Many American craft beer brewers and enthusiasts are attracted to the charms of sour beers. This is not surprising, as these remarkable beers offer a delightful change of pace from typical craft beer. A type of sour beer that should be tried is gueuze, a member of the quirky family of beers known as lambic, from Belgium.
The ingredients in this intriguing beer style are simple: barley and wheat. The defining characteristics of gueuze are the result of unusual brewing practices. The brewers of this style cling to ancient brewing methods that were abandoned hundreds of years ago by the rest of the brewing world as brewers learned the science of brewing and yeast management.
Lambic brewers rely on so-called spontaneous fermentation. These brewers do not add yeast for fermentation as modern brewers do; instead, they rely on wild yeast. Typical lambic practice is to pump the unfermented liquid (wort) into shallow open vessels, open the windows of the fermentation room and allow airborne yeast and bacteria to drop into the liquid to start the process.
Hops are, of course, sacred in modern craft brewing for flavor and bittering but not for lambic brewers. They use hops only as natural preservatives. To do this, hops are aged for a few years — this aging and oxidation destroys the bittering and flavor components of the hops, and all that is left are preservative qualities.
The fermented beer is then somewhat sour and acidic without any hop characteristics. Next, the beer is aged for two or more years in used oak barrels. Endemic to oak is the brettanomyces (brett) yeast. This yeast, along with the bacteria picked up during the open fermentation, acts slowly on the beer and consumes any remaining sugars, further souring and drying it. The brett and the barrels themselves add some unusual flavor characteristics described sometimes as barnyardy, woody, etc.
The result of the uncontrolled nature of lambic brewing is that the beer in each barrel is different. To achieve the desired flavor profile, lambic brewers blend beer from different barrels. Young beer is also blended with blended aged beer and then bottled. The residual sugar in the young beer is fermented in the bottle by the wild yeast that remains in solution to create carbonation and the final flavor. The result is gueuze.
When buying gueuze, look for the designation “oude” in the name or on the label. This means the beer is made in the traditional way and is not sweetened. There are also versions that are sweetened to appeal to “modern” tastes. The very traditional Cantillon brewery does not sweeten its offerings, but it does not use the “oude” designation.
Boon’s Oude Geuze (this brewery prefers its own unique spelling), at 7 percent ABV, is available locally and is an excellent value. The aroma is an interesting mix of lemon, orange, acid and other unusual flavors. The taste is bone dry and highly acidic. After this initial assault of acid, the underlying flavors become more apparent and are similar to the aroma. Boon makes another beer in this style called Geuze Mariage Parfait. This one is 8 percent ABV, and the higher alcohol content is the result of more malt that gives it a hint of sweetness at mid-taste that quickly fades to a sour and dry but refined and elegant finish.
Hanssens Artisanaal’s Oude Gueuze is also available locally and is a complex and very polished example of the style. This one is 6 percent ABV and is aged for a longer period than those made by Boon. While sour and dry, this one is smoother on the palate — the acidic notes have been moderated by the extended aging.
Any traditional gueuze is a perfect drink before a meal — the dry and sour flavor will prime your taste buds for any fare. With food, gueuze is at its best with seafood-rich fish dishes and all types of shellfish — shrimp, crab, lobster or mussels. Cheers!
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