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A Lambic Polemic: What’s in a Name?

From the blog chatter, press coverage, and store shelves stacked with new product, it would appear that the shroud’s been lifted from mysterious lambic beers. There’s barely a restaurant menu in Schlubsville, Indiana, that doesn’t count “Framboise Lambic” among its beverage choices. Glowing red with a frothy pink head. Packaged handsomely in a 750mL bottle with a deep punt and a foil capsule. Often served in dainty portions with desserts.

Perfect, right?

Not quite.

Endless internet tomes have been dedicated to the subject of “real” lambic, but a quick summary is requisite. Fermented by wild yeasts and bacteria and aged in barrels, the beer acquires a distinctly aggressive and puckering lactic sourness. It’s not generally dessert friendly. It’s not sweet. It’s simultaneously ascorbic and delicate. It will melt your face and then show you the tiniest hint of orange peel and soil in the mid-palate.

Complexity is born of fermentation – from betwixt the loins of little yeasties – and true lambic is fermented by a combination of wild yeasts, so it’s got a lot to offer. Straight lambic as it is made traditionally is aged for three years in barrels and can be bottled with no carbonation at that point. A variety called gueuze sees the three-year blended with younger beer to the brewer’s taste, yielding a more lively, fizzy brew. Fruit lambics are aged with real fruit, the most popular options being kriek (cherry) and framboise (raspberry).

Framboise is thus not a brand but rather a raspberry fruit lambic from a brewer. So when some finely accoutered waiter adjusts his clip-on bow tie and pours you a glass of the now ubiquitous sickly sweet framboise, he’s actually pouring the raspberry “lambic” from a particular place – in this case, Brouwerij Lindemans.

But what’s in a name doesn’t always equal what’s in a bottle.

Sadly, there is no law regulating the control of how much lambic must be in a bottle that reads “lambic” on the label. The agreed-upon standard has been a paltry 10%, which means you could more or less bottle 90% Aunt Jemima diluted with 10% lambic and call it Vermont Maple Lambic. That’s essentially Lindemans’ modus operandi.

Several years ago, I encountered a rep for Merchant du Vin, the Lindemans importer. We were both pouring beers at a public tasting. I was serving De Ranke Kriek, a blisteringly tart cherry beer that the brewers refuse to call lambic, even though they’re legally allowed to do so. It’s not 100% lambic, so they won’t call it lambic. Honest fellows, I’d say.

After the tasting, some of the folks working the room that night shared beers, and upon sampling the Kriek I had in hand, this hapless gent exclaimed, “Wow, that’s really sour,” before admitting he hadn’t a clue that lambic was sour. Later when wondering about De Ranke’s fruit source, he didn’t actually ask about fruit. Instead, he inquired, “So where do these guys get their juice?”

His product, Lindemans, isn’t truly lambic, but he didn’t know it. He, much like the legions of waiters and sommeliers peddling their novelty framboise on Valentine’s Day, figured that lambic was soda-like – manufactured, assembled, and sweet. When I explained that they used actual cherries, he seemed utterly perplexed. No one at Merchant du Vin had bothered to lift the shroud of mystery surrounding lambic for this poor fellow. I was glad to have helped.

I’d heard rumors throughout the years that Lindemans (along with DeTroch, Timmermans, and other sugar pushers) actually blended quite a bit of non-lambic beer, sweeteners ranging from sugar to aspartame, and fruit juices and syrups into small proportions of lambic in order to make their products.

So as I popped the cork on a bottle of traditional lambic at home last night, I thought back on that chance meeting and thought: Can I make that sugary crap at home?

Questing after an answer now, I hauled out a bottle of Cantillon Gueuze (an authentic representation of the style from arguably the best producer of the stuff), a bottle of cherry juice, some Domino sugar, and a bottle of Hoegaarden witbier. Playing the mad scientist, I mixed them together, trying to come up with something that tasted like one of these sweetened concoctions.

