Lambic Disorder

beer bottles
Photo by Kyle Jacobson

Through my years drinking, brewing, and writing about beer, I’ve had a lot of my assumptions corrected, opinions changed, and perspectives widened. One thing stressed time and time again is to minimize the wort’s exposure to outside elements. From the boil kettle to the fermentation vessel, the only time even outside air should touch the beer is when the yeast is pitched. Aside from that, keep it sealed. There’s a style, arguably over 5,000 years old, though it would not have a name until the late 1700s, that disregards this oft-repeated truth: Lambic.

The Lambic style encompasses unblended Lambics, Gueuze [gooze], Mars, Faro, Kriek, and other fruited variants. There’s also Meerts, Lambic’s little brother as Levi Funk of Funk Factory Geuzeria dubs it. Andrew Holzhauer, head of operations for Funk Factory, says, “Lambic is a protected term, kinda like Champagne. It can only be made in the Brussels area of Belgium along the Zenne river valley, so the agreement we came to with the Belgians is that we can call it Méthode Traditionnelle.” With complex variances and nuances in each batch, it isn’t hard to see why Belgians want a level of purity surrounding association between beer and style.

That’s something else that’s pretty amazing about Lambics. With so many subtle things, so many variables that go into the beer’s production, even barrel to barrel, the beer is unique. “A lot of what we do,” Andrew says, “is build flavors, layer flavors, from different years and also taste through and say ‘What fruit would go really well with this? How can we best use this beer?’”

Photograph by Kyle Jacobson

I always like to look at beer as an artform. A talented engineer or architect has the opportunity to use a flexible amount of creativity when designing their next project. A brewmaster has that same access to creativity when designing a beer. But a blendmaster, as I call Andrew, is more like a painter in that he sees his creation develop throughout the process and alters direction based on a new understanding of what’s happening, always on their toes to make the fermenting beer the best it can be.

Everything starts the same way. Pick your ingredients, make your mash, break it down, boil it, but then Lambics take a drastic turn that, by design, can never be 100 percent reproduced. Some breweries have embraced the use of a coolship—a giant steel open-fermenter tray. On Funk Factory’s coolship, resourcefully mounted to the top of a trailer, Andrew says, “We’ll take it out there [to the contract brewer], and they’ll run it boiling out of the kettle, skip the heat exchanger, go directly into the top, and this is what we leave outside overnight. So it’s the dead of winter, there’s no bugs out, a few birds, you’re just letting any yeast and bacteria drop into it. So it’s all spontaneous fermentation. We’re not pitching anything.”

Though coolships are relatively new to America, they are a requirement for creating a Lambic. On the subject, Andrew and I laughed discussing the isolation of variables when fermenting exposed to the elements. Andrew says, “We track barometric pressure, wind speed, temperature.”

“You guys are meteorologists?” I ask.

Photograph by Kyle Jacobson

“Somewhat. It’s trying to figure out are there certain conditions that really favor good beer because there are so many variables at play. You want to figure out and really dial in on what are the ones that matter.”

Even as I sit writing, drinking a kettle sour—limited in complexity when compared to Lambics, I can’t quite wrap my head around the style. Okay, a kettle sour makes some sense because it doesn’t completely relinquish control, allowing processes like pasteurization. But beyond that, everything seems like a headache. Though I won’t argue with the results.

And sour beers, kind of like the first time you fell in love…with loose morals and adrenaline, leave an impression. I still remember being in Boulder, Colorado, as my old friend from college took me down a dark alley to Avery Brewing Company’s old facility. We sat down, got a rather eclectic flight in both color and drinkware, and he handed me my first sour beer. The ensuing look I gave him, eyes watering and tongue gasping, questioned our friendship. I asked him why anyone would do this.

I think I get it now. Why sour beers have become popular. It’s inserting a degree of separation between expectation and reality and embracing something that, though thousands of years old, has a lot of untapped potential. Andrew tells me about a beer-wine hybrid. “It’s one of the more intellectually satisfying beers. These days, I drink a beer and think, do I love it? It’s irrelevant. Do I love trying it? Do I love thinking about it? Do I love dissecting it? Yeah, I do.”

Photograph by Kyle Jacobson

As a drinker and a brewer of traditional styles, I enjoy taking apart a beer and imagining what the recipe looked like. With sour beers, there’s a new tier of questions asking what the wort encountered exposed to the air, how life in a barrel interacted with those elements, and if aspects of one barrel were merged with another to create something really satisfying, as is required in a Gueuze, which combines one-, two-, and three-year-aged beers.

Levi Funk says it better than I could on why Lambic beers work in Wisconsin. “I see it as a natural fit to many celebrated aspects of Wisconsin culture. Obviously we have a rich brewing history, and beer has long since been part of our social culture. Yes, the beer culture is rooted heavily in Germanic styles, but even the Germans have sour beer styles. … Wisconsin’s climate is perfect for this style of fermentation, so we are very fortunate here. Wisconsin is also proud of the bountiful fruit crops we have in this state, and our beers are able to marry those two worlds.”

To the things we don’t understand but partake in nevertheless.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

Funk Factory Geuzeria
is a great place to educate yourself on historic sour beers. In addition, Andrew recommends the specialty sours that come out at New Glarus Brewing, the pioneers for sour beers in Wisconsin.