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)…


Ordonnantie van 1560

One of the pleasant surprises for those who utilized the HORAL buses during the 2011 edition of Toer de Geuze is that the organizers distributed a reproduction of the 1560 Halle ordinance for lambic brewing. The accounting document that includes the ordinance does not explicitly refer to “lambic” yet, but the proportions of grains and the fact that all historical beers involved spontaneous fermentation prompted researchers to establish a link to modern lambic. This 1560 text (1559, according to other sources) was discovered by Médard-Jules Van den Weghe in 1930 but it was not until 1971 that the link to lambic was made by Marcel Franssens in the journal “Verhandelingen van de KGOKH.” Since it was custom to include older ordinances in the accounting books there is good reason to assume that the ordinance itself is much older than 1560, going back to at least 1400.

The ordinance concerns two issues: enforcement of decrees concerning the required amount of grain in wort and specification of the proper proportion of wheat and barley.

The original French text is as follows:

Item Est statue et ordonne pour le plus grant prouffit de la ville que doresanvant on brassera keute et houppe sur le pegele et selon la valleur des grains ainsy que lon est acoustume de vielz temps. Et qui brassera oultre le pegele tel fourfera une amende de vi L ts pour la premiere fois et ne porra faire son mestier durant lespace de xl jours. Et la cervoise quon trouvera estre brassee plus q’le peghele contient seroit confisquie au prouffit du Sr. Et pour le seconde fois sur lamende de xn L ts Et pour la me fois sur paine destre prive du mestier a la volente du Sr. De laquelle amende le Sr auera ung tierch. L autre tierch sera au prouffit de la ville. Et lautre tierch au prouffit du Rapporteur. Et polre les maltoteurs aller avec le peghelere sil leur plaist pour enquerir et scavoir si laditte cervoise est brassee trop longhe. Que les brasseurs qui voldront enthoner leur cervoise ilz fourferront lamende de XV S ts pour chune fois au prouffit du Sr. Et le peghelere sera creu par son serment tant de lamende cue de la cervoise et leike.
Item Que nul sadvance de faire de bree sans y mettre xvi Rxes de grains Assauvoir vi Rxes de fourment et x Rxes dorge et dave qui font ensamble xvi Rxes ainsi quon a este acoustume du temps passet pour le faire mesurer dedens le moulin quant on sera requis par le mayeur et eschevins.

The last part of this ordinance concerns the proportion of wheat and barley.

The relevant passage to lambic brewing is (my translation):

Nobody shall make a wort without 16 raziers of grain, 6 raziers of wheat and 10 raziers of wheat and oat, in total 16 razieren, according to custom and to be measured in the mill upon request from the major and the members of the municipal executive.

A “razier” is an old unit for measuring grain corresponding to 50 liters and the ratio of 37.5% wheat to 62.5% barley corresponds roughly to today’s lambic brewing practice and regulations, which require a minimum of 30% wheat. Also note the mention of “oat” in the ordinance.

The reproduction of the ordinance that was distributed at Toer de Geuze 2011 is double printed and contains some information about the historical context and significance of the ordinance in four languages.

I am reproducing the English text here:

OLD GEUZE-LAMBIC

Over 600 years of tradition and quality

Authentic old Lambic beers

The ordinances required for a clear understanding of the recorded revenue were written down in the old accounting books. The obligation to brew exclusively in a controlled fashion with regards to quantity, kinds and proportions of cereal grains applied, had a direct impact on the revenue of the lord. In dire times of war such quality obligations were temporarily lifted. Later, such as in 1560, when the former quality regulations were again enforced, this became apparent in the revenue, and the ordiance was reminded in the books.

Old examples of negotiations about the enforcement of the old prescription are found in the accounting books of the city of Halle, dating back to the years 1400 and 1402. This means that the regulations are much older. In 1400 Albert, duke in Bavaria, was also count of Hainaut-Holland-Zeeland. Perhaps Bavaria drew inspiration from the Halle regulations for the later German “Reinheitsgebot” (purity law, 1516) on beer brewing.

Pajottenland & Senne valley: home of the authentic old lambic beers

The city of Halle is the urban centre of the “Pajottenland & Zennevallei” region, just south of Brussels. Lambic brewing is strongly related to the application of an important portion of wheat. The starch contained in wheat is very slowly converted into sugars and subsequently into alcohol. This starch constitutes the breeding ground for the yeast cultures required for the highly specific lambic maturation which can take several years. This process yields a very special beer which can be kept for a long time and whose taste even improves with overtime. The economic and natural conditions required for the production of such a prized product can only be found in fertile agricultural areas in the vicinity of a metropolitan selling market and are needed in order to survive the economic crises for a millennium.

