Ordonnantie van 1560

One of the pleasant surprises for those who utilized the HORAL buses during the 2011 edition of Toer de Geuze is that the organizers distributed a reproduction of the 1560 Halle ordinance for lambic brewing. The accounting document that includes the ordinance does not explicitly refer to “lambic” yet, but the proportions of grains and the fact that all historical beers involved spontaneous fermentation prompted researchers to establish a link to modern lambic. This 1560 text (1559, according to other sources) was discovered by Médard-Jules Van den Weghe in 1930 but it was not until 1971 that the link to lambic was made by Marcel Franssens in the journal “Verhandelingen van de KGOKH.” Since it was custom to include older ordinances in the accounting books there is good reason to assume that the ordinance itself is much older than 1560, going back to at least 1400.

The ordinance concerns two issues: enforcement of decrees concerning the required amount of grain in wort and specification of the proper proportion of wheat and barley.

The original French text is as follows:

Item Est statue et ordonne pour le plus grant prouffit de la ville que doresanvant on brassera keute et houppe sur le pegele et selon la valleur des grains ainsy que lon est acoustume de vielz temps. Et qui brassera oultre le pegele tel fourfera une amende de vi L ts pour la premiere fois et ne porra faire son mestier durant lespace de xl jours. Et la cervoise quon trouvera estre brassee plus q’le peghele contient seroit confisquie au prouffit du Sr. Et pour le seconde fois sur lamende de xn L ts Et pour la me fois sur paine destre prive du mestier a la volente du Sr. De laquelle amende le Sr auera ung tierch. L autre tierch sera au prouffit de la ville. Et lautre tierch au prouffit du Rapporteur. Et polre les maltoteurs aller avec le peghelere sil leur plaist pour enquerir et scavoir si laditte cervoise est brassee trop longhe. Que les brasseurs qui voldront enthoner leur cervoise ilz fourferront lamende de XV S ts pour chune fois au prouffit du Sr. Et le peghelere sera creu par son serment tant de lamende cue de la cervoise et leike.
Item Que nul sadvance de faire de bree sans y mettre xvi Rxes de grains Assauvoir vi Rxes de fourment et x Rxes dorge et dave qui font ensamble xvi Rxes ainsi quon a este acoustume du temps passet pour le faire mesurer dedens le moulin quant on sera requis par le mayeur et eschevins.

The last part of this ordinance concerns the proportion of wheat and barley.

The relevant passage to lambic brewing is (my translation):

Nobody shall make a wort without 16 raziers of grain, 6 raziers of wheat and 10 raziers of wheat and oat, in total 16 razieren, according to custom and to be measured in the mill upon request from the major and the members of the municipal executive.

A “razier” is an old unit for measuring grain corresponding to 50 liters and the ratio of 37.5% wheat to 62.5% barley corresponds roughly to today’s lambic brewing practice and regulations, which require a minimum of 30% wheat. Also note the mention of “oat” in the ordinance.

The reproduction of the ordinance that was distributed at Toer de Geuze 2011 is double printed and contains some information about the historical context and significance of the ordinance in four languages.

lambiek ordonnantie 2r

I am reproducing the English text here:


Over 600 years of tradition and quality

Authentic old Lambic beers

The ordinances required for a clear understanding of the recorded revenue were written down in the old accounting books. The obligation to brew exclusively in a controlled fashion with regards to quantity, kinds and proportions of cereal grains applied, had a direct impact on the revenue of the lord. In dire times of war such quality obligations were temporarily lifted. Later, such as in 1560, when the former quality regulations were again enforced, this became apparent in the revenue, and the ordiance was reminded in the books.

Old examples of negotiations about the enforcement of the old prescription are found in the accounting books of the city of Halle, dating back to the years 1400 and 1402. This means that the regulations are much older. In 1400 Albert, duke in Bavaria, was also count of Hainaut-Holland-Zeeland. Perhaps Bavaria drew inspiration from the Halle regulations for the later German “Reinheitsgebot” (purity law, 1516) on beer brewing.

