An Overview of Lambic
- 1 History
- 2 Lambic Geography
- 3 The Language of Lambic
- 4 Brewing Lambic
- 5 Culture vs. Chemistry
- 6 Lambic Styles
- 7 Sweetened Lambic
- 8 West Flanders
- 9 Storage / Cellaring
- 10 Serving Lambic
- 11 References
Main article: A Brief History of Lambic in Belgium
The story of lambic in the Belgian culture is a complex history that dates back to the times of the Roman Empire. From conquest and conquer in ancient times, to World Wars, taxation, decline in popularity, and resurgence, lambic has continued to persevere and evolve. Today, lambic is experiencing a renaissance in Belgium, across Europe, and throughout the world.
The Renaissance of Geuze (Dutch)
Pajottenland (sometimes Payottenland in English) is an extremely fertile agricultural region in Belgium that is situated in a valley between the rivers Senne and Dendre to the south-west of Brussels. The Pajottenland is the principal area for lambic production in the country. Only the western section of Neerpede, a small part of Brussels, is considered to be part of the Pajottenland region. Other cities located in this area, many of which are closely associated with lambic breweries, blenders, and cafés are Affligem, Asse, Bever, Dilbeek Gammerages, Gooik, Herne, Leeuw-Saint-Pierre, Lennik, Liedekerke, Pepingen, Roosdaal, and Ternat. The area gets its name from the Walloon word for a soldier from the region, a Payot.
Senne/Zenne and Dendre/Dender River valley
The Senne (French) / Zenne (Dutch) valley is as closely associated with lambic production as the Pajottenland. The Senne River is a small river that runs through the heart of Brussels and was notorious for being one of the most polluted rivers in Belgium. In fact, at one point the river was covered to help alleviate the pollution and flooding problems caused within the city. Today, the Senne is split in two and treated at new facilities before rejoining and continuing south of Brussels. In total, the river is 64 miles/103km long and flows through or near many of the lambic producing towns in Belgium. To the west of the Senne is another shorter river known as the Dendre (French) / Dender (Dutch) River. Though not often cited in lambic lore, the Dendre River is the second river that helps to cradle the valley known as Pajottenland.
The Language of Lambic
Main article: The Language of Lambic
Making sense of the terminology surrounding lambic can be as complex as the beer itself. Belgium is a country divided into very distinct linguistic regions whose inhabitants have their own words for many of the commonly used terms associated with the lambic tradition and process. Both Dutch and French speaking brewers and blenders are in operation today leaving many curious lambic drinkers wondering how this all came to be. Readers may also find the Lambic.Info Glossary helpful before reading the main article.
Main article: Brewing Lambic
The main ingredients of lambic consist of pale two-row malt (approximately 2/3 of the bill), unmalted wheat (approximately 1/3 of the bill), aged hops, water, and the local native microbes which drive the spontaneous fermentation. Lambic wort is produced through a time- and labor-intensive mashing process called turbid mashing. Turbid mashing involves the preservation of unconverted starchy and protein-rich wort which provides food and nutrients to the diverse microbes present throughout the long lambic fermentation. Lambic wort is boiled much longer than typical in conventional brewing and is hopped aged hops. When the wort is ready, it is transferred into the koelschip (or coolship) to cool and become inoculated for a ~12 hour period and then transferred to the oak barrels where it will continue to develop until it is either blended into gueuze or used in a variety of other lambic styles. There have been notable changes in the brewing process since the 19th century including the ratio of malt to wheat, mash temperatures, and controls on the exposure of the wort before being transferred to barrels. Today, the traditional process has been mostly standardized among the traditional brewers.
Microbiology and Biochemistry
Main Article: Microbiology and Biochemistry
The spontaneous fermentation of lambic is a complex process in which non-cultivated yeasts and bacteria present in the environment around the wort take up residence in, and are responsible for the fermentation of, the beer. In contrast to the controlled fermentation found in most other modern beers, spontaneous fermentation involves many different organisms and proceeds through at least four distinct, but often overlapping, stages, each characterized by the dominance of a different set of microbes which are responsible for different aspects of the finished lambic.
