Notes on Toer de Geuze 2011

For the second time in a row I attended the biennial Toer de Geuze event in Belgium. During one day, all lambic brewers and geuze blenders that are part of HORAL (with the exception of Girardin) open their doors to the public. If you decide to do the tour by tour bus you cannot visit all locations and must make a selection. In 2009 I opted for the most traditional brewers and blenders with the exception of geuze blender De Cam. This year I skipped Hanssens (which is among my favorites) and visited De Cam. I also substituted De Troch for Mort Subite. A selection of photos that I took prior to and during the event can be seen here.

Like 2009, all buses were completely booked in advance — although there were some empty seats due to some people not being able to attend or arriving late. The major advantage of doing the tour by bus is that it permits one to sample the products of all the brewers and blenders without having to be concerned about drinking and driving. Since I had attended the Toer de Geuze before, I wondered how much there was to gain from attending two of them in a row. Having seen most of the breweries and blenders now, I am inclined to say that one gets most of the benefits from the first visit. But there were three things that stood out for me during the most recent edition.

First, it seemed quite a bit busier than the previous tour. This was later corroborated when I saw a news item on Belgian television noting this was the best attended Toer de Geuze to date (they estimated more than 10,000 visitors). As a matter of fact, the crowd at 3 Fonteinen was a little excessive in my opinion. Admittedly, in most cases there is not a whole lot the organizers and breweries can do about this and it simply reflects the growing popularity of traditional geuze — which is an exciting development. Since the event seems to confer meaningful benefits to the brewers and blenders involved, making this an annual event might provide some relief.

I have always been aware that many of the sweetened and faux fruit lambics still involve traditional techniques and equipment during the initial stages in order to conform with rules concerning use of the word lambic. But seeing the beautiful brewery, equipment and barrels at De Troch it really struck me how strange it is to see these breweries jumping through many of the same time-consuming hoops as the traditional breweries and then to manipulate (some might say ruin) the final product to make it confirm to contemporary taste. In their defense, many of these brewers would like to make a traditional product and the tour guide at De Troch indicated that the pendulum may be swinging in favor of tradition again.

The biggest surprise awaited me at Boon. Boon had scheduled to brew (or continue to brew) during the event and at one point I found myself staring into the boiling wort with a sublime view of an adjacent coolship. Regular readers of this blog know that I am not the biggest fan of Boon and I have been quite disappointed with most of their products. There is a lack of tartness plus a substantial bitterness (not to mention the often excessive carbonation) in most of their beers, including their two traditional geuzes, that does not resonate with me.  I was therefore not prepared for the excellent old (unblended) lambic that was served for free to the visitors. Some writers have alluded to the oxidized / sherry / Vin Jaune-like qualities of old lambic, but I do not recall having tasted a sample that captured those qualities so well as Boon’s. As far as I am concerned, Boon should just leave their lambic as-is and bottle it after 3, 4, or 5 years! More realistically, they could at least consider bottling some of their aged lambic for the consumer.

Not much later, I found myself  again admiring a Boon product when I (reluctantly) ordered a glass of their Mariage Parfait Kriek 2008. True to form, Boon’s attempt to make a state of the art Kriek did not depart from their low-tartness approach, but in this case it worked for me. After sampling a lot of different krieks during the previous weeks, I noticed a fascinating deep vinous quality to this kriek, more reminiscent of some of the wines I drink than beer.  After these truly unexpected surprises, I made the revolutionary decision to purchase two 375 ml bottles of this Boon release, which I hope to review in conjunction with 3 Fonteinen’s Schaerbeekse Kriek.

Later that day I was tempted to purchase the 5 (!) liter bag-in-a-box Oud Beersel young lambic but restrained myself from doing so by considering the logistical challenges of taking it with me back to the United States. One nice feature of this year’s event is that I had more time to visit the Pajottenland area. Highlights included seeing the old, now inactive, Eylenbosch brewery in Schepdaal (where I spotted a big Toer de Geuze sign) and having dinner at De Heeren van Liedekercke. This restaurant completely deserves its reputation as offering the best beer-based cooking in the Brussels region and they have, by far, the most impressive vintage lambic / geuze / kriek list that I have ever seen in my life (not too mention a breathtaking number of Orval vintages).


