Recently, I was fortunate enough to taste a beer that wouldn’t pass for a beer in any blind tasting. Even before there is a barrage of calls from beer lovers for snubbing their pints, please allow me to explain.
What the world drinks as beer is not even close to what evolved in Belgium as a form of the same beverage. Belgium took beer to heights of complexity, which many wines can’t achieve. A beer in this little country is so refined a taste that even wine seems secondary and inconspicuous in its near absence. Sure, you can order a bottle of some French or Aussie but why really bother?
So, I was at Cantillon, a one-of-a-kind brewery, not just in Belgium but also in the world. Cantillon has helped keep a tradition alive that other breweries have forgotten: spontaneous fermentation. Unlike the beer industry which relies on commercial yeast to brew its wort (the base for making beer), the wort here is allowed to naturally cool in a large copper tun. Overnight, as it cools, the natural yeast in the air of the brewery settles on the surface and starts the natural fermentation process. This is tricky business because the wort has to cool enough and the yeast, being natural, may take time to settle and start the reaction. This also means that if they were to shift the venue to some other place far off, the yeast they find there could be different and produce not an entirely similar brew. Thus, this limits their production capacity as also, to an extent, geography. They make no more than 1,70,000 litres of beer a year and considering that Belgium alone drinks almost 74 litres of beer per capita per annum, it doesn’t leave a lot for the rest of us.
Luckily, there are many good beers in Belgium; so, beer lovers like us need not lose hope yet. Upon my visit, the owner showed us around, tasting a good few batches and styles with us—he even showed us one which was three years old, flat with no added gas, and yet sour enough to feel fresh and prickly—and constantly insisting that his beer wasn’t wine and we shouldn’t confuse them so. Given his barrel cellar, his cork closures, his talk of secondary flavours and benefits of ageing, it was only getting tougher not to!
This style of beer is called a Lambic. It