Belgium Beer Types – What You Need to Know Part 2
Welcome back to the wonderful world of Belgian beer; part 2 of our special feature on the myriad types of Belgian beer, providing you with a whistle stop guide to all the key features and historical context you need to know. Part 2 is homing in on the fascinating world of wild sour ales, lambics and Flemish reds and browns. There is plenty here to tickle the taste buds; so let’s dive straight in…
The key feature here is that while most other brewing processes focus on guarding against the introduction of wild yeast into the brewing process, the lambic world has a somewhat different approach. Whilst historically the starter used from one batch to another did contain some element of wild yeast and bacteria, modern brewing is a very sanitary affair! The nature of lambic brewing makes it a tricky beast to master, as it relies on the intentional introduction of wild yeast strains and/or bacteria into the brewing process, which is traditionally achieved through the barrels or can also be done during the cooling of the wort – carried out in a cool-ship which is open to the outside air. Lambics are only produced by a handful of companies, due to the time-consuming brewing process, with many lambics requiring several years to progress from kettle to the shelf.
Briefly, a lambic starts life in much the same way any beer starts out; steep the grain in water and then boil the resulting liquid. It is the next stage where this could be said to get a bit ‘funky’ as the fermentation process uses something known as ‘spontaneous fermentation’ utilising the wild yeast and bacteria in the very air around us. No sign of lab cultured yeast, sanitised stainless steel and carefully monitored fermentation here! Instead, post boiling, the wort cools in shallow vessels known as cool-ships, the wild yeast and bacteria are allowed to settle into the wort and ‘hey presto’ they begin to multiple, consuming the sugar in the wort to produce alcohol and in the process these wild and wacky yeasts and bacterias also produce some seriously out there sour, fruity and, some would say, quite funky fruit flavours! This is what makes the world of lambics so very special and they have a somewhat cult-like following, with many devotees believing that a true lambic can only be produced in the area around Brussels.
The term lambic can be used to describe a number of different types of beer, but most commonly it is used to refer to all of the beer styles that are brewed from a spontaneously fermented lambic base. Under this umbrella, you will find straightforward lambics or unblended lambics, sometimes referred to as sour beers or sour wild ales, the gueuze, fruit lambic and faro lambic. There is a really good reason this guide ran into two parts; there are simply so many different types of Belgian beer!
Before we go any further, it maybe helpful to clear up how gueuze is pronounced; no problem when ordering on-line, but could be if you are ordering in person. Try saying, ‘gooze’ and you will certainly be understood! The gueuze is a blend of old and young lambics, which creates a pale dry beverage, with a range of complex flavours; from cheesy right through to lemony. As with all lambics, the gueuze is spontaneously fermented, but the blending of the old and new lambics are re-fermented in the bottle, ensuring it has characteristic sourness. A traditional gueuze has very little sweetness, but in recent years sweeter versions have been created through the addition of sugars. It can be an acquired taste; some would say it has the Marmite effect!
To sample a gueuze, try Oud Beersel Green Walnut from Oud Beersel Brewery in Belgium. The brewery is one of Belgium’s few remaining authentic lambic breweries, which was founded in 1882 and is located outside Brussels in the town of Beersel. Green walnuts, harvested from the Oud Beersel orchard are added to lambic beer, which has been matured in wooden barrels. With a delightful blond colour, and heavenly aromas of green walnuts, married with a citrusy, slightly piney smell, Green Walnut offers up a flavour that some say is similar to wine, with a sour twist from the wild yeasts.
This style of lambic doesn’t require so much explanation – it does what it says on the tin! A traditional fruit lambic has all the fun of the funky gueuze, plus a serious dose of fruit flavour and any number of fruits can be included in this family of lambics. To create these fruit bombs, the fruit in question is usually crammed straight into the barrel. This sugar hit ensures the fermentation process gets revved up pretty quickly, resulting in a dry beer, with much of the fruit flavour left intact, often affecting the colour of the finished lambic. The most common of this style are made with cherries and tend to be known as kriek, the Dutch for cherry. Other frequently used fruits include raspberries, grapes and other pitted fruits.
To introduce you to the kriek, try the Belgian Kriek Stubby from the Brasserie Lefebvre, which has been brewing since 1876. The colour of this kriek reflects its cherry ingredients, with a deep red hue. This magnificent drink has earned itself the nickname, ‘Mon Amour’.
This delightful style of lambic is a sweetened variety that is traditionally brewed in Belgium. The faro was very popular throughout the Senge Valley until the early twentieth century. It was frequently made from the weaker runnings that came from the lauter tun and this created a beer with a much lower alcohol content. Whilst in the kettle, it was common for breweries to experiment with adding flavourings, from herbs and spices, even orange peel. The fermentation was spontaneous, as would be expected from a lambic style beer, and the yeast was drawn from the natural air of the Senge Valley. This combination of elements created a gently flavoured, low alcohol, acidic beer, often with that lightly spiced edge. The additional sweetener would be added before packaging and brewers used whatever was on hand.
The faro has evolved, as do many traditions over time, and the modern faro packs a weightier alcohol content, sometimes as much as double the 2-3% ABV of the historical faro. The faro is a real speciality beer, with current production numbers very low and only production by a very small number of Belgian lambic breweries. Some of these faros are made with a blend of old and young lambics. One such example is, Lindermans Faro Lambic, a blend of a young ‘one summer’ lambic with an older lambic, which has been sweetened with candy sugar.
Flanders Red and Flanders Brown
Still in the sour taste zone, but moving away from lambics, are the sour ales of Flanders, with their deep colour and tart vibe. They come in two varieties and are commonly known as Flanders Red and Brown or sour red and brown ales, or oud bruin if you are speaking Dutch.
The backstory of these two deeply coloured ales, whilst Belgian in origin, is likely to have been influenced by the English beer market that was creating gorgeously tart blended porters, which were once a dominant force in that particular market. The creation of these styles of Belgian beer has been credited to Eugene Rodenbach. After spending time studying the art of brewing in England, he returned to Belgium armed with the knowledge and techniques of porter blending. The rest, as they say, is history…
The Flanders red has long periods of ageing; commonly more than a year in oak barrels. They use the oak barrels to help impart lactic acid character to the ale. A younger batch can be blended with a matured batch before bottling, to soften that character. The colour comes from using red malt. The Flanders red has a characteristic plum, raspberry and prune punch, both in aroma and flavour. The sourness and acidity can vary from moderate to strong from one red to another. Due to the lack of hop bitterness along with the common presence of tannins, the red has been likened to wine.
A notable example of Flanders red is the Duchesse De Bourgogne; a sweet and fruity beer, brewed with deep roasted barley malt and hops with a slight bitterness. Following the primary fermentation and second bearing, the Duchesse De Bourgogne undergoes a third fermentation in oak vats, lasting around 18 months. It is the tannins from the oak that provide the fruity character. At this stage, the beer is blended with a younger iteration, around 8 months. The end result is a true jewel of a Flanders red.
Whilst similar, the Flanders brown ales have a tendency to be more malty and the fruit flavours lean more towards fig, dates and plums, rather than the redder berries and fruits. Some would say, they have a less vinegar sourness to them. Petrus Old Brown is a great starting point for exploring Flanders brown ales. This particular Flanders brown is a blend (this should now be a familiar step) of the brewery’s Aged Pale and Petrus Old Dark; the result is a truly sublime Flanders Brown ale.
And so, our guide to Belgian beer types draws to a close. It has been a challenge to cover so much Belgian beer ground and to do each and every types of beer justice. There remains only one thing left to do and that, dear reader, is now entirely in your hands. You now have the knowledge; you need to get tasting.