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.

The battle for natural wine

A number of factors led me to read Alice Fiering’s The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, a passionate book about the decline of authentic wine and the rise of global manipulated wine. The most influential reason was a recent trip to Paris and I assumed (correctly) that reading the book would enable me to make better choices in purchasing (natural) wine. Secondly, many of the wines that I like are organic or natural wines, but I had never really read about the topic in much detail. And last, but not least, although I rank traditional lambics among the best drinks in the world, I often prefer wine over beer, which is not that uncommon among lambic enthusiasts. As a matter of fact, I was quite pleased when I learned about Cantillon’s recent natural wine tasting event.

I learned about Alice Fiering when I was searching for the most recent vintage of Clos Roche Blance Touraine, a wine that first challenged me, then intrigued me, and then started a passion for Cabernet Franc from the Loire region in France. As it turned out, Alice Fiering did not only seem to share this preference, but also others such as the traditional Rioja’s of Lopez de Heredia with their distinct oxidized and nutty flavor, and the traditional Nebbiolo wines from Italy.

Her first book is a sustained, but often witty and funny, rant against the phenomenon of Parkerization, named after the American wine writer Robert Parker. Alice suspects that Parker has a palate of clay and holds him greatly responsible for the tendency of wine makers to produce Parker-friendly wines; big, fruit forward wines with a lot of new oak, which are usually produced through a fair amount of manipulation. It is not always clear whether Alice is against manipulation of wines as such (irrigation, whopping amounts of new oak, coloring, reverse osmosis, etc.) or whether she rejects these technologies because they are generally used to make these horrid sorts of wine. But since she rejects the idea of wine as just a drink without terroir and culture (picture Robert Parker tasting 100+ wines in a hotel room), it is more likely that she values traditional methods for their own sake, too.

Alice is an advocate of natural wines or, as she calls it, “authentic wines.” Natural wines are more than organic. The “natural” in natural wine extends to the winemaking itself. In particular, fermentation with indigous yeast from the grapes and the use of low or no sulphur. In her book she gives a more extensive list of criteria to distinguish authentic wines from manipulated wines:

Healthy farming practices
Hand Picking
No extended cold maceration
No added yeasts or bacteria
No added enzymes
No flavors from oak or toast
No additives that shape flavor or texture
No processes that use machines to alter alchohol levels, flavor, or texture or that promote premature aging

The Battle for Wine and Love is sometimes characterized as a one-sided, angry book but I found myself mostly nodding in agreement. I think some of the anger is triggered by the fear of losing a certain tradition of winemaking altogether – just like traditional lambic beers were close to disappearing in the early 1990s. In such a world, it is not a lack of tolerance that gives rise to a combatant mindset but a feeling of alienation and the desire to persevere.

Perhaps the most disturbing chapter in the book is her visit to the big Champagne maker Moët & Chandon, with its pesticide-drenched “cadaver grey” vineyards and excessive emphasis on reproducibility and the image of the product. Strangely enough, I found myself thinking that all the dollars that bid up such champagnes to astronomical prices are not available to drive up the prices of good wines. Alice also managed to visit traditional champagne makers, a field that I had never even considered.

The book starts with an introduction of her youth as a supertaster and her growing love of wine – which eventually brought her all around the world as a wine writer. The individual chapters focus on various regions in France, Spain, and Italy where she meets traditional and not so traditional winemakers (or worse). The book ends with a chapter on the Loire in France, an area with a lively community of natural winemakers. Woven throughout the book are reflections on her love life, which, depending on your outlook, are an unnecessary distraction or reflect the broader theme of passion.

The chapter I liked the least is where she relays a phone conversation she had with Robert Parker himself. In this chapter it becomes quite clear that she sees the changing of taste in the wine world as top-down development instead of the reflection of a population of wine drinkers who actually prefer the sweet and oaky stuff (think of the development of lambic as a useful comparison). It’s not so much that in the days of old people were true wine connoisseurs but simply that there was no other choice than to drink wines that were made in the traditional way. Manipulation brings down cost and not all (occasional) wine drinkers want to pay more for authentic wines. Interestingly enough, in the beer world it is exactly the use of modern techniques (the use of commercial yeast, malt extract, glass carboys etc.) that allowed the homebrewer to develop alternatives to the big brewers.

