An increasing number of American breweries are making beers similar to Belgian Lambics using traditional methods, such as spontaneous fermentations, turbid mashes, long boils, barrel aging, etc., along with traditional ingredients such as raw/unmalted wheat and aged hops. Some are even blending one-, two-, and three-year-old batches, similar to Belgian Gueuze (French spelling) / Geuze (Belgo-Dutch spelling).
Just like Champagne, the term Lambic (and Gueuze) is a protected term for a traditional product made in a certain way and in a certain region of the world. It is not a style. Lambic is an appellation, and it differs from other place-originated beer styles, such as Dortmunder, Pilsner, Berliner Weisse, Gose, New England IPA, etc., all of which can be made anywhere.
If a Champagne-like product is made outside of the Champagne region of France, it is called sparkling white wine (or the fancier Méthode Champenoise). Lambic can only be made in the Brussels area of Belgium (Zenne/Senne Valley and Pajottenland/Payottenland), but if a similarly made beer is produced outside of that region, there isn’t an agreed-upon name for it.
“American wild ale” is too broad, plus most “wild ales” are made with cultured yeast and bacteria. “Spontaneous ale” only describes one aspect of Lambic beer; it doesn’t define ingredients or methods, plus many American-made spontaneous ales do not adhere to the traditional procedures and techniques of Lambics. “Sour ale” is far too vague and it includes beers such as kettle-soured Goses and Berliner Weisses, which are nothing like long-aged spontaneously fermented beers.
Some brewers have described their beers as “Lambic-style” or “Lambic-inspired,” but out of respect for Lambic makers (which most sour ale brewers take inspiration from), American brewers should not use the terms Lambic or Gueuze in their beers’ names. At best, it would create confusion. At worst, it could be considered anything from disingenuous to deceitful, or even co-opted profiteering.
Then why not just make up some new name, or not even try to categorize it at all? Because beer styles, categories, and appellations matter. They’re about history, respect, culture, education, competitions, consumerism, and more, all rolled into understandable and easily communicable terms. Brewers use them to formulate recipes and to communicate what they make. Historians and beer writers use them as shorthand, to chronicle traditions, and to follow trends. Consumers use them to know what they’re buying and, more importantly, to differentiate between styles they like and do not like. And they provide structure to competitions, so that beers are fairly judged among other, similar beers.
In 2016, Jeffrey Stuffings of Jester King Brewery in Texas thought he had this naming dilemma solved. After talking with Jean Van Roy of Cantillon, one of the world’s premier Lambic producers, he came up with the term Méthode Lambic (and Méthode Gueuze).
“Our beer is NOT Lambic or Gueuze,” Stuffings wrote. “We have a very strong desire for beer drinkers to know how our beer was made. We want them to know that this is not just a spontaneously fermented beer, but a spontaneously fermented beer made using the method of authentic Belgian Gueuze. We invested an inordinate amount of time, energy, money, and patience into making this beer.”
Even though Cantillon gave Jester King its blessing to use the term Méthode Lambic/Gueuze, some other Lambic brewers did not like the term, as they don’t want to see the words Lambic or Gueuze anywhere on a non-Lambic/Gueuze label. They worry that it will create confusion about where and how the product was made, and they’re rightful to be so protective (and they’re legally protected in the EU).
Therefore, a new group of brewers formed with the goal of coming up with a new appellation and mark that clearly communicates to consumers about these unique, American-made, “Lambic-like” beers. After lots of back and forth among themselves and Lambic brewers, the group came up with a new name and mark: Méthode Traditionnelle (for Lambic-like beers) and Méthode Traditionnelle III (for Oude Gueuze-like blended Lambics). Read the M.T. requirements here.
While consensus seems to be positive for the new term, some brewers disagree with it. De Garde Brewing of Tillamook, Oregon has probably been the most outspoken against it, even though its beer meets the M.T. requirements. De Garde has released many statements online about why it opposes the mark. Here are a few excerpts:
“Our objection is to the claim by any brewery using this mark of respecting tradition and consecutively charging a premium/luxury price, when accessible pricing is a large part of the tradition. Lambic producers have fought hard to maintain their reasonably affordable pricing (even very new ones such as Tilquin, with their start-up costs). Yes, their product is expensive when it arrives here, but that’s a matter of importation, distribution and retailer costs …” and “… a select and vocal group of brewers and consumers will diminish anyone not participating [in using this mark].”
While De Garde’s main argument seems to be about affordable pricing (e.g., beers using the mark might come with inflated prices), some argue that the “Belgian tradition” of selling affordable Lambic was more about necessity than just a goodwill effort to make luxury beer affordable to common folk. A couple decades ago, Lambic makers were struggling to compete with the surge of cheaply made pilsners and pale ales, and some Lambic breweries nearly closed, including Cantillon. Interestingly enough, Lambics were mainly saved by American beer enthusiasts, but that’s another story.
To add, beer pricing is complex. There are many reasons why a sour ale in California, let’s say, might cost more than a sour ale in Oklahoma. Every brewery is in a different financial situation and holds different debt; leases differ (i.e., an expensive urban environment vs. a less-expensive rural one); ingredients, shipping costs, distribution networks, insurance, and taxes vary from one state to another; and breweries differ in their number of employees and production amounts.
