I’m naturally drawn to iconoclasts, so for that reason alone I was eager to read Raf Meert’s new book on the history of lambic and geueze, in which he picks up a tall stack of received wisdom on the origins and development of two of Belgium’s most iconic, most revered beer styles and smashes it all on the floor.
According to Meert, uncritical writers, by repeating unevidenced myths, by misinterpreting old documents and by misunderstanding the facts, have perpetuated a fake history of lambic that bears little resemblance to the actual truth.
I must emphasis that I have no dog in this fight: I don’t speak Dutch, my French doesn’t even deserve the term “rudimentary”, and I am thus totally unable to evaluate the evidence from past centuries that Meert produces in what is put forward as a total demolition of the generally accepted story of lambic, the spontaneously fermented wheat beer from Flemish Brabant, and gueuze, its brother beer style.
All the same, for me this is exactly reminiscent of the situation surrounding the histories of porter and IPA at the start of this century: lots of terrific stories, repeated by everybody, all unfortunately powered by myth, misunderstanding and a total lack of actual evidence to support them. However, one big, and important difference between the work I was doing 20 years ago on porter and IPA and what Meert is saying about lambic is that no one had any kind of vested economic interest in saying that porter was invented by Ralph Harwood, or IPA by George Hodgson.
Meert, in contrast, is setting himself up in complete opposition to people such as Frank Boon, founder of one of the best-known lambic and gueuze producers, and HORAL, Hoge Raad voor Ambachtelijke Lambiekbieren in Dutch, the High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers, the association of lambic brewers of the Pajottenland, by declaring that lambic was not a traditional beer brewed for six centuries or more in the countryside along the Senne river to the west of Brussels, with the area’s supposedly unique microflora making it possible to produce a totally unique beer, as HORAL’s members insist, but was very specifically a beer with its origins within Brussels’s city walls, developed for specific reasons in the last quarter of the 18th century, that was only picked up by country brewers much later. Indeed, the title of Meert’s book is “Lambic, The Untamed Brussels Beer“.
It is, of course, no coincidence that the preface to Meert’s book is written by Jean-Pierre Van Roy, owner of the Cantillon brewery, the last surviving lambic brewer in Brussels (strictly, just outside the city walls, in Anderlecht). This is Team Brussels’s blast against Team Pajottenland. That does not automatically undermine Meert’s arguments, however. It is clear he has undertaken a huge amount of research, and he certainly seems to know what he is doing. The tone is sometimes polemical – I thought I was occasionally a little rough on people who get their facts wrong, but Meert has no fear of sticking the clog in hard. All the same, the case against the traditional history of lambic is well laid out, the (alleged) misinterpretations by previous historians and commentators listed and forensically pulled apart, the counter-arguments, and their supporting evidence properly and compellingly mustered.
The “standard”, accepted, HORAL version of the history of lambic goes something like this:
● Lambic is the last survivor of a time when all beer was spontaneously fermented
● The first lambic was brewed before 1300, and lambic is undoubtedly the oldest style of beer known today
● Lambic owes its character to the yeasts and other micro-organisms, particularly Brettanomyces bruxellensis, that fall into the boiled wort as it cools overnight
● Those organisms are unique to the 193 square miles of the valley of the Senne, west of Brussels
● Lambic is thus a beer developed in, and unique to, the Pajottenland district of south-west Flemish Brabant
● The name lambic comes from the village of Lambeek (Lambecq in French), on the Senne, 10 miles south-west of Brussels
● Duke Jan IV of Brabant passed an edict in 1420 increasing the proportion of wheat used in local beers, which is reflected today in the amount of wheat found in lambic
● The beer the peasants are drinking in paintings by Pieter Bruegel the elder in the 16th century is lambic
● An edict in the town of Halle, nine miles south-west of Brussels, in 1559 laid down the proportion of wheat to be used in beer at 30 per cent, the same percentage of wheat as is used in lambic today
● Gueuze was first produced in the 19th century as a mixture of old and new lambic to make a sparkling bottled beer to challenge pale ales and lagers
Meert’s book batters each of those claims into the ground. Almost none of it is true, he insists. Far from the spontaneous fermentation found in lambic being a hangover from the past, Meert says, and dating back at least 700 years, it was instead a deliberate, innovative development by brewers in Brussels towards the end of the 18th century to make a strong, long-lasting, stable, tasty beer.
