"So where are the strong, and who are the trusted? And where is the harmony?…"

by Katie Pizzuto on May 23, 2010

in Lambic

It’s been way too long since I did an Angel vs. Demon installment here, and reading through the latest issue of All About Beer put me in the mood to rant. I generally like the magazine, by the way, but its categorical lists of the “Best Beers of 2009” nearly caused me an aneurism when I saw Lindeman’s Pêche Lambic listed as the best fruit lambic. Thus you have All About Beer to thank for Gonzo’s latest: The Angels and Demons of Fruit Lambics.

Lambic in general, is a world of beer unto itself. Completely unlike any lager or ale you’ll ever taste, Belgium’s lambics serve as a reminder that not all beers are brewed equally, and at some point or another, if you find yourself becoming a sort of craft brew geek, you inevitably wind up exploring lambics as a sort of rite of passage. The real trick of lambic brewing isn’t in the brewing though, it’s in the fermenting. After the brewing stage, the unfermented wort is piped into large open fermentation vats and the roof of the brewery is swung open to let all of the naturally occurring yeast and other microflora that nature cares to provide in to ferment the beer—the stuff most other breweries fight tooth and nail to avoid. After the beer ferments, it is aged in wooden barrels, further contributing microflora that can potentially ferment out any remaining sugars. While most of the world’s breweries are clinically sanitized and sterilized, the natural spontaneous fermentation of a lambic is what gives the beer so much complexity, and what creates the bizarre mix of aromas and flavors that would mean a spoiled batch of beer in any other place in the world.

Then we make the leap to fruit lambics. Knowing that casual beer drinkers—not merely Budweiser-swilling folks, but even those with a more experienced palate—will be turned off by intensely sour beers, Belgian brewers often add fruit to lambics and do a second fermentation. The sugars and sweet flavors of the fruit help temper the sour personality of the lambic. In the best of these, the lambic character is still apparent and the fruit flavors merely round it out. Krieks use sour cherries, framboises use raspberries, pêches use peaches, etc. In the end, I expect to drink a beer that will have a distinctive fruit profile, but I also want to know that the underlying beer is a true lambic. Unfortunately, large-scale breweries like Lindemans (the biggest lambic import in the US) have, for years, been cutting corners and giving a gullible US consumer a product that can barely be considered a lambic, much less a true fruit lambic.

Welcome to the ring, the demon (and yet somehow, AAB’s winner for best fruit lambic) Lindemans Pêche Lambic. I’m not even sure where to begin with this demon’s list of sins against the nature of a true fruit lambic. For starters, at no point are any actual…err, fucking fruit…a part of making this fruit lambic. Lindemans uses a cloying fruit-concentrate syrup rather than fruit, and the result is akin to a cross between a wine cooler, a fruit-flavored soda and cough syrup. It lacks the complexity and nuanced flavors of a beer that has been in direct contact with real fruit. Hell, to be honest, it lacks any resemblance to either of its namesakes: lambic or fruit.

In addition, the Lindemans line is pasteurized (to kill the yeast), and then the fruit syrup and sugar is added. If the yeast wasn’t stopped, it would ferment the sugar in the fruit, thus it never undergoes the second fermentation the brewers of true fruit lambics set out to create. The sugar that gets added (also a hand-slapping no-no) is there to balance the tartness of the beer—a beer that, by definition, is supposed to be tart. Lindemans is big and cuts corners…end of story. Its Pêche Lambic tastes more like a peach-flavored soda than a crisp beer, and its line of products is far from traditional.

To make matters worse, we’re not altogether sure exactly how much actual lambic is used in making Lindemans fruit lambics. Unfortunately, there is no law regulating the control of how much lambic must be in a bottle that reads “lambic” on the label. The agreed-upon standard has been a measly 10%, which means you could more or less bottle 90% Aunt Jemima diluted with 10% lambic and call it Vermont Maple Lambic—which, at its core, is Lindemans’ MO.

To be quite honest, there are a host of wonderful, traditionally crafted fruit lambics I could have chosen to be the Angel of this battle, though they’re obviously not as readily available as the Lindemans bottlings. I nearly went with Hanssens’ Oude Kriek simply because I recently drank my last bottle of it, and it was a beautiful, crisp, well-balanced fruit lambic, drinking almost like a wine that held both its sweetness and its acidity in check. Instead, however, please welcome to the ring Cantillon’s Rosé de Gambrinus, which I chose simply because Cantillon’s beers are elegantly crafted and yet much more widely available in the US than Hanssens.

Cantillon’s Rosé is an elegant, dry Framboise (raspberry lambic), which has sometimes even included just a bit of Kriek (sour cherry lambic). It retains its funky lambic nose but has the depth of whole raspberries, layered with some oak and vanilla. It’s at once both rounded and bone dry, light and complex. You honestly can’t go wrong with any of Cantillon’s lambics for the taste of authenticity.

At a time when people are spending more time perusing a local farmer’s market and less time cracking open a can of condensed, processed foodstuffs, you have to wonder why we would drink a beer that’s adulterated with syrups and sweeteners when there is a wide selection of hand-crafted competition sitting on the shelf above it. Actually, I don’t have to wonder why. I know why Americans chug this stuff down—because it’s what they know. Packaging, manipulation, and lack of regulation have allowed us to believe what they’re selling. But what they’re selling isn’t fruit lambic…it’s fruit-tasting-syrup-flavored beer. If a bottle of wine says Champagne on it, I can bet whatever pitiful balance is left in my IRA that it comes from Champagne. Unfortunately, not everything that says “fruit lambic” is what it claims to be.

