Botanical Lambics

Like many other lambic connoisseurs, my first acquaintance with lambic was through a fruit lambic of dubious merit (retrospectively). But it was  Monk’s Cafe’s Flemish’s Sour Ale in 2007 that revealed the potential of a true sour beer and prompted me to research related beers and, of course, the lambics from Belgium such as Cantillon.

Traditional fruit lambics are great but something of a black art. Fruit lambics do not age well, they can turn out one-dimensionally sour, and acitic acid can show up where it should not. As a general rule, I have become more partial to (aged) unblended lambic and gueuze. When it comes to adding things to the lambic I am more intrigued by adding herbs and vegetables. I think my first true experience was Cantillon’s Zwanze 2008, a rhubarb beer. The idea of a botanical lambic evokes the image of some kind of medieval, mind-altering concoction – as ancient as time. Adding herbs and spices to wild ales and lambics has become a lot more common since then but I was still determined to taste all the Lindemans “botanical lambic” releases after having reviewed their SpontanBasil bottling.

Lindemans’s BlossomGueuze, a “2 to 3 year old lambic aged in wood, blended with 12 month old lambic and elderflower” is the second release in their botanical lambic series. Elderflower is no a stranger to lambics as it was used by Cantillon for their Zwanze 2009 experiment, which was so well received that this elderflower lambic was revived as Cantillon Mamouche, and became a part of their regular line-up. When I still dabbled with wild beer homebrewing myself I made an elderflower sour once by adding a lot of elderflower during secondary fermentation. This produced such strong elderflower notes that I have become quite adapt in recognizing its aroma in beers.

BlossomGueuze pours is a clear amber-colored beer. So clear that some might identify it as a different beer style. It has a soft aroma of elderflower (a lot more subtle than my homebrew!), stone fruit, and oak.  My tasting notes read green apple, elderflower, bitter lemon, and grass. This is a very dry beer and there is a lingering bitter aftertaste with a little bit of tannin.  Quite effervescent and refreshing.

The GingerGueuze is blend of 2 to 3 year old lambics and 1 year old lambic to which ginger was added. Strinctly speaking, the “ginger” used in this beer is galangal, a closely related spice in the rhizome family. Galangal is also called “Thai Ginger” and is somewhat different from the ginger that most people know. I cannot claim to recognize all the subtleties involved here but I have consumed enough ginger tea and ginger kombucha to recognize the basic flavor well.

After sampling all the Lindemans botanical lambics it seems to me that their base beer for the botanicals series is the same (clear, amber, slightly tannic, effervescent)  which makes it a little easier to focus on the added herbs. There is a distinct ginger aroma but not too pungent. In fact, there is a little sweetness to the nose. Quite mild and pleasant. There is definitely ginger in the taste and I would say that it is more pronounced than the basil and elderflower in their other botanical lambics.  But is not too hot or sharp which would have overwhelmed the other lambic qualities. Other things I pick up are gin & tonic, bitter orange, and the slightly bitter note that seems to be present in all the base beers of this series. The GingerGueuze has a thinner mouthfeel in my experience. What positively set it apart from the other two is that the added ginger carried over in a longer finish. This beer, or any of their botanicals, did not strike me as particularly complex or deep (“geuze plus ginger” is an apt characterization) but  I am not sure whether one can ask for a lot more for experimental brews such as this.

One can only hope that Lindemans continues its series of botanical lambics. Fortunately, the “style” as such is not dependent on this project. Other lambic brewers (Cantillon in particular) have established a sound track record for brewing with herbs, flowers, spices etc. In the United States, adding botanicals to Wild Ales is quite common and the practice is routinely used at breweries such as De Garde and Upright. At some point this style will persist long enough to converge on issues such as optimal concentrations, exposure time, botanical combinations, and aging potential.

As I write this, my favorite “green sour” style remains a juniper-forward wild ale aged in gin barrels. Some years ago I even played with the idea of starting my own botanical (nano) brewery to focus on archaic spontaneously fermented gruits. I think it is fair to say that the vision behind this idea has been independently recognized by others and has culminated in some rather interesting experiments coming to the market.

Going Gris and Rouge

As I have increasingly become a predominantly wine drinker, I find co-fermenting grapes with a beer, or even blending wine with a sour to be quite tempting.  Lambic brewery, Cantillon, has been adding grapes to two of its seasonal brews for years and one of them, Vigneronne, was a favorite of mine when their products were more readily available in Portland.