European protection

Ever since 21.1.1997 lambic beer denominations have been protected within the European Union for beers which are produced in accordance with the traditional recipe and the principles of craftsmanship – albeit modified to accommodate current regulations, of course.


Authentic wine

Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop’s Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking is the most extensive (technical) review of natural wine making to date. The authors prefer the term authentic wine to recognize the fact that wine is not a spontaneous product of nature but requires a competent winemaker. As the authors point out on many occasions, “natural” is a matter of degree. So why aim for non-interventionist wine making in the first place? The answer that appeals most to the authors is that it allows for the purest expression of terroir. A fair degree of non-interventionism is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for making good wine. As such, the authors do not reject, and in some chapters seem to strongly support, some manipulation of the wine to allow for the best expression of terroir, a perspective that no doubt is controversial with those who practice natural wine making because they value non-interventionism as such. One could argue that the writers are terroirists first, and non-interventionists second.

I think the rejoinder to such a “terroir through manipulation” perspective would be to argue that if non-interventionist wine making leads to a poor expression of terroir, then either the wine maker is not creating the proper conditions for the grapes and wine to develop, or one is trying to make wine in an area (i.e., soil, climate) that is simply not suitable for their choice of grape, style, or even wine making at all. The authors actually seem to be quite sympathetic to this outlook because the book is full of examples of how many wine “faults” can be avoided without manipulation of the end product. Ultimately, the implied verdict seems to be that natural wine making is an advanced form of wine making for a specific subset of consumers, and does not permit a lot of room for errors or ignorance. I think there is a strong parallel with spontaneous fermentation in beer making here. Despite the rhetoric about letting nature take its course, lambic brewers usually have a deep and thorough understanding of the conditions and variables that affect their beer, even if they do not always express this in the technical language of brewing science.  In today’s world, natural wine making and spontaneous fermentation of beer is a choice and one that is usually made by people who accept and embrace the challenge — hence the (mostly) superior results.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is about ripeness and alcohol levels. The authors show how syrah performs in cool and warm climates, and how picking times influence terroir expression. Picking the grapes too early will result in low alcohol, unripe, and harshly tannic wines, and picking the grapes too late will produce high alcohol, low acid and uncharacteristic “soupy” wines.  Of course, personal preference matters and that is why the authors show an “optimum window for terroir expression” instead of one single time point. For example, I personally prefer wines that are very dry, lower in alcohol, with good acidity and tannins, with restrained green notes, which requires relatively early picking of the grapes. As a general rule, writers on natural wine agree that (excessive) new oak and high alcohol overwhelm the expression of terroir. The authors quote winemaker Scott Burr: “alcohol is a masking agent…so taking it away reveals what’s there.” I am inclined to think that this applies to many beer styles as well. For example, a high gravity beer with a lot of post-fermentation residual sugar is not ideal for showcasing the differences between different fresh hop varieties. It may not be a coincidence that most lambic producers, and Cantillon in particular, keep their alcohol percentages on the lower side of the spectrum and generally avoid new oak.

This book stands out for a relatively detailed discussion of yeast and fermentation in wine. In contrast to brewing, the use of the indigenous (“wild”) yeast on the grapes has never really gone out of style in wine making, despite the increasing popularity of inoculating wine with commercial yeast. I suspect that, aside from the more traditionalist culture associated with wine, a major reason is that the differences between the results of spontaneous fermentation in wine and the use of commercial yeast in wine are smaller than the outcomes for beer. As a general rule, spontaneous fermentation in beer leads to distinctively dry, tart and funky beers that do not appeal to the average beer drinker. In wine, spontaneous fermentation can produce funkier wines, but the degree of funk is not of the magnitude that we see in beer – although it strikes me that it should be possible to “direct” a natural wine towards a far more funkier expression, something I suspect some French natural wine makers deliberately aim for.

Brewing with brettanomyces, or even 100% brettanomyces, is now quite popular in craft beer brewing. In wine making, brettanomyces is considered a “fault,” even among many natural wine makers. The reasoning is that brettanomyces inhibits the expression of fruit and blurs the distinctions between grapes and terroir.  Having said this, some of the most prestigious red wines have a faint brett character that some feel adds complexity. Even the authors consider the possibility that the presence of brettanomyces might work in some specific wine styles. I have tasted a number of wines where the presence of brettanomyces was unmistakable — in some wines I agree that it impoverished the wine, in others I think it positively amplified the dark, brooding, and rustic character of the wine. As far as I am aware, unlike beer drinkers, wine drinkers never express an explicit liking for brettanomyces. Whether this psychological barrier reflects a fundamental, and correct, recognition that brett generally has no place in good wine, or a reluctance to embrace the unorthodox results of spontaneous fermentation, remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that brewers of funky and sour beers have a (practical) knowledge about the complexities of brettanomyces fermentation and expression that is usually absent among wine writers.


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!