By Gregg Smith
"They've been told to take the couch Renee."
He sighed, his wife Margeriet was on the kick again.
"Don't tell me how important it is to the beer, that's just superstition." she continued. Picking up her parcels she paused at the door. "I'll be back at five, please cooperate Renee."
Renee thought of all the times he fought this battle. She didn't understand how everything in the brewery was a home to the microbes, yeast, that made their beer so special. Idly fingering the upholstery, he imagined how each book, tablecloth, rug, and yes, the couch, harbored the very essence of the beer. As he headed for the cellar he sighed again, this time with a smile. He knew he was upholding a tradition that stretched across time, it was part history, part science, and a little magic.
Various sources frequently refer to Lambic as an ancient form of brewing - an accurate description, clear parallels reach back through the millennia. Records from Sumeria, dating back to 6,000 BC, indicate ancient brewers produced a beer with an astonishingly similar recipe. According to archeologists, Sumerians made a beer of 65% malted barley and 35% unmalted wheat - nearly identical to the ratio used by modern Belgian brewers. Parallels in the beers continued beyond the grain bill, mashing and brewing to the most fundamental step of the process.
Lambic brewing follows the practice of spontaneous fermentation used by the Sumerians over 6,000 years ago in producing "sikaru", their premium beer. Brewers of that time knew about nearly all the ingredients required for beer, except yeast. Fermentation was considered a gift of the gods and they new of no way to control the miracle other than prayer and worship. Their crude technique was to simply mix everything into a gruel-like liquid, then wait for the gods to smile and turn it into beer. Of course what actually happened was a spontaneous fermentation, induced by wild air-borne microbes.
Brewing with wild yeast usually leads to sour, thin, acetic (vinegar-like) beer. However, the naturally occurring yeast in Sumeria, like that in Belgium's Senne Valley, uniquely produced a "controlled" fermentation.
Romantic tales of Lambic's spontaneous fermentation typically recount the method of cooling the wort in shallow tuns called "cool ships". After pumping the wort into coolships in the attic, the brewers open the windows and go home, exposing the beer overnight to yeast carried on the wind. Though certainly a factor, much of the beer's inoculation actually comes from a more unglamorous menagerie of bacteria resident in the brewery's wooden fermentation casks. Legendary tuns in the attic provide the cooling, but microbe ridden wood supplies the bulk of the fermentation, and thereby Lambic's character.
Spontaneous fermentation blesses Lambic with a combination of heritage and mystery, but it has a drawback, wild yeast can induce wide variations in the beer. Acquiring consistency in flavor rests solely on the experience and skill of a blender. Artfully matching the attributes found in casks throughout the cellar, blenders mix young, old, sour, sweet, tart and smooth samples to replicate the brewery's taste signature. In traditional Lambic's it was also the blender who induced the carbonation, by mixing aged beer with newer batches containing sugars that "primed" bottles in a method similar to champagne making. As the sugars fermented, carbon dioxide was generated and absorbed by the beer. Some of today's Lambic producers have chosen to forego this old practice by adding instead a controlled amount of newly fermenting wheat beer.
Unlike the Sumerians, Belgians use hops in their beer, but here too things deviate from the norm. Belgian brewers age Fuggles, Brewers Gold and Northern Brewer hops for up to two years. During that time the natural bitterness diminishes and a somewhat "cheesy" flavor emerges.
As with the hops, brewers also age the beer, typically in the old wooden wine, sherry or port casks. As it sits in the cellar fermentation and conditioning continue. Foam, slowly oozing from the barrels attracts fruit flies, but the traditional Belgians count on spider web filled cellars to keep the insects at bay. In Belgian breweries the spiders hold a position of respect.
From the basic beer, fermented on the wind and protected by spiders, Belgian brewers craft several distinct styles. Each one represents a treasure of the ancient world.
Often compared to champagne or fine wine, the unflavored version of Lambic, Gueze, presents the greatest challenge to blenders. From light gold to amber in color, Gueze releases a lively carbonation and a large but quickly collapsing head. Initially the aroma may intimidate the drinker with a bouquet as crude as an old horse blanket. Soon the farm-like aroma fades into a complex mixture of underlying fruitiness and the odd (to beer) scent of cheese it obtained from aged hops and spontaneous fermentation. Adventurous first time drinkers who brave the nose frequently recoil with their first taste. It spreads across the palate in a confusing crazy quilt mingling of sour, harsh and acidic notes. Those who persevere with Gueze discover the first impression gradually recedes to reveal a soft, dry sweetness that concludes with a tannic, slightly astringent and dry finish.
Fruit Lambics also benefit from the blenders skill. In traditional methods the fruit was macerated whole and then added to a young Lambic. While aging in the cask sugars in the fruit prompted a second fermentation. Later, a young Lambic was added to prime (carbonate) the beer as it matured in the bottle.
Every year brewers anxiously awaited the fruit harvest and developed variations that covered a full spectrum of flavors. Kriek lambic was infused with sour cherries, Framboise with raspberries, Cassis was made from black currant, Peche from peaches, and Muscat from grapes. Better examples of each possess a sweet fruit flavor offset by a tartness, both restrained by a balance as delicate as Belgian lace. Unfortunately, as the popularity of Lambic has grown some breweries substitute flavored syrups for natural fruit, in that compromise they lose the personality offered by the sour tart complexity. Whether finishing sweet, or with a tart dryness, all should clearly project the character of the showcased fruit.
In another variation of Lambic brewers produce a specialized variation called Faro. Staring with an unflavored sample, the blender carefully adds a lower gravity beer (second running) of a style they formerly called "mars". Mixed in nearly equal parts, the two beers were then sweetened with candy sugar or cane molasses. Modern renditions of Faro forego the blending of the two traditional base beers and opt instead for mixing young Lambic with dark candy sugar and\or caramel.
Produced in smaller quantities than fruit flavored Lambics, Faro deserves greater recognition. It wraps the drinker like a favorite blanket, greets you with a reassuring fruitiness and gradually its fabric comforts you with an elaborate finish woven from caramel, candy and toffee.
Food Match ups
You might think that a sour or tart tasting beer severely restricts the combinations with food. Definitely not, as with any well chosen wardrobe, Lambic demonstrates a versatility to fit and complement any occasion. As an aperitif choose one of the dry Lambics. Dry examples of the style also match smartly with smoked fish and pate. In a recipe Gueze shines in steaming mussels; don't hesitate to use what you think an expensive Gueze, have some fresh baguettes on hand to sop up the liquid when finished. At dessert team a Framboise with dark, or Peche with light, chocolate, and of course many of the sweeter Lambic's work in the sauces of classic desserts. Using the beer in food wouldn't offend the brewer, in Belgium it's an art form, and it would make a person like Renee proud.
Back up from the cellar Renee settled into the reassuring comfort of the couch. He lifted his glass to the light. At this time of the afternoon his Lambic radiated a soft pink glow. After a sip he patted the couch, it survived again. He knew the wild yeast that settled on it from the air would eventually make its way to the beer. It was simply a part of what they called "house character". It was almost time for Margeriet to come home. Now if he could just keep her away from the curtains.
© Gregg Smith