I love lambic. I love gueuze. I love Cantillon, Girardin, Drie Fonteinen, Tilquin, Boon….I love these breweries and their beers. If I had more money, I would have more than the few dozen bottles of these amazing beers in my possession, alas. I love these beers so much, when I’m drinking them I don’t even care when people correct my pronunciation of the different breweries. There is some silliness (to put is politely) in the circles of lambic worshipers in the beer-geek community about the meaning and use of the word “lambic”.
One of the more pointless debates one can be pulled into is whether or not something fits a definition. I remember getting in an argument with someone once because I called an object a barrel when it was, in fact, a pin (a barrel looking object that held 5 gallons). While I doubted anyone would ever mistake my common use of the word “barrel” to refer to an object rather than a vessel with a specific volume, I was incorrect…technically I was talking about a pin…not a barrel. But this post isn’t about the subtleties of oak barrels….this post is about the apparent dilution of the word “lambic” in the beer community.
What is a lambic? Simply put, it is a spontaneously fermented beer, light in color, characterized by a sour / tartness given to it by the mixed fermentation of bacteria and various yeast species. Lambic is the term used to describe the base beer of many variations. Unblended lambic is uncarbonated, takes years to produce. There are a few different beers that can be made using this lambic base. These include gueuze, mars, faro, and fruit lambics. Gueuze is a vertical blend of usually three different vintages of unblended lambic, bottle conditioned (carbonated), and aged for an additional period of time in the bottle before serving. There is also a proper ritual to the serving of a gueuze, below is a video of the process. Don’t ask me what anti-gueuze is, I have no idea…and it looks like a waste of beer to me.
A faro is a draft only version of a lambic that has some sugar added, to sweeten it a bit. There are a few bottled versions but authentic faro cannot be packaged. Mars is a lower alcohol lambic, usually around 2%. These are mostly extinct at this point. Fruits can be added to lambics and blended together to make different kinds of lambics. Typical fruits found in lambics are cherries (kriek), raspberry (framboise), and various grapes. There are dozens of examples of different fruits that have been added to lambics in the past. They are (mostly) pretty good.
Regardless of how the lambic beer is used to make various other beers, there are a few guidelines on ingredients (like Reinheitsgebot — but not German) and certain procedural requirements to produce lambic beer.
- The recipe must consists of at least 30% unmalted wheat, malted barley, 1+ year old hops, and water. No other adjuncts or ingredients allowed.
- Conversion of the grist must take place via a turbid mash and have a 3+ hour boil.
- The hot wort must then be left in a coolship overnight, during the cooler months of the year, to be spontaneously inoculated.
- It is then pumped into wooden barrels for primary fermentation and the beer is left to age on its sediment (traub) for at least 1 year.
- Lambic may not be pasteurized, sweetened, or have any artificial color/flavoring added.
- If it is fruited (see above), use of 100% real fruit is required (no syrups or juices).
Aside from the procedural requirements of traditional lambic, there is a sense that the geography of the production matters as well. This is the biggest point of contention in the beer geek world. You see, lambic, true lambic, can only be produced in Belgium. Not just any region in Belgium though….it has be made in Pajottenland, more specifically in the Zenne valley where Brussels is located. This means that breweries doing “lambic style” beers in countries such as the United States are not producing lambics…or at least that’s the argument. The justification of this dimension to the definition comes from the belief that in the coolship step (#3 from the above list), the beer is inoculated with “wild” bacteria and yeast that is specific to the region. While this is a nice fairy tale about the micro-flora of the Zenne valley, the science doesn’t support this. These beers are mostly propagated by the various house blends present in the wood of the barrels or just the practice of “spilling” the wort on the outsides of the barrels help to spread the organisms. The few studies that have looked into what organisms are present early in fermentation have not been able to support the idea that organisms from the air are driving the early fermentation.
The real interesting consequence of this definition, with all of these restrictions, there are only a handful of places that can claim that they are making authentic lambic. Here is a list of those places with a few notes.
Belle-Vue (owned by InBev), Boon, Brasserie Cantillon, De Keersmaeker / Mort Subite (owned by Scottish & Newcastle), De Troch / Chapeau, 3 Fonteinen, Girardin, Lindemans Brewery, Oud Beersel (now brewed by Boon), and Timmermans.
Only 10 breweries meet those requirements, as far as I can tell. 10. TEN. Please let me know if I left anyone off of that list. There are four addition lambic blenders: Tilquin, De Cam, Hanssens Artisanaal, and Van Honsebrouck / St. Louis. These blenders get wort or barrels of beer from the above 10 breweries and blend / package it for sale under their own label. So, currently, there are 14 places that can package a beer and call it “lambic” without angering the internet.
