Lambic Style

What’s up Cheers Charlotte beerheads! This week the boys had the privilege of sampling a beer from the Triad’s own Natty Green’s sour series: a Kriek Lambic. The kriek Lambic has a long colorful history and is a very old style of brew from the Brussels region of Belgium. The name “Kriek Lambic” refers to two separate things in the style and brewing process. The word “kriek” refers to cherries; as this style of beer is aged (and more appropriately), fermented on sour cherries specifically. The word “Lambic” is attributed to a style of beer brewed in Belgium that is wild in nature; as no proper inoculation is implemented. This basically means no specific yeast strain or blends of yeasts are added to the wort (as in traditional brewing) – this is something completely fermented with bacteria in conjunction with yeast.

  • What Is a Lambic Beer?

As mentioned above, a Lambic is a beer that is completely fermented with a “cocktail” of bacteria and yeast working side by side. Traditionally these beers were fermented in open vats or wooden barrels and are almost always sour in nature. The reasoning behind this method of fermentation is to allow the wild yeast and bacteria to take control of the wort. More recently these beers have been adopted by American artisan brewers whom are making the style their own by using American hops and/or using American oak barrels while carefully crafting this timeless style by hand; just as the old school Belgian brewers did. Russian River and Jolly Pumpkin are just two of the more well-known brewers of this style here in the U.S. and are masters at brewing and blending their batches. Often these brewers will inoculate their beer by filling the “infected” wooden barrels with a fresh batch of wort and letting the house mix of bacteria and yeast do their thing!

  • Lambic Flavors – How are they accomplished?

The style itself can develop an extremely wide variety of flavors due to its wild nature. There are some things that are done to attempt to control how the final beer will taste – although these points follow more tradition that actual guidelines.

–        Grist: the traditional Lambic grist is usually ½ or ¾ barley and the remaining grain bill will incorporate some unmalted grain – I.E. unmalted wheat, barley, spelt…etc. The reasoning behind this is to give the non-traditional fermentors (bacteria and brettanomyces) something to chew on (ferment) in the long term after the easy sugars are consumed. Sour brewers use this trick to accentuate Brett and Lactobacillus flavor contributions. A rule of thumb: lots of dextrin will equal more depth of flavor from the wild yeast and bacteria – hence the hard to digest unmalted grist.

–        Symbiotic relationship between the yeast and bacteria: in a typical Lambic fermentation (I am loosely using the term typical), the yeast and bacteria are working side by side consuming sugars. While the yeast (saccharomyces and brettanomyces among others) consume the easy sugars, they are completing the bulk of the primary fermentation while contributing the majority of the alcohol as well. When the saccharomyces get lazy and cannot consume any more of the easy sugars, it’s the wild yeast and bacteria that are in it for the long term; consuming long chained starches – this is what the unmalted grain is for. Over time the hard to ferment sugars are broken down and consumed by the bacteria and wild yeasts. It is said that the bacteria will actually start to consume the sugars from the wooden barrel itself after a while! Nearly all of a Lambic’s acidity or sourness will come in the months and years following primary fermentation.

–        Blending: most commercial brewers blend their batches of Lambic due to the very nature of the style. Because they are spontaneously fermented, the outcome is very hard to predict. Most of the time batches will take on their own flavors and will change over the course of time. Master Blenders spend a lot of time tasting each barrel to get the blending just right. Blending beers, especially the Lambic style, takes years of experience and is considered an art form of its own altogether! Unblended Lambic beers are more dicey for a commercial brewery, as you cannot hide a bad barrel or an off flavor with blending; it’s a one shot deal by style – which means you’d better know what you are doing…or you’d better hope you get lucky!

To finish this blog entry off, I want to briefly talk about my one and only Lambic to date. It is still in secondary, and I hear the airlock bubble every once in a while, though not often. I fermented another sour beer prior to brewing this Lambic back in 2011 and added some wood chips to the beer – along with every wild strain of yeast, bacteria and bottle dregs I could get ahold of! This was an experiment just to see what would happen – (at the worst I can always dump it out!) As it turns out, after againg awhile I bottled the sour and it’s was absolutely spectacular! However before bottling I kept the wood chips from the batch and repitched the very same wood chips into a 3 gallon carboy full of fresh wort. Low and behold several days later I had good yeast fermentation with an active air lock with all the typical signs. It seems that whatever attached itself to those wood chips has now taken a liking to this new batch. Fast forward to the present, the beer has dropped gravity to almost 1.000 and has a very strong “Lambic” sourness. This batch of beer has changed completely from an undrinkable beer in the beginning to a mellowed out unblended sour Lambic, all thanks to my “infected” wood chips! Was it luck…yep…more than likely, but I got a seemingly true to style Lambic from that experience!


Thanks for reading (and listening) and be sure to check out the show each week as the fellas talk about the Charlotte Beer scene. Cheers Charlotte!- Matt Coffey


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