Last weekend, I was over in Belgium for the biennial Toer De Geuze, when the brewers of geuze and lambic beers open their doors to the public to show off their beers.
Geuze and lambic beers are, to say the least, an acquired taste. I worked in Brussels for over a year and never touched the stuff. I thought it was horrible. It was only ten years later that I finally learned to appreciate it.
Lambic and its derivatives, geuze and kriek, are brewed using the wild yeast Brettanomyces Bruxellensis that comes from the marshes of the River Senne, to the south-west of Brussels. Rather than using cultivated yeasts, the brewers expose their wort to the open air and let it get infected. It is then left to ferment for a year. The result is a sour but very refreshing beer. Geuze is a blend of one, two and three-year-old lambic, making it one of the most complex beers you’ll ever taste.
Here is Tim Webb, author of the Good Beer Guide to Belgium:
Your first encounter can be astonishingly awful. It may make you want to send it back immediately, but then persuades you to hold on for another mouthful. Having solidiered through the bottle and awarded yourself a gold rosette for adding painfully to your knowledge of brewing history, it should make you vow never to try it again. Then you order another just in case you got it wrong.
And then another and another.
As you can guess, I’m a convert and I heartily recommend the stuff to anyone who loves good booze.
Geuze and lambic are more than just great beers though. They represent a great success story for a few people who had the vision and the passion (in the true sense, not the “I’m 120% passionate, Sirallan” sense) to revive a brewing tradition that was nearly dead.
For, by the 1970s, lambic and geuze were dying. Many of the Belgians we spoke to last week blamed the Germans: firstly for literal imperialism – nicking all Belgium’s brewing equipment and shipping it back to Germany during the war – and secondly for cultural imperialism – flooding the country with pilsner. Others blamed hygiene laws for sterilising breweries to such an extent that the wild yeasts wouldn’t grow, or the EU for saying that the lambic brewing process was a health hazard and attempting to ban it.
Whatever the reason, the brewing of wild yeast beers was a dying art by the 1970s. Received wisdom said that, by the end of the century, all the small brewers in Belgium would be gone.
It all sounds very familiar doesn’t it? As does what happened next. A small group of committed people revived the tradition and took the industry from near death in the 1970s, to one that now exports beer all over the world. One of those who helped to save Lambic beer was a young man called Frank Boon.
Here’s Tim Webb again:
When Frank Boon took over the De Vits lambic brewery in 1975, he was considered either an idealistic amateur or a crank, who had not realised lambic was dying.
Last Saturday, that idealistic amateur (or crank) saw his spanking new brewery opened by Herman van Rompuy. One in the eye for all those who said lambic was doomed.
In a movement that has parallels with real-ale and craft-brewing in Britain and the US, a new generation revived the brewing of wild-yeast beers and revitalised an industry that seemed to be heading inexorably towards consolidation and standardisation.
Sometimes it was new brewers buying old breweries, in other cases, a new generation took over an old family brewer. Three decades on and lambic beers are thriving. It’s newest producer, Tilquin, was started just two years ago by a 37 year-old bioengineer.
Many of the beers are now exported and there is growing interest in them in the US. Once the Americans discovered that beer didn’t have to be yellow and tasteless, it seems they couldn’t get enough of…well, anything that was different. I loved this blog post Where to Drink Sour Beer in Chicago. Something like this would have been unthinkable twenty years ago.
OK, it’s still a niche product and it is unlikely to make anyone a millionaire but at least the future of this rare and wonderful beer and of the people who make it, now looks secure.
I could draw this post to a conclusion by making some glib comments about following your passion and not believing pundits when they tell you something has had its day but all that should be obvious from the story. Instead, I suggest you just try the stuff and see if you like it. You probably won’t at first but have another one and just see what happens….