Drinking on the Last Frontier: Fruits of labor to savor — Lambics a much-lauded tradition

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

Now that we are finally seeing some real evidence of spring, it seems like it might be a good time to talk about beers made with fruit. Most fruit beers are better suited to the warmer days of summer, rather than the colder days of winter, so that’s when brewers tend to have them on offer.

The use of fruit in beer is an extremely ancient practice; it certainly dates to at least 7,000 B.C.E. We know this thanks to a remarkable archaeological find made at Jiahu, near the Yellow River in the central plains of China. Settled around 7,000 B.C.E. and then flooded and abandoned around 5,800 B.C.E., this Neolithic settlement was excavated in the 1980s. Among the many artifacts discovered were pottery jars. Chemical analysis of the jars showed they had been used for alcoholic fermentation.

Further detailed analysis of the residue in the jars allowed scientists to determine the ingredients used to make this ancient beverage — rice, honey, Muscat grapes and hawthorn berries. So at the same time that barley beers and grape wines were beginning to be made in the Middle East, the ancestors of today’s Chinese were brewing a sort of fruit-infused rice wine.

Fast-forward 63 centuries to Iron Age Asia Minor in 700 B.C.E. An extraordinarily wealthy king of the ancient kingdom of Phrygia is buried after an elaborate funerary feast. When his still-sealed tomb is opened by archaeologists in 1957, the riches it contained — including 157 bronze buckets, vats and drinking bowls — convinced them that they had found the inspiration for the mythical King Midas. Chemical analysis of the drinking vessels revealed that the mourners had been consuming a “Phrygian cocktail” made by fermenting a mixture of wine grapes, barley and honey.

Beers laced with fruit may have had an ancient lineage, but they had more or less fallen out of favor by the time hops began to be used in beer, about a thousand years ago, give or take. There is only one style of fruit beer out there whose existence predates the late 20th century.

The one style of fruit beer that has been around for several centuries is lambic. Lambic beer is an extremely traditional style, made in Belgium. What makes lambics so unique is that they are spontaneously fermented. This means no yeast is added by brewer.

The yeast necessary for fermentation comes from wild yeasts drifting about on the breeze. To a modern brewer, the randomness of this process is horrifying, but a lambic brewer embraces this relic of the days before the critical role of yeast in brewing was understood.

Lambic beers ferment for up to three years in wooden casks, producing a dry and tart beer, thanks to the many different microorganisms at work. While not all lambics have fruit added, brewers have been adding sour cherries for centuries and other fruits for decades to produce the style known as fruit lambics.

The oldest and most popular fruit lambic is kriek. The traditional cherries used in this brew are an extremely sour variety called shaarbeek, since they are indigenous only to a very limited region around the village of Shaarbeek outside Brussels. Traditionally, whole cherry fruit is added to the barrels of fermented lambic, producing a vigorous secondary fermentation. Once the yeast has consumed all the fresh sugars from the fruit, a dose of priming sugar is added and the kriek is bottled, where it will undergo a third fermentation to produce a sparkling level of carbonation and a beer that is very dry and fantastically complex.

Besides sour cherries, raspberries are also frequently used, and fruit lambics made from them are known by the name framboise. These days, you can also find lambics made from many other fruits, such as peaches, black currants, apples, strawberries and even grapes.

So if all of the above has given you a hankering to taste a fruit lambic but you just don’t have the time to fly to Belgium, what can you do? Well, you could try some of the imported lambics on sale in our local beer stores. Unfortunately, many of these have been highly sweetened to appeal to a larger audience, so they lack the dryness and complexity of a genuine traditional lambic.

Or you can pay a visit to St. Elias Brewing Co. to sample their newly released kriek. This beer was fermented with a yeast strain “captured” from the air of the very same Senne Valley where traditional lambic is brewed. It was fermented in Hungarian Oak for nine months, where the sour cherries were added. It finished at 8 percent alcohol by volume and has a nice, dry, tart cherry character. It’s a delicious beer, quite traditional in its approach, and a heck of a lot closer than Belgium.

Until next month, Cheers!

Bill Howell is a home brewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. He and his wife, Elaine, have released a book, “Beer on the Last Frontier: The Craft Breweries of Alaska — Volume I: Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island Breweries,” via Amazon.

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