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Friday, August 09, 2013

Why Americans Don't Make "Lambics"

Note: Post has been updated.

I sparked a mild fracas on Twitter* yesterday when I responded to a tweet with this:

Americans are the great appropriators, though, and people started making the point that many styles have origins in other places and we still use those style names when we make the beers in America:

It's true.  An even better case would be kolsch, which has a European PGI and which the Germans take very seriously.  Americans blithely brew kolsches without the slightest thought about how the style relates to place.  And because I'm an American, I'm generally sympathetic to this view.  There are two good reasons we shouldn't call anything outside Payottenland a lambic, though.

Working to keep lam
The first is pedantic.  Lambics aren't just a legally protected style (though they are that)--they're a product of place.  It's the oldest extant style on earth (or anyway the oldest that is essentially the same as it was in the 16th century), and one that is bound to the area around Brussels by the particular fauna yeasts [see comments below] that seed the cooling wort.  Moreover, it is a extremely specific product of craft.  In order to preserve that lineage of what a "lambic" is, lambic-makers all agree to produce their beer in specific ways to specific specifications: at least 30% unmalted wheat; spontaneously fermented; hops aged at least a year; in the case of gueuze, the beer must be refermented in the bottle; contain specific compounds like the presence of brettanomyces and absence of isoamyl acetate that affirm it was made properly; must be aged at least a year on wood (or in the case of gueuze, must include one-, two-, and three-year-old blends).

All these things define what a lambic is and should be.  Other breweries make spontaneously-fermented beer in Belgium, but unless they're in Payottenland and make it to these standards, they don't call their beer lambic.  They are making, both in the letter and spirit of the law, different beers.

The second reason is actually the one that convinces me, though.  It's not pedantic or supercilious, as the first one is usually thought to be.  Lambic is certainly one of the hardest beers to make in the world (and for my money the very hardest).  It has nearly disappeared at least once, and despite the wild ale revolution in the US and Italy, isn't an especially robust segment of the Belgian market.  When I visited Cantillon, I encountered owner fourth-generation brewer Jean Van Roy up to his elbows in a whirlpool, trying to extract hops from wort as it went to the kettle.  He had already been working for six hours and his day was nowhere near done.  The Van Roys, along with a handful of other families in Belgium, have continued to make this beer the old way, no matter how much of a bitch it is, and seemingly, no matter how small the market got.

Amazingly, when they finally started to find an export market in the US, folks like the Van Roys were happy to receive US brewers and tell them their secrets.  Brewing days are open at Cantillon.  You can ask Jean any question you like; you can film every minute of his brew and write extensive notes.  You can take this information home and brew your own beer to his exact specifications.  And you can do this all with his explicit blessing.

All he asks is that you shouldn't call it lambic.  In the long, lean decades of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, his family toiled to keep the tradition of lambic-making alive.  Their brewery contains a small museum that tells the story of this lineage and illustrates how the brewery fits into it.  It is the tradition of lambic-making, and now that the style is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, he'd like you to remember this long tradition and what it means and has meant to his family (and the families of the other lambic-makers).  When you think of lambic, think of the beers these brewers have kept alive in this little corner of the world for so long.  It's not a huge request.

In America we make wild ales or spontaneous ales.  We don't make lambic.

Update.  Since this post has been discussed broadly on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and at least one other blog, I'd like to add two more points.   I made the first one, but extremely obliquely.  It's that wild ales are different depending on where they're brewed.  They're spontaneously fermented: that is, wild yeasts floating in the air seed the wort.  You can do spontaneous fermentation anywhere, but you'll get different yeasts.  In lambic land you get brettanomyces bruxellensis--named for the city of origin.  When Rob Tod started making spontaneously fermented beer at Allagash, he had his brett culture looked at and found it was unlike anything anyone had seen before.  (Brettanomyces portlandensis?)  The wild ales Ron Jeffries makes in Michigan are different.  Lambics are beers principally defined by the yeasts, and it is therefore literally impossible to make spontaneously-fermented beer taste the same if you make it in a different place.  This is (in addition to the stuff I mentioned above) why it's different from a lot of the protected European names, which actually can be pretty easily replicated elsewhere.  Lambics are wild ales from Payottenland.

