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).

 

 


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.


Ordonnantie van 1560

One of the pleasant surprises for those who utilized the HORAL buses during the 2011 edition of Toer de Geuze is that the organizers distributed a reproduction of the 1560 Halle ordinance for lambic brewing. The accounting document that includes the ordinance does not explicitly refer to “lambic” yet, but the proportions of grains and the fact that all historical beers involved spontaneous fermentation prompted researchers to establish a link to modern lambic. This 1560 text (1559, according to other sources) was discovered by Médard-Jules Van den Weghe in 1930 but it was not until 1971 that the link to lambic was made by Marcel Franssens in the journal “Verhandelingen van de KGOKH.” Since it was custom to include older ordinances in the accounting books there is good reason to assume that the ordinance itself is much older than 1560, going back to at least 1400.

The ordinance concerns two issues: enforcement of decrees concerning the required amount of grain in wort and specification of the proper proportion of wheat and barley.

The original French text is as follows:

Item Est statue et ordonne pour le plus grant prouffit de la ville que doresanvant on brassera keute et houppe sur le pegele et selon la valleur des grains ainsy que lon est acoustume de vielz temps. Et qui brassera oultre le pegele tel fourfera une amende de vi L ts pour la premiere fois et ne porra faire son mestier durant lespace de xl jours. Et la cervoise quon trouvera estre brassee plus q’le peghele contient seroit confisquie au prouffit du Sr. Et pour le seconde fois sur lamende de xn L ts Et pour la me fois sur paine destre prive du mestier a la volente du Sr. De laquelle amende le Sr auera ung tierch. L autre tierch sera au prouffit de la ville. Et lautre tierch au prouffit du Rapporteur. Et polre les maltoteurs aller avec le peghelere sil leur plaist pour enquerir et scavoir si laditte cervoise est brassee trop longhe. Que les brasseurs qui voldront enthoner leur cervoise ilz fourferront lamende de XV S ts pour chune fois au prouffit du Sr. Et le peghelere sera creu par son serment tant de lamende cue de la cervoise et leike.
Item Que nul sadvance de faire de bree sans y mettre xvi Rxes de grains Assauvoir vi Rxes de fourment et x Rxes dorge et dave qui font ensamble xvi Rxes ainsi quon a este acoustume du temps passet pour le faire mesurer dedens le moulin quant on sera requis par le mayeur et eschevins.

The last part of this ordinance concerns the proportion of wheat and barley.

The relevant passage to lambic brewing is (my translation):

Nobody shall make a wort without 16 raziers of grain, 6 raziers of wheat and 10 raziers of wheat and oat, in total 16 razieren, according to custom and to be measured in the mill upon request from the major and the members of the municipal executive.

A “razier” is an old unit for measuring grain corresponding to 50 liters and the ratio of 37.5% wheat to 62.5% barley corresponds roughly to today’s lambic brewing practice and regulations, which require a minimum of 30% wheat. Also note the mention of “oat” in the ordinance.

The reproduction of the ordinance that was distributed at Toer de Geuze 2011 is double printed and contains some information about the historical context and significance of the ordinance in four languages.

I am reproducing the English text here:

OLD GEUZE-LAMBIC

Over 600 years of tradition and quality

Authentic old Lambic beers

The ordinances required for a clear understanding of the recorded revenue were written down in the old accounting books. The obligation to brew exclusively in a controlled fashion with regards to quantity, kinds and proportions of cereal grains applied, had a direct impact on the revenue of the lord. In dire times of war such quality obligations were temporarily lifted. Later, such as in 1560, when the former quality regulations were again enforced, this became apparent in the revenue, and the ordiance was reminded in the books.

Old examples of negotiations about the enforcement of the old prescription are found in the accounting books of the city of Halle, dating back to the years 1400 and 1402. This means that the regulations are much older. In 1400 Albert, duke in Bavaria, was also count of Hainaut-Holland-Zeeland. Perhaps Bavaria drew inspiration from the Halle regulations for the later German “Reinheitsgebot” (purity law, 1516) on beer brewing.

Pajottenland & Senne valley: home of the authentic old lambic beers

The city of Halle is the urban centre of the “Pajottenland & Zennevallei” region, just south of Brussels. Lambic brewing is strongly related to the application of an important portion of wheat. The starch contained in wheat is very slowly converted into sugars and subsequently into alcohol. This starch constitutes the breeding ground for the yeast cultures required for the highly specific lambic maturation which can take several years. This process yields a very special beer which can be kept for a long time and whose taste even improves with overtime. The economic and natural conditions required for the production of such a prized product can only be found in fertile agricultural areas in the vicinity of a metropolitan selling market and are needed in order to survive the economic crises for a millennium.

European protection

Ever since 21.1.1997 lambic beer denominations have been protected within the European Union for beers which are produced in accordance with the traditional recipe and the principles of craftsmanship – albeit modified to accommodate current regulations, of course.


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.