Toer de Geuze 2022 Reclusive Edition
Cantillon Grand Cru Bruocsella Brut
I have always been partial to Cantillon’s Grand Cru Bruocsella, an unblended 3-yeard old lambic. Perusing the bottle list at Moeder Lambic Fontaines on an October evening in 2021, my eye caught a bottle of Grand Cru Bruocsella Brut. At a time where an endless number of lambic variations (fruits, barrels, non-traditional blends etc.) compete for the spotlight, having a carbonated version of this (mostly) still beer seemed intriguing to me. It would reconcile the mellower, aged, character of an old unblended lambic with the effervescence of a Geuze.
The label shows a variation of the regular Grand Cru Bruocsella label, emphasizing a different drawing of the Town Hall of the Grand Place against a dark background. This beer was brewed in 2015 and bottled in 2019. Two barrels of old lambic were blended and refermented in the bottle to produce it, although it is not clear how this fermentation in the bottle was achieved given the old nature of the lambics involved.
That this is not your regular Bruocsella became instantly clear when it poured with a lot of foam despite a doing a gentle pour. The beer is orange gold, translucent, with some lacing that gradually disappears from the glass. Aromas of wood, brett, and oranges. Grand Cru Bruocsella is tart with bitter grapefruit notes, and quite astringent – noticeable barrel notes. Its finish is on the shorter end of the spectrum, with a tannic, bitter aftertaste. Not sure if this is an example of “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” Not the most complex Cantillon but a very interesting spin on a classic.
Lambic signs and posters at Timmermans (Toer de Geuze, 2019)
Toer de Geuze 2019 Photos
Photography by Aschwin de Wolf & Avantika Bawa
Toer de Geuze 2019
After missing two installments of Toer de Geuze I was excited to attend this year’s event. To say that a lot has changed since I attended my first Toer de Geuze in 2009 is an understatement. Toer de Geuze 2019 is a well-organized two-day event now with attendees from all over the world. The participating breweries are no longer struggling to survive but are expanding their production (or even locations), launching new products, and collect wine-style prices for special (international) releases. Some things don’t change, however, and Cantillon and Girardin remain absent from the line-up. The biggest surprise for me was that some of the most interesting brews I sampled were from breweries and blenders that previously mostly dabbled in non-exceptional geuzes or sweetened faux lambics.
As in prior years, we gathered in front of the Halle Train Station for our bus of choice. Despite the event comprising two days it is challenging to attend all your favored breweries and blenders and some tough decisions had to be made. This year we omitted Drie Fonteinen and De Cam, although we had a lunch at the latter location the day prior to the event. The tour guides in our bus was an excellent Flemish speaker and mastered English sufficiently enough to articulate some choice words for those who fail to return in time to the bus to visit the next destination.
We arrived at our first destination, Timmermans, during a bout of rather heavy rain. Fortunately, the weather significantly improved throughout the duration of the event. The collection of old equipment, beer labels, and posters at Timmermans was a sight to behold for lambic historians.
My expectations for Lindemans were modest as even their “traditional” lambics always seemed a rather bland affair to me. I had been intrigued with their botanical lambics releases, though, and was surprised how potent and fresh the SpontanBasil smelled and tasted, reinforcing my impression that the green notes in these lambics are fragile and fading.
We were also able to blend and bottle our own geuze, which permits designing a geuze with a higher proportion of old lambic.
Boon remains a great destination for a longer stop and their sleek black “Vat X” bottles intrigue and beg for side-by-side comparison. Hanssens remains as rustic as ever and the to-go-to destination for lambic lovers who like a little acetic acid in their lambic.
I had never been to visitor center De Lambiek in Beersel and their great selection of regional lambics for sale presented a good opportunity to start the second day by comparing fruit lambics and purchasing other bottles without dealing with the longer lines at other locations.
I have always respected the Oud Beersel history and blending activities but their bottled lambics always seemed somewhat basic to me. Oud Beersel has ventured on some serious experimentation now and their offerings included such gems as rose- and tea-infused lambics (Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong), geuzes aged in wine barrels, and blending 3-year old lambics to create a more mature geuze. This trend towards “deeper” and “greener” lambics is totally to my liking.
