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Finding Lambicland

Amid quickening global demand, tour the home of lambic, the beer that ages with grace.
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(Left and center) Oude Pruim in Beersel; (Right) Girardin’s unfiltered gueuze Photos by Joe Stange

Lambicland is still there, with its chatty cafes, musty barrel rooms, richly sauced dishes and woolen flat caps. It knows you’re there, too. It wonders how many of you might make it out to visit this year, or next. No hurry. It will be there when you’re ready.

This is not an isolated agrarian utopia full of Belgian bumpkins, mind you. It knows that global thirst for the wild, the half-wild and the acidic has risen sharply—and knows it well, since local breweries and blenders are swelling to meet foreign demand. (They can’t speed up the fermentation process, but they can invest in barrels for aging and rooms in which to put them. And so, they do.)

Lambicland knows, and it hears. It hears how much some of you are willing to pay shady online brokers for certain bottles. For that matter, it hears how much you’re willing to pay your own local brewers for clumsy, shortcut sour beers brewed in your hometown. And even if those are tasty, Lambicland is curious as to why you would pay so much for something that didn’t travel anywhere and didn’t take two or three years to make.

It invites you to visit, among other places, the superbly named In Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst—the “Insurance Against Great Thirst.” It’s only one of several cafes in Pajottenland that serve lambic, but this one gives it museumlike pride of place. And being open only for a few hours on Sundays, the cafe is as much an event as it is a destination.

When open, the cafe fills with a mix of locals and pilgrims come to peruse more than 90 beers on its thick menu, plus a separate list of more gueuzes of various vintages. Bottles lie in wicker pouring baskets, waiting to refill tumblers, while multilingual chatter and that distinct musty-sour scent fill the air. Some visitors are sampling rarities, while others have simpler tastes.

“I prefer a glass of lambic, of oude lambic,” says Yves Panneels, referring to the soft, flat, tart, unblended stuff typically found on draft—on gravity, poured from a cask or sealed jug—in certain cafes in Brussels and Pajottenland. This is the basic stuff from which gueuze and kriek are made, and it’s usually just a few euros per glass. “Why? Because it’s something you can only get here,” Panneels says.

The Grote Dorst was once Eizeringen’s village cafe. It shuttered in 1999. Panneels and his brother Kurt reopened it after five years of restoration work. It was an act of cultural preservation. This is the type of village that was the setting for Brueghel and Rubens paintings of revelry 400 years ago. Pajottenland is equal parts pastoral, suburban and industrial; it hugs Brussels like a crescent to the south, west and northwest. The city and countryside share a claim as home to what is arguably the world’s quintessential folk beer.

“Lambicland” isn’t the usual name—you won’t find it on any map—but it’s a handy way to include both Brussels and Pajottenland. The area is perhaps 20 miles across at its widest, and neither the Senne River nor the flow of beer care much for the political or linguistic divisions. Only a tourist preoccupied by beer would think it natural to smoosh these parts into a whole, so I have no problem doing it for you. Briefly: Pajottenland is part of Dutch-speaking Flanders, while Brussels is its own region, predominantly French-speaking and distinct from both Flanders and Wallonia. Does any of that matter, especially to someone who comes to pay their respects, for example, to Cantillon and Drie Fonteinen? No, it does not.

Lambic is that acidic drink brewed like beer but aged like wine. Its grains are about one third unmalted wheat; the rest are pale malt. The beer gets plenty of hops but they are aged to avoid bitterness, although they keep their anti-staling powers. Here is the especially medieval part: The brewer adds no extraneous yeast for fermentation; instead, that happens spontaneously, thanks to microcritters in the air and especially in the oak on which the beer is aged for up to three years.

Gueuze is perhaps lambic’s most accomplished incarnation, a sparkling blend of younger and older lambics uncorked from Champagne-style bottles. The art of the blender is in producing a consistent product from base lambics and barrels that may vary considerably. Other bottled lambics tend to be fruit-based, the most common type being kriek, or cherry lambic. The traditional brewing method is to steep large amounts of whole fruit directly in the cask for a number of months.

