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.
The Two Belgian Stalwarts
Cantillon Classic Gueuze
Perhaps no surprise, each blind tasters’ overall top beer was one of two industry darlings—about half of us picked Cantillon, the other half picked 3 Fonteinen as their Number One. Cantillon presents with ripe pineapple on the nose, along with wet dirt (in a good way) and tons of textural complexity—plus a touch of volatility on the palate. One typically loquacious taster was left speechless, only able to mutter “yum” after her first sip.
- ABV: 5 percent
3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze
Coincidentally, the first beer we tasted for the day set a template. One taster thought this beer was nothing if not “archetypal” for the style. It shows both tropical fruit, dried apricot and a chalkiness on the nose (one fan likened it to clapping chalkboard erasers together), alongside a slightly richer, maltier texture on the palate.
- ABV: 6 percent
Four Top American-Style Lambics
Logsdon Spontane Wild
Our biggest slam dunks from America came from this Oregon farmhouse brewer who cave-ages their barrels. Spontane Wild is intensely funky on the nose, with notes of blue cheese and bread. A bit rounder and less acidic on the palate than the Belgian examples, but still brisk, with notes of banana, yeast and what one taster dubbed, “Honey Nut Cheerios.”
- ABV: 7.4 percent
Russian River Beatification
One of America’s first attempts at the lambic style, this Sonoma County brewery’s “Sonambic” bottling was first released in 2006. The nose show classic Brett notes—think barnyard and asphalt—alongside sweet citrus (one taster dubbed it “reminiscent of Cointreau”) on the nose and the palate.
- ABV: 5.5 percent
Beachwood Blendery Chaos is a Friend of Mine
A long-time maker of “clean” beers, Beachwood Brewery opened their first “Blendery” outpost in 2015, dedicated exclusively to barrel-aging and lambic-style production. The SoCal spot seems to already be firing on all cylinders based on this release. A round tangerine note leads into a round, almost lactic texture on the palate and a chalky minerality. While not quite as complex as some of the others in the tasting, it was considered by the group to be eminently drinkable.
- ABV: 6.4 percent
Allagash Coolship Resurgam
In 2007, this Portland, Maine, brewery installed the first commercial coolship in America. Three years later, they dropped “Resurgam”—their attempt at the three-year gueuze blend. Meaning “I shall rise again,” the beer is funky and floral (some even likened the nose to a Belgian white with Brett added) and uniquely refreshing.
- ABV: 6 percent