“I make beer, I'm not interested in politics,” Bokkereyder’s Raf Souvereyns says, when asked about the importance of protecting the terms “Lambic” and “Gueuze.” “Please address HORAL for those questions.”
Modern beer has evolved to the point at where words like “wild” and “mixed fermentation” have become a common part of the industry’s vernacular. Breweries across the U.S., Europe, and beyond are investing in forests of oak foeders, sleek coolships, and playing around with an ever widening variety of yeast and bacteria. All to create a genre of beer which we too often lazily refer to as “sour.”
Brewers often point to Belgium as a source of inspiration for these beers, whether it’s oak-matured Oud Bruins or Reds from Flanders in Belgium’s north or the Lambic and Gueuze of the Zenne Valley and Pajottenland to the south of Brussels. These beers suffered greatly in popularity in the second half of the 20th century. But the dip didn’t lead them to the grave. Instead, the fortunes of these beers were to experience a wild revival the world over.
HORAL, which is an acronym for Hoge Raad voor Ambachtelijke Lambikbieren—or the High Council for Traditional Lambic Beers, when translated from Flemish to English—is a Belgian consortium of 11 brewers and blenders, self-charged with the protection of these terms. It was formed in 1997 by 3 Fonteinen, Boon, De Cam, De Troch, Lindeman’s, and Timmermans. Frank Boon of the eponymously named brewery has served as chair since 2015 after replacing 3 Fonteinen’s Armand Debelder, who had held the position since the council was founded.
In addition to its member-businesses that are recognized as either brewers or blenders, it features some associates such as The Gueuze Society and De Lambiekstoempers. These two consumer-led organizations could perhaps be portrayed in a similar light to CAMRA in the UK due to their exclusive focus on the protection and celebration of two traditional beer styles: Lambic and Gueuze.
The group has worked to protect native beers produced in the Pajottenland and Zenne Valley, which lie to the south of Brussels. Most notably, this work involved lobbying the EU government so that they might grant protection to these styles. HORAL succeeded at this in the first year of its existence. In 1997, Lambic was awarded the Traditionally Specialty Guaranteed (TSG) label by the European Union.
Essentially, this ruling grants the terms protection within the EU—similar to how Champagne is protected by appellation d'origine contrôlée. However, unlike appellation, TSG only applies to composition and methods of manufacturing or process, and not any specific geographical location. In addition to this, while the protection for the French sparkling wine is enforced globally, the TSG label granted to Lambic doesn’t technically extend beyond the EU’s borders. Of course, this hasn’t prevented HORAL from trying to enforce its status anyway.
In 2017, Jester King came under fire from the consortium for the use of the term “Méthode Gueuze” in relation to Spon, a spontaneously fermented beer produced in a similar fashion to the Belgian style. The Texas farmhouse brewery had the backing of Cantillon’s Jean-Pierre Van Roy—who isn’t a HORAL member—in the creation of the term. Initial tensions made it seem like the situation could have generated long standing issues between the U.S. and Belgian producers.
Instead, Jester King co-founder Jeffrey Stuffings traveled to meet with Boon and HORAL to talk things through. The outcome of that meeting saw Stuffings change the descriptor of Spon to “Méthode Traditionelle.” Around the same time, Stuffings and a group of likeminded beer makers formed the Sour and Wild Ales Guild, a HORAL-like group intended to help establish and guide the future of sour and wild beer in the United States. Despite the beers that HORAL’s members produce not technically having any kind of legally-enforceable security outside of the European Union, the respect given to HORAL, along with Lambic and Gueuze in general, appears to have a continent-spanning reach. Stuffings’ travel and willingness to compromise is just one way to see this.
“As a group of producers we have more impact than individually,” Pierre Tilquin, himself a HORAL member, says, reflecting on the situation. “We will most likely need to be very vigilant and monitor the use of the words ‘Gueuze’ and ‘Lambic,’ as many brewers are willing to start spontaneous fermentation. But the recent agreement we found with Jester King might help us to avoid this.”
Breweries in the U.S. like Jester King aren’t the only ones taking their cues from the spontaneously fermenting Belgian masters. There are plenty of young brewers and blenders playing a part in the continual revival of the styles.
