Your globetrotting liquor reporter vacationed in Europe this year, and I made certain to schedule visits to each city to coincide with important beer-related events.
Sadly, I didn’t make it to Germany for Oktoberfest this year, but I made sure that I was in Belgium for Zwanze Day on September 14.
Faithful readers may recall that Belgium is the beeriest place on earth, with over 500 distinct styles, and has long been a favoured destination of beer-loving tourists.
Zwanze Day was started in 2008 by the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, which is famous among the beer cognoscenti for their Lambic beers, which are spontaneously fermented from airborne wild yeasts.
Lambics are an uncommon beer style, as most brewmasters will painstakingly tend and propagate their own yeast strains for a consistent and predictable flavour, while lambics are subject to the whims of whatever airborne yeasts are carried by the breeze.
The Lambic beer style is only produced in the Senne Valley, a 100km stretch of riverbanks that flows through Brussels. Since the hot summer months have so much other bacteria in the air, brewing of Lambic only occurs from October to May, when the wild yeasts can work their magic without fear of the beer spoiling in the heat of summer.
The specific yeast strain used for making Lambic is called Brettanomyces bruxellensis, and occurs naturally only in the Senne Valley near Brussels.
Most other styles of beer consider this yeast strain to be undesirable, as it can introduce a sour taste to the brew. For this reason, you will not often find a brewery that produces both Lambic and non-Lambic beers, to avoid cross-contamination of the different yeast strains.
Zwanze, taken from the Flemish word for “joker”, and reflects that the Cantillon Brewery comes up with a crazy concoction of a beer, and releases it worldwide this one special day each year.
The 2013 release from Cantillon was an Abbey-styled beer, in homage to the brewery itself being built on the ruins of a medieval monastery.
This year, there were 46 drinking establishments worldwide that were lucky enough to receive a cask of the 2013 release from Cantillon, with the lucky Canadian pubs in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. Hopefully we will get a more local option next year!
Zwanze Day tradition dictates that every participating establishment must tap their cask at exactly 9pm Brussels time, which would be 1pm in Alberta. Demand was high in the 3 pubs in Canada that were lucky enough to receive a cask.
Luckily, your intrepid liquor reporter just happened to be in Brussels on September 14, so I was able to sip directly from the brass teat at a local event.
The taste of Lambic beer can be off-putting to the novice beer drinker, particularly those raised on a steady diet of Coors Lite. While the wild airborne yeasts can make the taste vary widely from one batch to the next, the primary flavour of a Lambic is one of sour fruit and spice.
To make the sour taste more palatable, the beer will be aged, then blended in equal parts from barrels aged for one, two, and three years prior to bottling.
The youngest barrel in the blend will still contain live yeast, so a secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle, which provides extra depth and complexity, leading to flavours of rich dried fruit.
Some brewers, such as Liefmans or Bellvue Kriek will blend their Lambics with cherries, which helps balance the sour taste.
There have been a few adventurous Ontario craft brewers that have tried their hand at creating a Canadian version of the Lambic, by starting with a wheat/barley base, then leaving the boiled wort to sit in an open vessel in an apple orchard, which allows naturally occurring yeasts that live on the apple skins to spontaneously ferment the brew. Results have been mixed, but hope springs eternal that Canada can bring another unique style to the beer world.
For those interested in trying a Lambic, look no further than www.liquorconnect.com, which tells you the closest booze merchant to carry whatever tipple strikes your fancy. Your humble narrator found several at the Co-op Wines & Spirits, but there are plenty of other choices to be had. Try one today!