Sour beers and grapes can be joined to create a unique beer in a variety of ways, including co-fermenting the grapes with the beer, adding grape juice to the fermenting beer, or adding a portion of finished wine to  a completed brew.

My favorite Portland brewery, Upright, has been releasing a number of grape-incorporating bottles recently, and I purchased two of those to taste.

The 2017 Oregon Native uses estate pinot noir grapes from the Patton Valley Vineyards to co-ferment in Upright barrels. Intriguingly, the beer was fermented with yeast indigenous to the Patton Valley orchard, which introduces a natural wine touch to this creation. I poured the beer in a Cantillon glass and it boasted a translucent, Burgundy red color in the light. With a very pleasant aroma and what I would be inclined to call a classic Upright nose at this point, it had mild brettanomyces character and oak. My bottle was quite tart by Upright standards, with notes of lemon, cassis,  slight bitterness, and some residual sweetness accompanied by light tannins from the oak and grapes, consistent with the use of the leaner pinot noir.  It was a dry (but not bone-dry) beer with medium carbonation ditton on the mouthfeel.

Going Gris takes another step on the road of blending the philosophies of natural wine making and wild ales. This collaboration between Upright and natural wine experimenters Minimus Wines was made for the 10th anniversary of Bailey’s Taproom and features orchard yeast, a blend of beers (including one with rose petal), and the rare savagnin rose grape matured in an acacia wood cask. The beer looked extraordinarily clear and Pilsner-like, with a rapidly declining head. I observed spice and grain on the nose with a whiff of brett. It was tart, vinous, and herbal, with a pronounced bitter-lemon like note, and quite carbonated. The light mouthfeel gave this elegant and very drinkable beer a sophisticated and cerebral touch.

I had high hopes for these two beers and was not disappointed. Both brews were excellent but Going Gris was particularly fascinating. An obvious question is whether these grape / sour blends are more than the sum of their parts. I think it depends. I had another wine / sour blend by the glass at Upright which did taste more or less like beer blended with wine, mutually diluting each other’s likable characteristics. Other attempts, such as the Cantillon brews and the Upright bottles reviewed here do something more and open a world that cannot be fully captured with wine or beer alone.  As this beer style is a subset of an already smaller craft style it will probably still take a considerable amount of time to understand the behavior and outcomes of using different kinds of grapes, fermentation choices, and aging regimes to identify the most attractive combinations and styles. These experimental brews do indicate this will be a fruitful journey.

In defense of orange wine

The title of this post is somewhat tongue-in-cheek because if the growing interest of wine drinkers and restaurants in white skin-contact wines is any indication, “orange wines” do not need much of a defense. As it often goes, however, some observers and detractors of this phenomenon do not confine themselves to stating that it is just not their thing, but rather present a number arguments as to why they believe the rise of white skin-contact wines is just “a fad.” As a general rule, skeptics of orange wines are skeptics of natural wines in general. To them, the rise of natural wines and orange wines will always be a niche thing – confined to stubborn traditional winemakers and urban hipsters.

As someone who has written extensively on spontaneously fermented beers and “wild ales,” I have seen such denigrating statements before. It may be undeniable that many of the earlier adopters of spontaneously fermented beers, wild ciders, and natural wines are “hipsters,” but to characterize a return to local and ancient fermentation methods as “a fad” is odd, to say the least.

One typical argument is that many white skin-contact wines are flawed. The word “flawed” should be used with caution, and is only meaningful when one can establish what the “normal” wine characteristics for an orange wine should be.  It makes little sense to judge a skin contact wine by the standards of a “normal” white wine. Saying that an orange wine is too phenolic, bretty, or oxidized begs the question. If these characteristics are traditional for the style, and work well in a skin contact wine, than they are neither flaws nor faults. To use an analogy from the beer world again,  the presence of lacto bacteria and brettanomyces is a flaw in a lager, but a defining characteristic for a lambic beer.  A wine style has to fail on its own terms to be flawed. If a wine turns to vinegar, or the proliferation of wild yeast deprives the wine of all fruit and complexity, it is reasonable to conclude that it is a failure. But if you are really trying to break down some of the arguments against orange wines (and natural wines in general), a lot them can just be re-stated as not conforming to the criteria of a clean (white) wine.

