Beer: Lindemans Cuvée René
Certain beer styles can prove to be challenging for even the most dedicated of beer geeks, and this brew is certainly one of them. While 80-90% of the world's beers fall into the pale ale/pale lager categories, which are designed to be easily consumed by the greatest number of people, other varieties of beer in the minority are far less approachable, and that's generally because of both their taste and their limited production. Like extremely dark chocolate, sharp blue cheeses and spicy peppers, beers like these can take some getting used to before folks truly appreciate them, but are often so initially off-putting that few folks are willing to stick with them for that long haul. And thus, we have lambic beers, a small, ancient subset of the ale category which has traditionally been brewed in Belgium and pretty much nowhere else. Unlike most beers, lambics - like gueuze - rely upon yeasts which naturally occur in the local environment to 'come across' the wort and begin fermentation naturally, a process known as spontaneous fermentation. These yeasts, given their due course, will produce beers with incredibly distinct flavors, many of which are downright bizarre. A quick overview of some online reviews of gueuze lambic beer describe what's in their glasses as having the flavors of: hay, musk, a barnyard, the driest cider you've ever tasted, vinegar and even 'horse-blanket.'
I realize I'm not doing the best job of selling this brew, but hear me out.
I've talked about gueuze before, when I reviewed van Honsebrouck's St. Louis Lambic, but what I was drinking then was a sweetened version of gueuze, which has added sugars and a different brewing process designed to make something far more palatable. In fact, most lambics you will encounter in Belgium or in specialty beer shops Stateside are of the sweetened variety, and actually tend to test very sweet and fruity. But the real, unadulterated gueuzes are something else entirely, and are definitely not for the faint of heart. I certainly would have hated brews like this when I first started serious beer hunting, but after couple of years of practice and experimentation, I think I'm up for the challenge! Since that initial gueuze sampling, I've tried a number of brews that approach the sourness and intensity of what I think real gueuze will be like, including two krieks - lambics brewed with cherries - from Cantillon (which I could not finish) and from Ontario's Nickel Brook (which I very much enjoyed). Hopefully my palate is up for this...
Poured into my oft-neglected, seldom-used Lindemans fluted glass, which came with a souvenir pack I picked up in Florida last year. It came with two examples of lambic beer which are definitely of the sweet and fruity variety, both of which (Pomme and Framboise) ended up tasting a great deal like green apple and raspberry juice, respectively. Not so here. Lindemans gueuze, Cuvée René, is among the world's highest rated lambic beers, and is usually the gueuze one first cuts their teeth on.
'Champagne-like' is a common descriptor used when discussing gueuze; indeed, one of its many nicknames in Belgium is 'Brussels Champagne.' When poured out, I can certainly see the resemblance, as the brew is incredibly light, airy, and generously carbonated; it took a few careful pours to ensure I could fill the glass without the foam overflowing. But, like champagne, the head completely dissolved after a few moments, and what we're left with is a clear golden liquid livid with carbonation. I expect a great deal of burping while drinking this...
The nose is classic gueuze, and thus is very perplexing: apple vinegar, hay, funk, for lack of a better word 'wild farmland' (how this is a "smell" is beyond me), lemon and dry apple cider. A year ago I would have hated this, but now my mouth is watering a little. Strange what time can do to one's tastebuds.
The sourness is quite overpowering at first, but as my tongue acclimatizes, I'm getting some interesting notes of dry apple cider, hay, yeast, a bit of earthiness and champagne grapes. Very, very sour, but oddly enough, I'm quite enjoying it. Light, airy, effervescent.
Though I've had a few brews that stylized themselves as gueuze, this was my first approach at something more authentic, and I have to say I'm digging it. That sour acidic taste is no longer something I'm avoiding, but rather something I'll actively seek out. Brews like this challenge one's perceptions of what a beer is, and the rewards are well worth the exploration. But, I totally understand if a lot of people will hate this, because its very, very different. (Grade: A-)