Raf Souvereyns established his Lambic blendery, Bokkereyder, in 2013. He rapidly gained acclaim for his artful, nuanced takes on spontaneously fermented beer and his business was named RateBeer’s best new brewery in the world in 2016. Although not based in the Zenne Valley, all the wort Souvereyns purchases is made by traditional Lambic breweries—allowing Bokkereyder to be considered a Lambic blender itself.
Finding his beer isn’t easy, though, even in Belgium itself. Due to the blendery’s acclaim, you’re more likely to find a bottle in a bar like Copenhagen’s Koelschip—and that’s if you can find any in the first place. Often peoples first chance to try Souvereyns beers are by the thimble-full at events like Mikkeller’s Copenhagen Beer Celebration. In fact, such is their rarity that, in 2017, 10 three-liter Jeroboams shipped to a rare beer auction in Portland, Oregon raised a collective $21,000—the trio forming 10% of the auctions overall take.
“Lambic is the most noble beer in the world,” Souvereyns says. “To me, it has equal or even better qualities than wine. I took a lot of inspiration from the wine world and wanted to apply that to beer.”
Souvereyns is one of a growing number of small producers worldwide who is choosing to dedicate much of their focus to the art of brewing, fermenting, and blending spontaneously fermented beer. For many beer lovers, Lambic and Gueuze is seen as the apex of beer, requiring up to three years maturing in oak post-fermentation, and skillful blending to find a perfect balance of acidity, flavor, and sweetness. What this balance comprises exists only in the whim of each blender’s palate. This may explain why the style has become such a draw to so many new producers.
Tommie Sjef founded Tommie Sjef Wild Ales in the Dutch port town of Den Helder—around 54 miles north of Amsterdam—in late 2014. As with Bokkereyder, Sjef quickly made a name for himself with beers he describes as “Lambic-inspired.” He too picked up a coveted RateBeer best new brewery in the world award, this time in 2017. And, as with the beers blended by Souvereyns, his beers are produced in such minute quantities that they are notoriously difficult to find, even in the specialist beer stores of Amsterdam. The best chance of actually tasting some is to sign up to the mailing list and hope you’re checking your inbox when a stock notification eventually appears. This happens sporadically, roughly once a month.
Although he doesn’t refer to his his beers specifically as Lambic (he instead prefers the term “wild ales,” due to its inherent simplicity), it was a bottle of 3 Fonteinen Oud Geuze enjoyed in 2013 that set him on the brewer’s path.
“[Gueuze] felt like a drink that is really pure and complex, a beer you want to dive into,” Sjef says. “I started collecting information on making those beers and started buying small amounts of Lambic to blend. After a year or two I started to brew my own wild ales and started to fill barrels of wort in my mom's shed in the backyard.”
For Sjef, the categorization of Lambic and Gueuze is less important than the fact that the styles still survive to this day.
During World War II, brewers’ resources were stretched and the necessary ingredients for brewing were often difficult to come by. After the war, many Lambic producers fell on hard times. The introduction of sweetened soft drinks to Belgium in the postwar era also led to a shift in the Belgian beers drinker’s palate.
Sweetened Lambic, sometimes referred to as Faro, became a popular alternative in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and would continue to rise in popularity until the late ‘90s and the formation of HORAL. Within the post-war era, brewers that remained successful, such as Belle Vue (now a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch InBev) did so by producing commercialized, sweetened beer—and subsequently buying up all of the competition. Were it not for the efforts of groups like HORAL, we might not be able to enjoy Lambic as we know it at all. And in turn, producers like Sjef and Souvereyns wouldn’t have had the inspiration that drove them to produce wild and sour beers of their own.
“I personally don't get why people are calling their beers ‘Lambic’ outside the region,” Sjef says. “Why should you call your beer ‘Lambic-inspired?’ Almost every wild ale that has been aged for a proper amount of time in wooden barrels can be considered as ‘Lambic-inspired.’ Would you call a hot sauce ‘Tabasco-inspired?’ You're just selling yourself short.”
