Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Belgian Sour Beers

A short synopsis of the Belgian sour styles, courtesy of Young & Hungry:

Big news today for sour beer lovers, as master blender Armand Debelder of Belgium’s 3 Fonteinen brewery announced that he would retire from brewing his deliciously bright, acidic beers and focus on distilling beer into eau de vie. Debelder started this move to liquor production to recoup losses from summer 2009, when an equipment failure spoiled 100,000 bottles, almost one-third of his stock.

Debelder will still be blending his beers (by taste, like wine blends are made); the only difference is that the part of the blend that he used to brew will now be made by another Belgian brewery. If the transition is done well, drinkers shouldn’t notice. However, all this talk of blending probably sounds like nonsense to most ordinary folk, so here’s a quick, abbreviated guide to the sour beer known as geuze. (Oh, it’s also spelled gueuze sometimes. Confusing, right?)

Lambic is beer fermented 100% spontaneously — that is, instead of inoculating it with yeast, the beer is kept in an uncovered vat called a koelschip (think “cool ship”), where yeast critters that exist in the air around us air settle in and make themselves at home. These “wild” yeasts spoil ordinary beer and wine, bringing all kinds of funky and sour flavors that nerds like to describe as “horse blanket.” I’ve never smelled a horse blanket, though, so that’s not very helpful.

Also, to be called “lambic,” a beer must also be made in Belgium’s lambic region, or Patjottenland — it’s region-specific, like champagne and calvados. Pure lambics, that is, a straight lambic that is unblended with anything else, are rarely drank on their own.

Geuze is a blend of lambics, the grand cru of sour beers. By definition, they must contain some “young” lambic (unaged, or barrel-aged for less than a year), some 2-year-aged lambic, and some 3-year-aged lambic. Nothing else. Since the fermentation is 100% spontaneous, batches differ wildly, so in the end everything rests on the palate and personal taste of the blender.

Then there’s all the other beers labeled “lambic” (but not “pure lambic”). These can be any variety of flavored beers that start as a lambic but are blended with other stuff, especially fruit. Some of the popular ones include kriek (cherry) and framboise (raspberry) — and even these vary from syrupy, like Lindemann’s, to complexly tart, like Cantillon.

I’ll stop there, because I see that your eyes are glazing over. You should probably get some rest, or have a beer. But if you’re looking for something shockingly tart, sour, and other worldly, make it a 3 Fonteinen.