Thursday, October 29, 2015

Gueuzerie Tilquin Visits

This post (which is a bit of a long one) about Gueuzerie Tilquin is based on what I've learned from a couple visits there as well as general visits in the lambic region of Belgium. Gueuzerie Tilquin is Belgium's newest lambic blender. The Gueuzerie is run by Pierre Tilquin, who trained at both Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen before opening up his own blendery and releasing his first products in 2011. Pierre is not as outspoken as other lambic producers, but he's serious about quality products and I've found him to be very welcoming and willing to share information with those passionate about lambic who make the effort to get there (and you should definitely make that effort and visit if/when you are in Belgium).
In front of Gueuzerie Tilquin
Location - The Gueuzerie is located in the municipality of Rebecq in Wallonia (the French speaking part of Belgium) in the Walloon Brabant province. Tilquin is very near to the borders of both the Hainaut province (home of saison) and Flemish Brabant, the province where most of the lambic producers are found. The Pajottenland (the region traditionally thought of as the home of lambic) lies between Brussels and Gueuzerie Tilquin, and even though Tilquin is across the Belgian language border from the Pajottenland, they are seperated by less than one kilometer. Note that the exact extent of the Pajottenland depends on the source you chose to define it. And whether or not you can find certain other main lambic producers in the Pajottenland region (excluding Cantillon which is in the Brussels district) depends on whether you combine the Zennevallei (Senne valley) region in with the Pajottenland (Beersel is in the Senne valley region). See these couple wikipedia pages (in Dutch) if you're into the exact locations of these regions of Belgium (Pajottenland and Zennevallei). The point of all that was to say that while Tilquin is technically not within the borders of the Pajottenland, given their proximity to each other, the variable extent of these boundaries, and given that the boundary definition is not necessarily based on significant differentiating natural features, I don't think that distinction is important here.
Boon Meerts (top) and Girardin lambic (lower 2 rows)
Lambics at Tilquin - As a lambic blendery, Tilquin does not brew his own lambics and instead receives lambic that is brewed at other lambic breweries and is cooled overnight in their coolships. This means that he receives inoculated but unfermented wort the morning after the brew day, and he then ferments the wort in his barrels, ages it and blends it to create his products. Tilquin regularly uses 5 worts from 4 suppliers: Lindemans, Girardin, Boon (both a normal lambic wort and a lower strength wort called 'Meerts', more on this below and in a post to come), and Cantillon. He is currently the only blender using Cantillon wort and the Boon Meerts. And based on some logistical challenges he may also soon be the only blender using another one of those worts. He is also giving other suppliers a trial run (he received Timmerman's lambic in the 2014-2015 season), but first he needs to determine if their wort will work out for the final products he wants. So any full production with other suppliers in his blends awaits the results of the development of those lambics.

Cantillon Lambic at Tilquin (L = lambic, P = 2012-2013 season, 24th brew)
Pierre schedules his deliveries of wort from different suppliers to come in the same week. He feels it makes his job easier if he can do the same sort of work for one week, rather than switching tasks all the time. So the deliveries from his 4 suppliers will come on consecutive (or nearly consecutive) days. This means that he has, in his stock of aging lambics, lambics brewed at basically the same time by different suppliers for multiple different seasons. This is an amazing opportunity for research as well as tasting.

So far much of the lambic microbe development research has been focused on following a batch or two as they age in one brewery. This has given a great profile of the evolution of lambic, but this work is limited in its coverage of lambics from different producers. Cantillon has been the center of some of the work (see Spitaels et al., 2014), and based on their very urban location and high tourist traffic, they may be different in terms of microbe presence and balance than other locations, most of which are more rural and see fewer visitors (or maybe Cantillon is not different in regard to microbes, which would be interesting as well). This is not to pass any quality judgement as I quite like Cantillon and am happy whenever I get a chance to stop in, but just that Cantillon's fermentation may or may not be representative of all lambic breweries. And so far the lambic of other breweries has been under-represented in lambic research.

