Out of the entire catalog of Belgian Beers, there is one category that mystifies me. And being born and bred in the United States, where beer ignorance is part of a national DNA, I hadn’t even heard of this style of beer until I was way past my thirties. I am speaking the Lambics, of course; a style of beer noted for its ties to beers historical roots, what with its emphasis on open-air, spontaneous fermentation, as well as the wacky notion that beer tastes better after it ages in a cask. As we come from a culture where mega-breweries harp on the idea of “freshness dating”, the fact that there are good to great beers out there that requires 1-3 years of aging before it gets its optimal taste is unique in the worlds where Budweiser and Coor’s reign supreme.
What the lambics are, in my opinion, is evidence that the marketing arms of industrial breweries are full of it. For every claim of freshness, for every claim of precision in brewing, lambics demonstrate an exception.
Their are several varieties of lambics out there, from the pure lambic and the fruit lambics, to krieks, and something called gueuze, an oddity so different from what one thinks of beer, that the folks at the Good Beer Guide to Belgium describes it thusly:
Your first encounter…(with oude gueze)…can be astonishingly awful. It may make you want to send it back immediately, but then persuades you to hold on for just another mouthful. Having soldiered through the bottle and awarded yourself a gold rosette for adding painfully to your knowledge of brewing history, it should make you vow neer to try it again. Then order another just in case you got it wrong….After your third you will never think about beer in the same way again.
It’s this sort of talk that gets me all hot and bothered about how it tastes and what it represents. A well-made gueuze is seen as the apex of brewing; the golden fleece; the beer that’s kept in hiding until that one special moment in one’s life that calls for something both wonderful and unique.
The beers are not just unique to the beer world, they’re unique to Belgium, with most coming from an area just to the west/south-west of Brussels, in an area called The Pajottenland, in a region of land that’s only a little larger than the size of Brussels itself. This is a theme we’ll run into again and again with Belgian Beers – namely, how can an area so small (Belgium is comparible in size to the state of Maryland) do so much with beer?