Tag Archives: Lambic

Where the wild things are

The first time I went to New York everything was so familiar I managed to convince myself that I must have been here before. I hadn’t. Years of episodes of Taxi, Friends, big budget movies, low rent movies and the persistent ability to be at the centre of global news makes it so familiar. From the ridiculous to the sublime perhaps, but I feel the same way about Brussels and the Payottenland, the low, hedge lined, deep ditched farmlands out to the west of the Belgian capital. I’ve been only twice, both fleetingly.  The first time was a road trip, passing through whilst heading elsewhere and pausing only on the outskirts of the capital. The second was a business trip, where any memory was wiped clean by one too many devilish beers in La Mort Subite.  

Yet it all seemed so familiar. And again, this was the case when I received some Cantillon lambic beers from Beer Hawk last week: the Gueuze, the Kriek and the Rosé de Gambrinus framboise. I’ve not been to Cantillon yet, but ex-colleague, friend and Edinburgh brewer Bob Knops has – some of his photos appear below. The product shots are mine: strange how even the packaging can link you to a place. These are the bottles of gourmands. Of people who care for tradition and taste above function and form. Thick, heavy weight bottles, fortified bases to withstand the pressure of refermentation in the bottle; wide brimmed crowns, levered off to reveal a cork seal below. Unnecessary? Antiquated? Yes to both if you wanted to argue it that way, which underlines how important these beers are.

Cantillon brews in a very traditional way, even for lambic beers; making a gloopy, turbid mash of malted barley and unmalted wheat; a prolonged and vigourous boil with the addition of aged, cheesy hops, required not for their aroma but their antiseptic band-aid protection. And then inoculation of the wild yeasts begins, as the wort is put in a broad and shallow coolship, under the roof beams of the brewery, to let nature’s playthings have their saucy way with the wort’s sugars.  For the base lambic, the beer is moved into oak barrels, where it goes through a journey of staged fermentations, not just with brewing yeasts, but wild yeasts and bacterias that produce a wild array of different flavours & aromas. These fermentations are only complete two years later (and potentially longer).

The Gueuze is a blend of young (roughly two year old lambic) and older, 3+ years,  lambic. The older lambic is reinvigorated by the sugars remaining in its younger sibling and refermentation begins anew. The result is a sparkling beer (unlike lambic, which like traditional cider is all bit still).  Immediately on prising out the cork the wild aromas fly out: winey, ascetic, and vaguely pooey, a mucky straw smell like a remember from the floor around Reynolds farm when I was younger. Unattractive? The description sounds it I’m sure, but the words do not do justice to the aroma which is endearingly attractive – surprising, and complex.  To the eye, it was a hazy yet vivid gold, with a profuse head that quickly dissipated to a thin velvety sheet atop the beer.  Carbonation was visible and audible, and felt too, with a tingly sizzle in the mouth. The taste is led by a coating dryness, quite sour but appetising and finished with a surprising touch of lemon peel.

The Kriek lambic was a delight too: building on the flavours and aromas of the Gueuze but overlain of course with the marzipan nuttiness of cherry stones and the plump berry fruitiness of the cherry flesh. The beer was burgundy red in colour, with a pink, sustained, head that formed energetically. This was a refined beer: which in a ironic twist tasted fresh and young despite its ageing. The playfully named Rosé de Gambrinus is the real jewel.  Whole raspberries are steeped in two year old lambic only. Compared with the other two, at first I thought this beer was thinner, less complex – but on continued drink, so I realised what an elegant, refined beer it is – more a champagne than a Rosé. To smell, there’s plenty of delicate berry fruit, yet it’s not over sweet and has a clear, corky sourness too. The beer had taken the ruddy hue of the raspberries with a lighter, pink head than the Kriek and a strong, excitable, effervescent carbonation. To taste, the beer was neither as dry nor as punchily sour as the other two, but it was sour all the same – drinkably so. The raspberry sweetness – the little there is surprisingly – is superbly balanced, just sweet enough to pull you back for the next sip yet with a complementing, ascetic bite to complete the circle and quench. It’s nothing like sweetened beers that are increasingly popular where the sugar has been used in the fermentation. In fact it’s nothing other than an excellent framboise; an excellent beer.

I must go there, to this rural brewery in the the city. But when I do, it’ll feel like an old friend I’m sure.

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© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014
First three photos,Bob Knops. http://www.knopsbeer.co.uk

Tinted Shorts: Mort Subite, original Gueuze, 4.5%

"there’s none of the agricultural astringency of some lambics, but enough of the farmhouse aroma to know that wild yeasts are present."

“there’s none of the agricultural astringency of some lambics, but enough of the farmhouse aroma to know that wild yeasts are present.”

Lowlander Grande Café, London, June 2014

I’m fascinated by spontaneous fermentation. Can there be a stronger link in any food or drink we consume today with the beginnings of civilization; the beginnings of domestication and agriculture? I also find it fascinating that as a brewing method it has only survived in Payottenland in Belgium (at least until recently). Is it because allowing the wort to cool in the attic space, open to the elements is a mucky and time consuming way of doing things? Is it the simple hit-and-miss nature of it all?   Is it the end result – uncarbonated lambics – that are too limited in appeal and there variants, Gueuze, Kriek, Frambozen, Faro too time consuming, too tricky to master?

I thought about these questions as I sipped my Mort Subite Original Gueuze in Lowlander this week. It came in a natty little 25cl bottle which, at 4.5% ABV, was just right for the time. On pouring it was a burnished Chesterfield brown with visible strings of carbonation firing up form around the base of the glass. The head was open and fine, leaving lacing diaphanous and sheer, not the clumpy lines of mixed gas draught beer. There’s a marked (appley?) fruitiness in this gueuze and to sip, a gentle sweet wineyness too (hints of orange muscat dessert wine?); there’s none of the agricultural astringency of some lambics – perhaps not enough in fact – but sufficient farmhouse aroma to know that wild yeasts have been working their magic. It’s not a classic Gueuze by any means; but for the time and place it was smooth, approachable and sufficiently interesting.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

Double Helix

the session beer blogging fridayFew topics are as divisive amongst brewers as that of balance – something I find quite ironic. Oddly, balance is something conceptually simple – I mean, if I said to you, “tell me what balance is” you’d probably look at me gone out – yet is in reality the opposite – hellishly complex.

Balance implies a pivot point… something on one side countering something on the other to create a sense of equalising forces. But in my experience in foods and drinks it’s more like neutrality – too often, in the pursuit of balance, something is lost not gained. Perhaps neutered is better than neutralised.

And it’s worse in beer. Worse because balance is one of the subjects brewers of mass beer can use to level at craft beer.  A drinkable, everyday pale beer vs a deeply bitter IPA , loaded to the gunwales with whole cone C Hops.  No contest on then as, sure, it may have ‘character’ but it isn’t balanced, it’s not moreish.  Well, whichever way you see the world it’s all erroneous.  Balance just isn’t a two dimensional creature. And there are more than two variables at play, which doesn’t help understanding nor appreciation of beer.

The bitterness scale of International Bitterness Units (IBUs) is the normal ‘measure of beer’.  It’s become a limiting shorthand, aided and abetted by the Nuclear Hop Race and IBU proliferation. Brewers across many continents pushing the boundaries – introducing multiple stages of hopping in the boil, as well, of course as post-fermentation hopping, chiefly through dry hops.  More prosaically,  on my days running Grolsch, those who didn’t agree with the strategy would throw in the cheap shot of bitterness: Grolsch is just too distinctive, too bitter to be an ‘everyday brand’.  But no one mentioned the residual sweetness in the beer that in fact meant it was both a characterful and well balanced lager.   In fact, I hadn’t realised until recently that there is a measure of this particular balance – BU:GU or bitterness units to gravity units; nor had I realised the relatively common old British practise of measuring ‘Pounds of hops per quarter malt’.  A contender for a better shorthand descriptor than just IBUs? Maybe.

Were the world so simple. Bitterness and sweetness are not the only facets that make up beer.  There is saltiness and sourness of course.  If you think beer cannot be salty then try and get hold of some Burtonised brewing liquor and taste that – positively coats the mouth it does. And next time you have a pint of Pedigree just see if you can’t detect it, especially now it’s been pointed out.  Sourness is huge in food at the moment – particularly confectionery, where brands like Haribo Tangfastics, Wham Sourz and the most worryingly pleasingly named, Toxic Waste, represent the growth categories in the UK market.  And in beers it’s not just lambics that offer sourness, some of the new wave brewers are aging on wood and in some case even exposing the beer to controlled oxidisation to give these tastes.  So why not a sour: sweet axis for beer?

Then there’s umami – the mystical 5th taste which is behind many of the most astonishing beer and food pairings, like cheese, oysters, meat pies and the Pint’s Best Friend, scratchings.  Yep, even umami is present in beer – chiefly as a result of the fermentation process.

So if balance is not two dimensional, it’s three, right?  Well, not even that, because then there’s the alchemical effect of visual appearance and cognitive perception.  Visually: the head, the colour, the condensation, the presentation; cognitively – the reputation, the word of mouth.  How many unarguably average beers have a reputation way beyond the sum of their parts due to these?

No, the conclusion I draw is that balance is a red herring.  You may want a balanced beer on occasion; heaven knows a pint of Landlord scores bullseye for me on this measure, yet more often I don’t. As I write this I am positively craving a hoppy IPA. I don’t want balance, I want a full on, in-your-face malty, floral extravaganza.  In the Summer, around the barbecue, I can predict that I’ll be drinking something so cold it will numb the taste buds.  No, balance is like the mystical double helix of DNA. I get it in principle but I’ll be damned if I can make head nor tail of it in everyday life.  Balance is a cul-de-sac I won’t be walking down.

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013