The Mysterious Origins of the World’s Oldest Commercial Beer

Dan Saladino Travels to Belgium

The fight to save an endangered food or drink often comes down to a small cast of heroes and heroines prepared to dedicate their lives to the task. One such hero was Michael Jackson, “the Beer Hunter,” the first person to apply serious journalistic rigor to the world’s diverse beer cultures. Jackson, who started out as a newspaper reporter, believed that beer (like any food that’s been crafted with care) deserved to be treated with reverence. Wine was allowed serious critical attention—why not beer? Through his writing, Jackson went on a mission to correct that.

Each beer, he realized, had its own history, its own intricate production methods and distinctive ingredients, from the subtle flavors of British cask-conditioned ales to black lagers, Baltic porters and aromatic Finnish sahti. But as he travelled through Europe in the 1970s and 80s, documenting and tasting drinks, his work acquired a sense of urgency; he saw he was witnessing a process of extinction. Beloved breweries centuries old, once part of the fabric of communities, were closing their doors, their unique drinks disappearing with them.

Jackson’s books and broadcasts revel in the diversity and eccentricity of the brewing world, reading as love letters to the likes of Berliner weisse and Bohemian pilsners. But the drinks for which he developed the deepest passion and which he found most fascinating came from Belgium. It was here, Jackson believed, that drinkers could encounter the greatest variety of beer; some made with fruit, some seasoned with spices, farmhouse beers and beers made in monasteries. Each of these was served in a different-shaped glass. Many were not only presented like wine, they tasted and looked like wine.

Belgium’s deep, unbroken brewing history made it a “center of diversity” for beer. It was the mothership of brewing, a place with the most beguiling range of styles and flavors, where it had been made for so long that, just as when a crop has existed somewhere for centuries or millennia, it had been able to adapt and diversify. So embedded was brewing in Belgian culture that up until the 1970s low-alcohol “table beer” was served to children in schools. In this small country of around 10 million people, each district had its own ultra-local subculture of brewing, each small village and town its own interpretation of what beer should be.

In books and articles, Jackson, who passed away in 2007, made sense of the near anarchy of techniques and ingredients and drew up a map of styles. Among all of the diversity Belgium had to offer, the drinks that intrigued him the most were the lambic beers of Pajottenland, the farming region south-west of Brussels. He described these beers as the “Champagne of Cereals” and the “Burgundy of Belgium.” “To sample lambic,” Jackson wrote in his Beer Companion, “is to encounter one of the world’s most complex drinks; it is also to experience a taste of life half a millennium ago. No other commercially brewed beer can trace its history back so far. Nor, in its production process, has any changed so little.”

What made these beers so compelling was that, although each barrel was the product of years of meticulous work, much was left to nature and therefore, from the brewer’s point of view, to chance. Lambic brewing is part of beer’s wilder side. As with the most distinctive cheeses, yeasts and bacteria floating around in the environment get to express themselves in the final product. Not that this beer’s untamed nature is evident at the outset. Brewing lambic begins, as with all beers, by making a soup out of cereals, usually malted barley (grain that has been allowed to germinate and then roasted to bring germination to a halt, by which time more fermentable sugars will have been produced for yeasts to convert into alcohol). The grains are then milled into a rough powder called grist and infused in hot water (a process called mashing).

As the “mash” is stirred, the grains free up their natural sugars, sweetening the liquid and turning it into “wort.” In a large copper vessel (the kettle), the wort is boiled for several hours. About a thousand years ago, at this point in the process some brewers started to add dried flowers picked from the vines of a climbing plant we now call hops (Humulus lupulus, “wolf plant”). Packed with bitter compounds, these flowers not only add flavor but also act as a preservative. Broadly speaking, these are the initial steps followed by most of the world’s brewers.

“Old bookshop,” “horse blanket” and “tobacco pouch” are just three of the ways Lambic beers have been described.

The lambic makers of Pajottenland follow the path to this point, with two variations. Firstly, they add wheat to their grist. This gives a tart, thirst-quenching taste to the finished beer. Also, while most brewers look for the freshest, most intensely aromatic hops (so balancing the sweetness of the wort with bitterness), in Pajottenland, lambic brewers use hops that are about three years old, so dehydrated they’ve lost most of their aroma and taste. All lambic brewers want from these dry flowers are their preservative powers.

