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.


Wine for lambic drinkers

Let us look at some similarities between lambic beer and wine. First of all, there is presentation. Lambic beers are often sold in 750 ml champagne bottles with distinctive labels. For example, Cantillon bottles feature beautiful labels with artwork produced by local artists or family members. Then there is the ritual of serving lambic. In ideal circumstances, a cool (but not chilled) bottle of aged geuze is retrieved from the cellar, presented and poured from a wicker basket. Some lambic beers are best suited to serve in wine glasses (unblended lambic, grape lambic) or in champagne flûtes

Second of all, experienced wine drinkers often like lambic beers. Unlike many beer drinkers, who often go through progressive stages of sampling sour beers before getting an appreciation of traditional lambic, wine drinkers have been observed to take an instant liking to brews like Cantillon. Cantillon’s Jean-Pierre van Roy has drawn attention to the fact that the Cantillon Gueuze museum in Brussels is often visited by wine aficionados.

Finally, there is, of course, the production of lambic itself with its use of barrels, aging, and blending. Some lambics are aged in wine or cognac barrels and are released to the market as special Cuvées or as a Grand Cru. There is a rich history of blending lambic with grapes. Cantillon produces two fruit lambics from grapes: Vigneronne (lambic with muscat grapes) and Saint Lamvinus (lambic with merlot and cabernet franc).

saintlamvinus

This raises an obvious question: what can a lambic connoisseur drink when no lambic beers are within reach? Let’s say you are in a restaurant with your friends and the menu contains a tiny list of beers that only features Lindemans Kriek. You do not want to be a spoiler so you look at the wine list. Now, it first should be noted that liking lambic does not necessarily predict what other alcoholic bevarages one likes. So it should be clear that there is a strong element of personal preference involved in this review. I will not focus on other beer styles (obvious choices for the lambic drinker are Flemish reds and some of the wilder saisons) and confine myself to wine.

Red or white wine? I don’t think it is possible to rule out either of them. One could argue that the lack of tannins in (most) whites more closely resemble the preference of  old oak (or chestnut) barrels by lambic brewers. On the other hand, one could argue that the greater complexity and aging potential of red wines should resonate better with lambic drinkers. Since the idea that white wines are necessarily less complex or lack aging potential is a myth I do not think this view can be sustained. Because the wines that are often praised by writers on lambic are whites, I shall mostly confine myself to white wines and leave the reds for a future blog post.

One relatively obscure type of wine that is occasionally discussed in the context of lambic (notably in Jean-Xavier Guinard’s book “Lambic”) is vin jaune, or “yellow wine.” Vin jaune is a very unique type of white wine made in the Jura region of Eastern France and made from the Savagnin grape. But unlike other regions that produce wines from this grape, in the Jura the resulting wine is matured in old barrels for at least five years. During this period a thin film of yeast (the voile) forms on top of the wine and prevents the wine from further oxidation. The wine is bottled in characteristic 62 cl small bottles and have great aging potential.

The similarities between lambic and vin jaune are more to be found in its production than in taste, with aged unblendedvinjaune lambic coming closest. In terms of aroma, Vin Jaune is more similar to dry sherry than other wines. If one likes sherry there is a good chance that one likes vin jaune (and vice versa). One interesting aspect that lambic and vin jaune have in common is that both alcoholic beverages are sometimes returned to the store by buyers who did not know what to expect and feared that they purchased a product gone bad. Like straight lambic, vin jaune can be enjoyed at cellar temperature with cheese and nuts. Another similarity is price; expect to pay a lot for vin jaune, even if you are used to buying good wines. Not a vin jaune, but a good introduction to these types of oxidized wines is Chateau d’Arlay’s Cotes du Jura Blanc, which is a blend of Chardonnay and Savagnin grapes matured in old oak barrels.

Although the riesling grape is praised by wine writers for its high acidity, minerality, and elegance, most (American) wine drinkers associate riesling with desert wines of high residual sugar. As a consequence, some of the best dry rieslings in the world can be obtained for prices that would be unheard of for more popular white grapes and reds.