According to Meert, those brewers just 240 or so years ago deliberately refrained from pitching with standard brewer’s yeast, what we now call Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and deliberately encouraged “wild” yeasts, such as what we now call Brettanomyces species, to infect the wort. They did not, of course, understand the microbiology, or the processes that were going on. What they DID know, and understand, is that beers fermented with wild yeasts were stronger (because Brett tackles higher sugars that Sacch cannot), and aged far better, and more successfully, than beers made solely with standard brewer’s yeast.
This is undoubtedly because the Brett yeasts largely outcompeted souring and spoilage organisms, consuming all the fermentables, scavenging the oxygen in the casks, adding their own tasty esters, and leaving a dry, stable beer to mature gracefully. In addition, brewers in the region developed techniques and recipes, such as using low-bitterness hops, long ageing of their beers in wooden vats, or foeders, and probably the large percentage of unmalted wheat which goes into lambic, adding dextrins which may have encouraged spontaneous fermentation and lengthy maturation (Brussels brewers certainly believed the wheat helped the beer age), that encouraged the local bugs to do their best.
Flemish Brabant was certainly not the only place where spontaneously fermented beers were being made: Meert quotes David Booth’s The Art of Brewing, published 1829, where the Scottish brewer and writer described (part 3, p14) spontaneous fermentation “as is practised … by private Brewers in some of the counties of England.” Meert suggests lambic brewers may have learnt about spontaneous brewing from English brewers. That I doubt, since it seems very unlikely that the practices of private brewers in England would be known to brewers in what were then the Austrian Netherlands. But it is more than possible that proto-Belgians learnt about the secrets of lengthy maturation in wooden vessels from English porter brewers, where Brett played an important part in the maturing of the long-aged black beers of London. That, of course, is another point about the alleged uniqueness of the Payottenland yeasts and bacteria: Brett is everywhere, and even B. bruxellensis lives in the wild on all five continents. The Lambicland yeast is not unique to Lambicland.
The big problems for Team Pajottenland is that the first mentions of lambic are all from Brussels, and not from the countryside, and none are older than the late 18th century. The earliest known sighting comes from 1783, when a pub in Brussels called The Crane was reported as having in stock, among other beers, “20 barrels of lambick“. Meert has found another half-dozen listings for lambic before 1800, all from Brussels. The beer was also referred to through until the 1820s as “l’alambic“, “bierre d’allambique“, and similar variations, apparently using the word for a still, “alembic” in English. Meert suggests this was because the beer, strong and clear, looked as if it had been distilled.
Unsurprisingly, lambic brewers in and around Lembeek (where Frank Boon, for one, is based) vigorously dispute this derivation of the name. However, philologically it is difficult to get from “Lembeek” to “lambic”, and there is no reason for one Pajottenland village to have been given supremacy over all the others when it came to giving the local brew a name. Team Pajottenland insists that the lack of evidence for early mentions of lambic outside Brussels is because country lambic brewers and country café and bar owners did not bother with written contracts and receipts, but did business on a spit and a handshake. Evidence of early lambic brewing in the Pajottenland, therefore doesn’t exist because in this pre-literate, or semi-literate society, nobody kept records. To this one can only say: “Sorry, but if you haven’t got any evidence, you haven’t got any evidence.”
Since, according to Meert, lambic never existed until the end of the 18th century, it follows, of course, that if Meert is right, the beer those Bruegel rustics are painted drinking in the 16th century cannot be lambic. This will be a big blow to the multitude of beer writers who have illustrated their articles on lambic and gueuze with scenes from the Brabantian master’s The Peasant Dance and The Peasant Wedding.
The alleged edict of the Duke of Brabant in 1420, which appears on the HORAL website as an example of the supposed ancient origins of lambic as a style, is a fun one: according to Meert, the edict simply never existed. Instead the tale of Duke John IV and the beer that is supposed to be lambic from 600 years ago developed in a form of Chinese whispers over the past 150 or so years. It began when a Belgian historian named Godefroid Kurth, born in 1847, wrote that Duke John IV, who reigned from 1415 until his death in 1427, had made a beer with barley and hops in an alembic, “and this new system of beer was called ‘lambic’, in memory of where the first batch had been made.” Kurth gave no source for this, and nor did he supply a specific date. More than a century later, in 1992, a Belgian writer named Jos Cels, in a book called Het Mysterie van de Geuze, claimed that Kurth had given 1420 for the year of this new brew (when the duke would have been only 17), and added that Duke John had put an obligation for wheat to go into the beer, though Kurth never mentioned wheat.
