Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Semantics of Lambics and Other Pastimes.

Some useful details for those of you planning on the Night of Great Thirst in Eizeringen this Friday. Then we talk lambic philosophy.

Transport info here, including free shuttles, flat taxi rates, local bus lines, and driving directions. (Incidentally, it's only about 20-30 minutes drive west of Brussels, depending on where you start.) And a list of beers here — note the spontaneously fermented beers from Allagash in Maine, including one made with raspberries, another with cherries, and a vaguely gueuze-esque blend. The festivities kick off at 7 p.m.

The Allagash beers represent a small, budding trend in America: craft brewers attempting spontaneously fermented beers that honor the Pajottenland tradition yet refusing to call them — for marketing purposes, anyway — lambics. So here's a fun question to be discussed among enthusiasts: If you make a beer exactly the same way a lambic brewer in Brussels or Pajottenland makes it, but you do it in Maine or California or wherever, then what have you made? Is it lambic?

Turns out it's not a legal question. It's philosophical. Specifically, it's ethical and semantic.

In the DID YOU KNOW!?* category: A common myth is that "lambic" is a protected, geographic appellation. Not true. Its method and contents are somewhat protected by the EU — and arguably, not very well. But its status does not include geographical indication. So, theoretically, you could make a traditional lambic in Kentucky and market it as such in Europe.

Would that be a good idea? Maybe not. At best it would be rude. So far brewers like Allagash are avoiding words like lambic and gueuze out of sheer respect for their Pajottenland colleagues. I also suspect that aficionados might be turned off by that sort of audacity. So we end up with an "appellation" that is really more ethical than legal — and it might turn out to be good marketing to boot. Or at least the avoidance of bad marketing.

Finally, a trick question, but an easy one for a few of you: At which brewery is the barrel in the photo above located?

*Always to be exclaimed in a loud, deep, echoing voice.


  1. De Cam isn't it?

    BTW I'm at Imprimerie with Podge early Sat eve then plan on bussing into the centre to visit Moeder Lambic's little Cantillon-thingy, and maybe the Hoppy Loft.

  2. Jean-Pierre Van Roy once emphatically told me that so long as the raw wheat content, aged hops and spontaneous fermentation requirements were met, along with one or two other considerations, it would be a lambic no matter where it was brewed. Still, I think it reflects well on the Americans to honour the appellation, even if it's not legally binding. Sort of makes up for the horrible way some of their wine-making countrymen have defamed appellations such as Champagne, Burgundy and Chablis.

  3. Brian: De Cam it is. Maybe it was easier than I thought. Trick question only because it's not a blendery, not a brewery.

    Stephen: I think there are other lambic brewers who would disagree with Mr. Van Roy (imagine that!), wishing that the EU law went a little further. But then we are talking about the same family that refuses to call the beers "Oude" because they are real lambics and that's that. And the same family that has no issue with putting gueuze into a keg and serving it on draft, because what's the difference if the vessel is a keg or a big green bottle?

    All I know is I'm happy to drink great lambic no matter where it's made, what it's called, or how it's served.

  4. As a beer produced with Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is a ale no matter where it´s made, technically, a beer produced in a spontaneous fermentaion way is a Lambic no matter where it´s made.
    But I think that the inscription in the label is not that important. The bottle content is important (as is the case with the label-less Westvleteren). But one thing is for sure: the bacterias and fungus in a Lambic from Brussel are not the same as the bacterias and fungus from a non-Brussel Lambic...so the beers have the same style (Lambic) but not the same soul.

  5. No doubt, Joe, and Mr. Van Roy would no doubt welcome their disagreement, iconoclast that he sometimes is. Not sure I agree with him, either, since as Felipe so correctly points out, a large part of the soul of a spontaneously fermented beer must come from that which does cause said spontaneous fermentation.

  6. I live in Portland, Maine and Allagash makes superb beer in the "belgian tradition." Interlude and Curieux (tripel aged in Jim Beam bourbon barrels) are the best. Check out Rob Tod if you have the chance at the Great Thirst. I will be in Belgium the week after the festival. Still hope to make it to Eizeringen on Sunday the 14th for some lambics. As this is my first time in Belgium, any suggestions for best places in Brussels to try wide variety of lamics, gueuze and krieks?

  7. Bearing in mind that the Grote Dorst in Eizeringen has as wide a selection as you'll find anywhere in the world...

    Both Moeder Lambics are worth visiting. The specialty at Fontainas is drafts and handpumps, while St-Gilles has all the bottled lambics you could want. If you want a meal with your lambic, think Bier Circus. Delirium also has a wide selection but might not be the best place to enjoy it, depending on the day and time.

    Those are the obvious ones. For lots more suggestions, including many off the beaten path, might I point you toward Around Brussels in 80 Beers?

  8. Wanted to add this thoughtful take from Yves of the Grote Dorst, posted over at the Babblebelt site:

    "Is Allagash Spontaneous a genuine ‘lambic’?

    No, because the real lambic can only be made with the help of specific micro-organisms in the air in and around Brussels. The brettanomyces bruxellensis and the brettanomyces lambicus which are playing a key role in the fermentation process, are not present in New England.

    Is Allagash Spontaneous a ‘lambic-style beer’?

    Yes, because Allagash Brewing has used some brewing specifics, which originate from the Payottenland and the Senne Valley. First of all, they have used the method of spontaneous fermentation – which is very different to other methods like low fermentation high fermentation and wild fermentation- together with a ‘koelschip’. Secondly, they have also respected the minimum requirement of wheat (min. 30%) for making the wort as well as the use of aged hops.

    Jason Perkins, the brewmaster, refers to it as their ‘spontaneous project’. Therefore, Allagash Spontaneous - a Lambic Style beer would describe the beer the best."