The Lindemans symbol on a barrel at Tilquin.
So a unique strength of the lambics at Gueuzerie Tilquin is their breadth of coverage from lambics of different producers being gathered all in one place. The weather conditions of the brews would be generally similar among the different lambics because they were brewed at the same time in the same general region. And they've all been stored in the same warehouse since the morning after the brew. So it would allow researchers to look into how more localized influences (a brewery's more immediate surroundings, different brewhouse-resident microbes, slightly different brewing procedures/recipes, possibly very localized weather conditions) might influence the characteristics of different lambics. Pierre expressed interest in having researchers come and study some of his lambics, so hopefully they take him up on that. Given the variability within the small number of lambic producers in terms of things like recipe, process, fermentation behavior, and house flavor, looking into the microbe and metabolite differences would be a great study! And this could provide good initial data to do a more thorough study following batches through time at other producers such as what has been done at Cantillon.

Tilquin is one of the few producers using a 'Meerts', or March lambic. This is a lower strength lambic that was traditionally brewed along with 'normal' lambic. A post on march lambic is in the works (-and it will be linked here when it is up-) so I don't want to spill all the beans about what this historically was. In the case of Tilquin the March lambic comes from Boon and it is used for the draft gueuze (which helps to differentiate it from the bottled version) as well as the faro. The March lambic finishes around the mid 3% abv range, so that would make the OG roughly 6-7° Plato or so, assuming a low FG.

Lambic with blowoff tubes, from 2014.
Managing Fermentation and Aging
Pierre likes to see a healthy start to fermentation rather that a prolonged (weeks to 1+ months) delay in active visible fermentation. He was previously seeing this sort of delay at times when he received deliveries in colder stretches. So he is now warming his cellar when he receives deliveries at times when it is especially cold to help encourage a good fermentation. In the warmer months Pierre is cooling the cellar to keep temps around or below 21° C (70° F).

Barrels are topped up once, after the active fermentation and before the first summer. This usually occurs in May or June. At first Pierre was doing this topping up by using only barrels of the same origin and brew to top other barrels of that origin and brew as much as possible, but this is quite logistically challenging. So now he is topping up barrels without restricting it to only the same origin and brew by using the contents of a what I think of as a 'sacrificial barrel' to top up the other barrels. When there are barrels left that are half full (i.e. if a delivery of wort is not a full unit number of barrel fills), different origins or strengths of wort are blended in to fill them. When I last visited he had a barrel of 1 year old lambic which was a blend of three different origins from the same week that he gave me a taste of. While one source was the main component, and this was identifiable in the lambic, there were some differences brought in by the others which were cool to see.

Rows of lambic from different suppliers
Different lambic origins and blending -
In the blendery, each wort has its own character based mostly on the origin. In that way, for example, Girardin lambics of different ages are identifiably 'Girardin' and the same can be said for the other producers. Of course there will be some batch to batch differences and differences with ages, but the 'origin signature' remains a feature. This is found not only in the flavor of the lambics but also how they behave during fermentation. For example lambic from some producers starts sooner and/or ferments more vigorously (and may blow off more) while other producers may have a longer lag time and/or more sluggish fermentation.

The 'origin signature' of different lambics gives Tilquin and other blenders a pretty unique tool when it comes to producing a house character in their gueuze - they can establish a house character by incorporating different proportions of different origins. Pierre does exactly this, choosing proportions and ages for each constituent origin but keeping the general balance of different origins relatively stable in his blends from batch to batch, which in turn helps keep his house character relatively stable. Desired ages for use of different lambic sources are based on their fermentation behavior and flavor. Pierre chooses certain origin lambics to use when young, others to use when older, and some that he feels are good to use at anytime. The main blending tank at the Gueuzerie is 3800 L, so blends are generally composed of 10 x 400 L barrels.

Lambics and empty barrels, warehouse room 2.
Pierre's approach to blending is fairly straightforward, and he feels that blending is not some great mystery or some exceptionally complicated process. He doesn't go through and try all the possible combinations that he is considering. Instead, he goes down the line barrel by barrel to the lambics of appropriate age (based on origin and subsequently desired age for use) and measures the gravity to make sure that they are ready. If the gravity and taste are good then they are included in the blend until an appropriate number of lambics of a given origin and age are selected. He is certainly making consistently great lambic, so whether you prefer this approach or the approach of trials of many possible combinations, the Tilquin approach definitely works well.

