The ultimate guide to Belgium's lambic breweries
16 May 2017, By Jonny Garrett
The lambic breweries of Belgium are, in our minds, one of the great manmade wonders of the world – a tradition so ingrained in culture, a connection to nature completely unbreakable, that is has survived centuries. Longer than that even. It is the most natural way of brewing beer, and so the lambic scene is a distillation of thousands of years of brewing.
Lambic beer is spontaneously fermented, relying on the microbes and yeasts in the air rather than the farmed or packaged yeasts used by most brewers. To get the wild yeasts into the beer, it must be cooled overnight in giant swimming pools found in the draughty rafters of the brewery – a technique that wouldn’t seem unusual to brewers working millennia ago. Once cool and infected it is piped into barrels and left to ferment and then age for up to three years, slowly growing sour and funky thanks to a combination of fermentation, situation and time. The beer is then aged on fruit or blended to re-ferment and develop in bottles.
Unlike many modern beers, where ingredients and inspiration come from all over the world, lambic is very much a product of the place it is made and no blender or brewer can make the same beer. The proof is in the fact that not all lambic producers brew their own beer, instead buying inoculated wort from other breweries and ageing them themselves. Rather than producing similar tasting bottles, they are all distinct, local.
This is our guide to the geuzeries and breweries of the Pajottenland, a unique part of the world and a vital part of our history. Many of these breweries go back centuries and have long, twisting stories. They have pretty much all experienced world wars and market crashes; watched drinkers grow old and tastes change. Some have adapted to survive, producing sweetened versions for appeal, while others stuck to their guns and made it through. But tastes are getting less sweet, interest in artisan brewing is on the rise, and the beers coming out these breweries has only been getting better for the last few decades. Here’s what to drink and where - starting with a video tour from the Craft Beer Channel!
One of the most sought-after and accomplished lambic brewers, 3 Fonteinen nearly went out of business in 2009 when a faulty thermostat cause nearly their entire stock to explode. Their recovery has been remarkable thanks to the quality of the beers, and now they have a new site in Lot that feels like a different world. You can still smell the paint on the walls and see the lines of new turf but gorgeous geuze is already coming out of the giant barrel room and founder Armand has plans to plant his own cherry orchard around the brewery. Already it is a special place – peaceful, calm and inspirational, like a cathedral to one of the world’s greatest manmade creations.
3 Fonteinen Cuvée Armand & Gaston, a Champagne-like geuze with lots of gooseberry, hay and sweet wheat aromas. It’s best at around two years but also very smooth when young. If you can get to the brewery, ask if they have any Robijn available – a 50/50 blend of sour cherries and young lambic aged in toasted oak. It’s like Rioja.
“Oude” refers to beer that is made in the traditional way – spontaneously fermented, bottle refermented and unsweetened. As the biggest oude-focused lambic brewery and blender in the world, Boon flies the flag for geuze and other lambics around the world. The brewery is like the Willy Wonka of sour brewing, with hundreds upon hundreds of foudres twice the height of a man, ageing slowly away. The brewery is still overseen by the industry legend, Frank Boon, who is a staunch traditionalist but someone who is not afraid to modernise. Without ever compromising, Boon have managed to ougrow many of the lambic breweries and only come to improve their beers. They also brew most of the wort used by the lambic blenderies, who age and blend with other worts to create unique beer.
Boon Black Label is our favourite geuze in the office – somehow the fruited aroma is almost tropical – but the Mariage Parfait geuze and kriek are also beautifully balanced between the fruited sweetness and deep brett funk.
With an international reputation that far outweighs the amount of beer Cantillon could ever produce, this brewery makes perhaps the greatest of all the white whales. Visiting the brewery is a shock – it’s in the dead end of western Brussels, surrounded by building sites and kebab houses. Inside though, it is almost a museum to traditional brewing and beer, and one of the most awe-inspiring places in the beer world.
Their geuze and kriek are world-class while a fresh Rose De Gambrinus is jammy and tart from the raspberries. Those beers are available if you look hard enough, but you’ll do very well indeed to get the rare seasonal releases such as a aromatic apricot lambic Fou’ Foune or the stellar red-wine-grape-aged St Lamvinus.
They will always have some incredible rarities to drink-in at the brewery so whatever is on the list. Otherwise, drink the geuze as old as you can bare to store it, or the fruited lambics as fresh as you dare.
De Troch is a small but beautiful old lambic brewery that has, in one form or another, been going since 1875. When lambic fell out of favour with the public it managed to keep going with its range of sweetened lambics. In the last few years though it has endeavoured to produce more Oude beers, produced in their Portugese wine barrels.
Stick to the oude beers for the authentic, balanced experience. Their geuze is a great example of the style, while the new kriek is beautifully rich and deep with sour cherry flavour.
We can’t say too much about Girardin because they are so guarded we have never been allowed in! It has a long history as a farm, growing its own wheat and barley to brew with, then selling the wort to geuzeries. As lambic went out of fashion and these began to close, the brewery started to bottle its own lambic in around 1970 and now produces some beautiful beers while providing wort to 3 Fonteinen, Tilquin, Hanssens and De Cam.
