A Beer Called Lambic
A Beer Called Lambic
Author: Stephen Beaumont
Photography by Ben Fink
Navigating the twisting, turning streets of Brussels, I was
surprised to find myself squinting in the light of the sun's rays
as they boldly cut through the city's customary gloom.
This is a
beer drinker's town-with more interesting brews and good places in
which to enjoy them than perhaps any other place in the world-and
it has a beer drinker's climate, its usually gray days more suited
to the insides of dark cafés than to outdoor boulevards and parks.
Still, I had many blocks yet to cover on foot, so I welcomed the
The brightness vanished the minute I opened a creaky wooden door
on rue Gheude and entered the Brasserie Cantillon, near the Gare du
Midi, a century-old brewery producing beer so ancient, so
idiosyncratic, that it is often spoken of in the reverent tones
reserved for grand cru bordeaux and the rarest single malts.
The beer is called lambic, and the traditional sort has an
appetizing dryness, an invigorating tartness, and a complexity that
rivals the finest sherry's; it's a beer boasting aromas suggesting
everything from lush fruit to mineral earth; a beer that makes you
suspect that everything else you know about beer is a lie.
lambic is the brewing world's Holy Grail, Cantillon its most sacred
A rarity today, lambic was once the defining drink of the
Pajottenland, a rich agricultural region southwest of Brussels on
the Senne River. Cast an eye on any of Brueghel's famous depictions
of Flemish celebrations, and you'll spy jugs of what is believed to
be the peasants' notorious "yellow beer" being consumed with great
relish. In countryside cafés, you can still find the locals-many of
whom look as if they'd stepped out of the masterpiece known as
Peasant Wedding Feast-enjoying lambic poured from rough-hewn
pitchers alongside plates of mussels, radishes, herbed cheese, and
tête pressée (head cheese).
Likewise, parts of the world's most famous lambic brewery appear
unchanged from Brueghel's time. At Cantillon, as at all traditional
lambic breweries, scant attention is paid to the rules of modern
beer making. Whereas other beers are fermented with carefully
controlled yeast strains, lambics owe their fermentation to a wild
party of airborne microflora that includes more than 100 identified
yeast strains and 50 kinds of bacteria. Since virtually everything
in the brewery is thought to have the microbiotic potential to
affect this spontaneous fermentation, there is a certain endearing
grubbiness to Cantillon.
The air inside the brewery makes for an
olfactory adventure, perfumed as it is with a musky potpourri of
damp wood, wet grain, and a heady mix of barnyard aromas known
collectively and affectionately as "horse blanket".
But lambic's unique microbiotic mix provides only part of the
great beer's character. The winey, aggressively citric flavor of
traditional lambic is also influenced by its years of aging in
wooden barrels, some of them decades old, arranged in shadowy
racks. Astringent notes are added through the use of a large
percentage of unmalted wheat, along with the more typical malted
And in the case of the famed lambic called gueuze-produced
by the méthode champenoise-like blending and bottle-refermenting of
lambics at least one and up to three years old-the aging process
plays a vital role in giving the beer an enormous complexity that
makes it quite unlike any other.
Lambic's fiercest advocate is Cantillon's Jean-Pierre Van Roy.
An affable grandfather with the physique of a man half his age, Van
Roy is utterly unwavering in his commitment to traditional lambic.
He refuses to sweeten his gueuze in order to tone down its natural
tartness, as is the practice at many commercially oriented
In a similarly purist vein, he uses only whole fruit in
his fruit-flavored lambics-never juices or syrups. In Cantillon's
fruit beers, pounds of cherries, raspberries, apricots, and even
grapes are added to the already two-year-old barrels of lambic to
macerate for as long as ten months. Then the renewed fermentation
continues for at least three more months-sometimes even for several
years. Van Roy declines to join the lambic brewers' association
because other members make sweetened beers in addition to
"Those other beers, they are not lambics," he
says with a shrug. "I would like them to make an association of
only producers of real lambics, and I would join that, but I cannot
join this group." The "other beers" Van Roy speaks of so
dismissively are what most people think of when they hear "lambic".
