Is everything you have ever read about the history of lambic and gueuze totally wrong? Raf Meert thinks so…

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.

A big bomb detonated under the widely held consensus on the history of lambic and gueuze…

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.

No, that’s not lambic he’s pouring out there …

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.”

Frank Boon demonstrates just how far into the wood of a foeder the beer will penetrate

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.

Boon town rattled? Lembeeck, home of the Boon brewery, may not after all be the eponym for lambic

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.

There’s a hole in the story …

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.”

Repurposed Pilsner Urquell casks, now filled with lambic rather than pils, at the De Cam gueuze blendery in Gooik

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

32 thoughts on “Is everything you have ever read about the history of lambic and gueuze totally wrong? Raf Meert thinks so…

  1. Liefmann’s? I suppose you mean Liefmans, but what they might have to do with lambic or gueuze, is quite unclear to me – as they produce Oudenaards Oud Bruin. Or did you think of Lindemans?

    1. You’ll be telling me next you don’t have a full collection of records by Johnny Hallyday (whose father was Belgian …)

      1. No, Martyn, I don’t…
        I defer to nobody in my appreciation of (the authentically Belgian) Jacques Brel, but I wouldn’t call him a rock star…

    1. Ed
      That is indeed interesting, thank you.
      To be fair to Jef van den Steen, who’s getting a bit of a kicking, he does quote a Professor van Laer as saying – “These (wild yeasts) of course originated in the air, but had multiplied in the worts for many generations, so that the pores in the wood contained enough of them for alcoholic fermentation to take place…” – at the General Association of Belgian Brewers at Antwerp in 1899.

      This is in the section on the importance of wood in geuze production, Geuze and Kriek, The Secret of Lambic, p. 14, which is still a beautifully-produced book with a huge amount of information oncurrent Lambic breweries, even if it turns out that some of the history section could be questioned.

  2. I think it’s pretty self-evident that there’s been a confusion of Lembeek with lambic given the early references to alembic in connection with the beer (there’s a similar myth that the area where I live, which includes the word Heald, is linked to the south Manchester dairy of that name which once had a depot here, when it actually just means a slope).

  3. Nice summary, Martyn. As a speaker of Dutch and French and someone who has looked at original sources himself, I can at least confirm that most of Raf’s views align with the facts. Indeed this wonderful book is the fruit of a lot of research. Sure there are a few details that are open for debate, such as the supposed English origin of spontaneous fermentation. In fact, Raf has overlooked the fact that Hoegaarden white beer was also spontaneously fermented, so that may be where the early lambic brewers got it from. Hoegaarden white was spontaneously fermented but drunk within two or three weeks, which was of course quite different from lambic.
    Another issue is the lack of reference to the original written sources; Raf mentions many archival documents, but he doesn’t say where these are located and how they may be consulted. That’s only a minor problem though, because he also refers to a host of published books which can be checked quite easily. Let’s hope that Raf will publish his sources, because a lot of these 18th and early 19th century documents are very interesting, also for researching brewing history in general.
    In any case, even I learned a lot from Raf’s new insights, a book very much recommended to anyone interested in Belgian beer history.

  4. …”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”…
    Not at all unike breweries of today – a New England IPA, anyone..?

  5. I look forward to reading this book as an interesting academic exercise and not as a brewing text. Certainly it’s important for us brewers to understand our history and to question dogma. But, in the end, given the choice I gravitate toward Frank Boon’s beers as the most enjoyable of the Belgian Lambics. A word of advice to beer writers, one of the many reasons we all love Michael Jackson was his kind and charitable tone.
    Daniel Carey
    New Glarus Brewing Company

  6. I am at a disadvantage in that I have yet to read this book, Martyn, but thank you for a typically entertaining and informative review.

    On the subject of the origins of spontaneous fermentation, isn’t it more correct to say that it arose spontaneously? Or to put it a better way, has it not always existed in one form or another, with those from the pre-Pasteur age going through phases in which they were better able to harness it, without necessarily understanding what they were doing in scientific terms?

    It seems to me to parallel the story of lager yeast, which likely evolved through a brewer-assisted process of natural selection from the Alpine cave forms of Kellerbier; was used in a more focussed way by the likes of Sedlmayr, Dreher and Groll to make the first Münchner, Wiener and Pilsener beers; reached commercial potential thanks to the invention of cheaper large-scale refrigeration techniques in the mid 19th century; and was finally nailed by Hansen, applying with precision techniques first outlined by Pasteur?

