Lambics: What To Know

Lambic beers are a little bit like blue cheese or marmite. No, it’s not because the flavor necessarily mimics the creamy stinkiness of blue cheese. It’s because lambics, like many of the best things in life, are an acquired taste.

Lambic beers are renowned for their funkiness. They can be hay-like or cheesy or musty, cider-y. People use terms that sound off-putting, like barnyard (as I had the firsthand expericence of seeing at IndyMan 2022 with a collegue) when describing it, it doesn’t sound appealing. But it’s really complex and really unique. That’s what makes them more fun to drink than say a lager or and IPA, you never totally quite know what you might get when you crack open a lambic.

As more breweries embrace sours, and as the beer consumer palate continues to become more and more intriguspecialties, lambics, which are nuanced and layered, should definitely have a spot in your beer rotation.

So what exactly is a lambic?

There are many different arguments out there for what actually constitutes as lambic. Some tie the name to the region, in the same manner that Champagne comes from the Champagne region of France (everything else is considered sparkling wine). Though there isn’t any stuffy legal backing of a similar manner for lambics.

There has generally been an agreed upon set of rules out of respect for the tradition. So, for the most part, if you’re seeing ‘lambic’ on a bottle, it’s probably going to be from the Flanders region of Belgium.

How are they made?

Making lambics is an ancient tradition. At the core of this tradition is what is called “spontaneous fermentation,” which is what really sets lambics apart from most other beers. Spontaneous fermentation is a process in which the heated up wort, the base of the lambic that is essentially unfermented beer, is left out in what is called a coolship (a fancy word for a giant vat) to, well, cool. But during this time, the liquid is also collecting random bits of bacteria that are floating about.

To make a stout or an IPA or lager, typically, a cultured yeast strain is purchased from a lab to use for fermentation. It’s a single homogenous strain of yeast that makes one very clean beer. Spontaneous fermentation is an old-world method that’s probably how beers were made for thousands of years that basically heats up some wheat or barley in water and then just expose it to the open air.

Do they have to be made in Belgium?

Belgian brewers don’t believe lambics can be made anywhere outside of Belgium. The beers are specifically brewed within the Zenne river valley, where seasonal wild yeasts flavor the quintessentially Belgian beer. But even though the term lambic is protected, that hasn’t stopped other brewers from trying to replicate the ancient method.

There are breweries around the world that will use this spontaneous fermentation, but will be referred to as “lambic-style beers” or “spontaneously fermented beers.”

‘Spontaneously fermented’ sounds intense. How do brewers ensure each batch is good?

There are three different aspects that you must pay attention to if you want to insure the beers will be consistent: temperature, bacteria control, and blending the finished products. Often the wort is left out to cool during a certain time period/month to help each batch cool consistently and is exposed for a similar amout of time. In terms of the random bacteria landing in the exposed coolship, the beer is brewed in a specific way to only help certain yeast and bacteria thrive.

At the end of the day though, for spontaneously fermented beers, it’s near impossible to ensure that every single batch will taste exactly the same. In order to mitigate this drift in flavor year-to-year, the beer is blended at the end of the process from each of the barrels.

What kinds of lambics are out there?

Lambic is an umbrella term. It’s the base for a lot of interesting beers; a gueuze, for example, is a blend of different aged lambics to achieve the perfect, tart profile. Framboises are lambics that are later aged with fresh raspberries for three to six months. Krieks are the same, but with cherries. Brewmasters work with different fruits — depending on seasonality — to create an array of refreshing, tart, and fruit-forward beers. There’s peach (pêche), apple (pomme), and even lambics made from something called cloudberries: a sweet, yet tart, berry found in temperate regions.

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