Pajottenland & Senne valley: home of the authentic old lambic beers

The city of Halle is the urban centre of the “Pajottenland & Zennevallei” region, just south of Brussels. Lambic brewing is strongly related to the application of an important portion of wheat. The starch contained in wheat is very slowly converted into sugars and subsequently into alcohol. This starch constitutes the breeding ground for the yeast cultures required for the highly specific lambic maturation which can take several years. This process yields a very special beer which can be kept for a long time and whose taste even improves with overtime. The economic and natural conditions required for the production of such a prized product can only be found in fertile agricultural areas in the vicinity of a metropolitan selling market and are needed in order to survive the economic crises for a millennium.

European protection

Ever since 21.1.1997 lambic beer denominations have been protected within the European Union for beers which are produced in accordance with the traditional recipe and the principles of craftsmanship – albeit modified to accommodate current regulations, of course.

Hanssens goes experimental

Cantillon is my favorite brewery in the world, but I have a weak spot for gueuze blender Hanssens Artisinaal from Dworp, Belgium. Everything about Hannsens screams “authentic.” The brewery goes back to 1871, it is a part-time, wife and husband farmhouse operation, and there are few concessions to modernity. Seeing the archaic equipment, including the 1954 bottling machine, at Hanssens during a Toer de Geuze is one of the highlights for many visitors.

The first beer I ever tasted from Hanssens was their geuze, with its characteristic wildness and raging acidity. Their kriek is one of my favorites; when young – vintage Hanssens kriek can get very sour. Despite its traditionalist, hands-off approach to making beer, the owners are not shy to experiment. For example, in one of their experiments Hanssen’s geuze was blended with English mead (fermented honey), culminating in an intriguing concoction called  Mead the Geuze, which I was fortunate to experience some years ago. Supposedly, some exploding bottles have been reported for this beer, according to Tim Webb in his book LambicLand.

Another experiment that has become a more permanent feature in their line-up is their strawberry lambic Oudbeitje, a young lambic blended with whole strawberries, matured for one year. With little refermentation going on in the bottle, this rather pale beer has little carbonation. Jeff Sparrow’s report a pH of 2.8 (!) for this beer in his book Wild Brews.

When I saw the export-only Hanssens Experimental Raspberry and Hanssens Experimental Cassis in 2010 I wasted little time ordering a bottle of each. Some complicated logistical problems prevented me from tasting them until December 2011. The labels of the beers are virtually identical, with only slight color differences and, of course, the “raspberries” and “black currents” (sic) on the two labels being the other difference. Interestingly, Hanssens seemed to have arrived at exactly the same alcohol percentage (6.0%) for both beers… There is little information about the how this beer was produced (“matured in oak barrels”) but Hanssens might have just followed the same procedure as for Oudbeitje.

Hanssens Experimental Raspberry pours a dark orange and is relatively clear for a lambic. No one should have problems recognizing the raspberries in this one! The aroma is round and fruity and, if one is not familiar with the style of Hanssens, one would not expect the sharp, pungent, lactic, sourness that follows upon drinking. My drinking partner characterized the beer as “drinking a bacterial culture.” Carbonation is absent and the beer is weightier on the palate than I expected. The beer ends on a very dry note. The fruit and dry sourness make this beer ideal for a hot day. I would have preferred some carbonation in this one, though.

Hanssens Experimental Cassis pours a dark red / purple, and a beautiful, bright red when held up to the light, which reminds me of oxygenated blood. As with the other beer, no head and as “flat” as a straight lambic. I find this blackcurrant lambic more mellow and less funky than the raspberry lambic. The taste is more vinous and there is a subtle sweet note and some bitterness. There is also a nice astringency to this beer, reinforcing its earthy wine-like character. Not as sharp as the raspberry lambic, this medium-bodied lambic ends on a similar dry note. I think the lack of carbonation is less of a problem in this one.

I would not recommend any of these beers to lambic novices or lambic drinkers who like a balanced, carbonated gueuze or fruit lambic. As for myself, I cannot help immensely enjoying Hanssens “savage” lambics, although it is doubtful that all their experiments will end up being classified as historical, complex lambics. Looking forward to future Hanssens experiments!

Mulled lambic

One of the intriguing aspects of reading historical works on the history of brewing and lambic is to discover many obscure details about spontaneously fermented beers. One thing that recently caught my eye was the existence of a popular warm lambic beverage. Consumption of warm alcoholic beverages is nothing new as evidenced by the existence of Glühwein and Gløgg. Another popular option is to blend the mysterious green Chartreuse (“Chartreuse glows in the dark, and if you drink enough of it, your eyes will turn bright green”) and hot chocolate.

In his book Geuze en Kriek, Jef van den Steen mentions the existence of ‘calibou’, a “very popular” winter drink based on “old lambic, sugar, cinnamon, clove and beaten eggs.” Despite its reported pre-war popularity in Belgium, I have not been able to find more information about this winter-friendly warm lambic.

There is no shortage of information about “mulled beer” in general, though. According to a 1641 English pamphlet, “warme beere” is “farre more wholesome than that which is drunke cold.” A 1623 text called Panala Alacatholica praises warm beer because it “doth by its succulencie much nourish and corroborate the Corporall, and comfort the Animall powers.”

Interestingly enough, Liefmans has released a beer called Liefmans Glühkriek, which is a spiced winter kriek that should be served at warm temperature. Timmermans has produced a Warme Kriek, and Van Honsebrouck a beer called Premium Glühkriek. Even traditional geuze blender De Cam has made a beer called Hiéte Kriek, which was a draft-only warm kriekenlambic, spiced with Glühwine spices and sweetened with candi sugar. Such beers are often released to coincide with traditional Christmas markets and Christmas beer festivals.

I have not yet decided to sacrifice a bottle of old unblended lambic to recreate the popular mulled lambic called ‘calibou’, but the similarities between the spice bill for this concoction and other mulled beers should allow for some interesting experiments to duplicate this historical winter drink.

Piquette and the lambik stoemper

Sometimes legitimate concerns about modern techniques and manipulation of beer and wine leave the impression that in the good old days people routinely drank and demanded the real stuff. In the case of wine this is highly doubtful. As Patrick Mathews writes in his book Real Wine: The Rediscovery of Natural Winemaking:

Since time immemorial wine has been an expensive drink…The historian Theodore Zeldin describes how until well into the 19th century, real wine was drunk only by the well off; the working class settled for the piquette, which was made by adding sufficient sugar to the crushed skins and pips left over after winemaking, to enable them to re-ferment.

In the case of beer, it is undoubtedly the case that for ages natural fermentation played an important role in brewing. But this fact by itself does not imply that these beers were invariably good and preferable to many of today’s more manipulated beers.

It is quite reasonable to assume that older generations of (Belgian) beer drinkers may have had a higher tolerance for “sour” beers, but the existence of the (in)famous lambik stoemper (an iron flat disk attached to a handle to crush and dissolve sugar into the beer) raises questions. For example, were the people who used the lambik stoemper as smitten with sweet beers as today’s youth? Or were these lambics so acidic that even today’s traditional lambic connoisseurs would be tempted to reach for the lambik stoemper? It’s hard to tell. There may be a few very old lambic vintages left but it is hard to know for sure how these ancient lambics actually tasted.

It is interesting to note how different writers report on the use of the lambik stoemper. Jean-Xavier Guinard (corroborated by Cantillon) writes that the lambik stoemper was usually presented with a small dish and two lumps of sugar to sweeten a Kriek. Jeff Sparrow and Jef van den Steen discuss the use of the stoemper to sweeten lambic and geuze in general, although van den Steen mentions that this practice was more common among the occasional lambic drinker and was met with loathing among real geuze drinkers. I personally have never seen a lambik stoemper being presented to a beer drinker and never felt in need of one (although aged kriek can get quite sour, indeed).

