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)…

Not so wild ales

The recent Lost Abbey and New Belgium Lips of Faith Brett Beer has produced a number of interesting exchanges on internet forums and beer rating apps. Some reviewers are disappointed that the beer is not sour. Clearly, this is a misunderstanding of the brew because 100% brettanomyces beers are not necessarily supposed to be sour. They can be slightly tart as a consequence of acetic acid production by the brettanomyces yeast, but for a real sour beer the brett needs to work in conjunction with souring bacteria. A more understandable concern is that New Belgium filtered out the brettanomyces yeast prior to bottling. This is not speculation but has been actually confirmed by Lauren Salazar from New Belgium in an interesting and candid interview for Embrace the Funk. Lauren not only confirms that there is no living brett yeast in the Brett Beer, but also goes into quite some detail about their use of flash pasteurization for their sour blends.

To me such a development actually reflects how far sour beers and wild ales have come. If New Belgium would be one of the few producers of such beers, I could imagine some people being really concerned about such a procedure. In the current situation I suspect that many craft beer lovers who strongly prefer bottle-conditioned wild ales will just look for a release of any of the other 100+ craft brewers that do sour and brett beers. In fact, if you look at Flemish Reds you will note that pasteurization is not beyond the pale in this style at all. Clearly, there is a whole world out there between traditional spontaneously fermented lambics and pasteurized sweetened beers.  As long as a traditional beer style is not on the brink of extinction (such as traditional lambic was not that long ago), I think that respecting the artistic, business, and practical decisions a brewer makes is the most welcome approach.

Lauren does make a point about flash pasteurization that draws attention to different views people can have about what makes a style a style (or what makes a beer a beer). She says that pasteurization has “a side effect, but it’s a wonderful side effect. It locks the blend that I produce into place. ..You know some people store beers like Geuze for a really long time and what they don’t realize is that blender painstakingly made that blend.  The blender tasted all their barrels and said “This percentage of this barrel, this percentage of this one etc..”. That person brought all those together, tasted it and said “Perfect.” But 3 years later, who knows what it’s like if its not pasteurized. So when you pasteurize you can definitely lock in the blend, but it can also oxidize.”  This surprised me because it is well known that some lambic brewers and blenders do actually encourage people to age their geuzes and even highlight the qualities that the beer will pick up over time – just attend a vertical tasting of geuzes to experience this. When these brewers blend, the evolution of the beer over time and its aging potential is one of the things on their mind. Yes, the beer can get oxidized but that is something that both the drinker and the producer recognize – just like people with a wine cellar recognize their (expensive) wines may turn out fabulous, mediocre, or past their prime.

Lambic connoisseurs often have clear affinities with the (natural) wine crowd. No lambic or gueuze is the same year after year, but this is seen as a feature of lambic brewing and not a bug.  It is one of the things that makes spontaneous fermentation and natural wine making so interesting and fascinating (even from a biochemical perspective). It mimics life. It is as much about taste as it is about process and acceptance. Clearly, this is not an approach that is suitable for all brewers and as the craft beer revolution keeps on going we are going to see more safer and “consistent” approaches; filtered brett beers; pasteurized sours; changing the ratio between young and old base beers in a blend to make it more marketable; carefully cultivated “wild” yeast; and perhaps even sour beers that have never been in contact with bacteria at all! But there are also going to be the new craft- and home brewers who install coolships or use “infected” barrels to ferment their beers.

Speaking for myself, I increasingly have a hard time keeping up with and tasting, let alone reviewing, all the wild ales (and not so wild ales) that are being produced by American craft brewers. To keep things interesting and manageable for myself, I will now mostly confine myself to brewers that do spontaneous fermentation or who do something really interesting (such as gin barrel aging of sours, producing sour gruits etc.).

German sours

Although the theme of this website does permit it, I have never published on German sour styles such as Berliner Weisse. But a recent visit to Portland’s Belmont Station rewarded me with no fewer than four sour German beers:  Bayerischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse, Bayerischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse Brettanomyces LambicusDr. Fritz Briem’s 1809 Berliner Style Weisse, and Dr. Fritz Briem’s Piwo Grodziskie Grätzer Ale.

One of the intriguing theories about the origins of Berliner Weisse is that the style might have been brought to Germany by migrating Huguenots who were influenced by the sour reds and browns of Flanders — Belgian beer styles that have a rather complicated history themselves. As is virtually the rule with old beer styles, one can only speculate about how those ancient Berliner Weisse beers might have tasted, but beer writer Michael Jackson’s suggestion that traditionally these beers were buried in warm earth seems to indicate that the distinct lactic note may always have been a part of this style. Berliner Weisse (‘the Champagne of the North’) has survived but in terms of popularity it has been mostly replaced by sanitized bitter beer styles.

The Bayrischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse beer that I tasted first has a low alcohol percentage of 3.0%, which is characteristic for the style. As far as bottle and label design is concerned, I will confine myself to the observation that German beers rarely excel in this area. Bayrischer Bahnhof Berliner Weisse pours a cloudy light golden color and has attractive crisp notes of peach, tropical fruits, wheat, and lactic acid. The refreshing dry lactic tart flavor gives way to a short Hefeweizen-like finish. Naturally, this beer is an easy drinker and I followed it with their Berliner Style Weisse Brettanomyces Lambicus release, which is a special edition of their classic style that received additional Brettanomyces Lambicus fermentation. This version produced an even bigger head after a vigorous pour, but also dissipated more quickly. The presence of brettanomyces is unmistakable in the aroma and it reduced the tropical complexity of the original version quite a bit. Although brettanomyces by itself produces little sourness, the presence of this yeast seems to amplify the lactic tartness of the beer by furthering drying it out, which is also evidenced by the thinner mouthfeel. In this case I think that the brettanomyces yeast took more away from the standard beer than it added, in particular the crisp fruity lactic notes. The finish is a little bit longer though.

Dr. Fritz Briem’s “historic” 1809 Berliner Style Weisse is quite a bit higher in alcohol (5%) and its production involved transferring the heated, un-boiled malt to open fermenters, after it was “pitched with yeast and lactic acid bacteria (isolated from malt) at 18°C.” The aroma suggests that wild yeast must have participated during the fermentation of this beer. This cloudy, yellow beer has a musty, honey-like aroma and is super carbonated. Whether intentional or not, there is little lactic tartness. Instead this beer is more similar to a traditional German wheat beer, albeit a little more rough around the edges. There was no finish to speak of.

Going by the label alone, Dr. Fritz Briem’s Piwo Grodziskie Grätzer with its sour mash and smoked malt looked quite appealing to me. My own readings of the native lambic literature support the idea that some lambic producers used smoked malt, and since Schlenkerla’s Märzen is one of the few non-lambic beers that really gets me excited, this obscure German style held great promise. The aroma of this golden, translucent beer certainly revealed its ingredients, although the smoke was not nearly as pronounced as I prefer. What struck me about this beer was how restrained all the different notes were; mild tartness, mild smoke, milt bitterness, and a nutty, medium-long finish. What surprised me the most was its smooth, cask/ESB-like mouthfeel. Although this beer turned out quite different from what I expected, it was the most refined and complex of the four sour Germans.

In traditional lambic, brettanomyces and lactic bacteria go hand in hand, but it was rather refreshing (literally!) to taste a wild beer (the standard Bayrischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse) in which the emphasis was on the sour bacteria instead of the “brett.” I am personally at a loss to understand the contemporary preference for bitter over sour beers, but at least there are now numerous breweries experimenting with sour beer styles, and even uncovering some forgotten sour styles like Grätzer. The aim of resuscitating old, historical beer styles invariably produces debates about what the “real” or “authentic” style might have tasted like. The implicit fallacy, as recently discussed by Jeff Alworth, is that most beer styles were not made from scratch to conform to some kind of Platonic Ideal; beer styles often have a chaotic past and keep evolving, although it can be admitted that some styles have a more complicated and confusing past than others. The best brewery in the world, Cantillon, is an interesting example of the interplay of tradition and innovation. Cantillon is extremely traditionalist (non-interventionist) in its approach to brewing but also has an interesting record in experimentation with (or beyond) the lambic style, from the use of 100% malted barley and dry hopping (Cantillon Iris) to blending lambic and natural wine (Cantillon Pinot D’Aunis).

In closing, it is interesting to draw some attention to one of the unorthodox aspects of Berliner Weisse brewing; the no-boil (or short boil) method. Not boiling the wort can confer (or enhance) a number of characteristics of the beer; a lighter color, a “raw” dough character, cloudiness, reduced hop bitterness, participation of wild yeast and bacteria, and more sourness.  The no-boil method is now almost exclusively associated with the Berliner style but has a more varied history (it used to be a popular method in Norwegian brewing, too), a topic that will be treated in more detail in the future.

Gin barrel aging of beer

One of the most interesting developments in the Pacific Northwest has been the increasing popularity of gin barrel aging of beer. In particular, gin barrel aging of sour beers produces an interesting combination. This should not be surprising. Whereas whiskey, bourbon, and rum barrels can confer an overwhelming, “oppressive” note to beer (which is not always unwelcome, as in the case of imperial stouts), the pale ales and sour beers usually require a lighter approach, and the herbal and dry character of gin is an obvious choice in theory. In practice, the choice to age a beer in gin barrels is not so obvious because gin usually is not produced or aged in barrels.