Maison Trimbach is to riesling wines what Cantillon is to lambic. This Alsace winery has been around since 1626 and is renowned for its dry and laser-sharp rieslings. Like Cantillon, the Trimbach family has a strong commitment to their style of  (white) wine making and do not shy away from expressing their philosophy in the strongest terms, as  illustrated by the following quote from Hubert Trimbach:

We are Protestants. Our wines have the Protestant style — vigour, firmness, a beautiful acidity, lovely freshness. Purity and cleanness, that’s Trimbach. No wood: I hate wood! Purity and cleanness, always. Parker has taken us in the wrong direction. He has a sweet tooth. The Americans have corrupted the taste of wine drinkers. These wines are long in cask, they do malolactic, they sit on their sediments, they get so fat that only Americans can drink them.

There are other similarities. The only exception the Trimbach family allows to their rule of making bone dry wines are the late harvest Vendanges Tardives and “noble rot” wines which, like Faro lambic, can be enjoyed as desert beverages  Like a good lambic, Trimbach dry rieslings benefit from aging. Their rare Clos Sainte Hune Riesling is considered one of the best dry Rieslings in the world.

Clos-Sainte-Hune-TrimbachCantillon uses Italian muscat grapes for its “white wine lambic” Vigneronne. Muscat wines are typically sweet but, as can be expected, the Trimbach winery makes a very dry version. And just like Cantillon produces one year-round beer that is not a lambic, Iris, Trimbach produces one red, Pinot Noir, that lacks the oppressive woodiness that characterizes many reds.

This is just a brief, and subjective, review of wine styles that may appeal to lambic drinkers. Other recommendations come to mind such as the Brett “infected” and oxidized wines from Chateau Musar in Lebanon and the Savennieres wines from the Loire Valley in France. Going beyond wine, lambic drinker may want to try the unpasteurized (organic) ciders from the Dupont Family in France or the Isastegi estate in the Basque country of Spain.


Jean-Xavier Guinard’s “Lambic”

Nothing is more suitable than to open a book about lambic beers with a personal story on how the author became acquainted with that most mysterious of beers. In the case of Jean-Xavier Guidard most people will recognize the experience. A young student in Paris is persuaded by his friend to order a Kriek, “a wheat beer from Belgium made by spontaneous fermentation and with macerated cherries.” After looking at the price on the board, the author is not so sure. His friends offers to buy it, and the rest is history.

Although the detailed technical discussion of brewing traditional lambics may be challenging to some readers, the complexities of this unique Belgian brew more than warrant the fascinating tour through the wonderful microbial flora that work together to create lambic. Because there are many basic introductions available about traditional lambic brewing, I will focus here on some of the more interesting details that the author has collected during his research.

The author starts off with a fascinating history of lambic beers and draws attention to the close similarities between traditional lambic and sikaru, a beer that was produced 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia by Sumerians. A Sumerian tablet revealed that the basic composition of sikaru was virtually identical to that of lambic. Sikaru did not include hops but rather spices like cinnamon to add flavor. Like lambic, the spontaneous fermentation of sikaru wort involved the local microflora like saccharomyces and schizo saccharomyces yeasts. Both lambic and sikaru have been considered high quality premium beers and were used to pay the salaries of farmers, the working class and managers. Today, Gueuze is still known as “Brussels Champaign.”

“There is little doubt that if we could reach for one of the stoneware pots of beer painted by these masters and taste its contents, we would recognize the acidic and fruity flavor of Lambic”
“There is little doubt that if we could reach for one of the stoneware pots of beer painted by these masters and taste its contents, we would recognize the acidic and fruity flavor of Lambic”

The origin of the name lambic remains a source of debate. Some claim that it refers to the alambic, an old name for the mashing vessel that was used to brew lambic, while others point to the latin word lambere (to sip). Lambic may also have been derived from the village of Lembeek in Belgium. Similar mysteries surround the name Gueuze (or Geuze). The importance of lambic in Belgian culture is evident in old paintings (such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Wedding”) and literature, culminating in a notorious document of lambic culture in the late 19th century in Belgium called “Les memoires de Jef Lambic.”

