Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday Night Beer: Drei Fonteinen Oude Geuze

Something a little different tonight. Unfortunately you won't find this beer in the LCBO, unfortunately you won't even find a good example of the style available for sale in Ontario. This beer came to me through a private order through a Quebec agency, it was then snuck across the Ottawa River so that I, and a handful of other Bytown beer geeks, could enjoy.
Lambics are one of the oldest beverages on earth. They're wild beers. Modern brewers have tamed yeast, or at least harnessed it, but in Belgium, lambic brewers still treat yeast as the miracle of the wild that it is. Lambics are beers fermented by the wild yeasts in the air. Belgian brewers have been known to protect cobwebs in their old breweries for fear that disturbing anything might have an effect on this incredible beer. They're right to be so protective.

The late Michael Jackson, the king of beer writers, describes them like this:
Wild is, by definition, exciting. Wild beer is live music versus recorded sound. Spontaneous fermentation erupts, bubbles and blows like a improvised solo: a Django Reinhardt riff, a taste of Toots Thielemens. And much more. Bebop versus baroque.
-Great Beers of Belgium

Chances you'll find a lambic in Canada are even lower than finding a gueuze. Lambics are traditionally served young straight from a Belgian cellar. Gueuze is a blend of lambics. Gueuzes undergo a second fermentation once blended and the result is a highly carbonated, almost Champagne-like, beer sold in corked wine bottles. These are like no other beers you have ever tasted. I won't pretend that everyone will enjoy them at first sip, but any lover of beer has to appreciate the complexity and tradition that is a gueuze or lambic.

Tonight's beer is from Drie Fonteinen. These blenders have been making gueuze just outside Brussels since 1887.
Drie Fonteinen Oude Geuze
Drie Fonteinen
Old Gueuze
Beersel, Belgium

This is a blend of 1, 2, and 3 year old lambics. In the past Drie Fonteinen have used lambics from Boon, Lindemans, and Girardin. It comes in a wire corked green bottle. This undergoes fermentation in the bottle, and as soon as I twisted the wire the cork popped right off and a bit of beer spilled out.

Beer pours a deep, hazy peach. Massive snowy head balloons to the top. Thick, sticky lacings to the finish.

I like to describe gueuze as a combination of cider and Champagne. This is particularly fitting for the aroma. A big hit of sour Granny Smith's with a touch of crisp Champagne grapes lingering just behind. Finally, and most importantly, there's a hint of barnyard funk. To me, this makes lambics lambics. It's a wild, natural aroma that suggests a barn after heavy rain. I don't want to get too pretentious, but if you've been exposed to a lot of Belgian beers, or even farmhouse ciders, you'll know what I'm talking about.

Sour. Sour, sour, sour. That's the defining characteristic of these beers. You'll immediately pick up lemon juice and sour apple on the middle of the tongue while the lively carbonation plays on the tip. There's the tiniest bit of sweet malt. Incredibly dry all the way through, like a German white wine, or vintage Champagne. The finish is all barnyard flavours from the wild yeast, but you also get a taste of earth and vanilla from the oak that the lambics are aged in.

As I already said, carbonation is what makes a gueuze a gueuze. The second fermentation brings the lambics to life and lets the flavours explode in the mouth. The sourness is puckering at first, but you need to dig in and get to the base flavours.

Gueuze is an experience. If you ever have the opportunity to drink it, don't spit it out after the first sip. Consider the fact you're drinking something that's alive. Consider the ageing in the finest French oak. Consider the natural yeast strains at work to create hundreds of flavours. Consider the centuries of expertise passed from father to son in the art of lambic blending.

In all honesty, I didn't appreciate my first gueuze, only a short while ago. This is only the third bottle I have ever had the pleasure of trying, yet it's already growing on me. The first bottle I had, I mixed with Faro (a sweetened lambic for Belgian schoolchildren), the second I finished, but didn't really enjoy, but this time I think I finally got it. Truely one of the more special experiences in the world of food and drink.


  1. And let's not forget the words of the _other_ late Michael Jackson, who once sang:
    "Once all alone
    I was lost in a world of strangers
    No one to trust
    On my own, I was lonely
    You suddenly appeared
    It was cloudy before but now it's clear
    You took away the fear
    And you brought me back to the light". ("You are my Life", Michael Jackson)

    I missed its message originally, but obviously, "It was cloudy before but now it's clear" was meant as a tribute to all of Belgium's fine wheats. I can see clearly now... (or as someone already said that?) I am in awe and envy that you cadged such a fine brew for tonight's selection.

    For my part, I'm quaffing a Duchy Original Organic Ale (bottled / LCBO). Quite by accident -- the handiest beer glass on the shelf at the moment -- it's in a lager glass but it seems to work quite nicely for this. It's not what I expected. It's thinner than what I was anticipating from an English ale and there's a decidedly harsh edge to it that throws it a bit off balance. Like your Gueuze, it gives it something that I suspect is not to everyone's taste -- especially if your "ale" experience is Molson Golden. It's a lovely buckwheat honey colour and I suspect the lager glass is helping sustain the carbonation longer than might be the case in a broader container. The nice head at the start, however, dissipates quite quickly. In the nose, I immediately got a musty apple / long dormant attic suggestion that carried to the tongue as saddle leather. The finish is something else again -- licorice, maybe? Or perhaps more of a medicinal tang that sits for quite a while on the back of the tongue. No, I've got it -- Calvados! This damn beer has Normandy's apple brandy resonating all through it from nose to finish. (I just jogged over to the liquor cabinet and grabbed a half ounce of a lovely Grand Solage Boulard Calvados Pays d'Auge. The 40% ABV product is more everything, of course, but it sure sent itself to all the same taste buds that the Duchy Original Ale just bathed.) I once had a wine steward tell me a red he was recommending housed a pretty fair "pucker power", and this is a beer to which a similar label might be applied to its finish, or at least "faintly astringent". All in all, it's a beer with character but like any "character" it'll turn some people off. I'm going to overall it a 6.5 out of 10. I would have it again.

    Mike (not Jackson)

  2. LCBO carry calvados? Normandy is one of my favourite places on earth, if only because it has some of the best food and drink. Just thinking about their cider makes me drool.

  3. That's where I bought it. I haven't been able to find a Pommeau, however, something both my wife and I discovered we like a lot when we were there a couple years ago.