Het Kelderken,
De Sleutelplas,
Den ouden Sinte Pieter,
Het Spinnekopken,
De Drijpikkel,
Het Vossegat,
Bij het Varken,
Bij den Bult,
De Windmuts,
Den Spaanschen Bempt,
Het Huis van Oostenrijk,
In den Hazenwind,
Het Stroblommeke van Papier,
Den grooten Hof van den
ouden edelen Handboog,
De Roskam,
Den ouden spijtigen Duivel,
De Spanuit,
In de Slek,
De groene Boomgaard,
Den subieten Dood.

After this extensive introduction to the virtues of geuze, he invites the audience in attendance to drink geuze with him and celebrate the health of the lambic brewers in attendance. Testament to the health effects of geuze is that Hubert van Herreweghen is still alive at 92 years old and even revisited the topic of geuze again at a Flemish event in 2010!


Lambic on film

If the growing interest in lambic continues it will only be a matter of time before an aspiring film maker decides to produce a full-length documentary about this beer style. Until that day we have to be be content with shorter features that document the lambic brewing process and/or some of the main Belgian lambic brewers. One of the nicest short films about lambic is available at the Brussels Midi website (click on the image below) as part of the Midi Stories series. The Brussels Midi train station is only a short walk away from the Cantillon brewery and Chez Moeder Lambic Fontainas.

 

In December, 2011, TV Brussels aired a (Dutch) news item about lambic, featuring Jef van den Steen, Belgian lambic expert and writer of ‘Geuze en Kriek: de champagne onder de bieren’ (review here). This video features a rather moving moment when Armand Debelder responds to van den Steen about the decline and renaissance of lambic brewing and blending in Belgium. Van den Steen attributes some of the renewed popularity of lambic to the desire for pre-modern healthier (alcoholic) drinks with little sugar, a characteristic of (traditional) lambic that is also briefly mentioned in Jean-Xavier Guidard’s book ‘Lambic’ (review here). Another interesting part is where van den Steen singles out a sharper acetic acid character as the essence of Cantillon beers. Armand Debelder ends with his thoughts on geuze blending (no notes, making the decision by just smelling and swirling in the mouth) and draws a comparison between geuze and the finest wines. In fact, some geuzes are suitable for long-term aging and can compare to a good Bourgogne in terms of complexity, says Debelder. A shorter news item on Cantillon’s public brewing session is available from TV Brussels, too.

 

 

In 2009, the Wall Street Journal, which has done a number of articles on lambic and sour beers, produced a short feature called ‘Lambic Beer, Belgium’s Iconic Brew,’ which focuses on Brussels and the Cantillon family (note: this movie may be preceded by a commercial).