If you want to explore the rich history and traditions of lambic at a measured pace, and enjoy these drinks in splendid isolation, Toer de Geuze is no longer a good vehicle for this but there is so much going on during the event that attendance remains a must. Maybe next time we skip the buses and opt for a do-it-yourself itinerary.
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.
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.
Toer de Geuze 2013
Toer de Geuze, a Belgian beer tour celebrating the regional gueuze beer style, is held in Flanders every two years. This year’s tour was held on April 21, 2013. And while Aschwin has taken the tour a couple of times before with his father Theo, this was my first time to tag along. Since we have been enjoying the style in general and beers from breweries on the tour specifically for at least 5 years now, I am actually quite happy that I was not able to attend earlier. I was able to appreciate the tour that much more, and with considerable knowledge already at my disposal.
We attended a music festival in the Netherlands before going on the tour, but since that is not the subject of this review I will start with our arrival in Dworp the evening prior. Aschwin’s father, Theo, met us in Leiden late in the evening and drove us to our lodging – a massive building on a large estate, all of which gave me the impression of it being the home of a wealthy English family. Since we did not want to incur international or roaming charges on Theo’s Dutch mobile phone, Aschwin had written down directions to our destination. Somehow, though it was the dead of night and we used no GPS, we made it to the hotel flawlessly.
The next morning did not go as well. Using the same strategy, we quickly became lost and began going in circles. Aschwin and his father argued in Dutch the whole time, occasionally pulling over to accost a pedestrian and inquire for information. Finally, someone was able to guide us to our destination.
We pulled into the parking lot and got on the appropriate bus for the route we had chosen. We had decided to take the tour visiting Hannsen’s, 3 Fonteinen, Oud Beersel, Boon, and Tilquin. Everyone on the bus looked pretty happy and excited. The tour guide came over the loud speaker and, thankfully, addressed us in English, the universal language. “Are you awake? Yes? Are you ready to start drinking?” he asked. It was 10:00 am, and time to get the show on the road.
Our first stop was Hanssen’s, where we visited from 10:20 – 11:00 am. Hanssen’s is an old brewery housed in a barn and surrounded by farm animals. Our first beer was a “straight” lambic – one which has not been blended – tapped directly from a cask into into our waiting glasses. I was not able to ascertain the age of the brew, unfortunately. It was very straightforward, being quite still (i.e., uncarbonated) and tart, the defining characteristics of a straight lambic.
We followed the straight lambic with a gueuze, which we carried with us as we wandered the brewery observing the old machines that are still used to bottle Hannsen’s brews and rows of ancient barrels crusted with the foamy eruptions of the beer fermenting inside. Some newer barrels were in use too, which looked oddly out of place in what was otherwise a display of ancient brewing tradition.
Outside, there were a few booths offering edibles. We decided to have some sausage, thinking it wise to put something in our bellies before continuing our long day of alcohol consumption.
After quick ride down the highway to the town of Beersel, we were allowed 50 minutes at our next stop, 3 Fonteinen. Some of you may have heard about the storage place thermostat disaster at this brewery in 2009 which resulted in the loss of close to 100,000 small bottles of beer. I remember wondering if they would be able to recover from this event.
The good news is that they eventually did. An all new brewery, financed entirely by beer sales, enables them to produce more great beer than ever – up to 4,000 liters at a time. I savored a 1 year old straight lambic while I took the English tour and heard about the new equipment and the design of the brewery.
Four enormous 1,000 liter capacity coolships were among the most impressive sights. In the barrel room we also saw washed rind cheeses aging on a rack. At the end of the tour, we saw these cheeses for sale along with 3 Fonteinen beers.
A venue across the road was also open and serving beer to accommodate the unusually large number of people visiting the brewery. We stopped in to enjoy an Oude Gueuze before leaving. The crossing guard was happily directing traffic with a beer in his hand. Only in Belgium!
Though Oud Beersel stopped brewing in 1992, they do still produce and sell beer. Here’s how: they give their recipe to another brewery, Boon, which brews the wort. Oud Beersel then obtains the wort from Boon and blends their own gueuze in small batches. In fact, they are one of the smallest “breweries” on the tour, as evidenced by their coolship, which resembles a very large bathtub.
Oud Beersel is known for their mild lambic, which we enjoyed as we took a guided tour through their gueuze museum. This little museum was quite spectacular, with lots of examples of old machinery, diagrams of traditional brewing practices, and even a couple of small rooms set up to resemble parts of the brewery in days gone by.
