Lambic style beers have an air of mystery and intrigue. While the style has deep roots and tradition in Belgium it’s only within the last decade or so that this category of beer has started to emerge in the United States. American breweries like Allagash, Jester King, and others have developed their interpretations of lambic beer here in the US. Known for its funky, fruity, sometimes barnyard-y flavor lambic beers are characterized by their complexity and balance.
“If horsiness or hay-like or cheesiness is all you’re getting out of lambic it won’t be a pleasant experience,” says Kevin Martin, the Director of Brewery Operations at Portland, Oregon-based Cascade Brewing (a brewery well known for its sour and fruit beer). “If integrated with the smell of apricots or nuttiness that balance is the real beauty of lambics.”
Martin likens the flavor of a lambic to fish sauce. One single component on its own can be really off-putting, but when you combine the fish sauce with other components in a recipe, “it becomes this unspoken shining star that defines the dish. The sum of the parts is greater than the individual.”
With more breweries across the country embracing this historic style it’s worth taking a look at the tradition, brewing methods, nuances, funky flavor profiles, and characteristics that truly define a lambic.
How Do You Define a Lambic?
Defining a lambic has become like the existential and philosophical debate of craft beer. It’s murky territory with differing opinions as to what actually exactly constitutes a lambic.
For some geography is the defining factor.
“First and foremost, it is most important to say that lambic is tied to place,” says Brandon Boldt, Co-Founder of Primitive Beer, Colorado’s first exclusively spontaneous, barrel-fermented beer blendery. Specifically the area of Belgium that includes Brussels, southwest of Brussels, and the Zenne River valley.
“For someone who doesn’t know the style it is good to make a comparison to champagne,” says Jason Perkins, Brewmaster at Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland, ME. According to strict laws, the name champagne can only be used if the product is made within the Champagne region of France. If the liquid is from anywhere else it is only considered sparkling wine. “Because of the name and association with place specifically, lambic should refer to beer made in Belgium really within greater Brussels. But lambic doesn’t have the same control over the word,” continues Perkins.
A problem that has left the style open to interpretation.
For others, it’s the method and traditional practices that truly define the style.
How Do You Make a Lambic?
Take everything you knew about making beer–and throw it out the window. Making a lambic strays from every method of brewing a traditional ale or lager.
While traditional beers go through a gentle mashing process, lambics need a vigorous mash.
Most beers feature fresh hops, lambics use aged hops.
Many beers undergo an hour boil, lambics boil for 3 hours and up.
While traditional beers use a single strain of yeast, lambics undergo a signature process called spontaneous fermentation, where a brewer exposes the wort, or steeped grain liquid, to the open air often using a coolship, essentially a big brownie pan vessel, to cool down the beer.
See, throw it all out the window.
Since we’ve outlined the basic brashness of lambics to unravel all the rules let’s examine each step a bit further.
The Lambic Style Beer Brewing Process
At the base, a lambic typically features 40% unmalted wheat and 60% of a base malt such as barley. These grains are vigorously mashed together to create a turbid mash.
The wort from the turbid mash then boils for a long time (what Brandon and his co-founder Lisa Boldt called a marathon boil) with an addition of aged hops. The aged hops help preserve the beer during a long fermentation. You want to keep the preservative qualities of the hops without introducing any bitterness. “In a nutshell, you’re trying to age out the bitterness of hops,” explains Perkins.
Each of these steps prepares the beer for its long fermentation. You want the wort to be chockful of highly complex and indigestible sugars so that during fermentation the naturally occurring yeast that finds its way into the beer has something to eat for a long period of time to develop beautiful flavor. “A lot of thought goes into the brewday to create something with longevity,” says Boldt. “We’re building a foundation for the rest of the magic to take place.”
After the extended boil comes the true trademark stamp of the process: Spontaneous fermentation. To cool down the wort, the beer is transferred to a coolship. And instead of pitching (or adding a single strain of yeast in a controlled lab environment), the beer is left to pick up the naturally occurring microorganisms, flora, and bacteria from the environment.
After cooling for upwards of 15 hours brewers transfer the beer to a “horny tank” (basically a holding tank) that ensures the microorganisms introduced to the beer at the surface level in the coolship are mixed into the entire beer.
For the last step, the lambic is put in barrels called puncheons and aged for one to three years.
Wait, Can You Explain What a Coolship Is Again?
A coolship is essentially a large shallow trough that brewers use to cool down beer. It’s important to note that coolships were used way before lambic beer became a style.
For centuries brewers built crude coolships to cool down beer. At the time people understood the fundamentals of making beer, but didn’t understand yeast yet. Eventually various discoveries were made around yeast and people started to understand the nature of bacteria. They introduced new methods to control cooling down beer and fermentation in a closed system with a single strain of yeast.
At this point, lambic brewers became the only brewers to still use coolships.
“Coolships weren’t invented to make lambic,” says Perkins. “But they survived because of lambic brewers.”
Can You Tell Me More about That Spontaneous Fermentation?
“For the laymen, spontaneous fermentation would be exposing your wort to the open air rather than adding a lab-cultured strain or single strain of yeast,” says Cascade Brewing’s Martin.
