Some people seem to think the only people who can call their beer “Lambic” are Belgian. They defend this stance by saying that they are the only ones using traditional processes like turbid mashing, or spontaneous fermentation. OK, well, why can’t a US brewer do the same thing and call it lambic? “Oh…uh…cuz the terroir, bro” Whatever. That doesn’t follow. You just heard Jean Van Roy interviewed one time and he’s protective of the term because his father was about the only reason lambic still exists. That’s fine. Jean Van Roy is a fantastic brewer and blender, and his father is a sour beer hero for saving lambic from extinction. None of that qualifies him to lay exclusive claim to the term lambic.
There’s basically only one reason why a beer shouldn’t be called by a particular name, and that’s because it doesn’t taste like the beers that have that name. In other words, flavor defines a beer style. There are two things in particular that people tend to argue impact lambic’s flavor in a way that cannot be replicated. First is the bugs local to lambic producers are claimed to be unique. Second is the lambic production process of turbid mashing and coolshipping cannot be replicated.
I’m not convinced at all that the western portion of Belgium is the only place on earth that has the right climate and bugs to make lambic. For one, taste the lambic and gueuze from the various producers. They all have a unique house character. If your American spontaneous fermentation tastes different than a Belgian example, that’s probably just house character, not a fundamental difference between Belgian vs. American wild caught bugs. The wheat and barley grown there is no different that wheat and barley grown elsewhere, and even if it were, it could be imported. Additionally, the Pajottenland is typically called the home of lambic, but Cantillon is in the Brussels capital region outside the Pajottenland, so what exact boundary should be used to determine where lambic can come from.
So, I don’t see any reason why lambic should be a regional appellation. The region itself doesn’t have any inherent character that can’t be replicated.
Process on the other hand is pretty unique to lambic producers. Lambic is produced using a turbid mash, which originated as a way to reduce taxes by utilizing a smaller mash tun, because taxes at the time were assessed by mash tun size for some reason. Turbid mashing has the benefit of increasing the amount of residual starches and dextrins that make it into the fermenter which provide plenty of residual food for the bugs to chew on for a long time.
After a very lengthy boil, the wort is moved to a large open vessel called a coolship, which allows the wort to cool overnight and collect yeast and bacteria from the environment which will eventually ferment the beer. These wild caught bugs are obviously unique and this method is a bit unpredictable, which lends heavily to the unique character of lambic.
But all of these processes can be replicated outside of Belgium, and I would say that they don’t even have to be reproduced exactly to get the right flavor. Similar to how lager can be made without an extensive cool ferment and lagering period.
Now that we have that out of the way, I will enumerate the ways that I think lambic production is unique and what techniques we can use to emulate that.
Like all beer, fermentation is key with lambic. Studies have been done to determine when certain kinds of bugs are active during lambic fermentation, and it’s been found that enteric bacteria are especially active in the beginning of fermentation. It’s also theorized that the warm temps of the coolship allow for rapid bacterial growth which strongly influences the sourness and flavor of the beer.
Many of the major homebrew yeast labs have a lambic mixed culture in their portfolio, but none of these blends contain enteric bacteria. The main reason being, I assume, is that many enteric bacteria are pathogens, so they would never provide those in a product that’s supposed to be consumable. The enteric bacteria in spontaneous fermentation die over time with acidity and alcohol content though, so authentic lambic poses no threat to your health other than the normal health risks of alcohol consumption.
In my opinion, while I’ve had some really good lambics produced with standard mixed cultures from Wyeast and White Labs, the wild caught bugs not provided in those blends are important and unique to lambic flavor, and it is desirable, and I might argue, required, to use some wild caught bacteria and/or yeast in your lambic. In other words, we don’t need to replicate the coolship exactly, but we do want to approximate it’s effects.
Turbid mashing is also unique and giving bugs some long chain sugar, dextrin, and starch. The process is lengthy and cumbersome, but can be done, and many homebrewers do use it. I think it can be approximated with some interesting, but less labor and time intensive techniques. We’ll put turbid mashing in the same camp as coolshipping. We want to approximate the effects, even if we don’t exactly replicate the process.
With these ideas we’ll continue to explore practical homebrew lambic production in the next part of this series.