Joe Sixpack: Belgian lambics attract a following

Posted: October 27, 2011

YOU KNOW those Belgian lambics that are all the rage these days? Beer fans rhapsodize about their complex character, their funky aroma, their tart flavor produced through the vagaries of spontaneous fermentation. The brewers who make them are worshipped as artisans, and bottles valued at $30 or more are collected and traded.

It's worth noting, though, that lambic wasn't always so beloved.

As recently as 25 years ago, Belgian lambic was largely regarded as beer gone bad. The French, in particular, often raised their Gallic noses in disdain at the barrels from the north, complaining about their unusual flavor. The strange beer was evidence - along with the grim architecture of Brussels, the harsh climate of the North Sea and the eel-centric cuisine of Antwerp - of Belgium's inferiority.

Even the Belgians themselves acknowledge that lambic takes some getting used to. They blend vintages to soften the edges. They add fruit - cherries, raspberries, raisins - to mask the weird flavors. And when all else fails, they dump pounds of sugar into the barrel to create a variety known as Faro.

It is a low-alcohol "small" beer made from secondary runnings from the mash tun, a process akin to reusing the grounds in your Mr. Coffee. The grain bill is typically about a third unmalted wheat, and aged hops are added for preservation, not bitterness. Like any lambic, it is fermented in an open vat then allowed to turn sour in the barrel. After some months, it is blended with fresh beer and dark sugar, perhaps some herbs. Then more water is added to further weaken the blend to 3 percent alcohol or so.

In its heyday, Faro was the go-to drink of Belgium.

Belgians would spend hours in the cafe, rattling the dice throughout their beloved games of mort subite (sudden death), draining glass upon glass of cheap Faro. Almost certainly some of the pitchers in those classic old peasant paintings by Pieter Bruegel were filled with Faro.

It was light and refreshing and, French snobs notwithstanding, a pleasant respite. It was a drink that a child could handle without risk of falling over in a stupor. (Even today, it is not uncommon to watch a 10-year-old in Brussels' family-friendly cafes, happily stirring sugar into a glass of Faro as if it were iced tea.)

Yet, despite the renewed interest in artisanal Belgian styles, Faro is a rarity in America. Only a handful of breweries produce the variety, and few of them ship it across the Atlantic.

Some versions, like De Troch Chapeau, are exceptionally sweet and reminiscent of Mott's Apple Juice. Others, like Lindemans Faro Lambic, balance that sweetness with the tartness produced by those wild yeast strains. Boon Faro is a traditional blend with the extremely weak third-runnings of the mash, called Meerts.

Drie Fonteinen Straffe Winter is stronger than most (8 percent alcohol) and quite funky. After a glass, adjectives like "goaty" come to mind.

Which, 150 years ago, was not exactly high praise.

The poet Charles Baudelaire held a special contempt for Faro in the mid-19th century. In a letter to his mother during a stay in Brussels, he complained of "three months of continual diarrhea, broken occasionally by unbearable constipation," all of which he attributed to "the climate and the use of Faro."

In a pamphlet he titled, Pauvre Belgique (Poor Belgium), Baudelaire railed, "The Faro comes from that great big latrine, the Senne - a beverage extracted from the city's carefully sorted excrement. Thus it is that, for centuries, the city has drunk its own urine."

Which only underscores a basic truth of drinking: One man's pee is another man's pleasure.


"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at www.joesixpack.net. E-mail: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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