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.

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.

Aschwin and Theo prepare to mount our trusty steed, Tour Bus Number 6.

Aschwin and Theo prepare to mount our trusty steed, Tour Bus Number 6

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.

Hanssen’s

Enjoying the farm scenery at Hanssen's

Enjoying the farm scenery at Hanssen’s

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.

A very old bottling machine still in use at Hanssen's today.

A very old bottling machine still in use at Hanssen’s today

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.

Fermentation in a very old barrel.

Fermentation in a very old barrel

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.

3 Fonteinen

Staff poured gueuze and straight lambic for thirsty tourists.

3 Fonteinen staff poured gueuze and straight lambic for thirsty tourists

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.

4 x 1000 liter coolships at 3 Fonteinen

4 x 1000 liter coolships at 3 Fonteinen

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.

Jotting down some notes while enjoying an Oude Gueuze on our 3 Fonteinen stop

Jotting down some notes while enjoying an Oude Gueuze on our 3 Fonteinen stop

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!

Oud Beersel

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's 2400 liter coolship

Oud Beersel’s 2400 liter coolship

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.

A room in the Oud Beersel museum

A room in the Oud Beersel museum

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.

Boon

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.

Several large volume stainless steel tanks at Boon

Several large volume stainless steel tanks at Boon

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.

Boon's truly massive 10,000+ liter barrels

Boon’s truly massive 10,000+ liter barrels

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.

Boon's Vat 44

Vat 44 mono-blend

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.

Gueuzerie Tilquin

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.

Tanks and barrels at Gueuzerie Tilquin

Tanks and barrels at Gueuzerie Tilquin

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!

The Aftermath

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.

The last smile I was able to muster, just as the throbbing in my head began

The last smile I was able to muster, just as the throbbing in my head began

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)…

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.).

German sours

Although the theme of this website does permit it, I have never published on German sour styles such as Berliner Weisse. But a recent visit to Portland’s Belmont Station rewarded me with no fewer than four sour German beers:  Bayerischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse, Bayerischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse Brettanomyces LambicusDr. Fritz Briem’s 1809 Berliner Style Weisse, and Dr. Fritz Briem’s Piwo Grodziskie Grätzer Ale.

One of the intriguing theories about the origins of Berliner Weisse is that the style might have been brought to Germany by migrating Huguenots who were influenced by the sour reds and browns of Flanders — Belgian beer styles that have a rather complicated history themselves. As is virtually the rule with old beer styles, one can only speculate about how those ancient Berliner Weisse beers might have tasted, but beer writer Michael Jackson’s suggestion that traditionally these beers were buried in warm earth seems to indicate that the distinct lactic note may always have been a part of this style. Berliner Weisse (‘the Champagne of the North’) has survived but in terms of popularity it has been mostly replaced by sanitized bitter beer styles.

The Bayrischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse beer that I tasted first has a low alcohol percentage of 3.0%, which is characteristic for the style. As far as bottle and label design is concerned, I will confine myself to the observation that German beers rarely excel in this area. Bayrischer Bahnhof Berliner Weisse pours a cloudy light golden color and has attractive crisp notes of peach, tropical fruits, wheat, and lactic acid. The refreshing dry lactic tart flavor gives way to a short Hefeweizen-like finish. Naturally, this beer is an easy drinker and I followed it with their Berliner Style Weisse Brettanomyces Lambicus release, which is a special edition of their classic style that received additional Brettanomyces Lambicus fermentation. This version produced an even bigger head after a vigorous pour, but also dissipated more quickly. The presence of brettanomyces is unmistakable in the aroma and it reduced the tropical complexity of the original version quite a bit. Although brettanomyces by itself produces little sourness, the presence of this yeast seems to amplify the lactic tartness of the beer by furthering drying it out, which is also evidenced by the thinner mouthfeel. In this case I think that the brettanomyces yeast took more away from the standard beer than it added, in particular the crisp fruity lactic notes. The finish is a little bit longer though.

Dr. Fritz Briem’s “historic” 1809 Berliner Style Weisse is quite a bit higher in alcohol (5%) and its production involved transferring the heated, un-boiled malt to open fermenters, after it was “pitched with yeast and lactic acid bacteria (isolated from malt) at 18°C.” The aroma suggests that wild yeast must have participated during the fermentation of this beer. This cloudy, yellow beer has a musty, honey-like aroma and is super carbonated. Whether intentional or not, there is little lactic tartness. Instead this beer is more similar to a traditional German wheat beer, albeit a little more rough around the edges. There was no finish to speak of.

Going by the label alone, Dr. Fritz Briem’s Piwo Grodziskie Grätzer with its sour mash and smoked malt looked quite appealing to me. My own readings of the native lambic literature support the idea that some lambic producers used smoked malt, and since Schlenkerla’s Märzen is one of the few non-lambic beers that really gets me excited, this obscure German style held great promise. The aroma of this golden, translucent beer certainly revealed its ingredients, although the smoke was not nearly as pronounced as I prefer. What struck me about this beer was how restrained all the different notes were; mild tartness, mild smoke, milt bitterness, and a nutty, medium-long finish. What surprised me the most was its smooth, cask/ESB-like mouthfeel. Although this beer turned out quite different from what I expected, it was the most refined and complex of the four sour Germans.