In various parts in the book she appears to link a preference for authentic wines to left- leaning politics – which, in my view, is the fastest way to prevent natural winemaking from reaching a larger audience. It is also highly arbitrary. One could just as well reason that traditional winemaking should give rise to a traditionalist outlook on culture, too. Or one could argue that non-interventionist wine making is most compatible with non-interventionist views on society. In my opinion, it is best to remain as inclusive as possible when advocating a certain kind of winemaking.

One thing that intrigued me were the multiple references to perfume in the book. On the one hand she mentions that perfumes (or any dominant fragrances in the home) can interfere with the life of a professional wine taster. On the other hand, she also refers to perfume in a more positive context, at least on one occasion using the aroma of a perfume as a descriptor of a wine.

Aside from some minor quibbles, I can fully endorse this book. Obviously, I am quite biased because she seems to like the same wines as I do. But I do think she is on to something disturbing: the fragility of traditional wines. I am holding out for the ability of modern techniques to give rise to similar sensory profiles of those wines, but at this stage the traditional methods produce the best and most intriguing wines. In some cases, the link may be indirect (as with organic food) because wine makers who employ traditional techniques prefer more interesting aromas and flavors.

Natural winemaking also introduces an element of unpredictability that, within reason, further adds to the enjoyment of these wines. In that sense, natural winemaking is quite similar to spontaneous fermentation in beer making as well.

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).

Interview with Crooked Stave’s Chad Yakobson

Chad Yakobson has done the world of homebrewing and microbrewing a great favor by making the results of his academic investigations with brettanomyces yeast available on his website and participating in online exchanges about the use of brettanomyces in homebrewing. Chad is also one of the (early) readers of Lambic and Wild Ale and has contacted me from time to time about an item I posted. I am therefore quite pleased to publish this interview about his artisan brewing project called Crooked Stave.

1. Did your desire to start a brewery come out of your academic studies, or did you always want to start a brewery?

I actually wanted to stat a winery at first. I studied grape growing in my undergrad and then moved to New Zealand to study wine making. Throughout all of this I was always more passionate about brewing and during my travels after New Zealand I decided that I wanted to work for a brewery instead of a winery. I was still interested in further academic studies so I eventually made my way to Edinburgh, Scotland, to study at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling…with the final goal of one day opening a brewery of my own.

2. How would you summarize the most significant findings of your studies with brettanomyces?

I would say the most significant finding was that Brettanomyces yeasts are capable of Primary fermentation in a manner similar to Saccharomyces strains but with an incredibly different means to metabolite production and even greater variability in their ability to ferment and produce secondary metabolites like esters and phenols.

3. What is the biggest challenge of 100% Brettanomyces brewing?

Choosing the right strain to match the beer you’re trying to brew and hitting the fermentation profile you’re looking for with that beer. There aren’t enough strains right now, so most Brett beers taste the same. Brewers only have a few strains to choose from and it takes time to learn how the different Bretts ferment and how best to accentuate their characteristics in the beer.

4. Do you think it is possible to brew a quality 100% Brettanomyces beer on a similar timescale as a regular ale?

I do! Our last Brettanomyces fermentation took 6 days to go from 14 Plato to 3 Plato. To make a quality 100% Brettanomyces beer is a bit more of a trick. That is my goal through producing a series of beers called Wild Wild Brett. The first series plays off the color wheel (ROY-G-BIV), incorporating an ingredient into the beer that in some form relates to the color of the color wheel for that particular batch. In the end I’m looking for the ideal Brettanomyces beer, one that can be produced as part of a brewery’s normal lineup of beers.

