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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Again, Opinions Differ

From the famed scientist Louis Figuier, from his famous 1860 Les merveilles de l'industrie, ou Description des Principales Industries Modernes (The marvels of industry, or Description of Key Modern Industries). Not so big on the lambics:
"Belgian beers [he was referring to "lambicks" here] do not have yeast pitched and are fermented spontaneously by the grace of God. Being left to themselves, a final, slow fermentation continues, not at a low temperature, as with German beers, but at ordinary temperatures, and are products of chance and the whim. If a few Belgian beers deserve their reputation, most are sour, the wort quickly turns from alcoholic fermentation to the acid fermentation, so that, when consumed, they have already lost much of their alcohol and changed into acetic and lactic acids. Let us therefore pray that the German method, that is to say bottom-fermentation, penetrates the Belgian brewery and reform its old processes."
Three things. First, this is a Google Translation, so the hinky language should not necessarily be blamed on Figuier. Second, Figuier had a strange sense of what happened to alcohol in wild fermentation. Third, his prayers were eventually answered, but fortunately, not completely. Belgium is awash in lagers, but a few breweries still depend on whim and chance.

It does raise one question: how did lambic survive? In 1860, Europe had dozens of styles destined for the memory hole. If you were to line them up and rank them based on likelihood of survival, lambic would surely have been very near the bottom. Lagers hadn't yet claimed the planet, but as Figuier's opinion demonstrates, lambic even then looked like a dinosaur. It has only been in the last three decades that lambic producers have managed to control the process well enough to put out fairly consistent examples. When I spoke to Frank Boon, he mentioned that the lambics of the 1970s were totally inconsistent.
“But I didn’t realize at the first time that there was a lot of flaws in his beers. Because he only gave us the best bottles. It’s like the old professor said, ‘these old lambic brewers, they sell gueuze like they sell pigs: everybody wants the best meat, but you have to sell the whole pig.’ When customers complained that there was no head on the beer, they said it was proof that there was no additives in it. If it was cloudy, they said see, it’s the proof that it’s unfiltered. If it was foamy, they waited until the winter to sell the beer.”
Yet somehow they remained commercially viable for 15 decades after Figuier wrote his condemnation. Belgium is not like other places.

1 comment:

  1. hmm "famous" might be too strong a term - I have a degree in Chemistry and I've never heard of this guy.