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!