You say beer, I say lambic

Mike Buhler
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Exploring Belgium’s ancient brews

What were we talking about? Oh yes, travel; today I’m writing from a great little beer bar called Bierhuiske in Antwerp, Belgium.

This bar’s beer menu offers in the neighbourhood of 300 different beers; about eight or 10 on tap and the rest in bottles.

This shows a fine cross-section of the incredible range of strange and wonderful beer in this country which brings me to what I am drinking today: Cantillon, two-year-old unblended lambic.

Cantillon is a small brewery in Brussels that is a historical throwback that operates as the Brussels Gueuze Museum and still uses traditional methods and equipment, some of it more than 100 years old. They are one of the few lambic producers still left in the world.

And what is a lambic you ask?

This is a style of beer that is very old, perhaps the oldest style of beer in the world that produces some of the most interesting and complex beers available anywhere.

Most brewers work very hard to keep all brewing equipment and facilities as clean as possible to prevent bacteria infections in the beer they brew, but this is not the case for lambics.

These beers by law have to be at least 30 per cent wheat and when they make the wort — the liquid that is fermented to give us beer — they transfer it to a large rectangular vessel called a cool ship that looks like an overgrown cookie sheet.

Typically this will be in the attic of the brewery and there are louvres that are opened to let in outside air while the wort cools overnight after the boil.

This is where the magic really begins as the natural yeast and bacteria in the air get into the wort to ferment it. When it has cooled for the appropriate amount of time it is put in barrels to age for at least one year (often three, four years or more.”

I am drinking one of these uncarbonated beers straight out of the barrel, but when they produce gueuzes they blend different ages of lambic  to referment in the bottle.

In these beers the older lambics give deep and mellow character while the younger, fermenting lambic gives residual sugar to continue fermentation in the bottle creating a very lively, complex and enchanting beer. It is during this secondary fermentation that the natural carbonation of the beer occurs in the bottle.

In the Senne Valley region, where lambics traditionally came, there were cherry orchards which gave fruit for the lovely style of lambic called Kriek where cherries are added to the barrels to kick off another round of fermentation. The fruit will be consumed, giving fresh fruit flavour and colour and the beer might be left to ferment further, drawing nutty character from the pits, as well.

Different brewers have different beers and other lambics might be brewed with raspberries, peaches or, like the rare Cantillon Fou Foune I found, apricots.

Lambics are very interesting and complex beers that pair very well with many foods —they open worlds of new and exciting flavours to those who try them.

The best gueuzes rival the best champagnes for depth and complexity and many wine enthusiasts find resonant flavours to enjoy.

Finding beers of this style from breweries such as Boon, Cantillon, Tilquin or 3 Fonteinen is worth travelling for. The Newfoundland Special Order Beer Club was lucky enough to get an allotment of fine gueuzes for the membership, but so far that is the only time there have been any available in Newfoundland so you will have to search farther afield.

To truly enjoy them and feel the history hurry up and book your tickets to Belgium.

Mike Buhler is a certified cicerone. Email him at mike@beerthief.ca, or check out beerthief.ca for information on beer club offerings.

Organizations: Brussels Gueuze Museum, Newfoundland Special Order Beer Club

Geographic location: Belgium, Brussels, Senne Valley Newfoundland

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