Geuze en kriek: de champagne onder de bieren

One of the reasons for starting this blog was that, as a native Dutch speaker, I would be able to review and consult (historical) Dutch documents about traditional lambic brewing and share this information with English readers. In the coming months I will be reviewing a number of Dutch (Flemish) books about lambic brewing. The first review concerns the book Geuze en kriek: de champagne onder de bieren by Jef van den Steen. Geuze and Kriek was published in 2006 by Uitgeverij Davidsfonds in Leuven (with support of the province of Vlaams Brabant) as a large format “coffee table” book and covers the history and production of lambic beers and their producers and concludes with a chapter on cooking with lambic. The book is lavishly illustrated and includes some of the most beautiful color photography ever collected in a book about beer.

Geuze en kriek starts with a long and engaging historical treatment of the history of beer brewing in the Brussels area and the development of lambic brewing in particular. The author mentions that even in the original Reinheitsgebot there is no mention of the addition of yeast. Also of interest is the large role that rye played in medieval brewing in West-Brabant. These chapters gave me a better understanding of the fact that the history of brewing in Belgium was not a straightforward change from spontaneous fermentation to the domination of bottom-fermented beers, but a complex interplay of natural forces (such as the Little Ice Age), particular circumstances, and regulatory and trade policies.

Contrary to popular opinion, traditional lambic brewing did not exclusively rely on aged hops but utilized fresh hops as well, preferably in a 50%/50% proportion. The addition of fresh hops was possible because some local hop varieties, such as Coigneau, contained low alpha-acids and thus added little to the bitterness of the resulting brew. With the growing popularity of hop-driven bottom-fermented beers, the demand for such low bitterness hop varieties declined and traditional lambic breweries were forced to utilize 100% aged hops to prevent the beer from becoming too bitter – an undesirable characteristic in lambic brewing (for a notable exception, see Cantillon’s Iris). The author also mentions that the spontaneously fermented low gravity beer meerts excludes the  presence of brettanomyces – a claim that I had not read before. The meerts wort was cooked much longer (twelve to fifteen hours) than that destined to become lambic, after which it was transferred to barrels for spontaneous fermentation and storage. Meerts was the cheapest beer of the lambic family, followed by faro and lambic, and consumed as a session beer, or as a beer for children (!) and ladies, and was also served in hospitals and homes for the elderly. Today’s readers of these facts should keep in mind that in those days beer was greatly preferred to water, due to the the lack of clean and healthy water.  As mentioned by other writers on the history of lambic brewing, the immensely popular sweetened lambic called faro was often abused as the vehicle to produce beers of dubious composition, including beers with no or little contribution from spontaneous fermentation.

Baudelaire was not the only writer who composed poetry about faro. As a response to the distinct aversion of Baudelaire to faro, the Parisian journalist Vaughan composed a tribute to faro in 1875 that was even sung by children in Mechelen when it rained:

‘t Gaat regenen, ‘t gaat regenen
‘t Gaat regenen dat het giet,
En als we gene faro hebben
Dan drinken wij lambik!

Which can be loosely translated as:

It’s going to rain, it’s going to rain
It will be raining cats and dogs
And if there is no faro
Then we will drink lambic

Promotion of geuze as a health drink is a common theme in the lambic literature. Jef van den Steen describes the mayor of Brussels writing in 1941 “…I am recovering from a serious illness and to get me back on my feet again my doctor advises me to drink a glass of geuze every day, or even better, a glass of kriek.” He adds that the mayor was by no means the only one in those days of great scarcity who procured his geuze through a doctor’s recommendation. The chapter on geuze also has a useful list of geuze blenders that still existed after 1975 with their date of closing:

1986: Van Malder in Anderlecht;
1981: Moriau in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw (produced until 1992 by De Neve in Schepdaal and by Boon in Lembeek until the present day);
1980: Wets in Sint-Genesius-Rode (produced until 1993 by Girardin in Sint-Ulriks-Kapelle);
1978: De Koninck & Proost in Dworp and Arthur Troch in Schepdaal (produced for some years at Lindemans);
1997: De Koninck in Dworp, De Vidts in Lembeek (succeeded by Boon), de Vidts in Asse en Van den Houtte in Groot Bijgaarden;
1976: Mosselmans in Dworp.

The chapter on fruit lambics contains a lot of information on the history of fruit and kriek production in the Brussels region and the challenges traditional lambic brewers faced to obtain adequate amounts of  suitable fruit for their beer production. The kriek and raspberry lambics are by far the most popular fruits for traditional fruit lambic production but grapes (Cantillon and one 3 Fonteinen experiment) and strawberries (Hanssens) have been used as well. Over time the use of fruit in lambics became a mixed blessing because the growing popularity of (sweetened) fruit beers often altered the production methods and products of traditional lambic brewers, in some cases making their product almost unrecognizable as traditional lambic products. The popularity of faro, and the use of the “lambikstoemper’ to crush added sugar in lambic, indicates that there was always a demand for sweetened lambics and today’s  fruit lambics have replaced faro as the preferred product to depart from traditional lambic brewing.

