cultivating love for the sour ale

Bellies fortified suitably with something approximating ramen, Tristan and I skipped across the road to Slowbeer for the second session that week of a lambic tasting, focussing on those of Belgian brewery Cantillon.

What I loved most about this tasting is that they’re not for everyone, we’re moving into intermediate craft beer territory, folks! It was also a fantastic way to get to sample ten of Cantillon’s sour brews.

The first time I tried sour beer, it was very much baptism by fire. I guess I’m teething now, palate-development wise? It actually makes me cringe to read back on that previous post and see the words “This is a beer I would never have again, if I could avoid it” because I did get to have it again my reaction was nowhere near that negative.

The beer we started with was the Iris. It’s one of the few Cantillon make that has fresh hops (old dry hops are used in these beers for their preservative function, rather than for flavouring). Also notable is it has no wheat. It was very carbonated, extremely sour and dry and had the aroma of compost. That might sound unsavoury but its actual taste was zesty, vinous and quite like cider but without any of cider’s sweetness. The colour has a hint of copper but is mainly amber. I’d drink it again, should be great for summer and @brenosbrews I believe suggested that it was a great match with mussels and cheese, just like the Belgians do.

Erm, pay no attention to the label on the next bottle – I can assure you that we were drinking a distinctly unrelated…amber liquid! The second subject was indeed the one I vowed I’d never have again – Cantillon’s Gueuze 100% Lambic Bio. It’s a damn good thing that one’s palate changes! It’s very clear, less carbonated in comparison to the first lambic sampled and its sourness mellows as you have more. It has a touch of bitterness and a crisp crystal mouthfeel. I think Chris did well to start us off with a lambic that was essentially a shock to the tastebuds as it made many of us more receptive to the lambics that followed.

The Lou Pepe Gueuze is a subtler beast still. Quite a full body, little to no carbonation and a very delicate sourness and acidity about it. Overall, surprisingly subtle. Cantillon use fruit as the sugar to bottle condition with a whopping 300g fruit to every litre of liquid! Despite this, one of my tasting notes indicates that I found it an ‘odd sort of savoury’.

The Grand Cru Bruocsella had a very similar little-to-no carbonation profile. The actual lambic was slightly cloudy, soft and smooth with a hint of astringency. It was a bit like drinking sour water with a ‘farmy’ taste. I admit that doesn’t make it sound appetising but it was surprisingly easy to drink! It’s also aged in oak barrels and is not bottle conditioned with any sort of sugar.

We’re at the halfway point with our Cantillon lambic experience and moving towards the fruitier examples within the lambic spectrum. The first beer to start that off was the Rose de Gambrinus. It had the faintest tinge of pink and red and smelt of white wine with raspberries and roses! It was very carbonated with tight bubbles and sour in a fruity way. We’ve moved away from the ‘farmyard’ profile of the previous lambics.

Interestingly, at this point Chris told informed us that fruit flavouring beer predates hops and that the American market can’t handle the artistically naked lady on the bottle, so it has to be exported there with a clothed one!

The Lou Pepe Framboise was bright red out of the bottle and had more fruit in the taste. It was also less carbonated than the beer above and has a touch of acidity. It was like drinking sour red berries with the occasional bittersweetness. Really, really lovely!

Cantillon Lou Pepe framboise 2007

Things continue to get fruitier with the Kriek 100% Lambic Bio. 200g of Morello cherries to the litre are used in its making. The result is a very red beer! It has a little bit of fizz and carbonation to it and my tasting notes simply state that it is a cherry Danish pastry without the sweetness. It’s very cool to think that one can get that gustatory experience…in a bottle. Reminds me of a stage of Alice’s ‘Drink Me’ potion.

I laughed a little when reading over my tasting notes for the Lou Pepe Kriek, the first line of which is “HOLY FUCK ALMOND FROM THE STONES”. To be more elegant, I think that means I could detect the almond-scented arsenic that naturally appears in minute quantities in the stones of stone fruit.

Getting that out of the way, it tastes of natural sour, bitter cherries. Some fruit beers do have an artificial sort of taste to them, say, like Lindemans Kriek but not the Lou Pepe Kriek. The body of the beer is thicker than many tried that night with some carbonation. The beer itself was a deep, rich ruby red.

Sadly, both Tristan and I are missing photos of the Lou Pepe Kriek, so hop (hur hur) on over to Beer Advocate to check out a photo of the bottle.

The last two Cantillon beers were very reminiscent of wine. This is probably due to the use of grapes. With the Vigneronne, dried muscat grapes were used in its making due to their higher sugar content. Despite this, the end product was a watery, dead-on lemon juice which smelt awful and had no sweetness. It was also fairly ‘clean’ in that there was no farmyard scent characteristic of sour beers. Even though it didn’t smell pleasant, this did not mean it tasted unpleasant: basically, it was acidic and clean. It even looks like freshly squeezed lemon juice with its cloudy, golden ale colouring.

Our last beer in the tasting – the Saint Lamvinus, a dark, cloudy red beer that was lightly carbonated. It was both sour and bitter but mostly reminiscent of a sour wine. The red wine grapes merlot and cabernet Franc were used in fermentation of this.

I enjoyed this lambic tasting so much more than I thought I would and was pretty pleased that my tastebuds were up for the challenge. If you’re really fond of the cloudy, sour ciders then I think you should give lambics a go. I’d love to step things up a bit and buy a few bottles of lambics and experiment matching them with cheese! In fact, I may have committed a gluttonous crime of passion and polished off a sizeable hunk of Buche d’Affinois after the tasting…I devoured the poor thing as if it were a fast food burger.

If you want to learn a bit about these unusual beers, then of course the internet is your friend. Coincidentally, @hereforthehops wrote a terrific article about sour beer for Australian Brews News that I heartily recommend reading. Brett(anomyces) can sometimes be our friend!

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