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Beer Here

Great Beers from Europe and the United States are Leading a Renaissance of the Brewmaster's Art
Garrett Oliver
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

(continued from page 3)

The Payottenland region of Belgium is home to the lambic beers, the world's oldest commercially produced beer styles. Whereas other modern brewers carefully ensure that wild yeast is excluded from their brews, lambic brewers take the opposite route, flinging the windows open and inviting nature in. This is the way beer was fermented hundreds of years ago, when even the most accomplished brewers didn't know what yeast was, and all beers underwent "spontaneous fermentation" by wild yeast and bacteria. Try this in most places, and you'd probably end up with an unfortunate result, but the microflora in Payottenland produce some of the world's most complex beers.

Lambics are wheat beers of more conventional strength, but spontaneous fermentation and aging in wooden barrels give them fruity, funky aromas and sharp sour palates. Behind the sourness is a riot of earthy, toasty flavors and aromas, comparable to the finest blue cheeses. Lambics are often aged in wood for years, becoming quite assertive in character.

(In the United States, you are likely to find a version called "gueuze," which is a blend of old and young lambic beers; the blend softens the sour edge without sacrificing all the complexity of the older beer. Traditionally, lambic beers are bottle-conditioned and flintily dry, but many brewers have caved in to the public sweet tooth and added sugar to their beers.)

Frank Boon of Lembeek, in Payottenland, produces some of the finest traditional lambic beers available. His Boon Mariage Parfait is his best gueuze blend. Golden and spritzlike, Mariage Parfait has a fresh herbal nose, with an earthy background of wet wool and lemon peel. The palate is pleasantly sour with a focused tang, with a complex interplay of earth and fruit flavors. It finishes very dry and clean. It is the beer equivalent of a great Stilton cheese, which it complements nicely.

Long before anyone thought to put hops into their beer, they experimented with all sorts of ingredients, including fruit. These were lambic beers, and in Belgium, they still are. The most popular additions are raspberries (framboise) and sour cherries (kriek). When poorly made, these beers can be mere cartoons, but in the right hands they become works of art.

Lindemans Framboise belongs in the latter category, not least for its startling pinkish-red hue and light pink head. Whole raspberries are added to the lambic beer, leaving the wild yeasts to eat away the sugars and the fruit. When Lindemans Framboise is poured, the aroma of fresh raspberries--stems, stalks, leaves and all--wafts over the table. The palate follows through, delivering in full on its promise--sweet with a balancing sour edge and a complex earthy backdrop. It is ludicrously decadent with a slice of cheesecake.

If Belgian brewers are flashy, then British brewers are reserved and subtle. In a culture where life has traditionally revolved around evenings at the pub, people prefer pleasant, flavorful beers that soothe rather than shock. Even some of the largest British breweries still make good beer--witness Bass & Co.'s pungent and snappy pale ale. The British have fought hard to keep their traditional beer culture from being drowned in a sea of cheap mass-market lager. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is a consumer group devoted to the twin British traditions of good pubs and good ale. Boasting almost 48,000 paying members, it is the largest and most powerful consumer action group in Europe.

Samuel Smith's Old Brewery of Tadcaster, Yorkshire, is one of the great standard-bearers of British brewing. Samuel Smith's beers are fermented in traditional Yorkshire squares--huge, open, shallow vats made entirely from local slate rather than modern stainless steel. The brewery is the last in Yorkshire to employ this old method, and it claims that it is a critical factor in flavor development.

Samuel Smith's brews several styles of ale, and all are classic renditions. Most popular is its Old Brewery Pale Ale, a honey-colored beer with an earthy malt, vanilla and butterscotch nose. On the palate, the hops are relegated to a supporting role, and a soft, round, caramel-like, slightly sweet character comes through, underpinned with apple and apricot. Roast beef, gravy and Yorkshire pudding leap to mind. Samuel Smith's Pale Ale illustrates the beauty of British brewing; it is the ability to be subtle without being boring.

One January afternoon a few years ago, I received a lecture on the subject of subtlety. I was in the tap room of the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh, one of the most beautiful Victorian breweries I've ever seen. Russell Sharp, the brewery's managing director, raised a bushy eyebrow and delivered a broadside to American microbrewers, opining that our beers lacked subtlety and grace. "Hops, hops, all hops!" he harrumphed. I defended American beers gallantly, but as I drank a pint of his finely honed ale, I could see his point. Then again, boldness, not subtlety, is the American strong suit.


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