Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, Belgium, is one of the last breweries in the world that still produce lambics, the traditional way. It takes about 3 years to make a batch of lambic and production can only occur during the cold months of the year. This family-run brewery has been in operation since 1900, and they still use the same, original equipment from back then. Walking through the brewery, with its large copper lined vats, and ancient oak barrels stacked from floor to ceiling, it seemed like nothing had changed.
On my recent visit to this brewery, I learned so much about the craft of brewing. For starters, a true lambic can only be produced through spontaneous fermentation. What this means is that instead of using yeasts or sugars, the fermentation process depends solely on the presence of bacteria floating in the air. It is the air where the brewery is located that and the unique species of bacteria it contains, that gives their premier beer, the Gueuze, it’s unique flavor.
Lambic is used as the base to make lambic beer. In order to transform lambic into beer, it must undergo a secondary fermentation process in the bottle, for about another year. I tasted an 18-month old lambic straight from the barrel, that had not yet undergone this process, and it tasted like quite like vinegar. It was very sour and bitter with no carbonated bubbles to take off the edge. This one was difficult to down. For my second tasting, I had the Gueuze, which is Cantillon Brewery’s most famous brew. It is created using a combination of 3 different lambics ranging from 1 to 3 year old lambics aged in used wine barrels. This one was a bit easier to drink. It had a wider range of flavor, starting with floral notes and ending with a bitter and crisp finish, similar to the crisp and fruity notes of a Pinot Grigio.
Lambics are characteristically very sour and bitter, and many have compared it to the taste of vomit. I didn’t think they were that bad, but it wouldn’t be my first beverage choice when ordering at the bar. It is for this reason that many producers have stopped making lambics, due to the lack of demand. In addition, due to the sensitive nature of spontaneous fermentation, production is extremely costly. Therefore, many lambic producers have either closed down, or have resorted to the using modern beer making techniques to produce fake lambics. In fact, before the findings of Pasteur and the onset of pasteurization, spontaneous fermentation was the only way to produce beer. So, essentially, everyone used to drink this stuff!
Many lambic producers add seasonal fruit to the lambic during the secondary fermentation process. A popular flavored lambic in Belgium is called Kriek, and is flavored with sour cherries. It’s the red one in the photo above. It’s very refreshing, and tastes like tart cherry juice with the body and flavor of a Hefeweizen.
You may have seen many “lambics” out there in the market. I used to think that lambics were just fruit-flavored beers. Boy, was I wrong! I had no idea that it took such a long and delicate process to produce a single batch of lambic. Unfortunately, many breweries today can get away with labeling a product “lambic” because there is no enforcement behind the use of the term. For example, in order for sparkling wine to be considered Champagne, it must come from the Champagne region of France. Cantillon Brewery is proud of it’s honest production of lambics, and would like to keep it small.