The greatest point of departure for lambic beer, however, comes at the crucial microbial stage when ordinarily brewers will add (or, as they call it, “pitch”) yeast into their wort. As with starter cultures in cheese-making, these yeasts are now almost exclusively selected strains isolated under lab conditions. For a brewer to create a particular style of beer, they need a specific microbe to take over the fermentation process. As this yeast feasts away on the sugars in the wort, heady ethanol is released along with carbon dioxide (creating fizz). But the selected strain of yeast will also determine which flavors dominate and if the beer is to become an ale or a lager. Lambic brewers opt out of this opportunity to control fermentation. Instead, without pitching a single spore of yeast, they pour the wort into a large metal container that sits inside the brewhouse.

This koelschip (coolship) looks like an oversized metal paddling pool. Here, the wort is left to cool down and to be exposed to a mysterious microbial world. Floating around in the atmosphere and living invisibly on every surface in the brewhouse are wild yeasts. Specially slatted windows let in air from the outside so even more wild yeasts and microorganisms settle on the wort. This triggers a spontaneous form of fermentation which most other brewers would find terrifying. Wild yeasts are usually seen as the enemy, an unpredictable source of trouble, creators of chaos and agents of spoilage. But over generations, lambic brewers have discovered ways of working in harmony with these microbes and exerting (a little) control over them, taming them (just enough, anyway).

One important feature of this method of brewing is that it is highly seasonal. It can only happen during the cooler months of the year, because desirable microbes get to dominate in cold temperatures as harmful pathogens lie dormant. After one night in the coolship, the wort is transferred into wooden barrels. A British cask ale might be left to ferment inside a maturation tank for around a week, a German lager for perhaps two months, but barrel fermentation for a lambic beer can take three years. During this time, waves of different yeasts and bacteria get a chance to work on the sugars in the brew, helping to develop more and more complex flavors.

Some of this beer will be bottled straight from the barrel, but most will be blended. Like artists working with a range of paints, lambic brewers select beers from various barrels to create a semblance of harmony. By mixing and matching lambics of different ages and characters, a gueuze is made. The final result is entirely at the whim of the blender’s palate. This is not a beer for unadventurous drinkers. It took generations of brewers to perfect the method, years of experience for some to learn how to blend it and it can take a lifetime for a drinker to figure out how to enjoy it. Lambic’s wild character reaches across the entire flavor spectrum, from the zing of a sharp lemon to the floral sweetness of honey.

A glass can have the pungency of spice and the mouth-puckering bitterness of dark chocolate. No other beer has provided as much fun or creative inspiration: “old bookshop,” “horse blanket” and “tobacco pouch” are just three of the ways Lambic beers have been described. These beers are enigmatic and hard to pin down, not just in terms of their flavor but in terms of their history too. Much of lambic’s origins remain a mystery, nothing is really certain. But there are clues.

When Bruegel painted his masterpiece The Harvesters in 1565 he captured a group of Belgian laborers taking a break in a wheat field on a hot, dry day, lying down under the shade of a tree, cutting bread, eating from bowls and drinking from clay jugs. Some beer-loving art historians (or art-loving beer drinkers) think that the liquid inside the jugs is lambic. Their reasoning is sound.

Back then, brewing lambic beer would have been part of the seasonal rhythm of farming in Pajottenland, a region of gently rolling hills between the Dender and Zenne rivers. Here, as summer turned to autumn and the fields of barley and wheat were being harvested, the perfect conditions for fermentation would approach; not so warm that brewing could easily run out of control, not so cool that too much microbial life had ground to a halt. At this point, farmers turned into brewers for a while, producing a refreshing drink that was safe and storable (one that could be drunk by laborers resting under a tree in the months and years to come).

From these agricultural beginnings, this rural, post-harvest brew became a drink for the growing urban population of nearby Brussels. Tax receipts from the end of the sixteenth century describe a beer that shares lambic’s characteristics being traded around the city. As Brussels expanded, specialist cafes opened serving beers brewed on the hundreds of different farms across Pajottenland. Soon, a new profession emerged: barkeepers skilled not only at sourcing the most desirable barrels of lambic beers but also blending them to create distinctive drinks. The cafes serving these unique blends were (and still are) more like private sitting rooms than pubs.

Eventually, much of the brewing itself moved into the city, so by the end of the nineteenth century Brussels had hundreds of lambic producers right in its heart as well as on its outskirts. But less than a century later, lambic beer was nearly extinct. The First and Second World Wars caused some lambic breweries to close, as fuel, wood and manpower had to be diverted to the front lines and coolships and brewing kettles dismantled so their metal could go to the war effort.

