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: firstname.lastname@example.org.