The first lambics imported to the United States (and still the most widely available today) were Lindemans fruit lambics, the most famous of which is the Framboise. While those are high-quality beers, they are not typical of traditional lambics, which are sour.
The vast majority of ales and lagers are fermented in sealed containers, to which the brewer adds one specific strain of saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast. In stark contrast, lambics undergo primary fermentation in shallow, open vessels known as “coolships,” exposed to the air and microorganisms native to the Senne valley of Belgium. They then go through a second fermentation in wood barrels that contain various yeasts and bacteria that persist in the wood from batch to batch. The beer is left to mature in the barrels for long periods, at least one year and sometimes as long as three years.
The lambic process is known as “spontaneous fermentation” and involves wild yeasts (as opposed to the yeasts carefully cultivated and controlled by many breweries). The superstars of lambic flavor are brettanomyces bruxellensis, brettanomyces lambicus and lactobacillus. These little bugs create wild, sour and incredibly complex flavors.
Straight, unblended lambic is rare and quite difficult to obtain outside of Belgium. I’ve never tasted one. Surprisingly, it is served without carbonation. Belgian beers often have higher levels of carbonation than beers from other countries with notable brewing traditions, like England.
More widely available (except in Alabama) than unblended lambic is gueuze, a blend of young and old lambic. Lambic blending is a very highly regarded art among Belgian beer connoisseurs.
And then there are the fruit lambics, many of which are not sweet. Cantillon, one of the most revered lambic brewers, produces a Framboise (using raspberries) and a Kriek (using cherries), both of which are quite sour. Yet most Americans are more familiar with Lindemans fruit lambics, which are very sweet. They are excellent dessert beers, but many beer enthusiasts lament how they have confused countless people on the nature of traditional lambics.
Although hardcore lambic aficionados may consider the production of sweet lambics to be a sin, brewer René Lindemans surely atoned for his sins with the creation of Cuvée René, a magnificent gueuze that perfectly exemplifies the style.
Cuvée René is exceedingly dry, tart and lightly acidic. It has a bit of cider character accented by lemon zest. It’s funky and a bit white wine-like. On the first sip, the sourness seems potent, but it becomes much less noticeable as you continue to sip. It’s a remarkably refreshing beer and goes great with food, especially with something like a funky blue cheese.
This beer is the crown jewel of the Lindemans portfolio and worth seeking out. It should be available at any store that carries Lindemans fruit lambics, which are pretty common. If you don’t see it next to the Framboise, ask the manager to order it.
If you find yourself starting to appreciate some of these sour beers, be sure to let your favorite beer retailer know you’re interested in seeing more on their shelves. Retailers are limited in what they can order based on which brands have distribution contracts with Alabama wholesalers. There are at least a couple of traditional lambic producers whose importers have contracts for Alabama distribution right now but which are still almost impossible to find in stores. Two that come to mind are Hanssens Artisanaal and Oud Beersel. Ask for them.
And there’s good news for us on the horizon, as importer Shelton Brothers recently signed a distribution contract in Alabama. No one has a more impressive portfolio of traditional lambics than Shelton Brothers, which includes the renowned Cantillon I mentioned. It may be a while before the label approvals are complete and the first shipment of these classics can make it to Alabama, but again, let retailers know of your interest.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to email@example.com