Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Biere de Mars (the lambic version) and Lambic in the mid 1800s (part 1)

This post serves as part one of two looking into the information contained in G. Lacambre's 1851 treaty on brewing and distilling. This text discussed brewing in Belgium, England, Germany, France and the Netherlands. I have to give credit to my friend Niels for pointing this text out to me (you can check out his home lambic blending projects at his Facebook page - Huisstekerij Le Chat Rebelle). This Lacambre text receives high praise in Stan Hieronymus's Brewing with Wheat and it provides some of the information used in the historic Belgian Wit section. Yvan de Baets makes a very good point about this text (and historical texts in general) in that, while it is an excellent document and possibly the best of the time, it can't be the sole source of information to those interested in the history of Belgian beers (see Brewing with Wheat p.37). As this post is based solely on this text, it should be taken as a look into lambic production but not the absolute truth. Hopefully there will be more posts to follow on these topics where I can look into what information is provided in other texts.

For this post I'm going to focus in on the section to do with Brussels beer in the Lacambre text. This section is dedicated to Lambic, Faro, and Biere de Mars. Some out there may already be familiar with a beer named Biere de Mars that falls into the lambic family. I've seen small bits of information about it pop up here and there, possibly helped out by Tilquin bringing a modern version into more light. But this Lacambre text is the most information I've seen about it in one place so far. I know biere de mars comes up in other historical texts and hopefully I'll be able to discuss what those texts add to the biere de mars story in the future.

I split this post up into two sections with the first dealing primarily with background and some general brewing info. The second part looks into recipes and more specific brewing practices, with some considerations for modern/home production. I initially tried to make this all into one post but it was getting far too long and I kept adding more. So two parts it is.

When I think of beers labeled with March-oriented names, two beers come up first: Maerzen/Oktoberfest and something a bit intangible in the saison/biere de garde family (also) called Biere de Mars. But this type of naming (specifically Biere de Mars) was applied to many different beers. Yvan de Baets addresses this in his saison history chapter in Farmhouse Ales, referencing this same Lacambre text which states that because March was viewed as an especially advantageous time for brewing, especially beers that were going to be aged, many different beers would receive March-associated labels. And being produced in March was not a prerequisite for a name invoking March. I want to focus in a bit on this lambic version of March beer, which seems to have been an integral component of spontaneous fermentation in mid 1800s Belgium. I'll use the following names somewhat interchangeably - Biere de Mars, March beer/lambic and Meerts (though I'll use Meerts only when speaking of the modern version of the lambic Biere de Mars that can still be found).
A barrel at Gueuzerie Tilquin containing a blend of Meerts (top symbol) and Boon lambic (the curly L).
March Lambic

As an overview, March lambic was brewed in a similar way to Lambic - turbid mashing, long boil, open cooling, spontaneous fermentation, etc. But there is an important difference: Biere de Mars was produced with later mash runnings and therefore was much lower gravity. There were some other small differences regarding hopping, boil, etc., but overall the big production difference is that Biere de Mars was a final runnings beer. Although it isn't very common today, something similar (which the brewery calls Meerts) is in production from one lambic brewer - Boon. The Boon Meerts may differ from the historical Biere de Mars in that I've been told it is an individual brew and not composed only of later runnings (though I've seen it written that this beer may follow tradition and is later runnings - looks like I need to go to the source and ask at Boon). But in the overall characteristics it is similar - brewed like lambic but lower strength. I'm not sure how Boon is using it (some of it is in the 'Kriek Boon', and some may make it into the faro but I don't know what proportions) but I know Pierre Tilquin receives 'Meerts' lambic brewed by Boon and this is used in the production of both his draft gueuze and his faro. In the draft gueuze this is used to differentiate it from the bottled product (see also this previous blog post about Tilquin and this page for Tilquin's use of Meerts and this page for Boon). It also explains the lower strength of Tilquin's draft gueuze versus the bottled product. And the inclusion of March lambic in the faro is a cool connection with history.

The main product mentioned to come from Biere de Mars in Lacambre's text was faro. In modern times faro is generally normal lambic which is sweetened, but the 1800s version was typically made of a 50/50 blend of lambic and biere de mars, which would have sugar added. This blending of lambic and biere de mars could be done with the worts, but was more typically done with the finished beer. This seems pretty interesting and differentiates faro from the modern entity of simply a sweetened lambic. I am not aware of any producers besides Tilquin using s biere de mars-type brew prominently in their faro (though again, Boon is reported to use some, I just don't know if it is 50/50). But Tilquin is following the tradition here and is using a 50/50 blend of lambic and Meerts, after aging separately, as the base for his faro. A note regarding the photo above showing a blended barrel of Meerts and Boon lambic - Tilquin blends different worts when needed to avoid leaving half full barrels. So this is not a sign that he typically blends these two worts before fermentation and instead is more of a chance occurrence that fits with the other historical production method.

Some general brewing thoughts

As I said above I'll leave most of the brewing discussion for a later post, but there are some general parts that I'll mention here. Some of these might make more sense in the context of a recipe, but I think they should do alright as stand alone entities until that recipe is up.

