29 October 2007

Spontaneous dégustation

My visit to the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels back in 2004 was something of a revelation. I knew my lambics and my gueuzes from a drinker's point of view, and I knew that they were created through a process called "spontaneous fermentation". However, it wasn't until I was standing in the attic of the brewery looking at the huge shallow copper tray that I realised what that actually meant: the brewers just spread the wort out on the flat surface and wait for the natural wild yeasts to come in and do their stuff. When I explain to brewers that I quite fancy having a go at making beer this way they give me a Look. Some day I will, and learn my lesson while doing it, no doubt.

In the meantime, I'm content to drink the commercial examples available to me, and in Belgium last month I made a point of trying out as many as I could get. This post is a run-down of those, and finishes the series of posts on the trip.

Two of the beers I regard as beginners' lambic and both are made by some of Belgium's largest brewers. Bellevue Gueuze (InBev) is sweet and unchallenging almost to the point of being non-descript. There's a smidge more character to Mort Subite Gueuze (Alken-Maes), with its candy sugar foretaste and just a hint of sourness at the end. I think this was the first gueuze I ever tasted, and it's a good one to start with.

Off next to what's probably my favourite pub in the whole wide world. On every visit to Brussels I make time for a visit to A La Bécasse. A big part of the attraction is having beer served in clay jugs, but the main draw for me is the house speciality: Lambic Doux. This is a light, sweet-and-sour golden lambic which slips down with indecent ease: a large jug for me, and I don't need a glass. I did manage to tear myself away from it briefly to try their other house beer, Lambic Blanc. This is an odd hybrid of a Belgian witbier and the sweeter sort of lambic. The result is a bitter and dry fruity wheat beer with sweeter notes in the background: complex and lip-smackingly good. Both beers are InBev products and clearly demonstrate that brewing behemoths can make quality beer if they want to.

Which brings me down to the smaller operators. Of course I had a Cantillon Gueuze, and brought one home too. It pours a pale orange colour, with a slight haze to it. The taste is fresh and zesty, popping with notes of citrus and gunpowder. It's sour, of course, but not astringent. In fact, it's almost quaffable, but is best savoured. Cantillon is organic too, which I think makes it my favourite organic beer.

Finally, I had heard very good things about the 3 Fonteinen range, so took the opportunity to try their Oude Geuze. In contrast to the young and lively Cantillon, this pours out a mellow red-gold colour with almost no carbonation. It has the sharply alkaline taste of the sourer gueuzes, reminiscent of nitre and brick cellars, but it's smooth and rounded with it. This is a beer that's not in a hurry and needs to be taken seriously.

So that's a few days' adventures in lambic. Making my own though: that's the real adventure.

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