The building block for all of this is unblended lambic. There are hundreds of cafes and restaurants across Belgium that serve one or two brands of authentic gueuze or kriek. Relatively few hold to the older tradition of serving oude lambic—the aged stuff—on draft, and virtually all of those that do are found in Brussels and Pajottenland. “Authentic” in this context means unsweetened and unpasteurized, among other things. Sweet, diluted versions prospered in the late 20th century, often tasting no better than alcopops. However, the current lambic revival is prompting a return to the more austere and complex beers that adhere to the older traditions.

It’s 8 a.m. in the Marolles district in Brussels, and the junk—er, antiques blanketing the square have been there for a couple of hours already. Records, beer glasses, handkerchiefs, silverware, sweat-stained fedoras, paintings of dubious origin, decades-old sepia postcards—the past is palpable here. This famous brocante, or flea market, on Place du Jeu de Balle opens at 6 a.m. daily. So does the Brocante, the corner cafe named for it.

Too early for a beer? If you say so.

Brussels radiates nostalgia, from its florid art nouveau architecture to its gilded and gabled Grand Place. The Brocante is one of several places where the age feels natural and unforced and where the prices are not exploitative. Adverts from breweries long gone are permanent fixtures, as is an art piece in the back that celebrates brusseleir dialect in the colors of the Belgian flag. Most of them appear to be insults, which fits the caricature of the ketje—the tough, working-class Brussels street kid, ready for a brawl if need be and, invariably, wearing a plaid flat cap.

You can still find his kind in the Brocante, and if he is older, he might sip from any of 90 different beers on the cafe’s menu. Bottled lambics—gueuze, kriek, framboise and stranger things—from virtually every brewer or blender, including several from the city’s own Cantillon brewery, comprise the largest section. Sometimes the cafe also serves Cantillon’s own unblended lambic—flat, sour and grapefruity—from a jug. Try it with an omelette bruxelloise with bacon, apples and a local blood sausage called bloempanch. Add the sharp, salty white cheese called ettekeis for more local flavor.

There is more history about 10 minutes’ walk northeast to Rue des Alexiens, home to La Fleur en Papier Doré. The walls of this cafe’s two snug front rooms nearly sag with the weight of bric-a-brac, most of it deliberately strange and cultivated over the decades. This was once the watering hole of a group of Surrealist artists that included René Magritte, he of the bowler hat, apple for a face, and pipe that was not a pipe. “No one is as strange to me as I am to myself,” is the translation of one message scrawled on the wall. This menu features hearty snacks like stomp and bloempanch, Brussels’ version of bangers and mash. There is draft lambic here, too, such as unblended stuff from Oud Beersel or Girardin Kriekenlambic, drawn from the casks in which the cherries are steeped.

These draft lambics usually don’t come straight from the casks, mind you. These days, the brewers tap their barrels to fill handy cubitainers, similar to those boxed wines you see at the supermarket. They lack romance, but they are clean, portable and easy to keep fresh. Cafe owners serve them to the public as quickly as possible.

There are a handful of proper mealtime restaurants in Brussels that serve draft lambic. They include whimsical Bier Circus and the traditional, red-checkered-tablecloth-adorned La Villette, with others, like Nüetnigenough, serving different types from time to time.

Cask lambic was the norm in Brussels during the city’s heyday more than a century ago, and British-style hand pumps also were a common find in the estaminets, those characterful old cafes that specialized in beer and conviviality. The most popular variant by far—as vital to daily life as bread—was faro. Typically, faro was a blend of aged lambic and younger, lighter stuff called meerts, freshly muddled with dark sugar to balance the acidity. Bottled versions found today—artificially sweetened or pasteurized, otherwise the wild yeast would continue to eat sugar and create pressure until the bottles explode—are best ignored. The freshly mixed versions taste far better, even if they’re tricky to find.