The duration of skin contact also matters a great deal. A crisp orange wine that was on the skins for only 24 hours  is a completely different animal from an orange wine that was on the skins for 12 months and then buried in amphorae for fermentation and aging. This makes it challenging to even generate a set of standards or expectations for all orange wines.

Sampling a lot of different skin contact wines, and then revisiting the occasional modern white wine, has left me puzzled. Following wine writers such as Alice Feiring, it is not perplexing to me that we ferment white wines on the skin, but rather, that we stopped doing so. There is a time and place for clean, transparent, and sparkling whites but that such wines have almost become the norm needs explanation. I suspect that the explanation is the same as for other alcoholic beverages. We want a clean, consistent, fruit-forward product that has alcohol but does not feature the diverse and lively products of actual fermentation, and no signs of tartness, “wild” yeast, or oxidation, in particular. Our palates have increasingly been shaped by alcoholic beverages that were literally “killed” before bottling. When conventional winemakers talk of terroir they often confine themselves to the soil, not the microorganisms involved in fermentation. The yeast comes from a package.

Of course, the strongest argument in favor of a “new” (i.e. old) style is that it is good. The reason why I started writing about spontaneous fermentation is, once more, that I was simply blown away by the flavors, aromas, and visual appearance of some of the white skin-contact wines that I (serendipitously) tried. It was this “aha” moment that I also experienced when I drank my first lambic beer and became a strong public advocate for them.

In a world where natural wine bars and shops proliferate, “sour” beers and spontaneously fermented meads and ciders are on the rise, and kombucha starts replacing soda habits, I am not that concerned about the struggle of orange wine for recognition. But some historical / conceptual clarification is needed to counter some of the ignorant reception of these wines. There may be a day when spontaneously fermented skin-contact wines will be on the decline again, but don’t count on it any time soon.

SpontanBasil

Lindemans is not the kind of brewer that I had expected to review any time soon on this website. Despite its respectable history as a lambic brewer, Lindemans has been mostly known for its production of sweetened lambics and taking shortcuts in brewing (oak chips instead of real barrel fermentation). As a results of the rapidly growing interest in traditional lambic in Belgium and wild ales in the United States, Lindemans has been increasing its production of traditional lambics in the form of year-round tradional geuze and kriek bottlings, and occasional special brews and collaborations. SpontanBasil is a collaboration between Lindemans and Mikkeler from Copenhagen, Denmark.

Despite being a limited release, I have seen SpontanBasil in local grocery stores since 2016. While some lambics and wild ales sell for prices  comparable to a good wine, I suspect that the almost $30 price tag did not make this beer fly off the shelves, despite its “ridiculously limited quantities.” Or at least, not in Portland. I got a lot more interested when a local store in my neighborhood decided to start offloading this beer by a substantial price drop.

SpontanBasil was made by modifying the traditional geuze process by  adding whole basil leaves to a batch of one to two-year old oak-aged lambic. Appropriately so, the green bottle also sports a green label that blends together the vintage art deco logo of Lindemans and the Mikkeler logo for a classic, and somewhat amusing, effect. Even the bottle cap covering the cork is green. As someone who increasingly seems to prefer the addition of herbs instead of fruits to lambic I was quite eager to sample this beer.

A pour of SpontanBasil in a Cantillon glass shows a clear golden color. The aroma is that of a classic geuze, oak, and a little bit of mild greens. The flavor is fresh and quite sour with mild tannins and what appears to be the medicinal flavor of basil in the aftertaste. Overall, the beer drinks like a good, classic geuze, with that little extra touch.

Since I do not have any other basil lambics or sours to go on I do not have a good idea of how much aroma and flavor one can expect from an experiment like this. I even purchased a little basil (later used for a basil tea) to use as a benchmark.  I have tasted a lot of dry-hopped lambics and sours with a wide variety of herbs and I must admit that I had hoped for stronger basil notes. I also wonder about the rate at which the basil aromas and flavor decrease over time. I know Cantillon recommends drinking its fruit lambics at a relatively young age and perhaps something similar applies to botanical brews such as this. Of course, maybe there was simply not enough basil, or the basil should also have been added during the boil itself.

