My friend Stan Hieronymus runs a blog called Appellation Beer, subtitled “in search of the soul of beer,” in which he pursues the theory that it does matter where a beer is brewed, much as it matters where a wine is “grown,” although perhaps not as acutely.
I’m unsure as to whether I agree completely with Stan’s theory that appellation matters in beer – I tend more towards the view that it matters, and emphatically so, where a beer is consumed, more than where it is brewed – but there is one style for which we are on the same side: lambic. Or at least I think we are.
Brewed from at least one-third unmalted wheat, spiced with aged hops and, perhaps most importantly, spontaneously fermented, lambic is an ancient style still produced to any significant degree in only one place, the Payottenland of Belgium, located principally in the Senne River valley around Brussels. Fermented by air-borne microflora, as well as resident bacteria from the barrels in which the beer is conditioned for up to three years, traditional lambics are indeed the champagnes of the beer world: dry, complex, often tart creations of great character and substance.
Thing is, they are no longer alone in the world of spontaneous fermentation. This Friday, at the Nacht van de Grote Dorst (“Night of Large Thirst) in the Belgian town of Eizeringen, Allagash Brewing of Portland, Maine, will be pouring not one, but four spontaneously fermented beers of their own: Spontaneous (lambic style), Coolship Red (with raspberries), Coolship Cerise (with cherries) and Resurgam (gueuze style). Inoculated with microflora from the Maine air rather than from the atmosphere of the Payottenland, these beers are viewed as “lambic-style” rather than true lambics by event organizer Yves Panneels because they lack the influence of the “specific micro-organisms in the air in and around Brussels.”
I tend to agree, although a niggling part of my brain also sides with Cantillon patriarch Jean-Pierre Van Roy, who once told me that lambic could be brewed and fermented anywhere providing that the wheat content, aged hops and spontaneous fermentation requirements were met. So the question remains, does lambic have an appellation? And the corollary, which matters more, process or microflora?
(For the record, Allagash is emphatic about their beers “honouring the lambic tradition” rather than being true lambics.)