The Oldest Beer…IN THE WORLD

Okay, so maybe not quite the oldest beer in the world, but a decent argument can and has been made that since the first beers were almost certainly wild and open fermented, they bore more than a passing resemblance to the subject of this post. By the way, this is the first in a planned three-part series on lambics. The next two will be shorter.

It’s late morning on a Sunday in mid-November. There’s snow on the ground, and the air is just cold enough to be visible when I exhale. About half a dozen coat-wearing figures cluster near a boiling kettle.

“Double, double, toil and trouble,” mutters Doug Brainard, tossing a handful of grains into the hot water.

No, I’m kidding. While Belgian beers sometimes seem mysterious and even magical, this is no witches’ brew he’s concocting.

The first time Ben and I attended a meeting of the Upstate New York Homebrewers Association—as the “second oldest American Homebrewers Association Club” it was “formed long before cutesy club acronyms became trendy”—a man at the same table offered us a sample of his homebrew, “Waiting for Framboise.”

“It didn’t win any medals in the Nationals final round this year,” he said, pouring a small amount of the raspberry-colored liquid into our glasses.

DougThat’s how we met Doug. Twice a year, he brews up a batch of lambic, a sour ale originating in Pajottenland—otherwise known as the Senne Valley—southwest of Brussels. Unlike golden strong, tripel, dubbel, and saison, lambic is not a commonly replicated style; the number of breweries known for producing it can probably be counted on one hand, and even fewer of them are readily available to the American consumer.

Doug is something of a lambic specialist, a claim he need not make himself; of the many competition medals and ribbons hanging on his brewery wall, “about a third are for lambics.”

Later, I’ll be admiring the assortment of awards, when Doug points to a multi-colored silk construction with gold lettering, and says,

“That one’s got a story.”

During one of his two stints as UNYHA club president, he brewed up a batch of mead with “honey from a dead beekeeper,” lemon, and ginger. Generous guy that he is, Doug took it to the club’s Oktoberfest for everyone to try. It went over quite well, and someone suggested that he enter it in the National Homebrew Competition. As club president, he “wanted to lead from the front,” so he was planning to enter as many categories as possible, and encouraged everyone else to brew a lot and do the same. But it didn’t quite work out that way.

While cleaning gutters on his house, he fell off a ladder and broke his back, “just enough for sympathy.” Brewing was out of the question, since he “couldn’t lift anything heavier than a napkin.” But he still had a few bottles of mead, and it took Best of Show in the UNYHA competition, where the enormous ribbon is from, and again in Chicago.

“So I’m flying out to Las Vegas for the Final…and nothing. The mead doesn’t even place,” he says with a small chuckle.

Thanks to the deceased status of the beekeeper whose honey he used, Doug can never reproduce that batch of mead. These days, he sticks to framboise, and some “British ales and Belgians, mostly” for competitions.

Every two years, Doug hosts a symposium to teach interested parties how to make a lambic. His only request is that they bring a bottle of sour beer to share, and a snack. So, while Doug does almost all of the actual work, the rest of us hang out in his exceedingly well-organized garage brewery, sampling sour beers and asking the occasional question. Well, except for me. True to form, I ask many questions, and am therefore surprised when Doug lets me come back another time to ask more of them and take pictures (actually, Ben takes the pictures. I just sample beers and ask questions).

Though it will eventually become a framboise, the initial brew doesn’t include fruit at all; it’s a straight lambic. For a five gallon batch, Doug’s grain bill is 8 oz rice hulls (you need these pretty much any time you’re brewing with wheat, or other sticky ingredients), 6 lbs pilsner, and 4 lbs flaked soft white wheat. Doug explains that sometimes he’ll crush wheat berries, but the flaked wheat is easier to deal with because it’s pre-gelatinized, eliminating the need to do a cereal mash.

Unlike German beers, with their strict guidelines, Belgian styles have a lot of room for interpretation. This fact is illustrated about thirty minutes into the boil.