5. Do you favor certain grains and hops in your brewing?

Absolutely, I can’t say I favor them as much as the yeasts (both wild and non-wild) I use, but every brewer will tell you they have certain ingredients they like to use. For me I like what rye can do as well as steel-cut oats. I use steel-cut oats in quite a few of the beers. Special B is a great malt as well as Carafa II debittered. As for hops, it’s really specific on the beer and the flavor profile I’m looking for. Centennial is a nice hop with a good aroma in a beer. I haven’t had a chance to play around with the fancy new hops that brewers are using so I’m looking forward to trying some of those out and developing a greater opinion on how I can use hops in the beers we’ll be brewing.

6. Can you give us a taste of the kind of “unique ingredients” that you have encountered during your travels that you would like to use in brewing?

Something I get the most out of when traveling is visiting markets and trying the local foods, to me that is a big part of culture. We don’t have anything like the markets I’ve visited throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, even South America. Walking through the markets grabbing new fruits like buddhas hand or a mangosteen is exciting to try and think how they would incorporate into a beer. The spice market in Cairo is the largest of its kind and the variety of spices is unreal. Maracuyá and Lulo from Colombia are similar to passion fruit and have a great acidity, there is also a raw pressed cane sugar called panela which lends a some dried fruit flavors when used in fermentation. The variety of fruits, herbs, spices, and flowers that exist outside of what we have available is amazing and the way the various ingredients are incorporated into the local foods is also unique. Every culture is different and they incorporate the ingredients differently. A curry might have 10 spices which come together to create a singular flavor while a still equally flavorful dish in South America might have only 2 or 3 ingredients but still be just  savory. It’s all about the way the ingredients are used that bring out their unique flavors and I like to think of brewing in the same way.

7. Your brewery seems off to an ambitious start. Can you tell us something about your objectives and achievements to date?

Our objective is to produce expressive well crafted beers. I’m building a library of barrels and filling them as fast as I can to get them souring. I’m only adding certain cultures of critters to the barrels to see how they develop to build our house flavor. It’s not something I can control but I do play a hand in it when blending barrels, and choosing which stay and which get tossed. We are concentrating heavily on Brettanomyces fermentations and I want to see the abilities of these yeasts culture and find new strains and discover new flavors. Bioflavoring is very promising with these yeasts and can really lend some interesting characteristics to the beers. Playing around with the barrels and making sour beers is exciting for me, but I look forward to having a very diverse portfolio of beers. Diversification is our model and we plan to produce many types of beers in every fashion possible. With creativity the options are endless.

8. How big is your brewery currently? How much space do you think you will need in the future?

We are currently using about 5,000 sq. ft. of space shared between two breweries. This is going to put our limits at about 100 barrels the oak foeder and the 17bbl fermenter and bright tank for a total of around 500-600 barrels of beer a year. We’re are looking to expand into Denver, Colorado, to have a brewery of our own as soon as we get the capital raised. At that point we will be looking for something with at least 10,000 sq. ft.

9. What are your short and long term goals for Crooked Stave?

Short term goals are to open a brewery location in Denver and be a successful brewery, one which people look at and hopefully think we are trying new things and making exciting beers. From there we’ll see what the future holds. Ideally we would build a green site brewery out along the front range up against the foothills west of Denver and have acreage for agriculture crops. I’d love to have an onsite orchard, small vineyard, and greenhouses for seasonal crops and herbs and spices to use in small batch beers.

10. Do you have any specific plans for spontaneous fermentation?

Absolutely! We actually just brewed a no boil beer to start a sour culture going this past week. If that works we’ll have a spontaneous culture to always use for souring wort for natural acidification in the brewhouse and post fermentation. From there I have a few more ideas like using fruits harvested and mashed which then will start fermentation spontaneously. I’ve played around with this a little and know some distilleries doing natural fermentation with fruits before distilling the product. A coolship is always an entertaining idea so we’ll see where we go with this, but a Colorado spontaneous beer will be produced one day.