The second point has to do with why I care about this.  Apparently I've been a little vehement on the issue.  (I have!)  It's because the style very nearly died out in the 1960s and 70s. When I visited Frank Boon, he explained the sad fate of many of the beers during that time:  "Forty years ago, this was a time when breweries were closing and all the local styles were disappearing. Everywhere in Belgium. Louvain white disappeared, Peeterman disappeared, [ascot beers] disappeared. In the 1950s and 1960s. If gueuze had disappeared in the 1960s, nobody would ever have imagined to make such a beer."  Other Belgian breweries have very often stolen names.  They used "Trappist" to describe beer that had nothing to do with monks.  They took kriek and gueuze and faro and used it on beers that had nothing to do with lambic.  In a last-ditch effort to save the style, lambic makers and blenders banded together to get a PGI to protect some of their products.  If they hadn't, I have no doubt but that there would be no lambic today.  Kriek is a cautionary tale.  It was appropriated by other breweries for beers that aren't made traditionally, and now you can find a debased cough syrup product called "kriek" everywhere.  That would have been the way of lambic had they not taken action to protect it.

Obviously, these are all businesses and they all want to protect and promote their products.  But in this case, the word has real power.  If we allow "lambic" to mean "any sour beer," then what happens to the beers that take 12 hours to brew and three years to age?  If I'm vehement, it's because I'm scared to death that my favorite styles of beer will vanish.

*The discussion proceeded, as Twitter discussions do, in increasingly smaller, tarter fragments.  As more people join the conversation, you end up with tags for other people taking up 100 characters, leaving you with enough space to offer a brief, cutting reply.  Twitter doesn't facilitate discussions, it destroys them.


  1. Well said Jeff.

    I'd be very happy to try American wild ales, or British wild ales or whatever, but I'll only buy a beer called Lambic if it's from Belgium!

  2. Time does not respect what is done without Him.

  3. Well said, I've got a similar feeling when I see a non-Belgian brewery claiming to make an Abbey beer or, worse, a Trappist.

  4. True about lambics. Even more true at Tw@tter. It's not just a conversation destroyer, it's a sociability destroyer that promotes isolation and cultish behavior. And ... does anyone remember the execrable Sam Adams Cranberry Lambic from back in the 1990s?

  5. I'm 100% in agreement. I love American wild ales, and am very excited about those few who are brave enough to experiment with spontaneous fermentation. But if it's Lambic, it's Belgian. I spent an afternoon with the Boon family touring their Lambic brewery and have a HUGE amount of respect for Frank Boon and the work he put into preserving and protecting the cultural heritage of this product. He and Van Roy and the others who managed to keep Lambic alive have earned the right to be respected and have the name of their product protected.

  6. So what you're suggesting is that the entire taxonomical issue at hand should be impeded, that one of the segments of craft beer that is developing most quickly should be made more difficult for newbies to understand by foisting upon it the necessary conditional knowledge that Cantillon exists and that the dictate of that brewmaster is that several hundred other breweries should come up with a separate term for the products which are inspired by his beer? We must create a categorical distinction based on geography and a familiar legacy? And we expect people to pick up on that when they can't do it with Kolsch?

    At least supply a catchy name for the new style if you're going to insist on the semantic distinction. Don't dump the marketing departments out in the cold. Throw them a bone.

  7. One nerdy quibble with your otherwise convincing post: You write: " that is bound to the area around Brussels by the particular fauna that seed the cooling wort," but if you're referring to the yeast, then "fauna" is not the right word. They're fungi.

    That aside, I especially love the humanitarian second reason for not calling it a lambic. Well played.

  8. Rob, thanks for the comment on "fauna." I had no idea fungus wasn't fauna. (Or, it appears, flora. Weird lifeforms.)


    At first I thought maybe you were willfully misreading my post, but then, when I saw this sentence, I wondered if you'd actually just not read it: "At least supply a catchy name for the new style if you're going to insist on the semantic distinction. Don't dump the marketing departments out in the cold. Throw them a bone."

    I refer you to the last two line of the post: "In America we make wild ales or spontaneous ales. We don't make lambic."

  9. The suggestion is that the reason people use Lambic indiscriminately is because it's a one word title. I don't believe they're intentionally trying to disrespect the Cantillon brewer or tradition of whatever variety. It's a simple catchall term.