Less exalted was the French poet Charles Beaudelaire, who wrote about faro (young lambic with candi sugar) consumption in Brussels: “Faro is drawn from the great latrine, the Senne; it is a beverage extracted from the excrements of the city through its sewer system. This is how the city has been drinking its own urine for centuries.” Beaudelaire even wrote a short poem about it, which goes as follows:

“Do you drink Faro, Mr. Hetzel?
A look of horror crossed his bearded face,
No!, never! Faro! I say this without spleen,
It’s beer that you drink twice.”

Charles Beaudelaire

Beaudelaire would have been pleased with the decline of traditional lambic brewing during the 20th century. At the beginning of the century there were about 130 lambic breweries in the Brussels and the Senne Valley. Today, only a small number of lambic breweries and Geuze blenders survive. If we exclude breweries that mainly offer “modern” and “sweetened” lambics, the number of traditional lambic breweries and blenders is around 10 (as of 2008).  Going forward, there is reason to be optimistic, as evidenced by the creation of organizations to preserve and promote traditional lambic beers, the increased respect that brewers such as Cantillon and Drie Fonteinen receive, and the experiments with wild ales by breweries such as Russian River in the United States. Traditional lambic brewing (and the practice of spontaneous fermentation in general) appears to be making a comeback.

Although some of the information about contemporary lambic brewers, blenders, and cafes in Guinnard’s book is dated (the book was published in 1990), in his review of contemporary lambic brewing the author expresses concern over the fact that artisan lambic brewers have to compete with “lambics” that have been artifically inoculated and carbonated, fermented in steel tanks, pasteurized, filtered, and in the case of fruit lambics, sweetened with syrups and artificial flavors. Since 1998, the European Union decided that only traditional lambic brewers can use the name “oude” (which means old, as in “traditional”) for their products, the situation remains that these modern “lambics” are still being sold under the name lambic, necessitating the need for better education about lambic brewing and grassroots support for breweries and blenders who are committed to the old ways.

After introducing the reader to the history of lambic brewing, the author briefly reviews the sensory properties of lambic beers using a table that includes appearance, aroma, taste and mouthfeel. In reviewing the properties of young and aged unblended lambic, an interesting comparison is made between aged lambic and the vin jaune wines (French for “yellow wine”) of the Château-Chalon area in the French Jura. If there was still any doubt about differences in the physical and chemical properties of lagers and lambic, the  next chapter provides hard data to distinguish them. These data, derived from technical publications on lambic brewing, also highlight the differences between traditional and modern lambics.

The real degree of fermentation (RDF) can range from 63 to 82 percent in geuzes, exceeding the 50 to 68 percent in American lagers. In traditional lambics the attenuation of sugars can be complete, making them  interesting choices for diabetics. As such, calories in lambic beers come from ethanol and residual extract. The “thin” mouthfeel of traditional lambics is explained by the low level of dextrins.  One of the distinguishing characteristics of lambics is of course their acidity and sour taste. Total acidity of lambic beers are reported to be three to eight times as high as American lagers. Measured values for acetic acid and lactic acid in lambics are much higher than in other beers. The vinegarlike aroma of lambics results from acetic acid and ethyl acetate, with the latter disproportionately contributing to the smell because of its lower detection threshold. Although lambics have roughly the same values in bitterness units as American lagers, the use of aged (oxidized) hops and high acidity of the beers imparts little or no bitter taste to the lambic beers. The chapter ends with a fascinating look at  the different HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) profiles of traditional and modern lambics. As expected, higher residual sugars and dextrins and a lower alcohol content are detected in the modern geuzes and fruit lambics.

The essential ingredients in lambic are malted barley, unmalted wheat, water, hops, and in the case of fruit lambics, whole fruits. Although lambic brewing is considered a highly local phenomenon, it is surprising to learn that the barley and hops often come from other regions such as the UK and central Europe. Although the Schaarbeekse cherries are considered the gold standard for traditional Kriek lambics, local supply is not sufficient to satisfy demand, requiring cherries to be imported from other countries.

