A deep dive into gueuze, the sparkling sour beer style that’s unique to Belgium and a great replacement for champagne.
Of course you can drink gueuze at any time you wish, but I feel it’s at its best as a celebration beer. Too often people marking an important occasion reach for champagne to lubricate their festivities despite not really liking it, or finding the French stuff too expensive make do with cheapo bottles of cava or prosecco instead. Simply because it’s the done thing, and fizzy wine is ‘the celebration drink’.
Well, no. It doesn’t have to be. There is another way. Ditch the dutiful, uninspiring bottle of Möet. Drainpour that ersatz supermarket fizz. Opt for sparkles with more flavour and choose a gueuze.
If the term sour beer puts your guests’ knickers in a twist try calling it a ‘beer with acidity’ instead. Comfort them with some similarities first: it’s dry, it’s sparkling, there’s a cork you can pop with just as much flourish. Then draw them in with these key differences: it’s half the ABV, it’s usually cheaper, or if not then it’s better for the same price, and its flavours are more interesting. You’ll find soft fruit and cider notes, wood and citrus, plus a hint of farmyard earthiness that doesn’t drag us down to the mud but instead lifts the whole experience to the stars. Here at last is a drink worth celebrating with.
It’s almost a year since I tasted a lake of kriek in order to find out which one was best. A lot has changed since that cherry overload, but it still stands out as a great exercise — tasting in depth, with context to develop a deeper understanding of the beer. In fact, it was so good I decided to repeat the exercise using gueuze.
The first thing I had to do was put together a tasting panel of fellow beer experts with palates you can trust to tell it true.
The tasting team
- Rebecca Pate: Rebecca was at the kriek tasting, and also training for her Beer Sommelier qualification at the time. She has since passed and has also judged at the World Beer Awards. She runs the website Brewing East.
- Jonny Garrett: Jonny runs YouTube’s Craft Beer Channel and until recently worked for beer importers and distributors Cave Direct. He knows more than a thing or two about lambic beer.
- Dan Sandy: Dan runs Kill The Cat on Brick Lane and is a Certified Cicerone to boot. Dan is another sour beer supremo and loves all things bretted.
We met at Callow Ruscoe, a newly-opened bottle shop in Fulham. So new in fact it still smelled of paint and sawdust. I owe a big thank-you to Alex, the manager there, for hosting us and being kind enough to take on pouring duty so we could taste the beers blind.
Wait up, what’s a gueuze?
To understand gueuze you need first to know about lambic. This Belgian beer is a speciality of the Brussels region — and more specifically an area called Pajottenland which lies just to the southwest of the capital.
The term lambic can also be used to refer to other beers derived from an original unblended lambic beer: gueuze, mars, faro, kriek and fruit lambics. When I say lambic here, I’m just talking about the unblended stuff.
Are Lambics ales or lagers?
You may know that most beers are either ales or lagers. There are of course many distinctions within each of these terms, but ultimately ale and lager are the two families into which nearly all beers can be placed. But not lambics. They are their own thing, spontaneously fermented sour beers.
What makes Lambic beers unique?
Lambic brewers use traditional methods that include something called a turbid mash, and ferment the beer with wild yeasts and bacteria native to the Zenne valley before ageing it in large oak barrels called foudres.
What yeasts do lambic brewers use?
Unlike most brewers, lambic brewers don’t pitch yeast directly into their wort. Instead the allow naturally present yeasts and bacteria in the air and the barrels to inoculate the wort and perform the fermentation.
The organisms responsible for fermentation and maturation are staggering, numbering between 80 and 100, with five main groups. The process is a multi-phase, months-long trip where different groups of yeast and bacteria take turns preying on the wort and microbiological residue. The first seven days are dominated by acetic acid-producing strains. They relinquish duties at one to two weeks to Saccharomyces types, fermenting the wort in normal fashion for the majority of wort attenuation.
At about three months, lactic acid-producing bacteria, Pediococcus and Lactobacillus, take their turn. Around eight months, Brettanomyces yeast species (bruxellensis and lambicus) grab the reins, and work for another year and a half to give the musty, barnyard character so craved by lambic devotees. Finally, oxidative species take over the final stages of fermentation/maturation, often alongside the Brett. Lambic may ferment and condition for several years, but one to three is the norm, with the youngest often used for further stylistic application.K. Florian Klemp in All About Beer Magazine, Vol. 31, Issue 1
Are there hops in lambic beers?
