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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Deeper and Deeper Into the Surreal World of Belgian Brewing

Okay, I have now completed my survey of non-lambic beers produced in mid-19th century Belgium. The tour guide was one G. Lacambre, a man in possession of prejudices but lacking an editor. He would sometimes discredit certain styles of beer, some he even admitted were renowned, and offer biting commentary about the methods of the brewers. It goes without saying that Lacambre was himself a brewer, and this is exactly the kind of thing you expect (modern brewers are just the same). But he was also strangely imprecise, offering conflicting data or using different measures across styles. (Hops, for example, were sometimes measured by the barrel, sometimes by the hectoliter. Fair enough, except that barrel sizes weren't standardized.) All that accepted, he highlights some absolutely amazing stuff. To wit:
  • Every beer style he mentioned spent time in a coolship. The procedure varied a bit--sometimes beer would get filtered first, sometimes not. Usually breweries pitched yeast, sometimes (Leuven dobbel gerst, Hoegaarden wheat ales) not. (Sometimes he didn't specify.) But here's the point: no beer sits overnight in coolship without picking up scads of bugs. Every beer was infected in 19th century Belgium.
  • Lacambre lists about 18 styles and sub-styles, and the average boil length was nine hours. Only four of those were boils of three hours or less, and five were over ten hours (the longest was twenty).
  • Only one style--a cluster of three substyles from Leuven--was made entirely from barley. Two others were usually 100% barley, but often had wheat and oats. Nearly all of the beers had wheat, and a large number (11) used oats. One beer, the saison from Liege, was usually made with a majority of spelt.
  • It seems the Belgians were into poorly-modified malts that resulted in pretty sweet beers. Lacambre doesn't give a lot of final gravities, but the ones he does give are in the 1.020s and 1.030s.
  • Blending, as in gueuze, was common, and many styles had blended variants. The act of blending beer was “a special art entrusted to special men who should have a truly exceptional palate.”

Below are the beers Lacambre details, with very brief comments:

  • Antwerp Barley Beer. An aged beer that was blended with young beer and sounds much like modern gueuze.
  • Uytzet. Came in two strengths, ordinary (about 4%) and double (6%). One of the famous beers Lacambre slagged, saying “uytzet is an amber beer, fairly dark yellow, and very good quality when well prepared but but ordinary uytzet generally has a particular dry and more or less sharp taste."
  • Flemish Brown Beer. The beer boiled up to twenty hours, similar to uytzet but darker. Locals loved it, and for this reason Lacambre begrudgingly admitted it might be an acquired taste. For his purposes, "far from being very pleasant indeed, for it is bitter, harsh and somewhat astringent."
  • Leuven biere de Mars, enkel gerst, and dobbel gerst. These were the beers Lacambre made himself, and shockingly, he thought they were the best. Made from all barley, and divided into four runnings of the same mash. The first two made dobbel gerst, the final two biere de Mars, with enkel gerst being a blend of the two.
  • Biere de Maestricht. A brown beer made largely in Holland about which Lacambre was vague. Popular.
  • Wallonian barley beer. An amber to brown beer that was boiled to sharp bitterness.
  • Bieres blanche of Leuven. Light, refreshing beers that sound like a cross between lambic and witbier.
  • Peeterman. Similar to Leuven white beers, but brown and made with gelatin usually taken from fish skin. Tasty! Lacambre: "“viscous, very brown-coloured and has a slightly penetrating and aromatic bouquet." One of the more famous of the lost Belgian styles.
  • Biere de Diest. A strong golden ale (1.066-1.082) that sound sweet and delicious. Lacambre offers this left-handed compliment: “a very sweet and pleasant taste; their creamy flavour slightly sweet, and has something honeyish which is highly sought after by aficionados, amongst which we must count the majority of women and especially wet nurses who find in them a drink which is comforting and nutritious, as well as healthy and pleasant to drink.”
  • Mechelen Brown Beer. This sounds like a precursor to the sour ales of Flanders (which is to the west of Mechelen). They were aged up to two years and blended with a quarter to a third fresh beer--much like modern-day Rodenbach.
  • Hoegaarden beer. This is effectively a lambic--a spontaneously-fermented partially-wheat ale. Strangely, it was served fresh, not aged, apparently to great effect. Lacambre: “This beer is very pale, very refreshing and strongly sparkling, when it is fresh; its raw taste has something wild which is very similar to that of beer from Leuven which it resembles in many respects.”
  • Lier Beers (two versions). A stronger, paler export version and a darker version for locals. Not a lot of info.
  • Liege Saison. A beer often made largely of spelt and aged at least four months and often up to two years. Lacambre didn't like the methods of brewing and seemed to regard this as a crude beer whipped up by bumpkins.
  • Liege Biere Jeune. A lighter version of the saison served fresh after a couple weeks.

I must now leave the translation Randy Mosher made of these texts and delve into the one I made via Google Translate--which though less elegant, is remarkably coherent. I am especially interested in his thoughts on "lambicks." He also discussed the beer of other countries, which also ought to be interesting.


  1. This is pretty neat. Interesting to read about what things people used to do.

    On a side note, I don't think I've ever heard "left-handed compliment." I think it's always been back-handed compliment. Is the former a west coast thing?

  2. Left Handed compliment: