Beer Guide - Lambic Beers

An Introduction To Lambic Beers

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Many brewers are incredibly exacting about the ingredients they use and the way they make their beer. Specific varieties of hops are imported, strains of yeast are taken from famous breweries and clear local spring water is used. Lambic beers have a more random and chaotic approach. They use stale hops and instead of using a specific strain of yeast to trigger fermentation they are left exposed in large shallow vats. Here wild yeasts in the air settle on the beer to trigger "spontaneous fermentation". The beers are then left to ferment over a number of years giving range of different flavours. There are only a handful of lambic brewers, all of whom are based in the Senne valley in Belgium near Brussels.

Lambic beers are presented with an old world charm. Their brewers talk about cobwebs hanging off the ceiling and proudly claim that health and safety officers would have a seizure if they were allowed in. An excellent example of the lambic brewers craft can be found at the Cantillon brewery in the outskirts of Brussels. Now more a working museum than a commericial brewery you can guide yourself around and see the cooling trays, the rows of barrells and the piles of green glass bottles.

There can be a sense of one upmanship between hardened beer drinkers as they try to find sourest, and some would say least drinkable, Lambics. More than most beers, Lambics can lend themselves to collecting in a cellar like fine wines. They will usually be available in vintages and are claimed to be able to mature for up to 20 years. Much grumbling occurs about larger brewers who sell lambic beers that only have a small proportion of spontaneously fermented beer in them. Given how much of a niche and acquired taste the beers are it is surprising that larger companies and bigger brands like Belle Vue bother - but it appears there is money to be made in the Belgian market for sweetened neutered versions of this strange and wonderful brew.


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Gueuze is the traditional way that you will find lambic served. It is made by blending older lambic that has a been aging in barrels for many years with a livelier younger lambic. The old lambic has a complexity and depth of flavour but is usually flat while the young lambic gives the beer it's fizz. A key part of the skill of making gueuze is selecting the different barrels to blend together. Each will add slightly different flavours which the brewer must select from in order to achieve of quality and consistency. The combination leads to an additional round of ferementation for the older beer which generally continues in the bottle. You will often find both a cork and a cap on top of there beers to make sure they don't try to escape.

You can expect the beers to be dry, sour and somewhat fruity with a complex range of flavours and each brewer has it's own distinct taste. Cantillon has an acidic grapefruit flavour with a hint of sweetness whilst Drie Fountain has lemons and apples to it. Girardin has a more rounded sourness to it whilst Lindemanns showpiece Cuvee Rene beer is simply filthy in a way that will either delight or disgust. Mort Subite feels like a refreshing cider whilst Oud Beersel feels like a light blonde Belgian ale when the sediment is poured from the bottle.

The traditional versions are usually called Oude Gueuze and come in at around 5% abv, however the smooth Mariage Parfait from Boon clocks in at a very robust 8%. On an initial tasting you are likely to find Gueuze strange or off putting, making you think of cider gone weird. However if you adjust to the taste it will be able to savour what is through of as the champagne of beers.

Five To Try -
1. Girrardin Gueuze 1882
2. Cantillion Gueuze
3. Drie Fountain Oude Gueuze
4. Lindemanns Cuvee Rene
5. Boon Geuze Mariage Parfait

Lambic: Fruit

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It's common to mix the dry and sour lambics with sweet fruits to balance out the flavours. The most common versions are cherry and raspberry - normally called Kriek and Framboise on the bottle. The sour taste of cherries seem to marry best with lambics. At their best they taste better than any fruit juice could hope too. The mix of cherry and grapefruit in Cantillon Kriek or the floral taste of Boon Kriek are truly special. Others remind you more of boiled sweets than fruit. The best fruit lambics will use huge amounts of top quality fruit and will be made en masse at harvest. The cheaper alternatives will use fruit syrups and taste a lot like alcohols. The Belle Vue Kriek is a example of the latter.

