Question: How do you know when craft beer has made it into the consciousness of the general public?
Answer: When a rare beer made in an artisanal brewery in a small town in Belgium features in the weekly mailer of one of New Zealand's largest homeware chains.
I'm not kidding; if you turn to page four of the Briscoes mailer that arrived in your mailbox last weekend you'll see a corked bottle of Boon Framboise next to a tall flute glass of the beer in an advertisement promoting wooden servewear.
Someone clearly went to considerable effort to select such a rare beer - a bucolic, wild yeast fermented, raspberry flavoured Lambic wheat beer made only by a handful of brewers in and around Brussels - and it was a most appropriate choice. The beer, the production of which involves several years in wooden casks, looks great as a prop alongside the carefully placed wooden bowls and platters.
That same someone also did their homework when it came to the choice of glassware. Like Champagne, fruit Lambics are often served chilled as an aperitif and in both cases a tall, narrow-topped flute is the most appropriate glass.
And like Champagne, Lambic beer has a long history. Dating back at least five centuries, it is the beer world's oldest surviving beer style. Lambic, like Champagne, is an "appellation controlee" and denotes that the beer comes from one of a handful of Belgian brewers in and around Brussels. To the south and west of the city, along the valley of the river Senne, the town of Lembeek had its own Guild of Brewers as early as the 1400s and seems likely to have given its name to this famous family of wheat beers.
Although the basic recipe for a Lambic beer is similar to that for a standard wheat beer - roughly 30 per cent wheat to 70 per cent barley - in the case of Lambic brewing the hops used are aged. This is done deliberately so that the hops' aromatic and bitter characteristics have faded, leaving only their natural preservative powers intact. Remember, hops were originally introduced into beer-making for their antibacterial qualities rather than their herbal flavours or bitterness.
Lambic is the only modern-day brewing style where brewers do not employ specifically cultured yeast strains. Lambic breweries were originally set among apple and pear orchards and a cocktail of wild yeasts from these fruit float in on the breeze, land in shallow open vessels full of sweet malty wort and begin a "spontaneous" fermentation. A day later the liquid is pumped into unlined oak casks where it continues a sequence of fermentations for up to three years. With 70 odd micro-organisms at work the beer develops myriad flavours and aromas.
After three or four months the natural sugars from the grain have long fermented out and the action of micro-organisms in the walls of the casks brings a lactic flavour to the beer; this is a classic component of oak-ageing. Lambic will continue to mature in the cask for three years and occasionally longer by which time the wild yeasts will have given the beer a sharp citric tang, and possibly a more elegant, sometimes tobacco-like or musky character. Age will also contribute sherried and Madeira notes.
There are several sub-styles of Lambic beer. The more traditional (unsweetened) variants are usually labelled as "oude" (old) while more modern, sweetened, versions are often identified with the term "nouveau" (new).
In Brussels unblended old lambic is occasionally found in local cafes in its raw draught form - totally flat, clear and wine-like, with musty, leathery notes - but most old lambics are used as the essential character-bringing component in the most complex lambic variant of all, gueuze.
Authentic gueuze is made by blending old and young lambics. By sampling the beer from each cask a skilled blender determines which are ready to be mixed. As a rough rule the best results come from blending three-year-old lambic with some one-year-old. Once the contents of the casks have been combined, the gueuze blender will add a tiny amount of sugar in order to trigger re-fermentation. Finally the beer is bottled, usually by hand.
Tasting an old gueuze for the first time can be a shock. Pouring the colour of onion skin, with no head, it smells and tastes earthy and slightly savoury, something like a cross between a toasty, slightly salty, nutty Chardonnay and a bone-dry cider.
Adding soft fruit to casks of Lambic initiates further fermentation and adds complexity to the finished beers. Raspberry (framboise) or sour cherry (kriek) lambics are the most traditional - cherry stones can impart delicious almondy/marzipan notes - but peach, blackcurrant, banana and even tea-flavoured variants can be found.
The range of lambic beers available in New Zealand is limited. Syrup-sweetened examples from Mort Subite and Timmerman's are the most popular (and least costly), but traditional examples from Boon, and occasionally Cantillon, can sometimes be found in specialist shops, bars and Belgian beer cafes and are more rewarding.
Lambics are perhaps the ultimate challenge to those whose understanding of beer is limited to modern styles. At tastings I always point out that only a couple of hundred years ago beer was very different to how we know it today. A modern golden lager, for example, would be just as unrecognisable to an 18th century beer drinker as Belgium's Lambic beers are to our 21st century palates.
For me these bucolic brews are immensely complex, yet remarkably refreshing, palate cleansing and food-friendly. I believe they offer one of the world's great flavour experiences and are therefore comparable with the finest wines and foods. They'd be brilliant with a selection of breads, mature cheeses, cured meats and pickles on one of those wooden platters from Briscoes.
- The Marlborough Express