Interestingly, one theory about the thick bottom of the classic geuze glass has it that it allowed for the crushing action of the lambik stoemper. However, van der Steen mentions that it also allowed the pub owner to poor less lambic per glass! Again, before pub owners started fooling around with the definition of a “pint” there was a lot of shady business going on in the world of lambic, too. Perhaps I should say, especially in the world of lambic, because lambic allows for all kinds of blending and sweetening tricks to cover up problems.  Faro in particular has been known as a vehicle to rip off the customer – something that often went unnoticed with the stereotypical heavy-drinking Faro consumer…

It is now well established that manipulation of alcohol beverages (and the demand for them) is almost as old as making the beverages themselves – just like the concept of theft is almost as old as the concept of property. The real difference is that before the advance of modern beer and wine technologies, the manipulation consisted of misleading the public or cheapening the product using natural means such as the blending of cheap wine with good wine. This does not mean that there is no case to be made for real wine or beer. As the near-disappearance of traditional lambic brewing shows, modern developments can completely overwhelm good practices – resulting in mediocre and distasteful products.

I should close by noting that the word stoemper is not likely to disappear soon due to the existence of De Lambikstoempers, a local Belgian beer organization that was formed in 1999 in the Halle region in the Pajottenland.  Not surprisingly, de Lambikstoempers are known for their support and promotion of traditional lambic brewing and their involvement in the Toer de Geuze events. Not only does their logo feature the lambik stoemper, the person who is standing on the rim of the glass is Lambik, the famous character from the Flemish Suske en Wiske cartoon – the writer of those cartoons, Willy Vandersteen, was a dedicated geuze drinker.


There has been a tremendous rise in consumption of kombucha in recent years. In Portland, Oregon, there are a growing number of local kombucha makers such as Eva’s Herbucha and Brew Dr. Kombucha. In some locations, such as local Wholefoods stores, kombucha on tap has become quite a phenomenon.

Kombucha is a lightly fermented tea and has a long history as a home-made folk remedy going back to Russia and Asia. In short, sugar is added to a black or green tea and the kombucha culture ferments the tea.

The kombucha culture is a combination of yeast and bacteria, including bacteria of the Acetobacter genus and several yeasts, which may include Saccharomyces cerevisiae and/or Brettanomyces bruxellensis. Regular commercial kombucha has an alcohol percentage less than 0.5% but there have been commercial examples with higher percentages and it is possible to deliberately brew kombucha with a higher alcohol content. Of course, such a kombucha would no longer be exempt from laws that pertain to alcohol beverages.

The acetic acid and gluconic acid that is produced during fermentation give kombucha its characteristic tart taste. Not surprisingly, people who like sour beers such as lambic and the Flanders reds often like kombucha as well (I certainly do!). Since I have been writing this blog I have read a number of suggestions of blending lambic (or a regular sour ale) with kombucha. I was therefore quite pleased to learn about Vanberg & DeWulf’s Lambrucha. Lambrucha is not available in Oregon yet, but I recently was able to sample a bottle.

Lambrucha is a blend of lambic and organic green tea kombucha that clocks in at a 3.5% alchohol percentage. The lambic that is used in this brew comes from De Troch. I have not been able to find detailed technical information about how this drink was fermented or blended (some background on the Lambrucha beer can be found here), but the process of blending lambic (or any beer) and kombucha raises some interesting technical questions. For example, blending lambic and kombucha can be an interesting method to raise acetic acid in a lambic – an approach that might be tricky relying on spontaneous fermentation alone. But I will leave these issues to the side for another blog post after I have studied kombucha in more detail and have done some of my own experiments. The Mad Fermentationist website has a number of interesting entries on beer and kombucha here.

Lambrucha has a light orange/caramel color. A relatively careful pour produced a two finger head, but this dissipated quickly. The aroma is quite funky with the typical “horseblanket” brettanomyces, overripe fruit, and some malty and yeasty notes (for a more concentrated version of these qualities, pour the dregs into a separate glass). The kombucha and the lambic can both be identified in the taste, although I would characterize it more as a strong kombucha than a low alcohol lambic since the tea appears to be stronger than the malt. A taste of lemon gives way to a short finish of cucumber (!), something that I have not tasted in a beer before.  The sourness is more concentrated and crisper, presumably from the low alcohol content. Carbonation is quite high and there is some astringency, too. Drinkability is great.

