The American Lambic Wars

In one of the tinier pockets of the brewing world, a heated debate rages. What should Americans call the beer made in the manner of spontaneously-fermented Belgian lambic? This wasn't remotely an issue until about 2007, when Allagash Brewing started a program that followed the practices quite closely. There may have been some efforts along the way toward traditional lambic-style beer, but Allagash built a dedicated coolship room and committed to an ongoing program making the beer. Last year, one of the small club of Americans making these beers decided to name and codify it, and thus began the debate.

When it released its first gueuze-style blend of aged lambics last year, Texas's Jester King also launched a campaign for "Méthode Gueuze," which would distinguish their process from other processes they felt were too quick or easy. While there was a certain high-minded intention folded into the this proposal, it was also, unavoidably, a marketing tool:

"We invested an inordinate amount of time, energy, money, and patience into making this beer. The work began all the way back in 2012. The beer itself took three years and nine months to make. Aside from the cost of the equipment and raw materials for our spontaneous program, we’ve sacrificed who knows how much opportunity cost by devoting a huge portion of our barrel room to spontaneous fermentation — space that could have been used for far less time intensive beer. We feel we’d be doing ourselves a disservice by just calling our beer 'spontaneous' or 'coolship ale.'"

They launched this effort with the blessing of Cantillon's Jean Van Roy, who is at once one of the most traditional of the Brussels-area lambic makers, and also the most experimental. And, far from inoculating themselves against the politics of Belgian lambic, they walked straight into one of the oldest and most contentious battles in beer. Many of the larger lambic producers now make derivative products that are sweetened and pasteurized, while others stick to classic methods. The entire group consists of just a handful of brewers and blenders, and the rivalries cross culture and commerce.

Before we return to America, let's just acknowledge that "traditional" here is an artifice. Lambic making goes back at least to the 16th century, but the methods over that period have varied broadly. Facing industrialization and the influx of lager in the post-war era of the 20th century, lambic makers began an uneasy alliance to protect their shrinking market, and this eventually led, decades later, to legal protection in the EU. Now the parameters of what can be called "oude gueuze" and "oude kriek" are strict: 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).

But there's nothing that makes these criteria sacred. They identify a way of producing traditional beer that all members can agree on. Are there other ways to make these beer? Of course. Are there methods that are also traditional but not universally practiced? Of course. And all of these lead to the infighting that you see between Van Roy on the one side and and Lindemans on the other.

Which brings us back to America. Yesterday, Jester King announced it was abandoning the Méthode Gueuze designation. The nonprofit overseeing lambics in Belgium--of which Cantillon is not a member--had raised objections to Jester King's project. In its place Jester King has proposed two new designations: Méthode Traditionelle and Méthode Traditionelle 3-Year. They come with marks nearly identical to the Méthode Gueuze designation. To qualify for the mark, you must adhere to 20 (!) very specific guidelines on process and ingredient--a far more stringent standard than exists in Belgium. Any use of the mark requires " express written permission from The Méthode Traditionelle Society," which is unnamed but appears to mean Jester King.


This raised the hackles of at least one of the American breweries making these kinds of beers, Oregon's De Garde, who took to Facebook last night. They cite several reasons for resisting the mark--never using Jester King's name--but include a rather tart complaint that other American makers should "carry the impulse to price their beer in accordance with the actual cost of production and business operations," implying price-gouging. Furthermore,

To try to pull cachet from the traditions of others who have fought to support them though, is not just disingenuous, but capitalistic.
— De Garde Brewing

My, my. That escalated quickly.

This is no doubt only a middle chapter in a long novel. I am a more or less neutral observer (but hardly disinterested--this stuff is fascinating!), but I can't help noticing how quickly the American community of lambic-inspired producers has followed their Belgian inspirations straight into a thicket of politics. That, perhaps more than turbid mashing, marks them as true heirs to the tradition.