Lambic is a very distinctive type of beer brewed only in the Pajottenland region of Belgium (southwest of Brussels).
Unlike conventional ales and lagers, which are fermented by carefully cultivated strains of brewer's yeasts, Lambic beer is instead produced by spontaneous fermentation: it is exposed to the wild yeasts and bacteria that are said to be native to the Senne valley, in which Brussels lies. It is this unusual process which gives the beer its distinctive flavour: dry, vinous, and cidery, with a slightly sour aftertaste.
The origins of Lambic beer lie in the working classes of the region some 500 years ago who appreciated a weak, quenching drink that could be produced cheaply and easily on the farm. Since then, the style has diversified to a wide range of styles, strengths, and social classes.
Today the beer is generally brewed from a grist containing approximately 70% barley malt and 30% unmalted wheat. When the wort has cooled, it is left exposed to the open air so that fermentation may occur spontaneously. While this exposure is a critical feature of the style, many of the key yeasts and bacteria are now understood to reside within the brewery and its (usually timber) fermenting vessels in numbers far greater than any delivered by the breeze. Up to 86 microorganisms have been identified in Lambic beer, the most significant ones being Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Brettanomyces lambicus. The process is generally only possible between October and May as in the summer months there are too many unfavourable organisms in the air that could spoil the beer.
Since at least the 11th century and probably earlier, hops have been used in beer for their natural preservative qualities as well as for the pleasant bitterness, flavour, and aroma they impart. Today they still provide bitterness, flavor, and aroma in almost all beer styles except Lambic. Since the method of inoculation and long fermentation time of Lambic beers increases the risk of spoilage, Lambic brewers still use large amounts of hops for their antibacterial properties. In order to avoid making the beer extremely bitter, however, aged, dry hops (which have lost much of their bitterness) are used. Consequently, Lambics often have a strong, cheese-like, "old hop" aroma, in contrast to the resiny, herbal, earthy hop bitterness found in other styles.
After the fermentation process starts, the lambic is siphoned into old oak or chestnut barrels from the Porto region of Portugal or the Jerez region of Spain. Some of the brewers prefer used wine barrels. The lambic is left to ferment and mature for one to two or even three years. It forms a "velo de flor" of yeast that gives some protection from oxidation, in a similar way to vin jaune and sherry; the barrels are not topped up.
Another important feature of Lambic is that it is usually a blend of at least two different beers; many 'producers' are in fact blenders who buy beers from other brewers, and blend two or more together to create the desired result. A good gueuze, for example, may have occupied space in several different cellars over 6 years or more. Despite this complex production, the locals are justifiably proud of their unique beer, and recent years has seen an explosion of interest around the world for this unusual beverage. Whilst those outside of the area are most likely to find the bottled gueuze and fruit versions, there are a wide variety of styles available to the local drinker, and they are often blended again or sweetened with sugar or flavoured syrups before drinking, as some examples can be extremely tart.
Lambic beer is widely consumed in Brussels and environs, and frequently features as an ingredient in Belgian cuisine.
Types of Lambic
Most, if not all varieties listed below have Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG)
Unblended lambic is a cloudy, uncarbonated, bracingly sour beverage available on tap in only a few locations. Generally three years old. A bottled offering from Cantillon
named Grand Cru Bruocsella can be found outside of Belgium.
A mixture of young (one-year) and old (two and three-year) lambics which has been bottled. It undergoes secondary fermentation, producing carbon dioxide, because the young lambics are not yet fully fermented. It keeps in the bottle; a good gueuze will be given a year to referment in the bottle, but can be kept for 10-20 years. An obscure German ale style, Gose
, is not to be confused with gueuze.
Mars traditionally referred to a weaker beer made from the second runnings of a lambic brewing. It is no longer commercially produced.
A low-alcohol, slightly sweet table
beer made from lambic to which brown sugar
has been added. It is an unblended three-year-old lambic (traditionally a mars) and is usually sold on draught
, although a number of bottled versions may be found. The sugar was originally added directly at the table by the drinker and crushed into the drink with a mortar, and therefore did not add carbonation or alcohol to the beverage.
Lambic with the addition of sour cherry
(druif), or strawberry
(aardbei), as either whole fruit or syrup. Other, rarer fruit lambic flavorings include apple
, and lemon
. Fruit lambics are usually bottled with secondary fermentation. Although fruit lambics are among the most famous Belgian fruit beers, the use of names such as kriek, framboise or frambozen, cassis, etc. does not necessarily imply that the beer is made from lambic. The fruit beers produced by the Liefmans brewery, for example, actually use a brown ale (Oud Bruin)
, rather than a lambic as a base. Many of the non-traditional fruit beers derived from lambic that were commercialized in the last decades are considered to be low quality products by many beer enthusiasts. These products are typically artificially sweetened and based on syrups instead of fresh fruit, resulting in a taste experience that is quite remote from the traditional products.
The name "Lambic
" entered English via French
, but comes from the Dutch language
. Lambic is probably derived from the name "Lembeek", referring to the municipality
, close to Brussels
Use in popular culture
Belgian lambic breweries
Belgian lambic blenders
Books about Lambic
- H. Verachtert, Lambic and gueuze brewing: mixed cultures in action, Foundation Biotechnical and Industrial Fermentation research, Vol. 7 Finland pp. 243-263.
- Jean-Xavier Guinard, Classic Beerstyle Series nr. 3, Lambic, Brewers Publications, a division of the Association of Brewers (1990).
- Dirk Van Oevelen, Microbiology and biochemistry of the natural wort fermentation in the production of Lambic and gueuze, PhD Thesis, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium (1979)
- Tim Webb, Chris Pollard, and Joris Pattyn. LambicLand/LambikLand. ISBN 0-9547789-0-1
External links to breweries