Jeffrey Stuffings had a problem. His Jester King Brewery had actually managed to produce a 100-percent spontaneously-fermented lambic beer in the Texas Hill Country climate; the only problem was, he didn’t know what to call it.
Many beer geeks consider Lambic to be the world’s greatest beer style. Arising out of the Pajottenland region of Belgium, around and in Brussels, it’s uniquely made of malted barley, unmalted wheat, aged hops (which don’t add bitterness) and, most significantly, the native yeasts and bacteria present in the Senne Valley air. “Lambic” is a protected European designation, and Stuffings had too much respect for his Belgian brethren to use that exact term. With SPON, a three-year blend of his Texas lambic, ready to be sold, Stuffings didn’t quite know how to refer to the style. So he called up his friend Jean Van Roy, of Cantillon, who suggested the term “Méthode Gueuze.”
And then the shit hit the fan.
There are only about a dozen legit lambic-makers in Belgium. Van Roy’s Cantillon is one, and surely the most ballyhooed amongst American beer geeks. However, he is, somewhat controversially, not a member of The High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers (known as HORAL). HORAL—which includes other big names like 3 Fonteinen, Boon and Girardin—complained to Good Beer Hunting a couple months after SPON was released. They claimed Stuffings had shown “a lack of respect” for true Belgian lambic and gueuze, the latter their term for a sophisticated three-year blend. This was all despite the fact that Van Roy and Stuffings had chosen “Méthode Gueuze” out of respect—similar to méthode Champenoise.
While Stuffings eventually decided to re-label his beers “Méthode Traditionelle,” disputes still rage on as to what the rising tide of American brewers making lambic beers in the spirit of their Belgian brethren should actually call them. (To this end, in 2016, Stuffings has set up a board to monitor new standards and issue labeling marks for non-Belgian lambics.) The more important debate, however, is whether the brewers who are toiling to make these labor-intensive beers can actually go head to head with classics like 3 Fonteinen and Cantillon.
Today, dozens of American breweries own open-air coolships—which is how spontaneously fermented beer is produced. We were able to track down a good dozen different examples of American lambic. We also mixed in a few of the more accessible Belgian gueuzes to set a standard and, while no American beers were quite as good as the best Belgians, our top picks still very much held their own.
For this tasting, I was joined by PUNCH’s Editor in Chief, Talia Baiocchi; Managing Editor, Bianca Prum; Senior Editor, Lizzie Munro; Assistant Editor, Chloe Frechette; Social Media Editor, Allison Hamlin; and George Flickinger of B. United, a top importer of international beer.