A beginner’s guide to lambic beer, the oldest beer style in the world

Artisanal and unpredictable, lambic beer inspires passions beyond its Belgian home.

By The Thinking Drinkers
Published 25 Apr 2022, 11:00 BST
Lambic beer is left to age in large oak barrels.

Lambic beer is left to age in large oak barrels.

Photograph by Alamy Photos

Will I like it?

Maybe. Maybe not. It’s a bit weird, rather wonderful and divides opinion like the letter ‘n’. If you want to be considered a true beer geek, then you have to like it. Or, at the very least, pretend to.

What’s so special about it?

The oldest beer style in the world and the closest beer truly gets to terroir, lambic is unique to a region of Belgium called Pajottenland. Unlike conventional brewers, who ferment their beer using a laboratory-derived yeast that obeys them like a well-trained dog, lambic producers allow wild, native airborne yeast to float through the rafters and frolic freely around the place like a flock of feral chimpanzees — fermenting the beer with very little human intervention at all. After this ancient, ambient, airborne inoculation, the beer rests in enormous oak barrels, where myriad microorganisms come out of the wood and funk it up even further. Again, it’s all absurdly organic and unpredictable inside there and no two casks of lambic taste the same.

Sounds rather artisanal.

Yes. Some would say too artisanal. The uninitiated might find lambics daunting and recoil at their full-on funky, farmyardy flavours. The acidic sourness, which sucks in your cheeks, is more akin to farmhouse cider or fino sherry. Lambic-lovers, however, regard it as the most quixotic, eccentrically earthy and complex expression of the brewing art, a mystical mash-up of microorganisms and micro-flora; an oak-aged, ancient, organic ale shaped by the fickle whimsies of weather, wild yeast, wood and Belgian bacteria.

Doesn’t sound like I could drink a pint of it. 

You don’t need to drink a pint of it. You wouldn’t slosh a vintage Bordeaux into a pint glass, would you? Serve it up in a delicate flute, as the vast majority of lambics are blended into gueuze, an effervescent fusion of young (aged for between six and 12 months) and old lambic (aged for up to three years), conventionally corked and caged in champagne bottles. As is the case for cognac and champagne houses, the challenge for lambic blenders is to achieve a house style of gueuze in a never-ending pursuit of perfection.

So, where do I start?

Kriek (cherry) and framboise (raspberry) — fruited versions of the style — represent friendly first steps into lambic land. At their most authentic, fruity lambics are oak-aged and use huge quantities of fresh fruit. In the barrels, the natural yeast ferments the sugary flesh and devours the stones within — bringing out a dry bitterness and nutty notes. They make delicious dessert drinks, but watch out for corner-cutting lambics that replace the real thing with syrups or purees.

A degustation of geuze and kriek lambic beers at a brewery in Belgium.

Photograph by Alamy Photos

Three to try

1. Oud Beersel Oude Kriek, 5%
Sharp, tart and ruby red with an acidic, almond edge (from the fermented stones), this authentic kriek is best sipped from a champagne flute with some dark chocolate

2. 3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze
A benchmark golden geuze, combining one-, two- and three year-old lambics. Tart on the tongue, mellowed with hints of grapefruit and green apple.

3. Girardin Gueuze Black Label 1882
Girardin makes great gueuze, and this grapefruit-gilded blend of small-batch, one- and two-year-old lambics is traditional oude gueuze at its most enticing.

Where to drink it

1. Moeder Lambic, Brussels
As an awesome off-shoot of an enormous online beer business, there’s huge diversity on offer here but with a strong Belgium accent. As well as loads of hard-to-get-hold-of lambics, it even boasts its own blendery.

2. Beer Merchants Tap, Hackney, London
There’s huge diversity on offer here, with loads of hard-to-get-hold-of lambics, plus its own blendery.

3. Beer Gonzo, Coventry
What is lacks in decor, this stripped-back bar and taproom makes up for with its impressively lengthy list of classic and rare lambic and lambic-style beers from Belgium, the US and beyond.

4. Ebeneezer’s Pub, Maine, US
This remote yet rightly revered Belgian beer venue boasts a thigh-rubbing selection of rare, seldom-sipped lambic and gueuze bottlings. 

Published in Issue 15 (spring 2022) of National Geographic Traveller Food (UK)

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