Somewhere around equal parts witbier and cherry juice with a half-part lambic and a tablespoon of white sugar, I laughed. Cackled, really. It wasn’t quite as syrupy as Lindemans, and I suspect they use something other than white or rock sugar as a sweetener – that’s a scary thought – but if bottled, my homemade “kriek” easily could have passed for one of Lindemans’ competitors like Giradin’s sweetened kriek or DeTroch’s Chapeau Kriek. Absolutely spot on.

Who knew that behind the shroud of lambic was an Oxo measuring cup and a six-pack of mass-produced wheat beer?

Of course, it’s fair to ask, “So what, dude?” And I’d like to think I have an answer.

In a post-industrial age where people are starting to find the value in shopping at a farmer’s market rather than peeling back the industrial foil from a microwaveable frozen tray, there’s still that shroud of mystery that surrounds so much of our food and drink. What exactly are we putting into our bodies when we drink a beer that’s adulterated with syrups or sweeteners? We should care about that, right?

Then there’s the simple matter of honesty. Packaging, shelf-talkers, special interest manipulation, ad-sponsored review publications, and all the standard plays from the corporate playbook have created an environment where it requires genuine research to figure out what one is eating or drinking. If something says Champagne, it should be from Champagne. If it says organic, it damn well better actually be organic. If the bottle reads “lambic,” shouldn’t it actually be lambic?

Further, our food and drink extensions of what we do with our time here on the pale blue dot. Do we value the hard work put in by traditional brewers and the bacteria and yeast in their employ, or do we value the immediate thrill of a sickly sweet novelty, entertaining our palates for a fleeting moment after dinner? In that respect, are our beers any different than our movies, our asparagus, our literature, our music, our beef filets, or our clothing in that regard?

Truly, I’m a bit sick of reading mass media reviews of Lindemans Framboise, going on as though they’ve just peeled back that shroud and let everyone in on a big secret. The luminescent pseudo-lambic is a revelation when one’s been sucking at the teat of Anheuser-Busch, to be sure, but given the increased attention that we as a country have put on our food, I’d suggest that we all learn something from our history with mass production: Dig a little deeper and understand what you’re drinking. Pull back the real shroud. And while you’re at it, leave the Lindemans on the shelf with the Twinkies and support real lambic brewers like Cantillon and Drie Fonteinen.

Some Tasting Notes:

  • Cantillon Gueuze 100% Lambic-Bio (Organic): Pours a vibrant but hazed shade of golden straw with a decent sized white head. Looking beyond some of the expected and aggressive vomit-acid fumes, there’s a strong lemon zest component, some sour green apple, and perhaps because this bottle is a year or two old, some straw and barnyard aromatics. Mixed together, it gives a vague impression of ground mustard seeds. Acidic with some restrained funk on the palate. Some orange peel creeps in under the radar, and there’s an earthier, woodier component than I recall in some other lambics, even gueuzes. Top notch.
  • Cantillon Rosé de Gambrinus: A perfect fruit lambic. The loud cork pop releases an intoxicating, invisible cloud of sourness; naturally one expects the dominant aroma to be that typical barnyard funk, Cantillon being the best of the best at capturing that natural, raw sensation. Surprisingly, it’s according-to-Hoyle raspberry that pushes itself to the forefront — fresh raspberries, rotting raspberries, underripe raspberries. Each sniff brings about a variation on the theme. Raspberry sweetness precedes a wicked sourness. Rotten, delightful, ruinous, ascerbic fun wrapped up in a remarkably natural raspberry package.
  • Drie Fonteinen Kriek: A blood red color and a blood orange hue around the edges of the glass where the light slips through more easily. Practically no head. Strong cherry nose — leftovers from cherry consumption, notably the stems and pits; truly bile-like in its pungent, ascerbic aroma; and almost dusty like sniffing around through a pile of shredded cardboard. Make no mistake about it, though — tartness dominates the aroma and the taste. I mean, wow…just such a potent, flavorful beer. Acidic marathon, except unlike a marathon, this is fun. Flavors of sour cherries and unripe, tart plum.
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