Culture vs. Chemistry
Main article: Culture vs. Chemistry
As lambic grows in popularity, more breweries, both in Belgium and throughout the rest of the world, continue to use the name to describe their products. Through HORAL and the independent efforts of many brewers and blenders, the lambic producers in the Pajottenland have sought to protect their traditional products, history, and culture. There are four main areas that impact this discussion:
- Terroir - Are the microorganisms of the payottenland unique?
- Process - Is the brewing process of lambic unique?
- Regulation - What laws, decrees, and other protections are in place to protect lambic?
- Culture - How does the history and culture of lambic play into the discussion?
This is a complex topic with no clear cut right or wrong answers. This article attempts to break down these issues and explore at the facts surrounding this unique product.
- Oude Lambiek/Vieux Lambic and Jonge Lambiek/Jeune Lambic
Main article: Comparing Old, Young, and Unblended Lambic
After the wort is left in the koelschip to pick up the wild yeast, it is then transferred to oak barrels to begin aging. Though much of the lambic brewed goes to the production of gueuze, some is held back to age and can be released in various stages. Pure lambic can take on different names at its various ages including jonge lambiek/jeune lambic (young lambic) and oude lambiek/vieux lambic (old lambic). The younger lambic is generally less than one year old and rarely seen outside of special cask and draught tappings. Older lambic is generally considered to be older than one year old and can be found both in bottles and on draught/cask.
Though this pure lambic is not as prevalent as gueuze, breweries such as Cantillon and De Cam regularly release pure lambic in bottles at approximately 2-3 years of age. The distinguishing characteristic of pure lambic is its lack of refermentation in the bottle leading to no carbonation. In certain cases, sugars may be added to the pure lambic at bottling to produce a secondary fermentation in the bottle creating carbonation.
Geuze (Dutch) or Gueuze (French) is the result of blending a young lambic (approximately one year old) with an old lambic (approximately two to three years old, or older). The blending of gueuze is a precise practice for which each blender has their own process. The resulting blend of lambics typically ends up in either 750ml or 375ml bottles that are laid to rest in the brewery's cellar to referment in the bottle. This secondary fermentation in the bottle produces a finely carbonated drink that is traditionally served from pouring baskets. While gueuze is generally a blend of one, two, and three year old lambics, several gueuzes consists of blends using small portions of four year old lambic (e.g., 3 Fonteinen has released Golden Blend which consists of a small portion of four year old lambic). Sometimes the resulting gueuze blends do not carbonate in the bottle, resulting in "lazy" beers that can remain flat for years. Examples of such "lazy" beers include Cantillon's Loerik, 3 Fonteinen's Doesjel and Golden Doesjel, and Lindemans Loerik.
- Fruited lambic
Various fruits have a long history of augmenting the taste of lambic. Traditionally, fruit lambic is made by macerating whole fruit with young lambic in wooden casks or large steel blending tanks. After the maceration, the lambic is either bottled (sometimes with a small amount of young lambic or sugar-liquor to aid natural carbonation in the bottle) or put into kegs or casks to be served. Some breweries such as Lindemans, De Troch, and Timmermans also use various fruit syrups and juices to flavor their lambics.
Kriek (cherry), framboise (raspberry), and druiven (grapes) are all commonly used among lambic producers. Other fruits include peaches, black currants, apricots, apples, and a wide variety of more exotic fruits such as Cantillon's use of bilberries in their Blåbær Lambik and Neill and Ross's use of blackberries in Shot in the Dark.
Historically, faro is a lower-alcohol, sweetened beer made with a blend of lambic and another freshly brewed beer (sometimes called a mars beer) in varying amounts. Faros are also known to have candy sugar, brown sugar, or cane molasses added to enhance the flavor. According to Guinard, faro "was a blend of equal amounts of lambic and mars... and was a sweet, light table beer that had to be brewed and sold before the heat of summer to avoid fermentation accidents and spoilage." Non-lambic beers that were blended in to create the faro were only brewed until the month of March, from which these beers derived their name. The custom of blending in mars beers into contemporary faro has subsided and they are now a blended version of young lambic sweetened with dark candy sugar and caramel coming in around 4.5% ABV. Recent commercial examples include 3 Fonteinen's Straffe Winter and De Cam's Oude Faro De Cam.
Main Article: Meerts
Meerts is a lower-strength spontaneously fermented beer traditionally produced from the later runnings of a lambic mash. Meerts was historically used in the production of Faro. Although Meerts was once a common product of lambic brewing, it is now only brewed by one Belgian lambic brewer - Brouwerij Boon.
