In a time of instant gratification, incredible mechanization, and homogenized flavors, Lambic stands on a lonely plateau of products that rely on old methods and uncompromised character. Granted, “true” Lambic is not everyone’s cup of tea. It is hard for generations brought up on sweet drinks to embrace a Beer that is unapologetically tart, if not sour. But that’s ok and a visit to a “true’ Lambic producer will quickly reveal that they couldn’t keep up with the demands of the masses but luckily, they passionately produce a unique product for the rest of us.
Now that I have twice evoked “true” into the discussion of Lambic I had better explain. Today, we have several Lambic brands that are sweetened and de-soured beyond recognition of the original. These new styled Lambics are designed to attract young drinkers and dare I say, the ladies. (Yes, in the age of wild political correctness, companies do produce products with gender in mind.) The new styled Lambic are typically the fruit-infused variety, which is also a long-standing practice of the classic styled producers. The difference is purely one of sugar as the traditional fruit-infused Lambic are tart with clean, dry fruit notes (nothing but fresh, ripe fruit is added) while the new style can emulate the sweetness found in a typical fruit juice. I certainly don’t find fault in breweries making a product that appeals to a wider audience but perhaps they should call it something else.
Traditional Lambic is made with a production method that is at least 400 years old and many of the practices date back to ancient times. While most brewers take every precaution possible to ensure that their infant beers go from the hot boiling kettle to the cool fermenters with haste and with minimal, if any, contact with air, Lambic producers invite ambient intervention. Lambic is traditionally fermented in long, wide, and shallow vessels that look like large, copper kiddy pools being roughly two feet in depth. These fermentation tubs frequently live in the top levels of the brewhouse with windows flung open wide to allow the cooling air to circulate and invite in all varieties of wild, ambient yeast. The process could not be more natural. Once the primary fermentation is achieved (taking a few days to over a week) the young Beer is transferred to wood barrels where it will continue to slowly ferment and develop for six months to three years depending upon its destined use in one of many Lambic styles. You may not like Lambic at first taste but it is something that should be tried.
“Straight” Lambic – this style is very difficult to find, as few bottled versions exist. This is the “raw” Lambic aged in wood casks for two to three years and presented as is, with no additional ingredients or manipulation. Your best bet in finding this rare Beer is to visit Lambic’s home Brussels, Belgium and venture down a narrow and unspectacular alley just off of the Grand Place (the central square in old Brussels). There you find the unassuming café A la Bécasse. Here ceramic pitchers filled with Lambic aged for two years plus are served at long tables as you are seated with strangers that like you, have made the journey to experience something incomparable. As the second pitcher arrives the strangers become friends.
Faro – this can be hard to locate as well but bottled versions are exported. Faro is made by adding dark candy sugar to young Lambic (6-12 months). The resulting Beer is softer and rounder than the raw, unsweetened version however it rarely reaches the level of modern styled fruit Lambic.
Gueuze – is the style of “pure” Lambic that is most often seen both in Belgium Beer Cafés and in export markets. Gueuze is made by blending younger Lambic (traditionally at least six months) with Lambic aged for two to three years. The result is a fizzy (straight Lambic is just slightly gassy) Beer with complex flavors of grains, cider, Champagne, and crisp citrus notes. Like its siblings, Gueuze can be a shock to the palate for sure but at the end of the first glass it all seems to make sense.
Fruit Lambic – is the style of Lambic most often encountered; so much so that some erroneously refer to any fruit-infused Beer as Lambic, which is far from accurate. Fruit Lambic is also where modern, commercial-minded producers split with tradition and produce Beers with a hefty dose of residual sugar. Many of these sweet Lambics are made with syrups as the traditional versions are made with whole fruit. Traditionally casks half full of Lambic aged for roughly one year are topped with whole ripe fruits. The fruit introduces raw sugars that re-start fermentation breaking the fruit down and infusing the Lambic with the fruit’s essence. After many months in barrel the fruit all but disappears leaving just traces of solids lying at the bottom of the cask. Popular fruits used include: kriek (a variety of cherry), framboise (raspberry), apricot, peach, and grapes.