True Lambic: Sick beers and the magic of Cantillon

This is the spring when Jean Van Roy came to San Francisco, to pass along traditional sour beer making lore to the next generation of adventurous brewers at the 2011 Craft Brewers Conference.  Jean is the one man in the world who carries on an unbroken family lineage and training in the twin traditional crafts of brewing and blending spontaneously fermented beers in Brussels, once a brewing center of the Senne Valley in the heart of Belgium.  His grandfather’s elegant, tart, complex Cantillon beers nearly died off in obscurity when the industrial revolution’s cheap and inoffensive lagers swept the world.

Jean Van Roy of Cantillon
Jean Van Roy tells the story of Cantillon and Lambic tradition
Due to the dedication of his father and himself, Jean’s family brewery survived to a new era of recognition and demand. He and a small handful of fellow Lambic brewers and blenders went from obscure to revered with the help of friends including the late British beer writer Michael Jackson, the two siblings who created the Shelton Brothers company to import his beers into the US and a growing cadre of appreciative American brewers such as our local Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa.  In return, we can thank Jean and his father for maintaining the tradition of their beers, and for a wide range of new tart, leathery, funky non-Belgian craft beer concoctions inspired by this ancient Belgian beer knowledge. The large hall was packed with attentive brewers, seeking information to help them participate in one of the most exciting trends in craft brewing.

The more you know about Lambic brewing, the more different it seems from other beer traditions. Modern ales usually take merely weeks to produce, after a very pure dose of specific beer yeast is added to start a typical vigorous fermentation. True Lambic beers will have a slow life-cycle closer to that of a wine fermentation.  Traditional Lambic breweries allow a hodge-podge of yeasts and local bacteria to blow in on the breezes to land in a vessel called a coolship, and later to live deep in the wood of fermentation barrels. Those strange “spontaneous” mixtures of microorganisms are totally responsible for fermenting and conditioning these beers at their own pace.

While aging, the mixed organisms form a strange-looking protective film over the surface of the beer, and then go though two summers of warmer temperatures where they become extremely weird, ropey and viscous throughout the entire barrel. This harmless but off-putting polysaccharide slime can pour with the consistency of oil or perhaps thin snot, so it is no surprise that this condition has come to be known as “sick” beer, or more specifically as the fat sickness, “la maladie de la graisse” in French.  For contemporary brewers who are embarking on a journey to make a beer inspired by the Lambic method, it’s comforting to know what strange things may happen along the way.

Cantillon's Jean Van Roy talks about sick beer

Jean comments about beer sickness and beer quality (30 seconds)

Jean Van Roy stated that he is not a “brewmaster” because he cannot master or dominate his beers.  He says he is a bit of a partner and a bit of a guide to his beers, using his knowledge of the peculiar paths these fermentations can take, passed along from his father and grandfather.  He helps the beers along.  This brings to mind some of the older words, like “alewife” from England (once used for women who brewed with undoubtedly mixed fermentations,  serving almost as midwives to deliver the beers of their day).   In using his experience to guide these great beers to fruition, Jean says that he is compelled “to follow my beer.”

The Van Roy family has faced several generations of adversity, ranging from a century-long decline of interest in Lambic in its native land and loss of many of their respected peers, to a dilution of meaning of their magical process and place-specific beer style.  While regional wine style names like “Champagne” are protected by having a legally enforced definition in Europe, traditional Lambic has not been so fortunate.  Some other Belgian companies filter and sweeten modern industrial products that can legally still be called Lambic.   As a result of the great new sour beer making explosion of recent years,  admiring brewers around the world are marketing their beers as “Lambic” or “Lambic Style.”

At the question portion of the conference session, Brian Hunt of Moonlight Brewing brought up this question of the Lambic appellation.  What should we call other contemporary beers, from outside the Senne valley, that were inspired by Lambic beer making traditions?   They could be named for their region, as Lambics were originally. They might be called “spontaneous,” Jean suggested.   Cantillon will be working on a new Lambic cellar in conjunction with the city of Brussels to honor the tradition and make long-aged beers available.  We can honor that resolve to save the authentic traditions by not calling our non-Belgian domestic beers “Lambic Style,” and by leaning on groups who present brewing competitions to change course and avoid the use of “Lambic” in category names.

Americans seem willing to call the related beers “sour,”  though that is often an exaggeration.  Jean wants his own finished beers to be complex and mellow.  Many people comment on the similarities between the true Lambics and fine aged dry wines.  There is a tartness, but there are layers of mysterious character that balance the acidity. Tasters search for analogies for the complex and compelling wood and animal aromas and flavors. “Wild” is used on labels sometimes in the US and other areas outside of Belgium, and not always when the fermentation is open to local organisms.  Sometimes the use of Brettanomyces yeast is noted on a label.  Those of us who seek new examples of these remarkable beers sometimes have to embrace beer-hunting and label scrutiny as an extension of our hobby.

caution - sour beers - a sign on a cooler
CAUTION: Special beers protected from accidental purchase at the Jug Shop in SF.

Now and then the scary sound of “sour” works to the advantage of the sour-seeking consumers. It is reassuring to see that people who might not yet appreciate these beers have been cautioned to leave them for those of us who already love them, and who would never pour them out or return them as “spoiled” in confusion.

We are already seeing Cantillon beers available less often locally, as the global interest in the wild and sour increases. One great moment of optimism in the CBC panel came when an audience member asked about building a coolship, prompting the panelists to all speak with great enthusiasm.  (You want a very large surface area on the cooling vessel, but it should not be so shallow as to make for a too sudden a cooling of the hot liquid.  Some of those ambient organisms in the cold night air only get “spontaneous” when their food source is still warm.)  We can only hope that this contemporary recognition of the importance of teaching the old ways will revive the craft in a deep way in the Brussels region, too.  It is clearly opening the rest of the world to experimentation.  Enough of us have fallen for these beers that Cantillon has a growing world wide audience, waiting for that the next batch that has made the journey through time, surviving seasons as a sick beer to heal, become even stronger and flourish.

Here’s a recording of Jean’s talk posted by Jay Brooks for your listening pleasure.   

Local notes:
The Craft Brewer’s Conference was a big week for local breweries, who did the region proud. Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo, along with their Russian River brew crew, appeared to have boundless energy up to and through the week. Along with convening this panel, they hosted a pre-conference symposium at their own place, they prepared and bottled a special conference attendees’ brown sour ale made in conjunction with Sierra Nevada, and they held an event to announce that these two fine northern California breweries will undertake another sour collaboration to be released to the public.

Russian River
Natalie Cilurzo and a member of the Russian River brew crew pouring for industry colleagues in front of a wall of fish at the Academy of Sciences.

How to learn more: For San Francisco Bay Area sour beer learning, an afternoon at City Beer Store, Beer Revolution, The Trappist or La Trappe, all walkable from the BART or MUNI system, is a good way to begin or to continue your education, providing you can get the time and attention of the experienced bartenders there. Three or four people sharing a few bottles can put together an excellent flight to explore fine American and Belgian tart and funky flavors. Cantillon beers may not be not as easy to find in California as they were a few years ago, but the new craft beers from North America and elsewhere that they have inspired are also worth exploring. Ask your better beer bartender or bottle shopkeeper what’s new… and what’s ancient. For book-learning, seek out a copy of the excellent “Wild Brews” by Jeff Sparrow, which has insights for those who drink, brew or home-brew beers inspired by these traditions.

Explore Beer By BART; use our list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.

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