If I told you about a drink whose defining aromas and flavors included barnyard, horse sweat, astringency, and sourness, would you want a sip?
The answer to that is probably "no", but in the case of lambics, in particular those from the Cantillon brewery, it shouldn't be. And, to be fair, those defining aromas also include citrus, sour cherries, tropical fruit, raspberry, elderberry, muscat grape and many more.
We recently visited the Quintessence event by the Cantillon brewery, which was a day of pairings of lambic beers and artisanal cheeses. For novices, it was a day spent in a charming corner of Brussels' history with the opportunity to try challenging, but unique local flavors. For connoisseurs, it was nothing less than an essential experience.
Let me give a brief background to the lambic. The lambic is technically a beer but has a vastly different creation method. Where most beers can be divided between ales and lagers (defined primarily by the type of yeast involved), lambics are truly a distinct style, as they are created by a combination of wild flora, including multiple forms of wild, non-brewing, yeasts and bacteria that happen to thrive in the Brussels region. Unlike ales and lagers, whose fermentation processes are largely under the control of the brewer, lambics have a complex development involving interplay among the various microorganisms across seasonal temperature variations, and much of the process is not fully scientifically understood. Where brewer's yeasts have been selected and adapted by brewers and scientists for qualities such as rapid fermentation, lambic flora remain stubborn and lazy. A lambic takes 3 years to reach bottling maturity, most of which is spent in oak barrels. By comparison, Budweiser has a time-to-market of 21 days, doing its "aging" on steel.
In practice, lambic is rarely served in its "native" state and is typically used as the primary "ingredient" in the styles gueuze and fruit lambic. Gueuze is the bottling of a blend of 3 years of lambics; the aged lambic provides a mature character, while the young lambic still has unfermented sugars which cause carbonation to develop in the bottle as the yeasts continue to consume sugars. The fruit lambic comes from the addition of fruit to the lambic (typically a 2 year old), which is then aged in oak barrels for some time before bottling. The fruits used are primarily cherries (kriek lambic) and rasberries (framboise lambic), although Cantillon has offerings with blueberry (Blabaer), peach (Fou' Foune), muscat grapes (Vigneronne), merlot grapes (St. Lamvinus), and elderberry (Zwanze).
Lambic breweries, existing primarily in the Senne Valley of Brussels, used to "infect" the wort (pre-fermented beer) by exposing it to the outside air (it is believed that the yeasts traveled from the nearby cherry orchards). Though this is still done, it is likely that much of the exposure to the microflora comes from colonies resident to the brewery. As such, nature is deeply respected within the brewery walls, to preserve the process. Spider webs are left intact to keep fruit flies at bay, and a house cat assists in pest control. Nothing is cleaned with harsh chemicals, and even clusters of mold are kept intact (for what beautiful flora might they contain?!)
For other brewers, it is quite difficult to force the process through explicit yeast inoculation, and replicating a seasoned brewery is nearly impossible. The daunting time-to-market keeps lambics from being price competitive. So, it is a sad but real problem that it is far more likely for a lambic brewery to close than for one to open, and there are few left (Cantillon has been around for over 100 years, with ownership passing primarily through the family).
In terms of depth and complexity, lambics are unmatched. Beyond matters of personal preference, this complexity has technical reasons. Much of the flavor of beer (especially Belgian varieties) comes from byproducts produced by the yeast as it consumes sugars. Notably, the yeasts in lambics spend 3 years (as opposed to 1-2 months) consuming sugars, and consume sugars that normal beer yeasts will not. The flavor potential for the yeast is vastly beyond what is available to most other styles.
There were 16 tables throughout the brewery, each featuring one of the offerings of the day. Most tables included 2 related lambics and the cheeses with which they were paired. Others included strange but fun experiments with lambics in novel contexts, including jellies and sorbets. The lambics were mostly the typical offerings of Cantillon, but included some that are limited, including the faro, Zwanze, the delightful St-Gilloise, and a 2002 gueuze.
Interestingly, the laws about dairy allow unpasteurized milk, which itself allows greater flexibility and potential for the cheese maker. There were some cheeses that smelled unlike anything I've ever smelled before (and sometimes in ways that were not immediately appreciated). In that sense it is a fitting pairing to lambics, who also derive their distinctive qualities from more natural origins. I was most impressed and surprised by the degree to which the pairings enhanced the original flavors.
I took a lot of notes and won't bore you with them here (I'll keep them typed up and saved as a draft in case I run out of blog material in the future). But some of the flavors require mentioning:
Counter 1: A one-year and a three-year lambic (Grand Cru Bruocsella) were both offered. Both of these offering are unblended, which let you taste what the basic ingredient of the beers are. It was educational to see how the additional years shaped and improved upon the "young" lambic (although the fact that the Grand Cru is selected for its exceptional quality may be the culprit here). Where the one-year had a sharper sourness, the three-year was much more rounded with a lot of nice fruit flavors (in particular, apple).
Counter 2: We got to try a 2002 gueuze, what a treat! The gueuzes are alleged to be capable of aging for decades. This one clearly lost nothing over the years. Bitter orange and pineapple, with a protracted finish that felt like a thousand pleasant pokes at the tongue.
Counter 8: The Cuvée St-Gilloise is a limited offering. In typical lambic production, aged hops are used so that their antibacterial properties can be leveraged without having their flavors appear in the final product. Quite the opposite here: this beer embraces hops and dry hops (soaks hops in the beer) for 2 years in the barrel. The flavor is clearly affected: think grapefruit pith soaked in tea. An interesting and enjoyable experiment! Interestingly, the gentleman serving at this table, who was really nice and fun, turned out to be none other than Lorenzo Dabove, one of the premier experts on Belgian beer (and probably the most respected critic in Italy).
In their tasting guide, Cantillon lists their Grand Cru Bruocsella as "in a league of its own [...] it's unequalled and eternal". I find this comment interesting because, in most contexts, such a statement would be outward boasting or salesmanship. Visiting the brewery, you meet the sweet, friendly people who make it all happen, and see how deeply they believe in their work. It is clear that Cantillon does not consider the beauty of their lambic as a product of their superior craftsmanship. Rather, they are paying homage to a creative process of nature, to which they see themselves as humble servants.
The "slow foods" movement grows more fashionable every day, and we hope to see it restore a sense of appreciation for real cuisine. Cantillon embodies the spirit of the movement, and did so even a hundred years before the movement originated. When I take a sip, I think about the work done over the years by nature and brewer to make that flavor. It is always worth the wait.