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.