The tartness and low alcohol percentage make for a an extremely refreshing drink. Some might say that this beer is a little too drinkable! If the price would not prohibit it, this would be a great session beer, or it can be served with fish.

Naturally, the producers made a number of test brews with  different lambic/kombucha ratios and I only tasted the winner of this process. It would be quite interesting to taste different interpretations in the future. Lambrucha is by no means the last word on blending beer and kombucha. Goose Island has produced a Belgian pale ale with hibuscus and kombucha called Fleur. And homebrewers have discovered that Kombucha (culture) could be another trick to produce sour beers.

It is interesting to note that De Troch collaborated on this beer. As I wrote in my recent account of Toer de Geuze, some lambic breweries have the equipment and skills to make traditional lambic products but only use it as an (obligatory) step in the production of (pasteurized) sweetened lambics. Now that the tide has been turning, and traditional lambic brewing is gaining in recognition and sales, we may see breweries like De Troch start doing interesting things again. Ironically, this Lambrucha beer may be one of the best things that they have released to the market in awhile!

Cantillon meets natural wine

Cantillon officialy announced their annual experimental Zwanze beer and a change in their distribution of this beer. Zwanze 2011 will no longer be released in bottles (except for tasting at the brewery) but will be made available on draft to selected pubs around the world on Saturday, 17 September, 2011. The reason for this decision is Cantillon’s desire to maintain reasonable prices and prevent speculation:

Because of my dedication to my work as a brewer and out of respect for the product itself, it is very important to me for prices to stay reasonable. Unfortunately, there are those out there who couldn’t care less about spontaneous fermentation beer but who do care a lot about making easy money. For this reason, it has been decided that not a single bottle of Zwanze 2011 will be sold by Cantillon Brewery.

Zwanze 2008 was a rhubarb lambic. Zwanze 2009 was an elderflower lambic (now occasionally available under the name Mamouche) and 2010 was a mixed fermentation wheat beer. The 2011 Zwanze beer is a collaboration with Loire winemaker Olivier Lemasson and reflects Cantillon’s longstanding interest and support for natural wine.

Like some other Loire natural winemakers, Olivier Lemasson has taken an interest in forgotten ancient grapes such as the Grolleau grape. The Pineau d’Aunis grape that is used for the Cantillon beer is another example of such an obscure (disappearing) local grape. Despite the “Pineau” in the name, this grape is not part of the pinot family (Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris) and also goes under the name Chenin Noir. Pineau d’Aunis is one of the oldest grapes grown in the central Loire and produces a light and pale wine with earthy, herbal and distinctly spicy notes (some characterize its smell and taste as a mix of Pinot Noir and Syrah).

Blending a traditional lambic with a natural wine made from an obscure local grape is exactly the kind of thing that makes Cantillon stand out from all the other lambic and wild ale producers. Ironically, their identification with the natural wine movement may result in increased attention for their beers from those quarters and even produce a greater challenge for Cantillon to keep up with demand.

For young people, it is now hard to imagine that 25 years ago traditional lambic itself was at the risk of extinction. One exciting consequence of this renewed interest in traditional beers is the rise of a new generation of sour beer brewers and blenders in Belgium and the rest of the world.

Cantillon Zwanze 2011 will be available on tap in a number of pubs in the United States but not in Oregon (or the Pacific Northwest in general), which, despite its annual Puckerfest and producers like Upright and Cascade, is more oriented towards strongly hopped ales.

Drinking lambic beer in Brussels

Surrealist visitors of La Fleur en Papier Doré, March 1953

The renewed interest in traditional lambic beer is gradually translating itself into an increase of locations in Brussels where artisanal geuze and kriek can be found, ranging from the addition of the obligatory bottle of Cantillon geuze to an existing beer list to new pubs that celebrate independent brewing and spontaneous fermentation. What follows is a characterization of five establishments in Brussels where lambic is more than an afterthought. In Brussels, two quick and dirty indicators of the degree to which lambic is taken seriously are whether the establishment serves straight (fruit) lambic and whether geuze is served in the traditional manner.

