Travel Stories · Signifiers

Oak & Magic — Discovering Lambic & Geuze in Pajottenland & the Zenne Valley

In an air-conditioned basement beneath the sleepy streets of Beersel, a small town on the outskirts of Brussels, maturing beer sleeps. Rows of oak casks are filled with lambic, the beer that typifies Pajottenland and the Zenne Valley, which lie to the southwest of the Belgian capital. The owner of this cellar and the brewery above it, Armand Debelder, grips a cork tightly before he twists it forcefully out of a cask. Precious lambic sloshes onto the floor, coating the wood and stone that surrounds it as it does so. In half a second, Debelder has stemmed the flow with a stainless steel spile and begins to pour the beer into tall, thin tumblers.

Debelder hands me a glass of 7-month-old lambic produced by his brewery, Drie Fonteinen. Funk and acidity leap from the glass. The lively aroma of apple skins and old, musty oak is unmistakable. Brouwerij Drie Fonteinen is renowned for producing an intensely flavored lambic, a style of beer that is spontaneously fermented using only the wild yeasts and bacteria that live in the direct vicinity of the brewery. “We use very old hops,” comments Debelder. “Five year old Hallertau Mittelfrüh – our Challenger is even older – that’s what gives it a flavour of green apples.”

The beer sings with intensely sour notes of lemon juice and wet hay. Despite the beer being flat, a delicate effervescence bursts on the palate, which only seems to intensify the acidic taste. It is quite simply one of the most wonderful things I have ever tasted.

Drie Fonteinen is one of the founding members of Hoge raad voor ambachtelijke lambiekbieren or HORAL for short. Translated to English this means, ‘The High Council for Artisanal Lambic Brewers.” HORAL was formed by Debelder, along with six other producers of lambic and geuze, with the aim of protecting and promoting the heritage of the wonderful beers they produce. The council’s membership now stands at eleven, with all the breweries located within the immediate vicinity of Brussels. The reason for this close proximity to one another is because this area’s unique microbial flora is perfect for producing spontaneously fermented beer.

I’ve always ran this place with my own money. I hate numbers. Except for the amount of barrels I have, of course!
— Armand Debelder

Lambic and geuze are two of the oldest styles of beer in the world, with a history that is thought to date back to the time of the Roman Empire. In the 1700’s there were well over 100 lambic brewers and blenders in this region; however, time brought with it war and hardship, as well as an increased local preference for weaker, sweetened lambic known as Faro. There are now only a handful of lambic producers still in business. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Brasserie Cantillon of Brussels, who is not a member of HORAL.

Lambic is a difficult beer to produce. Due to its spontaneously fermented nature it’s usually brewed between the months of autumn and spring. This is because strains of bacteria that are not desirable in fermentation are much more active during the hot summer months. The grist is generally comprised of two-thirds pale two-row barley and one-third unmalted wheat. The wort is boiled with aged hops that are at least a year old but, as is the case with Drie Fonteinen, can be much, much older. Once brewed, the finished wort is pumped into a large, flat tank known as a koelschip or coolship. Here it is left to cool overnight by the breeze that filters in through open slats or windows in the brewery wall.

With it, this breeze carries a unique culture of bacteria, such as Lactobacillus and wild yeasts such as Brettanomyces, that inoculate the freshly brewed wort. The exact microbes that ‘infect’ the beer will vary from one producer of lambic to another. This is how each producer can create a beer that has a distinctive signature. In a way, each lambic brewer has its very own terroir.

After a twenty-four hour cooling period, the inoculated wort is then moved into oak barrels or foudres where it will age for months, even years. Each of Belgium’s lambic producers will mark its barrels with the symbol of its brewery. For example, Drie Fonteinen simply marks its aging beer with a chalked "3."

When lambic reaches two to three years old, it’s blended with a young lambic of around twelve months so that it can enter secondary fermentation and become oude geuze. Where lambic is flat and cloudy, geuze is a bright, sparkling beer that has a Champagne-like quality. It’s also a common tradition to add sour Morello cherries to lambic as it ferments in order to produce kriek. Certain producers of lambic and geuze have experimented with other fruits and herbs in more recent times, including raspberries, apricots, and even basil.

The relatively recent interest in craft beers has sparked a renewed interest in lambic, in particular geuze (spelled gueuze when written in French as opposed to Flemish.) Rare vintages, such as Drie Fonteinen’s Armand 4 have been known to change hands for hundreds of dollars. This is perhaps because geuze is a perfect style of beer to cellar and age, with some brewers even claiming it can be aged indefinitely.

With geuze it is all about tasting, tasting, tasting. There is not only one St. Emilion in Bordeaux, no? Geuze is just the same.
— Armand Debelder

Standing outside his brewery in the hot, late-pu sun, Armand Debelder runs the gamut of human emotion as he describes a rich history. “I’ve never thought about retiring. My wife wouldn’t let me.” He pauses and sucks a gulp of air tightly between his teeth. “There’s always been a lot of interest from big brewers.” He spoke with a passion that was as clear as the blue sky above us. “I’ve always ran this place with my own money. I hate numbers. Except for the amount of barrels I have, of course!”

Armand took over the running of Drie Fonteinen from his father, Gaston, in 1982. Back then they didn’t produce their own lambic, instead they were a Geuzestekerij, a business that aged and blended Lambic purchased from other brewers. It wasn’t until 1999, when Debelder leased a small yet modern Brewhouse, that he began brewing his own beer. He leads us past the brewery and his coolships, stacked on top of one another to save space, and recounts how Drie Fonteinen’s story almost ended too soon.