In the post-war era, wider changes in food and farming saw an end to most of the remaining breweries. Post-war recovery led by the Marshall Plan saw American food imports arriving in great quantities, transforming diets and palates and putting sour lambic in direct competition with Coca-Cola. New wheat and barley varieties ushered in by the Green Revolution changed the raw materials brewers had used for centuries. And then a new fashion started unfolding across Europe. It began in the 1960s and took greater hold in the 1970s: a taste for pilsner lager. This relatively young upstart in the drinks world quickly edged out much of the diversity Michael Jackson loved.

Clear and golden pilsner beers first began quenching European thirsts in the heat of the industrial age. First perfected in the city of Plzenˇ in Bohemia in the 1840s, an important trading centre near the German border, this pale drink with a frothy head made a big impact (up until then, most lagers were dark in color). It also had the good fortune to have been developed during a scientific revolution in brewing, one that would propel pilsner to its current status as the world’s most dominant beer style. Longevity was one reason for lager’s popularity.

Lagers were already suited to being kept longer than other beers (Lagern in German means to store) and refrigeration meant pilsners could be stored even longer. Later, in the 1870s, as we’ve seen, Louis Pasteur succeeded in isolating yeast strains. This allowed brewers greater control over “off-flavors,” and as pilsner was a more delicately flavored beer (less forgiving than ales) this new clean taste made it even more desirable. Its rise came just as glassware was becoming more affordable; the look of this clear, golden pretty-looking beer must have mesmerized drinkers at the time. New rail networks spread the novel beer style far and wide.

Further advances in the 20th century sped up the process of brewing lager, making it possible to go from grain to glass in a matter of weeks. Despite all its long brewing history and diversity of styles, even Belgium submitted to the new taste for lager that took hold across Europe. By the 1980s, three-quarters of all beer drunk in Belgium was lager and most of this was being made by one company, Interbrew. Today, pilsners account for 95 per cent of all global beer sales.

For the few surviving lambic brewers, lager as well as ever larger breweries proved to be a near fatal blow. An online project, lambic. info, compiled by three young beer enthusiasts based in the USA, lists the lambic breweries that closed in the 20th century. It includes Bécasse-Steppé, a cafe opened in 1877 which grew to become a famous gueuze brewer and blender, only to be bought out in the 1970s and then absorbed by Interbrew in the 1990s. Another, De Neve, set up to the west of Brussels in 1792, was first bought out by a competitor in the 1970s and also taken over by Interbrew in the 1990s, its building later converted into luxury apartments. Désiré Lamot, founded in 1837 and which presented lambic at the World’s Fair in 1885, closed in 1991. And there are similar stories for the other 320 breweries on the list.

When breweries disappeared, so did hundreds of irreplaceable beers and blends, never to be tasted again. By the mid-1990s, only ten lambic breweries remained in Pajottenland and just one had clung on in Brussels. This was Cantillon, which Michael Jackson described in the early 1990s as looking “more like a garage, with an interior that was as much a working museum as a brewery.” Back then, it had weathered wooden beams, stone floors, dark spaces filled with copper equipment and dusty galleries in which steam-powered machines with flywheels sat beside lines of rugged barrels filled with beer. When I followed Jackson’s footsteps and walked into Cantillon nearly three decades later, the only difference was the ownership had passed from the fourth to the fifth generation of Van Roys, the family who have owned the brewery for two hundred years.

Cantillon beer “Cantillon Gueuze 100% Lambic Bio” by Bernt Rostad.

My guide was Cantillon’s in-house historian Alberto Cardoso, a fast-talking lambic evangelist. Three flights up a creaking flight of stairs at the top of the brewery is a claustrophobia-inducing attic space with a low ceiling and a floor taken up entirely by the coolship. Rectangular in shape, the container is about the quarter of a tennis court in size with knee-high edges. “In this room everything is subcontracted to nature,” said Cardoso, “and each day, nature gives us something different.”

This is the coldest part of the building and so when hot wort is piped into the coolship from the kettle below, a wall of steam turns the room into a beer-infused sauna. Everything around us—the wood-paneled walls, the beams, the ceiling—is disturbed as little as possible. This is to keep the brewery’s resident microbial community intact and uncompromized. When the building is cleaned, no chemicals are used and spiders are left alone (they keep insects away, carriers of other less friendly microbes). When a new roof was fitted, dusty tiles from the old one were nailed onto it, all to conserve the resident yeasts.