1. La Fleur en Papier Doré (55 Rue des Alexiens). Once the meeting place of the surrealist scene in Brussels, this historical and intimate café is among my favorite places in Brussels. During my last visit their menu included Girardin kriekenlambic and Oud Beersel lambic among a small selection of traditional bottled geuzes and fruit lambics. The atmosphere is restrained and the waiters are attentive. A good organic restaurant within walking distance is Soul.

2. Poechenellekelder (5 Rue Du Chêne). The Poechenellekelder is a strange place for more than one reason. Its most striking achievement is that it is within a few footsteps of Brussels’ most famous tourist destination, Manneken Pis, without having succumbed to the temptation to transform the place to a cheap and rowdy affair. There is plenty of seating outside, but to get a real feel of the place make sure to find a table inside when it is quiet and observe the eerie puppets on the walls. The Poechenellekelder serves an impressive number of geuzes and fruit lambics, served in the traditional wicker basket, and the occasional vintages and limited editions such as Cantillon Zwanze 2009 and Cantillon Zwanze 2010.

3. Chez Moeder Lambic (68 Rue Savoie, St-Gilles). Chez Moeder Lambic is at the forefront of the independent and spontaneous beer revolution in Brussels. To my knowledge, the two Chez Moeder Lambic pubs are the only locations that consistently serve draught Cantillon young lambic and faro. Of the two Chez Moeder Lambic locations in Brussels this is the original and the most traditional. The owners of Chez Moeder Lambic know their lambics. As a consequence, they have an extensive list of vintages and rarities, but expect to pay for them!

4. Chez Moeder Lambic Fontainas (8 Place Fontainas). This is the newer and hipper incarnation of Chez Moeder Lambic at Place Fontainas. Like the original location, there is a terrace and the views are definitely…urban. Inside, one can take a seat in one of the booths or at the bar. The design and music are deliberately cool (think minimalism and electronic sounds) and there is no place for macro swill on its 40 taps. The food options are basic but well made. Chez Moeder Lambic Fontainas is a relatively short walk from the Brussels South train station (with luggage lockers) and the Cantillon brewery, which allows for some creative planning.

5. Le Bier Circus (57 Rue de l’Enseignement). Le Bier Circus does not distinguish itself by contemporary design, traditionalism, or surrealism but it makes up for it with various Girardin lambics on draft and an extensive, and reasonably priced, bottle list with lambic vintages. This is the place the go if you are interested in comparing traditional lambic brewers or doing a vertical tasting of various geuze vintages.

For more options in Brussels, consult Tim Webb’s excellent guide LambicLand. No lambic connoisseur’s visit is complete without going to the Cantillon brewery (with some luck, they may sell something special in their shop as well) and the historical A La Mort Subite café. A La Mort Subite can hardly be classified as a go-to destination for good beer, but one can enjoy an Orval and look at the walls and decorations at this legendary fin-de-siecle lambic temple. If you find yourself craving American craft beer, walk over to Delirium, avoid the ugly Americans downstairs, and climb the stairs to the “Hoppy Loft” to find Russian River, Founders, Green Flash, Great Divide, and more.  For creative beer-based cooking and the most impressive vintage lambic beer list on the planet, leave Brussels and find the De Heeren van Liedekercke in Denderleeuw for a memorable experience.

Het Land van de Geuze

In 1996, Jos Cels, author of Het Mysterie van de Geuze (1992), published a 128 page tourism guide to the Pajottenland and the area between Zenne and Zoniën titled Het Land van de Geuze. Unlike Het Mysterie van de Geuze (review forthcoming), this guide is not an in-depth treatment of  lambic brewing but uses geuze beer as a unifying theme for eight car day trips in the area. As such, its audience is primarily Dutch speaking tourists to the area and perhaps a handful of lambic fanatics who would like to know as much as possible about the history and traditions of the area where lambic beers originated and are still brewed.  The book does contain some interesting facts and anecdotes associated with lambic brewing and has a geuze-based recipe in each chapter.

