Artisanal Lambic Project
By Charles Cook
Anyone that knows me well knows that I love tart, sour brews, especially the balanced, refined lambic beers of Belgium’s Payottenland, the area to the south and west of Brussels. Visiting lambic producers, whether it is a brewery or blendery, is always a special privilege and an exciting one at that!
The venerable Timmermans brewery in Itterbeek, Flemish Brabant, has been investing in an artisanal lambic project for the last several years, and they are very serious about it. It's safe to say that big things are afoot at this historic and now forward-thinking brewery.
Up until late 2008, Timmermans had not produced an authentic Oude Geuze or Oude Kriek in over twenty years and, as more beer lovers around the world are seeking the taste of these fine artisanal beers, it was decided that this had to change.
To start with, the brewery hired lambic brewing legend Willem Van Herreweghen as a consultant in the summer of 2009.
Van Herreweghen’s experience and expertise has brought Timmermans beer to a new level and the project has really just begun in lambic terms. “It’s really been about two years that we have had excellent lambic,” Willem told me on a chilly early December day in 2012. “And we will have much more in the future,” he added, smiling.
Van Herreweghen’s impressive brewing career dates back decades: he worked for Stella Artois before now AB-Inbev took over, and later, for Palm. He has also consulted on a number of brewing projects in Europe and is still a technical brewing consultant for Brasserie Trappistes Rochefort and Brasserie du Val-Dieu.
A little about the history of the Timmermans brewery is in order. The brewery’s roots date to 1702 (it is said that the brewing of geuze lambic began there the same year), when Jacobus Walravens established a farm a few miles outside Brussels with a café, orchard and malting house. It was called “Brasserie de la Taupe”, a name kept until the early 1900s, when it was changed to Brouwerij Timmermans. The name came from Frans Timmermans, who owned and ran the brewery in the late 19th century to honor the work he had done at the brewery.
Frans' descendants still help run Timmermans, including Frédéric Van Cutsem, the brewery Operations Manager. As we entered the brewery, he told me: “Most of our brewhouse dates to 1946 or 1947. One of the copper kettles is a hot water tank, and we send hot water from a 118-metre deep artesian well; the old open mash tun dates back to 1920.
When the mash and wort are together pumped to the copper lauter tun where the filtering process begins. The filtration vessel was built by D’ Hondt, and dates to 1950. The lautering process takes about two and a half hours, and is very meticulous.”
Van Herreweghen added: “The reason we pump some of the wort to the boiling kettle and back to the mash tun is that we want to have some starch in the mix. We need starch for the brettanomyces yeasts to eat.
The unsaccharified liquid starch that is left in the boiling kettle is also pumped to the filtering vessel before the spent grains are separated from the wort. Some of the starches that have not been saccharified remain, these are a food supply for the brettanomyces which transform the starches into sugar and, afterwards, the sugar is transformed by saccharomyces or by yeasts into C02 or alcohol.”
I know that’s a bit complex, but Timmermans is a unique brewery. The rest of the process is more straightforward. The wort flows through copper taps and to the copper boiling kettle, where it will be cooked for at least four hours. During this period, aged hops are added.
After the long boiling period, the hot wort is pumped to the 200-hectoliter capacity copper “coolship”. A coolship is a very shallow, wide vessel where the wort will cool overnight to 21C. As this happens, wild yeasts (Brettanomyces Bruxellensis and Brettanomyces Lambicus) fall into it and create the magic of spontaneous fermentation.
He then added: “As far as the hops, we only use aged ones. The reason is simple: if you use no hops, you will have a very aggressive, very acidic beer, which we do not want. If you use aged hops, there is no bitterness - we want a well-balanced, tart, but not acidic lambic. And that is what we are making here.”
Van Herreweghen continued: “We have three kinds of barrels: oak, chestnut, and some others that held Port wine for over 100 years. We use chestnut as it is neutral and imparts no taste to the lambic, so you can know what a lambic really tastes like. If you want the real taste of lambic, you have to use chestnut. Oak gives a vanilla-like flavour and is the most common type of wood used by lambic makers. Oak does, of course, give a very good taste. The used Port barrels are both in chestnut and oak, and you can really taste and smell a Port character in the lambic from these barrels.”
Speaking about kriekenlambic and Oude Kriek, Van Herreweghen had this to say: “For me a real kriek should have real cherries, with the stones in them. We add 400 grams of cherries per litre to our kriekenlambic.
We get them [cherries] from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland. The aroma can be slightly different from year to year, so we choose by taste. ”
Willem continues “We have very big plans here. We will do small-batch bottlings of Oude Geuze and Oude Kriek from lambics matured in chestnut barrels, and the same for oak barrels. We will have much more lambic and kriekenlambic, so we can produce, blend, and bottle much more Oude Geuze and Oude Kriek. ”
I was able to taste lambic and kriekenlambic from half a dozen different barrels during my December visit, and I was very impressed by the taste and quality of all of them.
I returned on April 21st, 2013, for another visit during Toer de Geuze, an open house held every two years at most of Belgium’s lambic breweries and blenderies.
During my April visit, CEO Anthony Martin told me: “We are very excited about this project. In fact, I am very happy right now with the lambics we have that are 18 to 36 months old. What we did in bringing back the old brewing process was to lose the acidity of our beers - we want tartness and balance, but not too much acidity. And Willem has been the driving force behind much of that success. He is very enthusiastic to come to work everyday and do something that he loves to do.”
Martin added: “In truth, we cannot meet the demand that there already is for our beers in the USA and other countries, so expansion is necessary. The money I have invested in this brewery is all about the love of tradition. It’s very expensive to run, renovate and upgrade a lambic brewery. Luckily, our other brands sell on a worldwide market, so that helps finance the investments here at Timmermans.
I applaud Brouwerij Timmermans for embarking on such a worthwhile mission of dedication and promotion of the survival of lambic brews, and I think beer lovers will soon agree.
Original article written and researched by Charles "Chuck" Crook.
Commissioned and published by Belgian Beer Specialist / http://dev.drinkbelgianbeer.com
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