Wild Beer, Under Control (or Controlée)

by Jim Clarke
March 2008

It was the French who first started regulating wine regions systematically, aiming for consistency of style and, hopefully, quality. The basic idea – permitting only certain varieties, limiting yields, minimum alcohol levels – has spread to other countries and other products as well. Cheese enjoys similar regulations now, in France, England, and elsewhere. So it may come as no surprise that, in Belgium, they’ve even applied the “Appellation Controlée” system to beer.

Not all their beers, though. While there are certainly regional traditions, Belgian beer is generally a free-for-all; experts often dispute where one starts and the other begins. You may have heard that Trappist beers are protected, and indeed they are, but that’s trademarking, not an appellation. However, in a broad valley along the west side of Brussels, a few breweries say they have an indigenous beer that can’t be recreated elsewhere. The E.U. has agreed, and Old Gueuze is now an appellation, as carefully protected as Chablis, Champagne, or Roquefort.

It’s one thing to patent a technique, or trademark a name. An appellation designation differs in that it means the product – in this case, beer – gains part of its distinctive character from the geography (in wine lingo, from the terroir).

Terroir is supposed to make its way into the wine via the primary ingredient, grapes. In beer, that’s a weak supposition; these days a brewery’s malt and hops are rarely produced locally, even in a classic beer country like Belgium. Producers don’t hesitate to order malt from Germany or hops from Styria or Kent when necessary. Old Gueuze terroir doesn’t come up from the earth…it’s something in the air.

That something is wild yeast. The Zenne Valley has a diverse microfauna population, including at least five major yeast types, some of which lie far outside the beer yeasts traditionally used elsewhere. After boiling, the wort (made, incidentally, with a high proportion of wheat) is laid out in shallow troughs, called cool ships, usually on the upper floor of the brewery; open windows allow the evening breezes to spread those wild yeasts into the wort as it cools, and then the beer can be put into casks for fermentation and aging.

The first yeasts to have their say in the fermentation create fairly traditional beer aromas, but other yeasts quickly put their two cents in. Some resemble the flor that gives sherry its distinctive tang, and the beer develops similar, oxidative notes. Gradually the contributions of the brettanomyces bruxellensis yeast emerge in the form of leather, earthy, and even gamey notes.

Fermentation and aging generally takes about three years. A young cask, from, say, six months to a year, is quite acidic and mildly sweet, with apple-y notes and a goat cheese-like tang. During the next year it will round out, and more fruit and sherry-like notes will become more apparent. Once it’s reached three years, it will be dominated by brettanomyces’ earth tones.

These beers are called lambics; so you’re probably asking, “What about the fruit?” Lambic is so often used as a base for fruit-infused beers that in the U.S., the fruit is simply assumed. But properly speaking, a lambic is an unblended beer, made as described so far. The high-acid makes lambic a good base for fruit, as it will balance well with the fruit’s sugars; these are the lambics we encounter most-often State-side, “Kriek” – cherry – being the most common. A straight, non-fruit lambic is hard to find outside of the greater Brussels area.

But take a few different lambics, blend them together, and you’ve got something else – this is Gueuze, the beer that’s earned those special, geographical protections. A finished Gueuze is a blend of several different years; the younger beer adding crispness, the older a rounded texture. As the temperatures during the initial fermentation and aging can vary each year, there is plenty of vintage variation for the blender to keep in mind; blending Gueuze can be as complex as the assemblage of a Champagne, and as in Champagne, the blended product is then re-fermented in the bottle, yielding a smooth, mild carbonation. At least six months of bottle aging is required by law.

The end result is extremely out of fashion, at least theoretically. High alcohol is in; an Old Gueuze is typically a moderate 5 or 6% alcohol. Sweetness and hops are in; a Gueuze is dry, and not perceptibly hoppy (there are hops, but they’re there for preservation, not aroma). Nonetheless, Old Gueuze is growing in popularity. Its cleansing acidity may seem unbeer-like, but it adds crispness and refreshment, and the complexity of flavor in a good Old Gueuze can be astounding; it’s as if a veil of hops and sugar were pulled aside to reveal a different world.

Some Producers

Boon I owe my most of my understanding of the aging and blending of these beers to a visit with Frank Boon, whose knowledge of the effects of different sorts and sizes of wood casks is apparently encyclopedic. His Gueuze is a benchmark; fuller-bodied than most, with great clementine, peach, and mandarin notes, a strong but well-balanced touch of leathery brett and earth, and cleansing acidity.

Cantillon Cantillon’s location in the suburbs of Brussels and their Museum of Gueuze make it an easy visit for the city’s tourist populace, but don’t hold it against them. It’s a serious, all-organic brewery, and their museum is no tourist trap. They make a number of different beers, including some vintage brews. The 3-Year shows great gooseberry and oatmeal notes, with a wine-like texture and smoothness. The straight Gueuze is lighter, with brine, fino sherry, and quince aromas. There’s also the “Iris,” which steps outside the regulated Old Gueuze appellation by using fresh (i.e. aromatic) hops and no wheat, just malted barley; it shows tart fruit aromas of passionfruit and grapefruit as well as some fig and leather notes.

Drie Fonteinen A newer producer, they started brewing in 1999, but have already shown a serious sense of style, with great fruit aromas and vanilla and caramel roundness.

Hanssens Hanssens is not a brewery, but a blender; they buy brewed wort, then carry out the fermentation, blending, and aging themselves. While not a common procedure in other beer regions, it makes sense here, where those parts of the process, especially blending, play such an important role (It’s similar to the negoçiant wines of Champagne or Cognac.). Their Gueuze is milder than most, with a smooth, fruit-driven character; it’s a good introduction for people who might find the style a bit extreme.