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Beer Traveling: Lambic Blending In Milwaukee

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Matt Tunnell

Frisbee player, beer lover

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     I headed up to Milwaukee this Tuesday to attend a talk on Lambic Blending given by Sam Quartier, a quality manager at Brouwerij Bockor in Bellegem, Belgium.  The same talk was given on Monday at the Hopleaf but I was unable to get a ticket so I boarded the Megabus and headed even further north to Milwaukee's Palm Tavern.
     The first step of Bockor's lambic creation process is the boiling of a wort consisting of 70% malted barley and 30% unmalted wheat.  Two or three year old hops are also added to the beer as well.  These add a little bit of bitterness to the beer but they are not responsible for any recognizable hop flavor.  Instead, oxidation of some of the hop compounds creates a cheesy character that is desirable for a lambic, since it blends well with the funky flavors caused by the yeast.
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    After the boil, the beer is pumped to the top of a 90 foot brewing tower to cool in a chamber known as a coolship (from the Belgian Koelschip).  This is a large, shallow copper container that absorbs heat and holds the beer while it gets inoculated with fermenting microorganisms..  The coolship has holes in the top which are open to the wind.  The microorganisms give lambic its distinctive flavor.  These organisms consist of a strain of saccharomyces ale yeast, brettanomyces yeast, which is responsible for the funky flavor of the beer, described by Mr. Quartier as Horse Blanket, and the bacteria Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, which create lactic acid, the source of lambic's sourness.
     After inoculating in the coolship for a week or two, the beer is transferred to barrels of French oak, also known as foudres, via gravity's action through a hose from the tower.  The microflora from previous batches of beer takes up residence in the oak of the barrels and helps in the continued fermentation of the beer.  The beer stays in the foudres for 18 months, whree it finishes fermenting and reaches its full sourness.  In addition to fermenting, the yeast also breaks down unpleasant byproducts of fermentation, such as diacetyl, a buttery compound produced by both saccharomyces and pediococcus.
When the 18 months are up, beers from different foudres of the same age are blended together to achieve a more consistent flavor.  This helps even out differences like a stronger woody flavor caused by younger oak barrels or even difference caused by bacterial contamination.  The most common contaminant is acetobacteria, which turns beer in to vinegar and it occurs as a result of too much evaporation allowing oxygen into a foudre.  Brouwerij Bockor does not throw away beer contaminated in this fashion, instead they blend it bit by bit into uncontaminated beer, creating an additional complexity of flavor.  However, a foudre has not been contaminated in this fashion in the last 20 years according to Mr. Quartier.  The final result of all of this blending of foudres is known as old lambic and it is a flat, exceedingly sour beer.
     Bockor's spontaneously fermented beers for the Belgian market are blended with a young lambic.  This beer is made with same grains as the old lambic, but instead of being spontaneously fermented, it's fermented using lager yeast.  Bockor's Gueuze Jacobins is a blend of old and young lambic and their fruit beers also add fruit juice to the mix.  As part of the event, we were able to taste blends of old and young lambic in various proportions include 100% young lambic, 75% young and 25% old, 50-50, 25% young and 75% old and 100% old lambic.
     The young lambic was not very interesting.  The use of lager yeast was obvious through a slightly sweet, crisp flavor with slightly sulfuric notes, which was reminiscent of other pale lagers.  The progression of the blends was pretty much as expected, with each one more sour than the last and each time the sourness moved further back in my mouth.  Surprisingly, the complexity of the beer peaked in the 75% old, since the smaller proportion contributed a little bit of sweetness and shortened the long sour finish of the 100% unblended lambic with a slight bit of graininess.  The noticeable carbonation also helped make the beer more interesting than the flat old lambic.  In spite of this, I still preferred the unblended old lambic, because it was more sour.
     The final beer of the evening offered a beer with both complexity and tartness.  Bockor's Cuvee de Jacobins Rouge is Bockor's flagship brew in the USA, and it was formulated specifically for that market.  The beer is technically unblended and it begins with 100% old lambic but after the beer is removed from the foudres the brewers add dark malt extract.  This serves to make the beer more complex without diluting the delicious sourness, instead providing an interesting counterpoint on the finish.  This addition also creates the brownish red color from which the beer takes its name.  After the additon of the extract, the beer is filtered, pasteurized and force carbonated.  Tasting the Rouge after the 100% old lambic was a true study in the art of balncing a beer.  I enjoyed both beers, but the Rouge was significantly more drinkable without sacrificing any of the qualities I enjoyed in the old lambic.  You can currently try the Cuvee De Jacobins Rouge at the Map Room, where it is often available.
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     Bockor's process differs from many of the other sour ale producers in Belgium.  This is because Bockor brews many beers for the Belgian market, whereas sour ales tend to be most popular here in the USA.  For example Bockor's use of a lager as a base beer is not the standard practice, many other breweries blend only spontaneously fermented lambic of different ages to achieve their final flavors.  Moreover many sour ales are bottled unfiltered and unpasteurized so that the action of the yeast provides carbonation.  In spite of these differences, Bockor still makes real lambic and they are one of an elite group of Belgian breweries allowed to use the designation Gueuze for their lambic.

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