Jean van Roy is a busy man. It’s brewing season at Cantillon, the Brussels institution his family has run for more than a century, and his beer is highly sought after. “Thirty years ago nobody liked it; now the demand is so huge we can’t keep up,” he says. “I refuse new customers all the time. We are looking for more space, not to brew but to store the beer – that way, we can double production. Even that will not be enough.”
Cantillon makes lambic, a beer native to Brussels and the nearby Senne Valley. It’s a remarkable drink, produced in time-honoured fashion (the beer is fermented by airborne yeast and aged in wooden barrels), with an unforgettable flavour: flint-dry, robustly rustic, bracingly sour. Beers like those produced by Cantillon are now hugely popular; demand for lambics and other sour beers has skyrocketed around the beer-drinking world, most notably in the US but also, more recently, in Britain.
The complexity of lambic (which, in the form of Gueuze, a blended lambic, takes three years to produce) makes it the king of sour beers. There are other styles such as its Belgian cousin Flanders Red Ale (a barrel-aged beer whose flavour teeters between sweet cherry and balsamic vinegar) or Berliner Weisse, a sour wheat beer which – due to the fact that it’s far easier to produce – is being made by a number of the UK’s more adventurous brewers, from The Kernel Brewery in London to Buxton in Derbyshire.
Perhaps the most notable of Britain’s new wave of sour beers is called Sour Grapes, brewed by Lovibonds in Henley. Sour Grapes was named best wood-aged sour beer at the Beer World Cup in San Diego in 2012. “Sour beer is usually the final frontier for someone getting into craft beer,” says Lovibonds’ owner and head brewer Jeff Rosenmeier. “I think most brewers regard this as the highest level of brewing; working with Sour Grapes allows me to express more of the artistic side of brewing.”
Rosenmeier’s prize beer resulted from an initial mistake, when a batch of his flagship wheat beer was infected. He put that spoilt beer into three pinot noir barrels and inoculated each with a different yeast starter, including a wild yeast called Brettanomyces, which gives lambic much of its complexity. Three years on, he tasted the results and produced a blend.
As this process suggests, there are many parallels with how wine or whisky is made. “You can write a PhD on barrel ageing and blending,” says Brett Ellis, head brewer at Wild Beer Co in Somerset. Ellis, like Rosenmeier an American, was inspired by Belgian classics such as Cantillon, US imitators and Britain’s largely extinct tradition of sour beers. He presides over a brewery packed to the rafters with barrels previously used to age everything from red wine to bourbon: “There are whole other professions founded on blending; they smell and develop a blend. I love the wild element of what we do: some barrels are not right, some sing and are beautiful. That’s really attractive.”
The nature of these beers means flavours change from one batch to the next but it would be fair to say that a Gueuze, with its austere, food-friendly character, might appeal to a cider drinker or a lover of aged white burgundy more than it would someone weaned on more conventional beer. “It’s all about the individual micro-flora [that goes into the beer],” says Mark Dorber, beer sommelier and landlord of The Anchor at Walberswick in Suffolk. “It’s about yeast character, it’s not about hops or malt.”
It’s a wistful type of beer, as any visitor to Cantillon could tell you. The brewery prides itself on doing things as they have always been done: visitors climb cobweb-festooned wooden steps to the attic, where a shallow copper pan (the koelschip, or cooling tray) holds the beer while wild yeast blows across it from the slats in the brewery’s roof.
There’s a hint of this romance (and a more sizeable chunk of economic sense) in the recent decision by Elgood’s, a traditional family brewer in Cambridgeshire, to produce their own lambic-style beer. Elgood’s are in the lucky position of having two cooling trays, which have lain unused in recent years; when an American distributor spotted them, he suggested they make a lambic-style beer for sale in the US. Such has been the interest that more has been made for the British market.
“We thought, why not?” says director Claire Simpson. “We’ve got the equipment, so we took up the challenge. We brewed last April and it came out well; it’s very different from the Belgian beers, because of where we are. There are strawberries and apples grown near to the brewery, which is reflected in the flavour of the beer.”
If this was wine, the word terroir might be used – but beer is a more down-to-earth drink. Nonetheless, more and more drinkers are being seduced by the unique qualities of lambics and similar beers.
“This beer is magic,” says van Roy. “To produce a lambic, you need time – it needs time to mature – and love. Lambic is totally apart, you can’t compare it with other beers. I am a brewer but I am working a bit like a magician.”
Will Hawkes is the author of ‘Craft Beer London’ (Vespertine Press)