In traditional lambic, brettanomyces and lactic bacteria go hand in hand, but it was rather refreshing (literally!) to taste a wild beer (the standard Bayrischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse) in which the emphasis was on the sour bacteria instead of the “brett.” I am personally at a loss to understand the contemporary preference for bitter over sour beers, but at least there are now numerous breweries experimenting with sour beer styles, and even uncovering some forgotten sour styles like Grätzer. The aim of resuscitating old, historical beer styles invariably produces debates about what the “real” or “authentic” style might have tasted like. The implicit fallacy, as recently discussed by Jeff Alworth, is that most beer styles were not made from scratch to conform to some kind of Platonic Ideal; beer styles often have a chaotic past and keep evolving, although it can be admitted that some styles have a more complicated and confusing past than others. The best brewery in the world, Cantillon, is an interesting example of the interplay of tradition and innovation. Cantillon is extremely traditionalist (non-interventionist) in its approach to brewing but also has an interesting record in experimentation with (or beyond) the lambic style, from the use of 100% malted barley and dry hopping (Cantillon Iris) to blending lambic and natural wine (Cantillon Pinot D’Aunis).

In closing, it is interesting to draw some attention to one of the unorthodox aspects of Berliner Weisse brewing; the no-boil (or short boil) method. Not boiling the wort can confer (or enhance) a number of characteristics of the beer; a lighter color, a “raw” dough character, cloudiness, reduced hop bitterness, participation of wild yeast and bacteria, and more sourness.  The no-boil method is now almost exclusively associated with the Berliner style but has a more varied history (it used to be a popular method in Norwegian brewing, too), a topic that will be treated in more detail in the future.

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:

OLD GEUZE-LAMBIC

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.

Gin barrel aging of beer

One of the most interesting developments in the Pacific Northwest has been the increasing popularity of gin barrel aging of beer. In particular, gin barrel aging of sour beers produces an interesting combination. This should not be surprising. Whereas whiskey, bourbon, and rum barrels can confer an overwhelming, “oppressive” note to beer (which is not always unwelcome, as in the case of imperial stouts), the pale ales and sour beers usually require a lighter approach, and the herbal and dry character of gin is an obvious choice in theory. In practice, the choice to age a beer in gin barrels is not so obvious because gin usually is not produced or aged in barrels.

The origins of gin go back to Dutch jenever (genever), a juniper-based spirit from which gin originated. Supposedly the tradition of adding juniper berries to distilled malt wine was to mask the poor flavor. When distillation methods improved, the use of juniper berries and other herbs was retained and jenever has been a popular drink in the Netherlands and Belgium since. Contemporary jenever can range from industrial neutral “jonge jenever” made with whopping amounts of sugar and juniper extract to authentic “oude jenever” made from 100% grain and fermented juniper berries, aged in barrels (unfortunately, modern oude jenever is often colored and sweetened with caramel). Naturally, only the rarer practice of using wood aging in jenever and gin produce barrels suitable for barrel aging of beer.

There are at least three approaches in which gin (or jenever) and beer can meet. Gin can be blended with beer, such as in the making of beer cocktails. Beer can be brewed with juniper berries and herbs that are typically used for gin to give a gin-like property to beer. Finally, beer can be aged in used gin barrels to impart the flavor of gin during barrel aging of beer. I will leave a treatment of beer cocktails to the side except to note that I once got reasonably interesting results from mixing gin and a pale ale (one needs to experiment a little for arriving at the right proportion). Distillerie Claeyssens de Wambrechies in France actually makes a top fermented beer blended with gin during the brewing process called La Wambrechies.

In Oregon, Rogue Ales makes a Juniper Pale Ale that has some subtle gin connotations. Of much greater interest is Rogue’s limited John John Juniper, which is aged in spruce gin barrels. Unlike Rogue’s regular Juniper Pale Ale, this beer had an unmistakable dry and spicy gin character. Another beer that was inspired by gin is Midnight Sun’s Bathtub Gin Gruit Ale.

But the most interesting application of gin barrel aging, in my opinion, is for wild and sour ales. Gin barrel aging can greatly enhance the aroma and taste of sour beer. Lambic is traditionally associated with the use of fruit but brews such as Cantillon’s Mamouche show impressive results for blending herbs into sour beers.

One of the pioneers in gin barrel aging of beers, and sour beers in particular, is Portland’s Upright Brewing. Aside from being the most innovative sour beer brewery in Portland to date, Upright has done gin barrel aging for a number of its beers using Ransom Old Tom Gin barrels. In fact, Upright seems to like the idea of a meeting between beer and gin so much that they brewed a special beer to be matched with Dutch jenever called Kopstootje Biere. Kopstootje is a Bière de Garde made with the same botanicals as Bols Genever. This beer was launched to great enthusiasm at special pub events where it was consumed in a challenging one-two punch with jenever, according to Dutch ritual.

Other recent and upcoming gin-inspired and gin barrel aged releases include Breakside’s Gin-Barrel Double Wit, Soursop Wheat, Citra Gin IPA, and Simcoe Gin IPA; Ninkasi’s Ransom Old Tom Gin Wood Barrel Aged Maiden the Shade; Oakshire’s Gin Barrel Saison and Gin Barrel Aged Imperial Overcast Stout; some beers in B’ United’s Zymatore series; and Stillwater’s Artisanal Kopstootje.

One of the common observations about beers that have been aged in gin barrels is that the aromatic properties this procedure confers tend to produce some variability in detection. There is little information to date how the “gin” character of gin barrel aged beer evolves over time. For example, I recently sampled a bottle of Belmont Station’s 14th Anniversary Commemorative Ale and Upright’s Special Herbs (a gruit aged in Old Tom Gin barrels) and I could not detect much gin character — in the case of Upright’s beer less than I recall originally tasting on tap. In the case of Rogue’s John John Juniper I was struck by the difference in gin character between the bottled and draft version. Such observations about gin barrel aged beers are not confined to my own, and I have read similar statements from other people. These complexities notwithstanding, gin barrel aging and brewing with traditional jenever herbs offer great potential for producing exceptional sour beers and lambics.