The profiles of individual producers are rich with information on the traditional and not so traditional lambic brewers and geuze blenders. The history of Belle-Vue is an almost uninterrupted, and unfortunately, quite successful, mission to sweeten, filter and pasteurize the traditional product.  As of spring 2011, Belle-Vue and Cantillon are the only lambic producers that are not part of  the High Council of Lambic Beers, Horal, but for completely opposite reasons. Whereas Cantillon pursues a uncompromising approach to lambic production, Belle-Vue seems to have lost all touch with tradition. The section on Boon is surprisingly short, with an emphasis on the history of the producer without much discussion of its beers and relationships with other traditional lambic brewers in the region.

Some lambic writers mention the  harsher character of the older Cantillon products and van den Steen attributes this to the prior practice of using an open tank (geilkuip), closing of the barrels at the end of the brewing season (as opposed to 14 days after transfer now), and the use of a wooden blending tank. The chapter on De Keersmaeker (now known for its Mort Surbite beers) mentions the development of the ‘methode-DKZ’, conceived by Jacques de Keersmaecker, in which the wort is not transferred to a traditional coolship but, after cooling it with a heat exchanger, transferred to stainless steel tanks that do not contain CO2 but ambient air, further aerated with ambient air, to produce spontaneous fermentation. One advantage of this method is that it allows for year-round brewing of lambic.

The Mort Subite family of beers is not known for its traditional qualities but the brewery has now added a more authentic oude geuze and an oude kriek to its line-up as well. The profile of 3 Fonteinen that outlines the transition from cafe / restaurant / geuze blender to cafe / restaurant / geuze blender / brewer was written before the costly 2009 exploding bottles accident, the brief termination of its brewing activities and the recent resuscitation of its brewing activities. The section on Girardin is particularly helpful as the operations of this family brewer are mostly closed to the general public.

The story of Hanssens remains one of the finest examples of the continuation of traditional  lambic blending; until this day Hanssens (which is a part-time endeavor) uses traditional methods and archaic equipment (such as the manual cleaning and drying of bottles and the use of a wooden stick to blend the lambics). This has not prevented them from agreeing to a number of  interesting experiments such as the production of strawberry lambic and even a blend of lambic and mead. The section about spontaneously fermented beers from West Flanders contains some interesting information on the differences between lambic and the Flemish browns and reds. For connoisseurs of traditional lambic, there is not much of interest going on here, I think.

The final chapter has a number of recipes and profiles of the 3 Fonteinen, De Heeren van Liederkercke and De Witte Roos restaurants. The last two pages of the book feature a stunning full color impressionistic photo of lambic in a coolship.

Geuze and Kriek is a  fascinating book about the history and practice of lambic brewing that has enough detail to double as a reference work. The beautiful photography might even tempt English speakers to purchase it. For a fuller technical description of the lambic brewing process the reader should consult Jeff Sparrow’s Wild Brews. Tim Webb’s LambicLand includes a very comprehensive run-down of all the contemporary lambic products from individual producers.


LambicLand

Just published is the second edition of LambicLand, a labor of love and extremely useful guide to the world of lambic. The new (English only) edition has three important elements rolled into one 128 page-long book: an introduction to the spontaneously fermented beers of the Payottenland, a complete overview of all the lambic brewers / geuze blenders and their beers, and a section on lambic tourism. The authors (Tim Webb, Chris Pollard and Siobhan McGinn) strike a thoughtful balance between understanding the commercial incentives to produce fake sweet lambics and the importance of preserving tradition and using the renewed (international) interest in lambic brewing to return to tradition. With the exception of the awful Belle-Vue brewery, I get the impression that many of the quasi-traditional lambic brewers are interested in returning to the more authentic styles and adding more “oude” and unsweetened lambics to their year-round bottled beers. Also encouraging is the rise of new gueuze blenders like Gueuzerie Tilquin. The only sad information in the book is 3 Fonteinen’s retrograde movement from brewer back to blender as a result of a number of unfortunate events. Surely, something can be done about this!

