Comparing Old, Young, and Unblended Lambic
Throughout the Lambic.Info project, you will see references to and lists of jonge lambiek and oude lambiek (Dutch) or jeune lambic and vieux lambic (French). You may also note the absence of a familiar English-language category unblended lambic. We have used the native language-appropriate nomenclature for these beers based on the brewer or blender’s location or preferred language of communication. There is, however, a much more intentional reason for using these terms.
Clarifying the Language
The terms jonge and oude in Dutch and jeune and vieux in French directly translate to ‘young’ and ‘old’. When discussing the various styles of lambic in general, we found that many native speakers of the language use either the general term lambiek (Dutch) or lambic (French) in their everyday parlance. When asked to clarify their definition of lambic, speakers of the two prominent languages where the beer is produced always add the young/old adjective to clarify the age. Asking a native Dutch or French speaker to describe what a g(u)euze is will always yield the answer that it is a blend (mengeling, Dutch; mélange/assemblage, French) of young and old lambics.
This brings into question the ubiquitous English-language designation of unblended lambic. Historically, authors have generally used the English term to distinguish this type of lambic from its blended form g(u)euze and to a lesser extent from its fruited form. Papazian (1991), Jackson (1991, 1999), and De Keersmaecker (1996) all have used the term unblended lambic in English to describe a lambic beer which has not been blended into a g(u)euze or used to create a fruited lambic.
The official 2008 BJCP Style Guideline defines category 17D as "Straight (Unblended) Lambic" and notes in the comment section that “straight lambics are single-batch, unblended beers [and] ... since they are unblended, the straight lambic is often a true product of the “house character” of a brewery and will be more variable than a gueuze.” The 2014 draft proposal of the new guidelines eliminates the category of Straight (Unblended) Lambic, replacing it with category 23D: Lambic. The wording in the comments section remains unchanged. The Oxford Beer Companion, under the heading of “Types of Lambic” also uses the term lambic to distinguish it from g(u)euze and proceeds to describe “unblended lambic [as] uncarbonated, devoid of foam, sour, and available on tap only at a few locations around Brussels and in the producing villages.” The usage of unblended lambic in English likely predates the publications cited, and still persists in many print and online beer publications, including beer rating and categorizing websites. Though the BJCP's term is technically correct, it is rare that a lambic is commercially available while adhering to the strict understanding of the definition.
The Age of Lambic
Age plays an important role when discussing lambics that have not yet been blended into a g(u)euze. There is no set rule as to when a jonge lambiek becomes an oude lambiek. That decision is at the brewer’s or blender’s discretion and depends on a number of factors determined by them while working with the beer. We know that g(u)euze is described as a blend of young and old lambic, and that native language words for old and young are used to describe lambic in general terms. Asking a brewer or blender to describe their lambic in Dutch would not yield words like ongemengd, niet gemengd, or ongemixt, all the general equivalent to the English word unblended, and are rarely, if ever used in general discussions. Likewise, the same logic applies in French.
There are two likely causes for the unblended term becoming prominent in English lambic discussions. First, though many native Dutch and French speakers will describe lambic as young and old if pushed, the most common word for discussion is still just lambiek/lambic. Lambic is the base beer, g(u)euze is the blended beer. This would have presumably led to many of the earlier English language publications discussing lambic in terms of blended and unblended. That discussion, coupled with the fact that lambic beers in general were still a very obscure style to many outside of Belgium during the publication of many of the often cited beer bibles, leads one to reassess the use of the term in light of the resurgence and popularity in lambic. However, there is at least one English language publication (Guinard, 1992) that does not use the term unblended lambic and refers to the beers with generic age descriptors.
Does Unblended Lambic Exist?
Yes. The answer is that yes, unblended lambic does exist, but in our view it still falls under the category of old and young lambic. In much the same way that Dutch and French speakers discuss lambic as lambic first and age second, there had to be some sort of reconciliation of the terms on this site. To that end, we have forgone using the term unblended lambic and instead have decided to use native language appropriate terms for each of the breweries discussed on Lambic.Info. We have broken up any beer that is not specifically a g(u)euze, faro, or fruited lambic into their appropriate categories. Beers that are commonly labeled as unblended in English like De Cam’s Oude Lambiek De Cam, 3 Fonteinen’s bottled 4-year old Oude lambiek, or Cantillon’s Grand Cru Bruocsella are all various old lambics blended together and then bottled. This is a particularly important distinction when discussing bottlings of old lambic whose initial wort came from different breweries and/or brewdays but were blended together before bottling, thus contradicting the long-held definition of the style discussed above.
Unblended lambic exists perpetually in lambic breweries or blenderies. Each oak barrel that is filled from a brewing session is in essence a completely unblended lambic; yet it still has an age and can be described as such. A truly unblended lambic outside of the barrel is rare in the lambic world. A single barrel expression of a lambic is unblended. It has not been blended with any other lambic of the same age, the same brew day, or even the same batch. As each barrel has its own characteristics to impart on the beer, so too do the lambics that come from those barrels. That is why we see discussions of barrels chosen specifically for their unique characteristics. If you are lucky enough to be drinking from a barrel then there is a good chance that you are drinking unblended lambic, but it could be young or it could be old. Ask the brewer or blender what they think!
The easiest conclusion to draw is that a set of historical and linguistic misunderstandings played and continues to play an important role in the categorization of lambic beers into either blended or unblended categories. Coupled with the resurgent popularity of these beers among the English speaking population, it is important to understand how this nomenclature came to be, how it affects this project, and how these beers are being discussed in the native languages of the country in which they are being brewed.
- Charlie Papazian – The Complete Joy of Homebrewing (2nd Ed.), 1991
- Michael Jackson – Great Beers of Belgium (1st Ed.), 1991
- Michael Jackson, Understanding the Beer Styles, The Lambic Family of Beers, 1999
- Jacques De Keersmaecker - The Mystery of Lambic Beer, 1996
- BJCP - Style Guidelines, 2008
- BJCP - Style Guidelines - Draft Proposal, 2014
- Garrett Oliver, Tom Colicchio – The Oxford Companion to Beer, 2011
- Jean-Xavier Guinard - Classic Beer Styles: Lambic, 1990