An article by Noah Forrest
For readers who don’t speak French, the illustrious “Ceci N’est pas Une Gueuze” from Les Trois Mousquetaires translates into English as “This is not a Gueuze.” And by any “official” standard, it isn’t a Gueuze (I’ll explain why, shortly). This beer hit shelves for the first time last year, and the latest batch will be released very soon. I got my hands on a bottle a little early, and I still had a 2015 lying around. I figured I’d take advantage and write the second edition of Verticals & Variants, a new series of Beerism articles dedicated to examining how a beer changes over time (verticals), and how breweries sometimes make different versions of the same beer (variants)
So, what is a Gueuze, and why exactly is this beer not a Gueuze? Well, in order to know what a Gueuze is, you have to understand what Lambic is. Lambic is brewed exclusively in the Pajottenland region of Belgium. Brewers ferment the beer spontaneously by exposing it to microflora living in the environment around them (as opposed to fermenting with the cultured yeast strains you would find in virtually all other styles). It’s typically 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 the wild yeasts and bacteria living in the region. It’s then aged in oak barrels for at least a year. 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.
So, for this beer to be called a Gueuze, it would need to be comprised of Lambic, and because a Lambic can only be made in one place in the world, “Ceci, n’est pas Une Gueuze.” However, it’s more than just that. Ceci (as I will call it going forward) is not spontaneously fermented, and it’s not bottle conditioned for a year. However, it is a blend of beers that span several years, brewed in a similar manner, making it a North American homage to Lambic. Oh, and it’s also delicious. I quite liked the 2015, but the acetic notes were far more prevelant considering the style of beer, so I’m hoping that gets scaled back a bit in this year’s edition. However, before trying it, I wanted to ask the man behind it, so let’s see what Alex (head brewer) has to say about these two batches.
“Last year was our first time ever blending a wild beer like this (well, besides Dixième, which was not exactly the same thing anyway). We were happy with the result, but we already knew what was needed to be improved for next time. So this year, there is more ”young lambic” in the blend and less ”old lambic” (Hey guys, I totally know these are not real lambics but you get the point, right?). The objective with this was to get less acetic acid flavours from the 3 year old barrels and more lactic acid notes from the 1 year barrels. Also, since I had more barrels, I was able to select the ones I liked the most. Finally, last year’s Ceci was distributed too ”young”. The beer was not quite ready. It was still hazy and the bretts were still working a little bit. We realized that after 2 months in bottles, the taste was so much better, with more complexity, more harmony. So for this year, we decided to wait. And it paid off. This year’s Ceci is better in every way. We still have a lot to learn in the complex world of barrel aged sours, but we are getting better. Like Alanis Morissette once said: ”You live, you learn.”
The last time I had a Ceci was around Christmas. It had already improved a lot, with all the flavours blending nicely, resulting in a complex, multilayered beer. Now, with a full year on it, I’m anxious to see how much more it has smoothed out, with less sharp edges and more harmony. As well, I’m particularly excited about trying the brand new edition; it will be fun to see which I prefer, the original with a year on it, or the new edition, much fresher. I guess we’ll see!
On a side note, given the fact that I need to watch my children in a non-drunken state, I did not drink these beers side-by-side. Verticals (drinking the same beer across different vintages) are most often done in one sitting. This way the “drinker” can examine both vintages in real time, assessing the differences and similarities between the various years. This is the ideal way to do a vertical, however I would also argue that there is value in spacing them out, as you can attack each one with a completely fresh palate.
Ceci N’est Pas Une Gueuze 2015
Ceci 2015 pours out a beautiful amber orange colour with some red highlights. The nose wafts huge vinous components, alongside ground cherries, tart tannic bitterness, and some oaky goodness. There are ample acetic aromatics that lend some Flander’s Red essences to the whole thing; basically, white balsamic vinegar meets sour cherries.
It’s rather tart and sour up front, tossing underripe peaches and ground cherries at my palate. White balsamic vinegar dances alongside robust white wine elements, with a general stone fruitiness to it. As it warms, more “Gueuze-like” components start to emerge, carrying heavy grapefruit pithiness and a little bit of nice bretty funk. That being said, it’s certainly not dusty or earthy in the Lambic sense.
I quite like the combination of the Flemish sour, balsamic cherry notes when coupled with the grapefruit and apricot fruitiness – it’s really something. The finish is cleaner and less assaulting than I recall when fresh. Instead, here, the acetic acids still play an ample role, but hold a far less savoury component. Alternatively, the whole thing is highly tannic, dry, well balanced, and that much more crushable for the hot days ahead. This beer is doing well and will continue to do well for some time. At least in my opinion.
Ceci N’est Pas Une Gueuze 2016
To begin, the nose carries some white balsamic notes, but the acetic components are far more in check. Instead you get a bit more of those Gueuze-like acidic compounds that are almost reminiscent of bile, or pure lemon juice. The oak is big on this as well, with beautiful vinous elements that lend tart tannic aromatics. It’s rather fruity, with loads of cherries, stone fruits, and some grapefruit bitterness. There are some slight bretty phenols that peak through, but no extreme barnyard or much dusty funk.
Up front, this is a superior beer to the 2015. Just like the nose foretold, the acetic elements are far less apparent, so the acidity is cleaner, making is more palatable and simply more drinkable. The fruity flavours are less aggressive as well. There are some peaches, white grapes, cherries, and lemons, although all very subtle. Instead, everything is much more straightforward overall, with a more attuned flavour profile.
As it warms, the cherry notes come out that much more, adding a slight faux kriek presence to the beer. It is bone-dry, with an acidic finish that cuts through everything, leaving echoes of stone fruits and some wheat on your palate. There is a well balanced vinous component that carries a dry and tannic bitterness, which rests on your palate after each sip. The finish is clean, but still long, displaying an acidic linger and some bitter grapefruit rinds.
The 2015 is an impressive and fun beer that marries the complexity of a Flemish sour, with the microflora profile you might find in a Lambic. However the 2016 is far more subtle, and frankly a much better beer. It’s cleaner and more straightforward, but remains complex and interesting. It’s still not a Gueuze, but far closer to one than the previous year. Les Trois Mousquetaires just keeps impressing us. And as a teaser, I just want to say to look out for another article I’ll be posting just before the LTM Double IPA bottle release; some amazing things are coming!
An article by Noah Forrest
photography by Noah Forrest