One of the nice things about Portland’s The Commons Brewery is its emphasis on (low alcohol) farmhouse ales and sours. I recently visited their tasting room and enjoyed most of their offerings and would only classify their Berliner Weisse as a “work in progress” (not lactic enough). The beer that intrigued me the most was Eidolon, a limited release in the “Beetje Series” (referring to the nano-brewery that gave rise to The Commons Brewery). Eidolon is a collaborative sour farmhouse ale with meyer lemon juice and peel, jasmine green tea and flowers, and New Zealand hallertau hops, matured in red wine barrels with two strains of brettanomyces. This beer has an ABV of 7.5%. and I tasted it on September 16, 2012.
Poured in a De Cam geuze glass, the beer has a deep golden/amber color, is surprisingly clear, and even a relatively vigorous pour only produced a little head, which dissipated quickly. The aroma is lactic and fruity with some sweetness. The lactic aroma is nicely complemented by a modest Brett-induced barnyard character. The taste initially reflects this sweet and sour aroma but there is a lot more going on here, most notably an unusual but pleasant earthy ‘dark’ licorice flavor (flowers?) that ends in a fairly long finish. I have a hard time characterizing this finish; it could be the tea, the hops, something else, or all of them. I am also reminded of drinking a good barrel-aged dry cider but did not notice much astringency. The beer has a medium but slightly sticky mouthfeel and very low carbonation. In fact, I would argue that the carbonation is really on the low side for any kind of beer style except unblended straight lambic. Perhaps the brewers wanted to err on the side of caution with the two added strains of brettanomyces.
This was really a nice, and positively unusual, concoction. Using sour beers as a vehicle for botanicals opens a world of unlimited possibilities, provided it is executed with knowledge and skill. One thing that is hard to improve upon is the label (more information here). If the style and ingredients list would not have pulled me in, the beautiful label would have done it. I am definitely looking forward to tasting more (sour) brews by The Commons Brewery. And if you like going to the Upright tasting room, there is a good chance you will like going to the Commons tasting room, too.
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,
Den ouden Sinte Pieter,
Bij het Varken,
Bij den Bult,
Den Spaanschen Bempt,
Het Huis van Oostenrijk,
In den Hazenwind,
Het Stroblommeke van Papier,
Den grooten Hof van den
ouden edelen Handboog,
Den ouden spijtigen Duivel,
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!
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).
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.).