It's a beautifully clear, Belgian Sunday morning in March, and I find myself packed inside a cab with three beer enthusiasts like a can of sardines. Swishing down the Lenniksebaan I pass Lindemans with its bulbous copper kettles gleaming at me.
The destination of today's journey is Geuzestekerij De Cam — owned and operated by one-man-army Karel Goddeau. Leading up to my visit is a weekend of sour beers in Brussels, and I'm eagerly awaiting my encounter with the renowned blender. Once out of the city, we take the back roads south-west through Payottenland, over green belt landscapes scattered with sleepy towns. We move through the municipalities of St Pieters-Leeuw, Lennik, and Gooik, where most traditional sour ale breweries and blenders reside. This is the home of lambic.
Very simply put, lambic is a Belgian wheat beer. But the art of lambic extends far beyond your average wheat. The most distinguishing aspect being the brewer’s yeast, here replaced by spontaneous fermentation. The Senne River Valley lambic brewers leave their warm, sweet wort (unfermented beer) in open fermentation vats (known as koelschip or coolship in the States) and let the presence of wild yeast (Brettanomyces, Bruxullensis and brettanomyces Lambicus) do the rest. In the end, you get a deliciously tart, vinegar-like sour ale. Because of the varying results of employing wild fermentation, blending is a key element in perfecting this type of beer.
Belgians pride themselves on lambic, and rightfully so. Early recipes show that this way of brewing dates all the way back to 1559. With the rest of the world turning to industrially-produced lagers in the late 20th century, traditional sour lambic was a dying breed. By the 1990s, only three blenders in the whole of Belgium remained.
Fortunately, winds of change blew, and today lambic is a very sought-after style among craft beer drinkers. Best known in the category is probably Brussels-based Cantillon, which has reached iconic status. Happily, lambic’s modern-day popularity has encouraged many of the breweries who previously only produced sweetened versions to add unsweetened lambics to their lineup as well.
After a 70 Euro cab drive we arrive in Gooik at 8:28 AM, two minutes prior to our scheduled meeting with Karel. The cab takes off and we're left standing in a desolate, quiet, gravel-covered courtyard. People in the beer business that I've met have all had something to say about Karel — generally painting a picture of a great guy, but somehow veiled in mystery. Standing there in that small village in the middle of Belgium I mostly think: "honestly, I don't know if he will show up". At 8.30 AM exactly, a white minivan spins into the parking lot and Karel steps out. He's welcoming, chatty, and passionate. Any worries I might have had disperse immediately, like the clouds in the blue sky above.
As early as it is, initially Karel treats us to Pottekeis, a Brussels gueze cheese spread. It's a tangy, creamy fresh cream spread made from soft cheeses, young spring onions, and gueze. Using an old oak barrel as a table, we stand in the Flanders morning sun feasting on our unlikely breakfast.
Karel is a serious character when it comes to his lambiek (Flemish spelling), but otherwise a relaxed and cheerful guy who quickly immerses us in his stories. DeCam (Cam is an Old-Dutch word for a brewery) was originally started in 1997, by Belgian beer legend Willem Van Herreweghen. When Willem left three years later to pursue his career as technical advisor for Palm Breweries (among others), Karel saw his chance to acquire the company.
As we walk down the aisle of the brewery lined by green barrels on either side, Karel tells the story of how the 45 barrels were bought from Plzeský Prazdroj (Pilsner Urquell), modified for lambic production, and then transported from the Czech Republic to Belgium. Pointing at the chalk scrawlings on a barrel, he also explains that this is the signature of the wort brewer. Like most blenders without a brewery, Karel relies on the wort produced by nearby breweries, in his case Boon, Girardin, and Lindemans.
With an annual production of just 150 hectoliters (128 barrels), DeCam could be considered a nano operation: but then again, this is only a side-project of Karel’s, as he works during the day as a full-time brewer at nearby Brouwerij Slaghmuylder. For being a one-man show, DeCam is a rather ambitious and well-regarded operation, sometimes selling whole batches directly to a unique importer in the U.S.
While the Kriekenlambiek (cherry lambic) and Framboisenlambiek (raspberry lambic) are fermented in stainless fermentation tanks, the regular lambiek is developed in wooden barrels. Karel draws a sample of each, and we continue talking and drinking around the wooden table outside. All of these lambieks have yet to gain the characteristic sour taste, so the fruit beers are full of fresh cherry and raspberry flavors. The other lambieks, on the other hand, taste like slightly tart wort. Time is of the essence.
Clasping the bottle in his experienced hands, Karel holds the maturing lambic to the light, scrutinizing the development of brettanomyces yeast in the bottle with the insight of a long-time professional brewer. "Whereas most yeast strains grow and develop in a straight pattern, the brett on the other hand radiates like a feather, spreading out in different directions. This tells us how far the fermentation process has gone." he explains.
DeCam and Karel lie at the intersection between the past and its traditions, and the new opportunities and globalism of the modern beer world. Karel believes in the traditional way of doing things, and struggles between what he considers ‘right’ – producing and selling the beer locally – and the recent global interest in the style of beer he produces.
According to Karel himself, becoming a lambic blender was not a choice, but a way of life: "I was infected by brettanomyces, and there is no cure."
On numerous occasions he asks me, or perhaps himself: "what will happen if lambiek falls out of fashion among today's beer drinkers”? But perhaps Karel’s careful progression will see change in the near future: during my visit, he was close to sealing the deal on a nearby farm, a place where he could grow both cherries and his business.
Even as I sit in the back of Karel’s white minivan, looking out of a stained window at dusty farmland and dirt roads, the future of DeCam and his lambics looks very clear to me.
This travel story comes from a great beer friend of mine, Tobias Göth of Sweden. He's a great storyteller and photographer, and his passion for craft beer travel rivals that of my own. We met a couple years ago in a park in Stockholm for some bottle sharing, and we've swapped stories, and beers, ever since. Today, I'm excited to bring you what I hope is the first of many great articles from Tobias' travels — all with a very personal look at some of the best breweries in the world.
— Michael Kiser, Founder of Good Beer Hunting