By Chris Jones and Diane Catanzaro
Gueuze, the brewer’s final frontier. This is the voyage of two Peninsula men. Their three-year mission: to annually make successive 55-gallon batches of lambic-style ale, age it in oak barrels, and at the end of three years blend the three batches together to boldly go where relatively few homebrewers have gone before, to make a gueuze-style ale.
What do you call two brewers who are trying to brew an ancient style of beer indigenous to the Payottenland region of Brussels, Belgium? What do you call brewers who are so sold on sour that they are making 165 gallons of it, and investing three years worth of time to do it? Do you call them crazy? Artists? Ale adventurers?
We call them J.L. Lyon and Eric Gold, and they may be the biggest lambic-style ale producers in Virginia. At the end of this process, they will have 165 gallons, or around 800 champagne-sized bottles of that beautiful beverage.
So what’s a lambic?
A “straight” Belgian lambic is a sour-to-tart tasting spontaneously fermented ale, produced in and around Brussels near the Senne River valley. The beer base is made of malted barley, unmalted wheat, aged (aroma-less) hops, and is aged in wood (usually French oak barrels). The ale’s unique flavor and aroma characteristics are due to a mess of microorganisms (Brettanomyces, Pediococcus, Lactobacillus, and of course yeast, Saccharomyces) that ferment and inhabit the concoction, converting the mixture from a sugar-rich concoction to a much-beloved anachronistic beer. These microbes are home boys to the Payottenland region south and west of Brussels, and in some cases are indigenous to the building within where they are made.
Lambics are weird in the sense that they are unabashedly sour; they can taste as sour as the center of a Warhead candy, a milder lambic may taste like a funkified unsweetened lemonade. Home brewers can’t count on finding these four microorganisms in their kitchen or backyard (unless they reside in Senne River Valley), so they have to acquire a pre-mixed package of the funky four so they can get that Belgian flavor without having to go to Belgium. Lambics are typically flat when poured into a glass because the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation is lost from the barrel while aging.
So what’s a gueuze?
A “straight” gueuze is a blended Belgian ale, made up of one-, two- and you guessed it, three-year old lambics. Because it’s a blend, breweries can make it as funky or unfunky as they’d like; they can give more power to the sour, or they can make a more moderate malt beverage. Unlike lambic, a gueuze is typically effervescent when poured into a glass because (a) the one-year-old lambic portion of the blend still has viable yeast and fermentable sugar within it to carbonate the beer in the bottle, and (b) brewers add a small dose of fermentable sugar if it doesn’t.
For a beer to be a bona fide lambic or gueuze, it must come from the area around Brussels. Also, an authentic lambic is fermented with wild yeasts that happen to float by and exclaim, “Hey, somebody made us a tasty malt sugar bath, let’s chow down!” These hungry microorganisms land in the cooled wort , left uncovered overnight in a shallow open container in hopes of attracting exactly this sort of interest, and begin to eat, drink, and reproduce. Oh yes, and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Prior to the discovery of yeast by Louis Pasteur all beer was made using some type of spontaneous fermentation. Once yeasts responsible for fermenting beer were harnessed, quality controls could be implemented, specific well-behaved yeasts could be pitched into the wort, and the wild, sour, and funky flavors were eliminated to create ‘clean’ tasting beer where flavors come from the malt and hops, not yeast. However, the use of spontaneous fermentation by wild yeasts never completely died out in the Senne River Valley region. While tastes of the masses dictated lighter, sweeter, “clean-tasting” brews, some traditional brewers in the region around Brussels stubbornly stuck to tradition and continued to produce spontaneously fermented lambic and blend young and old lambic to create gueuze, in all its sour, tangy, barnyard, funkified, wet horse-blanket glory. And those of us who love these beer are thankful they did! When you taste an authentic lambic or gueuze you are tasting history and culture, not just beer!
True authentic lambic and gueuze fit the above description. If the beer is not brewed in the specific region in or near Brussels using spontaneous fermentation it is appropriately called lambic-style ale (LSA), and a blend of young and old LSAs is a gueuze-style ald (GSA). Many “lambics” sold in the U.S. are actually only a small portion of true lambic beer and area sweetened with fruit syrup and sugars to create beers that can be quite appealing, but these are not true authentic lambics. For the people who think lambics are “too sweet” we can safely guarantee that you have not had a true lambic.
Okay, let’s return to the north side of the James River.
Both Mr. Lyon and Mr. Gold are avid homebrewers, and were looking for a homebrewing challenge. They have the patience to wait several years to taste the fruit of their brewing labor. They seriously savor stimulation of sour receptors on their respective tongues…or maybe they just wanted to brew beer that many of their friends would not want to drink … and apparently they have a lot of storage space.
Why did they undertake such a labor of love? Why did they want to make GSA? J.L. said money had a lot to do with it – it cost a lot of loot to love a lambic or gander a gueuze. In June of 2010, after a trip to Belgium, he went to a local retailer and bought six lambics; there was no change back after paying with a Ben Franklin. Ben would’ve been shocked at that cost, with or without a kite, so J.L. set a course to “lambic land” and recruited Eric to make the journey with him.
In order to age beer in an oak barrel, you’ve got to have the barrel, so J.L. went off on a query for Quercus. He found two French oak barrels at two different Virginia wineries, tossed them in his truck, and headed for home. Check. Then he and Eric assembled their ingredients – hundreds of pounds of barley and wheat, along with aroma-challenged hops (Lambics have no hop aroma, hops are used for their preservative quality – so you use aged hops that have lost their mojo). Check. Finally they found a supplier of the appropriate fermentation microorganisms (East Coast Yeast), and they were ready to go.
In March, 2011, and again in April, 2012, J.L. and Eric, assisted by some friends, brewed 55 gallons of LSA. The 2011 batch took about 18 hours to produce; using a different brewing process, the 2012 batch took less than six hours. Sometime in 2013, they’re going to brew another batch, and finally in 2014, they will bottle the three-year-old, and simultaneously blend the three batches and create their own GSA which they’re appropriately naming “Golden Lion”, or “Gouden Leun”/“Lion d’Or” to put the proper Belgian tone on things.
How do they know how it’s going to turn out? Well, they taste it now and then.
In late May, Chris and Jeff Maisey, Veer’s publisher, were on-hand for an LSA tasting at the “gueuze garage”, J.L.’s storage site for barrels, not cars. JL and Eric skillfully removed about two gallons of LSA from each of the two barrels into pitchers, and prepared to pour. We were drooling in anticipation (it’s best to wear a black t-shirt when drooling; it doesn’t show up as much). The young one-year-old lambic style ale looked beautiful, as yellow as the sun, and to Chris, tasted lightly acetic, a little bit like diluted apple cider vinegar. The two-year-old lambic style ale was gorgeous, bright orange in color, and the consensus on the taste ranged from mildly acetic to acidic, and/or sour, demonstrably sharper than the one-year-old. If you blended the two together as if you are making a gueuze style ale, you could tone down the sharpness of the two-year-old with the one-year-old, making a sensational sour beverage.
So, two years down, one year to go, and eventually 800 bottles to fill. If you like sours, these two guys are your best friends. If you don’t like sours, better bring your own beer to their picnic.
Oh, one more thing. J.L. and Eric, if you run out of storage space on the Peninsula, we just happen to have some space available at our house. We’re just sayin’ ….