It’s not just brewers on the European mainland who’re getting bitten by the spontaneous fermentation bug. In the Sussex village of Firle, about eight miles from the English South Coast, Burning Sky Brewers and Blenders commissioned what is thought to be the first newly built and installed coolship in the British Isles since the 1930s. The brewery’s first coolship brew took place in early 2017, and there have been several since. For now, that beer is still safely tucked up in barrels, steadily evolving under the influence of yeast, bacteria, time and oak.
“A coolship was always part of the original intention of the brewery from our initial thoughts and dreams back in 2012,” Burning Sky founder Mark Tranter says. “We spend a lot of time and effort controlling the production of tank beers, but with spontaneous fermentation, you have very little control—at best you can guide it. During these tentative steps, we learn and wait.”
Sour and wild beers have always been a core part of Burning Sky’s ethos, with mixed fermentation and blended beers from barrels and foeders being a part of its lineup since day one. With its Saison à la Provision, Burning Sky is one of a handful of UK breweries to have a mixed fermentation beer in its core lineup. The brewery’s annually released Cuvée is a blend of its own oak-matured beer, with a small percentage of Girardin Lambic added.
Tranter won’t be using the term “Lambic” to describe his own spontaneously fermented beers when they are eventually ready. He also refuses to rule out the adoption of a specific language with which to describe these future beers, though he will look toward Belgium for possible approval of these terms.
“There is not yet an approved term from the majority of Lambic and Gueuze producers in Belgium. If and when there is, then we may adopt it—until then, we will resist it,” he says. “We are fortunate enough to be on good terms and even friends with some of these people—they have been more than generous with their knowledge to us, and as such we respect their wishes with regards to the protection of their unique produce.”
Burning Sky, is one of the more prominent producers of wild and sour beers within the UK along with a handful of others such as The Wild Beer Company, The Little Earth Project, and BrewDog. However, beer enthusiasts simply aren't spending all of their beer budget on these specialty—and often expensive—brands, so they also brew hoppy Pales, clean-fermentation Saisons, Porters, and more. Still, there are some who choose to focus exclusively on the wild and sour stuff like Tommie Sjef and Bokkereyder.
One of these producers is Mills Brewing, which was founded in 2017 by Jonny and Gen Mills in the village of Ham, Gloucestershire, near Bristol in southwest England. Mills’ first release, Foxbic, was a 50/50 blend of a beer brewer Jonny Mills describes as “naturally fermented” with Foxwhelp apple juice provided by cider maker Tom Oliver. The bittersharp juice of the fruit combines with a Saison-esque beer that creates a subtle lactic sour note with a dry, mineral finish. It’s not unlike a nice glass of Riesling.
“Being a sour-only brewery was never really a question we even considered. For us, the only way to produce the best wild/sour beers was to completely focus on just that,” Mills says. “However, we’re not trying to be a UK clone of a Lambic producer. We’d like to explore of the possibilities of brewing in our own way.”
With the popularity of wild and spontaneously fermented beer rising, and bottles exchanging hands for hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars, a new set of challenges is emerging. Unlike IPA, which can be produced quickly and turned over at a similar pace, Lambic and Gueuze take months or years to produce. Even then, brewers can only package as much beer as they have in barrels. It’s not a simple problem that can be solved with the purchase of some extra stainless steel. Like the beer itself, demand can only be met by an equal measure of patience.
“Fast beers pay for the slow ones, slow ones keep the interest in the fast ones,” Burning Sky’s Mark Tranter says. “We will continue along our path and both sides of the coin—clean and mixed fermentation beers have been important to us since day one. We learn loads from both, though it is our foray into mixed and spontaneous fermentation that defines us as brewers.”
This unique category of beers has other problems on its horizon, too, including how to define itself outside a taproom, establishing an understanding in restaurants and higher-end bars. A growing affinity with similarly fermentation-driven products, such as natural wine and low-intervention cider, could be key. And as with these products, trying to define themselves in an industry that often thrives on finding that definition could be sour and wild beers’ greatest hurdle. While some continue to clutch at straws trying to find the right nomenclature for beers produced in this style outside of the region that’s home to Lambic and Gueuze, there are those like Tommie Sjef, who are happy to continue with what’s important: making beer.
“Our labels just say: beer fermented and aged in wooden barrels,” Sjef says. “I like to keep it simple and honest.