Bottled lambic beers
|Country of origin||Belgium|
|Yeast type||Spontaneous fermentation|
|Alcohol by volume||2–8%|
|Color (SRM)||Yellow or pale to deep gold or dark red|
Unlike most beers, which are fermented with carefully cultivated strains of brewer's yeast, lambic is fermented spontaneously by being exposed to wild yeasts and bacteria native to the Zenne valley in which Brussels lies. This process gives the beer its distinctive flavour: dry, vinous, and cidery, usually with a sour aftertaste.
The beer is generally brewed from a grist containing approximately 60–70% barley malt and 30–40% unmalted wheat. The wort is cooled overnight in a shallow, flat metal pan called a coolship where it is left exposed to the open air so microorganisms may inoculate the wort. While this cooling method of open air exposure is a critical feature of the style, the key yeasts and bacteria that perform the fermentation reside within the breweries' timber fermenting vessels. Over eighty microorganisms have been identified in lambic beer, the most significant being Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Saccharomyces pastorianus and Brettanomyces bruxellensis. The process is generally only possible between October and May as in the summer months there are too many unfavourable organisms in the air that could spoil the beer.
Since at least the 11th century, and probably earlier, hops have been used in beer for their natural preservative qualities as well as for the pleasant bitterness, flavour, and aroma they impart. Since the method of inoculation and long fermentation time of lambic beers increases the risk of spoilage, lambic brewers use large amounts of hops for their antibacterial properties. Lambic in the early 19th century was a highly hopped beer, using 8–9 g/l of the locally grown Aalst or Poperinge varieties. Modern lambic brewers, however, try to avoid making the beer extremely hop forward and utilise aged, dry hops which have lost much of their bitterness, aroma and flavour. Consequently, lambics often have a strong, cheese-like, "old hop" aroma, in contrast to the resiny, herbal, earthy hop bitterness found in other styles. The favourite hop used for lambic in the nineteenth century was a variety called Coigneau which was cultivated in the Aalst-Asse area in Belgium.
After the fermentation process starts, the lambic is siphoned into old port wine or sherry barrels (of chestnut or oak) from Portugal or Spain. Some brewers prefer used wine barrels. The lambic is left to ferment and mature for one or several years. It forms a velo de flor of yeast that gives some protection from oxidation, in a similar way to vin jaune and sherry; the barrels are not topped up.
Types of lambic and derived beers
Lambic is usually a blend of at least two different beers; many producers are blenders who buy beer from other brewers and blend them together to create the desired result. A gueuze may have occupied space in several different cellars over six years or more. While those outside Belgium are likely to find bottled gueuze and fruited versions, a wider variety of styles is available to local drinkers. Beers are often blended again or sweetened with sugar or flavoured syrups before drinking as some can be extremely tart.
Most, if not all, of the varieties listed below have Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) status. This status does not specify that a product has a link to specific geographical area.
Unblended lambic is a cloudy, uncarbonated, bracingly sour beverage that is rarely available on tap. Draught releases are generally regarded as either jonge (young) or oude (old), depending on age and discretion of the brewer. Bottled offerings from Cantillon and De Cam can be found outside Belgium.
A mixture of young (one-year-old) and old (two- and three-year-old) lambics that have been bottled. Because the young lambics are not yet fully fermented, it undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle and produces carbon dioxide. A gueuze will be given a year to carbonate in the bottle, but can be kept for 10–20 years.
Mars traditionally referred to a weaker beer made from the second runnings of a lambic brewing. It is no longer commercially produced. In the 1990s, Boon Brewery made a modern Mars beer called Lembeek's 2% (the 2% referring to the alcohol content), but its production has since been discontinued.
Historically, a low-alcohol, sweetened beer made from a blend of lambic and a much lighter, freshly brewed beer to which brown sugar (or sometimes caramel or molasses) was added. The fresh beer was referred to as meertsbier, and was not necessarily a lambic. Sometimes herbs were added as well. The use of meertsbier (or water) and of substandard lambic in the blend made this a cheap, light, sweet drink for everyday consumption. The 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire commented on faro's disagreeable aftertaste, "It's beer that you drink twice", believing that the Faro in Brussels was brewed from the waters of a river (the Senne or Zenne) that was also used as a sewer.