11. How has your exposure to wine making influenced your brewing?

I think it has greatly influenced the way I look at fermentation, the organisms involved, and the level of my involvement with those organisms. It has given me a great understanding of how fruits can be used in primary fermentation and the characteristics they bring. Also our use of oak barrels goes hand in hand with those of a winemaker and the understanding of palate development and blending to achieve a desired final blend. A developed palate and blending skills makes the difference between a good wine and an average wine. I also treat my barrels much as a winemaker would. I take them apart and inspect each one, fix them if needed. This gives a greater understanding of each barrel and the the influences a barrel will give.

12. Can you tell us something about the artwork you envision for your labels and promotion materials?

We have a few variations for the labels depending on the series of beers. The labels for the sours are the most artistic and I’m happy with they way they are coming along. Each label has unique typography being hand created which will make the labels stand out. I like the gracefulness a wine label has with its simplicity and elegance. We are trying to bring some of this into our labels as well. I would like to see our labels continue to change even having guest artists doing labels or series of labels.

13. There has been increased interest in sour ales, wild ales and spontaneous fermentation in American microbrewing. Do you think an affordable year-round wild ale is economically feasible?

I do, and its what I’m hoping to do with our American Petite Sour. As well as being able to always have a Brettanomyces beer available.

14. What are your favorite brewers and beers?

I have quite a few… It would be hard to list all them… plus so many I’m yet to try but know of…

15. Are there any collaborations with other brewers in the works?

We just did a Fort Collins Collaboration with all the breweries in Fort Collins getting together to brew one beer that will be served during American Craft Beer Week. Also a few months back we had a Super Saison Friends League brew which was a 12% Saison aged in some of our Chardonnay barrels and inoculated with 10 different strains of Brettanomyces.

Recently we have been talking with Epic Brewing Company in Salt Lake City about doing a Collaboration. So we’ll see if that happens. There are a lot of brewers I’d like to do collaborations with, so we’ll see if that starts to happen as we get going.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to do an interview. I’ve followed your website since I was studying back in Edinburgh so it’s exciting for me to get to be featured in a post.

Geuze en kriek: de champagne onder de bieren

geuze en kriekOne of the reasons for starting this blog was that, as a native Dutch speaker, I would be able to review and consult (historical) Dutch documents about traditional lambic brewing and share this information with English readers. In the coming months I will be reviewing a number of Dutch (Flemish) books about lambic brewing. The first review concerns the book Geuze en kriek: de champagne onder de bieren by Jef van den Steen. Geuze and Kriek was published in 2006 by Uitgeverij Davidsfonds in Leuven (with support of the province of Vlaams Brabant) as a large format “coffee table” book and covers the history and production of lambic beers and their producers and concludes with a chapter on cooking with lambic. The book is lavishly illustrated and includes some of the most beautiful color photography ever collected in a book about beer.

Geuze en kriek starts with a long and engaging historical treatment of the history of beer brewing in the Brussels area and the development of lambic brewing in particular. The author mentions that even in the original Reinheitsgebot there is no mention of the addition of yeast. Also of interest is the large role that rye played in medieval brewing in West-Brabant. These chapters gave me a better understanding of the fact that the history of brewing in Belgium was not a straightforward change from spontaneous fermentation to the domination of bottom-fermented beers, but a complex interplay of natural forces (such as the Little Ice Age), particular circumstances, and regulatory and trade policies.

Contrary to popular opinion, traditional lambic brewing did not exclusively rely on aged hops but utilized fresh hops as well, preferably in a 50%/50% proportion. The addition of fresh hops was possible because some local hop varieties, such as Coigneau, contained low alpha-acids and thus added little to the bitterness of the resulting brew. With the growing popularity of hop-driven bottom-fermented beers, the demand for such low bitterness hop varieties declined and traditional lambic breweries were forced to utilize 100% aged hops to prevent the beer from becoming too bitter – an undesirable characteristic in lambic brewing (for a notable exception, see Cantillon’s Iris). The author also mentions that the spontaneously fermented low gravity beer meerts excludes the  presence of brettanomyces – a claim that I had not read before. The meerts wort was cooked much longer (twelve to fifteen hours) than that destined to become lambic, after which it was transferred to barrels for spontaneous fermentation and storage. Meerts was the cheapest beer of the lambic family, followed by faro and lambic, and consumed as a session beer, or as a beer for children (!) and ladies, and was also served in hospitals and homes for the elderly. Today’s readers of these facts should keep in mind that in those days beer was greatly preferred to water, due to the the lack of clean and healthy water.  As mentioned by other writers on the history of lambic brewing, the immensely popular sweetened lambic called faro was often abused as the vehicle to produce beers of dubious composition, including beers with no or little contribution from spontaneous fermentation.