The classic white label geuze is well worth a try, with its delicious and restrained white grape, oak and funk. The Kriek is also deliciously clean and sherberty.
Lindemans is easily the biggest of the independent lambic brewers and blenders but the majority of its output is sweetened, a hangover from a time when selling oude lambic beer was trickier than it is today. The core range is very tasty, but nothing like as deep and complex as the traditional oude beers. Despite focusing on the stevia-sweetened beers, Lindemans actually make some of the best true lambic in the world with their oude Cuvee Rene beers – named after the former head brewer Rene Lindeman, who technically is retired but still opens and closes the brewery every day.
Today they are also working on an experimental range using herbs and other unusual flavours, including a beer with Mikkeller.
All of the Cuvee Rene beers are show-stoppers – rich in the funkiness of the microbes in a complete reversal of the core range. It’s also worth trying their Mikkeller collaboration, Spontan Basil, which is brewed with basil to make an incredible aromatic and fresh beer that makes a brilliant aperitif.
Another brewery more famous for its sweetened sour beers, you might be surprised to know that Timmermans also produce legitimate oude lambics. It actually has a rich history dating right back to 1692 when it was founded under the name Brouerij De Mol – hence why they have a mole in their logo. Back then they made “brown beer” according to the vague historical reports, but also grew and dried their own hops. They have frequently been on the cusp of doing interesting things, like a stalled experimental range of grape lambics, but like most fell into sweetened beers during tough trading years. They still make traditional oude lambic, geuze and kriek in 75cl bottles that are delicious though.
Anything oude, in particular the straight lambic if you can get to the brewery.
Brasserie Mort Subite takes its name from the café and blender of the same name in the centre of Brussels, but it was founded long before then by the Keersmaeker family. They had been brewing lambics and the occasional ale and even pilsner since around 1870, acquiring the café in 1970. They continued to brew traditional oude lambic until Paul De Keersmaeker sold 50% of the brewery to Alken Maes. Quality began to fall and the coolship was retired in favour of automated cooling. For the next decade the brewery moved away from traditional brewing to make sweetened beers and even blended beer and fruit juices, by which time the family had deserted the brewery. In 2007 they reintroduced two oude beers – kriek and geuze – but better styles are still made by other breweries.
If you somehow find yourself at the brewery it’s worth having a go on the traditional straight lambic to see if you can tell the difference between the two methods of wild inoculation, but otherwise there are better examples of traditional lambic.
De Cam is a tiny geuzerie with only a few dozen barrels. From those though come so highly experimental and unusual beers. Using a mix of Campagne and Pilsner Urquell barrels to age in, they have a wonderful yoghurt apricot lambic that is the star of the range, but also make one with redcurrents that is herbal and savoury in a way no other lambic is. As such a small brewery the beers are rough around the edges, but almost all the better for it.
The Oude Kriek is a great beer, but the Apricot lambic is the best beer they make, with lots of yoghurt-like lacto and soft fleshy fruit.
It’s hard to believe that Hanssens is only a part-time operation. It nearly ceased brewing when Jean Hanssen, part of the family who had brewed there since 1896, died before he could train his children in the art of brewing and blending. Thankfully, his daughter Sidy and her husband took an interest and kept the brewery going in between their day jobs. They now make some of the funkiest, least accessible but glorious lambics in the country using wort from Boon, Girardin and Lindemans. Usually flat, their beers are an assault on the senses, but always leave you gasping for more.
Their 100% is a stunning, rioja-like cherry beer in the mould of 3 Fonteinen’s Robijn but the beer is in very short supply. Their raspberry is hugely aromatic and strikes the balance between jam-like fruit and sour tang perfectly, while their absurd strawberry lambic is like strawberries in balsamic with grated parmesan on top. Somehow it works beautifully.
The newest blender in the Pajottenland, Pierre Tilquin had a dream of opening his own blendery and he went about it in the right way by working first for Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen. He learned his craft there and set about creating Tilquin Geuzerie. Despite being situated just outside of the official border he has been welcomed into the tight group, mostly thanks to his incredible geuze and plum lambic. Made from a blend of Cantillon, Girardin, Boon and Lindemans he makes sure the beers are rounded, with balanced acidity, funk and fruit.
Quetsche is Pierre’s signature beer, made with Belgian prunes. It’s got lots of the character from his geuze – sherbert, bretty hay and lemon barley – then a richer dark fruit from the prunes. Unfortunately (but fairly) Pierre doesn't allow his beer to be sold online, but we do sell it via our trade arm to bottle shops and bars.
Oud Beersel follows the natural evolution of a lambic producer, nearly going out of business or closing for one reason or another, before being rescued by someone who wanted to put the passion before the business. As often happens in artisan businesses, that passion ends up making for a good business. Beersel now make a wonderful core range of beers – a light, fruity fram, a rich deep Bakewell-tinted Kriek and a smooth geuze as well as some more experimental offerings. They have blended collaborations with the likes of New Belgium, Lervig and Lindheim, as well as producing the utterly unique Walnut lambic.
The Beersel Oude Kriek is, for our money, the best in Belgium. It has a delicious deep sour cherry fruitiness, but also a perceived aromatic almond edge to it as well as plenty of bretty funk. It’s as complex as beer gets, but still dangerously drinkable.