The origins of gin go back to Dutch jenever (genever), a juniper-based spirit from which gin originated. Supposedly the tradition of adding juniper berries to distilled malt wine was to mask the poor flavor. When distillation methods improved, the use of juniper berries and other herbs was retained and jenever has been a popular drink in the Netherlands and Belgium since. Contemporary jenever can range from industrial neutral “jonge jenever” made with whopping amounts of sugar and juniper extract to authentic “oude jenever” made from 100% grain and fermented juniper berries, aged in barrels (unfortunately, modern oude jenever is often colored and sweetened with caramel). Naturally, only the rarer practice of using wood aging in jenever and gin produce barrels suitable for barrel aging of beer.

There are at least three approaches in which gin (or jenever) and beer can meet. Gin can be blended with beer, such as in the making of beer cocktails. Beer can be brewed with juniper berries and herbs that are typically used for gin to give a gin-like property to beer. Finally, beer can be aged in used gin barrels to impart the flavor of gin during barrel aging of beer. I will leave a treatment of beer cocktails to the side except to note that I once got reasonably interesting results from mixing gin and a pale ale (one needs to experiment a little for arriving at the right proportion). Distillerie Claeyssens de Wambrechies in France actually makes a top fermented beer blended with gin during the brewing process called La Wambrechies.

In Oregon, Rogue Ales makes a Juniper Pale Ale that has some subtle gin connotations. Of much greater interest is Rogue’s limited John John Juniper, which is aged in spruce gin barrels. Unlike Rogue’s regular Juniper Pale Ale, this beer had an unmistakable dry and spicy gin character. Another beer that was inspired by gin is Midnight Sun’s Bathtub Gin Gruit Ale.

But the most interesting application of gin barrel aging, in my opinion, is for wild and sour ales. Gin barrel aging can greatly enhance the aroma and taste of sour beer. Lambic is traditionally associated with the use of fruit but brews such as Cantillon’s Mamouche show impressive results for blending herbs into sour beers.

One of the pioneers in gin barrel aging of beers, and sour beers in particular, is Portland’s Upright Brewing. Aside from being the most innovative sour beer brewery in Portland to date, Upright has done gin barrel aging for a number of its beers using Ransom Old Tom Gin barrels. In fact, Upright seems to like the idea of a meeting between beer and gin so much that they brewed a special beer to be matched with Dutch jenever called Kopstootje Biere. Kopstootje is a Bière de Garde made with the same botanicals as Bols Genever. This beer was launched to great enthusiasm at special pub events where it was consumed in a challenging one-two punch with jenever, according to Dutch ritual.

Other recent and upcoming gin-inspired and gin barrel aged releases include Breakside’s Gin-Barrel Double Wit, Soursop Wheat, Citra Gin IPA, and Simcoe Gin IPA; Ninkasi’s Ransom Old Tom Gin Wood Barrel Aged Maiden the Shade; Oakshire’s Gin Barrel Saison and Gin Barrel Aged Imperial Overcast Stout; some beers in B’ United’s Zymatore series; and Stillwater’s Artisanal Kopstootje.

One of the common observations about beers that have been aged in gin barrels is that the aromatic properties this procedure confers tend to produce some variability in detection. There is little information to date how the “gin” character of gin barrel aged beer evolves over time. For example, I recently sampled a bottle of Belmont Station’s 14th Anniversary Commemorative Ale and Upright’s Special Herbs (a gruit aged in Old Tom Gin barrels) and I could not detect much gin character — in the case of Upright’s beer less than I recall originally tasting on tap. In the case of Rogue’s John John Juniper I was struck by the difference in gin character between the bottled and draft version. Such observations about gin barrel aged beers are not confined to my own, and I have read similar statements from other people. These complexities notwithstanding, gin barrel aging and brewing with traditional jenever herbs offer great potential for producing exceptional sour beers and lambics.

Wild Yeast

Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff’s Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation is a thorough review of the subject of yeast, with the practical (home)brewer in mind. It is mostly a treatment of commercial brewer’s yeast but there are some interesting observations about wild yeast, too. The authors define wild yeast as yeast “that is not in the brewer’s control.” For example, commercial Brettanomcyes is not wild yeast but native strains of Saccharomyces that (unintentionally) are introduced during cooling of the wort or barrel aging would be. Of course, today’s commercial strains of Brettanomyces may still have a lot in common with yeasts that are found in the wild, but one could imagine a scenario where the use of Brettanomyces becomes so popular that commercial yeast sellers increasingly select these strains for certain properties. As a consequence, wild yeast is not characterized by its aroma and flavor properties (such as tartness or funkiness) but by its involvement in (ambient) spontaneous fermentation.

