Belgium's Great Beers
Understanding the beer styles
The Lambic family of beers
The winiest of all the world's beers, and specific to the Brussels area. There are several possible explanations for the odd name (which is spelled in a variety of ways), but its most likely origin is the small town of Lembeek ("Lime Creek"), to the immediate southwest of Brussels, in the heart of the producing area. A handful of breweries around Lembeek, Beersel and Schepdaal, all in the valley of the river Zenne, have persisted with techniques that pre-date the culturing of yeasts. Their brews are of the type seen in Bruegel's paintings, and represent the oldest style of beer readily found in the developed world. Lambic beers gain their tartness from a content of at least 30 per cent raw wheat in addition to the more usual malted barley, but their defining characteristic is the use of wild yeast. This "wild," or "spontaneous," fermentation imparts the distinctive acidity. The yeasts of the atmosphere descend into open vessels in the attics of the breweries, and the fermentation and maturation continue in wooden casks, some more than 100 years old, many previously used to transport wine. The casks, and the walls of the breweries, play host to a menagerie of wild yeasts. Elsewhere in the world of brewing, wood is today scarcely used in fermentation or maturation. While conventional ales ferment and mature for a week or two, and lagers for a month or two, Lambics may have two or three years. Most of these beers have a conventional alcohol content, in the range of 4.0 to 6.0 per cent alcohol by volume.
Straight Lambic: In its most natural form a draught beer, almost still, unsweetened and unblended, Lambic can seem less like a beer than some hybrid of hard cider and fino sherry. Some of the yeasts that develop during its fermentation are, indeed, very similar to those at work in sherry bodegas. Straight Lambic is hard to find. It is served in only one or two two cafés in Brussels and a handful in the area of production. Typically, it is tapped directly from the cask, and decanted from a pitcher into tumblers. In much the way that fino sherry is served in Andalusia with tapas, so Lambic is sometimes offered with snacks of sharp, soft, cheeses like the fresh-curd Plattekaas and the acidic Pottekaas, with silverskin onions, radishes, brown bread, and sometimes sausages similar to English saveloys or black pudding.
Where to find Lambic: The most central Lambic café, albeit offering sweetened interpretations, is just behind the lower end of Brussels' Grand-Place. Facing downhill on the square, turn right into Rue Tabora, and look for a sign announcing A la Bécasse ("The Woodcock"). This café is actually down an alley. It has "Dutch" tiled walls and scrubbed tables, and serves the beer with snacks. Also in the city-centre, Le Vieux Ch‰teau d'Or (26 Rue St Catherine, in the market area) sometimes has straight Lambic.
A rare bottled version, very dry and lemony, is sometimes available to visitors at the renowned small brewery Cantillon, a working museum of Lambic (56 Rue Gheude; tel 02-521-4928) in the Anderlecht neighbourhood. The brewery, near Brussels Midi/South railway station, is an essential visit for anyone with even the slightest interest in beer. Cantillon is one of the most traditional Lambic producers, along with the brewery of Frank Boon (pronounced as in "Bone" - or "Beaune"), in Lembeek itself. Boon has tours on Wednesday afternoons in summer (3.0, July-Sept), starting at Café Kring, next to the main church. A third traditionalist is Girardin, a brewery that grows its own wheat, but does not have tours. Other well-known Lambic breweries include Timmermans, Lindemans, De Troch, Mort Subite and Belle-Vue. The last two are genuine Lambic brewers owned by national groups, respectively better known for Kronenbourg and Stella-Artois lagers.
Belle-Vue has a tasting room at its brewery in the Brussels neighbourhood Molenbeek (43 Quai du Hainaut; tel 02-412-4411). It offers on draught a sweetened blend of Lambics. The Mort Subite beer was originally brewed for a classic Brussels café of the same name. Café Mort Subite is at 7 Rue Montagnes aux Herbes Potagères, not far from the Grand-Place, tel 02-513-1318, fax 02-512-8664. It was founded in about 1880, refitted in 1926, and was the inspiration for a ballet by Maurice Béjart. For its style and ambience, not to be missed. Straight Lambic is not usually served, though Gueuze and Kriek (see below) are.
Café-restaurants in the producing region: In Schepdaal, Café In De Rare Vos, 22 Markt Plaats, serves aged Gueuze. Dishes include mussels pigeon and horse (closed Tuesday and Wednesday). In Beersel, in addition to Drie Fonteinen (see Famous Beer Restaurants , above), Oud Beersel is café with its own brewery (232 Laarheide Straat). In the same town, Drie Bronnen (13 Hoog Straat), tel 02-331-0720 and Oude Pruim (87 Ukkelse Steenweg) are also well worth visiting. All of these close on Tuesday.
Faro: Also hard to find, but sometimes available at Lambic cafés. A version of Lambic sweetened with rummy-tasting dark candy sugar, and occasionally spices. Some cafés serve a do-it-yourself version, with a pestle or cocktail barman's muddler to crush the sugar. Faro was once the restorative for the working man in Brussels.
Gueuze: A bottled, sparkling, style that is much easier to find. Can have the toasty and Chardonnay-like notes found in Champagne. The word Gueuze (hard "g", and rhymes with "firs") may have the same etymological origins as the English words gas and ghost, and the Flemish gist ("yeast"), referring to carbonation and rising bubbles. The carbonation is achieved by blending young Lambic (typically six months old) with more mature vintages (two to three years). The residual sugars in the young Lambic and the yeasts that have developed in the old cause a new fermentation. The most traditional examples may bear on the label the endorsement of the consumerist organisation De Objectieve Bierproevers. References to "old" (oud, vieux, vieille) on the label indicate a minimum of six months and a genuine Lambic process. Without these legends, a Lambic may have been "diluted" with a more conventional beer. Apart from the producers mentioned above, blenders like Café Drie Fonteinen (see Famous Beer Restaurants), Hanssens and Cam produce oustanding examples. Cam, in the village of Gooik, adjoins a café and a museum of local crafts (next door to the police station).
Fruit Lambic: The acidity of Lambic provides a particularly good based for fruit beers. Because these begin with a fermentation of grain, and are primed with fruit later, they are beers and not wines. The use of fruit (like that of spices) almost certainly pre-dates the hop as a flavour-modifier in beer. In the traditional method, the fruit is added during the maturation of the beer, causing a further fermentation. The happiest results are arguable with fruits that have stones, which can impart a balancing, almondy, dryness. The best of Belgian fruit beers have the dryness of a pink Champagne, rather than the sweetness of a soda-pop. Like Champagnes, they are often served in flute-style glasses. In the Brussels area, the home of Lambic, a typical local fruit is a small, dark, variety of cherry, known in Flemish as the Kriek. Lambic-based Kriek beers are the most traditional fruit brews. Raspberries, known in Flemish as Frambozen , and French as Framboises , are also widely used. The Cantillon brewery has in recent years experimented to interesting effect with Muscat grapes, which are grown under glass in Belgium as dessert fruit. More exotic fruits, added as syrups, are used in novelty beers by the more commercially-minded breweries. The term Lambic is used only when that style of beer is used as the base. Contrary to misunderstandings in some other countries, there is no connection between the term Lambic and the use of fruit. Equally, many good fruit beers in Belgium are not based on Lambic. For example, several of the Brown brews made in Oudenaarde are used as the base for Kriek or Frambozen beers.