Breweries also are free to charge whatever they want for their beers. People still line up in droves to buy bottles of Jester King, Funk Factory, Russian River, Black Project, etc., regardless of price. The market has a way of leveling things out. An overpriced and/or poorly made beer adorning the M.T. mark probably won’t sell very well, just as an under-priced and exceptional, non-M.T.-compliant beer might sell out instantly (and then some bottles will undoubtedly be resold for a fortune online).
That said, only time will tell if this concern comes to fruition. But even if it does, I believe all spontaneous beers – whether M.T. or not – are justified to cost more than many other beers. They require a high level of skill and a good amount of luck, they’re time consuming to brew, they hog barrel real estate for years, and they’re much riskier (e.g., some batches might have to be dumped from time to time).
I view the M.T. mark more as a way to differentiate and categorize, and I don’t see it as a symbol of elitism or exclusivity. Most importantly, it provides transparency. When I’m perusing through a bottle shop, a beer’s label is typically all I have to determine what’s inside the bottle and how it was made. Sure, I’ve taken chances on countless beers before, but I prefer to know what I’m buying. The beer’s price is usually an irrelevant factor, although I’ll admit I’m less likely to buy an overpriced kettle-soured beer and I’m more likely to buy an under-priced authentic Lambic.
Zach Coleman, Head Brewer of TRVE Brewing Co. in Denver, also expressed a disagreement with the mark, though it sounds like he hasn’t entirely ruled out the possibility of using it:
“As an absurdist who chooses to live a life of meaningful rebellion, I do not think M.T. aligns with TRVE … I want to push the boundaries of what is possible but also push our drinkers out of their comfort zones … The unstated assumption is that this mark, and the caliber of breweries associated with it, will have such social/cultural power as to all but totally devalue those who choose to not participate and use the mark … At TRVE, we are unwilling to fully support anything that is potentially limiting because, as American brewers, it is all but in our DNA that we must continually rebel against any limitations or laws placed upon what we can create … That said, it is important to have these discussions and for us to communicate our inspirations and processes. Also, the brewers who have created M.T. have done a mountain of work. Words shape our reality, so we must be careful how we use them, and we must be careful about how they are used to implicitly confine us. Does that mean we’ve ruled out the possibility of using it? For now, I’ll let Camus do the heavy lifting: ‘What is a rebel? A man who says no: but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation.’”
According to the M.T. creators, the designation is not intended to limit creativity or choices, and M.T. beers should not be viewed as superior to any other types of spontaneously fermented beer. It is primarily a functional term used to solve the issue of referring to Lambic- and Gueuze-style beer, without using the words Lambic or Gueuze by name.
M.T. also should not be seen as an effort to “clone” Belgium. Differences in water chemistry, grain composition, hop varieties, climate, and most importantly microflora exist all over the world. Not to mention, most Lambic makers use barrels with a century-worth of “bugs” in them, so copying would be impossible. To add, I’m not aware of any American brewer who wants to completely emulate Lambic beer.
I also do not believe M.T. would stifle or restrict creativity. Even within the requirements, there’s plenty of play. Of course, M.T. brewers would be free to make non-M.T. beers, even within their own barrel programs. Mitch Ermatinger, owner of Speciation Artisan Ales, says it best:
“M.T. is a fun and interesting concept. We will work on making one batch per year for fun, and to compare our final product with other M.T. products. The rest of our spontaneously fermented beers will continue to be experimental and progressive, and will not be held back by any rules or other people’s opinions about what they should be.”
While American production of these beers is still in its infancy, it may seem frivolous to be arguing about all this right now, but there’s a rapidly growing market for these beers, so it’s important to set some communication standards and best practices as a foundation for the future.
Fewer than a dozen breweries in America currently meet the criteria of M.T. beers. Wander Brewing in Bellingham is one of them, and I recently got owner Chad Kuehl’s thoughts on this subject:
“I do see sense in putting a formal style or name to the American versions, a name that defines the method (time, effort, materials, etc.) that goes into these complex beers. It can be beneficial and educational to the consumer and help to ensure that the producer is being protected against the misleading use of terms.
“I respect the tradition and method of the classic producers. I agree with most everyone that our American versions of classic Lambic/G(u)euze-style beers should never carry the words Lambic or G(u)euze. Even the use of Lambic-Style or Lambic Method as part of a beer name seems to leave the door open for confusion. But can it be used in a descriptor on a menu or on the back of a bottle? That is where the debate seems to intensify.”
About a year ago, Wander put into production the first commercial coolship (aka koelschip) in the State of Washington. There are many WA breweries doing spontaneous beers, but as far as I know, none have produced and sold an M.T.-compliant beer yet. “We did not actively adhere to those requirements, but we were attempting to imitate the classic Lambic method as close as possible, and it turns out we did meet all 20 of M.T.’s requirements,” Kuehl says. “I’m not sure how many breweries in America fit the requirements, but I would think it would be around a dozen, or maybe less.”
Kuehl is still trying to decide if Wander will use the M.T. mark on its labels (when it releases its spontaneous beers). “Part of me feels it will help to educate consumers and let them know the genuine time, effort, and cost put into these beers,” he says, “but part of me thinks we need to simply give it our own unique name and description and let the consumer response help to dictate how we communicate these beers in the future.”