Lambic Has Been Lying to Us

The storied Belgian beer is upheld as a relic of the medieval age. But what if everything we know about its history is wrong?

Roel Mulder needed a new beer topic to sink his teeth into. The Dutch historian had just published his 2017 book, Lost Beers from the Netherlands, uncovering relics such as spiced “princesse beer,” last drunk around the turn of the 20th century. His scholarly compass pointed south toward Belgium, the cradle of farmhouse saisons, monk-made dubbels and, more critically, lambics—spontaneously fermented beers considered legendary for their link to the past.

Lambics are typically portrayed as medieval relics, the base recipe static for centuries, fermented as if by magic from feral yeast and flavored with aged hops. After months or years of barrel aging, the beer emerges, wild, rustic and complex—a constant in a constantly changing beer world.

But according to Mulder, that tale is more fiction than fact. During his research, the earliest mention of lambic he could find dated only to 1794. “The method seems so old-fashioned, but it’s a relatively modern technique,” says Mulder, adding that lambic brewers once used fresh hops too, as opposed to aged varieties now commonly associated with the style. He revealed this finding, among others, on his website, Lost Beers, eliciting both enlightenment and irritation from his readers—if his findings are correct, the popular belief that the genesis of lambic dates back to medieval times was off by several hundred years, a glaring oversight by previous beer historians.

“I made a few people angry,” says Mulder. “[But] I want my research to help lambic better fit in with beer history as we know it.”

As the story of lambic is typically told, the beer has long been a specialty of Brussels and the nearby Senne Valley. There, brewers use unmalted wheat and aged hops—for bitterness, not flavor or aroma—to brew beer that’s cooled in large, shallow pans called coolships. Native microbes munch the sugary broth that, after resting in barrels, becomes lambic. It’s celebrated as the “mother beer,” having spawned a number of different styles, including sweetened faro, aged gueuze and cherry-infused kriek.

But, according to Mulder, that’s a flawed family tree. “Lambic certainly wasn’t the first of the family to surface,” he says, citing evidence that sweet faro, in fact, came before, with the earliest mention dating to 1721—more than 70 years before the arrival of lambic. Gueuze, meanwhile, a merger of young and old lambic, didn’t appear until the early part of the 19th century, while kriek came about at the century’s end.

But perhaps the most firmly held belief in the legend of lambic is its adherence to the idea that the beer can only be produced within tight Belgian parameters, the regional microflora supposedly crucial to its creation. Yet Mulder has found lambic brewing records from the Netherlands dating as far back as 1820.

Misconceptions endure because there’s long been an otherworldly aura about lambic, fairy tale magic in our modern world. “The way those beers were created is a bit counterintuitive for today’s scientific minds,” says Mulder. “That adds to the whole mythology.”

In Belgium, lambic is so revered that the High Council for Traditional Lambic Beers was established in 1997 to protect its nomenclature and production techniques. But it’s tough to maintain a monopoly on a brewing approach that, given the right conditions, occurs naturally just about anywhere.

Today, spontaneous fermentation—the practice of letting ambient microorganisms inoculate beer—is practiced from Canada to Australia and, more commonly, in America, from Philadelphia’s Fermentery Form to Denver’s Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales.

At Jester King Brewery, just outside of Austin, Texas, owner and founder Jeffrey Stuffings so clearly saw the resemblance between his spontaneous ferments that used native ingredients—fallen leaves, fennel, grapefruit and homegrown peaches—and the lambic tradition that he dubbed his approach “Méthode Gueuze.”

It was not a move intended to stoke agitation, but rather a useful geographical shorthand that has long been used in the beer world. “Every beer has an associated place,” says Mike Tonsmeire, co-founder of Maryland’s Sapwood Cellars. Instead of explaining that a lager has a toasty malt profile and features European hops, for example, “You just say Vienna lager and people understand it, not that it’s literally from Vienna,” he says. “People get so bent out of shape about lambic or gueuze, but they’re happy to say ‘New England pale ale’ or ‘British porter,’” notes Tonsmeire, regarding the double standard where the lauded lambic is involved.

Case in point: When Jester King introduced its Méthode Gueuze in 2016, it sparked a kerfuffle with Belgium’s High Council for Traditional Lambic Beers. Despite there being no designated appellation for lambic, à la Champagne, the council took issue with the verbiage. “They saw it as creating brand confusion—my term, not theirs,” says Stuffings. (To avoid further ruffling feathers, Stuffings tweaked the terminology to Méthode Traditionnelle.)

It’s a stance that seems at odds with the momentum of today’s beer world, which embraces the weird, the experimental, the boundary-destroying. Brewing has never been just about replicating ancient history or freezing a moment in time. As a growing number of breweries are demonstrating, from Jester King to New Jersey’s Referend Bier Blendery, it’s possible to nod to tradition while tipping the scales toward progress. “What I like about beer history and researching it is that beers, styles and names always change; it is a result of an evolution throughout the ages,” says Mulder. “Brewers are not historians—their business is not to research the past; their business is to brew excellent beer.”

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