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