Beer School

We’ve covered sours, and they picked up another mention last month when we delved into Belgians. Now, we’re going to revisit the subject with a concentration on the augmented varieties known as lambics, and their mysterious kin, the gueuze.

A lambic is a direct descendant of the original beer. There was a time when nobody understood what yeast was, or how it worked. Nobody’s sure when man first took up the art of brewing, but anthropologists are pretty sure our hominid ancestors got a buzz by sucking on rotten fruit picked from the forest floor. It probably didn’t taste good, but when you’re hungry you’ll eat anything. We probably dug the effects of the ethanol, and as we became a little more industrious, our ménage à trois with sugar and yeast became ever more refined. Fermentation can be found in every culture—breads, cheeses, beers, wines, pickled fruits and vegetables—and there are even hundreds of varieties of fermented meats. Basically, all we had to do was leave something out in the right conditions and it fermented to our liking. Since we didn’t understand much about good bacteria, we also knew nothing about bad bacteria, so just about every water supply near any settlement became contaminated. Our ability to ferment fruit juices provided a sanitary means of hydration. Later, perhaps after leaving a batch of porridge out a bit too long, we figured out how to extract sugars from grain, and ferment those as well. Those first beers were lambics.

Now, wild yeasts are like microscopic Vikings: they storm in, have their way, and leave wreckage in their wake. Your average lambic plays host to nearly 100 different microorganisms. Some of them are pretty funky (not unlike Vikings). They leave behind all kinds of flavors and aromas, ranging anywhere from tart fruit to the inside of a barn. The flavors can be hit or miss, so brewers took to adding flavors to the beer to offset the funk. In the U.S. there are a number of lambics blended with fruits and sugar. These are wonderful dessert beers that pair nicely with a cheese plate. Lindemans remains the juggernaut in this category, and there’s no reason to stray from them if you’re not familiar. Once you’ve tried these, Rivertown Brewing from Cincy brews a very nice unblended lambic that has some similar notes to wine. It pairs well with fruits and sorbets.

A gueuze is basically a blend of old and young lambics. This technique is applied to achieve greater depth of flavor. Gueuze is a style that can still be a challenge to find, since it’s only recently started creeping into the hearts and minds of American beer aficionados, but a great place to look is House Beer in the Short North. Weiland’s Market also features a robust selection.

The variations that aren’t blended with fruit and sugar are very tart, which pairs nicely with rich desserts and February is the perfect month to indulge. Some ideas: Pour a nice kriek lambic over some vanilla ice cream. The tartness of the sour cherries is the perfect companion to rich ice cream, and the deep ruby color of the beer is flattered by the white contrast. Sticking with the float theme, you can pair fruited lambics with sorbets made from the same fruits, or you can find an unblended lambic to pour over a sorbet for a remarkable flavor contrast—sweet and sour. Framboise and kriek also work well with chocolate.

Gueuzes are exceptionally bubbly, which makes them great with a brunch, if that’s your thing. You could even splash a bit of OJ into one for a different spin on the mimosa. Have some fun, it’s beer, after all. They’re also wonderful with cheesecake. The tart acidity helps to cut through the creamy sweetness, but beyond that, the funky, farmhouse notes remind you that there’s actually some cheese in that cake. Sometimes your taste buds need to be pointed in the right direction, and something as complex as, say, Lindemans Cuvee Rene, has a lot of complexity to spare. You’ll never taste cheesecake the same way again. 

Of course, there’s nothing quite as sexy as a poached pear. While you can certainly poach a pear in a lambic, it’s important to remember that these beers can go toe to toe with wine, so poaching a pear in a sweet Moscato or a Riesling won’t have any adverse  affect on sipping Oude Boon Gueuze while you enjoy dessert.