If the problems aren’t immediately obvious, let me point out one or two. First, two of the 10 breweries are owned by InBev and Newcastle and Oud Beersel is being brewed by Boon, while this isn’t expressly forbidden by the “rules”, the sale of these breweries to these larger conglomerates does not support the spirit of artisanal lambic production. Imagine what people would say if Chimay was bought by InBev. More importantly, out of the 10 breweries, 6 of them add sweeteners or fruit juices to some of their beers and still label them “lambic” on the bottles (Belle-Vue, Boon, De Keersmaeker, De Troch, Lindemans, and Timmermans). One of the four blenders also has a sweetened line of lambics, Van Honsebrouck (the St. Louis labeled lambics). Some of these breweries, such as Timmerman, gets around this distinction by adding the word “traditional” to the lambics that aren’t sweetened. The overall point being, the 10 (or the 14) are already diluting it without any help from American or other sour producers. These breweries, through HORAL (not all of the above breweries are part of this organization — Cantillon is noticeably absent), want to preserve the word “lambic” to mean a beer made with the above restrictions, but they themselves dilute the term through their own adulteration of “traditional lambic.” Don’t believe me, here are some examples of “lambics” made by these people that aren’t lambics. I’m not going to comment on the quality of these beers, just showcasing them as examples from these breweries that say “lambic” on the label but violate the lambic conventions, don’t worry they were brewed in the correct region though.
Rather than have such a narrow definition that includes the geography (to the exclusion of everyone but those 14 places or whoever else sets up in that region in the future), how about focusing on the process of making a lambic and the outcome? The science doesn’t support the uniqueness of the micro-flora and the protection of the term seems to mean that only those few places are allowed to abuse it. Here is what I purpose, if a brewery anywhere in the world be it in Brussels or Kansas City, MO produce a beer that meets the ingredient and process requirements it can be called a lambic. My reasoning for this is that, while this ignores the geographic history of this beer production, it honors the process and outcome above all else.
There was a mathematician back in the middle of the last century named Alan Turing. He was interested in artificial intelligence and developed what is known today as “the Turing test” for artificial intelligence, a test to determine if a machine is thinking. The test is simple, you have a conversation with a machine and if that machine can fool enough people into thinking it is a human (in other words if the replica is indistinguishable from the real thing), that machine / computer has intelligence. All things are the same way ultimately, if you can’t tell the difference between the imposter and the real thing, there is no difference.
I am sympathetic and understand the point-of-view that might see the use of the word lambic by American brewers to be yet another cultural appropriation by American culture of something sacred. The philosopher Umberto Eco once wrote, “the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake”…fake in this sense is not merely an imitation but MORE original, MORE real and MORE authentic than the original. This may be interpreted as a sign of immaturity, a culture without a history, without our own century’s old traditions. But as an American, I would argue it is actually an act of historical preservation, of taking the best parts of our diverse backgrounds and tumbling it all into one huge tent. Look at this, a beer brewed to the precise specifications of traditional lambic brewers, it is as good if not better than the original.
In conclusion, I find the whole debate about what should and shouldn’t be called “lambic” to be pretty silly. The complexity of process and flavors is what makes these beers special, not where they are made. By arguing that, unfair weight is given to the producers of traditional lambics, even when they aren’t following the guidelines for the production of traditional lambic. While I agree that tradition is important and we owe a huge debt of gratitude to those traditional producers that preserved the process so we all can enjoy these beers today, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it is a duck, regardless of what nest it was in when the egg hatched. I find the inclusion of geography as part of the definition to be counterproductive and the driving force behind the dilution. With the producers within the geographic region adding artificial sweeteners and fruit juices to their lambic bases, they are doing more to damage the term “lambic” than any competent American brewer / brewery making lambics in a more traditional way, just thousands of miles away from that river.
You sort of have a choice. You can either recognize quality or adhere to an arbitrary set of rules that has little to nothing to do with the final product. It is up to you. I, for one, am going with the quality and not a hair splitting masturbatory argument about where something was made and by whom. So that’s my two cents, but don’t you dare call that kölsch you made outside of Cologne a kölsch or that gose that didn’t use water from Leipzig…how dare you.
“A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry.” – George Bernard Shaw
5 thoughts on “Beer Pedantry #1: What is “lambic”?”
I generally abhor, or sarcastically mock, pedantry. Cincinnati’s Rivertown makes a beer they call a Lambic. Is it brewed in the Senne Valley? Hell nah, it’s brewed in the Miami Valley! Does it taste very similar to beers brewed in the Senne Valley? Yes.
However. Lambics get their characteristic taste due to the specific microflora and fauna found in the Pajottenland. So there is some basis in science for calling beers brewed outside that area as something other than Lambics.
In the end, I give no shits. If its a sour/tart partially wheat light bodied beer I’ll call it… let’s say… Lambicish.
There has been some really nice microbiology on the “spontaneous” fermentation and it shows that the microbes found in the air are not as important as previously thought. Also, the overall ecology of the air microbes is quite similar to other areas. I think it is up for debate what exactly matters in those cases. Those breweries are so filled with barrels and they intentionally spill wort and reuse the barrels, the “house” culture is probably just on every surface by now.