Geuze en humanisme

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 We do now know that this is not entirely correct and this view has been replaced by the more modest perspective that spontaneous fermentation expresses the regional microflora and the Brussels area is quite favorable for the production of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,
Het Kelderken,
De Sleutelplas,
Den ouden Sinte Pieter,
Het Spinnekopken,
De Drijpikkel,
Het Vossegat,
Bij het Varken,
Bij den Bult,
De Windmuts,
Den Spaanschen Bempt,
Het Huis van Oostenrijk,
In den Hazenwind,
Het Stroblommeke van Papier,
Den grooten Hof van den
ouden edelen Handboog,
De Roskam,
Den ouden spijtigen Duivel,
De Spanuit,
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!


Piquette and the lambik stoemper

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.


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.


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.


Gueuze blender Pierre Tilquin

The Belgian beer blog Hier Stroomt het Bier! has an extensive photo report on the birth of a new Gueuze blender from Bierghes in the French speaking part of Belgium (Walloons). Brewer Pierre Tilquin, who has learned the skills of traditional lambic brewing at 3 Fonteinen and Cantillon, expects to release his first Gueuze in mid-2011.  Lambics are obtained from Boon, Lindemans, Girardin, and Cantillon (the first time this brewer is making its lambic available for blending) and will be aged in used Crozes-Hermitage of Cornas barrels.