Beerism does Gueuze – An Ode to Lambic and a Critique of Those Who Love it
I’m nervous about writing this article. Why? Well, because creating Gueuze is a very complex art that has a rich and extremely long history, dating back centuries. To do it justice, or at least in order to avoid making any blatant errors, one needs to do research and tread lightly – unless you are already an expert. I am not.
Obviously as a blogger I want to get my facts straight simply because I want this publication to be factual, but also because lambics are an incredible, mystical, and skillfully crafted beverage that deserves a higher than normal level of beerspect (yeah, I just made up that word). However, there is also another reason: overly sensitive Lambic beer-geek fanboys are kind of the worst. If you think Star Wars nerds went bat-shit insane and lost their minds over that cross haired lightsaber trailer scandal, then spend some time perusing sour beer focused Facebook groups and reddit forums. Basically, at this point, if you post a picture of an American sour beer in a lambic Facebook group, the group’s members (or “The Lambic Police”) will actually fly to your house to punch you in the face – they have a budget for it and everything (for some reason, Lambic enthusiasts seem to have a lot of money). If you talk about lactobacillus being the only acidifying bacteria in a particular beer, but it’s actually composed of pediococcus as well, they pants you and make you wear an “I heart AB-INBEV” t-shirt for two weeks.
Just like overly intense sour beer fans, my three year old son behaves in extremes. Sometimes he acts like so much like a crazy person that I want to lie on the floor and rage-cry, and yet sometimes he is filled with more love and compassion than Nicolas cage from City of Angels. As much as I want to pour acid on my phone when I read comments from some of these arrogant and pretentious beer folk, I’m also blown away by the exceptionally generous, kindhearted, and thoughtful people as well. A good friend posted a picture of a Cantillon bottle that was off, asking if anyone else had experienced the same problem. A short while later, someone was in Belgium at the Cantillon brewery, spoke to Jean Van Roy himself (brewmaster), and acquired a free bottle for him. That’s pretty incredible, and not an isolated incident.
Look, I get it. Who likes ignorant newbs? You’ve spent years tasting, reading, traveling, and enjoying a very particular product that has a specific cultural significance and rich history. And then here comes Johnny newface, busting out his Cascade Brewing “Lambic.” You’re absolutely right, it’s not a lambic, so educate him, just don’t be a fucking asshole about it. I guess my whole point here is that everyone starts somewhere, and just because someone isn’t as dedicated, educated, or as up to speed as you are, doesn’t mean they deserve to be belittled. This type of non-inclusiveness goes well beyond the “sour scene”, with plenty of examples in my hometown Quebec groups, yet it seems I just notice it more within the wild beer spectrum (and no, I’m not writing this because I’m bitter over some altercation I had. Everyone has been nice to me, but I’ve certainly read a lot of nastiness). However, like I was mentioning above, as much as I’ve read countless eye-roll worthy pretentious tripe from arrogant ass-bags, I’ve also read countless things on the opposite end of the spectrum. Many people in the community are amazing and generous, more so than the average set of enthusiasts.
All this being said, let’s move on and talk about actual beer! So what’s the deal with Lambic anyway, and why is it so special? Lambic is a beer that is brewed in the Pajottenland region of Belgium. Brewers ferment the beer spontaneously by exposing it to microflora living in the environment around them (as apposed to fermenting with the cultured yeast strains you would find in other styles). Lambic is produced with 2/3 malted barley and 1/3 raw unmalted wheat, aged hops, and is placed in a Koelschip (an open-top, flat vessel for cooling wort) in order to cool and get inoculated with those wild yeasts and bacterias living in the region. It’s then aged in oak barrels for at least a year before being blended into gueuze or other styles.
Gueuze, which is a subset of lambic, is a blend of aged lambic, ranging from one to three years (generally) and is bottle conditioned to produce a livelier carbonation than in most unblended lambics. The microflora of the region, coupled with generations upon generations of brewing and blending experience, make these beers truly unique and not something that can be reproduced anywhere else in the world. Until you taste one, you can’t truly understand the delicious and somewhat bizzare flavour profile surrounding these beers. They are hightly acidic, dry, and exceptionally fruity, coupled with musty and dusty aromatics that are often described as smelling and tasting like barnyard, dank basement, or horse blanket. As much as that sounds awful, I assure you that they are incredibly delicious, and probably my favorite thing to drink on the planet.
