The Lambic style can trace its roots back over 400 years, and has remained mostly unchanged from its introduction. The first written recipe is dated 1516 and accounts from 1559 mention the production of Lambic "according to an old recipe".
In fact in ancient Mesopotamia a beer that could be thought of as the "roots" of Lambic was brewed by the Sumerians, about 5500 BC. Sikaru, the premium beer of the day, was brewed from 60% malt, 40% raw wheat, used wild fermentation and was flavored with herbs like aniseed and cinnamon.
Although it is impossible to confirm the origin of the word "Lambic" ("lambiek" in Flemish / Dutch), it is most likely a distortion of Lembeek (Flemish) or Lembecq (French), a present and historic Lambic brewing town. Other sources relate it to "alambic" or to "lambere" (Latin).
Brewing of Lambic
The oddities of the style are many. Like its ancient Mesopotamian predecessor, the wort is composed of 60 - 70% barley malt and 30 - 40% unmalted wheat. The hops are aged to curtail the introduction of hop character. These aged hops have lost their bittering power but have retained their antiseptic properties.
The brewing method of Lambic is the turbid mash method or "slijmmethode" in Flemish with the peculiarity that the brewer intends to obtain a highly dextrinous wort, more appropriate for sustaining a long fermentation by a mixed flora of microorganisms and leading to the typical Lambic flavor.
The most typical differences between the brewing process of a conventional lager beer and Lambic are the following:
To brew a spontaneous fermented Lambic, no yeast is artificial added to the wort, but the wort is exposed to the open air of the "Zennevalei" (E: Senne-valley). The result of this method is that wild yeast cells, among them Bretanomyces bruxellensis and B. lambicus, which are always in the open air in the environment of Brussels, come into the wort and start on a natural, spontaneous way the fermentation.
More than 30 percent unmalted wheat is utilized, this in contrast to lager beers, where corn or rice is used.
The Lambic brewer uses old dry hop, aged three years. He does not want the bitterness of the fresh hop, but the conservation property of the dried hop. The lager brewer uses young hop which gives beer its typical bitter taste.
By law the brewer must use min. 30 % unmalted wheat and 70% malt (1/3 winter; 2/3 summer cereal) and a wort-strength of 11-12 degrees Plato. The acidity of the Lambic should be min. 30 milli. equivalents NaOH and the volatile acidity: min. 2 milli. eq. NaOH. The spontaneous inoculation from open coolship is a requisite to create a Lambic.
Due to the spontaneous fermentation, Lambic is a seasonal beer, which can be brewn only in the winter season (October-May). In summertime, there are too much undesirable bacteria, which can infect the wort and influence negatively the fermentation.
The very old brewing procedure of Lambic goes as follows (the precise procedure may vary between different breweries):
1. A batter (mash - see picture) of water, malt and at least 30 % wheat is made at 45 degrees Celsius. At this temperature the malt releases his first soluble elements, under which the most important: starch.
2. The second step is to warm up this brew to 52 degrees Celsius. By this, the proteases break off the malt flour, through which the brewer obtains an optimal solution of proteins. This white turbid extract is called "the milk" or "the slime"
3. By increasing the temperature of the slime to 65-75 degrees, the enzymatical conversion of starch into sugar is taking place.
4. After filtration of this solution, the brewer obtains an extract of sugars, proteins and minerals, which is called "the wort". this extract is seasoned by dried (aged) hops (600 g/l) and boiled for 4 hours.
5. Further, the boiled wort goes into the "koelbak" (Flemish) or "bac refroidissoir"(French), an open, shallow cooling tun, made of copper and located in a well ventilated room, to cool down overnight.
It is at this crucial moment that the inoculation takes place: specific wild yeasts and enteric bacteria, altogether a mixture of 86 microorganisms, which are floating in the air around Brussels, fall down into the wort. The resulting process is called spontaneous fermentation and this mystery of the Lambic-beers is unique in the beer-world.
6. Next day, the inoculated wort is pumped into old oaken or chestnut barrels, called "tonnen" (Flemish) or "tonneaux" (French, 250 liters) "pijpen" or "pipes"(650 liters) or "foeders" or "foudres" (3000 liters) where the fermentation can start. The micro-environment of these barrels contributes to the specific flavor of the Lambic. The brewers use old barrels because the wood has lost its tannin, which would affect the flavor of the Lambic. These old barrels mainly come from the Porto or Sherry region. The evolution of the Lambic goes slower in the larger barrels, but it is said to be better. Nowadays brewers are also using steel tanks with wood chips for the fermentation of Lambic.