Adding .75 oz of Styrian Celeia hop pellets, Doug notes that brewers often use tons of old hops “to inhibit enteric bacteria, then they stick it in a coolship overnight.” That’s the traditional method; it allows the wort to attract the local “bugs” that create its distinctive lambic flavors and aromas, while discouraging the kinds of bacteria that can make you sick.

An electrical and computer engineer by trade, Doug feels that’s too imprecise. Instead, he uses a normal amount of low alpha hops, and about a week into fermentation, he’ll inoculate the beer with a package of lambic blend cultures.

He’s not brewing in the Senne Valley, so Doug’s assessment makes perfect sense. I wouldn’t try to capture San Francisco sourdough cultures in New York; it simply won’t work. Using a package of appropriate cultures, as Doug does, is a much easier—and, yes, more predictable—way to get the desired ‘funk’ into the beer.

Homebrewers haven’t always had it so easy. A Zymurgy article from 2001 discusses capturing yeasts from the sediment at the bottom of imported bottles of lambic; some homebrewers still do that, but it’s no longer the only option if you want to try lambic brewing.

In between brewing stages, I take some time to appreciate Doug’s garage brewery. A 10 gallon hot liquor tun, 15 gallon mash tun, and 15 gallon boil kettle—each on its own propane burner, plumbed in water and propane, the custom-tiled wall and floor, and plenty of space, make Doug’s setup the envy of his fellow UNYHA members.

First-time visitors are in for another surprise when it’s time to chill the wort. Instead of the water hose wrangling and leaks from imperfect seals that generally accompany the end of my own brewing efforts, Doug sends us all downstairs to the comfort of his beer cellar, while he sets the wort to travel through an installed chiller and beer lines, to wind up in a prepared fermenter in the basement.

This bit of engineering makes it almost seem as though Doug’s newly-brewed lambic takes care of itself.

“Witchcraft!” I joke.

The ingenious chilling system, and the biggest shop sink I’ve ever seen—it spans almost the full length of the adjoining room—might be an even bigger cause for envy than the kettle series in the garage. Later, Doug will explain that what is now an awesome post-brew cleanup area started as a,

“Darkroom sink I built years ago, but who does darkroom anymore?”

Impressive as Doug’s brewing setup is, he is far more remarkable. He’s been brewing for 37 years, and if the decades don’t quite show in his face and carriage, they do come through in the excellence of his beers. Surprisingly, he’s only been making lambics since 2008, an interest somewhat influenced by the lady of the house.

Sue Ann, as friendly and gracious a hostess as I have ever met, is not much interested in beer. Earlier in their relationship, Doug tried “to wean her off of Corona” and discovered that she enjoys Lindemans. But their lambics are back sweetened, and therefore not as traditional as some could wish.5 Though Sue Ann finds Doug’s framboise a bit tart for her taste, the rest of us who have tried it owe her a debt for inspiring him to brew them.

Aware that Brasserie Cantillon is the foremost producer of traditional lambics—sour even by the standards of other lambics—I ask if Doug has been there.

“Yes, but only to kill time, because we had a personal invitation to Boon.” During a trip that included Scotland and Belgium, Doug and Sue Ann got into conversation with another couple, and Sue Ann mentioned that Doug was a brewer.

“‘We’re from Belgium, and I’m a brewer. Here’s my card,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eye.”

Lambic1-2The man was Frank Boon, of the Boon Brewery. Doug and Sue Ann arrived in Lembeek several hours early for their tour, so instead of twiddling their thumbs, they caught a train to Brussels and saw Cantillon—as much museum as brewery—before meeting with Frank at the operation he’s owned since 1975.

Doug has tasted many lambics over the years, but I’d wager that the sample Frank drew for him, straight out of the brewery’s oak casks, is one of the most memorable. The business card, framed and hanging on the wall above the doorway to the cleanup area, bears silent witness to the story.Lambic1-1-1

The lambic we’ve ‘helped’ to brew safely in its fermenter, where it will stay for the next year, I have time to observe some of the other treasures in Doug’s cellar. A row of crystal nosing glasses, each bearing the mark of a different, well-known Scotch distillery, perch demurely on the shelf. Souvenirs of a trip to Scotland, Doug says.

