Lambic beers from the Belgian wild
Belgium is known for its beer. Between the Trappist monks brewing deep ales and lagers, it’s impossible to visit Brussels without pulling a bottle of something good off the shelf. But even beyond the norm of brews carefully monitored by brewmasters is lambic, a beer brewed through wild fermentation.
Although most lambic beers these days are twice-fermented, resulting in such lambic varieties as gueuze and kriek, all lambic beers carry the memories--and bacteria--of the Senne valley in Belgium. This leads to a unique flavor unique any other beer.
Lambic beers throughout history
Historians suggest that, like many other delicious things, lambic beer was created by accident. Grains were left out while women cooked meals. Because they were left out in the open, they were exposed to the microorganisms of the Senne valley. After a period of time, the grains began to spontaneously ferment, resulting in some strange, amazing brews that were different from batch to batch.
Historically, beers were not cultivated with fancy equipment, timers, and thermometers. Malts or hops or any sort of ingredient was left to its own devices, and Mother Nature brewed it how she liked it. In this since, lambic beers are a testament to old brewing practices in a modern age. The word “lambic” is thought to have derived from the Dutch place name Lembeek, referring to a locale in Brussels.
Video on removing lambic beers from Bluegrass Brewery
What's in a lambic?
Lambic beers embody the essence of terroir. A lambic brew cannot be made outside of the Senne valley without changing into something wholly different from a lambic as we know it. Scientists have studied the beer yeasts and bacteria in lambic beers, and they’ve found over 80 microorganisms involved in the wild fermentation. The most significant microorganism, Brettanomyces bruxellensis, is named after its namesake city and gives the lambic its characteristic taste. Some American brewers are beginning to use Brettanomyces bruxellensis in their craft beers.
The starter brew for lambic beers contains barley malt and unmalted wheat in a 3:7 ratio. After cooling, the wort remains exposed to the microorganisms in the brewery, and most anything can make its way into the brew. Brewers take care to brew lambic from late fall into early summer, as brewing at any other time could allow unwanted microorganisms to make their way into the wort.
Lambic beers are left to ferment in wooden barrels for years. They continue to collect funky goodness from the wilds of Brussels, sitting in the barrels uncovered over the course of the fermentation process.
Many times, the final lambic product will be a blend of different brews and the aforementioned fermented wort. Many times, the word “producer” refers to someone who blends beers to create new brews. Special varieties of lambic like gueuze and kriek are created in such a way.
This book talks about the wild fermentation processes involved in Belgian brewing.
With flavors of fruit and wild yeast
Lambic is funky and sour and wild. No two batches are alike, so every bottle--even every sip--has a depth of character unlike that found in micromanaged ales, lagers, and stouts. Since most lambic beers are made with fruit, they tend to be sweet as well as sour.
Although hops are used to brew lambic, they are always stale. Hops help to preserve beer as well as flavor it. When the hops are stale, they lose their flavor but help boost a beer's shelf life. Lambic beers are shelf-stable but not at all hoppy. Lambic beers lack the earthy, hoppy bitterness of other beers.
The interplay of flavors in a lambic results in a deep, complex brew. As sours and acids help liven sweet flavors, the sweetness of the fruits in fruited lambic beers rings clear in the sourness of lambic's wild fermentation. Companies who use lambic’s characteristic beer yeast, the Brettanomyces bruxellensis, create beers with earthy, wet hay-like flavors that bring out the wildness of the brew.
Belgians are proud of their lambic. When you ask a local on advice for picking out a Belgian beer, among all the other offers, they’ll tell you to try a lambic. It’s a wholly different type of drink, one that non-beer drinkers can enjoy, especially the cherry-flavored kriek. Lambic beers are popular in Belgium and are a staple of Belgian cuisine.
The complex brewing process and uniqueness of lambic beers has garnered world attention. Most bottled brews available outside of Belgium are fruity and twice-fermented. Both kriek and gueuze are available in specialty shops around the globe. Many imported lambic beers are sweetened with sugar or flavored syrups due to the tartness of the initial brew.
Types of lambic beers, from kriek to gueuze
There are many types of lambic beer, although not all are widely available outside of Belgium. Lambic itself, for example, is usually not sold in the States. It's cloudy, uncarbonated, and extremely tart.
Gueuze and kriek are the two most well-known varieties of lambic. Gueuze is a mix of aged and young lambic beers that undergoes a second fermentation, which results in carbon dioxide bubbles in the brew. Kriek is a mix of lambic and sour cherries. As the lambic and cherries undergo a second fermentation, the beer turns deep, deep cherry red and takes on a rich cherry flavor.
Faro is a mix of lambic and light beer, resulting in a mild, sugary brew. It's bottled as to prevent refermentation, and the end result has very little carbonation. At one point, it was considered to be a cheap beer, but these days, that stigma has disappeared.
Fruit lambic beers are those lambic beers mixed with fruit and given a second fermentation. Much like kriek, the end result is carbonated and richly fruity. Common fruit lambic beers are pêche, or peach, cassis, or blackcurrant, and framboise, or raspberry. Although the label may read fruit lambic, not all fruity lambic beers are actually made with lambic brews.