Sometimes legitimate concerns about modern techniques and manipulation of beer and wine leave the impression that in the good old days people routinely drank and demanded the real stuff. In the case of wine this is highly doubtful. As Patrick Mathews writes in his book Real Wine: The Rediscovery of Natural Winemaking:
Since time immemorial wine has been an expensive drink…The historian Theodore Zeldin describes how until well into the 19th century, real wine was drunk only by the well off; the working class settled for the piquette, which was made by adding sufficient sugar to the crushed skins and pips left over after winemaking, to enable them to re-ferment.
In the case of beer, it is undoubtedly the case that for ages natural fermentation played an important role in brewing. But this fact by itself does not imply that these beers were invariably good and preferable to many of today’s more manipulated beers.
It is quite reasonable to assume that older generations of (Belgian) beer drinkers may have had a higher tolerance for “sour” beers, but the existence of the (in)famous lambik stoemper (an iron flat disk attached to a handle to crush and dissolve sugar into the beer) raises questions. For example, were the people who used the lambik stoemper as smitten with sweet beers as today’s youth? Or were these lambics so acidic that even today’s traditional lambic connoisseurs would be tempted to reach for the lambik stoemper? It’s hard to tell. There may be a few very old lambic vintages left but it is hard to know for sure how these ancient lambics actually tasted.
It is interesting to note how different writers report on the use of the lambik stoemper. Jean-Xavier Guinard (corroborated by Cantillon) writes that the lambik stoemper was usually presented with a small dish and two lumps of sugar to sweeten a Kriek. Jeff Sparrow and Jef van den Steen discuss the use of the stoemper to sweeten lambic and geuze in general, although van den Steen mentions that this practice was more common among the occasional lambic drinker and was met with loathing among real geuze drinkers. I personally have never seen a lambik stoemper being presented to a beer drinker and never felt in need of one (although aged kriek can get quite sour, indeed).
Interestingly, one theory about the thick bottom of the classic geuze glass has it that it allowed for the crushing action of the lambik stoemper. However, van der Steen mentions that it also allowed the pub owner to poor less lambic per glass! Again, before pub owners started fooling around with the definition of a “pint” there was a lot of shady business going on in the world of lambic, too. Perhaps I should say, especially in the world of lambic, because lambic allows for all kinds of blending and sweetening tricks to cover up problems. Faro in particular has been known as a vehicle to rip off the customer – something that often went unnoticed with the stereotypical heavy-drinking Faro consumer…
It is now well established that manipulation of alcohol beverages (and the demand for them) is almost as old as making the beverages themselves – just like the concept of theft is almost as old as the concept of property. The real difference is that before the advance of modern beer and wine technologies, the manipulation consisted of misleading the public or cheapening the product using natural means such as the blending of cheap wine with good wine. This does not mean that there is no case to be made for real wine or beer. As the near-disappearance of traditional lambic brewing shows, modern developments can completely overwhelm good practices – resulting in mediocre and distasteful products.
I should close by noting that the word stoemper is not likely to disappear soon due to the existence of De Lambikstoempers, a local Belgian beer organization that was formed in 1999 in the Halle region in the Pajottenland. Not surprisingly, de Lambikstoempers are known for their support and promotion of traditional lambic brewing and their involvement in the Toer de Geuze events. Not only does their logo feature the lambik stoemper, the person who is standing on the rim of the glass is Lambik, the famous character from the Flemish Suske en Wiske cartoon – the writer of those cartoons, Willy Vandersteen, was a dedicated geuze drinker.