Baudelaire was not the only writer who composed poetry about faro. As a response to the distinct aversion of Baudelaire to faro, the Parisian journalist Vaughan composed a tribute to faro in 1875 that was even sung by children in Mechelen when it rained:

‘t Gaat regenen, ‘t gaat regenen
‘t Gaat regenen dat het giet,
En als we gene faro hebben
Dan drinken wij lambik!

Which can be loosely translated as:

It’s going to rain, it’s going to rain
It will be raining cats and dogs
And if there is no faro
Then we will drink lambic

Promotion of geuze as a health drink is a common theme in the lambic literature. Jef van den Steen describes the mayor of Brussels writing in 1941 “…I am recovering from a serious illness and to get me back on my feet again my doctor advises me to drink a glass of geuze every day, or even better, a glass of kriek.” He adds that the mayor was by no means the only one in those days of great scarcity who procured his geuze through a doctor’s recommendation. The chapter on geuze also has a useful list of geuze blenders that still existed after 1975 with their date of closing:

1986: Van Malder in Anderlecht;
1981: Moriau in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw (produced until 1992 by De Neve in Schepdaal and by Boon in Lembeek until the present day);
1980: Wets in Sint-Genesius-Rode (produced until 1993 by Girardin in Sint-Ulriks-Kapelle);
1978: De Koninck & Proost in Dworp and Arthur Troch in Schepdaal (produced for some years at Lindemans);
1997: De Koninck in Dworp, De Vidts in Lembeek (succeeded by Boon), de Vidts in Asse en Van den Houtte in Groot Bijgaarden;
1976: Mosselmans in Dworp.

The chapter on fruit lambics contains a lot of information on the history of fruit and kriek production in the Brussels region and the challenges traditional lambic brewers faced to obtain adequate amounts of  suitable fruit for their beer production. The kriek and raspberry lambics are by far the most popular fruits for traditional fruit lambic production but grapes (Cantillon and one 3 Fonteinen experiment) and strawberries (Hanssens) have been used as well. Over time the use of fruit in lambics became a mixed blessing because the growing popularity of (sweetened) fruit beers often altered the production methods and products of traditional lambic brewers, in some cases making their product almost unrecognizable as traditional lambic products. The popularity of faro, and the use of the “lambikstoemper’ to crush added sugar in lambic, indicates that there was always a demand for sweetened lambics and today’s  fruit lambics have replaced faro as the preferred product to depart from traditional lambic brewing.

The profiles of individual producers are rich with information on the traditional and not so traditional lambic brewers and geuze blenders. The history of Belle-Vue is an almost uninterrupted, and unfortunately, quite successful, mission to sweeten, filter and pasteurize the traditional product.  As of spring 2011, Belle-Vue and Cantillon are the only lambic producers that are not part of  the High Council of Lambic Beers, Horal, but for completely opposite reasons. Whereas Cantillon pursues a uncompromising approach to lambic production, Belle-Vue seems to have lost all touch with tradition. The section on Boon is surprisingly short, with an emphasis on the history of the producer without much discussion of its beers and relationships with other traditional lambic brewers in the region.