What constitutes a Lambic being called a Lambic is a bit of a complicated situation, as legally it doesn’t seem to be fully protected (or at least enforced) in the same way that Champagne or Trappiste beer is. In order for a beer to actually be recognized as a lambic, it needs to adhere to the certain specifications, yet it seems anyone can write “Lambic Gueuze” on their bottle if they feel like it. This nomenclature issue is one of the one of the reasons why traditional lambic producers created the organization Horal, which I’ll talk about a bit later. It also (in part) accounts for some of the hyper sensitivity surrounding lambic in the beer geek social media spectrum. Since the rules don’t seem to be particularly clear, fans take it upon themselves to enforce them.
Over the course of about a year, through trades, private imports, and vacationing friends, I’ve managed to get my hands on eight arbitrary gueuzes. I say arbitrary because (1) I don’t have examples from all the Lambic producers, (2) they are not necessarily the flagship oud gueuzes from each brewery, and (3) the vintages vary a lot (but no more than 2 years give or take). Because of the facts above (and simply because I don’t do this), I’m not rating these beers or pinning them against each other. I’ll certainly have my favourites, but I’m well aware that it could be based on bottle variation and vintage. I would also like to reiterate again that I’m no expert, especially in the lambic world. However, let’s get to it!
Girardin – Gueuze 1882 (Black Label)
Brouwerij Girardin is a small family owned lambic brewery located about 11 kilometers from downtown Brussels. Their farm was purchased by the Girardin family in 1882 and and has pretty much been producing lambic this entire time, even through various struggles throughout the years. Girardin bottles their own products, but also sells lambic wort to other blenders in the region, including 3 Fonteinen, who I’ll be talking about shortly. Although Girardin also produces a white labeled Gueuze that is filtered and force carbonated, I’m far more interested their Black Label Gueuze 1882, which I have here.
The nose is incredibly acidic, with a bile-like component that’s coupled with some sexy under ripe fruits; apricots and oranges in particular. It’s dusty as well, in fact, rather potently, which mixes nicely with some dank barnyard funk. It’s a beautiful nose.
This is fantastically sour, hitting all the right notes. It has a pithy bitter finish that’s just like biting into citrus rinds. Under-ripe clementines really come to mind when sipping this. It’s incredibly on point, I love it. It’s the perfect balance of sourness and bitter phenols. It’s like orange rind bitterness, lemon juice and tangerine essence, mixed with dusty barnyard beautifulness. Man, I just had a moment, smiling to myself as I’m so happy that I’m writing this article. (Side note, I wrote the above description in my yard in the sun on a wooden lawn chair while eating creamy cheese, rillet de canard and drinking Gueuze. I am currently on a train to work and it’s negative ten degrees Celsius. This angers me).
Oud Beersel – Oude Geuze Vieille
The story of Oud Beersel dates back to 1882, where two families, connected through marriage, were able to build a brewery through common interests. However, they didn’t actually begin brewing lambic until after the Second World War. The brewery was passed down through the family for several generations, but due to financial constraints and a fleeting interest in lambic at the time, they started outsourcing their production to Brouwerij Boon and eventually had to close completely in 2002. In 2005, Oud Beersel was purchased by two brothers, who revived production. Their lambic is still brewed at Boon, but is done so using recipes from the original family. The beer is blended and aged on site at Oud Beersel and no other brewery’s lambics are used in its production.
The nose begins with lots of acid notes, mixed with a bunch of dusty, dank basement elements. As well, there are some fruity orange and lemon aromatics resting atop a little barnyard funk and zesty bubble gum (phenols?).
It’s nice and sour, with a incredible dryness, however the yeast character has this bubblegum thing that I’m not in love with. It could simply be an off bottle, as I’ve had it before and this wasn’t there. It’s not incredibly brett forward, but there is certainly lots of dust and sourness. The finish rests on your tongue, leaving bitter grapefruit flavours to linger on your palate, waiting for the next sip – the finish makes up for the bubblegum thing. I wish I had a better bottle to review. Sadly I don’t.