    My point is that the question, “Where did lager come from?” has a complicated answer, slo why would we expect lambics to have a simpler past?

    1. The problem is, apparently, or so I have read, that attempts to make spontaneous fermentation happen “ab initio” end up with sour, spoilt, undrinkable wort. Most yeasts won’t produce beer … so you need beer yasts in your environment first. It’s the old chicken-and-egg …

  7. Hi, thank you for this very interesting summary of the issues raised by this also very interesting book.

    I think you’ve made a reading error in concluding that “Gueuze, clearly, was not originally a bottled beer.” That’s not exactly right: from the oldest written description of gueuze, it appears that it is a particular type of lambic, aged in barrels but bottled (even if this is not the systematic mode of consumption). Here is what is written in Jean-Baptiste VRANCKEN, Antwoord op vraag 81, 1829, which is one of the major sources most used by Meert for his demonstration (the original text in French):

    “Cette fermentation se continue pendant plusieurs années, et le Lambic n’est parfaitement mûr, qu’après cinq ans de cercle. Je parle du Lambic, que les particuliers brassent pour leur usage, et que l’on distingue par le nom de “geuze-bier”, et qui doit être considéré, comme la véritable bière jaune de Bruxelles ; elle mousse encore lorsqu’on la tire en bouteilles, la fermentation ordinaire s’y développe, malgré que cette bière n’ait plus le moindre goût douceâtre. Lorsque la bière est parvenue à ce point , elle ne contient plus que de l’esprit de vin, une petite quantité d’acide malique et acétique et une grande quantité d’eau, avec laquelle se trouve combinée une petite portion de matière extractive.”

    (” (…) I am talking about Lambic, which is brewed by private individuals for their own use, and which is distinguished by the name of “geuze-bier”, and which must be considered as the true yellow beer of Brussels; it still foams when bottled, and the ordinary fermentation process is still going on, even though this beer no longer has the slightest sweet taste.”)

    You can read the full text here, it is fascinating for lambic, but also for the general situation of Belgian beer in 1829 (especially from Brabant):

    1. At the risk of making this a semantic discussion, but I think this is the point Raf makes: today, a lambic only becomes a gueuze the moment you put it in bottles. In the 19th century, it already was gueuze in the barrel, once it had become a fine, mature (and unblended) lambic. Sure, some gueuze was bottled then as well, if only because after five years or so, the barreled gueuze would not improve anymore and was better stored in bottles (page 130 of Raf’s book). But bottling it didn’t make it gueuze – it already was. ‘Gueuze, clearly, was not originally a bottled beer’? I guess you yan say so.

      1. I will join in the semantics.

        The claim that was made, I think from memory by Michael Jackson at least 40 years ago, was that Gueuze was only ever briefly a draught beer and had always primarily been a bottled beer. Then, when Shelton Bros fanned the flames a bit by importing to the US a draught gueuze-lambic, a row broke out about whether this was an authentic type of beer or a “craft era” invention. The row did not harm sales.

        I cannot comment on the book itself as I have yet to read it, and my only attempt to buy it fell foul of the Anglo-Belgian postal authorities’ self-imposed Brexit-bog-up, meaning it could not be posted. I gather I don’t feature much, so I guess LambicLand (Cogan & Mater: 2004 & 2011) dipped below the author’s radar.

        Reuturning to my previous theme, from first principles the big unknown for me about spontaneous fermentation has to be whether or not it evolved out of centuries of peasant brewers getting it wrong less and less often, or whether it was a thing that was fairly suddenly and deliberately created. The first explanation has always appealed more because I am not sure human beings are good at sitting down and inventing things deliberately, though we don’t mind trying perpetually to improve on what has gone before.

        My understanding (GB) of the real history of lager fermentation is that brewers in Franconia and elsewhere had been making Kellerbier for centuries before Sedlmeyr (DE) / Dreher (OS) / Groll (CZ) isolated a substance that allowed them to keep carefully recreating the same Münchener brown / Wiener red / Pilsener golden-blond, cold-conditioned lager time after time. It was another 25 years before Pasteur (FR) explained this substance was a living micro-organism called yeast, and another 20 years for Hansen (DK) to identify it as a saccharomyces pastorianus strain.