    Spontaneous Ales? Wild Ales? Not exactly world beaters in the naming department. Maybe if we supply a catchier name for the developmental stages of these new styles the problem will go away.

  10. How about Lambesque?

  11. Taken from the book "The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing" by Charles Papazian: "Airborn wild yeasts and bacteria unique to a 15-square mile area southwest of Brussels, Belgium, fall into freshly brewed wort."
    So it is more than just yeast falling in.

  12. Nice article... and relatedly, that "beer wench" chick is incredibly dumb and probably the most annoying person I've ever encountered. Avoid at all costs.

  13. Bravo.

    As for all the hangers-on, get over yourselves. For decades, I've heard the beers called pseudo lambics. pLambics for short. Wild ale doesn't suck. pseudo-Champagne is now sparkling wine. Appelations are like trademarks: respect them and move on.

    And Jordan's a funny person. First, they beg 'throw us a bone', then they get finicky because alternatives aren't good enough. Bone, schmone... Jordan wants to camp on a rich tradition for free, rather than building reputation. The former is laziness; the latter is where marketing legends are made. Suck it up and do your dang job, Jordan.

  14. How about calling a beer an "[x]-style beer"?
    I think Abe/Widmer did that with green and gold.

  15. The answer is the call a beer "***-style". Those who put forward the argument about pilsner, pale ale, Imperial Russian stout cannot be gainsaid (although pale ale transplanted to America via a British colonization here, so that is sort of different, but point taken). But these are historical examples that must be accepted, it's too late to change the practice in their regard. It's not too late to respect the origins of lambic and gueuze, especially as these are legally protected in their area. The analogy to Champagne is just. The French early on actively protected it and mostly successfully, so that today one reads of sparkling wine or perhaps at most Champagne-style wine although under trade accords I am not sure even that passes muster today. There are easy ways to allude to a foreign inspiration without using the original term and if a product is good it will take off no matter (almost) what you call it.


  16. Sorry, I meant to say, the answer is to call a beer "***-style". As long as the very word on the label is not prohibited by national (American in this case) law, this seems the fairest solution to me because "style" clearly implies an emulation.


  17. Side note: Russian Imperial Stouts were ONLY brewed outside of Russia, and not for very long. I've been to Russia and had chance to talk to some of the brewers at the few brewpubs I found and none of them had ever heard of a Russian Imperial Stout and laughed when I told them.

  18. [If we allow "lambic" to mean "any sour beer," then what happens to the beers that take 12 hours to brew and three years to age?]

    Exactly why I don't want to call a beer "wild ale" when I go through a 12 (if only!) hour brew day, age it for 3 years, and do everything I can to emulate a traditional lambic brew/fermentation.

    EU protection of lambic isn't as you imagine. Summary here:
    "kriek" has as much protection as "lambic" does.

    I agree there are some awful uses of the term lambic within the US (Sam Adams Cranberry Lambic, Trinity Gueuze), but there are equally horrific Belgian examples....even within the HORALs membership.

    When you look into it, you may realize that there are some in the US that are more "traditional" in their production than some of the Belgian producers...

  19. This is, of course, a non-issue. The only folks who are going to buy a lambic (Belgian or otherwise) Already know what a "real" one is. Koelsch is another matter, however, as it is a style that has true non-geek appeal.

  20. I'm extremely offended by this post and I really wish the emails and Twitter comments about it would just stop.

    I'm sorry that I offended you with my Tweet and I'm sorry that my Tweet forced you to want to offend me in this way. Public humiliation is, quite possibly, one of the worst things you can do to someone. So, thank you Jeff. You are truly an upstanding gent.

    And to your anonymous commenter who said that I'm incredibly dumb---grow some balls and don't hide behind an anonymous avatar. If you have a problem with me, act like a grown-up and say it to my face.

  21. Levi, I didn't want to get into the weeds of the PGI law more than I already did, but yeah, the key is "oude."

    Your comment reminds me that I meant to note that with some pretty rare exceptions, American brewers don't use the word "lambic." They have used clever ways to signal what they're doing, like "Lambickx" (Vanberg and DeWulf), Rueuze (Bruery), or spontaneous (Allagash).

