Monday, 6 October 2014

Lambic in 1932

One of my big problems is harvesting information then forgetting about it before I have time to use it. Like this article about Lambic in the Brewers' Journal.

It seems to be a translation of an article from the French-language brewing periodical, "Petite Gazette du Brasseur". It provides a tantalising glimpse into pre-war Lambic brewing.

"LAMBIC

Visitors to Belgium usually wish to taste some of the beers typical of that country, such as Lambic or Faro, though they afterwards admit, not infrequently, that their palates would require a certain amount of education before they could fully appreciate the special qualities of these beverages. One of the characteristics of these beers consists in the use of grain other than barley. Wheat is generally used in the form of raw grain mixed with malt. The quantity employed may be even equal to that of the malt, it is usually said that wheat beers froth a great deal, but it would be more correct to say that they hold their head better than all-malt beer. Lactic and acetic acid are very quickly produced in them, and this is one of the characteristics of the Special Brussels beers. The high percentage of acids produced esterifies the alcohol during storage and gives the typical aromas to these beers. Use of different kinds of wheat gives special characteristics to the beers, while rye, oats and buckwheat are also occasionally used in addition."
Brewers' Journal 1932, page 581.

"their palates would require a certain amount of education" what a polite way of saying they spat out Lambic in disgust. because that's probably what happened when it was first sampled by the unwary or unwarned.

I'm not an expert in Belgian styles and their history. So the fact that I hadn't heard of grains other than barley or wheat in Lambic doesn't necessarily mean anything. It doesn't surprise me. In the Middle Ages and early modern periods beer in the Low Countries and Northwest Germany was often brewed from multiple grains. Using a combination of barley, wheat, oats and rye wasn't unusual.

The high acid content shouldn't surprise you. I thought it was mostly lactic acid in Lambic, but don't quote me on that. In general, pleasant acidity in beer usually comes mostly from lactic acid.

Now something about fermentation:

"The fermentation methods adopted in the breweries may resemble either bottom or top fermentation. In the first case the temperature is kept below 50 deg. Fahr. and the yeast settles on the bottom of the fermenting vessel. The top fermentations are carried out at the temperature of the air and the yeast comes up. In certain cases the fermentation is spontaneous and started by organisms from the air or in the casks. This fermentation is very slow, and is not now used in the breweries devoted to making these beers."
Brewers' Journal 1932, page 581.

What an odd thing to say: "may resemble". It implies that while they may look on the surface like top- or bottom-fermentation, something else is really happening. But the last part I find most surprising. That Lambic brewers no longer spontaneously fermented. Is he only talking about larger commercial Lambic brewers? He must be, because the little ones around today I think have always stuck with spontaneous fermentation.

The way they blended also has some surprises:

"Additions of wort or very acid old beer play a very important part in the brewing. These are made in variable proportions to suit the taste of customers, and sometimes even vinegar or acetic acid are added. The old beer is acid and has passed through a sequence of diseases. If it is added to the casks, it is advisable to pasteurise it by heating it for a short time at 158 deg. Fahr. If the old beer is added before fermentation, it may be boiled for a few minutes in the copper and afterwards passed over the refrigerator before mixing with the wort in the starting vessel."
Brewers' Journal 1932, page 581.

Remember recently in a piece about brewing during WW II in Belgium it was mentioned that vinegar was used to sour blends in place of Lambic? It's clear that the practice pre-dated the war. Surely just adding vinegar to make it sour is cheating?

I can't imagine that old Lambic is pasteurised today before blending. And I'm certain no-one blends in old beer before fermentation starts. I t makes you realise that blending Lambic hasn't necessarily always been performed ass it is today.

I think that's enough for today. Next time we'll be learning more about the people who drank it.

14 comments:

Rod said...

Ron -
I should take this article with a little healthy scepticism, as some of it doesn't make much sense -

"The high percentage of acids produced esterifies the alcohol during storage and gives the typical aromas to these beers."
Sounds like good old-fashioned bollocks to me.

"The fermentation methods adopted in the breweries may resemble either bottom or top fermentation."
Spontaneous fermentation from wild yeast strains often results in a mixture of top and bottom fermentation, but then he goes on to say they don't use wild yeast any more.
Incidentally, Jef V.d.Steen, in Geuze & Kriek, says "Today's brewers ferment their beers by adding yeast that has either been grown in a laboratory or harvested from an earlier brew..."

"During WWII vinegar was used to sour blends in place of Lambic? It's clear that the practice pre-dated the war. Surely just adding vinegar to make it sour is cheating?"
Yes it is, and the article makes it clear that this was a desperate wartime measure which resulted in beer consumption falling by half. It's lactic acid you want in Lambic, not acetic, surely?

Lambic brewing is a specialist field and I don't think the author here has really understood it.

Alan said...

I recall seeing a documentary which pointed out that sowing mixed field was very common in pre industrial farming. If so, beer would reflect the mix and no one would later separate the grains.

Barm said...

It's a pity all that unsaleable old acid beer that British brewers had hanging about in their cellars couldn’t have been sent to Belgium for blending.

Alan said...

PS: so does this undermine certainty that there is in fact an actual long tradition as I might have speculated about in the past?

Ron Pattinson said...

Rod,

I agree that there are doubts about the reliability of this source.

Wait till you see my next source. Much more trustworthy.

Ron Pattinson said...

Ala,.

the stuff from the 1400's and 1500's gives the proportions of the different grains. Doesn't sound to me like they'd been mixed from the field.

Chris said...

@Rod-

Acid esterification of alcohols is a common organic reaction and as a biochemist I would think it's quite likely some of the lactic acid would esterify a small amount of alcohol. These esters might be similar or different from fermentation esters, but it would likely contribute to part of the aroma.

Mark Osborne said...

Ron,
I've read many current Lambics are pasteurized and then back sweetened with "ass"partame. I've tasted some and know it to be true but I'm not certain how widespread the practice is.

Alan said...

I suppose that is more likely. I fell into the trap I dislike - that folk in the past were less clever with the available resources. That is why the Ploughman was a hero and not a clodhoppers in the 1300s.

Rod said...

"Acid esterification of alcohols is a common organic reaction and as a biochemist I would think it's quite likely some of the lactic acid would esterify a small amount of alcohol. These esters might be similar or different from fermentation esters, but it would likely contribute to part of the aroma."

My point is that the aroma produced as you describe would be insignificant relative to the aromas and flavours of the lactic acid itself and, of course, the Brett.

Frederik said...

About the 'grain mixed in the field' bit: that was called 'Masteluin' and was sometimes admitted into the grainbill of Koyt.

Rod said...

"masteluin" transates into English as "maslin", which is/was a name for a mixed grain loaf, usually rye and wheat.

Dan ABA said...

@Rod - Brettanomyces converts lactic acid to ethyl lactate and acetic acid to ethyl acetate, both of which can provide fruity (and in the case of too much ethyl acetate, nail polish remover) aromas.

Rod said...

Chris and Dan ABA -
Your comments have added to my understanding, as a brewer not a chemist, of how the complexities of the flavours and aromas of Lambic beers increase with age.

However, my point, which I originally expressed badly, was and is that the assertion of the author of the original author that the flavour and aroma of Lambic is due to

"The high percentage of acids produced esterifies the alcohol during storage and gives the typical aromas to these beers."

is bollocks because the sort of reactions that you are describing would make only relatively small contributions to the taste and aroma compared to the lactic acid itself and the esters and phenols produced by the Brett.

I didn't mean that he was just wrong, I meant that he is incorrect in thinking that this is the most important source of the distinct flavours and smells of Lambic.