Sunday, 3 June 2012


One thing I love about the Brewers' Journal is that it wasn't inward looking. It regularly included articles about foreign beer and brewing. As srticles written by people conversant with breing for an audience of brewers, they're much more valuable than articles from a general newspaper or magazine.

You can imagine my delight when I found an article about Lambic. I don't know about you, but I can never learn too much about Lambic. This piece is particularly informatibve with regards to brewing techniques.


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.

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.

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.

Tho spontaneously fermented beers of the Brussels district are usually browed from equal parts of malt and ungerminated wheat. Several types are frequently obtained from the same brew. For example, the first wort gives Lambic, the later runnings give March or small beer. Faro is obtained by blending the two. The Lambic is often kept two or even three years before use. Gueuse-lambic is natural Lambic to which no additions have been made. The customer may add sugar if he so desires. It is often kept several years in bottle.

One is frequently asked what is the origin of the name Gueuse-lambic. It may simply be the Lambic of the poor. It is known that the latter adopt as a title of honour the name which was given to them in contempt. The poor woodmen and sailors reserve for themselves the best drinks and foods they produce.

Tasting is a very important ceremony in the preparation of special beers. As with all luxury drinks, the aim is always to please customers. Each brewery consequently has a taster who has to determine the quantity of candy syrup or old beer which must be added. He has to regulate the blends and must know the taste of every customer. Each brewery thus tends to produce a beer of special flavour and the fermentations differ from one brewery to another. Details of brewing also influence the flavour. Thus blending in cask or fermenting vessel have different effects. It has been noticed that the flavours marry better in the latter case, as some of the constituents of the old beer may be modified during fermentation. The Lambic may contain all sorts of disease organisms and may have suffered from ropiness or haze. The yeast must consequently progressively become more infected, and the bad effects show themselves in the beer after quite lengthy periods of storage, sometimes months or even a year. Wort to which additions are to be made is comparatively strong, and in it 25 to 50 per cent, of wheat or other grain is used, with 8 to 12 lb. per barrel of hops. The beer is fermented in large storage casks und clarifies spontaneously. After the secondary fermentation it is kept long enough to become definitely acid.

The alcohol content of Lambic varies from 4 to over 6 per cent., with solid matter between 6 and 3 per cent. The beers are better fermented in open casks than in fermenting vessels as the attenuation is too rapid in the latter. The lactic acid develops first followed by the acetic. The fermentation is slow and the characteristic flavour is not developed in less than a year. The beers are very dextrinous.
—Petite Gazette du Brasseur."
Brewers' Journal 1932, page 581.

My palate certainly needed education to appreciate Lambic. I was didtinctly unimpressed the first time I tried it. But with knowledge has come love. I'd forgotten just how much I loved Lambic until we bumped into one another at the ZBF this year. When we parted, we promised to keep in touch this time. I hope we do.

Rye, oats and buckwheat used, too? Sounds very renaissance. A couple of hundred years ago three or four grain beers were the norm in the Low Countries. With oats often making up a surprising proportion of the grist - more than 50% sometimes. It sounds like Lambic fits right in with this tradition.

I'd heard before that Lambic and March beer came from the same mash. And I'm pretty sure that I'd also heard Faro was a blend of the two. Adding sugar when drinking seems to have been commonplace in the past. Modern sweetened Lambics - Belle Vue comes to mind - no doubt grew out of this practice.

That "taster" sounds remarkably like what we would call a blender. Though now I guess in Oude Geuze there's no sugar added.

That hopping rate of 8 to 12 pounds per barrel. Can that be right? I know they used old hops, but that's a huge quantity. Even Barclay's Russian Stout only had 10 pounds per barrel.


Zak Avery said...

Might the barrels be larger? Foudres or Brussels tuns?

Pivní Filosof said...

Interesting, I've always thought that Lambic was the pure stuff, Faro was, basically, Lambic with sugar added and Geueze was a blend of Lambics... Was I wrong all this time?

Lars Marius Garshol said...

> I'd heard before that Lambic and March beer came
> from the same mash.

I was told the same thing at Gueuzerie Tilquin last spring, so I assume it's true.

Gary Gillman said...

Ron, also noteworthy is the use of old beer, not just for blending-in for beers to be stored, but in the fermenting tun with fresh wort. Some of the English books from the early 1800's mention this too, it was a way I think to produce an active fermentation, probably used originally in cases where yeasts had become languid.

Somewhat similar traditions in general had existed in England, especially the West Country but had died in the U.K. by this period.