Even a rabid lambic fanatic as myself found some interesting tidbits of information that I was not aware of such as the origin of the word Brettanomyces, the story behind Boon’s Oude Geuze Mariage Parfait, and Hanssens’s memorable but exploding Mead the Geuze bottles. For friends of lambic beer, the most useful part is the tourism section with a comprehensive list of lambic-friendly pubs, museums, shops and hotels.

As the United States is drawing closer to producing real spontaneously fermented beers, a discussion about what should be called a lambic beer will  be inevitable at some point.  As I read it, the authors seem to agree that the survival of traditional lambic brewing may depend on the freedom to use the lambic label for all beers that are made in the traditional way employing spontaneous fermentation. Considering what is at stake, I do not see any reason to disagree, and hopefully some non-Belgian traditional lambics will be featured in a future edition of the book.

If you are interested in lambic beer, or unique beer history in general, purchase a copy of this information-rich, color illustrated book and use it during your next trip to Belgium.


Avery Fifteen and Ommegang Ommegeddon

Avery Anniversary Ale Fifteen and Ommegang Ommegeddon have one thing in common; the use of brettanomyces yeast. What makes the Avery Fifteen stand apart from the Ommegang Ommegeddon beer is that it was fermented with 100% brettanomyces and various herbs and spices. Depending on how strict one wants to be about the hops (Sterling), Avery Fifteen can be characterized as a wild yeast gruit.  The beer was brewed with Rocky Mountain water, malted barley, malted wheat, hops, black mission figs, hibiscus flowers, white peppers and a “very unique strain of brettanomyces.” Rumor has it that this strain of brettanomyces comes from the Belgian lambic brewer 3 Fonteinen. Avery 15 pours a golden blond with a thin head. A beautiful aroma of soft brett, fruit, oranges and spices. Taste of fig, flowers, pickles, pepper, and, of course, the characteristic taste of a brett-fermented beer. The beer smells sweeter as it warms up. The finish has a lingering pepper note. Overall, I preferred the aroma to the taste because there was one dominant note in the taste that I did not like all that much. Perhaps the pepper is somewhat overdone as well. But as it goes with such beers, this is highly subjective.

The Ommegang Ommegeddon beer is quite mild in comparison, in the positive sense of the word. The blond / sunset orange appearance is quite appealing. It has a light citrus aroma and the brett is less prominent than in the Avery Fifteen. As a matter of fact, the best way to characterize this beer is by its overall mildness.  The brett, citrus and hops combine to produce a very pleasant balanced beer with a dry finish. If it was not for the relatively higher, but well hidden, alcohol (8%), limited availability, and price, I would recommend this as a great session beer! Ommegang Ommegeddon is not a 100% brettanomyces beer, as the brettanomyces were added during secondary fermentation. In a sense, this procedure is more “natural” because spontaneous fermentation also involves various yeasts. That is not to say that 100% brett beers are inherently inferior. It all depends on what other properties a brewer adds to such a beer (souring bacteria, herbs, hops, fruits etc). The rich history of gruits suggests numerous possibilities.


Jeff Sparrow on wild brews

Jeff Sparrow’s Wild Brews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewer’s Yeast is a major contribution to the literature on lambic beer. In this book the author does not only discuss traditional lambic but Flanders red ale, Flanders brown ale, and contemporary (American) wild ale as well. If anything, this book is testament that spontaneous fermentation and brewing with other yeasts then Saccharomyces is not dead.

After being introduced by New Belgium’s Peter Bouckaert, the book starts off with the obligatory account of how the author became interested in the beers he  loves to write about. In this case the author is traveling in in Europe, ends up in Chez Moeder Lambic in Elsene, Belgium, orders a lambic “with some odd tropical fruit” and is told by the bartender to try Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus instead. This experience, and a later experience with a vintage bottle of Liefmans Goudenband (old recipe) set the stage for an enduring interest in the wild brews of Belgium.

The recovery of traditional lambic and the movement to brew wild ales in other parts of the world raises the obvious question if lambic can be brewed anywhere else than Brussels and the Payottenland. Brewer Frank Boon reportedly said “you can’t” but Cantillon’s Jean-Pierre Van Roy  believes that spontaneously fermented beer can be brewed  in other places in the world. These answers are not mutually exclusive. If lambic beers are defined as spontaneously fermented beers that are brewed in Belgium’s Payottenland, it is evident that lambics cannot be brewed in any other part of the world. If the defining character of lambic is true spontaneous fermentation, all bets are off. And if lambic is defined solely by its flavor profile, the character of lambics can be approached by controlled fermentation with non-traditional yeasts and bacteria. In his book 1990 “Lambic”,  Jean-Xavier Guinard argues persuasively that the temptation to ride on the popularity of lambics should be resisted and that this label only needs to be used for the traditional brews of the Payottenland. On the other hand, when brewers in other parts of the world employ the authentic traditional techniques such non-Belgium lambics could help to save the tradition from extinction.