The generally accepted driver of gueuze carbonation is that the younger lambic provides the sugars for bottle refermentation. In the case of Tilquin, it is actually the opposite. The lambic origin that he is preferentially using young may be at 0° P (1.000) as quickly as 6 months from brew day, while the 3 year old lambic that he is using may still be as high as 2-3° P (1.008-1.012) at 3 years old. So the carbonation is derived from the extra gravity in these older lambics, which based on their origin (and microbes and/or brew process) characteristically don't finish as low/as quickly. At one point Pierre was using a bit of sugar in addition to unfermented gravity points to achieve carbonation, but that is no longer the case.

Warehouse  room 1, with a heater for warmth in winter
While blenders get the unique opportunity to use different origin worts and can use this to their advantage, they also have the unique challenge of not having as good of an idea how their lambic blends are going to finish out in terms of final gravities. A producer always working with their own lambic, with their house microbe population, recipe, and brewing process, can be much more sure about final gravity in bottling and is therefore better able to dial in carbonation. For blenders, combining different microbe populations and FGs, there is the potential for the final blend FG to go lower or not as low as the blender suspects. Even when choosing lambics of the lowest possible gravity from a given producer and age to produce his blends, the carbonation is sometimes higher than desired. This is what led to the (Gueuze Tilquin)2which was a gueuze blend that overcarbonated considerably in bottles so it was emptied into barrels and re-bottled. This turned out quite well, and if a similar problem arises in the future I think Pierre is prepared to make another batch of Gueuze2 (though it certainly isn't his intention to have such a situation arise). And, as he currently has an overcarbonated batch from 2013-2014, a new Gueuze2 might be in our future. Pierre is careful to hold onto his blends to monitor carbonation and he packages a few bottles from each blend with crown caps for testing of the carbonation levels in the blend.

Barrel Care-
Barrels are thoroughly cleaned with multiple steps of spraying with increasingly hot water (top temperature = 80° C/176° F). This washes out anything in the barrel (including helping to strip stronger wine characteristics in new barrels). After this the barrels are left open for a few days to dry a bit and then sulfur is burned in them and they are bunged up and stored stacked on their heads until their next use. Before the next use, the barrels are swelled by putting a bit of water on the outside of one head and some water inside the barrel (and therefore inside the other head). The dry storage time is ideally minimal and gueuze blending occurs in the wintertime shortly before batches of wort are due to arrive. In the case of prolonged dry storage the barrels remained sealed and no additional sulfur is used.

The new second warehouse space. Stainless tanks for fruit, empty barrels on their heads and full barrels pyramid stacked.

New Stuff-
The cellar capacity at the Gueuzerie is expanding and now the barrels are split into two warehouse spaces side by side in the same building (in 2013-2014 the barrels were all in the original cellar space in one of the warehouse rooms). Pierre has recently acquired the whole building, which gives him more space to work with. This expansion will allow more production volume as well as more efficient processes. He is first expecting to expand production of the gueuze and draft gueuze, and then possibly fruited products. Of course, with something like lambic which takes multiple years in the making, expansion won't happen overnight...

On the facilities and equipment side, Pierre is looking into getting a new bottling line. It currently takes two days to bottle the 3800 L blending tank. He will be moving the warm conditioning room from the back of the warehouse next to the bottling line to one of the two barrel rooms. He's also planning on moving the office from its current location in the back of the warehouse to the front of the warehouse, and possibly opening up a tasting room toward the front of the warehouse. This will free up more storage room at the back, which in turn will free up even more room for barrels in the two barrel cellar rooms.

In addition to the new spaces and changes being brought with that, there are also some new projects/offerings in the works. I'll leave disclosing details of these to Pierre when he feels it is time. Keep an eye out on the Tilquin Facebook page if you want to know when those projects in the works come to fruition. Something that I think it is safe to say - future batches of Quetsche (both Alsace plums and Prunes de Namur) as well as future batches of Mure are in stainless tanks now.

This is all great news for lovers of Tilquin lambic!

Last updated 30-Oct-2015

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