Into the valley of the Lambic lovers

Eoghan Walsh takes us on a pilgrimage in a strange land

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On a bright May morning in Brussels, a crowd gathered outside a building emblazoned with a sign for Praise Centrel Allaeluia in the city’s Anderlecht neighbourhood. But this bearded, slightly paunchy, brewery t-shirt-wearing group, jittery with anticipation, was not in town to praise the Good Word at a dilapidated evangelical church. These were lambic devotees and their house of worship was next door at Brasserie Cantillon, and they had come for the brewery’s biennial Quintessence festival. It’s one of several dates when the lambic community descends on this little sliver of Northern Europe to immerse itself in the culture, reconnect with old friends, and to drink lots and lots of lambic and gueuze.

This community has grown in the last three decades from a hardy core keeping the lambic brewing tradition alive, to a global subculture of brewers, drinkers, historians, ideologues and artists, and one that can sometimes tip from hobby into obsession. And it all centers on this strange, spontaneously fermented drink that comes from nowhere else, and tastes like nothing else.

“Such a beautiful beer”

Ask a Lambic brewer why their beer rouses such strong passions, and they all have a different answer. For Armand Debelder, until autumn 2018 owner of Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen, drinkers love lambic because it’s “a noble beer, such a beautiful beer, such a regional beer, such a seasonal beer, just such an exceptional beer”. Frank Boon, of the eponymous brewery, puts it down to the “mystical nature of lambic brewing, that part of the process that even brewers don’t understand. For Jean Van Roy, owner and brewer at Cantillon, lambic answers several questions that modern drinkers are asking of the beer they drink. “People want quality with roots, with history. And, which beer could symbolize the best history, roots, and quality? It’s probably lambic,” he says.

Whatever it is, it’s a powerful cocktail of the beer’s complexity and rich cultural background. And, it’s a beer primed to deliver epiphanies at the bottom of a bottle. Jester King Brewery founder Jeffrey Stuffings’ mind-altering experience came in Chicago in the late 2000s. “I’m pretty sure the first Cantillon beer I had was a Rosé de Gambrinus. I remembered just being floored and mystified by what this beer was. It was just unlike anything I had ever had previously. At that point I knew I had to visit,” he says. For Stuffings, what struck him about lambic was the ability of brewers to work patiently with nature to create “liquid time capsules…that kind of create a kind of sense memory where you are transported back to the cellar, to the attic, to the coolship.”

Like Stuffings, once converted many lambic initiates make their way to the home of lambic – Brussels and the Payottenland region in the valley of the River Senne – to experience these spaces first hand. Cantillon, the most accessible of the lambic breweries because of its urban location, is a clearing house for these pilgrims, offering them a place to drink and share bottles with fellow-travellers, all the while conversing in their wink-and-elbow language of volatiles, brett, lacto and pedio. For many, their visit ends there; a rare vintage gueuze cradled in a wicker pouring basket enough to satisfy their curiosity. Others, their lambic itch not yet scratched, will set off in search of a deeper understanding of lambic and the culture that sustains it.

“Who the hell is drinking gueuze? No one!’”

“Bij kerk en kluis heeft de duivel een huis”, is an old Dutch-language saying, that means “where there’s a church, there’s usually a café nearby”. In Eizeringen, a Payottenland hamlet deep in the heart of lambic country, church and café face off against each other across a narrow cobbled street. On a damp Wednesday morning in August – the catholic holiday of Assumption, grey-haired, grey-skinned parishioners gathered under the church steeple, lumbering towards the village café. In de Verzekering Tegen de Grote Dorst – “The Insurance Against Great Thirst” – is open. It is, in fact, open only because of the church, sharing its rhythm with that of the church service – open on Sundays and selected religious holidays, unlike most other Belgian businesses. Post-mass conversation petering out, the pensioners wander across the street and into the Grote Dorst for a comforting glass of young lambic. Once there, they have to share the gnarled, tilting wooden tables with a younger generation of lambic adventurers; this little village café, with its idiosyncratic hours, also happens to be the best lambic bar in the world.

It’s an unexpected storyline for a café that opened in 2000 with a menu full of Trappist beers. Owners Kurt and Yves Panneels soon realized that their customers were not interested in strong beers before Sunday lunch. Instead, they switched to local breweries. Local breweries in the Payottenland meant lambic, so that’s what they bought in. “I still remember,” Yves Panneels says, “that my brother said to me, ‘Oh Yves! Who the hell is drinking gueuze? No one!’” What Kurt Panneels may not have known was that the Grote Dorst was about to become a crucial player in an accelerating lambic revival.

By the late 1990s, the lambic industry was emerging from a prolonged depression. Competition from industrial, sweetened lambic had nearly wiped out the traditional breweries of the region, leaving only revivalists like Frank Boon and Cantillon to keep it alive. By the 1980s, even they were questioning the sense in persevering with a beer that no one seemed to want to drink. But lambic people are stubborn people, they toughed it out and their perseverance began to pay off. Export interest slowly took off. Their gueuzes started winning awards. Then in 1991 the first edition of Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium was published.

Lambic’s John the Baptist

In it, Jackson extolled the virtues of lambic as “the most challenging and exciting of beers”, securing his place as lambic’s John the Baptist. Having, as Johan Madalijns, member of HORAL (The High Council for Artisanal Lambic) says, “taught the Belgians to drink beer” Jackson was now teaching the world why they should drink lambic. Soon his readers from all over the world were beating a path to the Payottenland, and their interest rescued lambic from oblivion. It wasn’t long before they discovered the Grote Dorst either. The café, thanks to its authentic evocation of the classic Flemish rural bar and its deep lambic bottle list, has since become a much-copied template for lambic cafes around the world, a prime mover in the lambic revival of the last decade, and a multiple winner of Ratebeer’s best bar in the world award.