Lambic producers use aged hops called surannés to make lambic beers. This refers to their treatment rather than the variety of hop used, which is largely Kent Golding from England. The hops are aged for one to three years until they lose their aroma. This removes the bittering properties which brewers usually look to hops for, but not the preservative antiseptic potency.
What does lambic beer taste like?
Unblended lambic is a thin, vinous sour beer with woody and cidery qualities often accompanied by a farmyard funk. Lambic is served flat, with no carbonation. To be blunt, it’s a bit of an acquired taste.
How does gueuze differ from lambic?
Gueuze is much more approachable than straight unblended lambic. It’s a dry, spritzy, champagne-like beer with acidity, delicate fruit notes and a cutting dryness. It’s reminiscent of your favourite sparkling wine only more interesting. The bottle too will be strikingly familiar to bubbles buffs: gueuze brewers use the same long-necked green bottles with the same cork and cage closure at the top. In fact gueuze got there first, but the champagne guys have better marketing.
How is gueuze made?
Like a bretty lemonade
To make a gueuze skilled blenders marry up young and aged lambics, typically one and three years old. These lambics each display a different flavour. This is not just according to their age; even the individual foudre in which each lambic was stored will influence the taste of the beer. It us up to the blender to match the right lambics together to achieve a balanced flavour profile.
The resulting blend is bottled and, because the young lambic is not yet fully fermented, a secondary fermentation kicks off inside. This is the source of gueuze’s characteristic champagne-like carbonation.
As you can see, the blending part of the process is as important as the brewing of the original lambic, if not more so. In fact, some companies specialise in just the blending, and use lambic brewed elsewhere to make their gueuze.
Gueuze facts for fact fans
- ABV range: 5%–8%
- IBU range: 0–10
- Colour: Golden
- Malt: Pilsner, flaked wheat
- Fermented with: Saccharomyces, Brettanomyces, Pediococcus, Lactobacillus
The tasting notes
Lecture over. This is the bit you came for. You want to find out what gueuze tasting notes we put together. Well, here you go.
These are the beers that we tasted.
- Boon Geuze Mariage Parfait
- Hanssens Oude Gueuze
- Tilquin Oude Gueuze
- 3 Fonteinen Cuvée Armand & Gaston
- Lindemans Cuvée René
- Oud Beersel Oude Geuze Vieille
- Mikkeller x Boon Oude Geuze
- De Oude Cam Oude Lambiek
I had hoped to include some Cantillon into the mix but that fell through on the night. We also included the De Cam, an unblended lambic, which of course isn’t a gueuze at all but should provide an interesting comparison to the other beers and point towards where gueuze differs from its origins.
One of the defining features that sets gueuze apart from most other beers is its sourness. None of the beers we tasted on the night were mouth-puckeringly sour. They all hovered around what you might call the zesty zone, with differing levels of bite.
Hanssens Oude Gueuze was the sourest. If you like beers with a tart lactobacillus sourness that’s zippy and zingy then this is the one for you.
On the other hand if you prefer something more laid back look out a Lindemans Cuvée René or the Mikkeller x Boon collaboration beer. These were the least sour of the gueuzes.
The De Cam unblended lambic was less sour still. Probably because of its shorter time in the oak barrels resulting in less exposure to souring bacteria such as lactobacillus and pediococcus.
This is another area where gueuze stands out from other beer styles. While it’s far from being the only style to display this character, it’s still a very important characteristic for gueuzes to display. A gueuze with no funk is a shoe without a sole, a sad thing indeed and not much use to anyone. Plus it lacks soul.
Tilquin Oude Gueuze took the gold for funkiest gueuze in our selection, with Hanssens Oude Gueuze not too far behind.
The Mikkeller x Boon beer on the other hand seemed like it hadn’t yet located Funky Town on the map. And the De Cam was also nowhere to be seen. But again, that’s to be expected from an unblended lambic.
A good gueuze will display a fine mousse of foam (at least initially) and a spritzy champagne zing of carbonation. 3 Fonteinen Cuvée Armand & Gaston lived up t
o this admirably. The Mikkeller x Boon Oude Geuze also scored above average here.