Nestled on the shelf below, an Orval beer chalice catches my eye. That one, Doug informs me, is from one of the gift packs that you see on beer store shelves around Christmas. Not so the vessels on the table. Atop a Chimay serving tray, a Cantillon pitcher keeps company with a Waterloo goblet, and another Orval chalice, all of which he acquired at their respective breweries.

A little ruefully, he remarks that there used to be a Chimay chalice in the bunch, but a niece accidently caused its demise.

“I could put them up, but what’s the point if you don’t use them,” he says with a shrug.

The impressive collection of hard-to-come-by glassware is distracting, but I force my attention back to the subject at hand long enough to inquire about the raspberries that will turn Doug’s unblended lambic into a framboise. About a year after the initial brewing, he’ll add two cans of raspberry purée to the batch, then leave it alone for another six months, at least. At that point, if the flavor’s right, he’ll bottle it. If necessary, he’ll blend the younger batch with an older vintage to achieve just the right balance of fruit essence and characteristic lambic tartness.

Though they are his specialty, lambics are hardly the only style Doug likes to make. On a subsequent visit, he shares five distinct brews with us; framboise, mead, Scottish Heavy, saison, and a barleywine (look for notes on the framboise and mead next week).

Given his skill and experience, it’s almost surprising that Doug confines brewing to a hobby, while working a regular job. That is, if being an engineer for one of the world’s foremost manufacturers of appliances “and just about everything else” can be called a ‘regular job’. When asked if he’s ever considered brewing professionally, Doug replies that he’s done so a couple of times.

“I’m an engineer…” he begins. During “one rather large gap” in employment, the Brü pub opened up in downtown Rochester, near the baseball park. When the head brewer moved on, Brü hired Doug. He served as the interim brewer for about six months, until Brü hired a new head brewer. They weren’t a big enough operation to keep both, so that was the end of Doug’s stint there. It worked out for him, though. Bosch recruited him while he was in the brewpub, and Brü closed about eight months after Doug left.

Recently, Doug also brewed two of his own recipes for the Fairport Brewing Company, Blackwatch Braggot, and Nymph Errant cold Porter (I don’t have tasting notes on those, as I never made it to the pub when they were on tap. Sorry).

Mostly, he seems quite happy producing great beers for his own consumption and for competitions. He generally participates in the Amber Waves Of Grain and/or UNYHA homebrew competitions, and also the National Homebrew Competition, put on by AHA. At the time of writing, the deadline to register for the NHC is past, and “Judging will take place in late March and in April, depending on the judge center.” I don’t have any skin in that game, but if Doug enters the UNYHA competition this year, I’ll have cause to be glad lambic isn’t my category.

Resources:

Bryson, Lew. “Conjuring the ‘Black Magic’ of Belgian Beers. Zymurgy. January/February 2005: 24. Print.

Glaser, Gregg. “In Search of Lambic.” All About Beer Magazine 1 July 2001: 1. Print.

Isenhour, John L. “The Culture of Lambic Brewing.” Zymurgy 1 July 2001: 44-45. Print.

Porter, Cole. “Nymph Errant.” 1933, London.  A somewhat controversial story concerning a young English lady intent upon losing her virginity.

Registration & Entry Information – American Homebrewers Association.” Competitions. American Homebrewers Association. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.

Shakespeare, William. “MacBeth.”The Complete Works of Shakespeare. New York: Grolier Incorporated, 1958. 4.1.10.

Taniff, Michael. “Belgium: Small in Stature Big in Beer. Zymurgy. January/February 2005: 16. Print.

The Brewery.” History • Boon Brewery. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.

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monsterid
Meagan loves words, and frequently combines them into stories and articles, very often involving tasty libations. She enjoys writing about the intersection of beer (or spirits) and life. This is her blog. You can find her on Twitter @meagwil, or shoot a regular ol' email to meaganwilson@burntgraphite.net.

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