Why Americans Don't Make "Lambics"

Note: Post has been updated.

I sparked a mild fracas on Twitter* yesterday when I responded to a tweet with this:

Americans are the great appropriators, though, and people started making the point that many styles have origins in other places and we still use those style names when we make the beers in America:

It's true.  An even better case would be kolsch, which has a European PGI and which the Germans take very seriously.  Americans blithely brew kolsches without the slightest thought about how the style relates to place.  And because I'm an American, I'm generally sympathetic to this view.  There are two good reasons we shouldn't call anything outside Payottenland a lambic, though.

Working to keep lam
The first is pedantic.  Lambics aren't just a legally protected style (though they are that)--they're a product of place.  It's the oldest extant style on earth (or anyway the oldest that is essentially the same as it was in the 16th century), and one that is bound to the area around Brussels by the particular fauna yeasts [see comments below] that seed the cooling wort.  Moreover, it is a extremely specific product of craft.  In order to preserve that lineage of what a "lambic" is, lambic-makers all agree to produce their beer in specific ways to specific specifications: at least 30% unmalted wheat; spontaneously fermented; hops aged at least a year; in the case of gueuze, the beer must be refermented in the bottle; contain specific compounds like the presence of brettanomyces and absence of isoamyl acetate that affirm it was made properly; must be aged at least a year on wood (or in the case of gueuze, must include one-, two-, and three-year-old blends).

All these things define what a lambic is and should be.  Other breweries make spontaneously-fermented beer in Belgium, but unless they're in Payottenland and make it to these standards, they don't call their beer lambic.  They are making, both in the letter and spirit of the law, different beers.

The second reason is actually the one that convinces me, though.  It's not pedantic or supercilious, as the first one is usually thought to be.  Lambic is certainly one of the hardest beers to make in the world (and for my money the very hardest).  It has nearly disappeared at least once, and despite the wild ale revolution in the US and Italy, isn't an especially robust segment of the Belgian market.  When I visited Cantillon, I encountered owner fourth-generation brewer Jean Van Roy up to his elbows in a whirlpool, trying to extract hops from wort as it went to the kettle.  He had already been working for six hours and his day was nowhere near done.  The Van Roys, along with a handful of other families in Belgium, have continued to make this beer the old way, no matter how much of a bitch it is, and seemingly, no matter how small the market got.

Amazingly, when they finally started to find an export market in the US, folks like the Van Roys were happy to receive US brewers and tell them their secrets.  Brewing days are open at Cantillon.  You can ask Jean any question you like; you can film every minute of his brew and write extensive notes.  You can take this information home and brew your own beer to his exact specifications.  And you can do this all with his explicit blessing.

All he asks is that you shouldn't call it lambic.  In the long, lean decades of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, his family toiled to keep the tradition of lambic-making alive.  Their brewery contains a small museum that tells the story of this lineage and illustrates how the brewery fits into it.  It is the tradition of lambic-making, and now that the style is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, he'd like you to remember this long tradition and what it means and has meant to his family (and the families of the other lambic-makers).  When you think of lambic, think of the beers these brewers have kept alive in this little corner of the world for so long.  It's not a huge request.

In America we make wild ales or spontaneous ales.  We don't make lambic.

Update.  Since this post has been discussed broadly on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and at least one other blog, I'd like to add two more points.   I made the first one, but extremely obliquely.  It's that wild ales are different depending on where they're brewed.  They're spontaneously fermented: that is, wild yeasts floating in the air seed the wort.  You can do spontaneous fermentation anywhere, but you'll get different yeasts.  In lambic land you get brettanomyces bruxellensis--named for the city of origin.  When Rob Tod started making spontaneously fermented beer at Allagash, he had his brett culture looked at and found it was unlike anything anyone had seen before.  (Brettanomyces portlandensis?)  The wild ales Ron Jeffries makes in Michigan are different.  Lambics are beers principally defined by the yeasts, and it is therefore literally impossible to make spontaneously-fermented beer taste the same if you make it in a different place.  This is (in addition to the stuff I mentioned above) why it's different from a lot of the protected European names, which actually can be pretty easily replicated elsewhere.  Lambics are wild ales from Payottenland.

The second point has to do with why I care about this.  Apparently I've been a little vehement on the issue.  (I have!)  It's because the style very nearly died out in the 1960s and 70s. When I visited Frank Boon, he explained the sad fate of many of the beers during that time:  "Forty years ago, this was a time when breweries were closing and all the local styles were disappearing. Everywhere in Belgium. Louvain white disappeared, Peeterman disappeared, [ascot beers] disappeared. In the 1950s and 1960s. If gueuze had disappeared in the 1960s, nobody would ever have imagined to make such a beer."  Other Belgian breweries have very often stolen names.  They used "Trappist" to describe beer that had nothing to do with monks.  They took kriek and gueuze and faro and used it on beers that had nothing to do with lambic.  In a last-ditch effort to save the style, lambic makers and blenders banded together to get a PGI to protect some of their products.  If they hadn't, I have no doubt but that there would be no lambic today.  Kriek is a cautionary tale.  It was appropriated by other breweries for beers that aren't made traditionally, and now you can find a debased cough syrup product called "kriek" everywhere.  That would have been the way of lambic had they not taken action to protect it.

Obviously, these are all businesses and they all want to protect and promote their products.  But in this case, the word has real power.  If we allow "lambic" to mean "any sour beer," then what happens to the beers that take 12 hours to brew and three years to age?  If I'm vehement, it's because I'm scared to death that my favorite styles of beer will vanish.

*The discussion proceeded, as Twitter discussions do, in increasingly smaller, tarter fragments.  As more people join the conversation, you end up with tags for other people taking up 100 characters, leaving you with enough space to offer a brief, cutting reply.  Twitter doesn't facilitate discussions, it destroys them.