When Levi Funk, owner of Madison, Wisconsin’s Funk Factory Geuzeria, read about a beer style called “meerts,” he wasn’t even sure how to pronounce it. (He’s since settled on mertz, with an ‘e’ sound that makes it rhyme with Hertz, the car rental company.) He had been researching lambic and the origins of faro, which was historically a sweetened blend of lambic and a less-aged, lower-ABV beer called meerts. Meerts?
On a subsequent trip to Belgium, Funk asked Jean van Roy of Cantillon, perhaps the world’s foremost lambic producer, what meerts was.
“He had no idea, no point of reference,” Funk says.
Naturally, that created an itch not only to learn what this style entailed, but to actually brew one himself. In the year and a half since he first learned of meerts’ existence, Funk has successfully brewed multiple batches of it, and it’s become a staple in Funk Factory’s new tasting room. Funk is, to his knowledge, the only American brewer to have released a bottled meerts, and he’s perhaps one of only three in the world currently brewing it; one other is Brouwerij Boon, which he says sells its meertz to Gueuzerie Tilquin as a blending component of the draft version of Gueuze Tilquin.
So, OK, the suspense is killing us: What is it? Meerts was historically a beer brewed from the second runnings of a lambic, which made it lower in alcohol (generally around 3-4%). It was typically served “fresh”, only a few months’ old in comparison to lambics’ years of resting time in wood.
“It’s this baby brother of lambic and something we can produce a lot more of and have it a lot more available than our lambic program,” Funk says. Funk Factory’s meerts is generally available on draft on the tasting room, and Funk has also created multiple variants on it including meerts with fruit additions and a Galaxy dry-hopped version.
Another American version of meerts will soon join those ranks. Trevor Rogers, head brewer and cofounder of de Garde Brewing in Tillamook, Oregon, is currently aging a similar beer, though Rogers eschews the term meerts, believing it and the word lambic should be reserved for those beers of Belgian origin.
“We’re trying to make local traditions that are drawing from European traditions, so we don’t consider our beers lambics or meerts,” he says. “This particularly is a lower-gravity, spontaneously inoculated and fermented golden ale. Thus far, it’s come out nicely, a little more delicate, lighter, more drinkable.”
The drinkability factor, Rogers says, is perhaps the beer’s greatest draw. At about 4% ABV and with only a year or so of time in wood compared to de Garde’s mostly two-year-plus beers, it feels refreshing.
“Something that was a little lighter, more drinkable and more characterful is a passion of ours, something we love to consume personally,” he says. “Many wild brewers or brewers in general are huge fans of pilsners or other lagers. I feel like we can target a relatively light, easier drinking wild beer but still have a depth of character to it, like every well made pilsner does.”
de Garde’s meerts-inspired beer is still in oak, likely for another few months as it achieves the level of structure that Rogers targets. Until then, he can’t say for certain what exactly his first version of this style will taste like. And with only a few meerts available in the entire world, the style doesn’t exactly have a BJCP category.
“I don’t know what it’s ‘supposed’ to taste like, but ours is very lemon-citrusy paired with a hay kind of earthiness and a little funkiness,” Levi Funk says. “It’s a really good gateway into sour beer, and that was our hope for it. But also the beer nerds drink it and are like ‘There’s a bit more going on than, say, a Berliner weisse.’”
Another result of scant information on brewing meerts: It took Funk a couple tries to dial in his brewing method for this beer. At first, he tried brewing meerts the traditional way, with the second-runnings from a lambic; but after pulling just four barrels from that, he was essentially getting water instead of wort. He says he can’t speak for Boon’s methods, but it was his understanding that the brewery moved to a dedicated brewing day for meerts rather than pulling second runnings because modern brewing grains and techniques are much more efficient, resulting in less fermentables in the second runnings. That’s the method he eventually settled on as well, and is also Rogers’ method at de Garde.
“It’s still a turbid mash, same recipe, just scaled down a bit to target the 3-4% alcohol that you’d get as an 18th century brewer. In the brewing process, we’re trying to emulate what the second runnings of that brew would it,” Funk says.
While all that sounds technical, it doesn’t require an encyclopedic knowledge of Belgian lambic brewing to appreciate meerts—which is exactly its charm.
“It’s something where we’ve been able to reach out to a new beer-drinking group who aren’t so hardcore,” Funk says. “Meerts is a good evangelical beer.”