Belgian Lambic beers are a bit different than the others. A bit quirky, these beers are unique and fun to drink. Interestingly, they don’t sell as well as others. A shame really for once you pop the top off, pour it into the proper vessel, and delve into the underworld of fizzy flavors, you might very well never want to come back.
As Beer Country, Belgium is all about crafting curious brews. But Lambic is the most distinctive among all the offerings. It employs an ancient method known as spontaneous fermentation. This is when nature takes its course with microbes that inoculate, ferment, and then mature. It results in something that is very much akin to what would happen if beer and wine had a child.
The techniques used to create Lambic have endured as they begun centuries ago and continue on to this day. That’s over 500 years of following tradition. Lambic is made by brewing from unmalted wheat with extremely pale malted barley, aged hops, and wild fermentation. Authentic Lambic are brewed in Brussels and to the west, in Pajottenland-Zennevallei, where the lands are rural and the traditions are staunchly upheld.
It’s still only brewed from the months of October through May because of the fermentation process, allowing only the desired organisms to flourish. Despite this natural fermentation process, it requires just as much skill as any other beer. Over the last 45 years, guidelines have been set into stone to create criteria for Lambic production. Each must contain at least 30% unmalted wheat, use that spontaneous fermentation technique, contain an original density of 11-degrees Plato, and be naturally cooled. The appellation protects itself for authenticity by requiring ‘Vieux’ or ‘Vieille’ to be on the label.
When it’s been aged well, Lambic has some fascinating layers – fruity, acetic, musty, and a bit lactic all in one sip. Traditionally brewed, it comes in uncarbonated form from the cask. Lambic also can be found as Gueuze and Fruit Lambic, which are a bit rendered to suit the tastes of mass consumption. Gueuze aptly blends young Lambic with aged. It’s filtered a bit crudely then bottled and has an effervescent quality akin to champagne. That’s what inspired it. It’s the direct result of trying to appeal to the rest of the world.
Fruit Lambic on the other hand is simply Lambic infused with fruit. Of them cherry (kriek) is the most popular. Raspberry (framboise) and black currant (cassis) follow closely behind. When it comes to commercially-produced varieties, the strains of yeast are carefully selected while traditional Lambic brewers tend to leave it up to nature. In Belgium, the Lambic vats are left open where the wild yeast and bacteria do as nature intended. When the fermentation process starts, the beer is moved to barrels to age for as many as three years.
After that, the beer is a sour production with a cloudy appearance and mild carbonation. Fruits aren’t required as a process for fermentation with Lambic but when it’s added, it unleashes more complexity. It gives a thoughtful balance to the sourness of the beer, rounding it out with both sweet and tart fruitiness.
With craft breweries sprouting up all over America and around the world, Lambic beers aren’t just a Belgian style anymore. Imitation is most definitely a sign of flattery and harnessing the sweet success of Belgian’s beer movement is something many want to replicate.
It’s a refreshing change of pace, considering Lambic beers had long had a poor reputation. It had nothing to do with the quality of the stuff either. It was merely perception, and well, a few bad apples, pardon the pun. Some producers that attempted to copy the style would craft a brew that turned out too sweet or syrupy (or both). This was due to adding them in directly to the beer rather than fermenting the brew with whole fruits. The result was an unflatteringly cloying flavor.
To add insult to injury, Lambic beers were often referred to as “girly” or “chick” beers. It’s an unfair assumption, to say the least, that women automatically prefer a beer tinged with heavenly notes of fruit. Thankfully, with the surge in craft brewing and a market that everyone wants to tap into, we’re seeing much more of this style and even the most rugged among men are tuning into the trend.
How can it become even more marketable? The key is in sticking to quality production tactics, like the Belgians have done for ages. That doesn’t necessarily mean becoming intensely familiar with growing bacteria in vats, however it does mean upholding quality of procedure. For those using more commercial methods, it’s all about creating a balance, using fresh fruits during fermentation, and making it harmonious rather than saccharine.
After all, when people want sweet drinks, they turn to sodas or cocktails with those dreaded sugary mixers. When they want beer, they want it to have that fizziness with depth and personality. Beer today is more epicurean than ever with new flavors and twists that have created a massive shift in the market. Instead of drinking beer to simply get a buzz, consumers are drinking it to taste it, much like wine. By walking that line when promoting it, it’s highly-likely this segment will take off running much faster than it ever did in the past.