Secrets of Belgian lambic beer come to Rehoboth

November 18, 2023

Beer and film lovers got to see their interests merge Nov. 9 at the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival.

The night featured a showing of the documentary “Bottle Conditioned,” which chronicles three brewers of Belgian lambic beer, followed by a question-and-answer session with Dogfish Head’s Sam and Mariah Calagione and head brewer Mark Safarik.

“Bottle Conditioned,” directed by Jerry Franck, shows the rise, fall and rise again of lambic, a unique style of beer that uses natural fermentation and is only brewed in and around Brussels, Belgium, during the winter months. Lambic uses the wild yeasts and bacteria native to the area to ferment the beer. Like wine or spirits, lambic is aged over time in barrels, and each version of the beer tastes different. 

Lambic can be made into different styles, but the main one focused on in the film is called gueze, which is a blend of different vintages of lambics; for example, a 1-year aged lambic mixed with a 3-year-old lambic. 

The film traces the rise of lambic as a sort of blue-collar Belgian beverage right up until after World War II, when American influences started creeping into the Belgian food and beverage industry. Lambic became unfashionable for a time, in part because it took so long to make and couldn’t be turned around for sale quickly. 

The film tells the story of lambic through three brewers/blenders: Cantillion, 3 Fonteinen and Bokke Blendery.

Cantillion is owned and operated by the van Roy family. Ownership of the brewery has transitioned from patriarch Jean-Pierre van Roy to his son Jean; the two often butt heads about the brewery’s direction.

The second, 3 Fonteinen, is also seeing a transition from longtime owner Armand Debelder to his handpicked proteges Michaël Blancquaert and Werner Van Obberghen. With Debelder’s blessing, the new owners are seeking to build a new, larger brewery. 

Raf Souvereyns of Bokke Blendery is the new hotshot young upstart on the scene, building a business out of his garage. 

Starting around 2002, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of lambic as a style. It’s noted within the film how at one time, brewers and blenders were practically giving away bottles of lambic. Now, consumers are paying thousands of dollars for certain bottlings. In the film, Jean-Pierre van Roy bemoans how lambic went from a working-class-type beer to something people with money drink.

Following the film were the Q&A and a beer tasting. Sam Calagione said while lambic itself is particular to its region, as champagne is particular to its region in France, American brewers are experimenting with wild yeast to produce beverages like lambic. 

Safarik added that a trick the Belgian lambic brewers do is leave a lot of unconverted starch in the wort – beer prior to yeast being added – giving the wild yeast more to feed on and convert into alcohol. In addition, blending lambics and bottle aging the beer helps drive additional fermentation. 

“It’s about trying to drive flavor by essentially stressing out the yeast that is used to produce those beers,” Safarik said. 

Sam told a story of visiting Belgium to see how the Belgians brewed beer, including a visit to Cantillion where he met the van Roys. Calagione said the use of tradition and celebrating the heritage of lambic is how breweries like Cantillion survive.

“That is the de facto marketing of a brewery like that. They aren’t buying billboards or TV ads. They’re saying, ‘If people come here and they can experience our heritage and hear these stories, they will become evangelists for our brand,’” he said.

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