Mug Shots: Retro lambic

Jul 10, 2007 at 4:04 pm

Did beer taste the same 100 years ago as it does now?
    Breweries today cannot exactly re-create archaic formulations, as a century or more of genetic engineering has altered cereal grains and hops. It is a familiar process designed to substitute reproducible certainties for those local variations that formerly prefaced delightful asymmetries.

    Some vestiges of ancient brewing survive, and these are best experienced by leaping into the funky world of Belgian lambic. The barley, wheat and hops used in lambic have changed, but yeast non-management provides a crucial difference … and a link to the past.

    Traditional lambic is brewed from barley and unmalted wheat, with stale hops that utilize the magic cone’s preservative properties without flavoring the beer. After boiling, the wort is transferred to large, flat, rectangular pans for prolonged overnight exposure to all the wild yeast the Belgian breeze can provide.

    Aging takes place in oak barrels. Unblended lambics are very rare, because inconsistencies from batch to batch are such that a hefty premium is placed on the talents of the blender, who achieves “house” character by melding young and old lambics to yield Gueuze, a beer that is impossible for all Americans to pronounce, and as difficult for most to drink.

    Why? Unsweetened Gueuze is dry, musty and acidic, often displaying the telltale wild yeast character charmingly reminiscent of a horsehair blanket. It is a throwback to the wild, sour beers that were the norm for brewing millennia — until modern science unlocked the key to fermentation mysteries and enabled the clean consistency we value today.

    If fruit is added, as in the cases of local cherries (kriek) or raspberries (framboise or frambozen), a second fermentation occurs. Ideally, no sugar is added. Seek Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen or Hanssens to taste the real deal.

Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. Visit for more beer.