On the floors below the coolship, hundreds of barrels are lined up. Some are a century old, but all are fellow hosts of Cantillon’s unique microbial population. Inside these barrels, wild yeast strains are joined by lactic acid bacteria in orchestrating the magic of fermentation. The dominant yeast strain is Brettanomyces (meaning British fungus), so named because in the nineteenth century its presence in English breweries was considered disastrous, a source of funky “off” flavors. In the wilder microbial world of lambic brewing, Brettanomyces is embraced as the bringer of sharp, edgy, citric flavors.

Lambic, a drink that came dangerously close to extinction in the twentieth century, is now being sustained by the passion of its loyal 21st-century following.

The art of blending is also being practiced and protected at Cantillon. Jean-Pierre Van Roy, the current head brewer, samples fermented flavors from hundreds of different barrels to create a drink that is recognizably “Cantillon.” “Nature proposes one thing,” said Cardoso, “but Jean-Pierre creates another.” Young beers still fermenting away add energy and spritz to the more mellow three-year-olds; a case of maturity bequeathing subtlety on a wilder, sourer character. The result is not only an endangered beer but an endangered flavor. “Sugar and sweetness, once a rare luxury, is everywhere now,” said Cardoso. “Our beer is a reminder of something more complex: sourness and bitterness.”

West of Brussels, in Pajottenland, there are a small number of surviving lambic producers, among them Girardin, a fourth-generation brewery based on a family farm. Both the brewery and farm are run by the enigmatic Paul Girardin. In his Guide to Belgian Beer, the drinks writer Tim Webb figured, “The [Girardin] family must know the high regard in which complete strangers around the world hold their beers and yet they remain reclusive, and the business continues much as it always has, catering just to locals.” Those who have managed to glimpse Paul Girardin at work say the magic starts with the wheat and barley on the farm. As harvest approaches, he wanders the fields, picking grains off stalks and nibbling away.

When he finds an area of the field that he thinks tastes just right, he marks it out as the crop for that year’s brew, selling the rest. The closest I made it to visiting the brewery was a brief conversation on the phone with Heidi, Mrs. Girardin. Like the hundreds of other curious enthusiasts who enquired before me, I was politely told a visit wasn’t possible; Paul was too busy, had important work to do and was a little shy. There is, however, a tiny bar in Pajottenland where you are guaranteed to find bottles of Girardin’s lambic beers (and other rare bottles). This is an unchanged and traditional cafe in the village of Eizeringen called In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst.

Girardin Faro beer “Girardin Faro” by Bernt Rostad.

Translated from Flemish, this long name means “In the Insurance Against Great Thirst.” Its owner, Kurt Panneels, rescued the cafe from closure when its landlady retired at the end of the 1990s. He now lives above it with his family, and in its tunnel-like cellar he has assembled a collection of the rarest lambic beers in Belgium. On the ground floor, the 1930s clock on the mantelpiece seems to be suggesting that time has stood still. Here, you can feel the history of Belgium’s cafes, many of which were small, intimate spaces run by women in their own homes. These places were the crossroads of Belgium society, places where people from different walks of life—rich and poor, young and old—could mingle.

During the week, Panneels works as an architect, but every Sunday he opens the cafe at ten in the morning until eight at night. The only other time he opens is when there is a funeral in the village. It is one of the greatest bars in the world. Visitors travel from Japan, America and across Europe to drink here. “They arrive as strangers,” says Panneels, “but end up drinking together and sharing different lambics.”

Lambic, a drink that came dangerously close to extinction in the 20th century, is now being sustained by the passion of its loyal 21st-century following. Many cite the books and television programs of the “Beer Hunter” Michael Jackson as having signposted their way into this captivating world. Cantillon has its own bar now, crowded with craft beer fans from around the world who drink lambics as they wait for guided tours in one of three languages. Perhaps they find something in this wild, spirited beer that is now missing from most other drinks: the taste of resistance, a vote for nonconformity, a chance to try something different. As Jackson said, lambic “has a taste of life from half a millennium ago.”

__________________________________

Eating to Extinction

Excerpted from EATING TO EXTINCTION: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them by Dan Saladino. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2021 by Dan Saladino. All rights reserved.

Dan Saladino
Dan Saladino
Dan Saladino is a renowned food journalist who has worked at the BBC for twenty-five years. For more than a decade he has traveled the world recording stories of foods at risk of extinction—from cheeses made in the foothills of a remote Balkan mountain range to unique varieties of rice grown in southern China. His work has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation, the Guild of Food Writers, and the Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards.





More Story
On the Hidden Pain of V.C. Andrews, the Woman Behind The Flowers in the Attic There has been widespread confusion over the medical battle that began for Virginia at the age of 15. (Although, amazingly,...