Considering its rather weak basil character (at least, to my palate), pairing this beer with basil based dishes (as the distributor recommends) seems like a little bit of a stretch to me. But considering that geuze is my favorite beer style, I was still left with a rather good blend of lambics. It appears that Lindemans has a strong interest in adding botanicals to lambics (‘”Botanische Lambiekbieren'”)because, following Cantillon, they also released a lambic with elderflower named BlossomGeuze and recently announced a new bottling of lambic with Thai ginger named GingerGeuze.

Back to Orange

It all started with Radikon. That would be tempting to say. But truthfully, while it was quite likely that Radikon constituted my first experience with skin-contact wine (“orange wine”) it did not occur to me at the time that Radikon’s wines were part of a tradition of wine making that rather “predictably” produces the properties in a wine that I enjoy so much. I liked it a lot but did consider it an eccentric natural wine, not part of a “tradition.”

In fact, I had made an earlier attempt to characterize wines that should appeal to lambic drinkers (“funky”, “natural”, etc.) but my attempt seemed contrived and retrospectively I feel that only the oxidized, full, whites of the Jura region were a good, first approximation. I thoroughly enjoyed many natural wines but never experienced that transformative, life-changing experience with a particular style of wine making that initially drew me so strongly to lambics – despite finding myself increasingly drinking more wine.

There was the occasional skin-contact white experimental wine from Oregon but the first time it really hit me that orange wines were the kind of wines that I had been looking for was in 2016 at an organic restaurant in Berlin near Christiane F’s Bahnhof Zoo where the wine-by-the-glass list offered a skin-contact Pinot Gris (“Graupert”) by the Austrian winemaker Meinklang. I was so blown away by the wine that I returned to the restaurant a few days later to have it again. Here was everything I was looking for in a wine: tart, funky, complex, and so drinkable. I made a firm mental note about “orange wines”…

Meinklang Graupert in Berlin

In 2017 the Portland Fermentation Society attended a natural wine event at Liner and Elsen where my favorite wine turned out to be an orange wine named “La Petite Robe” by Jean-Yves Peron from France. I purchased a bottle. Things started to solidify. I started deliberately looking for orange wines on menus now (and tried to seek out the places that served them).

In June 2017, after an uninspiring day-trip to Florence (“the open air museum”) I returned to Bologna, collected my courage, and found myself a table at the local natural wine bar Olindo Faccioli, expecting a fair amount of language challenges. This did not happen and my inquiry about an orange wine by the glass was met with educated enthusiasm and  I was swiftly presented with one of my best wine experiences to date: Denavolo Dinavolino. There was more than a whiff of brettanomyces in this wine, yes, but it complemented its tart profile beautifully! I re-ordered this wine by the glass and at some point the server just handed me the remainder of the bottle….

I think this orange wine experience in Bologna, facing the gorgeous red and orange buildings, triggered the same kind of “eureka” moment that I had experienced in the past with the spontaneously fermented lambics. Which may not be too surprising because I do not think it is contrived to see the shared properties between lambics, the oxidized Jura wines, and the ancient skin-contact wines.

Denavolo Dinavolino in Bologna

Upon returning to the US I made sampling many more skin-contact whites an important priority (Coenobium Rusticum, Gravner, etc.). And after an almost five year hiatus, found my passion to write about spontaneous fermentation rejuvenated and have decided to make skin contact wines an important part of this blog. I realized there are so many stories to tell. So many subtle differences in aroma and taste to explore. What does skin contact mean for different white grapes? Flavor as a function of skin exposure time? Storage vessels such as amphorae and barrels. Understanding how the complex biochemistry of skin-contact fermentation in whites creates such beauty. And with the price of lambic (which remains another passion) reaching absurd, but understandable, levels in the United States, I am glad that this new fascination will not be a complete drain on my wallet.

Block 15 Turbulent Consequence Premiere Annee

While American craft brewers release wild ales and beers fermented with “brett” around the clock nowadays, brewers who utilize spontaneous fermentation are still a lot rarer. Block 15′s Turbulent Consequence Première Année is a “spontaneously oak barrel fermented ale” that is brewed each fall and spring  according to Belgium lambic tradition. That means a turbid mash, unmalted wheat, a long boil, aged hops, and cooling of the wort in a coolship before barrel aging. This bottle is a 2012 selection of two barrels and bottled with honey (!). As such, the beer is an interesting approximation of a Belgian gueuze, albeit a little on the younger side.

