One of the topics we intend to cover on this blog, which is not well understood by alot of American craft beer drinkers, is the insane beauty that is Belgian brewing. The Belgians do things a little differently than everyone else. The best way I can think of to introduce this concept is to talk about The Geuze.
We Punks always refer to “The Geuze” in a monolithic sense, with a simultaneous reverence and terror. This is a very unusual beer. In reality it is simply the most extreme version of the Lambic style of Belgian beer. Other examples of Lambic beer are far less extreme, examples including the fruit lambics such as Framboise (blackberry) or Kriek (cherry). If you’ve ever met a girl that claimed not to like beer, get them a Lindeman’s fruit lambic. They won’t believe it’s beer, but it’s sure to please; Lindeman’s Kriek tastes like black cherry soda in my opinion. Those of you that think Sam Adams makes a Cranberry “Lambic” might want to leave the room now. The beer may be tasty but it’s certainly not a lambic.
What sets Lambics apart from other beers is that they are not fermented by carefully cultivated, house broken Saccharomyces yeast. No, these beers undergo a process known as Spontaneous Fermentation. This is precisely what it sounds like: the unfermented wort is pumped into a kuhlship (an empty one from Allagash is shown in the image to the left) and left at the mercy of whatever little beasties happen to be present in the rafters of the brewery (or farmhouse as is often the case) or even blowing in through the open windows. This invites all kinds of species, not just wild yeast but even bacteria such as Lactobacillus to leave their mark on the wort. This brings us to the title (and one of the most pronounced flavor characteristics of The Geuze for many drinkers) – Lactobacillus is a bacteria that produces lactic acid, which is commonly found in sweat and gives The Geuze a sour odor that many people describe as similar to foot odor. Traditional Lambics are primarily brewed in a small area around Brussels, seasonally from October to May, when the weather limits the presence of undesirable bacteria. This reigns in this character a bit, but pick up any Geuze at your local liquor store and it will likely be unmistakable.
Spontaneous fermentation also gives rise to one of the more unique aspects of brewing a true Belgian Lambic: the art of blending. Just as different malts of scotch are blended, and in times of yore aged beer was cut into batches of new beer to “bring it forward” with a hint of aged complexity and tanginess (a tradition that Guiness still carries on in a way with intentionally soured batches for their Foreign Extra Stout), so do highly trained Belgians round out the differences in flavor from year to year by blending batches. If one year’s vintage got too much Lacto, that sourness can be offset by blending it into a previous year’s vintage that just wasn’t quite sour enough.
In this way, you can start to see why Belgian breweries have been around for so long and have not really changed much in the hundreds of years they have been brewing the same beer. Indeed there are stories of breweries that had to be shut down when it became necessary to move the old farmhouse the beer was brewed in; because the environment had simply changed just enough that they could not produce the same beer. There are also jokes about breweries whose beer simply didn’t taste the same after the old farmhouse dog died, because he wasn’t there to sneeze in the vats anymore.
And what about those fruit lambics? The sourness here tends to be undercut by the introduction of fruit after an initial period, which sets off a whole new round of fermentation. But if homebrewers are any indication, the insanity doesn’t end here. I have heard reports of otherwise sane and reasonable home brewers smashing their fruit and simply throwing it into the batch without any particular sanitation protocol, under the theory that any microorganisms on the fruit itself will simply add complexity to the fermentation character of the beer. Supposedly the results are quite good, if not exactly reliable.
As for tasting notes, the Punks have tried The Geuze on three occasions. First (always the guinea pig) I tried the Lindeman’s Cuvee Rene at home, and was unimpressed. The flavor was simply far too sour to get behind, though oddly (and disturbingly) the foot odor nose on it started to almost grow on me by the end of the bottle – almost. Maybe the worst of it dissipates with time, or maybe you become desensitized.
Eager to share the unpleasantness, I talked Mike into trying a Cantillon Geuze, also at home. Mike was forever changed. He said, and this is an exact quote, “I may never be able to drink Belgian fruit beer again.” (Remember, the Belgian fruit beers are built on a Lambic base, so some of the same flavor characteristics were present, but in a far more pronounced way in The Geuze.) He has largely kept good on this, as I have never seen him order a Belgian fruit beer since, and this was one style he would often try, before he met The Gueze.
The third occasion, however, brings us to the heart of the matter. Once at the Sunset I heard someone order a Cuvee Rene, and struck up a conversation with the gentleman. He said that he really enjoyed The Geuze, they had a certain dry complex character that reminded him of wine. Lindeman’s website describes The Gueze as cidery, winey, and reminiscent of dry vermouth. Tasting the Cuvee Rene with that for a new point of reference, I could almost (not quite) see what some people like in the stuff. Frankly, it’s not my thing, but it almost made sense to me, for a fleeting moment. This is why when the Punks refer to The Gueze, it is with both fear and reverence. This is, perhaps, the Mount Everest of beer appreciation, and the complexity of producing it is surely the pinnacle of insane, beautiful brewing.