Sweetened with sugar or fruit juice and profoundly fruity in
flavor, those brews, from brewers like Lindemans and Chapeau, have
little in common with, say, the musty-dry, tart kriek (cherry) and
framboise (raspberry) created by traditional methods.
Real or not, the sweetened lambics help pay the bills nearby in
Vlezenbeek at Lindemans, at least according to Roger Mussche, one
of the brewing world's leading microbiologists and a close friend
of and consultant to the Lindemans family. Mussche does not
hesitate to say that Lindemans's sole traditional lambic, a firm
and flavorful gueuze called Cuvée René, is his favorite of the
brewery's beers. But it is the fruit beers-young lambics blended
with 25 to 28 percent pure fruit juice-that make up the
overwhelming majority of this country brewery's annual sales of
more than 10 million bottles of beer. "If we could ask the same
price as Champagne, we'd start producing all traditional lambics
tomorrow," says Mussche.
"But at over 32,000 hectoliters [of
production], the capital and space requirements would make it
impossible any other way."
For that reason, most traditional lambic producers run small
operations, with outputs measured in the hundreds rather than the
thousands of hectoliters. Some, like Hanssens Artisanaal, of Dworp,
don't even brew the beer themselves. Instead, they buy it from
others (the day it's made) and age it on the premises.
The practice of aging and blending lambics, requiring skills
similar to those of an expert whisky blender, was once commonplace
across the Pajottenland. For centuries, café owners and beer
distributors bought lambic from the brewers after it had been
inoculated by the wild yeasts but before fermentation truly took
hold, then fermented and aged the beer in their own barrels in
their own cellars. Since so much of a lambic's character comes from
aging and blending, those beers are considered to be creations of
the cellar rather than of the brewing process.
Hanssens Artisanaal, only recently handed down from Jean
Hanssens to his daughter Sidy and her husband, John Matthys, is one
of the few blenders left in Belgium.
Like the beers of Cantillon,
the Hanssens lambics are the stuff of legend, particularly in the
United States, where traditional lambics have won a small but
growing contingent of aficionados. One Hanssens beer of particular
note is the kriek, which exemplifies how lambics fermented with
whole fruit differ from those flavored with juices. Rather than the
sweetness of raw juice, the Hanssens beer displays the complexity
of fruit skins, flesh, and pits that comes from the cherries'
having been added whole to the barrel and fermented down to a pile
of bare stones. This more intense fruitiness complements rather
than overwhelms the dry, tart character of the lambic and makes the
beer well suited to main-course dishes based on beef (and on
horsemeat, much appreciated in Belgium), not just sweet
Ten minutes from Hanssens, in the village of Beersel, Armand
Debelder grins when discussing his desire to make the transition
from blender to brewer. A former chef whose family has been
producing lambics for two generations, Debelder, along with his
brother Guido, inherited the 3 Fonteinen restaurant and its lambic
cellars in the 1980s. Until recently the only place to sample the
house lambics (the gueuze is now sold elsewhere in Belgium), the
restaurant has long attracted beer enthusiasts from around the
Debelder's love of traditional lambic pushed him to take the
After years of discussion, he and his brother have now
separated the company into two businesses, Guido assuming control
of the restaurant and Armand taking charge of the beer. In
cooperation with the blender Van Vereweghe, located in nearby
Gooik, Armand has installed a brewery at 3 Fonteinen.
The going has not been easy, Debelder says, and he is unsure
whether his brewery can survive on the production of traditional
lambic beers. He cites the difficulty of selling tart, complex
beers in a world of sweet, simple lagers but reiterates that he's
determined to do it anyway.
As I leave 3 Fonteinen, Debelder stares deep into my eyes, his
face a portrait of pure emotion. "It is my one hope that this
beautiful thing will survive," he says. "Because it would be
terrible if future generations were not able to experience this
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