The beer pours a cloudy, burnt / golden orange;  the head disappears quickly after pouring, producing a flat appearance. The aroma is fairly complex. Lactic notes dominate in addition to sweet, lemon,  funky, “wet cellar,” and brettanomyces notes. The taste is dry, lemony and puckering. Despite its flat appearance, carbonation is moderate, mouth feel is moderate, and there is some astringency from the barrels. This is a dry, light, and refreshing beer. Despite its low alcohol (5.8%), I would not characterize this as a session beer. It’s quite sour (at least the bottle I had), even for people who enjoy this kind of thing (me).

I cannot praise Block 15 highly enough for their ventures into spontaneous fermentation. I’d say that this beer is still a little young and raw and it lacks the complexity and depth of Belgian lambics but spontaneous fermentation and blending is an art that takes many years of experience to perfect. Strangely enough, I would say that this blend could have benefited a little from “something else” (a stronger oak note, botanicals etc.) to take some of the edge of the puckering lacto but that would have made it a different beer. I don’t know if the sweet aroma came from the honey that was added to the bottle, but I do like this natural approach to create carbonation because it adds a little complexity and allows the beer to ferment to dryness.

Health benefits of lambic beer

For a long time I have wanted to write a blog post on the (possible) health benefits of lambic beer. I am not sure if one could argue that lambic is healthy in terms of extending the average human lifespan (let alone the maximum human lifespan!), not to mention the risk of alcoholism, but there are a number of aspects about traditional lambic beer that compare favorably to most other beer styles.

1.  The most obvious characteristic of lambic beer is that it is the product of both yeast and bacterial fermentation. As a result, lambic beer is much more of a probiotic than most other beer styles and may contribute to healthy gut flora. In addition, if you believe that humans do best to adapt to a diet and lifestyle closer to our ancestors (such as adherents of the Paleo Diet), lambic beer is a more logical choice (or, at a minimum, the least harmful) than modern pasteurized and bacteria-deficient beers.

2. Another interesting characteristic of lambic beer is that it is typically fermented bone dry with little residual sugar (Cantillon beers are a good example). This does not make it an “ideal” drink for diabetes patients, but you can certainly do a lot worse by drinking beer styles that have a lot of residual sugars such as imperial stouts or barley wines.

3. Another interesting aspect about lambic beer is that is has relatively low amounts of hops. The phytoestrogens in hops have been identified as potent inhibitors of testosterone, which supposedly contributed to hops becoming dominant as the sole herb (at the exclusion of more, well, “sexually potent” herbs) among Protestant reformers. When we think of testosterone we usually tend to think of body builders and juvenile aggression but testosterone has a number of important physiological roles in the human body for both males and females. One interesting question is whether the tradition of contemporary lambic brewers to use oxidized hops makes a difference, too.

4. Lambic beers are typically lower in alcohol. Unless you are an American “wild ale” brewer who believes that “more is more,” or you are a lambic brewer named Boon, lambic beer usually has a modest alcohol percentage between 4.5% and 6%.  Alcohol is a strong diuretic and, like hops, has been associated with lower testosterone levels, too.

5. A number of lambic brewers (yet again, Cantillon) lean strongly towards the use or organic ingredients and abhor the use of artificial ingredients or processes.

Caveats and additional thoughts:

Clearly, this post is not the final word on the health aspects of lambic beer and some of these benefits may need to be further qualified or may turn out to be non-existent or only applicable to certain populations, genders, and age groups. It should be obvious that almost everything that I have said here applies to traditional lambics, not the pasteurized, sweetened beers that, unfortunately, use the same name. It should be rather obvious, too, that most of what is said here also applies to many American “wild ales,” provided alcohol and hops are kept at reasonable levels and added fruit is allowed to ferment to dryness.

Instead of thinking of lambic as a specific beer style we can also think of it as a framework to approach brewing in general. This opens up the possibility of reinventing many traditional beer styles and allowing elements of the lambic brewing process to play a role in these other kinds of beer. For example, the use of wild yeast to lower residual sugar in a beer or the addition of (wild) bacteria.