Hops: The hopping rates mentioned in this text are much higher than modern lambic (roughly twice modern levels). There is a possibility that hop quality was sufficiently different then compared to now such that these give roughly the same result, but I think that probably matters less for something like lambic than it might for other beers where more hop character is desired in the finished beer and there is more focus on hop freshness. On the freshness thought, the hops for this 1800s lambic are specifically noted as young in this text. This is a considerable difference from modern lambic production, which we always think about as using aged hops. Yvan de Baets mentions in the Farmhouse Ales saison history chapter that typical Belgian-grown hop alpha acid percentages were historically 2-4%. This sort of low alpha acid level would probably work better with lambic when using fresher hops. The hopping rates of saison quoted by Yvan de Baets are fully in line with lambic production, which draws another similarity between historic saison and lambic.

There are some sources of fresh hops used in modern lambic or lambic-like spontaneous fermentation: Oud Beersel used to use hops that were not as aged (see the quote from Frank Boon on this page - 'nearly fresh hops'). I've gotten mixed answers about whether this fresher hop use continues now and I will update if I get a conclusive answer. Oud Beersel also uses higher hopping than modern lambic. The other obvious example of fresher hops in spontaneous beer is Cantillon's Iris, which though not lambic, uses half fresh hops. And Cantillon is starting to experiment with fresh low alpha acid hops in lambic, though it will be a bit before the crop is sufficiently large to hop a whole brew this way (and longer still before we might know the results).
A row of Meerts (brewed at Boon) at Tilquin on top of Girardin-brewed lambic

Wheat husks: The recipes given in this text include a reasonable portion of wheat husks. Lacambre felt that the inclusion of wheat husks was important to the character of the finished beer.He mentions that the brewers say the husks are only there for filtration, but Lacambre mentions that he has looked into what this contributes to water and he doesn't feel that the use of husks could be removed from the brewing without causing a noticeable change in the final product.

I couldn't find any information about the size of these sacks of wheat husks (the recipe quotes the amount of husks in numbers of sacks), so I don't really have a good idea what sort of g/L their usage would equate to. It could be about enough to offset the difference between historic and modern barley:wheat ratios, and therefore supply the 'missing' husk from the use of a greater percentage of wheat, or it could be much more. This probably warrants further exploration by brewers interested in these sorts of beers. I am not aware of any current lambic producers doing this, but I know Jester King has incorporated hay into their beer Repose. This is a bit different than using wheat husks, but in terms of adding additional dried plant material which is not a big source of extract to a mash, I think they are sufficiently similar to count Jester King's beer as a modern example of using such an ingredient in a long-aged mixed fermentation beer.

Criticisms - Lacambre's record was not without some criticisms directed toward lambic producers and sellers. While he had kind words for the characteristics of good lambic, he was not so kind with his thoughts on production processes. He felt that lambic producers were moving backward in their manufacturing process. He felt that the overloading of the mash tun, which was common in production, wasn't helping the beers. And he mentions that some brewers also felt this way. He also thought that spontaneous fermentation was pretty stupid, and suggested that the brewers should better ensure a quality product by adding some yeast to their beers. He felt that the beer was going bad too easily and this could clearly be prevented by prompting fermentation of the wort with a non-spontaneous inoculation. He mentions that the Brussels brewers protested against this saying that this would change the character of the beer but Lacambre isn't convinced.

Lacambre reserves his harshest criticisms for the beer blenders and merchants. He does spare some blenders form this, noting that some blenders/merchants are doing very good work. But mainly he asserts by his own writing and quoting others, that the blenders and merchants are dishonest, making poor blends, and are profiting greatly off of the work of others while leaving little for those from whom they profit. I think this represents both an important difference from today and an important similarity. The difference is that the modern blenders are few and are doing great work. Though from the way I am reading the use of 'blenders' in Lacambre's text he is referring to people blending finished beer to serve at cafes, or something like that, rather than what we think of now as a lambic blender taking wort, aging it and then blending it. Still I believe there are some cafe owners in Belgium who do or have made their own house blends and who are doing good work. So today we are not subject the the sort of lambic adulteration from cafe owners that Lacambre cites as common at the time. Some may point out that there is lambic adulteration today, although this seems to be more in the hands of certain producers than the sellers/blenders.

However on the topic of merchants profiting off of the work of others, I think we might be in a similar place and we may be entering a bit of a modern reckoning. Belgian lambic producers are starting to enforce smaller bottle limits for sales. This is largely driven by third parties buying up huge stocks to sell them at a markup to foreign markets (mostly the US). These producers already have importers for the US, so the transfer of Belgian market product to the US is taking away from the Belgian market. And others are profiting off of it, sometimes at a huge markup. Meanwhile the brewers are left without seeing anything back from this huge markup except their product vanishing too quickly and leaving their locals, at times, unable to find many of their beers. In some ways the lambic culture is being bought away as availability decreases and third parties raise their prices, and as 'rare beer' takes the local staple to an export commodity. As a North American, I understand the interest in more lambic and that, at times it is hard to find. But after meeting many lambic producers I definitely feel that grey market marked-up product is not the way to go. While this is a slightly different set of circumstances than Lacambre laments, the end result is the same - third parties are not representing the interest of the brewers and making a profit off of this misrepresentation.

OK, so that serves as the intro to the lambic Biere de Mars.

March 2016 update
Thanks to Levi for pointing out to me that I had forgotten to post the link to part 2, which has been up for some months now. Anyway, here is part 2 with the recipe/process info.

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