Lambic: the real story
Sometimes you suddenly see the light. At least I did last Saturday, at the Carnivale Brettanomyces in Amsterdam. I was invited to do a talk at this wild yeast festival, and it was another nice opportunity to socialise with other Dutch beer enthusiasts. Blending my own Mestreechs Aajt with beer writer Henri Reuchlin at the bar at the Arendsnest for instance, from the extremely sour barrel beer and a few commercially available beers by Gulpener. Great fun, but to me the climax was the (undeservedly poorly-attended) talk by Raf Meert, the lambic mythbuster.
I already knew his website Lambiek 1801, but now he gave a total survey of what he has found out so far. And only then it dawned on me: until now we actually knew nothing of the history of lambic. Thanks to ‘renowned’ authors like Jef van den Steen and Michael Jackson, and lambic brewers’ association HORAL, who in fact have been proclaiming ill-researched hokum when it comes to history. Hokum that I fell for hook, line and sinker myself, so I never really could place Dutch 19th-century lambic in the right context.
In the 1960s lambic was going to through a difficult time. Less and less people were drinking it, and it was only really known in the Pajottenland. It looked like the last lambic brewer and the last drinker were soon going to be extinct. At the same time the contrast between lambic and the predominant beer of the day, lager, was bigger than ever. A number of people started to realise how special lambic really was. One of them was Marcel Franssens, tourist guide in the city of Halle, who wrote a little book about Geuzelambik in 1970. It was Franssens who then defined lambic as we know it today: a wheat beer, of spontaneous fermentation, not hoppy, aged in wooded barrels, brewed in winter. Also the definitions of faro and gueuze were cast in stone at that time: faro sweetened, gueuze foaming. But, understandably, Franssens and the Royal Decree of 1965 described the situation of that moment, which was not necessarily the same as it had been before.
Next, people started to reason back in time, without doing a lot of research about how and where lambic and faro actually arose, and how they developed through the years. After all lambic felt like such a ‘primeval beer’, that it seemed that it had always been like that. Especially the ‘find’ of the often quoted ‘recipe’ written down in Halle in 1559 is an embarrassing cock-up: reading it thoroughly, Raf found out that it doesn’t even mention the word ‘lambic’, that the quantity of wheat specified does not match the claims HORAL and others have been making, and that it also contains a third of oats, a grain never used for lambic. Still, people keep on bragging with this year 1559, simply because they don’t know any better and because lazy beer writers do not check the facts.
So what is the true story? Raf presented this in a phenomenal way. For a start, faro and lambic were only two beers out of a much larger range of beers that Brussels knew in the 18th and 19th centuries. The beers of that city could be divided into the colours white, brown and yellow. The white beers were somewhat comparable to those made elsewhere in Brabant: apart from barley malt and wheat they often contained grains like oats and buckwheat, they were moderately hopped, were not too heavy and were drunk fresh. Compare for instance the white beer from Etten from 1783, or the Brabands Wit from Haarlem in 1820. The yellow and brown beers only contained barley and wheat, where more hopped, often were heavier and were kept longer. And what happens to be the case: faro and lambic were the heaviest yellow beers.
The way Raf sees it, the brewers kept inventing new, heavier beers. Faro for instance (first mentioned in a Brussels context in 1721) arose in the 18th century as Brussels’ heaviest yellow beer; in the 17th century ‘double’ had been the heaviest. Lambic, first mentioned in 1794, upped the ante and became the heaviest and most expensive beer, accompanied by its lighter brother faro. There are indications that gueuze (first mentioned 1829) was an even heavier variety. And, importantly: initially faro and gueuze probably weren’t blended beers like they are now. Afterwards, the various beers evolved in meaning: faro became the name for the sweet blend, gueuze for the foaming variety. Moreover, through the years the method of production changed: less and less wheat (from 63% at the beginning of the 19th century to 30% nowadays), a lower and lower original gravity, and the fact that lambic remained the only starting beer, while gueuze and faro turned into blends.
The spontaneous fermentation seems to have been a characteristic of faro and lambic early on (at least so in texts dating from 1829 and 1834). Once in a while people would also make a brown faro or lambic, or a brown beer at the strength of faro and lambic, and sometimes (according to the 1829 text) these were also fermented spontaneously. Raf didn’t delve into this very much, but I think that spontaneous fermentation and the keeping and souring of beers over a long period of time is a typically 18th century phenomenon. The English porter, documented from 1721 (the same year as the first mention of Brussels faro!), was initially an aged sour beer too. Also in the Netherlands old beer surfaced in the same period, especially old brown beer and Maastricht old. In any case lambic itself doesn’t go back any further than the 18th century. There is nothing ‘Medieval’ about it.