I think the sweet-sour balance was the key to these beers and the mention of dextrins is interesting given too that secondary yeasts and bacteria tend to use these up prolonged aging. Perhaps once the bugs had done all their work that is when the drinkers added sugar to the glass, a practice Jackson mentioned in his early writings, the sugar bowl and muddler.

Very renaissance-medieval indeed and that such traditions still exist in the Brussels area is quite unusual.


Martyn Cornell said...

Renaissance? Positively medieval, as far as practice in England was concerned - in 1286 the brewery at St Paul's Cathedral in London was making ale with barley, wheat and oats at a ratio of 1:1:4 by volume, perhaps 4:3:8 by weight - so yes, brewers do seem to have used a lot of oats.

Pulsatorius said...

Lambic is hopped with oxidized three year old hops. They want the antiseptic quality of the hop, not the bitterness. The bitterness, at those levels, classes with the acidity of the lambic.

Anonymous said...

In my experience, at about 10.5 pounds per barrel, you can't stuff any more hops in a the wort. It's was a 3 bbl brewing of IRST.

Gary Gillman said...

Ron, look at no. 3276:

This is a little different than the Belgian description of using old beer in fresh wort before its fermentation, it seems in fact the opposite: using fresh wort to recover hard old ale. But I think the idea is the same in both. I checked Thomson & Stewart and they confirm the addition of old beer to fresh but only after each is finished, in other words. They talk about mixing fresh porter and old ale 3:1 and sending it out or maturing the mix in a sealed vat.

I think though all these are variations on the idea to infuse a malt drink with qualities of both fresh and aged beer, a sweet and sour taste probably which died out in England by the end of the 1800's but has lived on in Belgium for some reason. Once again though I doubt whether anyone actually adds old acid beer to fresh wort before fermentation, it just seems so strange.


Jeff Renner said...

@Martin - In 1998, I brewed an ale based on the St Paul's medieval you refer to. At the time, there were no malted oats available in the US, so I malted my own. There is a summary at three years at

In earlier posts, I outlined my research and assumptions that I based my recreation on.

All in all, it was not a success, as I report, but I may try again with commercial oat malts and a gruit mix.

Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, that example is something totally different. It's a way to try to recover beer that has got too old. A completely different idea from blending a small quantity of old beer into a large quantity of fresh beer to add the aged taste.

Gary Gillman said...

Add the old taste to new beer, add the new taste to old beer - sounds like it ends at the same place, Ron.


Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, it's not to add the taste of young beer but to liven up the old beer. Not the same thing. It's more like kräusening.

Gary Gillman said...

Well,the paragraph I referred to, no. 3276, starts by advising how to "destroy" the quality of "hardness", and mixing old beer and new half and half is first mentioned in this regard.

This will clearly result in reduction, but not abolition, of acidity. Briskness is mentioned later in the paragraph as another benefit.

All such mixtures create a sweet-sour taste, I've tried my own at home many times, sometimes by letting it mature using unfiltered beer.

Clearly the processes we are discussing are different - the above isn't even brewing - but my point was simply that a sweet-sour taste will come out in both, which some people at the time clearly liked.


Jeff Alworth said...

I wonder about that rye and buckwheat thing. There are sources from Halle (near Lembeek) from 450 years ago that cite a very similar grist to now of unmalted wheat and barley. Indeed, I've never heard a citation that mentioned rye or buckwheat. (Rye was the least common of the Belgian grains, at least by the time of Lacambre. Oats and wheat were everywhere.)

I find it a suspicious comment.

etripp said...

Here's a bit on Faro from:
Which generally speaking provides pretty accurate information.
From Google translate: "Another product is a badge of brewer makes faro. Faro is 50% and 50% old Lambic Lambic wort, pressed yeast by adding candy sugar high yeast. Faro was especially popular at the beginning of this century, but is now much less drunk."

Original Text: "Nog een produkt dat een geuzebrouwer maakt is faro. Faro bestaat uit 50% oude lambik en 50% lambikwort, ingegist door toevoeging van kandijsuiker en hoge gist. Faro was vooral populair in het begin van deze eeuw, maar wordt nu veel minder gedronken.

It looks like they are saying Faro was 50% old Lambic, and 50% Lambic wort, sweetened even more with candi sugar. Though there are some parts about yeast in there I don't understand...

This makes sense to me for a couple reasons. 1 the third runnings of Lamic would have been very weak, but they would have wanted to use it for something, Lambic breweries seem pretty averse to waste. There was also a tradition of blending Lambic to taste with adjucts, both at home and in the cafe. It's easy to see how these practices may have grown into a sort of standardized product that people who wanted sweeter stuff could order without lengthly explanation. Of course, the better you knew your local cafe proprietor, the more his Faro would be made to your taste, or so it seems.