        So-called wild yeast are way more complicated than that, so to my mind the idea that they could have been isolated as a deliberate act of invention seems unlikely. However, I am happy to be proved wrong, and in the meantime will file this under the heading “Nobody Knows”.

        1. Well, it’s a bit off topic from Pierre de Gaarde’s post, but the discussion on where spontaneous fermentation as a regular brewing method comes from is an interesting one. I just finished reading Lars M. Garshol’s book on farmhouse beers, and I can’t help being amazed at how incredibly easy it was (and is) for brewing peasants to store batches of fairly regular yeast (that is, s. cerevisiae) for a very long time, under primitive circumstances. Therefore, it certainly wasn’t a shortage of yeast that drove brewers to use spontaneous fermentation! At the same time, ‘wild’ yeast had a hard time surviving in such rural environments where brewing was not a daily, weekly or even monthly thing. Quite the contrary: if there’s one place where ‘wild’ yeasts could survive and even thrive, it was in a professional (yet old-fashioned) brewery! It makes perfect sense that spontaneous fermentation only rarely developed into a regular brewing method (to my knowledge, only in Danzig, Hoegaarden and Brussels) and only in an environment where professional brewing was the norm. Forget the farmhouse, ‘wild’ brewing comes from professional breweries….

  8. Great post and discussion! Also, thank you for responding to the discussion about this book on Milk The Funk.

    As the author of the Brettanomyces page on the MTF Wiki (and most of that wiki), I just have a few small nuances about Brettanomyes. While Brett might be on all 5 continents, Brett is certainly not “everywhere”. In MTF, we’ve talked to numerous bioprospectors, and finding wild Brett is extremely rare. For example, Jeff Mello from Bootleg Biology who runs a program where bioprospectors can send wild caught cultures to his lab and he will bank them told me that he has seen maybe 1 or 2 wild Brett samples out of all of his cultures. There is also the issue of microbial contamination being very easy during propagation, so unless one does whole genome sequencing on what one believes to be wild caught Brett, it might not be wild at all. There was also a massive study performed in the US that bioprospected yeasts in different regions of the USA. They sampled areas that had no human interference. They found around 2000 isolates and 260 unique species, but not a single Brettanomyces/Dekkera.

    In addition, it appears that Brett might have two separate “natural” environments: specific human industries (brewers, wineries, etc.), and the root systems of certain plants. You can read more about all of this here on the wiki:

    Another thing to consider is, to my knowledge, and as the author of most of this page:, there is a shocking lack of evidence of Brett being present in lambic breweries other than the internal surfaces of barrels. It is worth noting the following: while it is also a myth that you cannot kill Brett in barrels (, it is likely that lambic brewers are not employing the heat treatment necessary to kill Brett in their barrels (although Pierre Tilquin may argue this last point).

    Therefore, in addition to what Garshol has hypothesized about Brett and historical farmhouse cultures like kveik not having Brettanomyces, namely that the conditions that farmhouse brewers created with their beers was not conducive to Brett, Brett is also not “everywhere”.

    Another small point to make about Brett is that it doesn’t really do a great job of preventing beer spoilage organisms. By “spoilage organisms”, these are typically considered lactic acid bacteria or acetic acid bacteria, although other wild yeasts are in that category as well, which have also been found to live along side Brett in lambic. I’ve heard Ron Pattinson say something very similar; something like, “Brett dries out the beer so that there are no sugars and nothing else can survive.” I am not sure if you and Ron are saying the same thing here, but my point is that while Brett does dry beers out via hype-attenuation, it does not have any particular special affect on the most severe spoilage microorganisms (lactic acid bacteria). Microbiological analysis of spontaneous fermentations shows that lactic acid bacteria and Brettanomyces survive quite well together ( It might be possible that bacteria wouldn’t survive in a fully aged barreled beer if it was exposed to the beer after Brett has consumed all of the dextrins, however, the chances of matured barreled beer being exposed to lactic acid bacteria at this time is probably pretty rare. The more common source of spoilage bacteria would come from the barrels themselves, or the brewing equipment. Hops, of course, including dry hopping, would have provided the main protection for barreled beer against lactic acid bacteria growth.

    Small points, yes, but if we are using microbiology to support historical conclusions, we must also be as accurate as possible about the microbiology. 🙂

    1. Thank you very much indeed, Dan, I am always delighted to be educated and corrected.

      About Dekkera in particular, I have read that this is an organism found in estuarine environments, which would explain its presence in beers from Harvey’s of Lewes (situated right by a river and six miles from the estuary), in particular its unexpected presence in Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout.