- Duivels Bier
Main Article: Duivels Bier
Duivels Bier (also written Duivelsbier) is a historic beer from Halle (French: Hal) in the lambic family. Depending on the time period and producer, the production methods and characteristics of historic Duivels Bier would have varied. Around 1900 Duivels Bier was a spontaneously fermented beer with close similarities to lambic in both the characteristics of the final beer and in production methods. More recently Duivels Bier was a blend of lambic and top fermentation beer. Modern Duivels Bier is a top fermentation beer without lambic.
- Beer and Lambic Blends
Main article: Beer and Lambic Blends
Since lambic is often known for being blended, some commercial breweries have also blended young and old lambic with a variety of other beer styles. Often times, it is the lambic brewers or blenders who lend their lambics to other commercial breweries for blending, but some breweries, like Gueuzerie Tilquin have brought in outside beers to blend in-house with their own lambic. The characteristics present in lambic have been used to enhance beer styles from saisons to stouts, and these blends have been produced in a number of different countries.
Main article: Sweetened Lambic
No beer style has a greater dichotomy than lambic. For many, it is an entry level beer, marketed as easy drinking, sweet, and a great transition for people who generally do not like the taste of beer. On the other side, lambic is a complex beverage: an acquired taste that is considered to be one of most evolved and sought after tastes among beer aficionados. Exploring both varieties provides a more comprehensive understanding of the history of lambic beers in Belgium.
Main article: West Flanders
The entire country of Belgium has a strong tradition in brewing. Many brewers and styles have borrowed from one another over time. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in the mid-20th century when sweetened lambic was gaining popularity after the Second World War. Several breweries in particular began to capitalize on the popularity of this sweetened beer and make similar products. For a time, some of these breweries were buying lambic wort from producers in and around Brussels and maturing it in their own oak foeders outside of the Pajottenland before sweetening and packaging it as their own version of lambic. The history of spontaneously fermented beers in the West Flanders region is an interesting side story to the history of lambic in Brussels and the Pajottenland in general.
Storage / Cellaring
Lambic is one of the few beers capable of being aged for many years. This is because the beer contains microorganisms that continue to develop at different rates and change the characteristics of the beer. Additionally, oxygen can work with these yeasts (such as Brettanomyces) to change the characteristics of the beers over time. Lambic is commonly sought after if it has been bottled between 0 and 15 years, though bottles dating back through the past 100+ years are still occasionally opened and reported to be drinkable. Cantillon recently started their Underground Cellar project where they are working to age lambic in controlled conditions with minimal interaction.
Lambic, like wine, is most commonly stored on its side. This orientation expands the surface area of the beer that is in contact with the oxygen in the bottle. It also places the beer in contact with the cork. While the cork will remain moist even if the bottle is upright because of the 100% humidity in the bottle, storing the bottle sideways may lead to more ullage of a beer by keeping the cork in contact with liquid rather than air. Also, if the cork breaks down with age, direct contact between the beer and cork can lead to Trichloroanisole (TCA) "corked" flavors in the beer. Brewers continue to experiment with corks and continue to invest in higher quality corks that should allow for better aging of lambic in the future.
Lambic also contains natural yeasts and microorganisms which can lead to considerable sediment in the bottle while it ages. Fruits can further contribute to the sediment in a bottle. By storing the beer on it's side, the yeasts will settle along the side of the bottle. When a basket is used for serving, the bottle is kept on its side, allowing the yeast to stay in this state and reducing what sediment gets poured into the glass.
Horizontal storage lambic is not a steadfast rule, however. Many Boon beers specifically state on the label to store them upright. No long-term controlled studies have been done to prove the benefits of vertical and horizontal aging of Lambic.
Main article: Serving Lambic
Lambic has traditionally been served in a number of ways, including directly from wooden casks, in bottles, and through modern day draught systems. The various methods of serving lambic can often coincide with the equipment and vessels used to serve the beer, and many of the traditions and methods employed to serve lambic today have remained relatively unchanged since the 19th century.
- Jean-Xavier Guinard, Classic Beer Styles: Lambic, 1990
- Lambic Digest, June 8, 1994, http://18.104.22.168/lambic_digest/1994/366.txt