Belgium is undeniably the country of beer. Not only on account of the number of labels covering the brewery spectrum of the 'flat country', but also owing to the incredible diversity of tastes, colours and production methods.Among the nearly 500 beers that are the pride of the kingdom, a category particularly distinguishes itself as it is made only in Belgium: spontaneous fermentation beers. Particularly refreshing beers ideal in sunny weather.
While the great majority of present-day beers need the addition of yeast to ferment (and to become beer), spontaneous fermentations, as to be expected, do not require any addition of external yeast.
In the region located to the south and west of Brussels, Pajottenland, the ambient air is reportedly so special that it promotes the generation of specific living cells. These micro-organisms necessarily circulate in breweries like everywhere else. They therefore enter into contact with the wort cooled in tanks open to the atmosphere, causing fermentation and giving birth to Lambic, a beer with a highly specific taste, slightly or frankly acidic.
Without entering into overly technical considerations, these natural yeasts, among which the best known are Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Brettanomyces Lambicus, promote the assimilation of non-fermentable sugars, meaning Lambic contains very little sugar.
Gueuze, a blend of two or more Lambics
Until the beginning of the 20th century, Brussels and its region boasted hundreds of breweries producing Lambic. The capital of Europe now has only one: Brasserie Cantillon. And the total number in the region does not exceed ten or so.
Lambic, whose name is said to derive from Lembeek, a locality in Flemish Brabant, is the base of all Gueuzes, Krieks and other derived beers. Developed according to an ancestral recipe (some sources mention documents already 'old' in the 16th century), Lambic is composed of +/-65% of malted barley and +/-35% of unmalted (in other words non-roasted) wheat. It is brewed with 2 to 3 year old stale hops acting as a preservative. During the boiling that lasts 6 hours, a dose of these old hops is added. This beer is brewed in winter months (from October to March) as the micro-organisms present in the air are then free of any harmful bacterium.
After brewing, the open fermentation tanks are exposed to the ambient air blowing down from broad vents in the roofs. Too tart to drink on leaving the tanks, Lambic matures for several weeks, months and even up to three years in wood barrels before being ready. Unlike most other Continental beers, Lambic does not froth at all and does not have to be served in flute-shaped glasses.
As time has gone by Brusselois and Belgians in general have been drinking less and less Lambic, but it is enjoying increasing success abroad. The brewer must wait at least one year before obtaining a beer that can be used to produce other products like Gueuze or Kriek.
What exactly is a Gueuze?
Sometimes dubbed 'Brussels Champagne', Gueuze is made by blending Lambics of different characters and ages. During the blending, the unassimilated sugars of the youngest beer cause a second fermentation of the whole, carbonating the beer again and causing the appearance of tiny Champagne-like bubbles. A different beverage than the first is therefore obtained.
Lambics of three to five different vintages are necessary and even mandatory to produce a really good Gueuze. Incidentally, it is said that this beer takes its names from the gueux (beggars) at the time of King Philip II.
Gueuze is particularly appreciated as an aperitif accompanying Belgian specialities like sandwiches with Cottage cheese or cheese with aromatic herbs, as well as simply with croque-monsieurs. It is also one of the only beers diabetics can drink as it is sugarless.
The Brasserie Belle-Vue (InBev Group) widely dominates the market (70% of spontaneous fermentation beers) but proposes voluntarily sweetened products. Among the other breweries, Mort Subite (Alken-Maes Group), Timmermans (John Martin) and Saint-Louis (Van Honsebrouck, outside the production region) complete the foursome of the biggest producers... without their necessarily being the most authentic. Since the past few years, two separate ranges have been created at these 'big' producers, one range being 'commercial' and the other 'traditional'.
Apart from these big names, two Gueuze producers continue to propose exclusively traditional beers: the more than hundred-year-old Cantillon at Anderlecht (Brussels) which received the '2007 Museums Prize' for its Musée Bruxellois de la Gueuze, 3 Fonteinen, Boon, De Cam, De Troch, Girardin, Hanssens, and Oud Beersel in Flemish Brabant.
These producers, also called 'Lambic blenders' as they buy Lambics from others to blend them, are grouped in the HORAL Association which promotes and defends artisanal Lambics and derived products. The most famous of these products is undoubtedly Kriek, a delicious and most refreshing beer prepared with a minimum of 50 kg of black cherries for 250 litres of Lambic. But that's another story…
Where to buy or enjoy a good Gueuze?
Brasserie Cantillon and Geuze Museum of Brussels
Rue Gheude, 56
Tel.: 02 521 49 28
Open Monday to Friday, from 9 am to 5 pm and Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm.
Brasserie 3 Fonteinen
Tel.: 02 306 71 03
Shop open from Thursday to Saturday from 9 am to 6 pm. Visits of the brewery by appointment.
À la Mort Subite
Rue Montagne-aux-Herbes-Potagères, 7
Tel.: 02 513 13 18
Legendary Brussels bistro: Cottage cheese sandwiches, Lambic and aged photos of Jacques Brel tucking into a meal here.
Rue de Tabora, 11
Tel.: 02 511 00 06
Genuine old tavern (more than 130 years old), located a stride from the Stock Exchange and a bit further from Grand Place, hidden away down a tiny narrow street. The house speciality is Timmermans mild Lambic served in traditional earthenware jugs. If you're feeling peckish or want a fast lunch: sandwiches filled with local specialities like plattekeis (kind of Cottage cheese)...
De Bier Circus
Rue de l’Enseignement, 57
Tel.: 02 218 00 34
The den of connoisseurs of Belgian beers and their mysteries Any aficionado of Belgian beers must visit this address one day. Beer-braised Belgian cuisine also served.