The tartness assaults the tongue, quickly followed by a dryness and — if it’s a fruit ale — a sweetness that smoothes out the rough edges. There’s an appealing effervescence as well. A lambic can taste at one moment like a beer, at another a wine, or even a cider, and yet it's like nothing you've ever before consumed.
“You either like it or you don’t. You can either handle that sourness or you can't,” said Casey Hard, general manager of Max’s on Broadway. “They are very thirst-quenching. Even the sour ones are refreshing, after you get used to them.”
The Belgians, widely revered for their fine beers, are the world's only producer of the crisp, quirky lambic ale. It's produced in the tiny region known as Pajottenland.
Lambics owe their uniqueness and complexity to the unorthodox method of brewing them. Instead of carefully apportioning yeast for fermentation, as modern brewers do, lambic brewers let them undergo what is called spontaneous fermentation, in which a variety of airborne bacteria and yeast spores have unlimited access to the beer, which sits in open troughs in dank, dirty sheds.
The ales are aged, from several months to several years, first in wood casks and then stainless steel tanks. Sometimes, fruit and sweeteners are added, but for the true connoisseur there are more austere varieties, such as gueuze, a blend of younger and older lambics without fruit.
As craft beer has become more popular in the United States, interest in lambics has grown. Many start out drinking the sweeter, fruitier brands, such as Lindeman’s and Chapeau. Lindeman’s sells more than 10 million bottles of lambic each year. The framboise, made with raspberries, is the most popular variety.
“Lambic is a very accessible beer,” said John Brown, a salesman with Merchant du Vin, an importer of Lindeman’s and other European beers. “People who don’t enjoy more aggressive styles, or the bitterness, can enjoy this beer.”
The adventurous move on to the more sour varieties, which are less common. With names like Oud Beersel, Gueuze Boon and Brouwerig Fonteinen Hommage, knowing how to order can be as challenging as knowing what to order.
In cooking, lambics are used to steam mussels and as braising liquid for duck and pork. Brian Leonard, a beer buyer at The Wine Source, suggests serving lambics with cheese and rich, creamy desserts. Framboise lambics pair especially well with chocolate.