Location, location, fermentation, as I go star Gueuze-ing in a virtual Belgium

The weekend the clocks go forward 2002 and Jester King Spontan is guest pour at Dukes Bar, Halifax. That’s if there’s any left after the Friday being designated as ‘Sponzee Day – celebrating the iconic spontaneously fermented barrel sour’. Unimaginable even a few years ago for such an event in a provincial craft beer outpost; even now a big hand to bar owners Ellie and Sean.

This three year blend (18-19-20 vintages) from a farmhouse brewery outside Austin, Texas pays its dues to the Gueuze brewing style of Belgium. Yet another example of America’s magpie adoptions that have spread the word about niche beers once threatened with extinction.

Sponzee Day comes just three weeks after the death of Armand Debelder, whose Brouwerij Drie Fonteinen kept alive the Belgian tradition of gueuzes and the wild lambic beers from which they are blended. The man nicknamed ‘Grandfather Gueuze was just 70 and, suffering from cancer, had already handed over the reins to trusted associates. The brewery’s own website pays an affectionate homage https://www.3fonteinen.be/en/and there’s a fitting obituary on the Good Beer Hunting website,https://www.goodbeerhunting.com/blog/2022/3/10/goodbye-to-grandfather-geuze-armand-debelder-dies-at-71 which recounts how back in the Eighties he took over blending work at the family restaurant, Drie Fonteinen at a time when lambic seemed in terminal decline with small brewers swallowed up by multi-nationals. 

In tandem with brewer soulmate Frank Boon, Armand rallied the rearguard in the Pajottendland region south west of Brussels. In 1989 he found equipment and, despite family qualms, started brewing his own lambics.

So what are Lambics? Beers left in open vats where wild yeast and bacterias are allowed to take up residence. Once the fermentation process begins, the beer is stored in barrels and left to age for up to three years.

The rescue act was boosted by a kind of symbiotic serendipity. The doyen of British beer writers, Michael Jackson, developed a unique affinity with Belgian beer culture, exploring even its most arcane corners. We owe to him, in part, the survival of Saison, Flemish red ales and all the wild yeast styles.

In a 1996 interview Jackson surmised why he spent so much time documenting Belgium’s beer culture: “I think the motivation was almost like the motivation of some of those musicologists like Alan Lomax who went down to the Mississippi Delta in the ’50s and recorded old blues men before they died. I wanted to kind of record Belgian beer before those breweries didn’t exist anymore. I certainly didn’t see it as a career possibility, but I think all, or many, journalists have in them a sort of element of being an advocate.”

All this culminated in his Great Beers of Belgium (1991), whose sales across various editions have topped 150,000. It’s 15 years since his untimely death his digital legacy The Beer Hunter website is still a valuable resource despite its outdated lay-out. Here’s its summation of Gueuze:

“A bottled, sparkling, style that is much easier to find. Can have the toasty and Chardonnay-like notes found in Champagne. The word Gueuze (hard “g”, and rhymes with “firs”) may have the same etymological origins as the English words gas and ghost, and the Flemish gist (“yeast”), referring to carbonation and rising bubbles.

“The carbonation is achieved by blending young Lambic (typically six months old) with more mature vintages (two to three years). The residual sugars in the young Lambic and the yeasts that have developed in the old cause a new fermentation.… References to “old” (oud, vieux, vieille) on the label indicate a minimum of six months and a genuine Lambic process. Without these legends, a Lambic may have been ‘diluted’ with a more conventional beer”. 

Jackson’s describes the Drie Fonteinen beer as “creamy, aromatic, with a clean, teasing, perfumy fruitiness and a faintly herbal tartness”. I can concur with all that after refreshing my memory with a bottle at my favourite Calder Valley bar, Coin.

Armand Debelder reciprocated the appreciation, lamenting in one interview: “It’s a shame on Belgian brewers that there’s no statue of Jackson. He was the first to start describing lambic with words such as ‘horse sweat,’ words others may not have considered or perhaps been afraid to use. He was a friend of the Lambic producers. We have photos hanging in our brewery of when Jackson visited us. We were always happy to give him the opportunity to taste something special when he visited. He never asked for it. But because of his simple being and calmness, it was more than normal to offer him something exceptional.”

Survival remained perilous for a while. With the Debelder Lambics and Guezes on the up, an act of nature nearly destroyed the whole mission. On the morning of May 16 2009, a faulty thermostat caused the warehouse to heat up and because of the pressure the bottles started exploding one by one. 80,000 were los in one night. Bankruptcy loomed, but bottling and selling rare stocks helped the brewery bounce back.

My own conversion to Gueuze

What clinched it was the gift of a ‘2021 Horal Megablend’ . Over the years, encouraged by friends’ enthusiasm, I had dipped my toe (so to speak) in the Lambic pond and I was aware of the High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers  (Horal), founded by Armand in 1997, to safeguard and promote the tradition. He quit as chairman in 2015 but 10 other members of this loose confederation of Lambic and Gueuze brewers and blenders around the Senne Valley have continued the biennial ‘Toer de Gueuze’, where they produce a celebratory ‘Megablend’ (blendedand open their doors to visitors. Last year’s Tour was necessarily a virtual version, but the event will return in 2022. Meanwhile check the site for virtual videos.

The producers involved are Boon, De Oude Cam, De Troch, Hanssens, Tilquin, Lambiek Fabriek, Lindemans, Mort Subite, Oud Beersel and Timmermans. They all contributed young and old Lambics that were then mega-blended by Frank Boon (whose own Oude Gueuze is benchmark stuff).

My personal bottle I owe to an old friend, Anita Rampall, from Visit Flanders. I couldn’t resist opening the 75cl bottle and it was a revelation – tart lemon then biscuity with a spicy floral hop note that lingered and lingered. You’d be hard pressed to buy a bottle now. Beer geeks will have squirrelled theirs away to see how they age. Fascinatingly, I wager. I now wish I had. Still, now it’s time to work my way through all the other Gueuzes on the planet.