Most people do not drink beer for its health benefits, but it would be interesting to think about how to further improve the health aspects of lambic beer. What about using a different herb than hops to inhibit proliferation of undesirable bacteria and further enhance its health benefits (making a so called wild gruit)?  What about blending lambic with red grapes such as in Cantillon’s Saint Lamvinus, or blending it with wine or kombucha as some experimental brewers have recently done? It is conceivable that beer will always lose against red wine (of the “natural” variety that is) in terms of health benefits, a price that some beer drinkers will not mind paying. Then again, lambic drinkers often like wine too, so choosing the right proportions may be just what the doctor ordered (sic)…

Geuze en humanisme

One of the most curious publications in the history of lambic beer, and I suspect, the history of beer, is Hubert van Herreweghen’s ‘Geuze en Humanisme.’ Its full title translates to ‘Geuze and Humanism: presumptuous reflections on the excellence of the beer of Brussels and Brabant, and the people who drink it, embellished with illustrations by Maurits van Saune.’ In 1955 Leo van Hoorick asked Flemish poet Hubert van Herreweghen (1920)  to speak about geuze and humanism  for the Vlaamse Club in Brussels and the text was later by published and offered to the club members as a 1956 New Year’s present in an edition of 400 copies. Since its publication, Geuze en Humanisme had become something of a rarity and collectors’ item until it was reprinted in 2010 by the Belgium province of Vlaams Brabant and Uitgeverij P. on high quality paper with the original illustrations.

The title Geuze en Humanisme sounds rather pretentious and in a sense it is because the author starts his lecture with reflections on the death of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus in Switzerland and his final longing for the countryside of Brabant. This permits van Herreweghen to praise the people of Brabant and, of course, the beer known as geuze. Van Herreweghen entertains a number of theories about the name ‘geuze’ before he dismisses them, including the curious theory that the word geuze refers to the Geuzen who opposed Spanish rule in the Netherlands the 16th century. These freedom fighters used to carry beer on their belts and induced a second fermentation as a result of the shaking of the beer while walking in the sun! More likely, he admits, is that the name refers to the politically classical liberal brewers who released the beer in bottles. Notwithstanding the secular origin of lambic beer, the author confesses that the taste of the beer is quite catholic in nature.

Hubert van Herreweghen then resumes his treatment of geuze by characterizing the beer and its production. As do many historical writers on lambic, he emphasizes that the magic that spontaneous fermentation contributes to lambic is only possible in Brussels and its surrounding rural areas — and then only when brewing occurs during the winter months. We do now know that this is not entirely correct and this view has been replaced by the more modest perspective that spontaneous fermentation expresses the regional microflora and the Brussels area is quite favorable for the production of lambic. Without being too technical and boring to his audience, the author attempts to relay the microbiology that gives rise to lambic and concludes by observing that the production of lambic with all its (micro) struggles and uncertainties is like life itself. He also alludes to the subtle (regional) changes between various lambic brewers and the corresponding preferences and loyalties this phenomenon produces.

The most memorable part of the lecture is where he discusses the health benefits of lambic, part sincere, part ironic. He start this topic by pointing out that geuze is not a drink of alcoholics but a beer meant to be consumed at home with family or to socialize with friends.  We also know about the old doctor’s recipe of blending two eggs and geuze to create a medical potion to stimulate healthy blood cells – one of the illustrations features this concoction sitting on a nightstand. Outright hilarious is his description of a seriously ill farmer (Baldus) who was brought to the hospital for surgery. But upon opening the man the surgeons conclude that there is little hope for recovery and sent him home to die among his family. When the agonal farmer is asked if there is still something he wants he answers…”lambiek,” which is honored. After giving the dying man a young lambic the light slowly returns in his eyes. This lambic treatment continues for days and now the man still walks around as the living proof of the healthy and healing nature of lambic beer.

As can be expected from a poet ,Van Herreweghen concludes his lecture by reciting geuze poetry by other (Flemish) poets and contributes his own ‘Litanie van de schone uithangborden,’ which takes the listener through a list of renowned lambic establishments, many of which no longer exist:

Een Bundelke Wissen,
In het nuchtere Kalf,
Het Kelderken,
De Sleutelplas,
Den ouden Sinte Pieter,
Het Spinnekopken,
De Drijpikkel,
Het Vossegat,
Bij het Varken,
Bij den Bult,
De Windmuts,
Den Spaanschen Bempt,
Het Huis van Oostenrijk,
In den Hazenwind,
Het Stroblommeke van Papier,
Den grooten Hof van den
ouden edelen Handboog,
De Roskam,
Den ouden spijtigen Duivel,
De Spanuit,
In de Slek,
De groene Boomgaard,
Den subieten Dood.