One place you can find proper faro is the Cantillon brewery’s own tasting cafe. Another is either location of Moeder Lambic: the original in the Saint-Gilles neighborhood or the larger Fontainas in the center. Both locations have a wide range of excellent draft beers, even if locals balk at the prices. But the attraction for lambic fans are those hand pumps, a rare sight in Brussels these days. Usually they are pouring Cantillon lambic and kriekenlambic plus a guest or two, generally through a “sparkler” to produce a bit of attractive foam atop the otherwise flat drink—this is Belgium and presentation counts.

For something closer to the estaminets of old, try Les Brasseurs on Boulevard Anspach, across from the old stock exchange known as the Bourse. This traditional café brune, lovingly revived by new ownership, features plenty of dark wood paneling, long banquettes and mirrors, plus about 60 beers that include draft Boon oude lambic.

Meanwhile, across the street, the Bourse has become home to a moving, makeshift shrine for the victims of the March 22 bombings, and for peace.

The museumlike Grote Dorst is only one of many cafes in Pajottenland that take a greater interest in lambic. Another classic is De Rare Vos on the village square in Schepdaal, about three miles west of the Brussels ring road. The front barroom is atmospheric and talkative, and the kitchen is well-regarded (try the tender horse steak with crispy frites). Meanwhile, this cafe is one of the few that still does what hundreds did more than a century ago: It mixes its own special faro in the cellar, this version a lightly sweetened blend of aged lambic and kriekenlambic.

Worth special mention is In de Oude Pruim in Beersel, just south of Brussels and down the road from the Drie Fonteinen brewery. This timeless, lace-curtained tavern is kid-friendly and serves food most of the day. It’s been in the same family for five generations.

A friendly cafe, Het Dravershof in Pepingen, shows its proprieter’s special love of Orval, but has gradually increased the beer list to 120, including plenty of bottled lambics and unblended Oud Beersel on draft.

The Grote Dorst has more fame than others, thanks in part to high ratings on social beer sites. “We had the first foreigners in our pub in 2002,” Panneels says. “We have seen that in the past 10 years, a lot more Americans found their way into our pub. And that’s all because of our rating on RateBeer.” The site has consistently named the Grote Dorst as one of the best places in the world to have a beer.

“We are not on the regular tourist track,” Panneels says. “You see the real beer fans doing the effort to take the public transit or a taxi, or drive a car—on Sunday morning—to the village.”

Still, he says, most of the people who come on Sundays are locals. They’re rediscovering their own traditions, but are happy to share tables and talk with those who’ve come from afar. A willingness to slow down, chat and learn is obligatory. The flat cap is optional.

Sip from the Source
Most of the lambic brewers and blenders are visitor-friendly to some degree, though the times and opportunities vary widely. And while some don’t cater to visitors, in most cases, it’s possible to visit neighboring bars so you can at least have a beer near the place it matured. West of Brussels, the gently rolling farmland of Pajottenland—one of only two spots in Belgium where lambic is produced—is home to some of the best and most historic lambic producers in the country.

Boon is in the village of Lembeek, which might or might not have lent its name to lambic. Once home to the De Vits brewery, Frank Boon took it over in 1975, convinced that lambic was on the verge of extinction and needed saving. For years, Boon subsidized authentic gueuze with a sweetened kriek, but these days it’s the demand for real lambic that fuels growth. Guided visits are possible through the tourist office in nearby Halle (toerisme@halle.be), or individuals can show up unannounced in July and August, every Wednesday at 3 p.m. Afterward, pay respects at the high-ceilinged Kring cafe next to Lembeek’s church (15 Stevens de Waelplein). Young folks push strollers while the older crowd argues politics, all sampling from 85-plus beers that include most everything from Boon.

Cantillon is arguably the most visitor-friendly brewery in Belgium, full stop. Jean-Pierre Van Roy’s decision to open the doors to the public as the Brussels Gueuze Museum in 1978 might have saved the brewery while also helping to save  authentic lambic. These days, more than 45,000 people visit Cantillon each year. The brewery is an old-fashioned estaminet—also known as a small cafe where one can sample beers—and is open the same hours as the museum. Individual tours are self-guided and cost 7 euros.

