No beer is more romantic or more connected to Mother Nature than Lambics and spontaneously fermented ales. These unique beers are defined by geography, techniques, ingredients and local microorganisms.
Lambic is spontaneously fermented beer from Brussels and the Pajottenland region (also Payottenland) / Senne Valley (also Zenne) of Belgium. Lambic is more of an appellation than a beer style. The term is protected by law in Belgium, similar to “Champagne” in France. Outside of Belgium, spontaneously fermented beer should not be called Lambic.
The term Lambic is thought to have been derived from Lembeek, a village in the municipality of Halle, which is just southwest of Brussels.
While it’s true that spontaneously fermented beer can be made all over the world, Lambics are unique in many ways, especially when it comes to ingredients (malted barley, unmalted wheat, aged hops and local microflora), processes (turbid mashing, long kettle boiling, chilling with a coolship, aging in barrels brimming with aggressive yeasts and bacteria, masterful blending, refermenting in the bottle, etc.), and specific conditions and pressures put on the yeast and bacteria in the barrels and bottles (regarding pH, alcohol, types of sugars, oxygen levels, temperatures and time).
The major difference between spontaneously fermented beer and other sour ales is that spontaneous beer is never inoculated with cultured yeast or bacteria by a brewer (including wild cultures). Instead, the hot wort is pumped into a coolship (also koelschip) — which is a wide, shallow and open tank — where it is allowed to cool overnight in the open air. This is when the wort is naturally inoculated with a mix of microorganisms (i.e., wild yeasts, including various strains of Saccharomyces and Brettanomyces, and bacteria, including Lactobacillus and Pediococcus – affectionately known as “bugs”) that happen to be floating around in the air. Lambics are only made when the temperature is just right, from late fall through early spring, which is when airborne microbes are most favorable.
Once cooled, the inoculated wort is pumped into oak barrels or foeders, where it picks up even more microorganisms residing in the wooden staves – ripe and raring to go leftovers, if you will, from previous batches. This “straight” / “unblended” Lambic will age for months or years, and over time it will become funkier and more acidic.
As an aside, it should be noted that not all Lambic producers make their own wort. Some are only blenders (e.g., Hanssens, De Cam, and Oud Beersel), and they buy their wort from other breweries, usually from other Lambic breweries.
Of course, Lambics differ from one brewer/blender to another, as their processes, equipment and wild microbes differ, plus they each have their own terroir.
Lambics come in many variants. Some are young and some are old. Some are flat and some are carbonated. Some are sweetened (such as Faro) and some are acidic / sour. There’s also a wide variety of fruit Lambics, including kriek (cherry), framboise (raspberry), peche (peach), cassis (currant) and pomme (apple), and they range from sticky, sweet and desert-like to dry, sour and refreshingly tart. Then there’s Gueuze (also Geuze), which is a blend of 1-, 2- and 3-year-old Lambic, which results in a deeply complex beer that is highly regarded.
As wonderful as Lambics are, Belgium isn’t the only place in the world where one can successfully make spontaneously fermented beer. Even though it is challenging, risky, space consuming and time consuming, an increasing number of American breweries have started making spontaneous beers, including Russian River, Allagash, Former Future, Anchorage, Crooked Stave, New Glarus, Jolly Pumpkin, de Garde, Jester King, and more.
Speaking of Jester King Brewery (Austin, TX), just a couple days ago the brewery announced that it had bottled its first 100-percent spontaneously fermented beer, which was a three-year vertical blend of coolship beers from the winter of 2013, winter of 2014, and winter of 2015. The beer will referment and condition in corked-and-capped bottles for months before being released sometime this year.
“We’re seeking to make a beer inextricably linked to a particular time and place, never to be precisely recreated again,” says Jester King founder Jeffrey Stuffings. “Beer that has a sense of place and time is what intrigues us, and motivates us to be immensely patient with a project that is now three years old.”
Unfortunately, Jester King is not sold in the Pacific Northwest, but here in Bellingham you can find some Lambics at Elizabeth Station (though aside from Tilquin, most are of the sweetened variety), as well as the occasional American-made spontaneously fermented beer.
One such beer that is currently available at Elizabeth Station is a spontaneously fermented beer (which was inoculated with additional bugs) from Seattle’s Urban Family Brewery called The Only Schip Worth A Damn. This was a collaboration between multiple breweries during last year’s Seattle Beer Week. It’s a surprisingly tasty beer that features fruity esters of lemon and pineapple, earthy notes of sourdough, a bit of funk and a healthy amount of acidity.
Oh, and be on the lookout for bottles of Lindemans Oude Kriek Cuvée René, which is supposed to be hitting shelves in America this month for the first time ever. It’s a delicious, refreshingly tart and sour Lambic with huge notes of cherries and woodsy cherry pits, and it’s not to be mistaken with the widely available Lindemans Kriek.
Other Lambic producers include Boon, De Cam, Timmermans, Hanssens, Girardin, Belle-Vue, De Troch, Mort Subite, Oud Beersel, and my personal favorites, Cantillon and Drie Fonteinen. Unfortunately, some of these are not sold in the U.S. and others can be extremely difficult to find. Regarding the latter, the same could be said for many American-made, spontaneously fermented beers, which tend to be special, limited-release offerings. But I suppose that just adds to their allure.