I’m back in France now after what seemed to be a heavenly eternity in Belgium. My last few days were spent studying some more of the mundane tasks of brewing – bottling, packing, cleaning, racking, etc. – but perhaps “mundane” is too harsh a word. I’m still at the point where anything is interesting. A brewer’s work would be nothing without the reward, though. To conclude my trip I assisted Glenn and the Alvinne cause at the 16th annual BLES beer festival in Zottegem (“crazy town”) and was an active witness to an incredible tasting of everyone’s favorite spontaneously-fermented malt beverage, lambic.
On Friday Glenn drove me to Zottegem to prepare the table for Alvinne. Afterwards we had a meal of some damn juicy skewered meats (Belgians make some tender meat, man), washed down with an Orval for each. That night I sawed many logs in the warmth of Glenn and his girlfriend’s home. I woke Saturday morning to a thunderous snore from beside me; Glenn’s friend Uli, from Germany, had arrived late in the night and would be helping us at the festival as well. Well, I’m more than glad I lost a little sleep for the guy. He brought with him a collection of some incredible lambic experiments. Lambic is, to the uninitiated, a most interesting wild-fermented beer that really takes time both to produce and to appreciate. Only a handful of traditional producers still exist in Belgium. Lambics require a moderate portion of raw wheat and historically use aged hops that have lost their aroma compounds. Hops in this case are used solely for their preservative properties, as the beer is set to age for several months or years. Wild yeasts inoculate the wort and fermentation takes off, producing an incredibly dry, slightly tart and acidic, citric, flat beer that is wildly complex. I’m new to lambics, so this kind of blew me away. Uli, Glenn and I tasted sips of several lambic experiments that Uli, a hobby blender, prepared. First was a lambic from the Lindemans brewery that Uli aged in calvados barrels donated by Glenn. It smelled slightly sweet with a touch of green apples and acetic acid. The taste was intense: a puckering citric wave followed by an illusion of sweetness. Oaky vanilla tagged along at the end. Next was Drie Fonteinen lambic on new American oak barrels. The shimmering gold color, contributed by the new oak, was more apparent than the calvados lambic. It was a more suppressed lambic in taste, though, with must and leafiness in the nose and on the tongue, but more rounded and fuller. Third was Lindemans set in the same new oak barrel, but this was the first batch they aged; Drie Fonteinen was second. The oak was much more apparent in the nose, and I thought it had a touch of smokiness. We also played around with them a bit: next was 1/3 calvados Lindemans and 2/3 Drie Fonteinen followed by half and half of each and succeeded by 1/3 of each of the original lambics. Why stop there? Uli then broke out a kitschy plastic mini-keg of three-year-old Hanssens lambic that we later blended with the 1/3-of-each mixture to get a well-rounded, thoughtful concoction. A semblance of this ratio of lambics will be used for a future Alvinne release, set to be ripe in 2011. The initial blend will have an additional… addition of young lambic, still containing some unfermented sugars. The sugars will provide the yeasts of the blend to start fermentation again to produce a wee bit of carbonation. Blending of old and new lambic allows the designation of “gueuze”, and if the sum of the age of the beers is greater than one year, “oude gueuze”.
So, then it was off for some more fun. The three of us packed up and headed for the BLES beer festival. BLES stands for something like Beer Lovers and Enjoyment Society, only in Dutch. It was crowded, with a lot of happy people, and the breweries of the east were represented well. Uli broke out some more lambic, like Drie Fonteinen dry-hopped on East Kent Goldings hops and a blend of all the traditionally-produced lambics of Belgium, and I even saw some celebrities. Jef Van den Steen, a prolific beer writer, was there with his mad-scientist beard, and Jean Blaute, of Belgium’s Canvas television channel was strolling around with a stylish scarf. Before the night was over, though, I had to catch my ride back to France. Luc Smekens, an organizer of the giant ZBF beer festival in March, and his wife kindly drove me to the airport to meet my host, Gerolf. A testament to the kind-heartedness of beer people, Luc even bought me a dripping dinner of frites and mystery meat. It was tasty, but I think it also gave me food poisoning.
So, I’m back en France, but not for long. The fig-pickin’, apple-peelin’, and weed-pullin’ will be no more next week when I return to Belgium for a lengthier stay. I will miss the refreshing farm labor and the picturesque pastures, but I’ll be closer to meddling with my passion. Stay tuned.