De Cam is a blendery located in the Pajottenland village of Gooik. Blender Karel Goddeau also happens to be the busy brewmaster at Slaghmuylder in Ninove, but he is usually at the blendery to meet visitors on Sunday afternoons. De Cam shares space with the Volkscafé De Cam, which serves Goddeau’s lambic and juicy kriekenlambic on draught.

De Troch developed a reputation in the late 20th century for its cloying, exotically flavored fruit brews. In recent years, it followed the trend back toward more authentic gueuze, and some aficionados praise its unblended lambic. The brewery is open for individual sales on weekdays (9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., closed during the lunch hour) and Saturday mornings. Group tours must be reserved in advance.

Drie Fonteinen is a highly regarded brewery and blender in Beersel, just south of Brussels. Armand Debelder and his team are installing a new blender and visitor center in nearby Lot, possibly open later this year. In the meantime, the brewery shop in Beersel is open Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and it’s usually no problem to take a peek at the brewhouse and the few barrels they keep on site. Otherwise, Restaurant 3 Fonteinen, run with enthusiasm by Armand’s brother Guido Debelder and kin, stocks the family beers, plus many more. These include Drie Fonteinen lambic and faro—a lambic sweetened with brown sugar—on draught, plus lambic and kriekenlambic from Girardin and vintage gueuzes, too. It would be worth the trip for the food alone; a favorite is the Zalm Pajottenland, salmon served in a zesty gueuze-cheese sauce.

Girardin in Sint-Ulriks-Kapelle, northwest of Brussels, doesn’t offer tours, period. But it does have a brewery shop open to all on Mondays and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Note: It closes for lunch from noon to 1 p.m.) You can buy all the bottled beers here, plus plastic containers of unblended lambic for your next party—or for whatever. And you can see the shiny copper brewing equipment through the plate glass windows. Among draft lambics pouring in Brussels and Pajottenland cafes, Girardin’s is the most common. Hanssens is a blendery in Dworp that isn’t open to visitors. But an excellent alternative in Dworp, especially at mealtimes, is one mile northwest at Boelekewis, a restored farmhouse specializing in a wide range of bottled lambics—more than 50, including rarities from Hanssens—and all-you-can-eat ribs.

Lindemans sweetened fruit lambics were among the first to gain a reputation among American enthusiasts as dessert beers. Later, their more authentic Cuvée René developed a strong following at lower prices and wider availability than more hyped producers. More recently, Lindemans showed it knows how to play the hype game by teaming up with Mikkeller for novelties like Spontanbasil basil lambic. Visitors must reserve tours in advance; the cost is 55 euros total for groups up to 25 people.

Mort Subite in Kobbegem is a part of Heineken, though it still brews some authentic lambic. The Keersmaeker brewery doesn’t allow individual visits, but the best place to sample the beers is the atmospheric A La Mort Subite cafe, open daily in the heart of Brussels.

Oud Beersel is a blendery in the same town as Drie Fonteinen, shuttered for a few years until Gert Christiaens and friends revived it in 2005. Christiaens has Boon brew the wort to his own distinct recipe, which is then aged and blended in-house. Individuals can visit every first and third Saturday of the month at 12:30 p.m. for an English tour. Tours at other times are possible through the local enthusiasts group, the Geuzen van Oud Beersel (degeuzenvanoudbeersel.be).

Tilquin is Belgium’s newest lambic blender, open since 2009, and is the only one in Wallonia. Within a couple of years, Pierre Tilquin’s Oude Gueuze was holding its own against the classics, even as demand (and barrelage) grew for specialties like his purple plum (Quetsche) lambic and light draft gueuze. The blendery opens its doors for individual sales and inquisitive peeks every Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., September to June (closed in July and August).

Timmermans is another brewery that traded on sweet stuff until reviving an oude gueuze in time for the authentic lambic renaissance. The brewery has an atmospheric pub for group visits, but those require a minimum of 25 people. Individuals can visit the second Sunday of the month from 2 to 5 p.m., with a guided tour at 2:30 p.m.

Finally, the Toer de Geuze is an event during which all the lambic producers of Pajottenland, including those normally shut to visitors, open their doors to busloads of enthusiasts. It only happens every two years, and the next tour is scheduled for May 7, 2017.

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