Sparrow devotes some effort to distinguish between Flanders red ales (sour ales), Flanders brown ales  (oud bruin) and lambics. In the case of lambics such distinctions are clear but the attempt to distinguish red ales from brown ales looks more challenging.  One cannot just tweak a little with another beer style and get a lambic but the dividing line between the Flanders ales can appear quite arbitrary, although one could mention that the the presence of Acetobacter sp.  contributes to the more pronounced presence of acetic acid in the reds. But reading his account of the Flanders sour ales, it seems that these beers are more vulnerable to disappear than lambics. This is ironic because modern examples of such beers are produced in ways that would be considered taking lazy shortcuts by traditional lambic standards. This raises the question of how the production of a traditional Flanders sour ale be distinguished from a traditional lambic, a topic that is discussed at various points in the book.

The history of wild brews is covered in some detail, including a brief discussion of the American Wild Ale style. Sparrow expands on the history of lambic brewing given in Guinard. As the author states, “lambic can lay claim to being the oldest existing beer style in the world”, its first written documentation going back to around 1320. The most infamous lambic variant must be faro, “the beer which is drunk twice”, a characterization that dates from the time that waste-polluted Senne River water was used to brew this sweet lambic. Discussing the practice of blending and diluting lambics, the author notes that some hint  “that the founder of the Belle-Vue lambic brewery-pub in Brussels was not well respected and produced his lambic with help from beer discarded from other breweries and  returned from cafes.”

Although most lambics that are consumed today are gueuze and fruit lambics, one hundred years ago 90% to 95% of lambics were sold straight. Lambic brewers Cantillon and De Cam have bottled unblended aged lambic, but it is not likely that this style will catch on beyond locals, a small group of lambic connoisseurs and perhaps some adventurous wine drinkers any time soon. Sparrow mentions that traditional lambic brewers consider  the differences between lambic and wine and between Gueuze and Champagne very small. Quite remarkably, the author also mentions that in Eastern Brabant the traditional white (wit) beers were produced by spontaneous fermentation as well. Fruit and herbs were often used in the production to balance the sourness of the beer. The addition of herbs has remained a staple of Belgian white beers such as Hoegaarden but the tradition of spontaneous fermentation has been abandoned.

The third chapter about drinking wild beer has lot of information (including a number of maps) about most of the major existing producers of traditional lambics and wild ales and  makes the book quite useful as a reference. There are also interesting tidbits of information about the evolution of some brewers, which often means the transition from a traditional product to something with more mass appeal (such as the reduction of aged beer in Rodenbach Classic to make it sweeter). This chapter really shines in its description of the traditional lambic brewers; their formation, history and brewing approach. Sparrow’s description of 3 Fonteinen’s unorthodox “temperature controlled” barrel stores has taken a completely different meaning since the 2009 disaster that cost the brewery most of its years product and contributed to DeBelder’s decision to stop brewing and return to blending. The United States is also discussed and includes some interesting information on smaller experiments with wild ales around the country. Also featured, of course, is Russian River, the California brewery that has done a lot to promote sour ales in the United States and who can give many Belgium brewers a run for their money.

The technical treatment of lambic brewing covers much of the same ground as Jean-Xavier Guinard’s 1990 book on the topic but adds a lot of interesting details, photos (including microscopy images) and tables.  In the case of Sparrow’s book there is, of course, also the technical treatment of the production of Flanders reds and browns. Most impressive, and somewhat of a neglected topic in Guinard’s book, is the extensive discussion of the characteristics, selection and maintenance of barrels, an element of traditional lambic brewing that requires a lot of expertise, which further adds to the mystique of lambic brewing. In his discussion of barrel choice, the author mentions the ability of some lambic connoisseurs to detect the original use of a “new” barrel in a blend.  Breweries such as Belle-Vue, Cantillon, and Oud Beersel also use chestnut barrels in addition to oak.

The technical and procedural treatment of lambic is completed with a chapter about blending, and that of Gueuze blending in particular. As the author notes: “Gueuze blending is an art. The traditional gueuze blender expresses himself using a liquid media the same way a painter uses paint and canvas.”

Wild Brews is great book for  lovers of traditional lambic.  Highly recommended.