As I have stated before, I have developed a deep and abiding passion for sour and funky beers, and the king of sour funk has got to be Lambics. These spontaneously fermented brews from the region around Brussels are this wild combination of citrusy, grassy, cheesy, goaty, sour goodness. There is nothing really like them. Some of these are made via traditional methods such as Gueze, where 1 year, 2 year, and 3 year old lambic are blended and allowed to continue to ferment in the bottle, producing a very strong, natural carbonation. Others are pasteurized, and blended with more neutral or clean beer, and with various flavorings and sugar, such as Lindeman’s line of fruited lambics. Part of the problem with trying to brew these beers are they are the ultimate example of terroir. The basic beer is actually very simple, about 30-40% unmalted wheat mixed with 60-70% barley malt, mashed in a crazy manner that would make most brewers cry. It is boiled with ancient hops that have been sitting in the hot attic for over a year and have almost no bitterness left in them. Then the wort is pumped into large, shallow tanks, open to the night air, which is brought in to cool the wort. The wort then goes to oak barrels, where it will go through primary fermentation right in the barrel, and then sit, unracked, on the sediment for anywhere from 1 to 3 years. This basically contradicts every principle of brewing as practiced by everyone else.
However, they have the key, in that these breweries are inoculated with just the right blend of wild yeasts and bacteria, that they produce these wonderfully complex beers. There is no yeast or culture added by the brewer at any point, all of this just happens naturally. However, most of these breweries have been in existence for over 100 years, and the buildings themselves have developed a synergy with the beer. The wood in the barrels and the buildings harbor the yeasts and bacteria that make this possible, and when new beer is fermented, it just creates more bugs, reintroducing the microbial zoo back into the brewery, continuing the cycle.
So, based on this, there is no way I can brew a lambic. However, you can kind of fake it. Both Wyeast and White Labs have blends of yeast and bacteria that are supposed to duplicate the primordial goo that makes this all work. So, I decided to give this a shot, but I wanted to make the brewing of this very simple and easy, so I did an extract version my first time around, just to see what would happen. The recipe for 5.00 gallons is:
3.30 lb Light Liquid Malt Extract (7.0 SRM) Extract 50.00 %
3.30 lb Wheat Liquid Extract (8.0 SRM) Extract 50.00 %
0.50 oz Challenger [7.00 %] (60 min) Hops 13.2 IBU
1 Pkgs Belgian Sour 1 (White Labs #WLP655) Yeast-Ale
S.G 1.045, F.G. 1.005, IBU 13.2, ABV 5.34%
The beer was brewed in July 2009. I placed in primary, and after 5 days of no gravity change or action, I tossed in a packet of Safale-05. Fermentation took off, and after 1 month, I racked this off the yeast cake, and put it into a carboy to age. It formed a pellicle, and I let it sit into the winter, when the pellicle fell, but the S.G. was still 1.010. I figured it was too cold in my basement (about 50F) and moved it to a warmer place, where the pellicle reformed. In July 2010, the S.G. was 1.005, but the beer was not very sour at all. I let it sit until 12/31/10, when I bottled with 4 oz of sugar and some rehydrated t-58 dry yeast.
Tasting: The beer is crystal clear, an orange hue. Very little carbonation. The nose has the classic brett smells. Citrusy, hits of cherry and leather/funkiness. However, it is quite subdued. The taste is like the nose, you get hints of the brett flavors, with just a touch of acidity, but not much. The body is light. This is remarkably easy to drink.
Critique: Well, I decided in the future, I am going to brew a lambic around the new year every year. I did a new version this past year, but I changed pretty much everything, because the beer just is not as sour and as complex as I would like. It is not bad, but it is kind of like artificial flavorings vs one made from the real thing. It tastes like what it is supposed to taste like, but it just does not have the depth of flavor of the real thing. I am sure it is because most of the beer was quickly fermented by the Safale-05, and I was using a new sour culture. However, I consider this beer a success. It forced me to research the process. I have spent quite a bit of time online, reading how others have done this, as well as getting a copy of “Wild Brews” by Jeff Sparrow, which has proven to be invaluable. I now have a much better understanding of how these beers are made, and why the brewers do what they do. This lead to me doing my second version of this in a completely different manner. This was my first attempt at a sour beer, and I ended up with something both my wife and I enjoy. While it is not exactly what I was looking for, I believe it has set me down the right path.