Barrels of lambic beer at Brewery Hanssen
Jay R. Brooks for the Bay Area News Group
(This is a general introduction to Lambics, as a style. For more in-depth, please read Tom Becham’s recent article for Professor Good Ales- Prof. GA)
March may have come in like a lion, but with any luck, it will go out like a lambic. Lambics are an unusual style of beer brewed exclusively in Belgium. This almost winelike beer is unlike any other kind of beer in the world — and they’re perfect for the unpredictable weather of April, which is cool and breezy one moment and blisteringly hot the next.
But lambics are not easy-drinking beers and they can be a challenge to most palates. Many people drink them for the first time and think they’ve gone bad. They are often sour and can smell like a barnyard. But they are also some of the most complex and interesting beers being made today. Taking the time to understand and appreciate them may not be easy, but will give you a lifetime of enjoyment. They’re just that good.
What sets lambics apart is that, unlike virtually every other kind of beer, they don’t use a particular kind of yeast. Instead, open containers allow the wild yeasts in the brewery to feed naturally on the sugars and create beer in a process known as spontaneous fermentation.
Because you need just the right sort of wild yeast to consistently make the beer taste the same from batch to batch, lambic breweries go to great pains to preserve the ecosystem in and around their breweries. While most breweries are fastidiously clean and spotless, lambic breweries have cobwebs in every corner, dust caked high and to the uninitiated, appear downright dirty. If they cleaned their breweries, it literally would destroy their ability to make lambic beer.
As you might expect, not many places still can make this type of beer, and in fact most traditionalists insist that true lambic can be made only in the Pajottenland area of Belgium, southwest of Brussels along the river Zenne. The name lambic comes from a town in this area, Lambeek.
All lambics not same
There are several types of lambic beer, but the three you’re most likely to encounter are fruit lambics, gueuze and straight (or unblended) lambic.
Fruit lambics are relatively easy to find in the United States, and specially brewed, sweetened varieties for this market are common. Fruit is added to the beer for its second fermentation, along with additional sugars. Brewers have made fruit lambics with strawberries, black currants, grapes and even bananas, but cherries (or kriek) is the most traditional choice and raspberries (framboise) and peaches (peche) are also quite common.
Lindemans is probably the most popular sweetened fruit lambic and they make several popular varieties that pair quite well with desserts. Lindemans Framboise and chocolate cake is a particularly tasty combination.
More traditional fruit lambics are sour and usually quite tart. One of the few you can find here is brewed by Cantillon, which operates a working brewery museum in Brussels. They make a wide variety of lambics and are one of the best producers in the world.
Gueuze is also fermented twice, but it is a blend of new lambic (usually one year old) and old lambic (often three years old). Gueuze is often quite sour and has aromas reminiscent of a farm or barnyard. Decidedly an acquired taste.
Straight lambic is simply the beer made with wild yeast — neither blended nor refermented with anything else. It’s usually aged for around three years before being bottled. It tastes similar to gueuze, but not as intense or carbonated, and it often lacks the complexity of a blended lambic. It also takes less time and effort to produce, and so costs less.
Although not protected geographically as an appellation, lambic has European Union trade protections regarding its manufacture. That hasn’t stopped American brewers from making similar beers with wild yeast and spontaneous fermentation.
You can find some excellent examples by American craft brewers. They’re usually called wild ales or something similar. Some of the best American lambics are made by Allagash, the Bruery, Lost Abbey, Jolly Pumpkin, New Belgium and Russian River.
So if you’re feeling adventurous, give lambics a try — and then try them again. You may not like that first sip, but they’ll eventually become some of your favorites.