A Well-Known English Beer Writer repeated Cels’s version of the story in a book published in 1998, though he dated Duke John’s first alembic brew to 1428 – when the duke would have been dead for a year, and in no state to insist on anything. Then in 2000 another prolific Belgian author on lambic, Jef Van Den Steen, turned Duke John’s supposed experiment with an alembic into an edict “with the aim of improving the quality of Brabant beers” through “the increase of the proportion of wheat.”
Van Den Steen’s claims have been repeated uncritically ever since, with no one, until Meert, apparently ever bothering to check if the edict was real. However, it doesn’t appear in a comprehensive volume covering all the ordinances issued during Duke John IV’s reign, published in 1959, and whatever you think of Meert’s other attacks on lambic history orthodoxy (many featuring Van Den Steen, who certainly won’t be sending Meert a Christmas card this year), this one really has to be marked down as a myth to place alongside the many other made-up stories about beer’s past.
The Halle brewing ordinance of 1559 certainly exists, and in it the Stadsontvanger (city tax collector), Remi le Mercier, ruled on the proportions of different grains that went into a mash. This is held up by Team Pajottenland as an early example of a lambic recipe, because, the HORAL website says, the proportions Le Mercier gives are six razieren (or measures) of wheat and 10 razieren of barley, 37.5 per cent to 62.5 per cent, similar to the 30 per cent wheat–70 per cent barley ratio lambic brewers use today. Unfortunately, according to Meert, Jef Van Den Steen (for it is him again) misread the original manuscript, which doesn’t say “VI razieren du fourment et X razieren d’orge et donc qui font ensemble XVI razieren,” “Six measures of wheat and ten measures of barley and thus which makes together 16 measures,” as Van Den Steen claimed, but “VI razieren du fourment et X razieren d’orge et D’AVE” (my emphasis), not “donc” (“thus” in French), “d’ave” being short for “d’avène“, “oats”. So this mash contains oats, and therefore cannot be a lambic recipe, which never contains oats. In any case, according to Meert, historically lambic recipes contained up to 60 per cent of unmalted wheat, and it is a bad case of “presentism” – interpreting the past through the lenses of the present – to assume that a historic mash with 37.5 per cent wheat in it must be a lambic mash just because modern lambic mashes are 30 per cent wheat.
The generally accepted version of the history of gueuze places the drink’s origins firmly in a move to bottle lambic, though when this happened is a case of paying your money and picking your date: 1750, according to one writer, 1893 according to another. The name “gueuze” has also been given multiple explanations, among them that it comes from the same root as the word “geyser”, because of the way the beer foams from the bottle; or from the name given to liberals in Belgian politics, Gueuzen, with a liberal politician-brewer, Louis Paul, mayor of Lembeek in the 19th century (whose brewery much later became Boon’s), supposedly the first person to bottle lambic, around 1870, and it being called “the Gueuze’s lambic” as a result.
Meert, however, traces the first mention of “gueuze lambic” to 1831, when a landlord in Schepdaal, seven miles west of Brussels, had in his cellar two barrels of lambic and two barrels of “geusen lambic“. Further mentions of gueuze in casks turn up right through to 1937, when a Belgian brewing journal mentions both “gueuze tonneau“, gueuze in the barrel, and gueuze in bottles. Gueuze, clearly, was not originally a bottled beer.
The origin of the term “gueuze”, Meert suggests, is from an obscure French term, gueuse, meaning unprocessed or unworked, which was applied to, among other things, pig iron and untilled fields. Gueuze lambic, therefore, would be unprocessed lambic, unsweetened and unblended. The evidence also indicates that this earliest gueuze lambic was at least three years old when it was sold.
By the middle of the 19th century, Meert says, bottlers were bottling lambic with a small addition of sugar, to start a refermentation in the bottle and produce “lambic mousseux“, and also selling “gueuse lambic en bouteilles“, unblended, without sugar. The development of what we know and enjoy today as gueuze, a blend of different lambics of different ages from different barrels, created by specialist gueuze blenders, did not begin until shortly after 1890, Meert suggests, with the change indicated by the prices offered for second-hand champagne bottles in the Brussels area, rising from eight centimes a bottle in 1893 to 14 centimes in 1898. At the same time, Meert says, advertisements for gueuze lambic started proliferating in Belgian newspapers. The general consumer preference in Belgium was now for a sparkling, foaming beer, like British pale ales and German and Bohemian lagers, and according to Meert, gueuze producers tried several methods of making their product sparkle and foam too, Finally, around 1900, they settled on blending one-year-old lambic with two to three-year-old lambic as producing the best results. What is now regarded as “traditional” gueuze had finally arrived.