After this extensive introduction to the virtues of geuze, he invites the audience in attendance to drink geuze with him and celebrate the health of the lambic brewers in attendance. Testament to the health effects of geuze is that Hubert van Herreweghen is still alive at 92 years old and even revisited the topic of geuze again at a Flemish event in 2010!

Not so Wild Ales

The recent Lost Abbey and New Belgium Lips of Faith Brett Beer has produced a number of interesting exchanges on internet forums and beer rating apps. Some reviewers are disappointed that the beer is not sour. Clearly, this is a misunderstanding of the brew because 100% brettanomyces beers are not necessarily supposed to be sour. They can be slightly tart as a consequence of acetic acid production by the brettanomyces yeast, but for a real sour beer the brett needs to work in conjunction with souring bacteria. A more understandable concern is that New Belgium filtered out the brettanomyces yeast prior to bottling. This is not speculation but has been actually confirmed by Lauren Salazar from New Belgium in an interesting and candid interview for Embrace the Funk. Lauren not only confirms that there is no living brett yeast in the Brett Beer, but also goes into quite some detail about their use of flash pasteurization for their sour blends.

To me such a development actually reflects how far sour beers and wild ales have come. If New Belgium would be one of the few producers of such beers, I could imagine some people being really concerned about such a procedure. In the current situation I suspect that many craft beer lovers who strongly prefer bottle-conditioned wild ales will just look for a release of any of the other 100+ craft brewers that do sour and brett beers. In fact, if you look at Flemish Reds you will note that pasteurization is not beyond the pale in this style at all. Clearly, there is a whole world out there between traditional spontaneously fermented lambics and pasteurized sweetened beers.  As long as a traditional beer style is not on the brink of extinction (such as traditional lambic was not that long ago), I think that respecting the artistic, business, and practical decisions a brewer makes is the most welcome approach.

Lauren does make a point about flash pasteurization that draws attention to different views people can have about what makes a style a style (or what makes a beer a beer). She says that pasteurization has “a side effect, but it’s a wonderful side effect. It locks the blend that I produce into place. ..You know some people store beers like Geuze for a really long time and what they don’t realize is that blender painstakingly made that blend.  The blender tasted all their barrels and said “This percentage of this barrel, this percentage of this one etc..”. That person brought all those together, tasted it and said “Perfect.” But 3 years later, who knows what it’s like if its not pasteurized. So when you pasteurize you can definitely lock in the blend, but it can also oxidize.”  This surprised me because it is well known that some lambic brewers and blenders do actually encourage people to age their geuzes and even highlight the qualities that the beer will pick up over time – just attend a vertical tasting of geuzes to experience this. When these brewers blend, the evolution of the beer over time and its aging potential is one of the things on their mind. Yes, the beer can get oxidized but that is something that both the drinker and the producer recognize – just like people with a wine cellar recognize their (expensive) wines may turn out fabulous, mediocre, or past their prime.

Lambic connoisseurs often have clear affinities with the (natural) wine crowd. No lambic or gueuze is the same year after year, but this is seen as a feature of lambic brewing and not a bug.  It is one of the things that makes spontaneous fermentation and natural wine making so interesting and fascinating (even from a biochemical perspective). It mimics life. It is as much about taste as it is about process and acceptance. Clearly, this is not an approach that is suitable for all brewers and as the craft beer revolution keeps on going we are going to see more safer and “consistent” approaches; filtered brett beers; pasteurized sours; changing the ratio between young and old base beers in a blend to make it more marketable; carefully cultivated “wild” yeast; and perhaps even sour beers that have never been in contact with bacteria at all! But there are also going to be the new craft- and home brewers who install coolships or use “infected” barrels to ferment their beers.

Speaking for myself, I increasingly have a hard time keeping up with and tasting, let alone reviewing, all the wild ales (and not so wild ales) that are being produced by American craft brewers. To keep things interesting and manageable for myself, I will now mostly confine myself to brewers that do spontaneous fermentation or who do something really interesting (such as gin barrel aging of sours, producing sour gruits etc.).