The sugar was originally added shortly before serving, and therefore did not add carbonation or alcohol to the beverage, as the sugar did not have the time to ferment. Modern faro beer is still characterized by the use of brown sugar and lambic, but is not always a light beer. The use of meertsbier has disappeared, and modern faro is not viewed as cheap or light. Today, faro is bottled, sweetened, and pasteurized to prevent refermentation in the bottle. Examples are produced by Cantillon, Boon, Lindemans or Mort Subite.
Lambic refermented in the presence of sour cherries (usually the morello variety) and with secondary fermentation in the bottle results in kriek. Traditional versions of kriek are dry and sour, just as traditional gueuze.
Lambic with the addition of raspberry (framboise), peach (pêche), blackcurrant (cassis), grape (druif), or strawberry (aardbei), as either whole fruit or syrup. Other, rarer fruit lambic flavorings include apple (pomme), banana (banane), pineapple (ananas), apricot (abricot), plum (prune), cloudberry (plaquebière), lemon (citron), and blueberry (myrtille). Fruit lambics are usually bottled with secondary fermentation. Although fruit lambics are among the most famous Belgian fruit beers, the use of names such as kriek, framboise or frambozen, cassis, etc. does not necessarily imply that the beer is made from lambic. The fruit beers produced by the Liefmans Brewery, for example, use an oud bruin, rather than a lambic as a base.
Many of the non-traditional fruit beers derived from lambic that were commercialized in the last decades are considered to be low quality products by many beer enthusiasts. These products are typically artificially sweetened, artificially carbonated, sterilized, and based on syrups instead of whole fruit.
Belgian lambic producers
Lambic production is generally sanctioned and promoted by HORAL.
- Belle-Vue owned by InBev (sweetened, except Sélection lambic), Sint-Pieters-Leeuw
- Boon (traditional), Lembeek
- Brasserie Cantillon (traditional), Brussels
- De Keersmaeker owned by Scottish & Newcastle, better known by its brand name Mort Subite (sweetened, except Gueuze Fond), Kobbegem
- De Troch, (sweetened, except Oude Gueuze), Wambeek
- Girardin (traditional), Sint-Ulriks-Kapelle
- Lindemans Brewery (sweetened – except Cuvée René), Vlezenbeek
- Oud Beersel, brewed by Frank Boon (traditional), Beersel
- Timmermans (sweetened, except "Traditional" line), Itterbeek
- Van Honsebrouck produce St. Louis beers (sweetened, except Gueuze Fond Tradition) located outside of the Zenne valley, in Ingelmunster
- 3 Fonteinen (traditional), Beersel
In popular culture
- Lambik is the name given by Willy Vandersteen to a Belgian character in the comic strip Spike and Suzy (Suske en Wiske in Dutch) which appeared in Tintin magazine.
- Jackson, Michael (1991). Michael Jackson's Great Beers of Belgium.
- Risen, Clay (14 December 2009). "American Beer the Belgian Way". The Atlantic. Retrieved 12 December 2014.
- Spitaels, Freek, et al. "The Microbial Diversity of Traditional Spontaneously Fermented Lambic Beer." PloS one 9.4 (2014): e95384.
- "The birth of lambic". lindemans.be. Archived from the original on September 11, 2007. Retrieved 2010-06-09.
- Lacambre, G. Traité de la Fabrication des Bières et de la Distillation des Grains, etc., Vol. 1. 1851.
- "Lambic and the spontaneous fermentation". Cantillon.be. Brasserie Cantillon. Retrieved 6 November 2014.
- Jackson, Michael (1993). Michael Jackson's Beer Companion. Mitchell Beazley. ISBN 9781857321814.
- Baudelaire, Charles (1993). The Flowers of Evil. Oxford University Press. p. 382. ISBN 0-19-283545-9.
- "Comic creator: Willy Vandersteen". lambiek.net. Retrieved 2009-01-10.
- H. Verachtert, Lambic and gueuze brewing: mixed cultures in action, Foundation Biotechnical and Industrial Fermentation research, Vol. 7 Finland pp. 243–263.
- Jean-Xavier Guinard, Classic Beerstyle Series nr. 3, Lambic, Brewers Publications, a division of the Association of Brewers (1990).
- Dirk Van Oevelen, Microbiology and biochemistry of the natural wort fermentation in the production of Lambic and gueuze, PhD Thesis, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium (1979)
- Tim Webb, Chris Pollard, and Joris Pattyn. LambicLand/LambikLand. ISBN 0-9547789-0-1
- Jeff Sparrow, Wildbrews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewer's yeast, Brewers Publications, a division of the Association of Brewers (2005).
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