Some lambic writers mention the  harsher character of the older Cantillon products and van den Steen attributes this to the prior practice of using an open tank (geilkuip), closing of the barrels at the end of the brewing season (as opposed to 14 days after transfer now), and the use of a wooden blending tank. The chapter on De Keersmaeker (now known for its Mort Surbite beers) mentions the development of the ‘methode-DKZ’, conceived by Jacques de Keersmaecker, in which the wort is not transferred to a traditional coolship but, after cooling it with a heat exchanger, transferred to stainless steel tanks that do not contain CO2 but ambient air, further aerated with ambient air, to produce spontaneous fermentation. One advantage of this method is that it allows for year-round brewing of lambic.

The Mort Subite family of beers is not known for its traditional qualities but the brewery has now added a more authentic oude geuze and an oude kriek to its line-up as well. The profile of 3 Fonteinen that outlines the transition from cafe / restaurant / geuze blender to cafe / restaurant / geuze blender / brewer was written before the costly 2009 exploding bottles accident, the brief termination of its brewing activities and the recent resuscitation of its brewing activities. The section on Girardin is particularly helpful as the operations of this family brewer are mostly closed to the general public.

The story of Hanssens remains one of the finest examples of the continuation of traditional  lambic blending; until this day Hanssens (which is a part-time endeavor) uses traditional methods and archaic equipment (such as the manual cleaning and drying of bottles and the use of a wooden stick to blend the lambics). This has not prevented them from agreeing to a number of  interesting experiments such as the production of strawberry lambic and even a blend of lambic and mead. The section about spontaneously fermented beers from West Flanders contains some interesting information on the differences between lambic and the Flemish browns and reds. For connoisseurs of traditional lambic, there is not much of interest going on here, I think.

The final chapter has a number of recipes and profiles of the 3 Fonteinen, De Heeren van Liederkercke and De Witte Roos restaurants. The last two pages of the book feature a stunning full color impressionistic photo of lambic in a coolship.

Geuze and Kriek is a  fascinating book about the history and practice of lambic brewing that has enough detail to double as a reference work. The beautiful photography might even tempt English speakers to purchase it. For a fuller technical description of the lambic brewing process the reader should consult Jeff Sparrow’s Wild Brews. Tim Webb’s LambicLand includes a very comprehensive run-down of all the contemporary lambic products from individual producers.


Just published is the second edition of LambicLand, a labor of love and extremely useful guide to the world of lambic. The new (English only) edition has three important elements rolled into one 128 page-long book: an introduction to the spontaneously fermented beers of the Payottenland, a complete overview of all the lambic brewers / geuze blenders and their beers, and a section on lambic tourism. The authors (Tim Webb, Chris Pollard and Siobhan McGinn) strike a thoughtful balance between understanding the commercial incentives to produce fake sweet lambics and the importance of preserving tradition and using the renewed (international) interest in lambic brewing to return to tradition. With the exception of the awful Belle-Vue brewery, I get the impression that many of the quasi-traditional lambic brewers are interested in returning to the more authentic styles and adding more “oude” and unsweetened lambics to their year-round bottled beers. Also encouraging is the rise of new gueuze blenders like Gueuzerie Tilquin. The only sad information in the book is 3 Fonteinen’s retrograde movement from brewer back to blender as a result of a number of unfortunate events. Surely, something can be done about this!

Even a rabid lambic fanatic as myself found some interesting tidbits of information that I was not aware of such as the origin of the word Brettanomyces, the story behind Boon’s Oude Geuze Mariage Parfait, and Hanssens’s memorable but exploding Mead the Geuze bottles. For friends of lambic beer, the most useful part is the tourism section with a comprehensive list of lambic-friendly pubs, museums, shops and hotels.

As the United States is drawing closer to producing real spontaneously fermented beers, a discussion about what should be called a lambic beer will  be inevitable at some point.  As I read it, the authors seem to agree that the survival of traditional lambic brewing may depend on the freedom to use the lambic label for all beers that are made in the traditional way employing spontaneous fermentation. Considering what is at stake, I do not see any reason to disagree, and hopefully some non-Belgian traditional lambics will be featured in a future edition of the book.

If you are interested in lambic beer, or unique beer history in general, purchase a copy of this information-rich, color illustrated book and use it during your next trip to Belgium.