Skimming place names on a map of Belgium is like going into a prodigiously stocked bottle shop. Where do you start in a country with a beer heritage as rich as it is in Belgium? Trappist beers, witbier, saison, Flanders red, oud bruin? What about all those famous towns like Chimay, Roeselare, Poperinge, and Westvleteren –– to say nothing of urban beer havens such as Antwerp and Leuven?
For me, the choice was relatively easy: I had never had the opportunity to taste lambic, those Belgian ales discussed in hushed and reverent tones among adepts of the zymurgical arts, beers that rarely make it beyond the immediate vicinity of Brussels.
Lambic had become something of a holy grail for me.
So when I found out that an old friend had moved to Brussels for work, it was only a matter of time before I made the pilgrimage. My friend got things off the ground the right way, greeting me upon my arrival from the airport with gueuze and kriek from Oude Beersel. Things only got better from there.
Scratching the Surface of Brussels’ Beerscape
Before venturing out into the countryside around Brussels, why not an evening of aperitifs to set the stage? Brussels –– capital of one of the most fascinating beer countries in the world –– doesn’t disappoint on this score.
Our first stop was À la Mort Subite, a classic Belgian beer café dating from the prime of the post-Great War years before the Depression. Cream-coloured walls, wooden brasserie-style tables and chairs, small globe lights casting a soft light over the cafe, brown bench seating built in along the periphery walls, rows of painted metal art-nouveau columns, an arched threshold with wood-framed doors, and a floor-to-ceiling showcase window perfect for watching the world drift by. Blink and you might think you’d been transported back to the 1920s. I ordered up a Mort Subite Witte Lambic, which sounded interesting on the surface of things. It turned out to be a sweet and apricot-fruity beer –– refreshing and approachable, but with little in the way acidity and no wild-fermented complexity. Fortunately, though, this mild ordering fail did nothing to detract from the atmosphere of the place. And besides, there’s plenty more on the menu.
From there, we made our way to Moeder Lambic via the Galeries Royales St-Hubert and the Grand Place, which was actually quite grand. Tastefully lit at night, it’s the kind of place that has the power to stop even seasoned Euro travelers in their tracks. If you’re there during the day, check out the brewing museum in the Brewers’ Guildhall (L’Arbre d’Or).
Moeder Lambic on Place Fontainas serves up lambic, gueuze, and other styles aplenty. Their expansive menu makes for some interesting reading. Cantillon’s wares feature prominently, and rare bottlings from other lambic/gueuze producers abound as well –– some selling for as high as 200 euros per bottle. If you want to keep it simple but still be able to try something you won’t find far beyond the Brussels region, opt for a Gueuze Tilquin on draft.
Lambic, Gueuze, and Kriek in Flemish Brabant
The next day dawned all golden sunshine, auguring well for our planned cycling tour of the fabled valley where the wild-fermented beers are.
The Senne/Zenne rises north of Brussels and once flowed through the city before it was covered over in the nineteenth century as part of an ambitious urban works project that dramatically reshaped city. Today, the river reemerges to the southwest and continues on its gentle way through the rolling hills of the Payottenland. As late as the turn of the twentieth century, some three hundred lambic brewers lined the Senne and spread out into the surrounding hills and farmland. Now the region is home to just over a dozen lambic brewers and blenders, with only one –– perhaps the most famous one –– located within the Brussels city limits.
After a walk through the monumental and rather monolithic Parc du Cinquantenaire, we boarded a train from Gare Bruxelles-Schuman to Hal/Halle. The short train ride leaves just the right amount of time to talk about those enchanting and enigmatic ales that brought me here. I realize that unless you’re an avowed beer enthusiast or “beer geek,” you might not know what a lambic is –– and that’s just fine. It took me some time as well to disentangle lambics from gueuzes and krieks, and Flemish red ales from oud bruins.
A lambic is a spontaneously fermented ale made from Pilsener malt and anywhere between thirty to forty percent unmalted wheat. This sets lambic apart from German or American wheat beers, which use malted wheat. Lambic gets its minimal hop charge from Belgian or Central European varieties that have been aged for up to three years. Process-wise, the wort is set out to cool overnight in a large shallow vessel called a coolship often located in the attic of the brewery before being transferred to barrels for fermentation. During the months and years the beer spends in the barrel, the microbes that inoculated the wort overnight join forces with the organisms that inhabit the barrel to work their magic. The resulting array of aromas and flavours might, at first blush, strike anyone unfamiliar with spontaneously fermented beers as downright odd, if not repulsive. Sometimes described as vinous or cidery, lambics typically exhibit lactic, citric, or malic (apple) sourness, and they can be tart and tannic when young. Notably, lambic brewers aim for a level of acidity similar to that of a zippy white wine. Balance is key. More does not necessarily mean better.
The same goes for the “funk” level in the aromatics and flavours. Sure, the Saccharomyces, Pediococcus, Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and other organisms combine to impart aromas at times reminiscent of barnyard, hay, horse, horse blanket, and washed rind cheese. But the concentrations should be “pleasant.” Admittedly, like durian or pungent cheese, it’s an acquired taste, but worth the effort.
Sound appetizing so far? Depending on the various yeast and bacteria strains, lambics may also recall pineapple, tart cherry, oak, and even honey as the beer ages. Whether you’re a fan of sour/wild-fermented beers or not, what might strike you most about lambics is the (virtual) absence of carbonation. Like most wines, lambics are still. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t see any trace of a head on your beer. That’s entirely normal.
