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Style Studies: Kölsch and Lambic

Kriek Lambic

I believe it was the musician and obvious Belgian beer lover, George Clinton, who aptly penned the words, “Ow, we want the funk. Give up the funk. Ow, we need the funk. We gotta have that funk.”

Clearly this refrain is an unashamed nod to the wondrous sour beers produced in the Flemish Brabant province of Belgium.

O.K., maybe not, but it should be. 

Lambic

Few would dispute the fact that Belgium produces some of the most complex and challenging beers in the world. And among these envelope-pushing beers, none test the palate and shift the paradigm quite like the traditional Belgian farmhouse lambic. There are only a dozen or so farmhouse breweries in and around the Brussels region that still produce this ancient style of beer, dating back in its extant form better than half a millennia. Often described – sometimes pejoratively and sometimes with keen affection – as funky or horseblankety, traditional lambic is an acquired taste for many and one of the most unusual beer styles in the world.

It’s important to note that many modern beers that fall loosely under the style of lambic are a far cry from traditional examples. Lindemans popular line of fruit lambics, for instance, are decidedly non-traditional, in that the brewery adds artificial sweeteners to the finished product in order to curb the tartness and make the beer more appealing to the uninitiated. This practice yields an exceedingly sweet, soda pop-like fruit beer that bares little resemblance to a traditional Belgian lambic. There’s nothing wrong with these beers if that’s what you enjoy, but don’t expect all lambic beers – particularly traditional Belgian lambic beers – to resemble these popular examples much at all.

Traditional lambic is brewed using both barley malt and unmalted wheat, typically in a ratio somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 to 40. The mash and the boil follow a similar methodology used in other beer styles, though the boil is often much longer, lasting several hours. Once boiled, the wort is emptied into a large, shallow, open receptacle called a koelschip, where it is exposed to the ambient air through open louvers and cooled. In addition to cooling the wort, the air exposes the unfermented beer to a myriad of microflora and bacteria unique to the Senne Valley region and to the interior of the lambic brewery itself. This exposure initiates a process that has been employed for literally thousands of years, both with and without the intervention of man – spontaneous fermentation.

Yeast strains like Saccharomyces and Brettanomyces begin to ferment the beer and add their distinctive aroma and flavor characteristics, while souring bacteria such as Pediococcus and Lactobacillus work to create the sometimes jarring tart and sour character of lambic. None of this, however, happens quickly. Traditional lambic is aged for one to three years in oak barrels, where it continues to ferment and undergoes a fascinating transformation. A rather simple wort of barley malt and wheat is morphed into a liquid that can have more in common with a wine when all is said and done. Another aspect of traditional lambic brewing is the use of aged hops. In most modern beers, hops are used primarily for their aroma, bittering and flavor properties rather than as a preservative, as they were in the years before the onset of pasteurization and refrigeration. Lambic beers, however, take the opposite approach, utilizing large quantities of aged hops (often more than three years old) almost exclusively for their antibacterial properties. These hops impart little or nothing in terms of aroma, bitterness or flavor to the beer, beyond a negligible hint of funky, cheesy or stale notes.

Lambic can appear a pale to deep gold color with good clarity and a white head of foam that persists well. Fruit lambics can often take on a subtle hue from the fruit they are aged with as well. In the nose, expect notes of tree fruit (apple, citrus), mild oak and a decidedly acidic/sour aspect that is often described as barnyard, earthy and funky. The sour character of lambic is its defining feature on the palate, and you’ll get the lactic sourness up front, followed by aspects of wheat malt and fruit, leaning more heavily toward the latter in fruit-fermented examples. Lambics have a light-medium body and a dry finish. Despite the fact that lambic beers are low gravity, they manage to give a substantial impression with a lingering, mouth-watering quality that is surprisingly refreshing. In its various traditional forms, lambic is as complex and nuanced a beer as you’ll find in the entire world.

Lambic beers come in various types. There’s straight (unblended) lambic, fruit lambic, faro and gueuze. Straight lambic is an unblended, young lambic that is traditionally served uncarbonated and has a singular, sour profile. These beers are rarely available outside of the Senne Valley – or the confines of the producing brewery, for that matter. Fruit lambics are easily the most well-known (as well as the most recent) lambic beers and are available in a multitude of fruit flavors, including kriek (cherry), framboise (raspberry), pêche (peach) and cassis (black currant). Faro, another obscure lambic that was popular a couple hundred years ago and is now very rare, even in Brussels, is a sweetened lambic that is occasionally spiced as well. Finally, gueuze (sometimes spelled geuze), is a blended lambic consisting of one-, two- and three-year-old lambic blended to achieve a balance in the intensity of the beer. Gueuze is found today in bottle-conditioned form and is typically very dry and effervescent.