In short, spontaneous fermentation is like hanging your laundry up to dry outside instead of using a dryer sheet. The natural air cools down your clothes and gives them a distinct, fresh scent from the ambient air.
Brewers expose the beer as it’s cooling down to whatever is floating around in the air enabling a “complex web of life to exist and thrive,” says Boldt.
Most of the time, spontaneous fermentation happens in a specific geographic region and season, usually in cooler climates. “I probably wouldn’t try this in August in Miami,” says Levi Funk, the Founder and Blender of Funk Factory Geuzeria in Madison, WI.
And while spontaneous fermentation seems to have this air of mystique, it is really quite simple. “Spontaneous suggests that this process happens instantly and magically,” says Perkins. “And while there is a lot of magic to it, yeast is already naturally occurring in the environment.” Brewers are just taking advantage of mother nature’s traditions.
Speaking of traditions.
Can You Make a Lambic Outside of Belgium?
Most Belgian brewers do not consider spontaneously fermented beer made outside of Belgium, specifically the area around Brussels and the Zenne river valley, to be true lambics.
But, many American brewers have sought to respectfully brew a lambic.
Funk, who loved the balance and complexity of Belgian lambics, started out brewing Belgian-inspired beer on a 1-bbl system in his basement. As consumer palettes caught on his intricately crafted sours gained popularity. Because of his love of lambics and respect for the craft, Funk took things one step further.
In 2016, Funk; Jeffrey Stuffings (co-founder of Jester King, an authentic farmhouse brewery committed to mixed culture and spontaneous fermentation in Austin, TX); and James Howat (owner and blender at Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales, a brewery focused on spontaneous fermentation in Denver, CO.) actually met with a group of Belgian brewers called HORAL (The High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers), a non-profit organization composed of gueuze brewers and blenders from the Pajottenland and Zenne valley in Belgium. Their goal: to come up with a definition American brewers could use when producing lambic style beers that captured the respect of the tradition and the process used by Belgian brewers.
“There is no consensus on a definition of lambic,” says Funk. “Not amongst American brewers and certainly not amongst Belgian brewers. We wanted to give the American brewer who wanted to pursue the style a name they could use to call their beer and to set a production standard. If you’re going to make a lambic you can’t do it half-ass and still call it a lambic.”
After much debate and discussion, Funk, his lambic-loving compatriots, and HORAL settled on a term: Méthode Traditionnelle.
So, What’s Méthode Traditionnelle?
According to the official website, “Méthode Traditionnelle is designed to refer to spontaneously fermented beers made in accordance with the traditional method, but outside the traditional region.” The goal has always been to 1) Provide stylistic terminology for non-Belgian brewers making beer in accordance with the traditional method of producing G(u)euze; and 2) Achieve this first goal in a manner that is respectful of and acceptable to the traditional producers in Belgium.
While Funk has adopted Méthode Traditionnelle when referencing his lambics, other American brewers have made a conscious decision to avoid using the term lambic at all.
Another Word For Lambic Style Beer: Coolship
Perkins says at Allagash they’ve chosen to name their lambic-style beers Coolship (e.g. Coolship Resurgam, their classic interpretation of a classic gueuze) out of respect for the tradition of the brewing style.
In many ways, we actually have Allagash to thank for pioneering the style here in America. Back in 2007, no one in the U.S. was making lambic-style beers. When Allagash founder Rob Tod returned from a trip to Belgium, he came up with the idea to build a coolship to see if he could respectfully and traditionally brew the style in Portland, ME.
“Conventional wisdom at the time was that you couldn’t make these beers unless in the magical radius of Zenne around Brussels,” shares Perkins.
While the experiment was a huge success, Perkins says that Allagash made the conscious decision to name their line of beers Coolship, refraining from using the term “lambic” because they felt strongly that Belgian lambic brewers, who have championed the style, deserve the right to call it lambic while no one else should.
Another Word For Lambic Style Beer: American Spontaneous Beer
Similarly at Primitive, Lisa and Brandon Boldt follow the steps outlined in the Méthode Traditionnelle, but avoid using the term lambic. Instead, they designate their beers “American Spontaneous Beer”. “We would love to call it lambic, but we’re not in Brussels and we feel that is a very important distinction,” says Lisa. “It’s respect for Belgian lambic tradition. Lambic has been around for so long and is so entrenched in Belgian culture. It’s more than just a drink.”
Another Word For Lambic Style Beer: Northwest Sour Ale
Martin also ties the use of the phrase lambic with the roots of the beer. “In the United States, we don’t have the long history they have in Europe with wine and beer. We tend to be more liberal with how we use terminology. In the older traditions of Belgium that terminology is a lot more highly regarded. Coming from the European tradition, the terms really mean something specific and they value protecting those terms.”
At Cascade they avoid using the language “lambic” when describing their beer, opting instead for their own designation: Northwest Sour Ale. Especially since the brewery does not use spontaneous fermentation when brewing their sours, Martin says it was very important for him not to call the style lambic.
Regardless of the debate around designation, what most brewers — Belgian and American — can agree on are the balanced yet complex flavors that make lambics truly special.