Whilst cherry and raspberry are the traditional fruits of choice, John Martin's seem to have attempted to try every type of fruit with their incredibly sweet Timmermanns range of beers. As well as cherry, raspberry, peach, strawberry and blackberry they have also invented brand new fruits such as ninkleberry and agrum. Frankly none of these taste great, they are closer to alcopops than any traditional lambic - despite them all having tradition written in big letters on the bottle. They don't even have the attractive art deco labels of Lindemann's Pecheresse - which don't make the beer taste any better, but at least feels like it has an air of class and distinction.

Whilst Gueuze can often be laid down for many years the fruit beers benefit from early drinking. Though beers like the Cantillon Kriek can be tried after being cellared for a few years the balance between sweet and sour isn't quite as appealling.

Five To Try -
1. Cantillion Kriek Lambic
2. Girrardin Kriek
3. Cantillion Rose de Gambrinus
4. Boon Kriek
5. Drie Fountain Oude Kriek

Lambic: Faro

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Faro are sweetened lambics that have sugar added to give a lighter and refreshing taste. They are generally weaker in alcoholic strength and have less depth and complexity but can have pleasing sweet subtleties. They can also be blended in a way to appeal to those who prefer alcopops to beer. They are far less common than gueuze or fruit lambics, with some versions only available on draught close to the breweries.

The Mort Subite Faro is a good place to start. It has cider and sherry notes which give it a good depth of flavour whilst it's light gassy body means you could drink it like it was lemonade on a hot day. The Cantillon Faro feels like a gateway to their challenging Gueuze. The sourness is toned down replaced with some caramel malt. The Boon Faro is similarly light and sweet with a hint of syrup in there somewhere.

However to get the full experience of a Faro you need to travel to Brussels. A short walk from the Grand Place, and down an alley signed with a bird, there is a bar called A La Becasse. This bar specialise in lambics - espeacially from Cantillon and Timmermans. They will even do you a lambic tasting tray. However the main order of business is Timmermans Lambic Doux - a beer that is solely available in this bar. It will be served in an earthenware jug which is left on your table with a tumbler. It is nowhere near as gassy as you would expect. The taste has shifting flavours of apple and peach. It feels dry but is also very refreshing. It's a beer of depth and complexity but ever so easy to drink. In short it is a bit of an enigma. It may not justify a trip to Brussels on it's own, but if you are in the Belgian capital you would be a fool to miss it.

Five To Try -
1. Mort Subite Faro
2. Cantillon Faro
3. Boon Faro
4. John Martin Timmermans Lambic Doux
5. Lindemans Faro

Lambic: Unblended

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Though not very common, it is possible to get hold of unblended lambics. These are generally the most challenging of the lambic beers as there is no way to try and balance out the flavours and gain a regular consistency - you are much more at the mercy of the individual barrels. Bottled versions are available but are not very common. You are most likely to find them in them bars in Brussels such as A La Becasse and the Mort Subite cafe (avoid the kip kap if you fancy a snack). Straight unblended Lambics such as the ones made by Cantillon and Mort Subite often have a lot in common with the brewers Gueuze. They will generally not have been aged as long as the Gueuze to ensure they retain some carbonation and this means they are not intensely flavoured

Unblended lambics can be mixed with wheat beers. This is what has been done with the Mort Subite White Lambic and the Timmermans Lambic Blanc. The fruity notes in the lambic marry with with the Belgian wheat beer style - this is no surprise given that the wheat beers usually carry a strong citrus flavour to them anyway. Both the Mort Subite and Timmermans are very light and refreshing which makes them good candidates for a hot day. Cantillon took a slightly different approach and used wheat in place of some of the barley in a beer called Iris. This is the head brewers favourite beer, though it can be difficult to get your head round as it has a very astringent flavour. The same goes for their Grand Cru Broscella - a beer that begs to drunk with a bit of meat alongside it.

Unblended lambics are on the fringes of the beer world. A peculiarity that only really occurs in one country and which can be hard to find even there. They are beers for people who think they have tried it all and can often require a cultivated, nigh on experimental palate, to enjoy them. Howeverwhen you find one to your taste it will feel superb.

Five To Try -
1. Mort Subite White Lambic
2. Mort Subite Lambic
3. Cantillion Grand Cru Broscella
4. Cantillion Iris
5. John Martin Timmermans Lambic Blanc