|An ongoing series of reports about
the beer world froma variety of
award winning writers.
|Lambic style beers have an air of mystery and intrigue. While the style has deep roots and tradition in
Belgium it’s only within the last decade or so that this category of beer has started to emerge in the United
States. American breweries like Allagash, Jester King, and others have developed their interpretations of
lambic beer here in the US. Known for its funky, fruity, sometimes barnyard-y flavor lambic beers are
characterized by their complexity and balance. However if horsiness or hay-like or cheesiness is all you’re
getting out of lambic it won’t be a pleasant experience but if it's integrated with the smell of apricots or
nuttiness that balance is the real beauty of lambics.
Defining a lambic has become like the existential and philosophical debate of craft beer. It’s murky territory
with differing opinions as to what actually exactly constitutes a lambic. For some geography is the defining
factor. First and foremost, it is most important to say that lambic is tied to place, specifically the area of
Belgium that includes Brussels, southwest of Brussels, and the Zenne River valley.
For someone who doesn’t know the style it is good to make a comparison to champagne. According to strict
laws, the name champagne can only be used if the product is made within the Champagne region of France.
If the liquid is from anywhere else it is only considered sparkling wine. Because of the name and association
with place specifically, lambic should refer to beer made in Belgium really within greater Brussels. But lambic
doesn’t have the same control over the word,That has left the style open to interpretation.
Many others disagree with the geography theory. For them it is the method and traditional practices that truly
define the style. To fully understand lambics they say take everything you knew about making beer and
throw it out the window. Making a lambic strays from every method of brewing a traditional ale or lager.
While traditional beers go through a gentle mashing process, lambics need a vigorous mash. Most beers
feature fresh hops, lambics use aged hops. Many beers undergo an hour boil, lambics boil for 3 hours and up.
While traditional beers use a single strain of yeast, lambics undergo a signature process called spontaneous
fermentation, where a brewer exposes the wort, or steeped grain liquid, to the open air often using a coolship,
essentially a big brownie pan vessel, to cool down the beer. As you see, this is a different entity.
At the base, a lambic typically features 40% unmalted wheat and 60% of a base malt such as barley. These
grains are vigorously mashed together to create a turbid mash. The wort from the turbid mash then boils for
a long time (what some call a marathon boil) with an addition of aged hops. The aged hops help preserve the
beer during a long fermentation. You want to keep the preservative qualities of the hops without introducing
any bitterness. In a nutshell, you’re trying to age out the bitterness of hops,
Each of these steps prepares the beer for its long fermentation. You want the wort to be chockful of highly
complex and indigestible sugars so that during fermentation the naturally occurring yeast that finds its way
into the beer has something to eat for a long period of time to develop beautiful flavors.
After the extended boil comes the true trademark stamp of the process: Spontaneous fermentation. To cool
down the wort, the beer is transferred to a coolship. And instead of pitching (or adding a single strain of yeast
in a controlled lab environment), the beer is left to pick up the naturally occurring microorganisms, flora,
and bacteria from the environment.
After cooling for upwards of 15 hours brewers transfer the beer to a “horny tank” (basically a holding tank)
that ensures the microorganisms introduced to the beer at the surface level in the coolship are mixed into the
entire beer.For the last step, the lambic is put in barrels called puncheons and aged for one to three years.
A quick word about the coolship. It is essentially a large shallow trough that brewers use to cool down beer.
It’s important to note that coolships were used way before lambic beer became a style. For centuries brewers
built crude coolships to cool down beer. At the time people understood the fundamentals of making beer, but
didn’t understand yeast yet. Eventually various discoveries were made around yeast and people started to
understand the nature of bacteria. They introduced new methods to control cooling down beer and
fermentation in a closed system with a single strain of yeast.At this point, lambic brewers became the only
brewers to still use coolships. Coolships weren’t invented to make lambic,but they survived because of lambic.
For the laymen, spontaneous fermentation would be exposing your wort to the open air rather than adding a
lab-cultured strain or single strain of yeast. In short, spontaneous fermentation is like hanging your laundry up
to dry outside instead of using a dryer sheet. The natural air cools down your clothes and gives them a
distinct, fresh scent from the ambient air. Brewers expose the beer as it’s cooling down to whatever is floating
around in the air enabling a complex web of life to exist and thrive. So remember that yeast is already
naturally occurring in the environment. Brewers are just taking advantage of mother nature’s traditions.
Many Belgian brewers do not consider spontaneously fermented beer made outside of Belgium, specifically
the area around Brussels and the Zenne river valley, to be true lambics. But, many American brewers have
respectfully brewed a lambic. They often use the term use Méthode Traditionnelle which refers to
spontaneously fermented beers made in accordance with the traditional method, but outside the traditional
region. Other American brewers have made a conscious decision to avoid using the term lambic at all. They
sometimes use terms like Coolship beer, American Spontaneous Beer, and Northwest Sour Ale instead.
While Lambic is the all-encompassing term for the style, many lambics are actually gueuzes, which is a blend
of three different ages of lambic. Commonly, a brewer will add additional fruit during the fermentation process.
If you add raspberry the beer becomes a Framboise. Cherry then it’s a Kriek. Then you have apple (pomme),
peach (peche), and many more.
There is a sense of unique qualities to a lambic that can really only be understood if you try a few yourself
so go out and enjoy a few. You'l be glad you did..
|Everything You Need To Know About Lambics
By Len Lagrange
|BeerNexus does not
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