Gueuze Lambic: Wild, Spontaneous, and Belgian

By Marc Dornan of the Beverage Testing Institute Inc.

There is no danger of drinking a Lambic beer and confusing it with a conventional brew. We take it for granted that beer will taste of some combination of hops and malt. Wh Color en dealing with Belgium’s Lambics such notions must be put to one side. Lambic is an ancient beer style and does not conform to modern expectations about beer. A traditional, dry Lambic will be effervescent, acidic, and bone dry.

The region to the immediate south west of the Belgian capital is home to most Lambic breweries in Belgium. Here, only a handful of small producers persist with the production of these exotic soured beers.

The thing that makes Lambics unique is the manner of their fermentation. The raw materials for Lambic beer are unremarkable—a mixture of malted and unmalted barley and wheat. The magic in the making of these beers happens when the wort, the name given to the warm starchy liquid from which all beer is fermented, is allowed to spontaneously ferment through the action of wild airborne yeasts. To assist in this process, many Lambic breweries generally locate their flat fermenters in the "attic" and have well-ventilated roofs that look incapable of keeping out the rain in this damp country.

Gueuze: The Champagne of the Beer World

Although Lambics flavored with fruits such as raspberries or cherries are better known, the Lambic connoisseur’s choice will be Gueuze—the noblest of Lambic styles. A traditional dry Gueuze has no fruit flavoring and will be tart, sour, and naturally effervescent.

The art of making Gueuze is more about the blending process than the brewing one. A typical Gueuze will be a blend of one, two, and three year-old Lambic beers from ancient oak vessels which are a breeding ground for the colonies of bacteria strains that give Gueuze its sour character. The oldest barrels that I have seen pressed into service—in the cellars of Frank Boon, 15 minutes southwest of Brussels—were originally used for turn of the century Mosel wine. They arrived in Flanders in 1918 as war reparations from the Germans, who had stripped all the Flemish breweries of copper for shell casings.

Immediately after blending, the Gueuze is bottled and it undergoes a secondary fermentation using the active yeasts and sugars still remaining in the young Lambic.

Look for Gueuze from Frank Boon, Lindemans, and Cantillon. All produce authentic dry Gueuzes that are exported to the United States. Bellevue, part of the giant Interbrew group, produce a sweetened, more commercial Gueuze. You will, of course, have to go to a serious beer specialist shop to find such beers.

A good dry Gueuze can be cellared for twenty to thirty years, becoming more mellow and earthy through the passage of time. At least two years cellaring is well worth the effort. Unsurprisingly, traditional Gueuze is a beverage much better suited to the temperament of a wine collector than the average beer drinker.

So what can you do with a Gueuze? First, you need to acquire a taste for an artisanal product for which modern-day beverages will not have prepared you. People who like dry, tart white wine will be at an advantage in this respect. My personal favorite pairing for more youthful dry Gueuze is as an accompaniment to steamed clams and mussels, or even raw shellfish. If you can tolerate the extravagance of using a bottle of Gueuze (The cost? Not much more than a mediocre Pinot Grigio) to perform the steaming then the match is even more persuasive. A three to five year old traditional Gueuze is a delight to drink by itself and one of the finest aperitifs in the beer world.

Recommended Gueuze

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