The Weekly Brew: The Mystery of Lambic
If a hoppy Double India Pale Ale is the quintessential innovation of American brewing, then one can best describe the Lambic as the defining beer of Belgium. With a rich history of tradition, Belgian Lambics have been produced using the most unique and old-fashioned methods for over a century.
Though pronunciations of Lambic can vary from 'lam-beak' to 'lom-bique', all Lambics are required by Belgian law to contain at least 30% unmalted wheat and at least 60% malted barley. Additionally, by definition, true 'Lambics' can only be produced within a specific region in Belgium called The Senne Valley. This can be thought of as similar to how only true Champagnes are produced in the Champagne region of France, and others must be called 'sparkling wines.'
Lambics come in many shapes and sizes, but their enjoyment can be best described as simply "the blue cheese" of beer. This is due to the unique flavor profile of Lambic-style beers, which is typically composed of extremely rich and developed funky, earthy flavors combined with a certain level of acidity and a very low hop presence. These unmistakable flavors are created through a process called Spontaneous Fermentation. While the vast majority of beers brewed in the world are produced through a very calculated and precise addition of a controlled yeast strain, Lambics are inoculated by wild yeasts that are naturally occurring in the environment. To initiate inoculation of the wort (unfermented beer), a large shallow vessel called a koelschip ('cool ship') is used. This vessel helps to cool the wort while providing a large surface area that is exposed to air for wild yeasts and microflora to begin fermentation before the beer is pumped into oak casks for aging.
To truly understand how these 'funky' characteristics are developed, it is necessary to picture the environment in which the beer is created. A Lambic brewery often appears as if it is stuck in time, with cobwebs and spiders inhabiting the rafters, left untouched in order to maintain the natural atmosphere that has produced delicious beers for generations. Lambics aging over time often develop a dense pellicle composed of the wild yeasts having the appearance of a "brain cross section," according to one Lambic brewer (one could make another comparison to the molds that form on the rinds of some cheeses). It is these traditional processes and characteristics that combine to yield the mystery of Lambic beer.
Lambics can be served in many different ways, each of which appeals to different palates. While a few brewers will bottle a fully-fermented (three or four year) Lambic, it is more common for Lambics of various ages to be blended for a more balanced and complex final product. This blend of Lambics is called a Gueuze (pronounced 'gurz'), and contrary to other Lambics, exhibits a certain level of carbonation. Gueuzes can range from the delicately balanced straw, lemon, and earth notes of Drie Fonteinen's Gueuze (Beersel, Belgium) to the more intensely funky, mushroom-like flavors of Brasserie Cantillon (Brussels, Belgium).
Most Lambic master-brewers will actually refer to themselves as 'master-blenders', and after tasting a deliciously balanced Gueuze, you may be inclined to agree that this is where the skill and experience is most tested.
Other popular derivatives of Lambic involve the addition of fresh fruits, spices, or herbs. Most common is the Kriek, which incorporates the addition of whole, fresh cherries. The marriage of fresh fruit and Lambic is a historic tradition which results in an incredibly complex product. One important characteristic of Krieks, and other fruited Lambics, is that the pits or seeds of the fruit are not removed. This helps to add an additional almond-like nutty note during aging to complement the sweetness of the fruit and balance the earthy and acidic characteristics of the base Lambic beer. Other popular additions to Lambic include raspberries ("Framboise"), apricots, blueberries, strawberries, sugar ("Faro"), herbs such as elderflowers, and grapes such as Cabernet Franc, Muscat, or Merlot.
While most traditional Lambic producers have a very small annual production and are seldom found stateside, the largest quantity of Lambics that come to the United States stray from the path of tradition, and are sweetened with artificial sugars and fruit flavors. Though American Brewers have attempted to produce so-called "Lambic-style" beers with varied success over the last decade, most beer enthusiasts will agree that true Lambics only come from Belgium. It takes time to seek out and appreciate one of the world's most interesting beverages, but it's a guarantee that the journey will be worthwhile. Cheers!
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