The Lambic beers of Brussels and Payottenland, the mixed suburban-rural area to its West, have no known parallels in brewing history, to the extent that Lambic can be seen as beer’s “Third Way”. Where Lagers are fermented by one type of cultured yeast and Ales by another, Lambics are fermented by naturally occurring yeast.
Wild yeast are gathered by pouring wort into a large shallow vessel called a koelschip (literally cooling vessel) and allowing it to cool overnight by air being passed over it, before running it into oak casks, where it goes on to ferment for anything up to three years.
The naturally occurring saccharomyces yeast lead the fermentation, then handing over to lactobacilli and pediococci bacteria bringing a sharp lactic acid and citrus edges, before slow-acting Brettanomyces yeast strains bring rustic and vintage aromas and flavours often described as “old book shop”, “hay barn” and “horse saddle”.
Draught Lambic is the base beer for a whole family of variants. These simple brews with complex palates were for centuries the workaday beers of the Bruxellois, earning today’s producers a Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) protection order within the EU, ensuring that the terms ‘Oud / Oude’ and ‘Vieil /Vieille’ may only be applied to Lambic beers that are made by tightly prescribed traditional methods.
The spirit of these designations translates into English as ‘Authentic’.
Oude Lambic (Authentic Lambic)
Oude Lambic (4.5-6.0% ABV) is the building block from which the family of Lambic beers are created. It is brewed between October and March as a wheat beer, using a large quantity of old hops that have lost their aroma, flavour and bitterness but retain their antioxidant properties. After mashing, it cools overnight (as above), attracting microorganisms to its surface. After six months in an oak cask it tastes like a musty cask-conditioned ale, going on with further ageing to become more wine-like. While most of these beers are used to produce other forms of Lambic beer, they are sometimes found on draught, mostly in the area where they are produced.
The original principle of Faro (4.5-6.0% ABV) was that a small amount of sugar was added to a draught Lambic to provoke further conditioning and take the lactic edge away, and it is still possible to find a few such beers in specialist cafés in Brussels and Payottenland. Most modern Faro is youngish Lambic, sweetened with brown sugar to make a slightly musty form of session brown beer, usually bottled.
Oude Gueuze (Authentic Gueuze)
Oude Gueuze (5.0-8.0% ABV), sometimes Geuze, or Vieille Gueuze, is perhaps the most astonishing beer style in the world. Approach it unprepared and it may come as a shock. The best pour clear and feature shards of tangy citrus against a sharp background, offset by those rustic and musty aromas. Describing the character of Oude Gueuze in beery term does not work. It is better to see it as a sophisticated form of dry, spritzy drink, akin to sparkling wine or the finest dry ciders, with grain substituted for fruit. Oude Gueuze is made by blending draught lambics from different seasons, then bottling the blend in Champagne-style bottles, with a drop of liquid sugar to prompt some refermentation. The bulk of the blend will be Lambic brewed 6 to 12 months previously, with the character coming from smaller slugs of beers from the two previous seasons. Unquestionably it is an acquired taste, but one that once acquired is rarely lost. Further, in the acquiring it, your understanding of the world will expand a little.
Oude Kriek (Authentic Kriek)
Oude Kriek (5.0-8.0% ABV) is another extraordinary drink. It is made by steeping a large volume of whole cherries, with their stones, in a large cask of lambic for between four and 12 months. The addition of the cherries, ideally one of the harder, slightly bitter varieties, has numerous effects. Their fermentable sugars spark refermentation; their unfermentable fructose (fruit sugar) adds a little sweetness; the beer takes on an impressive deep red colour; cherry flavours and aroma shine through; and more subtly the stones bring almond-like elements. Even the most heavily cherried, in which fruit take up 40% of the volume, will end dry to tart. Oude Kriek is thought to be as old as Lambic itself, the habit of adding fruit being another way of adding value to a harvest that is notoriously short. Its allure and rarity have sent prices sky-rocketing in recent years but have also underwritten its once fragile future, as the finest style of fruit beer in the world. Note that beers labelled Kriek, without the word ‘Oude’ in their name, are from different and usually lesser breeds.
Framboise (or Framboos)
The other fruit that has long been added to Lambic to form its own beer style is the raspberry. Framboise (5.0-7.0% ABV), or Framboos in Flemish dialect, is not protected in law, simply because at the time it was made few authentic examples remained. The principles are much as for Kriek, with whole fruit being significantly superior to juice, and incomparably better than syrup or extract. The fruit is less easy to handle, for the lack of stones, and the colour fades fairly swiftly but its delicacy is a great asset. Sadly, most Framboise beers are made by adding syrup to industrial lambic or other beers.
Other fruit lambics
There are examples of top producers making authentic Lambics using apricots, blackberries, red and white grapes, plums, strawberries and other fruits, though there are far more examples that are made from syrup and industrial beer.
Mid-20th century corporate thinking concluded that the emerging public taste for simple, sweet things was a permanent change, so beers from a folk-craft tradition were often replaced with cartoon versions. For Lambics, the result was a generation of beautifully presented, sticky-sweet, underpowered drinks retaining the name but few of the characteristics. These are easily accessible and unusual drinks, which will likely last a little longer, but they do not showcase proper lambic brewing.