Lambic ("lom-BEEK") is a style of Belgian Beer in which "spontaneous fermentation" is used. This basically involves leaving the beer out and allowing the naturally growing airborne yeast and bacteria to ferment it. It is sometimes described as "the most unique style of beer in the world"; I've also heard it called "beer without alcohol", although it tends to have more alcohol than a typical pilsner.

Background

Almost all lambic beer is brewed in the Senne Valley (Payottenland) in Belgium, traditionally mostly within a very small radius around Brussels. "Lambic-style" beer is brewed in nearby Belgium and in a small region of England, but it is not considered true "lambic" (much as most sparkling white wine is not considered true "Champagne") - it's also not nearly as good.

Today there are many fewer lambic breweries than there used to be.

Styles

Lambic beers have a very tart sourness that most people find quite surprising. They have very little hoppy or bitter flavors, and have a strong aroma.
  • In its plain form, it is called "geuze" or "gueuze" - delicious! The bottled beer is often blended old and new gueuze beer that is bottle conditioned, and may be served with sugar cubes on the side.
  • Sometimes straight sugar is added to complement this sourness, creating a "faro" beer.
  • Fruit is often added in the middle of the brewing process, forming the more well-recognized lambic "fruitbeer". Here the tartness and the fruity flavor mix to form an amazing combination that most people would not even identify as beer. Common flavors are framboise (raspberry), kriek (cherry), peche (peach), and cassis (black currant).

Drinking

In many places it is surprisingly easy to get a hold of lambic beer. In the United States, fruitbeer brewed by Lindeman's brewery can often be found in distributors and even grocery stores. Unfortunately, the beer is pretty delicate and tends to go bad if left on the shelves.

Of course, the best place to find the beer (assuming you can't go to Belgium) is at your local Belgian bar. Most cosmopolitan areas should have at least one - for instance in Pittsburgh, PA there are a number of bars that serve lambics and other Belgian beer.

Other people may criticize certain lambic breweries (like Mort Subite or Belle Vue) for their lack of quality. Don't be fooled. Even "bad" lambic beer is really good compared to non-Belgian beer. In fact, some of the best lambics (by Cantillon, for instance) are so sour that many people may find them undrinkable. This is why most people drink Budweiser. Sam Adams brews a mediocre concoction that they call cranberry lambic; even this disappointing brew is one of the best available American macrobrews.

Brewing

Although I don't know of any decent American microbreweries who brew lambic-style beer, it is theoretically possible to homebrew such a beer.

You need to get the right mixture of yeasts into your beer - whereas normal beer is brewed with just one specialized strain of cultured yeast, lambic beer is brewed with a variety of natural microbes (everything found in the air of Brussels, of course). You also need to use very old (aged) hops, since the hops impart an undesirable bitterness. Beware that the brewing process takes at least six months.

Note that a lambic beer can't really be considered either an ale or a lager because of the large variety of yeasts that grow in the mash.


Sources and References:
http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/pvosta/pcrbier1.htm
http://www.liddil.com/
Lambic, by Jean-Xavier Guinard, Brewers Publications

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