In passing, Raf busted some other myths, like the association often made between the peasants on Breughel’s paintings and lambic: lambic is from a much later date, and it was so expensive that peasants will not have drunk much of it. Another myth is Frank Boon’s story that the name ‘lambic’ was chosen on purpose to mislead tax inspectors looking for an ‘alembic’ (still). Raf shows however that the name ‘lambic’ predates the notorious distilling prohibition quoted by Boon.
That brings me to perhaps the main question: why has lambic history so far been written in such a ramshackle way? Partly it is of course purely enthusiasm: people like Marcel Franssens and Michael Jackson were promoting, even saving a beer type. The beer seemed a relic from bygone days, and finding some scattered sources (and reading them badly) seemed enough to make a nice story complete. They were under the spell of a fascinating product, which is what lambic is, after all. But they didn’t get further than copying each other’s findings and even making up all sorts of details, without checking the facts and asking more questions. On Raf’s blog, you can sense a certain anger: he feels he has been lied to all these years by ‘renowned’ beer authors like Jef van den Steen, one of the worst fairy tale-tellers when it comes to lambic. If you see how easily Raf shreds his assertions to pieces, you start to think Van den Steen wouldn’t recognise an original source if it came and sat on him.
Raf mentions his sources sparingly, and is clearly keeping his cards to his chest. Luckily most of the facts can be checked in published historical books, among which those by Vrancken (1829), Booth (1834) and Lacambre (1851), that seem to confirm his story. It will take some work to drive the year 1559 from people’s heads, but we will get there.
In the meantime, I scratched behind my ears and thought: now I have to get back to my own sources to see how the Dutch lambics, brewed from 1812 after the Brussels original, fit into this story. So far I had looked at those only in the Franssens way. But was that correct? Later this week I’ll post the next article: a new look at Dutch lambic. In the meantime, brush up your Dutch and read Raf’s blog, hopefully he’ll write some more posts soon: Lambiek 1801.
 Cf. https://lambik1801.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/hals-bier-uit-1559-is-geen-lambik-deel-1/ and https://lambik1801.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/hals-bier-uit-1559-is-geen-lambik-deel-2/.
 Jean Baptiste Vrancken, ‘Antwoord op vraag 81’, in: Nieuwe verhandelingen van het Bataafsch Genootschap der Proefondervindelijke Wijsbegeerte te Rotterdam, Rotterdam 1829, p. 207. Cf. https://lambik1801.wordpress.com/2014/09/12/wit-geel-en-bruin-bier/.
 Jacob Campo Weyerman, De Rotterdamsche Hermes, Amsterdam 1980, p. 391.
 Thierry Delplancq, ‘Les brasseurs de lambic. Données historiques et géographiques (XVIIIe S. – XXe S.) (1)’, in: Archives et bibliothèques de Belgique, deel 67 (1996), nr. 1-4, p. 257-320, p. 260; cf. https://lambik1801.wordpress.com/2015/10/22/eerste-lambik-komt-niet-uit-lembeek/.
 Vrancken, ‘Antwoord’, p. 77.
 Cf. https://lambik1801.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/een-eeuwenoude-verhouding-tarwe/.
 Vrancken, ‘Antwoord’, p. 212; David Booth, The art of brewing, Londen 1834, p. 45.
 Vrancken, ‘Antwoord’, p. 213.
 Cf. https://lambik1801.wordpress.com/2015/10/22/eerste-lambik-komt-niet-uit-lembeek/.
 A long list of articles in which Raf debunks Van den Steen’s claims:
Well, a lot has been written over the centuries about many different beer styles and in many cases invented or just copied because it seemed a nice story. This is not only true for Lambic but IPA, Porter, or Stout. In many cases, marketing is the driving factor as well as the loss of trustworthy sources.
Good read, thanks.
Discovered yours blog only recently, haven’t read anyting of Raf Meert, so nor I can nor I want to argue with what was shared in this article 🙂 Just short monologue/polemic, that still I can totally understand when somebody projects lambic as being ‘primeval beer’.
For me, it always was all about type of fermentation – that it is a product of spontaneous fermentation. As we nowadays know, not all of the spont.fermented beers are/were lambics, but the lambics were the one which survived in the western world and were available for researchers/enthusiasts/journalists of western world to be researched upon.
As always, I guess, it’s folly to believe, that stuff we can consume nowadays, in this case beer, was the identical product back in the days. But it’s also hard to argue, that lambics are the main pretenders to the title of “beer of old” because of theirs fermentation’s nature. Spontaneous fermentation is the most primitive thus oldest/most ancient, nada nada, type of fermentation. Thus, I see no wrong when the oldest continuously existing tradition of beers in this nature are called “primeval” (in the context of western world).