Beer-steamed mussels or roast duck accompany lambic well, as the beer is able to cut through the fatty protein easily and cleanse the palate. For dessert, try pairing a raspberry-drizzled cheesecake with your framboise.

Stats – O.G: 1.047 to 1.056, IBUs: 11 to 23, SRM: 6 to 13, ABV: 5 to 8 percent

Recommended Examples – Cantillon Iris, Drie Fonteinen Schaerbeeckse Kriek, Lindemans Faro Lambic, Oud Beersel Oude Gueuze Vieille

Lambic
Stats – O.G: 1.047 to 1.056, IBUs: 11 to 23, SRM: 6 to 13, ABV: 5 to 8 percent
Recommended Examples – Cantillon Iris, Drie Fonteinen Schaerbeeckse Kriek, Lindemans Faro Lambic, Oud Beersel Oude Gueuze Vieille 

Kölsch

You could say that Kölsch suffers from something of an identity crisis. This German ale masquerading as a lager is often referred to as a hybrid beer style, blurring the lines between the two major classifications of beer. This pale, crystal-clear ale is an anomaly among German beers as well, foregoing the sweet maltiness of bockbiers and shunning the estery notes found in weissbier in favor of a decidedly dry, clean aroma and a light mouthfeel and flavor profile that really has more in common with a German pilsner.

Though Kölsch defies easy categorization by the inexperienced imbiber, it defines a style that is rigorously championed in its native city of Cologne, Germany. The name Kölsch (Anglicized as koelsch) is in fact actually an appellation indicating that the beer is brewed only in and around the city of Cologne (Köln), much like Champagne is a protected namesake of its French province. This restriction doesn’t seem to carry over to the United States, however, and a good number of domestic craft brewers attach the Kölsch name to their beers.

Kölsch is a fairly modern beer style originating in its current form around the late 19th century. Despite this fact, the people of Cologne are proud of their beer, and you’ll be hard pressed to find much else served there. The beer is most commonly quaffed at biergartens, where it comes in a slim, 200-mililiter glass called a stange and is carried on a round tray with a handle known as a Kölschkrans. The servers in Cologne, called Köbes, deliver the beer to patrons in rapid-fire succession, unprompted, until the patron pays the tab and tips the server signifying they no longer wish to be served beer.

Most often, Pilsner or two-row pale malt comprise the grain bill for the Kölsch style. Some breweries do add a small percentage of wheat malt (not more than 10 to 20 percent) to help fortify the body of the beer. Like altbier, its stylistic counterpart from Düsseldorf, Kölsch is brewed with a top-fermenting ale yeast strain that is selected to achieve high attenuation and low ester production, resulting in a dry, clean-tasting ale. Additionally, the technique of cold conditioning, or lagering, is employed after initial fermentation to further minimize ester production, just like a lager.

Kölsch pours a pale gold color and will present crystal clear in most traditional examples. A thin to moderate bright white head is common, and because most commercial examples do not utilize any high-protein malts, like wheat, the head of foam is generally rather meager. The nose – unlike its lager twin, the pilsner – may exemplify subtle tree-fruit notes but will be devoid of any strong Pilsner malt aroma. Some very subtle hop aroma may be evidenced as well, with most traditional examples utilizing any of a number of German hop varieties, such as Spalt or Hallertau. The palate is clean, light and features a soft and muted malt sweetness, as well as some fruit notes and just a touch of hop balance. Kölsch is considered one of the best session beers, due to its moderate alcohol content, exceedingly smooth flavor and clean finish. 

You’ll likely want to enjoy a Kölsch with lighter fare – perhaps a leafy greens salad, grilled vegetables, or grilled chicken or whitefish. If you make it to Cologne, however, you will find Kölsch paired with some more substantial dishes, like bratwurst or smoked salmon.

Stats – O.G: 1.042 to 1.048, IBUs: 18 to 25, SRM: 4 to 6, ABV: 4.8 to 5.3 percent

Recommended Examples – Gaffel Kölsch, Reissdorf Kölsch, Schlafly Kölsch, New Holland Full Circle