  22. Ashley,

    I didn't write this post to offend and certainly not humiliate you. You often post tweets designed to elicit opinions, so I weighed in on that lambic one with my lambics-aren't-American comment. By no means was this to disparage you. It's just a hobby horse of mine and so I thought I'd weigh in.

    The next day, I noticed there had been quite a bit of commentary on the issue, both for and against my argument, so I decided to write a post about why--since I'm a dinosaur and can't make pithy statements in 140 characters. When I quoted you and Alastair, it was to point out that Americans regularly ignore European style guidelines and to further point out that I agreed with you that we don't need to write American-style in front of pilsner, IPA, kolsch, and so on. The point of this post was to explain why I thought they were in a special category.

    I didn't think it was offensive to use the original tweet as a jumping-off point, nor did I tweet anything subsequently that disparaged you. I've apologized I think four times on Twitter, and I apologize here as well. I meant no offense, I don't think you said anything wrong or different from what a bunch of other tweeters say, and I am also sorry if when I tweet back to you, it's negative sometimes. I'll try to do better in the future.

  23. Jeff,

    What I don't get is why you had to make an example of me? Why you had to portray me as the fool?

    I think it's great that you are passionate about lambics. I think it's awesome that you want to educate the world about lambics. But why did you have to make me look like a fool in the process? What do you have to gain from making me look like an ignorant beer geek?

    As someone who studied wine for nearly a decade, I understand the importance of appellation regulation. Really, I do.

    And for the record, that question was asked because of an article I was writing for I needed a list of "whatever-you-want-to-call-them" lambic-inspired beers from American craft breweries to feature along with the post (the BA requires that I only highlight member breweries).

    And as for the RIS tweet, I was fuming by then and wasn't even really thinking at that point. And YES, I know that it is an English style created for export to Russia. So I'm quite grateful that you threw that one into this post as well.... you know, to make me look extra foolish.

    So I'm sorry that I phrased my question the way I did. I guess I didn't really think about the consequences of such a tweet, but now I will always second guess myself. And I have you to thank for that.

  24. Jeff,

    Also note that you never.... like never talk to me on Twitter. And the one time you talk to me on Twitter is to criticize me. Like a troll, you waited in the shadows for an opportune moment to jump out and sabotage me.

    If we had regular banter between us, none of this would have been an issue. I might have said something to the extent of---oh, you're right. Good call.

    But since this is the first time you've spoken to me in probably 2 years.... I took great offense. I never expected you, of all the beer bloggers, to have a mean streak.

  25. In order for an American brewery to produce a packaged Kolsch they have to label it as a "kolsch style ale" in order for the TTB to approve the label.

  26. Jeff,

    You seem very direct and matter-of-fact and I don't see how you were trying to make anyone look dumb. Some people just like to play the victim and get validation by their followers to make them feel better. It actually seemed like you were the one who was getting bullied at the end of that twitter conversation.

    Such a shame.

  27. Jeff - Lambickx is Belgian lambic (not American). Rueuze is a sour blonde blend (not lambic). Allagash is an example of a US brewery producing traditional lambic.

    What I disagree with is making a blanket statement that Americans can't make lambic. There is a methodology to making lambic that Americans can follow. Allagash is one example of a brewery who has gone through all the extra work, expense, and risk to follow that traditional methodology. "Wild Ale" is a term that is used for any cheaply (relatively) made beer fermented with brett and/or bacteria. Should not a beer be afforded the distinction from this category if it is brewed according to the traditional lambic methodology? I believe so. Both Ratebeer and Beeradvocate classify Allagash's Coolship series as "Lambic", so they must agree.

    The debate isn't whether or not Americans can make lambic. The debate is over defining the lambic methodology that Americans need to follow.

  28. By the way Imperial Stout was brewed in Russia - Le Coq made it in Tartu (then part of the Russian Empire) from about 1912 until the Revolution. Also, Zythophile (Martyn Cornell) indicated some years ago in a superb blog entry on Imperial Russian Stout that porter was brewed in Russia as early as 1803. He didn't refer to Imperial Stout as such, but I'd think any local porter brewer would have made a strong version to try to take share from the best imports. Martyn quoted a contemporary comment that the local stuff wasn't that great, but the comment was probably made by a visiting Briton (i.e., did national pride factor in?); in any case, that's aside the point. Finally, Martyn did state too that the adjective Russian seems to have been applied to the beer only from the 1920's in London. Thus, strong porter was brewed in Russia (and certainly in other Baltic lands we know) well before that.