What Do Lambics Taste Like?
The topic of lambic beer is complicated and convoluted, so it’s important to remember that all these brewing techniques ultimately create a unique tasting beer.
“You can get as deep into the weeds about the process as you want, but if you just like how it tastes and don’t want to go down the deep rabbit hole it’s Spon Spon Bing Bong,” says Lisa, referring to a phrase that she and Brandon came up with to remind people that you can still appreciate the taste of lambics without understanding the intricate process. “We take it seriously,” explains Brandon. “But we don’t expect everyone else to take it seriously to enjoy it.”
Just like its nontraditional brewing methods, lambics have very untraditional and exceedingly complex flavors. “You want a funky, musty, barnyard, and cellar dirt flavor and aroma, but you also want this bright citrus-lemon component. You want some acidity,” says Funk. Bottom line: You want balance.
“It’s complex just like everything else about this beer,” says Perkins. “You’ll get different flavors at different times of aging, so an eight-to-12-month-old lambic can taste like a rough around the edges hefeweizen while a two-to-three-year-old lambic starts to develop more tartness and you get that barnyard funk, horse blanket, but also some nice fruity components.”
There is a sense of unique, umami qualities to a lambic that can really only be understood if you try a few yourself.
Wait, But What about Gueuze, Krieks, Framboises, etc? Are Those Lambics?
Great question! Lambic is the all-encompassing term for the style. Many lambics are actually gueuzes, which is a blend of three different ages of lambic. Commonly, a brewer will add additional fruit during the fermentation process. If you add raspberry the beer becomes a Framboise. Cherry then it’s a Kriek. Then you have apple (pomme), peach (peche), and many more.
Where Can I Find a Good Lambic?
Whether you’re completely new to the category or have dipped your toes in the microflora-filled coolship, you’re most likely looking for a few lambics to actually try yourself. (Especially if you’ve read this whole article!)
We asked Martin, Perkins, and Funk for a few of their suggestions. Here are our recommendations to get you started on your lambic journey from the most traditional Belgian versions to accessible lambics you can most likely find in your favorite bottleshop to several of our American favorites.
Traditional Belgian Lambic
Drie Fonteinen — Lot, Belgium
“For a gueuze unfruited lambic, I would one hundred percent say Drie Fonteinen Gueuze is the gold standard in my world,” shares Funk. From the only remaining traditional gueuze blender in Belgium, this gueuze is the epitome of Belgian lambic.
Brasserie Cantillon — Anderlecht, Belgium
For a fruited lambic, Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels makes some of the most renowned Krieks, Framboises, and more. Saint Lamvinus is a fruited Belgian lambic utilizing grapes macerated in Bordeaux barrels. Funk recommends Saint Lamvinus if you’re already familiar with and a fan of sour beers. Perkins also recommends Cantillon not only for their traditional Kriek, but for a whole line of interesting experimental beers they make using spontaneous fermentation.
De Cam Geuzestekerij — Gooik, Belgium
“This is a one-man operation made by a guy named Carol who is amazingly passionate and sassy,” says Brandon Boldt. “He’s only open on Sundays for three hours. He gives zero fucks, but every one of his beers has terroir.”
Readily Accessible Lambic
Boon Oude Geuze Mariage Parfait
Brouwerij Boon — Halle, Belgium
One of Perkins’ favorites, Boon Oude Geuze uses a higher portion of older lambic, is pretty readily available, reasonably priced, and one of the best in the world. Lisa Boldt agrees that Boon is really true to the style and easy to find.
Oude Gueuze Tilquin
Gueuzerie Tilquin — Brussels, Belgium
“I like the balance that owner and brewmaster Pierre Tilquin strikes,” says Martin. He sources his work from multiple breweries around the Flanders region, so he’s able to capture microflora and characteristics from multiple breweries and blend them together to his palate, giving his beers a really unique diversity.
American Versions of Lambic Style Beer to Try
Allagash Brewing Co. — Portland, ME
Allagash’s classic interpretation of a gueuze. This is Perkins’ personal favorite from their Coolship line. “I like the pure/rawness of Resurgam. It showcases what kind of beers that can be created with spontaneous fermentation,” says Perkins.
So Last Season: Montmorency Cherry
Primitive Beer — Longmont, CO
“It’s our nod to Belgian Kriek that has this deep ruby color with a pink head,” says Lisa Boldt. “It’s everything you want from a fresh cherry with a little bit of funk below it.”
Primitive Beer — Longmont, CO
In the works, this beer will drop in the next couple of months according to Lisa, so keep an eye out on Primitive’s Instagram. Festive Ways is a blend of two years of spontaneous beers, un-fruited, and bottle conditioned with honey.
Funk Factory Geuzeria — Madison, WI
A blend of three different years of barrel-aged lambics, Funk conditions Four Winters in the bottle for an additional year. Hence, Four Winters.
Cascade Brewing — Portland, OR
Although not made by adhering to the strict standards of a lambic Cascade’s Kriek is one of the best examples of the style of beer they make–Northwest Sour Ale–and is inspired by Flemish red-style beers.
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