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Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Art of the Lambic

A selection of lambic beer at Spuyten Duyvil
in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Lambics: Beers Gone Wild
Bartomeu Amengual for The New York Times

Published: May 3, 2006

MANY wine lovers tend to think of beer as something monolithic, just as modern art or rap music seem all the same to those who choose not to embrace those subjects. Connoisseurs can rhapsodize for hours over the minute differences between neighboring vineyards in Morey-St.-Denis and Chambolle-Musigny, but beer? Just as long as it's cold.

To be frank, that's a position of blindness and should not inspire pride. Would you only eat meat and never try fish? We all know people like that, and we laugh at them. But people who drink only wine and won't touch beer? They're considered sophisticated. Excuse me while I chuckle.

Now, I'm not attacking preferences here, only the refusal to consider alternatives. If you have explored beer and decided it's not for you, well, I toast your open mind. But if you have exiled beers to parts unknown, I have a radical proposal: Take the time to seek out and try a few lambic beers from Belgium and tell me if these are not as complex and distinctive as many fine wines.

What makes this radical? Even many beer drinkers know little about lambic beer. It's perhaps the most unusual beer around, truly made in the old-fashioned way. It is not at all easy to find. You will most likely have to seek out a shop specializing in great beers of the world, but I assure you it is worth the effort.

Modern breweries today are generally antiseptic environments in which brewers seek absolute control over the chemistry of fermentation. You can imagine them in their lab coats, selecting the proper strains of scientifically prepared yeasts to create the precise flavors and aromas they desire. But lambic beers are made as they were centuries before Pasteur, when the process of fermentation seemed to be a miracle rather than a controlled reaction. Instead of managing fermentation, the lambic brewer leaves it to nature. Wild yeasts, along with just about anything else in the air, shepherd the brew on its path to beerhood, converting barley and wheat sugars into alcohol, producing fascinating and, dare I say, wine-like beers.

The Dining section's tasting panel recently embarked on a lambic journey. Florence Fabricant and I were joined by two guests, Tony Forder, co-publisher and editor of Ale Street News, a consumer publication, and Jason Bezmen, sommelier and manager of Cafe d'Alsace, an Alsatian restaurant on the Upper East Side that offers an extensive beer list. We tried 25 beers that call themselves lambic, and if that sounds as if I am hedging a little about these beers, it's because I am.

Traditionally, lambic is a style of wheat beer, made with a combination of malted barley and unmalted wheat. Hops are added not for the sake of bitterness, as they are in many beers, but to act as a preservative. The brew ferments in barrels, like certain examples of that other fermented beverage, and evolves into a dry, almost sour beer with a fresh, lively acidity and an appealing funkiness. As the brew ages, it mellows and takes on a rich, fruity complexity.

You rarely see straight lambics. Generally, young and aged lambics are blended, and the result is called gueuze (pronounced GURZ-uh). Blends in which the young lambic dominates tend to be almost sparkling in their pure, tart, almost smoky dry flavors and are wonderfully refreshing, not unlike a young blanc de blancs Champagne combined with some sauvignon blanc. An older gueuze develops a mild, almost transparent dry fruitiness like what you might find in a fine blanc de noirs Champagne. The mixture of older and younger lambics causes a second fermentation in the bottle, just as in Champagne, which creates its crisp carbonation.
Anyone who thinks beer is monolithic needs to escape the local bodega. It's not just Corona, the beer the Mexicans won't drink (they drink Tecate), Fosters, the beer Australians won't drink (they like VB, XXXX and others) and Heineken, the beer the Dutch are confounded by (it tastes nothing like Dutch made Heineken).

Oh yeah, the Guinness sold in the US is largely formulated for West Indians.

But with the growth of good imports like Czechvar (Budvar Budweiser), long banned in the US over a trademark dispute with guess who, and other European imports and American microbrews, there is a wide variety of beers one can try. From Sierra Nevada Porter to Newcastle Brown Ale to Stella Artois, to Chimay.

You get confused, get a copy of Garrett Oliver's Brewmaster's Table, and you will learn more about beer than you can ever imagine.

Lambics are hard beers to find, even in New York, and they are unlike anything you've ever had unless you've been to Belgium. Some are sweet, some dry, but they are unique. Instead of playing the oleophile's game, exploring beer can be a lot of fun and goes with more food.

posted by Steve @ 2:25:00 AM

2:25:00 AM

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