After a few days, depending on the weather, the fermentation starts. White foam appears on the upper hole of the barrel. Later, the foam becomes brown and form a natural stopper, which preserves the beer for external factors, like undesirable bacteria and oxygen, but the CO2 (carbon dioxide), released by fermentation, can escape.
The principle fermentation is passing on to a second fermentation and further to a cascade of other smaller fermentations and finally there is the maturation of Lambic, which takes up to 2 years. Lambic requires several years to come of age, during which time, dust and cobwebs cover the barrels.
The production of Lambic is limited to the cooler seasons, as during summer other micro-organisms may interfere with the natural fermentation .The production of Lambic is usually confined from mid-October to May (15 October to 15 May), allowing for the wild yeast and beer to ferment during the summer.
Lambic - Lambiek
Lambic (French) or Lambiek (Flemish) is a very ancient beerstyle, unblended Lambic has a rich flavor, quite different from other beers nowadays. Nowadays, Lambic on draught is hard to find. Only in a few pubs in and around Brussels you still can taste the curious sherry-like flavored beer. It lacks the carbon dioxide and has a more sour taste than modern day beers.
The traditional Lambic is a sour beer of 100% spontaneous fermentation with at least 30% of wheat used as a basic ingredient. Young Lambics ("platte", "joenk", "vos") are dry, sour, cloudy and similar in taste to cider. Aged Lambics are more mellow and settled. Young Lambic, or "vos" (Flemish) (E: fox) Lambic, is slightly sour, old Lambic has greater acidity. Some Lambic is sold as such, but most Lambic is used to produce Geuze.
O.G.: 1.040 - 1.056; Alcohol: 4 - 6%; IBU's: 3 - 22; SRM: 4 - 13.
Geuze - Gueuze
Geuze is made of 100% Lambic beer which undergoes additional fermentation on the bottle. Geuze was created in the 19th century in Lembeeq. The blending of old and young pure Lambic is the traditional way to make Geuze. The skill in producing a good Geuze is in balancing the right young and old Lambics in the right quantities. The right ratio young/old is depending on the maturation degree (end attenuation) of each of them.
Once the blend is bottled, it undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle (Method Champenoise), creating the unique flavor. After 6 months the Geuze obtains a golden color and a cidery, winey palate; reminiscent, perhaps, of dry vermouth with a more complex and natural flavor.
Geuzes tend to be sweeter than Lambics, and are always livelier, causing them to be dubbed the "Champagnes" of the beer world. The right flavor and amount of carbon dioxide is caused by the secondary fermentation in the bottle, for which it takes at least a year in the bottle to make a good geuze. The taste of Geuze ranges from sour over sourish-bitterish to bitterish. A traditional, unsweetened, Geuze contains only about 0.2 % sugar containing substances. An old traditional, unsweetened, Geuze is therefore well tolerated by diabetics, due to its very low sugar content. Geuze is golden to light amber in color.
Geuze is the traditional beer for carbonade, as well as a beautifully beverage with seafood or other salty meals. It is also delicious with cream sauces.
Beside the traditional unsweetened Geuze, there is also a more commercial Geuze that dominates the market. It is pasteurized and has a sweeter taste.
O.G.: 1.040 - 1.056; Alcohol: 4 - 6%; IBU's: 3 - 23; SRM: 4 - 13.
Nowadays faro is made from spontaneous fermentation Lambic (from moderate gravity wort) to which is added burnt sugar or candy sugar (chaptalized), so that it gets a sour-sweetish taste. Faro has a low alcohol level.
Traditionally, Faro was made by blending Lambics produced from high- and low-gravity worts. A lump of sugar was added to the glass to sweeten the Faro. This was probably the beer being served in Breughel the Elder his paintings of Flemish Village Life.
O.G.: 1.040 - 1.056; Alcohol: 4 - 6%; IBU's: 3 - 22; SRM: 4 - 13.
Mars beer was made from the late, low-gravity worts, it was mainly produced for home-use. Today mars beer is no longer commercially available.
Lambics are sometimes casked with cherries, raspberries, or other fruit to produce fruitbeer. A fruitbeer can vary as to whether it is of low fermentation, spontaneous fermentation (Lambic) or high fermentation. The only thing one does is add real cherries or raspberries or the cheaper essences, juices or syrups. Thus one gets Flemish brown "kriek" beers (E: cherry) or geuze "kriek" beers. Besides the traditional cherry or "frambozen" (E:raspberry) beers other fruit beers are all beers on the basis of essences, juices or syrups - no real fruit is involved.
Kriek: orangey to deep red in color, combines the character of geuze with fresh fruit and pit aromas and some residual sweetness, it has a delicious taste of sparkling cherry champagne.