In the end, shouldn’t we value the hard work put in by traditional brewers and their natural yeasts, bacteria and fruit? Why give credence (or money) to those who merely offer up a sickly sweet novelty and ride the coattails of the lambic name? It turns my stomach to see mass media reviews of Lindemans, like the one in All About Beer, waxing eloquent as though they’ve just discovered the holy grail. I guess the pseudo-lambic is a revelation when you’ve been sucking at the teat of Anheuser-Busch, but given the increased attention that we as a country have put on our food, I’d suggest that we all learn something from our history with mass production: Dig a little deeper and understand what you’re drinking.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Hank May 23, 2010

Hey, now we’ve everything: spoofulated lambic, of all things! Don’t understand why, though…is the lambic market that lucrative?

Reply

2 Katie Pizzuto May 24, 2010

It never has been, particularly here in the US, which is probably why Lindemans tried what they did. Apparently the answer to “how do we penetrate the US market” regardless of what beverage you’re pushing, seems to be “make it sweeter” I’m ashamed to say.

Reply

3 Don May 24, 2010

Well done Katie! I loved your write up about the lambics. I never knew that there was this problem with the Lindemans and now that I do I will avoid it like the plague. Your writeup has inspired me to give lambics a try. I haven’t yet. Sounds like the thing to do.

Reply

4 Katie Pizzuto May 24, 2010

It’s funny, when I talk lambics with people that aren’t beer geeks, Lindemans Framboise usually goes rolling off their tongues…it’s all the US commonly knows of lambic. Most don’t even know lambic isn’t normally a fruit-flavored beer, LOL. If you haven’t yet tried lambics, I’m glad I’ve inspired, but I recommend doing it alongside someone who already knows and loves them and/or a wine lover. The first few sips of sourness tends to throw people off their game…it’s an acquired taste, but one you’ll be thankful for in the long run. They are some of the best food pairing beers out there, period.

Reply

5 Scott-TheBrewClub May 25, 2010

Nice post, Katie. I’m not well versed in Lambics (yet) but the few that I’ve tried have been the Lindemans mainly because they are just about everywhere! They’ve done well getting their products distributed, and I suppose tweaked to the American flavor market.

Its good in a way too because Lindemans are like like a foot into the door to better lambic experiences! I know my next one won’t be from Lindemans.

Reply

6 Katie Pizzuto May 25, 2010

You make a good point, Scott…I guess Lindemans can be looked at like Yellowtail: you hope sooner or later, if people are going to be wine lovers, that they move on to better-crafted, nuanced wines that are made in the vineyards, not in a lab…a sort of “gateway” wine/beer 🙂

Reply

7 Coupe 60 May 25, 2010

I think your phrasing of Lindeman’s “penetrating of the US market” is a brilliant double entendre…

Reply

8 Coupe 60 May 25, 2010

and, I am just looking for a product to market under my “Silence of the Lamb-ics” imported beer merchandise line…

I am still working on getting either Jodie Foster or Anthony Hopkins to endorse it…But right now, I have lined up Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill) to shoot a commercial for me where the tagline is “It drinks the Lambic down, or it gets the hose again”

I’m looking for someone to be my exclusive food and Wine Blog sales partner…and will have my people call your people shortly…

Reply

9 Coupe 60 May 25, 2010

and actually on a serious note, Katie you should have chosen a lindeman’s Frambois Lambic and done this review blind…I know the results would have been the same, but it would have been a more effective vehicle to convey this… Heck you should have gotten a non-beer drinking expert to taste it blind as well, the revelation of the superiority of “real deal” lambic would have made a great angle …

in the future kindly run all column ideas past me before publishing…Thanks

Reply

10 Coupe 60 May 25, 2010

oh, and while I am on this intermniable conference call… I would just like to say, “Franz Klammer” … that is all

Reply

11 Katie Pizzuto May 25, 2010

Ahh, Lou, ever the ray of sunshine on a cloudy day. Well, that or the jug of moonshine on a lousy day. Haven’t figured out which yet.

And thanks for spotting a brilliant double entendre and crediting me for it 🙂

Reply

12 Katie Pizzuto May 25, 2010

Interesting suggestion on the blind tasting but here’s the rub (no double entendre): If you are inexperienced in the world of beers (not to mention the microcosm of lambics) you very well may prefer the Lindemans simply because it’s less difficult to swallow (pun intended). Seriously, lambics aren’t easy to love. Wine lovers will be drawn to them more readily than beer lovers IM(NS)HO. But Klimt would tell you that discovering real lambics is worth the effort.

Reply

13 Coupe 60 May 25, 2010

who’s klimt? 🙂

Reply

14 Brian Kropf May 25, 2010

Definitely a big fan of Rose de Gambrinus .. and just about anything else Cantillon has to offer!

Good read!

Reply

15 Katie Pizzuto May 26, 2010

Thanks Brian! I’m a huge fan of Cantillon’s stuff too, obviously! Hanssens and Girardin are my other two favorite lambic go-to’s, but they don’t have nearly the amount of variety that Cantillon has.

Reply

16 Doug Schulman July 22, 2010

Great article. I wrote an email to the All About Beer editor explaining that these listings made me lose faith in the whole magazine, despite some nice musings on cask conditioned beer in the same issue. She never gave me a reasonable explanation for calling these atrocities the “best” in their classes. I will never buy that magazine again.

Reply

17 Katie Pizzuto July 22, 2010

I’m curious, Doug, she DID return your email though and respond? I’m curious, if she did, what her response was. I’m glad I’m not the only one that was disgusted with some of their choices!

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: