by Mark Tichenor
I’m writing this column from deep within the man box–you know, that narrowly defined range of emotions and interests that shows the outside world that one is truly deserving of being considered masculine. We’re talking things like grilling steak, grunting, and big bitter double IPA.
Well it’s a load of crap. Especially when it comes to beer. Sometimes even us manly he-men can appreciate the art, complexity, and downright delishitude an excellent Belgian lambic affords. These wild-fermented fruit-laced ales are some of the most unique on the planet, and, berries and all, among the most challenging beers to ever cross your uvula.
Lambic beers break all the rules. Traditionally they ferment in big open vats, allowing the natural yeasts and bacteria of the Belgian microclimate to settle in and spontaneously ferment. The resulting beer is so throat-punchingly tart that it needs to be blended with older, mellower beer to make ‘gueuze’, before it’s even potable, and commonly gets flavored with cherry (kriek) or raspberry (framboise) before going to market.
Now you can be forgiven if the word ‘Framboise’ conjures up images of Audrey Hepburn goggles and tiny dog snouts poking out of Prada bags, because the framboise you’re most likely to find–brewed by Belgium’s Lindeman’s Brewery–is sweet and fizzy, more soda-pop than beer, with a frilly pink head and comically low ABV. This is a beer designed by marketers to capture the purses of young American urban women and nothing more. REAL Lambic bears about as much relationship to Lindemans Framboise as The Olive Garden’s breadsticks do to the cuisine of Tuscany.
The twisty streets around the Gare du Midi in Brussels, Belgium are not tourist avenues. They’re tough and gritty, an immigrant neighborhood with a decidedly north-African flair. Petty crime is rampant; crystals of auto glass lie in curbside piles and the narrow alleys echo with those funny European police sirens. It’s the last place you’d expect to find a farmhouse-style brewery, but Brasserie Cantillon never bothers to do what’s expected.
Cantillon is a throwback, and the home of serious lambic. They go heavy on the unflavored Gueze. They make it the real way and they make it sour. In each sip, you taste the must and musk of the farmhouse, and each swallow is tart enough to nearly close your throat. this is unquestionably a macho-ass beer, and the brewery is a mecca among beer tourists.
Lindemans and Cantillon are the polar extremes of lambic, with many small brewers and blenders somewhere in between. One of the finest is only recently available in the Rochester area: the Kriek (cherry) from Brouwerij Boon in the original lambic town of Lembeek, Belgium.
Boon Kriek is a masterpiece of complexity and balance. Nowhere near as sour as Cantillon‘s beers, with a soft, subtle sweetness, the one sensation a sip of boon provides is creamy. The lactic acidity meshes with the cherries to provide a pillowy, almost marshmallow essence. Heavier in body than most Kriek, Boon’s example is robust enough to pair with game meats (stay away from salty cured stuff), yet strikingly elegant as a nightcap or special occasion toast.
The variety of lambic textures and flavors is all the more striking considering the tininess of the region where it is made. To this day, with the exception of Lindeman’s, the beers remain the sort of farmhouse products at which people in skinny jeans would toss the words ‘artisinal’ and ‘curated.’ To thoroughly experience lambics, you pretty much still have to go to Belgium.
Fortunately, our beer stores and more enlightened pubs appreciate the plae these fine beers have on the table, and, with a little determination, you can find a decent variety right here. With a beer style this special, the hunt is part of the fun, and lambic will provide an adequately sweet, or sour, reward. Oh, and never let anyone tell you your fruit beer isn’t manly.
Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.