Drie Fonteinen – Oud Gueuze
Drie Fonteinen’s history resembles most of the other lambic breweries, beginning in the late 1800’s and passing through various hands over the years with similar ups and downs along the way. In 1961, it was purchased Gaston Debelder, whose son Armand eventually took over and currently manages the brewery today. Although the difficulty of the 90’s lack of lambic interest was challenging, Armand was still able to stay alive, and thrive throughout the early 2000’s with his amazing products. In 2009 a heating malfunction destroyed almost an entire years worth of product, which almost killed Drie Fontenin entirely. However, not all was lost and with what was salvaged, some help, and some clever distilling, the business was saved and continues to thrive today.
Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueze pours out a darker shade of orange with a small head that dissipates fast. The nose reeks of dank old basement, with some dusty books, wine soaked oak, and lots of general winey vinous sexiness. This is followed by loads acidic components, which is coupled with fruity apricot, peach, lemon rind, and grapefruit complexities.
Like the nose, it’s very vinous, with lots of wine and oak elements (more so than the others). It’s nicely tangy and sour, carrying a lot of tart fruits, like sour cherries and underipe peaches. Also, strong citrus flavours and bitter phenols create a heavy grapefruit semblance. The finish has notes of tobacco and leather, with a hard to describe, stale cigarette thing that I’ve found in other examples of the style.
This is less brett forward than the other bottles so far. The oak, the wine, and the acidifying bacteria are most prevalent, with a seemingly more robust and darker malt base. The balance is just perfection. Fruity, sour, funky! Brilliant!
Cantillon – Gueuze 100% Lambic-Bio
Cantillon was founded in the year 1900, but its roots strech back quite a bit further. Although being a brewery now, for the first 30 years, Cantillon only blended lambic, relying on others to produce their beer. This of course changed, and now they are the only lambic producer within the city of Brussels. The Cantillon brewery contains a working lambic exibit that is open to the public, which allowed for some extra revenue during the 1970’s when it was established. Jean Van Roy is Cantillon’s current director, who has spent over twenty years shadowing his father. His beers are sought out worldwide, and many have an almost mythical status. Fou’foune, an apricot Lambic, not to mention their even rarer one-off offerings, are basically a measurement of trade currency amongst serious beer trading enthusiasts.
Cantillon Gueuze pours out a dark foggy orange colour with a small head resting on top. The nose is brilliant, with just the right balance of dusty barnyard and musty oak funk, but with a more pronounced fruitiness. It’s as if peaches and apricots met acidic citrus juice and grapefruit pith.
Up front, this is the more tangy of the bunch so far. It has an abundance of that grapefruit sour/bitter thing. It’s extremely fruity and juicy, with a ton of citrus and stone fruits, but especially peaches. The dusty brett funk is less pronounced than some of the others, but it’s certainly there. The sourness is a bit on the agressive side, yet seemingly less potent than some of the other Cantillion bottles. The finish is beautifully dry, with a lingering fruity tang and acidic bite. As it warms, the sourness creeps up even more, making for a kind of sour tangerine juice thing, with peaches and bitter citrus rinds.
Boon – Oude Geuze A L’ancienne Vat 44
Brouwerij Boon’s history dates back to the 17th century, however in 1978 it was purchased by Frank Boon, who is the current owner. Boon is an integral part of the lambic world, as his brewery provides lambic for many blenderies to use. They also bottle for several breweries and import fruit that goes into a lot of fruited lambics of the region.
Vat 44 is a one off beer that I was fortunate to get my hands on. It’s a monoblend from a particular barrel and carries a a higher than normal ABV for a Gueuze. It was originally brewed in 2008, but released in 2013 to celebrate the opening of their new brewhouse.
It pours out a beautiful glowing orange colour with a lively but reserved effervescence. The nose carries loads of peaches up front, as if you mashed one into your face. Next comes a nice acidic aroma, alongside some dusty bretty dank basement, and vanilla oak goodness, which make for a very sexy aromatic experience.
Wow, this is robust and dense in comparrison to the previous bottles. The higher abv is there, but balanced. It’s exceptionally dry and predominantly more bitter in the finish. This gueuze has balls. Peaches and apricot are the ester winners here, and that fruitiness is quite nice against the acidic backing. There is a slight oakey rubber backbone mixed with a above average vinous complexity. The finish carries a lingering bitter and sour grapefruit thing, while the alcohol leaves you with a long warmth. This is great, but I think I’d prefer a lower ABV.
