Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lambic Blending 101

I missed the big event. On Wednesday, August 20, Don Feinberg, co-founder of New York State’s Brewery Ommegang and co-owner of Vanberg & DeWulf imports, presided over an informal seminar on lambic blending at Tria’s 12th & Spruce Street location, here in downtown Philly. Don had procured two rare kegs of unblended lambic ales from Brouwerij Boon and was visiting Tria to share their goodness with all comers as well as to discuss the ins and outs of lambic production and blending techniques.

If you missed the event too, it’s not too late, at least not yet, to partake of the beers. I did just that earlier this week, as I headed over to Tria – they call it their Washington Square West location – after wrapping up the course on sparkling wines I’d taught at Tria Fermentation School on Tuesday night.

One of the cask aging rooms at Brouwerij Boon.

As long as the kegs hold out, they'll be serving five-ounce pours of two different unblended, aged Boon lambics. The pair will set you back $12. Each is served in Belgian ale tulips and you’ll also be provided with an empty wine glass. While both ales are intriguing on their own, the real fun comes in playing around with crafting your own blended lambic.

The beer from Cask 17B is the paler of the two – the color of old cider – and iridescently cloudy in the glass. It’s tangy, showing plenty of the characteristically sour notes of unsweetened lambics, mildly lactic and loaded with citrus oil and light spice flavors. There’s also plenty of funk on the nose. It’s definitely the wilder, higher-toned and winier of the two beers. I couldn’t help but be reminded, as I have been in the past with a beer from one of Boon’s peers, of old-school Loire Chenin Blanc.

The pour from Cask 52 – the glasses are labeled to avoid mix-ups – is noticeably darker and more tranquil than that from 17B. As its color suggests, it’s richer on the palate and also rounder, mellower and far less sour. The wood influence seems more pronounced, both in a slight oxidative character and in the brew’s nutty, malty and somewhat caramelized flavor profile. Kind of like an Amontillado Sherry with a funky streak. My table mates gave this the nod as their stand-alone preference, though I leaned a little more toward the brighter flavors of Cask 17B.

Master blender Frank Boon, tasting a sample from Cask 17B.

Having tasted and considered both lambics, it was blending time. With only five ounces of each beer and no measuring equipment, you can only get so crazy with experimenting. I opted, more or less automatically, to go with just three basic recipes: half-and-half, one-third/two-thirds and two-thirds/one-third. It seemed to make sense. Besides, I was there to have fun and relax, not to play scientist or brewmaster. Still, the results were illuminating.

A fifty-fifty blend of the two ales kind of fell flat. It wasn’t entirely bad, just unexciting. The flavors became sort of muddy, the individual highlights were lost but the melding didn’t bring anything extra to the table.

Mixing one third Cask 52 with two-thirds Cask 17B didn’t fare much better. It seemed like the two beers were too busy fighting each other instead of working together. The end result was disjointed and kind of cheesy tasting – washed rind, that is.

I had actually started out with two-thirds Cask 52 and one-third 17B. As luck or intuition would have it, this turned out to be my favorite blend of the night, an opinion shared this time by my drinking buddies. 17B seemed to deliver the high notes that 52 lacked on its own while the greater depth and richness of 52 rounded everything out. It seemed complete. A blended lambic I’d be happy to drink again as a finished, marketed product. And a fun tasting, even without Mr. Feinberg there as a tour guide.

You can read Mr. Boon's technical notes on the two lambics after the jump.
Boon Lambic Cask 17B (Belgium · 7.9% at time of kegging)
Cask 17B was made of winter oak in the 1930’s and was polished inside before filling. It was filled with two brews #O71 and #O72 from February 17 and 18, 2004. The Lambic has notes of cloves, vanilla and whisky from the wood cask. The abundant lactic acid from the young beer was converted into esters (aromas) to create a typical citrus-muscat bouquet. Tannins from the oak and bitterness from the aged hops complete this wonderful Lambic.

Boon Lambic Cask 52 (Belgium · 8.6% at time of kegging)
Cask 52 is an oval cask, made of winter oak in 1961 and was half polished inside before filling. It was filled with two brews, #O27 and #O28 from November 5 and 6, 2003. The Lambic of this cask has balanced acidity and is more complex than 17B. Lactic acid from the young beer was converted into esters (aromas) but the citrus-muscat is enhanced by the volatile acid. The Lambic has slight bitterness from aged hops and light tannins from the oak. Whisky and vanilla notes linger on the finish.


Joe Manekin said...

Cool. This sounds right up my alley. I recently tasted my first Ommegang beer, their Grand Cru Rouge. Killer sour beer. Anyone else on the east coast brewing lambics?

David McDuff said...

Definitely a cool tasting experience, Joe. As for your question, I hate to say that I really don't know. It's a labor and time intensive brewing technique that not many US craft breweries get into. I expect there must be at least a couple here on the east coast getting their feet wet.

Anyone else out there know of any?

Jon Webster said...

Allagash has quite the risky undertaking going on, see the info and video here.

The end result will hopefully be the most authentically brewed new-world lambic yet. When it comes to US wild fermented brews, in addition to Allagash, I'm a huge fan of what Lost Abbey and Russian River do out on the west coast.

David McDuff said...

Hey Jon,

Thanks for the link to the Allagash project. Maybe not the most exciting video to watch but very cool nonetheless. I'll look forward to trying the end result.

Though I've hardly managed to taste through their entire portfolio, I've also had some pretty neat wild yeast and oak-aged brews from Jolly Pumpkin.

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