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The Lambic Basket

Much like the vineyards of Bordeaux and the peat-covered terrain of Islay carry centuries-old wine and scotch traditions, the region surrounding the Senne River in Belgium is steeped with one of the oldest beer traditions in the world: lambics. Until the past couple of decades, lambics were drowned out by the mystique of Belgian Trappist ales. Thanks to the global craft beer movement’s interest in sour beers, the once dying style – along with its singular storage container, the lambic basket – has not only been rejuvenated in its homeland of Brussels but replicated the world over.

“The style almost died at the end of the 1990s,” says Luc De Raedemaeker, director of the Brussels Beer Challenge and chief editor of Bière/Bier Grand Cru. “Now it’s quite popular again.”

Both brewers and beer servers have sought to maintain the traditional methods of brewing the style: an ale brewed from unmalted wheat, malted barley and aged hops that’s spontaneously fermented via open air vats called coolships and aged on wood for up to three years. They also have kept alive the practice of serving the style in its traditional, distinctive basket.

The two most common types of lambics that are served from baskets are fruit lambics and gueuze, the latter of which is a blend of one-, two- and three-year-old lambics. Both types are aged on their sides after bottling, where sediment forms from yeast and fruit particles. Lambic baskets are used to keep the bottles as close to the horizontal position as possible ‒ between 20 and 23 degrees ‒ when pouring to help prevent flavor-altering sediment from entering the glass.

Many beers that can be enjoyed via Lambic baskets are brewed in coolships, which are large, open-air vats that allow wild microbacteria to inoculate within the beer during fermentation.
Photo Courtesy Allagash Brewing

While there isn’t much documentation on the history of lambic baskets, it’s thought that they were adapted from wine baskets commonly used in French wine country for similar sediment-removing purposes. “There’s always been a lot of influence between Belgium and France,” says Joe Stange, co-author of the Good Beer Guide to Belgium. “It makes sense that Belgians started using them for beer.”

Like much of the pomp surrounding Belgian beer, the baskets also serve as a form of showmanship. “They help set the scene when you’re sitting in a café,” says Stange. “It helps show that the bottle of lambic was cellared properly.”

He admits that the baskets are only really useful if the beer has been kept on its side, which typically applies to cellared vintages and not recently purchased releases. Still, it’s a great way to impress friends and add ambiance to a dinner party or bottle share.

“It’s classic ‘form following function,’” adds Mike Fava, head brewer at Oxbow Brewing Company in Maine, which serves their coolship beers from lambic baskets. Oxbow Brewing is one of a growing number of U.S. breweries not only replicating the methods employed by the dozen or so breweries producing traditional lambics in Belgian, but also in properly storing and serving the beer. While their beers won’t taste exactly like the fabled lambics of Belgium, they promise a terroir all their own.

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