Belgian Lambics

– or how I fell in love with Cantillon and their idea of beer being the beverage of the simple man.

During the time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve I decided to travel to one of the world’s most famous beer countries – Belgium – for the first time. Belgium’s beer culture ranging from the almost mystical Trappist beers brewed at monasteries, the Belgian Blonde, Wit or stronger Triple and Quadruple beers, to the untouchable Belgian Lambic is – in its variety and tradition – almost unbeaten. Of course, other great beer nations, such as Germany, the UK, the Czech Republic or the United States do not need to hide, but there is something inheritably special about Belgian beers. This opinion may be quite subjective and very well related to the fact that up to this day, I have not grasped the extent and variety of Belgian beer styles. Additionally, it was the Belgian beers that first introduced me to craft beer, even though at the time I didn’t even know what craft beer was.

When I was younger people used to tell me that with anything that scares you, the more you learn about it the less creepy and scary it gets. Initially I believed this to be true for everything except the ocean, as the more you learn about the sea and its ecosystem the more mystical it gets. For me the same applies to Belgian beers. Personally, the more time I spend trying to understand the processes and styles the more I realize how little I know about it and the more mystical and interesting it gets. Due to the sheer size and variety of beer styles in Belgium, as well as my personal dislike for the sweeter or more balsamic beer styles like the Belgian Triple or Flemish Oud Bruin I will focus solely on Belgian Lambics in this post, as it is a beer style that not only looks back on a long historic tradition but also is among those that reaches the highest trading values in secondary markets and is hence largely misunderstood.

Belgian Lambics are one of the oldest and most traditional beer styles still produced to this day. Beer has been produced since shortly after the first crops were planted sometime around 6,000 BC. During this time people had no other option than to utilize what nature gave them during the brewing process, so they had to rely on wild airborne yeasts which contaminated the wort to start the alcoholic fermentation process. For thousands of years no alternative to this traditional method existed. Only since the 12th century some breweries started to harvest yeast cultures and tried to produce similar batches of beer. As with many other things the real brewing revolution happened due to the invention of the steam engine, artificial cooling and thus the possibility to reproduce yeasts in a controlled environment. Ever since then, brewers opted to use newer techniques and controlled brewing processes to achieve consistency in their beer production. Today, only one beer style still uses the traditional spontaneous fermentation technique which has existed for hundreds of years, namely the Lambic.

The raw materials used to make a traditional Lambic are 35% wheat, 65% malted barley, hops and of course water. Here I will forfeit an in-depth explanation of the overall brewing process. To put it in few words: It starts with the addition of the malts and water to the mashing tun to produce sugary wort. Hops are then added to the wort before it is cooked for three to four hours to sterilize the liquid and to help evaporate part of the water. The cooked wort is then pumped into a very large copper vessel, known as the cooling tun, that has been optimized to speed up the cooling process of the wort to an optimal temperature of 18 to 20 degrees Celsius. As this is a natural process that relies on relatively cold temperatures, Lambics can only be brewed from the end of October to the beginning of April. As soon as the temperature of the sterilized wort drops to below 40 degrees Celsius, it starts being inoculated with natural fermenting agents (bacteria and yeasts). These microorganisms initiate the spontaneous fermentation in the oak or chestnut barrels later in the process. Contrary to wine making, the type of wood is not critical in Lambic production, as there is no need for tannins. However wooden barrels are essential to allow for the gas exchange between the beer and the surrounding air. Before the cooled wort is pumped into the barrels it is transferred to a fermentation vat where temperature and degree Plato readings are taken. After a few days in the barrel the wild yeasts react with the sugars of the wort, which results in spontaneous fermentation. Slow fermentation begins three to four weeks later. To date, 100 different strains of yeast have been identified in Lambic, with Brettanomiyces Bruxellensis and Lambicus, playing the most important role, especially in reducing the beer’s sugar content to just 0.2%. Generally, a Lambic can be drunk after only a few weeks, but to produce a refined beer, brewers will often have to wait one year or more. Since Lambics are produced using naturally occurring yeasts each batch is slightly different from previous ones. They may differ in acidity, bitterness and/or mellowness. From this matured beer, brewers sometimes make more refined Lambics like Gueuzes - a blend of 1, 2 and 3-year-old Lambics. Alternatively, since the 20th century brewers have added regional fruits such as sour cherries, raspberries or grapes to their Lambics.

Compared to modern beer styles like NEIPA or generally hoppy beers, the longevity of Lambics is only paralleled by stouts and porters. While hops and adjuncts to beers fade over time Lambics mature similarly to wines. They become funkier, lose some of their original taste, fruitiness or acidity and develop very matured flavors. This makes them the perfect beverage to store for a celebratory event in the future or to learn how beer develops over time. Personally, I like to buy multiple bottles of the same beer. One to try directly when it is still young and the others to store, in order to explore how they develop after 5-10 years in the cellar. Furthermore, many Lambics are produced in three different sized bottles. The smallest being the 375ml bottle which is perfect for personal consumption, followed by the most prevalent 750ml bottle and the magnum 1500ml bottle. What makes the 750ml bottle so appealing to me is the fact that it must be shared with others. And if you remember one of my previous posts, then you know that I believe in “sharing is caring”.

I have experienced this sharing aspect first hand in Belgium. While at Brasserie Cantillon one can get bottles of most of their seasonal beers – usually unavailable for purchase – to drink at the brewery. As I was visiting the brewery by myself with the intention to try as many beers as possible I got myself a bottle, filled myself one glass and then went to another table with strangers to ask them if they wanted to try some of the remaining beer, explaining them that a full bottle was too much for me. Doing this I got to try over 8 different Cantillon beers, as all the others were sharing their beers with me in a similar manner. Not only did I get to try a variety of beers but also got to meet several beer geeks from around the world (e.g. Russia, the USA, the Netherlands, etc.). Belgian beer culture truly embodies this sharing culture and when visiting beer bars and pubs in Belgium one gets a sense of community that I personally have not yet experienced in German or English pubs to that extent. What further makes Lambics the beer of the people is the way it is served. Whereas popular modern beer styles are served in fancier beer glasses, such as Teku Glasses, Lambics are traditionally served in Lambic glasses that resemble a regular water glass. The beer is not supposed to be fancy and neither is the vessel used to drink it.

But let’s get to the second part of this post, where I will dive deeper into the history and the philosophy of one of my favorite breweries. Brasserie Cantillon as one of the most well-known and most sought-after Lambic breweries from Belgium, to me symbolizes everything that beer should be. Founded in 1900 as a family business by Paul Cantillon in Anderlecht, the brewery has remained independent to this day. At the time it was one of 100 breweries operating around Brussels. Today Cantillon’s tradition is carried forward by Jean-Pierre Van Roy and his wife and kids. To this day Cantillon still embodies the same traditional values and has not given in to modern day capitalism and rising beer prices. They have kept their beer prices reasonably low. Jean-Pierre Van Roy, owner of Cantillon, has told me during my visit to Brasserie Cantillon on December 27th that his goal is to produce the best beer possible at a price that allows him to keep producing his beers in the traditional way, while making it available to the largest group of people possible. Unfortunately, due to the nature of Lambic production and the limited time per year in which the beer can be produced, there is some natural exclusivity and limited availability of the beers. Consequently, Cantillon seasonal beers with an original price tag of below 20$ can reach prices up to 250$ in the secondary market. While this may sound like a great business opportunity for savvy beer geeks, it leads to two fundamental problems opposing the original goal followed by Jean-Pierre Van Roy. Firstly – understanding the craftsmanship which goes into these Lambic beers – it becomes inheritably unfair to the brewer when someone profits from his craftsmanship without putting in an ounce of effort. This resembles some sort of disrespect to the craft as well as the product that we all love so dearly. Secondly, the horrendous resell values of the beer and the urge to make some quick cash lead to a run on these limited beers leaving many – the beer was originally intended to cater to – without the chance to purchase or drink it. Not only does this go against the nature of the Belgian Lambic as an everyday beer for the everyday person but it also hinders many from enjoying the crafty brew in the first place. In my opinion, beer should in no way shape or form ever be more than what it was originally intended to be, namely drunk. Be it with friends, by yourself, as a celebratory beverage or as an after-work relaxant. Cantillon to this day personifies this value and it is the reason why I will always stop by at the brewery whenever I have the chance. Not only do I know I will have one of the most amazing beers available, but I also support a family-owned and purpose-driven business steeped in tradition.

At this point it is also important to note that Lambics have seen a rebirth and resurgence in the past decades after there has been a drastic decline in Lambic production during the 1960s. During the 1990s people started reconnecting with this traditional beer style especially in Scandinavia, Italy and the US. Today the demand for Lambics largely outstrips what the traditional breweries are able to produce and store. Due to this many new breweries around the world have started to produce beers using spontaneous fermentation. Nowadays, even festivals devoted to spontaneously fermented beers exist. The next one will be the inaugural Mikkeller Baghaven Wild Ale Celebration brought to life by Ehren Schmidt, head brewer of Mikkeller Baghaven, one of my all-time favorite breweries specializing on spontaneous fermentation.

Concluding I must admit: Yes, this post reads like a love story but to be honest, I have really learned to love this beer style over the past few months. I remember when I first tried a Lambic, I thought it tasted like vinegar and was way too acidic to drink. But as with many of the greatest beverages, Lambics are an acquired taste. To give you some personal advice, when it comes to beers, it is all about trying new beers from new breweries. If you don’t like a beer at first, give it a second shot some time later, because you might be surprised and fall in love with the beer style, like I did with Lambics and spontaneous fermented beers.

 Belgian lambic