Lambic: the ancient art of spontaneous fermentation

09 February 2021

Lambic isn’t just a style of beer, it’s one of the last living ancestors of an ancient brewing method based on spontaneous fermentation.

What does that mean?

Well, in almost all the other beers you can find, the fermentation process has been kick-started by the addition of Saccharomyces cerevisiae—better known as brewer’s yeast. These are industrially-produced, and while there’s no denying the range of flavors and aromas in industrial beer, its fermentation is based on a handful of microbe species.

But Lambic is different.

Because its fermentation happens spontaneously, without the artificial inoculation of yeasts. Instead, the beer is left in open vats to mix with all the naturally-occurring microbiota present in the brewery, like Brettanomyces. It’s an ancient method, one that’s been used in the Pajottenland region of Belgium since the 13th century. Together with its cousins Gueuze and Kriek is testament to the continued relevance and viability of this traditional brewing style. Lambic as we know it today has been made for around 200 years, and has evolved over time due to changing ingredients and mechanization.

Barrel-aged lambic at 3 Fonteinen

These days production is limited and survives thanks to the tenacity of a handful of brewers. One of them is 3 Fontenein, founded by Gaston Debelder in 1953. It was handed over to his sons Armand and Guido in 1982, and, since 2019, it’s been under the stewardship of head brewer Michaël Blanquaert, Armand’s protégé.

Yet it almost didn’t happen.

Back in 2009, a faulty Thermostat caused a failure in the climate control system. The entire cellar was heated to 60°C, and leading to the loss of 80,000 bottles. It was a disaster that pushed the brewery to the edge of bankruptcy. Brewing equipment was sold to cover costs, and the company had to live off the sales of vintage, pre-Thermostat barrels to survive.

How the brewery looked when it opened in 1953. Photo: Beersel.be

Three years later, in 2012, a new brewing system was installed, and a new era began. Blanquaert assistied Armand in the brewing process and even beginning to make some beers of his own. By 2015 the brewery was back on its feet, and voted Third Best Brewery in the World by Ratebeer. In 2016, 3 Fontenein was also one of the founding breweries of a Slow Food Presidium for traditional lambic beer.

Fast forward to 2020, and another crisis hit—but not just for 3 Fonteinen and lambic beer.

“The Covid-19 crisis caused a drop of worldwide demand for our beers,” as sales manager Gaëtan Claes tells me. “We stopped brewing in March 2020 because of that. The good thing is that our beer ages for years on wooden barrels and once bottled it can age potentially for decades. So it’s not like we had to throw any of beer away: it’s all still there, aging. While there’s been a steady level of domestic beer consumption throughout the pandemic, of course with the closure of bars and restaurants that side has suffered severely.”

Armand Debelder and Michaël Blanquaert. Photo: Drinkbelgianbeer.com

What have they done to cope with that?

“To compensate for the loss of bar and restaurant sales we did something we’d never done before. We started selling our beers directly online,” Gaëtan says—and it’s true of Terra Madre itself! “With the break in brewing activity we switched up our focus and worked on our web-shop. It launched in May, and were thus able to reach our fans directly.”

A setback then, and not an existential crisis like the Thermostat!

“Lambic beers remain one of the most unique—if not the most unique—beer styles in the world. Not only in production technique but even after bottling the taste keeps on evolving and surprising for decades. At 3 Fonteinen we produce these beers in the most traditional way and thus try to preserve the beer style for generations to come.

by Jack Coulton, info.eventi@slowfood.it

Traditional Lambic is present among the virtual showcases Terra Madre Salone del Gusto, along with over 500 other producers! YOU CAN FIND A SELECTION OF PRODUCTS TO BUY (DELIVERY WITHIN THE SCHENGEN AREA ONLY), AT OUR ONLINE MARKETPLACE.