Belgian Beer Primer(cont.)
One of the most distinctive kinds of Belgian beers, traditional lambics are made using wild yeasts and bacteria—that is, the ones floating around in the air—to ferment the beer, instead of cultured strains from a lab. These free-floating microorganisms make the beers taste sour, and impart other flavors and aromas often described as “leathery” and “barnyard-y.” Lambics are an acquired taste that can be oddly addictive. And they’re extremely refreshing because of their tartness. They are usually made from a blend of unmalted wheat, malted barley, and hops; cooled in the open air (where they’re exposed to yeasts and bacteria); then aged in oak barrels for one to three years.
There is controversy between fans of traditionally crafted lambics and fans of commercial lambics, because the latter are sweetened, not aged very long, and pasteurized, all of which, traditionalists say, goes against the type’s true definition. It’s hard to find straight lambic—that is, lambic bottled directly from one brew. Instead, you’ll usually drink it blended into what’s called gueuze.
TRY: Cantillon Bruocsella Grand Cru
Made by blending different ages of lambics (usually some combination of one-, two-, and three-year-old beers) to create a signature balance of flavors and more natural carbonation in the bottle, because there are still some unfermented sugars in the young lambic that continue to ferment. Gueuze also allows brewers to create a more consistent product from batch to batch by adjusting the blend of the highly variable lambics.
TRY: Oud Beersel Oude Geuze Vieille; Cantillon Classic Gueuze
Many of the beers labeled lambic in the United States are sweet fruit-flavored brews reminiscent of Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. For a more sophisticated fruit beer, look for those made using whole fruit and with 100 percent spontaneously fermented lambic. (Good beer lists will mention these things. If you are unsure, ask to look at the label before ordering.)
TRY: Oud Beersel Framboise (raspberry); Oude Kriek (sour cherry)
Flemish Sour Ale
Much like lambics, brown and red Flemish sour ales have a distinctly tart flavor. Many are produced using cultured yeasts for their primary fermentation, then aged in barrels with souring bacteria and wild yeasts that impart acidic flavors ranging from lemon to balsamic vinegar—and, sometimes, caramel flavors, too.
TRY: Aardmonnik Earthmonk; Rodenbach Grand Cru; Duchesse de Bourgogne
Brown, Golden, Blonde, Amber Ales
These often overlap with what people consider abbey doubles or triples, but some one-of-a-kind beers fall loosely into this category. Duvel is considered the benchmark for golden ales, with its high alcohol content, dry finish, and sparkling golden color.
TRY: Duvel; La Chouffe Golden Ale; Bink Blond
It’s a misconception that everyone in Belgium is “drinking crazy beers,” says Joe Carroll, co-owner of the Spuyten Duyvil bar in New York. “Average people are drinking pilsners.” There are also Belgian stouts, Belgian pale ales, and Belgian-style IPAs.
TRY: De Ranke XX Bitter
U.S. BREWERIES TAKE INSPIRATION
Belgian-style beers are becoming easier to find (and cheaper), thanks to U.S. craft breweries creating their own twists on traditional styles. Allagash Brewing Company in Maine makes a bottle-conditioned dubbel, tripel, witbier, and others. (“Bottle-conditioned” refers to beers that are naturally carbonated by yeast that’s allowed to ferment in the bottle, leaving a layer of live sediment.) Jolly Pumpkin out of Michigan is brewing very interesting beers like La Roja, its take on a Flemish sour red ale, and a spiced witbier aged in oak with wild yeast and souring bacteria called Calabaza Blanca. The Lost Abbey, part of the Port Brewing Company in California, makes abbey-inspired beers like Lost and Found, and a saison-inspired beer called Red Barn Ale. And Russian River Brewing Company has a line of Belgian-inspired beers, from Damnation, a strong golden ale, to Sanctification, a beer fermented with the same type of yeast that’s used in traditional lambics.
TRY: Allagash White; Russian River Temptation