    This doesn't take away from the fact that Imperial Stout was classically a London export, but it's still worth mentioning some of the finer points IMO...


  29. Levi, let's not farm out style-granting authority to RateBeer and BeerAdvocate, whatsay? I'm not prepared to go there yet.

    My guess is that almost no brewery will ever make traditional lambics in the way Belgians do, from turbid mash through proper aging. In the event that they do, it's easy enough to say "traditional lambic-style" or "spontaneous" or whatever. We're ultimately talking about the competing needs of breweries and since it's the Americans who are doing the copying and appropriating, it's incumbent on them to oblige the Belgians. (And as I said, most are happy to do just that.)

    Ashley, just one final fine point. After the tweets I quoted, I wrote "it's true." I wasn't quoting them to embarrass anyone, but to point out that tweeters got it right that we do regularly appropriate style names from other countries. I was agreeing! I even went on to try to bolster your case with the kolsch example. Indeed, I think in principle, we don't need to be overly anal about that stuff.

    Again, I'm sorry I offended you and take responsibility for my part in that; I hope that with a bit of dispassion, you might see that some of the offending material wasn't actually so offensive.

  30. [My guess is that almost no brewery will ever make traditional lambics in the way Belgians do]

    You should look into 1.) how these Belgian breweries are making lambic and 2.) how Allagash is making lambic.

    Actually, first you should write down the methodology you believe is required to make lambic. Then compare that to what you find is actually being done.

    There are a few Belgian brewers that will meet your list, but popular notion has romanticised their practice on to all Belgian lambic, which is not the reality.

  31. Anyone brewery "oude gueuze" makes it traditionally. (Blenders using stock from Boon, Cantillon, Lindemanns and so on also make traditional gueuze.) I've covered Allagash extensively on this blog and agree they do (or did--I haven't been checking up) it the way Belgians do. So far as I know, they're the only ones. (Thus "almost no.") And it's worth noting that Jason and Tod respect the Belgians and don't call their beer lambic.

  32. I do believe that the plural of Kolsch is Kolsch btw - although I prefer Kolschen

  33. While I agree with you, Jeff, I don't think you've drawn the lines for protected names very well. Much of what makes a traditional "lambic" CAN be reproduced stateside, or anywhere else, thanks to microbiology. Yeast that actually ferment are much more limited in nature than you'd think: there are only a handful of strains that will grow on grapes, including bayanus, there are only a handful of types that will grown on wheat and barley, and only a handful of those will happily co-exist with lactobacillus (and only a handful of lactobacillus co-exists there, either), and only a handful of THOSE will keep going in the presence of any alcohol.

    They've done studies on sourdough, the total number of combinations, worldwide, is extremely small. The yeast is not in the air, either: it's collected on the plant, which then has a medium to work once you wet it into dough.

    Long story short, if you leave dough or beer or wine or cider out to naturally ferment, chances are it's going to do so in some fairly predictable ways regardless of where you are in the world.

    That said, I perfectly understand drawing the line at ingredients and process, which is a particular blindness of the BJCP and related beer style rubrics (including ratebeer/ba, which is pretty much bottom of the barrel as far as that goes).

  34. On the extreme end, I recently had a conversation (about kolsch nonetheless) where someone argued that if you could duplicate a kolsch chemically in a lab using none of the actual ingredients or process involved in making beer, that it would still be kolsch style beer. It would, according to ratebeer/ba/BJCP.

  35. ・゜゜・ ​ 。。・゜゜\_​O< QUACK​!

  36. It's called "cultural misappropriation". Don't do it.

    Further to the "Russian Imperial Stout" angle, Le Coq (founded by a Prussian Huguenot, incidentally, not a Belgian, as everybody since Michael Jackson has been claiming) started brewing its RIS in Dorpat/Tartu, then INSIDE Russia, in 1913, precisely because large numbers of Russian brewers were making fake Le Coq Imperial Stout inside Russia, and undercutting the price of the original and genuine.

  37. I have a lot of sympathy for being against mislabelling beers. I've recently found out lambic beers were made in Holland up until the 1930s though, so I'm now wavering a little on how strictly lambic should be defined.