Like any good museum, the tour ended in the gift shop. There, Theo bought us shirts before we headed outside to enjoy Oud Beersel sponsored festivities across the street, which included a marching band, a bagpipe band, and a whole pig being roasted on a spit.
We arrived at Boon a little before 2:00 pm and were given an hour to return to the bus, which I think was not really long enough. Boon is a large brewery and there were a LOT of people there, making it a much more raucous affair than the breweries we had visited earlier in the day. After standing in line for 10 or 15 minutes, we were able to take a tour of the facilities, which included plenty of large volume stainless steel mash kettles, lauter tuns, fermenters, and other types of tanks as well as a fancy bottling machine.
The Boon brewery also hosted the largest barrels of any brewery on the tour. These positively enormous casks appeared to be around 10 feet in diameter and each brandished a label with its numerical identifier.
After the tour, we had a few moments to enjoy some beer in the tented beer garden on the premises. We had a 3 year old straight lambic to start, followed by Boon’s Vat 44 “mono blend” (90% from “Big Barrel No. 44”). Vat 44 was brewed on December 3-4, 2008, and fermented in cask No. 44, an oak barrel of 10,300 liter capacity that is over 100 years old. On August 31, 2010, Boon bottled 20,522 bottles of this brew.
Vat 44 smelled of brett and dust, but also a bit fruity and sweet. The taste, however, was quite dry and tart with a short finish and a bitter end note. It’s light mouthfeel made it an easy drinker despite the 8.5% ABV rating. It was good enough that we grabbed a few bottles from the store on our way back to the tour bus. I like Boon lambics myself but Aschwin doesn’t quite appreciate the bitter notes in them.
Our last stop of the tour was at the rather new business of Gueuzerie Tilquin. Located in Bierghes, in the Senne valley,Tilquin is the only gueuze blendery in the Walloon region. Since we were no longer in Flanders, this was also the only French-speaking gueuze site we visited that day.
Tilquin, like Oud Beersel, is a blendery. In 2009, they started purchasing freshly brewed lambic from various producers (including Cantillon!) and putting into old oak barrels they had acquired for fermentation for 1, 2, or 3 years. The lambics are then blended and bottled to produce their signature brew, the Gueuze Tilquin à L’Ancienne.
The tour for this small facility was actually rather long, and we wound up having to cut out of it early in order to make it back to the bus before it left us behind altogether. But the staff seemed very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. They’ve even begun making a beer from the spontaneous fermentation of destoned fresh purple plums (The Questsche Tilquin à l’ancienne). We did not have time to try it, but it sounds really interesting!
While we were at least smart enough to eat a few things here and there throughout the day, we really didn’t have any other liquids (like WATER) besides beer the whole day. I honestly don’t even recall water being offered at any of the breweries we visited, but perhaps I wasn’t paying close enough attention. And though it seems the Europeans were all perfectly okay with this beer-only approach, I noticed a dull headache just before the last brewery visit.
I felt okay through the end of the tour, but as soon as we reached our car in the parking lot things took a turn for the worse. By the time we reached De Heeren van Liedekercke (which is known for its extensive vintage lambic and Orval menus) for dinner I was absolutely miserable. I am certain that this was the worst headache I have ever experienced in my entire life, as the pain was near-crippling.
Before heading to the bathroom to writhe in pain in private for a few moments I asked Aschwin to order some WATER for me. Upon my return, I was chagrined to find sparkling water in my glass. Still, I was thirsty. So I drank it.
Aschwin and Theo had ordered more beer (!!!) and were looking the menus over. I didn’t want anything – it all made my stomach turn. My head was throbbing. The common simile of a jackhammer on the skull would have been a royal understatement. I was increasingly sensitive to light, sound, and motion. Everything caused severe pain.
I must have looked pretty bad at that point. Finally, Theo offered the keys to the car so I could go lie down. But moving around so much did something to the carbonated contents of my stomach….
When it was over I felt quite a bit better (though certainly not great) and was able to lie down and get some rest until Aschwin and Theo returned. Riding back to the hotel with my head in Aschwin’s lap I marveled at what had happened.
Alright Toer de Gueuze, I’ve learned my lesson, but I’m not going to let it get me down. I’m bringing some water bottles with me next time.
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)…