  9. Thanks for this Martin. I really need to get hold of this book — sadly 3fonteinen doesn’t seem to ship to UK anymore (not that I blame them…)

    This is what Frank Boon himself recalled to me in March 2020 about how he got started, when I interviewed him as a Real Ale Hero for BEER — it seems relatively close to Raf Meert’s account:

    Around 1975, spurred by his mother’s interest in traditional Belgian styles, he got interested in starting his own geuzestekerij. He found a large cellar in Halle which ws once part of a distillery but had been used as a foundry and was derelict, flooded and full of ashes. “The owner said if I cleaned it up I didn’t have to pay rent. So I could live cheaply with my parents, buying equipment from all the lambic blenders that were closing. One closed every six months and they were glad that you emptied their place as otherwise all the casks and foeders would end up as firewood”.

    Through this contact with other brewers he found De Vits, a café, blender and former brewery on the outskirts of Lembeek, with an exceptional reputation for quality, so long as you brought the correct empty bottles back. But owner René De Vits had no successors and was facing an uncertain future, using up all his stock and reducing his production to small volumes. “I asked him if he’d sell the business, and he said no one would buy it, it needed too much investment and there was no future in it with all the lambic breweries closing, I said imagine you did sell it, what would be the price. He wanted just something for the building so long as all the contents were left inside and he didn’t have to clean it. Not too much money, but it was still money and no-one in my family was happy with the idea. So we agreed he would go on for a few years while I found the money to buy him out.”

    Aware he couldn’t build a sustainable business on blending his own geuze alone, Frank supplemented his income selling other people’s beers as well, largely around Brussels. It was through this business that he met Pierre Celis of Hoegaarden, who introduced him to a cooperative bank in Leuven backed by the government which in 1977 advanced the funds to buy De Vits and take on his first employees.

    I’d have to go back to the taped interview to see if there was anything on there about where Frank originally blended De Vits beers — he said he learned a few tricks of the trade from Mnr De Vits but not everything, and as he already had the space in Halle I’m guessing the maturation and blending was done there from De Vits worts.

    The business relocated to its current site, an old foundry close to the centre of Lembeek, in 1982, partly to find space for the brewhouse that Frank was sure he’d need as continuing brewery closures threatened supplies of wort. But it wasn’t until 1990 that brewing returned to Lembeek on a vintage second-hand cast iron kit, with all production moved in-house by 1992. As is well known, this involved a linkup with national group Palm. “We didn’t need money but we did need national distribution and I knew the owners well so I asked them to consider it like a cultural project. They agreed to do it at a symbolic price, keeping a stock of my beer so that customers ordering 20 pallets of Palm could take a few cases of Boon too”. The arrangement ended in 2014, two years before Palm was bought out by Swinkels (Bavaria).

    I do have a copy of Jef Van den Steen’s book, in Dutch, but it’s a bit buried away at the moment. However I seem to recall he actually mentions geuze as a draught beer in late 19th/early 20th century when pubs blended old and new lambic in casks, primed them and effectively cask conditioned them, so I don’t think this is such a way-out claim from a Ploeg Pajottenland point of view. Also remember Pierre Tilquin talking about it too, when his keg geuze raised eyebrows.

  10. I’ve just found a quote I translated from Jef Van den Steen’s book Geuze en Kriek: Het geheim van de lambik (Geuze and Kriek: the secret of lambic) 2011 p22 when he explains geuze as lambic brewers’ response to the arrival of keg and bottled sparkling ales and lagers:
    When [after 1860] bottled beer and pressurised barrels or kegs containing imported beers made their appearance in Brussels, lambic brewers were faced with a problem. These new beers had an attractive head…Even before lambic was bottled, brewers had found a trick that enabled foaming beer to be served in pubs. Old, and therefore well-fermented, lambic was mixed in a wooden barrel with young beer and/or sugar. The barrel was then securely fastened and dispatched. In the still cool cellars of the customers, a renewed fermentation developed in the barrel, and after one or two weeks there was sufficient carbon dioxide gas to serve a foaming glassful.

    1. We know that, although it is good in many respects as I have said above, the history in Van den Steen’s book is open to question. Given that, and the fact that (at least in my experience) gueuze usually suffers from a lack of head retention anyway, can we take this just on his word, or is there any actual evidence from any other source?

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