In the book, we read about the writer/poet and classical liberal politician Herman Teirlinck, who presented bottles of geuze with political labels to police officers to induce them to vote for him. It was the same Herman Teirlinck who founded the literary Mijolclub, who convened at the 3 Fonteinen tavern and persuaded Gaston Debelder (father of Armand Debelder) to continue the geuze blending activities when he acquired the tavern in 1953, and thus played a formative role in the formation of the 3 Fonteinen brewery in Beersel. On special occasions the Mijolclub, who only recognized one beer, geuze, met at the De Neve brewery in Schepdaal (now closed), where reportedly a very old Geuze ‘caveau’ was made available to the guests. We also learn about the old Beersel tavern In de Oude Pruim (which still exists). The owner of the tavern, Petrus Derauw, also grew fruit and one time got stuck with a large amount of old prunes after repeated attempts to sell them at the market – hence the name of the tavern.  It was in Beersel that lambic brewer Henri Vandervelden (Oud Beersel) erected a, still existing, memorial from old brewery equipment and tools to honor the lambic brewers that fell victim to the declining popularity of traditional lambic.

In the second day trip chapter, the author notes that the farm of lambic brewers Lindemans is also called Hof te Kwadewegen because of a cruel politically-motivated murder that took place at the site in the year 1388. On a similar sinister note, he mentions the fact that the café A la Mort Subite (“instant death” – which refers to the practice of ending the local pub game by one deciding throw) used to be located next to Pompes Funebres Melchior, a funeral director!

Pieter Breughel the Elder is famous for his farmer festivities paintings that feature the free-flowing consumption of lambic beer. Jos Cels wonders whether the painter himself consumed too many lambics when he painted his Boerenbruiloft (or Bruiloftsmaal) because the character with the red cardigan and black hat, who carries the fruit pies, has three legs. Undoubtedly a heavy lambic consumer was the former owner of De Rare Vos pub, Louis Moles le Bailly, who attributes his old age to the healthy properties of geuze (‘Geuze, dat is gezond!’, was his motto), sometimes drinking up to 30 glasses a day! Later in the book, the author mentions Rene Troch, a heavy-drinking lambic brewer, who failed to note that in his absence many barrels of lambic “accidentally”  rolled out of his door, supplying the population of Lembeek with free lambic.

Of particular interest is the brief discussion of lambic brewery Sinte-Gertude (1767) because it mentions that the brewery had a so called smoke-room in which the grain was smoked to give the beer a distinct color and flavor. This is not the first time I have read about the use of smoked malt in early lambic brewing and it would be quite interesting to research this topic in more depth.

The book also mentions ‘Duivelsbier,’ a sour-sweet dark beer that was refermented in the cask through the addition of candi sugar. When the weather was cold, the barrels were warmed. This Jesuit-brewed concoction continued to be brewed according to the old recipe by the Vander Linden brewery in Halle. The beer is still brewed by Frank Boon but has lost its original character (dark, sour and spontaneously fermented).

In the final chapter of the book, Jos Cell mentions the lambic blender Philemon vanden Stock as the originator of commercial Geuze when he blended various lambics and bottled this product with addition of young lambic to induce a second fermentation in the bottle.  Philemon vanden Stock was transported to a German concentration camp and died there just before the Allied forces liberated Belgium. His son Constant vanden Stock played an important role in the formation of the Belle-Vue brewery (through a number of acquisitions of other lambic brewers), and, unfortunately, the post-war rise of sweetened lambics in conventional beer bottles.


