July 26, 2017

My peach lambic problem -- and ours

The winner in the Fruit Beer category of the B'tsisa home-brew competition was Noam Shalev's Peach Lambic.  You can read about the other winners here, where I also wrote that reviewing Noam's Peach Lambic was very difficult for me.  As I promised you then, here are a few words about why that is so.  
Noam Shalev enjoying his Lambic at the
annual Brew Party for Israeli home-brewers. 
Lambics are more than a different beer style; they are in a different category.  We call these "sour beers," even though they may not all be sour.  Noam himself suggests that they be called "wild beers," because they contain elements in the yeast or bacteria which are in some way out of the control of the brewer, and therefore "wild."  

The Beer Judge Certification Program recognizes ten beer styles in this group: lambic, fruit lambic, gueze, Flanders red, oud bruin, gose, Berliner Weisse, Brett beer, mixed-fermentation sour, and wild specialty beer.

 Let's see why I, and many other beer drinkers, have a problem with these styles:    

Of the four traditional tastes, sweet and salty are kind of naturally inviting.  Children don't have to develop these tastes, and food manufactures pour in sugar and salt to keep us hooked.  In nature, something sweet or salty is not dangerous.  We are hot-wired by evolution to enjoy these tastes.

Bitter, on the other hand, is a warning that something is spoiled, poisoned, dangerous.  For us to enjoy the bitterness of hops in beer, we have to overcome this instinct and "develop" an appreciation for this taste.  That's why children guzzle down Coca Cola and recoil when tasting beer.  Most beer enthusiasts these days have no problem handling bitterness.  In fact, they seek it out.

What about sour?  It also has warned of danger from the dawn of humankind.  But shouldn't we be able to surmount this gut-reaction for the sake of enjoying this basic taste just like we have with bitterness?

Well, in many instances, we have.  We already enjoy a whole bunch of fruits and other foods which bombard us with sour: lemons, sour pickles, sauerkraut, sour cream, vinegar.  There's even an entire genre of sour candies which go to extremes to make us pucker up.  Shouldn't we be able to take the leap and enjoy this same sensation in beer?  

We love sour candy, don't we?
We certainly should.  In Belgium and northern France, so I'm told, there are thousands upon thousands of beer drinkers who love their lambics and other sour or tart beers no less than we love our bitters.  There is no reason we bitter-lovers cannot open ourselves up to new sensations and experiences and begin to develop a taste for sour beers.  True, the lambic-lovers started earlier than we did, much earlier, and the older you get, the harder it is to learn new tricks.

But we can at least try to expand our horizons, or in new-age parlance, to open ourselves up to new experiences.

To give myself a little background, I spoke to Noam Shalev about how he brews his lambics.

Where the Sour Things Are:
Brettanomyces yeasties do their stuff.
He tries to remain true as much as possible to the traditional lambic process.  For example, 30% of the grain he uses is unmalted wheat, although traditional brewers can use up to 60%.  He uses old hops which don't give much flavor, but have an anti-bacterial function, preventing undesirable bugs from multiplying.

Noam aged this beer in oak for six months, and then with peach pulp for another two months, while the Brettanomyces yeast, Pediococcus bacteria, and Lactococcus bacteria did their microscopic work, adding fruity aromas and acidity to the beer.

However, while the Belgians originally depended on wild yeast, floating in the country air, to do the initial fermentation, Noam buys his wild yeast from a yeast lab.  Sort of like zoo animals: they're raised in captivity, but they're still wild.

Not what we want:
vinegar = vin aigre = sour wine.
All of this chemistry, Noam explains, is meant to impart a sourness to the beer that is, "yogurt sour, not vinegar sour."

Well, I tried.  I really did.  But it's going to take more work.  My drinking partner Moshe and I approached this beer as we would any other.  It poured out a hazy, light copper color with almost no carbonation.  The aroma was sour yeast, with none of the regular hop aromas.  And then the taste: sour from start to finish.  Unrelentingly sour.  Sour in your mouth and sour in your throat.

If there was any peach flavor, it was almost completely obscured by the sour, but something was there.  A hint of peach tried to come through, but it didn't last.  "If this is what sour beer is supposed to be," averred Moshe, "then this is good."  We tried to understand it, but really, we did not enjoy it.

But then, just to show us how personal a thing is taste, I called over my wife Trudy, not a great beer drinker, to have a sip of the Peach Lambic.  I expected of course a loud "Ugh!" like when she tastes a bitter beer.  Instead: "Hmm, this isn't bad.  It's like a sour juice."  

So with Trudy giving me a glimmer of hope, I'll keep trying to acquire a taste for wild beers, and I invite you to join me.  Someday, we may find that sour is the new bitter.  May take a while though. 

1 comment:

Thanks for your comment. L'chayim!