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)…


Vanberg and Dewulf lambic imports

Tonight the founders of Vanberg and DeWulf, Don Feinberg & Wendy Littlefield, will be hosting a tasting of their artisanal Belgian beers at Belmont Station. I have been following Vanberg and DeWulf recent endeavors with interest because they have introduced no fewer than three new lambic products to the United States and innovating while doing so.

For starters, they have introduced the traditional lambic blender De Cam to the United States, which, to my knowledge, completes the project to have all major traditional lambic producers and blenders available in the United States. At least as exciting is that the first De Cam product available in the US is a bottled unblended lambic, De Cam’s Oude Lambiek. There is no lambic style that provides such a great insight into the “terroir” of a lambic brewer or blender than a straight lambic.

Their most innovative lambic product to date is undoubtedly Lambrucha, an accomplished low-alcohol blend of lambic and the fermented tea Kombucha (review here). One of the additional virtues of Lambrucha is that it involved De Troch. De Troch is a beautiful old Belgian lambic brewery but much of its capacity is used to brew sweetened lambics for the national market. Hopefully, Feinberg and Littlefield can induce de Troch to do more traditional products or get some of their straight lambic for the US market.

One of their more mysterious releases is LAMBICKX. During a recent event at Belmont Station, one of their representatives noted that this beer cannot be classified as a Gueuze. A look at the bottle reveals the reason for this. The label shows only one brew year (a 2009 brew year and a 2011 bottle year on my bottle), which indicates that this is a blend of two year old lambic, which would put this beer in the same league as Cantillon’s Lou Pepe releases. I tasted this beer over the holidays and I recall this blend having a smooth and relatively young character. This release has a very nice label, too.


Lambrucha

There has been a tremendous rise in consumption of kombucha in recent years. In Portland, Oregon, there are a growing number of local kombucha makers such as Eva’s Herbucha and Brew Dr. Kombucha. In some locations, such as local Wholefoods stores, kombucha on tap has become quite a phenomenon.

Kombucha is a lightly fermented tea and has a long history as a home-made folk remedy going back to Russia and Asia. In short, sugar is added to a black or green tea and the kombucha culture ferments the tea.

The kombucha culture is a combination of yeast and bacteria, including bacteria of the Acetobacter genus and several yeasts, which may include Saccharomyces cerevisiae and/or Brettanomyces bruxellensis. Regular commercial kombucha has an alcohol percentage less than 0.5% but there have been commercial examples with higher percentages and it is possible to deliberately brew kombucha with a higher alcohol content. Of course, such a kombucha would no longer be exempt from laws that pertain to alcohol beverages.

The acetic acid and gluconic acid that is produced during fermentation give kombucha its characteristic tart taste. Not surprisingly, people who like sour beers such as lambic and the Flanders reds often like kombucha as well (I certainly do!). Since I have been writing this blog I have read a number of suggestions of blending lambic (or a regular sour ale) with kombucha. I was therefore quite pleased to learn about Vanberg & DeWulf’s Lambrucha. Lambrucha is not available in Oregon yet, but I recently was able to sample a bottle.

Lambrucha is a blend of lambic and organic green tea kombucha that clocks in at a 3.5% alchohol percentage. The lambic that is used in this brew comes from De Troch. I have not been able to find detailed technical information about how this drink was fermented or blended (some background on the Lambrucha beer can be found here), but the process of blending lambic (or any beer) and kombucha raises some interesting technical questions. For example, blending lambic and kombucha can be an interesting method to raise acetic acid in a lambic – an approach that might be tricky relying on spontaneous fermentation alone. But I will leave these issues to the side for another blog post after I have studied kombucha in more detail and have done some of my own experiments. The Mad Fermentationist website has a number of interesting entries on beer and kombucha here.

Lambrucha has a light orange/caramel color. A relatively careful pour produced a two finger head, but this dissipated quickly. The aroma is quite funky with the typical “horseblanket” brettanomyces, overripe fruit, and some malty and yeasty notes (for a more concentrated version of these qualities, pour the dregs into a separate glass). The kombucha and the lambic can both be identified in the taste, although I would characterize it more as a strong kombucha than a low alcohol lambic since the tea appears to be stronger than the malt. A taste of lemon gives way to a short finish of cucumber (!), something that I have not tasted in a beer before.  The sourness is more concentrated and crisper, presumably from the low alcohol content. Carbonation is quite high and there is some astringency, too. Drinkability is great.

The tartness and low alcohol percentage make for a an extremely refreshing drink. Some might say that this beer is a little too drinkable! If the price would not prohibit it, this would be a great session beer, or it can be served with fish.

Naturally, the producers made a number of test brews with  different lambic/kombucha ratios and I only tasted the winner of this process. It would be quite interesting to taste different interpretations in the future. Lambrucha is by no means the last word on blending beer and kombucha. Goose Island has produced a Belgian pale ale with hibuscus and kombucha called Fleur. And homebrewers have discovered that Kombucha (culture) could be another trick to produce sour beers.

It is interesting to note that De Troch collaborated on this beer. As I wrote in my recent account of Toer de Geuze, some lambic breweries have the equipment and skills to make traditional lambic products but only use it as an (obligatory) step in the production of (pasteurized) sweetened lambics. Now that the tide has been turning, and traditional lambic brewing is gaining in recognition and sales, we may see breweries like De Troch start doing interesting things again. Ironically, this Lambrucha beer may be one of the best things that they have released to the market in awhile!


A celebration of sour beers

I have been reluctant to write about Belmont Station’s 2010 Puckerfest because there were few local sour beers on tap that I find appealing, and this opinion is not due to a lack of trying! I still am not aware of any Pacific Northwest brewer who can consistently produce a good consistent sour ale. I am inclined to think that this is the result of the tendency to engage in excessive experimentation in the world of microbrewing. Experimentation is great for innovation but the usual order of things is to master the basic style first. One of the sour ales on tap tasted like the soft drink Fanta, another one displayed a rather unsuccessful combination of brett and oak, and one brew could only be classified as “theoretical” because it probably sounded good on paper, but the execution left a lot to be desired. Like last year, I liked the Russian River and New Belgium brews the best. New Belgium has the annoying, but understandable, habit of producing its best beers in tap-only limited quantities, although their more available La Folie is a serious contender for the best sour ale in the United States.

One real problem for the American sour beer consumer is that even the better producers like Russian River have to release their beers with a price tag that is usually higher than, let’s say, a great traditional Gueuze blender like Hanssens – and that is after import from Belgium to the United States! It is interesting to note that the Pacific Northwest is plagued by a similar curse in the case of wine. Pinot Noir is a notoriously challenging grape to grow and the price reflects this. For a fraction of the price of a decent Oregon Pinot Noir, good organic reds from France are available at local wine retailers like Liner & Elsen. This should not be read as a United States vs. Europe issue. The United States can claim some world class beers (Deschutes’ Green Lakes, Russian River’s Pliny the Elder, Great Divide’s Yeti Imperial Stout) but I am not holding my breath for an affordable year-round top-notch sour ale anytime soon.

At this point in time, Portland’s best local sour drink on tap (!) remains Kombucha.