Pucker Up: Sour Beer

How would you react if, instead of adding carefully cultivated yeast strains (or formaldehyde in the case of PBR), your favorite brewery let wild yeast and bacteria spontaneously ferment your beer? Could you stomach the distinctively sour taste?

If you could — or if you just want a beery, new adventure — pick up a lambic beer at a local grocery store. Unlike the traditional ales and lagers that get us through the week, lambics rely on spontaneous fermentation from wild yeast and bacteria. Typically, the beer is brewed with a 70:30 percent ratio of barley to wheat.

Most lambics are somewhat dry, with a cidery and wine-like (“vinous,” in beer geek-speak) flavor. The aftertaste is usually sour, but can vary from bracingly so to a more mild kick.

“True” lambics can generally only be brewed between about October and May, because summertime air contains too many unfavorable microorganisms that would spoil the beer.

Pure lambics are brewed in the Pajottenland region of Belgium, are cloudy and uncarbonated, and bracingly sour. Gueuze is an offshoot and is essentially a mixture of young (one-year-old) and old (two- to three-year old) lambics. These are then bottled for a secondary fermentation, which carbonates the beverage.

By far the most common type of lambic you’ll see in Montana, however, is the fruit-flavored version.

Lambics or lambic-style beers are quite a bit more difficult to find than even your average seasonal beer. I’ve never seen one on tap in Bozeman, but most of the major grocery stores in Bozeman (Albertson’s, T&C, Safeway, etc.) all carry lambics imported from the Lindemans Brewery in Belgium. Expect to pay about $12 for 750 mL (about a pint and a half) of this deliciously sour nectar.

My editor thinks this is cheesy, but I think you should run to the store and buy a bottle of lambic before you read the rest of this article. Lambic in hand? Good, let’s continue.

Lambic

There aren’t many Montanan examples of this style, since our region doesn’t have a strong lambic tradition. Big Sky Brewing starts off with a Belgian strong golden ale and then adds organic cherries from The Orchard at Flathead Lake to make a decent — if a bit “hot” and syrupy — beer. This isn’t a pure lambic; rather it’s what’s known as a “kriek” (pronounced the way that imported Montanans say “creek”).

Last August, Flathead Lake Brewing Company debuted their Montucky Sour Cherry Brown, a Belgian-style brown ale with organic cherries (also sourced from The Orchard at Flathead Lake) added. The cocoa-like characters from the roast malt add a unique twist to the sour cherry taste.

Let’s dredge up one more obscure example: In 2012, Helena’s Blackfoot Brewing won the Montana Brewers Association “Best Belgian” beer award with their Montana Style Lambic.

Perhaps one of your best bets to find a lambic on tap is at Montana Ale Works. They’re currently serving up Lindemans framboise lambic.

Many of these beers are hard to find, so the best advice is to see what you can find at grocery stores (pro tip: Rosauers has arguably the best specialty beer selection in town) and then try any and all lambic-style beers at craft brew events held by the Montana Brewers Association or others — at least one sour cherry beer usually makes an appearance.

If you’re in the mood for an adventurous dessert, try a lambic-style float. Lindemans makes both peach (“pêche”) and raspberry (“framboise”) lambics, and both are excellent with a heaping scoop of Wilcoxson’s finest vanilla ice cream.

I’ve written about beer floats before, and the process here is no different. Fill your glass with lambic until it’s about three-quarters full, then add a healthy dollop or two of ice cream. Reverse that process, and you’ll end up with a sticky, foamy mess. One of my personal favorites is a framboise float with chocolate ice cream.

For both the connoisseur and the initiate, sour beers provide an excellent opportunity for expanding our paradigm of what we consider “beer.”