By Jared Dillon
Beer Sommelier

In my personal experience, Belgian beers are often regarded as the finest of their craft. Many people have romanticized ideas of monks crafting ales in the walls of monasteries across Belgium.

When talking to those involved in the Belgian brewing community, I found a startlingly different opinion. Many craft brewers in Belgium feel the same way many craft brewers in America feel.

They are surrounded by industrial giants such as Anheuser-Busch InBev whose purpose is solely to make a profit. Those associated with the Belgian craft scene find that the truest style of beer in their country is a style known as lambic.

Lambic beers are unique because while they may be brewed in a traditional sense, their fermentation process is much more similar to that of wine or cider. Most alcoholic beverages such as wine or beer use yeast to ferment their products into alcohol. The majority of beers typically use very controlled yeast sources. When fermenting wine or cider a naturally occurring or wild yeast is trapped between the skins of the fruit used in the beverage.

What makes lambic so unique is that the fermentation of these beers is done with wild yeast — Pediococci or Brettanomyces — to give what some describe as a “funky” or “sour” taste. Exposing the beer, after the boiling process, to open fermentation and allowing airborne yeasts to culture in the beer accomplishes this step. Traditionally, the lambics are then aged for up to three years in oak barrels.

Many Americans are familiar with lambic based on styles such as Kriek (cherry) or Framboise (raspberry). Adding raw fruit to the barrels and allowing the beer to ferment yields these styles with the fruit’s flavor.

The most important thing to note is that many cheap lambic producers will use flavored syrups and extracts as a substitute for raw fruit. This often creates a soda-like sweetness to the beer rather than the authentic tart, sour flavors of a true lambic.

The most sought-after style of lambic in Belgium is gueuze, which is a blend of young and aged lambic. In Belgium, aged lambic is often referred to as oude or old. At one time, gueuze was the main beer style of Brussels. Now Cantillon is one of the only breweries in the city still specializing in the style.

When tasting gueuze, you will quickly notice that it is highly acidic, thus making it highly sour and tart. Gueuze is very dry, almost akin to a Chardonnay or Riesling. The beer is often carbonated and can sometimes have the effervescent of champagne.

Gueuze can be aged like wine for ten or 15 years. The aging process will smooth out the flavors, making it less sour.

Gueuze in America is often very difficult to find and also very expensive. Some of the best styles are from Cantillon Brewery based in Brussels, 3 Fonteinen based in Beersel, and Boon based Lembeek.

On March 21, we will be conducting tastings of a variety of Belgian Lambics and Sour Ales at Idyll Awhile Wine Shop. All of the beers will be paired with food. Call (951) 659-9463 for more details or to reserve a seat.