Is Meert’s version of history accurate? I can’t tell you. As I said up there at the top, I’m not in a position to evaluate his evidence, even if presented with all the papers and other sources he has found, because I don’t understand either Dutch or French well enough (or at all, in the case of Dutch). Nor do I know what sources Jef Van Den Steen used when he wrote Geuze & Kriek: The Secret of Lambic in 2012, so I can’t contrast and compare: indeed, if anyone wants to contrast Van Den Steen with Meert they’re out of luck, unless they already have Jef’s book, because it sold out long ago, the demand for information on lambic being huge, and you can’t find a copy anywhere even for silly money. (Van Den Steen, incidentally, after a career that has included being a Belgian rock star, now helps run the De Glasen Toren (glass tower) brewery in Erpe-Mere, about 20 miles north-west of Brussels.)
Does Meert look reliable, though? Well, nobody’s 100 per cent reliable, not even me, and here’s an interesting contrast-and-compare story to illustrate the concept of “historical reliability”: Frank Boon, as those who know their history of lambic are aware, acquired a gueuze blendery run by a man called René de Vits in the village of Lembeek. Eventually Boon started his own lambic brewery in Lembeek, which is today one of the largest and most admired producers of lambic, geuze (Boon’s preferred spelling) and kriek in Belgium. But how did Boon get to know De Vits? According to Garrett Oliver (The Brewmaster’s Table, p74) Boon met De Vits in 1972, when he was 19, and had just moved to the Pajottenland, and would hang out with his friends at De Vits’s gueusestekerei, drinking lambic and swapping stories. Boon then went on to run a drinks distribution business in Brussels and made enough money to buy De Vits’s business in 1977, Oliver says (remember that date).
According to Meert, however (p320), Boon only met De Vits via the network he had set up distributing regional beers from small, independent producers, just as De Vits was retiring without having found a buyer for his business. Boon struck a deal with De Vits to start blending gueuze/geuze in De Vits’s buildings on Edingensesteenweg in Hondzocht, a small hamlet immediately next door to Lembeek. Eventually, Meert says, Boon purchased De Vits’s gueusestekerei “by 1978”.
Finally, the Boon website has a different take again. It says that in 1972, “inspired” by René de Vits, “young Frank Boon” (who was only 19 that year) started blending gueuze/geuze himself in a small cellar in Halle, a town two miles north of Lembeek. Frank “worked hard to take over the business from René” and “In 1975 Frank became an independent geuze blender, which marked the start of the Boon Brewery.” Then in 1978 “After Frank Boon had taken over René De Vits’ geuze blendery, he moved the activities to Hondzocht, a hamlet that is part of Lembeek.”
None of those narratives match up completely, though we are talking about events that happened only 50 years ago, or less. Meert appears to be wrong about when, how and why Boon met De Vits, but Oliver seems to have the wrong date for when Boon acquired De Vits’s business. And was Boon running a gueuze blendery or a drinks wholesaling business before 1975? The Boon site itself doesn’t seem to be able to decide if he began blending in 1972, or three years later. As a historian, making sense of such a mess is … tricky. That, however, is very often how the evidence comes in: contradictory and confusing.
So: summing up, what’s the verdict on Meert? It’s clear few or no stones have been left unturned in the production of this 360-page book, and Team Pajottenland has a big case to answer. If you’re at all interested in the history of lambic and gueuze, and especially if you are ever going to write about the history of lambic and gueuze, this is a book you are going to have to read, because its alternative take on the story of these two fascinating and important beer styles is so radically different compared to the story that HORAL and the big lambic/gueuze makers put out that you are getting only half the picture if you don’t read it.
Fundamentally, Meert’s book puts a big bomb underneath all the marketing efforts of companies such as Boon and Lindemann’s, though if anything it emphasises the wonder and mystery of these marvellous beers, even if it looks to destroy the much-promoted idea that they are survivors from the deep, deep past of beer. Like a flock of starlings, according to Meert’s narrative, some time in the 1770s or early 1780s all the brewers in Brussels suddenly moved in the same direction, to produce a new style of spontaneously fermented beer different from the “pitched” beers of their past. Why? How? And who started it? These are questions we still cannot answer …
Raf Meert, “Lambic, the Untamed Brussels Beer: Origin, Evolution and Future”, Serendippo bv, Veemarkt, Diest, Belgium, 2022, pp360 ISBN 9789 464660470, €40
Available for ordering here