There are a number of distinct traits that have been retained in wild yeast. Wild yeasts are usually diploid, form spores, and are still capable of mating. Commercial yeast, in contrast, has lost this ability because mainstream brewers desire consistent characteristics from their yeast. Wild yeast usually has low flocculation, which can produce higher attenuation because the yeasts will not quickly drop or rise in the wort. In commercial yeast, however, such a property is not desirable for many beer styles, where a quick and clean beer is the goal.  Unlike wild yeasts, which have evolved to compete against each other, commercial yeast can often co-exist and ferment at similar rates.

The book also includes sections on Brettanomyces and capturing wild yeast. Although the name Dekkera is often used interchangeably with Brettanomyces, it is only Brettanomyces that is of the non-spore forming type. One of the intriguing things about Brettanomyces, much to the chagrin of wine makers, is that it produces the enzyme Beta-glucosidase, which can convert the wood sugar cellobiose into glucose, a phenomenon that is more prevalent in new barrels that have higher concentrations of cellobiose. Brettanomyces is quite sensitive to oxygen, with moderate concentrations most favorable to its growth, and lower and higher concentrations, unfavorable. Increased oxygen produces more acetic acid as a fermentation product.

Instead of inoculating wort with commercial Brett, some (home)brewers aim to capture real wild yeast for fermentation. There is no shortage of methods for doing this, including ambient exposure of the wort, fermentation in “infected” barrels, the use of wild fruit and herbs to start fermentation, or using dregs from the bottles of traditional lambic brewers. Of course, such methods usually introduce souring bacteria as well, and the art is to discover and perfect a method that leads to consistent, favorable outcomes. Because many brewers prefer not to waste multiple batches of wort on spontaneous fermentation experiments, and the yeast captured in the wild may not be sufficient to start a healthy fermentation, one approach is to create ambient spontaneous starters (there is a lot of information about creating conventional starters in the book). At this stage, such efforts are still largely the work of some adventurous (home)brewers, and documentation of such efforts is still in its early stages (the Mad Fermentationist blog is an excellent resource). In the case of spontaneous starters it is important to avoid sampling at an early stage, where aerobic conditions, higher pH, and low alcohol still permit the presence of dangerous pathogens.

Because the book is mostly written for brewers who have control over their yeast and fermentation, a lot of information is not completely applicable to brewers who use spontaneous fermentation or incorporate spontaneous fermentation. But there is some information that is interesting for “wild” brewers as well. For example, proper wort aeration is important for healthy yeast growth but brewers who use barrels for (primary) fermentation may have problems in getting enough dissolved oxygen at the start of fermentation. The authors report on a New Belgium method where olive oil was added to the wort to supply the sterols that yeast cell membranes require for proper structure and function. One also wonders how the use of coolships (with their large surface to volume ratio) influences initial wort aeration. Temperature is another topic that affects conventional brewers as well as those using wild yeast. As far as I am aware, traditional lambic brewing does not necessarily exclude temperature control, but I think it is safe to assume that most fermenting lambic wort is subject to substantial seasonal and overnight temperature changes that would be contra-indicated for conventional brewers (Cantillon’s Jean-Pierre Van Roy once looked horrified when I asked him about active temperature control). It would be quite helpful to quantify and characterize the effect of ambient temperature fluctuations on wild yeast and bacterial growth, fermentation, and flavor.

Much of the information on yeast growth, handling, storage, and labs is not applicable to spontaneous fermentation but some of the techniques (such as wild yeast tests and forced fermentation) can be used by adventurous brewers to study wild yeast and the conditions that influence spontaneous fermentation. Ultimately, there is an increasing need for an extensive book treatment on (home)brewing with non-conventional and wild yeast. Modifying or ignoring (!) procedures for brewing with domesticated yeast will only take you so far, and the homebrew recipes that can be found in some classic lambic and wild beer books give little guidance about expected fermentation behavior and troubleshooting. Of course, no matter how much our knowledge about spontaneous fermentation grows, beer that is produced in this way will always have more variability than beer that is produced with domesticated yeast under highly controlled conditions. But this is also one of its strengths, and like authentic wine, can lead to surprising results. Many readers of this blog will agree that the best beer in this world remains a product of spontaneous fermentation. If you brew conventional beer in addition to wild beer, Yeast is an invaluable resource.