Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Know Your Beer, Volume Two: What the hell is gueuze?

Beer: St. Louis Gueuze-Lambic
Brewery: Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck (Ingelmunster, Belgium)
Type: Gueuze
ABV: 4.5%

Gueuze is the lazy brewer's beer. At least it seems that way when you consider how it's made. Most modern beer is made up of four ingredients: grain (usually barley or in the case of gueuze, wheat), hops, water, and most importantly, yeast. Yeast is what makes beer beer; without it, you'd just have hoppy barley water, which might taste okay but sure as hell won't get you liquored. During the brewing process, the heating of the malted grain and water produces sugars, as the starches in the grain begin to break down. Yeast (being a living organism of course) feasts upon the sugars, producing carbon dioxide and our good friend and power-of-attorney, Mr. Alcohol. In today's breweries, yeast is added directly by the brewer; different yeast strains are added depending on which type of beer you want to brew.

When brewing gueuze, however, the brewer needs only to sit around and let nature do the work. Gueuze is a variation of lambic beer, which has been brewed in and around the area of Brussels for over 400 years. Lambic beer relies upon a process known "spontaneous fermentation", whereby yeast that exists naturally in the local environment will come in contact with the beer and ferment it. There's apparently something about the area that produces inquisitive yeasts that enjoy a fine feast of beer. Good people, those yeasts are. The result of all this science is a beer that can be incredibly sour, dry and champagne-like. It takes a great deal of time for these beers to age properly, a fact that tends to drive brewers away from the whole process. It's incredibly hard work; what is gained by not having to add a bucket of yeast is lost in the time it takes for the little suckers to do their thing. Only a few brewers still give lambic beer a go, and they're mostly found in Belgium.

Gueuze is just a variation of lambic. Basically, you take some 1 year old lambic beer, mix it with 2 year old (or older), add a bit of extra sugars, and let the yeast have at it. You still end up with a slightly sour brew, but the added sugars make it a bit more palatable for the masses. Kriek is another variation, in which sour cherries are added into the mix, giving you brews like Mort Subite. Cherry beer.

I've never had gueuze before, so when I saw this feller appear at the LCBO I snatched it up fast. Even the bottle makes gueuze look like something special; it's all dressed up like a mini bottle of champagne, with your standard Belgian "medieval" icon on the front.

Generally, you're supposed to pour lambics and gueuzes into a tulip or snifter glass, so that's what I did. If you don't have one, a extra large red wine glass works equally well. It's all about providing a lot of room to appreciate the nose (i.e., to stick your schnoz in and sniff it). St Louis poured a dark straw, almost copper hue. Not nearly as much head as I'd anticipated, but nevertheless it produced about a half inch with good lacing.

The nose was far sweeter than I'd anticipated. Everything I'd read about gueuze and lambics led me to believe it would be a dry sour beer, and I had mentally prepared myself for that. What I got was apple, sugar, a bit of vinegar sourness, and straw. Not unpleasant, but not what I'd been expecting.

The best way to describe the taste of St. Louis gueuze is to take apple juice, add apple vinegar and sugar, and to picture yourself in the middle of a hayfield in late fall. A totally different beer experience, but again, not what I had expected. The mouthfeel is certainly champagne-like, with thick, visible carbonation. I can predict drinking a lot of this will make you drunk.

A few reviewers on beeradvocate slammed this brew for not being "lambic enough", which I can't really disagree with. I figured that this was about as safe and marketable a lambic brew as the LCBO was going to provide, and while I'm thankful for the experience, I still don't think I've really given the style a fair go with this. It's just far too sweet, almost like a cooler, which is also probably how it's marketed in Europe. It went down well, I enjoyed it and everything, but I think I'll really get the full lambic experience down the road. For now, however, I'll make do with this. (Grade: B)

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