Guinnard gives a fairly detailed description of the lambic brewing process which includes a lambic production diagram which seems to describe lambic brewing at the Cantillon brewery. One of the most fascinating features of lambic brewing is the use of a cooling tun or coolship (bac refroidissor) that is used to innoculate the wort. Lambic cooling tuns are very wide and shallow, allowing good exposure of the surface area to the microorganisms that are introduced through the outside air through vented tiles and open louvers. The importance of not disturbing the local microflora is considered so important to traditional lambic brewers that Cantillon decided to keep the old tiles when replacing the roof. It may come somewhat as a surprise to lambic connoisseurs that the old brewing process did not maximize the opportunity for the wort to pick up the local microflora. The author notes that “in the 1850s, the presence of lactic flavor or a ropy appearance (caused by lactic acid bacteria and considered “normal” in today’s lambic fermentations) was regarded as a defect.”

Brettanomyces yeast
Brettanomyces yeast

Without a doubt the most fascinating (and longest) chapter in the book is devoted to the microbiology of lambic fermentation and cellaring. The lambic beers are unique in their reliance on spontaneous fermentation by  the airborne microflora in the area and the brewery. Over the years chemists and food scientists have done important work in documenting the microorganisms that are involved in lambic brewing. Lambics do not only distinguish themselves from lagers and conventional ales in the involvement of “wild” yeasts of the brettanomyces genus but bacteria play a role in their fermentation as well. During the first week the lambic wort is home to enteric bacteria and yeast of the Kloeckera apiculata strain. After two weeks K. apicculata is overgrown by Saccharomyces yeast, converting most of the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. After 3 to 4 months ethanol fermentation levels off to give way to lactic acid bacteria. These lactic acid bacteria contribute to the distinct sour taste of traditional lambics. After eight months yeasts of the Brettanomyces genus dominate. This slow growing yeast is responsible for the distinct “horsey” flavor in lambics.  The Brettanomyces and other oxidative yeasts also contribute to the formation of a film that forms at the surface of the beer. This film protects the aging brew against oxidation and great care is exercised not to break it. The author also reports on the role of spiders in protecting the aging lambic wort from infection; “as predetors of flies, the spiders…are treated with respect and care by most lambic brewers. Killing a spider in their brewery is considered a crime.”

A special case is the microbiology of gueuze. To make a  real gueuze, lambics of different ages (for example, 1, 2 and 3 years) are blended and refermented in the bottle. During bottle fermentation three distinct phases can be distinguished. First, aerobic yeasts such as Candida, Torulopsis, and Pichia proliferate (probably as the result of air exposure during gueuze production), followed by the longest phase during which Pediococcus and Brettanomyces produce its carbonation, and ending with the drop and autolysis of the cells. The author stresses the importance of alternating  warm and cold temperatures (which are traditionally achieved by the changing of the seasons) to satisfy the optimum temperature requirements for the different microorganisms. As can be expected, a live product such gueuze is vulnerable to handling and extreme temperature variations; “In 1931, more than 3 million bottles of gueuze were lost to hot weather in Brussels.”


The book ends with storing and serving recommendations for lambic beers and formulations for how to brew them. Real lambics can only be produced by spontaneous fermentation in areas that have the unique microbial flora for these brews (such as the Payottenland in Belgium). Although attempts can be made to approach the aroma and taste of lambics by using malt, wheat, aged hops and and cultures of the most important yeasts, the author stresses that such beers should NOT be called lambics to avoid confusion and out of respect for those who brew the real thing. Provided these recommendations are taken seriously, the resulting wild ales can  be interesting beers, as evidenced by the creations of brewers like Russian River and Jolly Pumpkin in the United States.

Jean-Xavier’s book on Lambic is a classic and recommended reading for everyone interested in Belgian beers, and lambics in particular.