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)…


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).

 

 


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.


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.