Comprised of one-, two-, and three-year-old lambics, gueuze showcases the skills of the seasoned blender. Highly effervescent, gueuze is to Champagne what lambic is to wine. Under optimal cellaring conditions a gueuze will continue to evolve for years. Dry, tart, and with a dense and frothy foam cap, gueuzes run the gamut from fruity (citrus, green apples, tart cherry) to phenolic-spicy, from earthy and leathery to oaky with hints of vanilla, and from fresh-cut hay to barnyard and horse blanket.
Kriek is a younger lambic to which cherries have been added. But don’t expect a well-brewed traditional kriek to be sweet. Wild yeasts thrive on the sugars present in the fruit, leaving behind an intense fruit character with no residual sweetness. If you have a kriek that tastes sweet and syrupy, it has been back-sweetened. Best bet: look for a bottle that has “oude” in front of the word kriek. Cantillon adds 150 kg of Schaerbeek sour cherries per 500 liters of two-year-old lambic and leaves the cherries to macerate for five to six months before adding a quantity of young lambic –– one third of the volume of the kriek for anyone who wants to try this at home –– to kickstart secondary fermentation in the bottle.
Biking for Beer in Lambic Land
Chances are, you didn’t bring a bike with you to Belgium. No worries. You can rent a passable bicycle for 10 euros per day near the Halle train station. Exit on the east side and return along the tracks in the direction of Brussels and you’ll find the rental place. Before venturing out for that ride through the countryside, keep in mind that Flemish Brabant is not flat. In exchange for a few hills, though, you get pastoral scenery that inspired the likes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and some room in your belly for beer.
We jumped on our bikes, took a slightly round-about route through farmers’ fields and small villages to Beersel via Huizingen and Lot, stopped briefly at the Kasteel Beersel to learn about the lambic and gueuze possibilities in the area from one of the castle attendants, and then braced ourselves for the hill to Drie Fonteinen.
After talking with one of the brewers who works on the barrels, we made our way to to Drie Foneinen’s restaurant for –– finally!! –– my first-ever sip of lambic. Wonderful stuff! Worth the journey to Brussels, the train ride to Halle, and the ride up the steep hill to the Beersel town square. Absolutely still with a few errant bubbles skirting the surface of the beer, darker than I expected (amber-hued, an indicator of some barrel age), and slightly hazy. Refined, with a subdued tartness and a meadow-like scent of hay. The Oude Gueuze was lively, with plenty of juicy lemon and green apple along with an oak/tart cherry character from the wood. Hungry after all that riding around, we tucked into a generous portion of Stoofkarbonaden, a rich rabbit stew that was an ideal foil for the Oude Gueuze’s acidity.
Slightly down the other side of the hillock you’ll find Oude Beersel. Everything was locked up tight when we arrived, but I rang the bell anyway. Just as we were about to give up and move on, the door swung open and one of the brewers invited us in for more lambic and an animated conversation about larger versus smaller lambic producers. If you show up on a Saturday between 9:00 am and 2:00 pm, you won’t have to ring the bell. Oude Beersel runs English-language tours at 12:30 on the first and third Saturday of the month.
Then down the hill we went, and back up a hill, and back down, till finally we landed back in Halle, where we returned the bikes and took a bus to Lembeek in search of Boon. Just our luck. It, too, was closed. So I rang the bell again and waited until someone poked his head out of a second-story window and arranged a fabulous personalized tour for us with one of the brewers.
Frank Boon, a driving force behind the gueuze and lambic revival, opened his brewery on a site that was once a seventeenth-century farmhouse brewery and distillery. Boon’s brewers still brew on their old system, but they have also installed a shiny new brewery around and adjacent to the old one. Though some of the initial fermentation now takes place in stainless steel tanks, Boon still maintains a large cellar stacked with barrels for aging.
Not far from the gates of the brewery and just off Lembeek’s small town square you’ll find De Kring, a cozy café with an excellent selection of Boon beverages. We rewarded ourselves for a day well spent –– there’s something wholesome about biking for your beer –– with bottles of Oude Gueuze Boon and Kriek Mariage Parfait, which was stunning it its crystalline expression of cherry flavour. De Kring evokes a bygone era when locals of all ages gathered in the local tavern for a drink, sometimes with the kids in tow. With its wood paneling and diffused light, this classic café feels like a trip back in time. Go there before time catches up to it.
What better way to cap a day of riding around the Payottenland countryside in search of lambic and gueuze than to head out for the exact same thing in the big city?
With a pleasant glow, we stepped into the evening sunshine and made our way back to Brussels for dinner at Bier Circus Bruxelles, another renowned Brussels watering hole, for a Girardin lambic and Gueuze Girardin 1882, both of which exhibited a distinctively round, mildly lactic buttery note. Pair them with the Waterzooi, a Flemish specialty made from fish, chicken, or veal. I had the fish version, an excellent fit with the beers we had.
Coffees done, we headed over to L’Ultime Atome, a cool bar in the Ixelles neighbourhood with funky Japanese-influenced lighting fixtures, floor-to-ceiling windows, and plenty of hazelnut-coloured wood for one last round before calling it a night.
Odds and Ends
I didn’t get around to visiting the Bezoekercentrum De Lambiek (Lambic Visitor Center) in Alsemberg near Beersel. Simply too much to do and see. By all accounts, this museum and tasting facility provides a prime opportunity to sample most of the region’s gueuzes, lambics, and krieks in one place. Next time.
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Jeff Sparrow, Wild Brews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewers’ Yeast (Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2005).
“Brewery Cantillon: Traditional Family-Run Brewery,” (Brussels, n.d.).
Gregg Glaser, “In Search of Lambic,” All About Beer Magazine (July 1, 2001).
All images by F.D. Hofer.
© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.