Notes on Toer de Geuze 2011

For the second time in a row I attended the biennial Toer de Geuze event in Belgium. During one day, all lambic brewers and geuze blenders that are part of HORAL (with the exception of Girardin) open their doors to the public. If you decide to do the tour by tour bus you cannot visit all locations and must make a selection. In 2009 I opted for the most traditional brewers and blenders with the exception of geuze blender De Cam. This year I skipped Hanssens (which is among my favorites) and visited De Cam. I also substituted De Troch for Mort Subite. A selection of photos that I took prior to and during the event can be seen here.

Like 2009, all buses were completely booked in advance — although there were some empty seats due to some people not being able to attend or arriving late. The major advantage of doing the tour by bus is that it permits one to sample the products of all the brewers and blenders without having to be concerned about drinking and driving. Since I had attended the Toer de Geuze before, I wondered how much there was to gain from attending two of them in a row. Having seen most of the breweries and blenders now, I am inclined to say that one gets most of the benefits from the first visit. But there were three things that stood out for me during the most recent edition.

First, it seemed quite a bit busier than the previous tour. This was later corroborated when I saw a news item on Belgian television noting this was the best attended Toer de Geuze to date (they estimated more than 10,000 visitors). As a matter of fact, the crowd at 3 Fonteinen was a little excessive in my opinion. Admittedly, in most cases there is not a whole lot the organizers and breweries can do about this and it simply reflects the growing popularity of traditional geuze — which is an exciting development. Since the event seems to confer meaningful benefits to the brewers and blenders involved, making this an annual event might provide some relief.

I have always been aware that many of the sweetened and faux fruit lambics still involve traditional techniques and equipment during the initial stages in order to conform with rules concerning use of the word lambic. But seeing the beautiful brewery, equipment and barrels at De Troch it really struck me how strange it is to see these breweries jumping through many of the same time-consuming hoops as the traditional breweries and then to manipulate (some might say ruin) the final product to make it confirm to contemporary taste. In their defense, many of these brewers would like to make a traditional product and the tour guide at De Troch indicated that the pendulum may be swinging in favor of tradition again.

The biggest surprise awaited me at Boon. Boon had scheduled to brew (or continue to brew) during the event and at one point I found myself staring into the boiling wort with a sublime view of an adjacent coolship. Regular readers of this blog know that I am not the biggest fan of Boon and I have been quite disappointed with most of their products. There is a lack of tartness plus a substantial bitterness (not to mention the often excessive carbonation) in most of their beers, including their two traditional geuzes, that does not resonate with me.  I was therefore not prepared for the excellent old (unblended) lambic that was served for free to the visitors. Some writers have alluded to the oxidized / sherry / Vin Jaune-like qualities of old lambic, but I do not recall having tasted a sample that captured those qualities so well as Boon’s. As far as I am concerned, Boon should just leave their lambic as-is and bottle it after 3, 4, or 5 years! More realistically, they could at least consider bottling some of their aged lambic for the consumer.

Not much later, I found myself  again admiring a Boon product when I (reluctantly) ordered a glass of their Mariage Parfait Kriek 2008. True to form, Boon’s attempt to make a state of the art Kriek did not depart from their low-tartness approach, but in this case it worked for me. After sampling a lot of different krieks during the previous weeks, I noticed a fascinating deep vinous quality to this kriek, more reminiscent of some of the wines I drink than beer.  After these truly unexpected surprises, I made the revolutionary decision to purchase two 375 ml bottles of this Boon release, which I hope to review in conjunction with 3 Fonteinen’s Schaerbeekse Kriek.

Later that day I was tempted to purchase the 5 (!) liter bag-in-a-box Oud Beersel young lambic but restrained myself from doing so by considering the logistical challenges of taking it with me back to the United States. One nice feature of this year’s event is that I had more time to visit the Pajottenland area. Highlights included seeing the old, now inactive, Eylenbosch brewery in Schepdaal (where I spotted a big Toer de Geuze sign) and having dinner at De Heeren van Liedekercke. This restaurant completely deserves its reputation as offering the best beer-based cooking in the Brussels region and they have, by far, the most impressive vintage lambic / geuze / kriek list that I have ever seen in my life (not too mention a breathtaking number of Orval vintages).