Tilquin – Oude Gueuze Tilquin à L’Ancienne
Gueuzerie Tilquin isn’t a brewery, but rather is a Gueuzerie, which is an establishment that blends Gueuze. Unlike the above lambic producers, Tilquin was only established in 2009, and opened its doors to the public in 2011. However young this blending operation may be, the owner Pierre Tilquin is producing some incredible products that easily stand tall next to the rest of these giants.
Tilquin’s Oude Gueuze pours out a bright orange colour with an ample head that dies down fast, leaving a light frothy ring. The aromatics are divine, with loads of acidiclty and citrus rind bitters. There are ample dusty barnyard aromas mixed with lots of stone and citrus fruits (much like the Cantillion and Girardin).
It starts off very tart, more so than the others, (but that could just be my mood). It is exceptionally dry, with a more pronounced carbonation as well. It tastes far more “green,”which could the result of it being young. It’s tangy, with some under-ripe green apple and lots of grapefruit rind, mixed with a loads of acidic properties and some general brett funk. Again, the acidic levels are certainly higher, and lend a sharp bite, making this one great beer to have in the sun. Of the bunch, this is the most tannic, with lots of grapeskin-like bitterness, followed by this pretty intense green apple tartness.
Gueuze Fond Tradition
Gueuze Fond Tradition from Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck is the only bottle on my list that is questionably a lambic. The brewery’s roots date back to the 1800’s, where it has been passed down through family over the years. The beer is spontaneously fermented in house, but it is not located in the Pajottenland.
It pours out a bold copper orange with a head that dissipates almost immediately. Lots of the same aromatics as the above beers, like dank oak, pithy grapefruit rinds, dusty phenols, but far more muted. The nose also carries a bit of an oxidized cardboard thing. It’s a tad vinous as well, but only slightly so.
It’s tart, dry and refreshing, with a solid sourness. However, it’s less complex, with some more one dimensional characteristics. Again, that cardboard thing is there, with slight plastic? Not in abundance to make it undrinkable, but there nonetheless.
Sour apples and cherries are at the forefront with some slight brett funk and woody components. The body is a tad light, and slightly watery. As I drink it, I do enjoy it more and more, however it is most certainly not the same caliber if compared to the others. The price point is much lower than the others, so I think it’s worth it if you are looking for something more affordable.
Horal’s Oude Geuze Mega Blend
Horal (High Council for Traditional Lambic Beers) isn’t a brewery or a Gueuzerie. Rather, it’s an organization whose main focus is to promote and protect lambic beer. Founded in 1997 by three lambic breweries, 3 Fonteinen, Boon, and De Cam, Horal has grown over the years and now consists of 15 members.
Every two years, many members of Horal open their doors to the public for the Toer de Gueuze, where people can tour and sample lambics made in the region. To commemorate this event, the members of Horal create a “mega blend,” and the 2013 edition (which I’m about to drink) consists of lambic from 3 Fonteinen, Boon, De Cam, De Troch, Hanssens, Lindemans, Oud Beersel, Tilquin and Timmermans. Needless to say, I’m excited to taste this.
The mega blend pours out a Foggy peachy orange colour – a bit brighter than the others. There is lots of dusty brett funk, mixed with grapefruit peel, oak, and some wine vinousness. I’m also getting that stale cigarette smoke thing, and stone fruits, like apricots and peaches.
It’s quite tart and sour, with a long lingering finish that resembles biting into a grapefruit with the peel still on it. It’s quite refreshing, and seemingly more bitter than most of the other examples. It’s a little bit more one dimensional, however certainly still delicious. Some gas fume-like components are present here, mixed in with more tangy and bitter qualities. The fruitiness isn’t at the forefront in this one and it’s slightly watery. However, I have to say that the finish is just beautiful. It lingers forever with this tangy sourness that never dissipates.
Well that’s it. It was most certainly a big treat being able to power through all these beautiful gueuzes in such a short period of time. Gueuze is such a beautiful, complicated, and mystical beverage that is hard to do it justice with mere words. Its perseverance over the centuries alone commands respect, and I hope I did it a service here today by spreading the love. I also hope the social media lambic police don’t arrest me for making too many mistakes. Joking aside, please feel free to message me with any constructive criticisms.
Most of my research was done through Lambic.info, which is a great resource for anyone looking to read up on this amazing beverage.
An article by Noah Forrest
Photography by Franklin Avila (group bottle shots only) and Noah Forrest (individual bottle shots)