One of those following in Jackson’s footsteps is home brewer, blogger, and lambic mad scientist Dave Janssen. “I think there’s a lot to be said for sitting with all the locals and drinking the available gueuze and just enjoying that,” Janssen says. Half his face hidden behind a thick Darwinesque beard, heavily annotated map in one hand and black notebook full of fermentation charts in the other, Janssen hikes from one lambic café to brewer to blendery. “There’s a lot more to lambic than just beer,” he says. “So it [hiking] really helped me to appreciate that, to spend time in the countryside, to walk through the fields and spend a bit more time getting to the places I was going.” It’s a sentiment shared by Rich Soriano, another American and like Janssen heavily involved in the online lambic community.

In 2014, already a self-confessed lambic obsessive, Soriano suffered a life-altering accident. “The lambic community nestled me in,” he says. “I was a member of the community, I needed help, and they all rallied around me.” For aficionados like Soriano and Janssen, it was their appreciation for the beer that drew them in, but it is this shared community, this deeply rooted and welcoming local culture, that has bound them to lambic. It has driven them to take their passion beyond the corporeal world and onto the Internet. The true inheritors of Michael Jackson’s legacy are nowadays more likely to be lurking in Facebook groups than they are to be found on the bookshelves of your local library. And with this online shift, they’re reshaping the lambic community for the Internet age.

The lambic revolution will be live-streamed

On Saturday September 1st, Pierre Tilquin opened his lambic blendery for the new sales season. On a main road between Brussels and Enghien in francophone Wallonia, it’s neither remote nor particularly accessible but on that bright weekend morning 280 people queued patiently for their allotment of Tilquin’s latest adventure in fruit lambics. Canvas the crowd, and many are sure to be members of a lambic-centric Facebook group. Certainly Tilquin Enthusiasts, and likely Lambic.info too.

As lambic evangelism has moved online, Lambic.info has become its foundational text. Launched as a website by Americans Adam Harbaugh and Bill Young in 2015 after an inspirational trip to the Payottenland, what started out as a repository for written lambic history, has grown to become an online encyclopedia, Facebook group, bottle reference log, and even charity event organizer. More than anything, it has “helped people to better understand lambic as a community and heritage, and not just as a beer,” says Harbaugh. “We just give the community another outlet to be nerdy.”

Other, less academic groups sprang up in its wake. Tilquin Enthusiasts is one, founded by Rich Soriano and now evolved into a global community of 2,000 Tilquin ambassadors. Lambic is Life, another Soriano creation, is an altogether different prospect. If soft-focus photos of a sweaty, shirtless Jean Van Roy shoveling spent grain out of Cantillon mash tuns are your jam, Lambic is Life is for you. It’s largely innocent, sophomoric fun, but on occasion lambic fandom on these groups can curdle into fanaticism.

Usually, this happens in response to perceived outsider attacks – as happened in September 2018 when Cantillon were criticized for hiring a burlesque dancer at their annual Zwanze event in Brussels. Even as Jean Van Roy apologized for the misstep, accepting that it was misguided, a loud minority online dismissed criticism as the whining of “pc culture”, “social justice warriors” and “people [who] were offended by boobs and beer” – a reaction the group administrators have not endorsed at all. But, it shows that even the lambic community is not immune to the insidious, exclusionary attitudes of online “bro” culture.

Whack-a-mule

Online lambic hype has also blown up the secondary market for lambic. To satisfy foreign demand for limited release bottles, mules are sent in to infiltrate bottle releases, and Tilquin reckons there were at least five among the 280 people that bought beer from him in September. Web shops scour Belgium for all the limited run lambic they can find, selling them on for $300 or more. It’s driving brewers crazy; all they want is for local lambic fans to be able to drink as much, if not more, of the beer they produce than their foreign supporters. “Who is buying? I must assume it is some rich American people that are just too lazy to go to the shop,” says Tilquin. “They have too much money in their life, and they say – ‘I want that beer…and I want it before everyone, and I want to make a picture on Instagram, so I buy it.’ And that’s crazy.” Each brewery has devised strategies to undercut online sales but it’s a problem they are stuck with for now, even if Tilquin is hopeful some traders will turn into proper lambic lovers: “In the end, people that are attracted by exclusivity might also discover that they finally have become a real fan,” says Tilquin.

Unsettling as these developments are, it’s easy to forget them when you’re lost in the bowels of Cantillon’s barrel stores, or surrounded by caravan-sized wooden barrels in Boon brewery’s foeder hall. That these places still exist at all is down to a generation of stubborn brewers who kept this odd brewing tradition going just long enough for it to capture the tastes, hearts, and wallets of a generation of passionate lambic drinkers.

And, finding yourself is these dank, dark spaces, navigating rows and rows of barrels, the pungent sweet smell of beer aging on wood wafting through the air, trying to decipher the scrawls of chalk written on soggy barrel heads as fermenting air pools in sticky puddles on the floor, the outside world both several feet and centuries away, it’s easy to agree with the words of one devotee during Quintessence, glass of Cantillon gripped firmly in his hand, “I’m not a religious person, but this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to feeling like I’m on a pilgrimage.”

Amen.

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