On the other hand the Boon Geuze Mariage Parfait performed poorly in this respect. As expected, the De Oude Cam Oude Lambiek was totally flat. It’s meant to be that way.
Detailed notes for each beer
Now it’s time to get into the meat of the matter — the deepest undersea trench of our deep dive into gueuze.
It’s difficult, with beers that are blended for balance, to pick out substantial differences between each one. It becomes an exercise in nuance and detail. Having said that, here’s what we found.
Boon Geuze Mariage Parfait
This was one of the fruitier beers we tasted. It displayed a thick body compared to the others and a soft carbonation. There was soft apricot and citrus on the nose with a horse-blanket bretty funk. There was vinegar and lacto sourness plus a cider quality too.
Hanssens Oude Gueuze
This was tart with lacto sourness and gooseberry, apple and green wood notes on the nose, along with funk and straw. On the palate this developed into deeper farmhouse notes with woody notes including oak and cedar. The body was light and zippy. The carbonation was brisk but not overpowering.
Tilquin Oude Gueuze
A balanced beer with a lemon and straw aroma. Pronounced oak and brett flavours showed on the palate with a champagne-like dryness that was somewhat let down by the low carbonation.
3 Fonteinen Cuvée Armand & Gaston
This came across almost malty and pilsner-like, with apple notes on the aroma. There was a zingy sourness on the palate but not much wood. Brett notes were backed up by some hop character showing through.
Lindemans Cuvée René
We found this one a touch acidic, with a hint of old hops in the aroma. It was light and spritzy with a clean sourness that developed into fresh apple notes and some brett character. It had good dryness and a pleasantly lively carbonation.
Oud Beersel Oude Geuze Vieille
This beer was light, zingy and clean with lemony citrus notes and a balanced funk like a bretty lemonade. There wasn’t much contribution from the wood. It had a light body, fine champagne carbonation rounded off with good dryness on the finish.
Mikkeller x Boon Oude Geuze
There was little sourness to be found in this beer. Its aroma was subdued and on the palate we hunted around and found lemon and metallic notes, but no wood or funk. Its body was thin and its carbonation lacklustre. Disappointing.
De Oude Cam Oude Lambiek
Included to provide. an interesting comparison This is the stuff that is blended to become gueuze. The aroma was distinctive, with apple and parmesan combining to remind Jonny of a Waldorf salad. Its sourness was subdued and there was notes of honeyed fruit, apricots and pear. It had a thin body and was completely flat, but of course it’s meant to be that way.
Still got questions after all that? Then perhaps I have an answer for you.
Is oude gueuze just old gueuze?
Oude gueuze is a label that denotes authenticity rather than age. Some brewers, departing from tradition, sweeten their gueuzes in order to have their beers appeal to a wider audience. Brewers who keep to the traditional methods use the term oude gueuze to refer to their original, unsweetened version of the drink.
Are geuze and gueuze the same?
Yes. Geuze is the Dutch or Flemish version of the word and gueuze is the French version, but it’s all the same beer.
Are gueuze and gose the same?
No. Gose a sour beer made in Germany traditionally flavoured with coriander and salt. It is not the same as a gueuze.
How do you pronounce all this stuff?
- Lambic: (‘lɒmbiːk or ‘læmbɪk) I mean… pretty much as it’s written, yeah?
- Gueuze: (Dutch geuze, pronounced ˈɣøzə; French gueuze, ɡøz) ‘Gerz’, not ‘gooze’. And most definitely not ‘goh-suh’, which is a different kind of beer entirely! (The German beer gose.)
- Oude: (ˈɑu̯.də) Say ‘ow-duh’ rather than ‘ood’.
What is HORAL?
The High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers (HORAL) is a non-profit organisation of gueuze producers in the Pajottenland and the Senne Valley. It works to promote and protect artisanal lambic beers and their derivatives, with attention to the complete process from brewing process to serving. It’s important to note that HORAL doesn’t represent all gueuze producers. Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen are some notable producers outside HORAL.
If you’ve read through all that and you’re still here, I’d like to thank you for making it this far and also ask you to leave a comment. What did you think of the information I’ve laid out for you? Did you agree with the tasting notes? How would you have scored the beer? Let me know in the comments below, and if you feel like helping me out please share the article somewhere online.