In May 2009, Debelder arrived at his brewery to find disaster. The thermostat that kept the cellar used to store refermenting bottles of geuze had malfunctioned causing the space to overheat. Of 80,000 bottles, 13,000 had exploded outright. The entire stock was destroyed. Under normal circumstances, this would have ruined a brewery, but HORAL was not about to lose its founding member. “The others said, ‘Armand, if you continue brewing, we will help you.” And indeed they did, by providing lambic for Drie Fonteinen to blend and sell. Bottles that had exploded were sent to a distillery, which used the ruined geuze to produce a 40% ABV eau de vie known as Armand’Spirit – an example of one brewer’s will to survive condensed into bottled form.

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As Debelder finishes the tour he begins to open chilled bottles of his oude geuze. He demonstrates the correct pouring technique, washing the inside of each glass with beer as he pours so as to create a large, fluffy head of foam. “For geuze, we use a simple, straight glass because it is a drink of the people.” While some may consider geuze a special beer for an occasion because it’s artisanal and difficult to produce, its heritage reveals it differently: geuze is a beer for everyone to enjoy.

In our final moments at Drie Fonteinen, Armand continues to explain and wax lyrical about geuze. “There are a lot of experiences [for geuze] ahead, and for us it’s about looking after the people who sell our beer.” He continues with passion, “With geuze it is all about tasting, tasting, tasting. There is not only one St. Emilion in Bordeaux, no? Geuze is just the same.”

A short distance from Beersel is the neighboring town of Lembeek, from which lambic takes its name. Lembeek is the home of Brouwerij Boon, which immediately bares a more striking resemblance to the breweries I’m used to visiting. Its factory buildings stand in stark contrast to the relatively small facility at Drie Fonteinen, imposing themselves on the surrounding rustic countryside. Bines of wild hops line the path that leads to the brewery’s entrance, proudly baring the livery of Frank Boon.

In 1978, Boon took over the brewery and has arguably done more to promote the interests of lambic and geuze than anyone else. He was one of the many brewers in the area that helped Drie Fonteinen get back on their feet after its disaster in 2009. When nearby lambic blender Oud Beersel closed in 2002, Boon continued to sell its lambic under the Oud Beersel name, helping them to reopen in 2005.

Slowly guided through the brewery along the same path that the lambic follows during production, we pass the coolship enclosed in crumbling, red brick. We move along walkways and meander around the computer-controlled brewhouse. Meters and meters of twisted pipe form clean lines and sharp angles as they work their way down stairways and along corridors. They lead to a large automatic doorway where we are met by a calm, smiling Frank Boon.

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“There was an idea [in Belgium] in the 1990’s that lambic was just vinegar,” Boon explains. In beginning to tell HORAL’s origin story, it’s immediately obvious that Boon is a businessman and more reserved than the emotional Debelder. “We had a meeting at Drie Fonteinen and decided that people needed to be educated on what makes a good glass of geuze. HORAL is a part of why geuze is becoming so important.”

In 2013 we installed a new mash tun. We really had to. Up until then we were using one that was built in 1896.
— Frank Boon

He pauses, turns, and hits a button at waist height. The large door behind him quickly slides open and reveals row after row of neatly lined oak foudres. “We currently have 1.6 million litres of lambic in foudres,” he tells us. “We hope to expand that to 2 million within a year.” The cool rooms filled with these monster tanks seemingly extend forever. “Now who would like to taste some lambic?” He asks. As if we could refuse.

Where Drie Fonteinen’s lambic is intensely funky and acidic, Boon’s is tart yet remarkably subtle. The difference mirrors the personalities of its creators. “Lambic is more about the raw materials than the culture [yeast],” says Boon. “It’s what the culture eats that makes the biggest difference to the flavor.” There are a few other characteristics that differentiate the flavour of Boon’s lambic and geuze from other breweries. For example, Boon has a higher wheat ratio, around 40%, and its water is known to have a very high mineral content. “We get wheat and barley specifically designed for us, right down to the protein content.”

While the lambic brewers of Pajottenland and the Zenne Valley may each have their own terroir, Boon is forging his own path by constantly investing in new equipment and technology to produce the best beer possible. “In 2013 we installed a new mash tun,” he says, motioning at an ancient, red-painted, cast iron contraption to his right. “We really had to. Up until then we were using one that was built in 1896.”

After showing us around his brewery, Boon leads us through the quaint streets of Lembeek for a drink at a local bar. He’s something of a celebrity, and locals stop and greet him along the way. We sit at a long table outside that forms part of the town square. I choose an oude kriek, its mouth-puckering combo of sweet and tart providing immense joy.

Both Boon and Debelder have made great strides in promoting lambic and geuze around the world, but it’s clear they feel their work isn’t finished. “I really want to write some new chapters for geuze. I’m convinced there is more to be told,” says Boon. These are storied styles of beer, and with more and more modern palates enjoying sour beer styles, there’s never been a better time for geuze. Boon even ships large tankers full of its lambic to Fort Collins, Colorado where New Belgium Brewing blends it with a strong blond lager to create Transatlantique Kriek. Boon clearly understands the market, its growth, and the potential for his brand.

In an unguarded moment, perhaps thanks to several glasses of oude geuze, Boon begins to show his hand. “Really though, geuze is a drink of the people.” Uttering the very same words as Debelder, he sets his empty glass on the table. We shake hands and exchange goodbyes before making our way back to Brussels. I can’t shake his words from my head.

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Outside of Belgium people stand in line for hours for a single taste of rare blends and vintages, contrasting sharply with the purpose Boon and Debelder perceive for their beer. Meanwhile, in the towns like Beersel and Lembeek, we know family and friends honor this ideal, sitting around the table with several chilled bottles of geuze, pausing the conversation only when an empty glass needs refilling.

Words + Photos by
Matthew Curtis

Matthew Curtis

Matthew Curtis is a British beer writer and photographer based in London, England, giving GBH a unique perspective on the British Craft Beer scene.

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