Beer classification typically splits into two groups—ales and lagers—determined by the type of yeast used to spur fermentation. Ale uses top-fermenting yeast, and lager uses bottom-fermenting yeast. However, most ale and lager yeasts are cultured; they are hybrid products, exhibiting ostensibly contradictory features. At times, the classification of a given beer as ale or lager appears nearly arbitrary.
Lambic beers, however, are not typical and leave no room for interpretation. Genuine lambic beer relies on wild yeasts grown in the Payottenland southwest of Brussels, Belgium using recipes and techniques that stretch back to the middle ages.
Brewing Lambic Beer
During the making of a lambic beer, the wort is cooled and exposed to air, allowing it to ferment spontaneously, catalyzed by yeast present in the environment. The practice only takes place between October and May. Production is restricted during the summer months because too many unwanted bacteria and other organisms are present for the open-air brewing process to be safe.
In contrast to the cultured, controlled brewing of ales and lagers, lambic beer is wild. The lambic process opens the door to Mother Nature and permits a measure of wilderness, with results that can be relatively unpredictable from batch to batch. You might like a bottle from a given brewer today, but next time you taste a bottle identically labeled, it might taste quite different.
What Makes Lambic Beer Unique?
Wild yeast is not the only ingredient that distinguishes lambic beer from ales and lagers. Other ingredients also differ, as do its storage techniques and aging process.
Lambic beer contains a good dose of wheat along with the barley common to virtually every beer. Unlike other beers, however, Lambics spend time in oak barrels aged and seasoned by the wine they previously transported. Ales ferment for a couple of weeks at most; lagers, for about a month; lambics, for as long as two to three years. When it comes to aging, again Lambic beer violates the rule and can be cellared for up to 20 years.
Pairing Lambic Beer
Lambic beer tastes unique—a little acidic, tart like an apple cider, very fruity, perfect to pair with hearty bread and sharp cheese.
Locating authentic lambic beer used to be tricky, but the web has put producers in instant touch with consumers. Now that the US beer palate has become more adventurous, a greater number of domestic brewers are stepping up with lambic-style creations, and even home brewers can now buy lambic yeast and begin to experiment.
Of course, the proper way to drink lambic beer is in Brussels, where you can enjoy a glass of genuine gueuze or authentic kriek.