Spontaneous fermentation is essentially an organized chaos in which variables are aligned to the best of a brewer’s ability to produce one of the most unique style of beers in the world. Ultimately, faith is the key ingredient to producing world class lambics. Jean Van Roy of Cantillon has a certain amount of faith that the microflora in the air around Brussels will adequately inoculate his wort and act as a catalyst to producing lambics worthy of the Cantillon name.
Let’s slow down though. This is not about Cantillon; there are far more qualified writers to talk about that. Truth be told, my first memory of the lambic style is a negative one imparted by my father back in my early days of beer appreciation. Let’s call it 1997. My father’s logic and this bestowed “wisdom” was that lambic was produced with fruit, was a bit tart, and was often sweet. Lambic was a bit “frou frou” and mainly consumed by those of the female persuasion given its sweetness and high drinkability. Now, at this time, Louisiana wasn’t the epicenter of beer anything. We tend to lean towards things we can deep fry. I call this out as a caveat in slight defense of my father. Perhaps what he knew as lambic was hardly lambic at all, and was instead an artificially sweetened mess of a product. Surely, this was not beer. As silly as that seems, I thought what I tried that night was lambic, didn’t like it, and didn’t think twice about it for many years.
Fast forward twelve years later, I find myself at the original Rustico just north of Old Town. Greg Engert shared with me and Tom Cizauskas what I recall was my first taste of real lambic. While I don’t recall the exact beer, I do recall how those two seemed to almost romanticize over the art of producing traditional lambic. I can’t tell you it was love at first taste. It wasn’t until later that I started my own love affair with the style and truly began to enjoy the complexities of one of the oldest styles in existence.
In an effort to campaign for a wider appreciation of lambic, I present five simple observations from Tim Webb’s book LambicLand: A Journey round the most unusual beers in the world. Don’t think of this as a book review but more of an endorsement and small preview of this great piece of beer education.
1. Like most of Webb’s work, LambicLand is organized well. Readers could pick up this book as a reference tool or training guide and get the same amount of value. Webb covers a vast amount of information in a relatively small book (126 pages). The historical aspects of lambic making, tasting guides, and brewery specific tips are all well organized.
2. In 2006, the Belgian postal service released a series of stamps titled, “This is Belgium.” Drie Fonteinen, one of Belgium’s finest breweries, was featured in this limited running. How many American breweries are on U.S. Stamps?
3. Tilquin, Belgium’s newest lambic maker, has been hard at work since 2009, but did not sell its first product until 2011. Great lambic takes time to produce. Pierre Tilquin learned the art of blending through the masters at Drie Fonteinin and Cantillon. In fact, Tilquin is the only blender allowed to purchase wort from Cantillon for blending.
4. In 1997, a group of lambic producers got together to form an organization dedicated to protecting the ways of traditional lambic due to vast irregularities amongst lambic brewers. The association, HORAL, or High Council for Craft Lambic Beers, has sustained great success in advocating for legislation that maintains and promotes the standards of authentic lambic.
5. Local-ish beer writer Chuck Cook is featured in Webb’s books and is widely recognized as a Belgian beer authority. Cook has visited Belgium over twenty times. Cook’s contributions include; Beer Connoisseur, Delta Sky, Draft Magazine, The Good Beer Guide to Belgium and 1001 Beers You Must Taste Before You Die. Last year, Chuck was generous enough to lend us some time in our of “Have a beer with…” series. Check it out here.
I encourage anyone interested in lambic or sour beers in general to pick up a copy of LambicLand. Like Webb’s other work, I find myself referring to this often and day dreaming about Belgian lifestyle and culture. One of my favorite quotes in this book is a simple note about the state of this ancient ale:
“Authentic lambic beers are not yet saved. But they have begun a journey that will lead, we believe inevitably, to taking their rightful place at the top end of the international drinks market as unique variants on the art of brewing, astounding beer lovers and fascinating wine drinkers in equal measure.”
I can’t help but think that maybe traditional lambic is on the same path as American craft beer and destined for the same success we are currently experiencing in the U.S. What if lambic is now where craft beer was circa 1995? Cheers.