This week’s Know Your Styles is being brought to you by fellow beer blogger Dave Nelson. Dave runs Beer, Wine and Whiskey, so be certain to stop by and check out his thoughts on libations in St. Louis. Thanks again to Paul from the Wine and Cheese Place in Clayton for supplying the beers for this feature.
Gueuze is a blend of old and young straight lambics. A lambic, at least the traditionally-brewed ones from Belgium we are dealing with here, are truly an opportunity to drink history. Unlike almost every modern beer, lambics are not fermented by yeasts that are cultured and carefully monitored for purity. Instead they are fermented by whatever yeast and bacteria happen to reside in the lambic brewery. The hot unfermented beer is transferred to relatively shallow fermenters where it cools, and becomes inoculated by the microorganisms from the air. Over many years, lambic breweries have built up colonies of “good” yeast and bacteria that give their beers consistent and pleasant results, even if those beers are a shock to the palate of the uninitiated. Once fermenting, the beers are moved to old barrels where they spend up to several years.
The grist used by traditional lambic brewers is unique as well. While barley malt comprises the majority, a high proportion of raw, unmalted malt is also used. In addition, while the beers are hopped, the hops used are not fresh, but old enough that their aromatic properties are significantly reduced. Cantillon, for example, ages their hops three years before using them to brew.
To produce Gueuze, one year old “young” lambic, which still contain a surprising amount of unfermented sugars are blended with older lambics which have more complex aromas and flavors. The resulting blend is bottled, and the yeast and bacteria ferment out the remaining sugars in the young lambic which provides the carbonation for the finished beer.
There are only a handful of breweries still brewing traditional lambics in Belgium, and Oud Beersel and Cantillon that I sampled are two of them. The third beer I sampled is from the last independent blender of lambics, Hanssens. Hanssens buys lambic fresh from the brewers and then ages and blends its beers. The websites for each of these producers are a good source of information about these unique beers.
What you should be seeing: Gold is the order of the day with Gueuze. The head will be bright white, and is not likely to stick around for long – more Champagne than I.P.A. Many bottlings contain sediment to some degree, especially as the beers age. Whether you drink this or not is a matter of personal preference. Generally, the first time I have a beer with sediment, I will drink the first pour from the bottle clear, and then swirl the sediment before I pour the second glass. This gives me the opportunity to try the beer both ways, and I will treat subsequent bottles in the manner I found most pleasurable.What you should be smelling: Gueuze is a wild ride. Sour citric notes will be predominant. Not surprisingly, the oldest beer here, the Cantillon Organic Gueuze that I pulled from my cellar (no date on the cork, but I expect this is a 2003) had the most complex nose. While there are citrus components – orange and lemon zest is what I pick up – these were well-integrated into a crackery malt base, and some truly wild minor notes – horseblanket (if you’ve not smelled one, take a whiff of the blanket under the saddle the next time you take the kids for a pony ride – it is a truly unmistakable aroma once you’ve smelled it), and freshly-turned topsoil.
The nose on the Oud Beersel (with a best before date of 4/20/2026!) was classic, if less complex than the Cantillon. Lemon juice dominated, with a heady dose of fresh mown hay. Really pretty stuff. This particular bottle of Hanssens was the least interesting of the lot – really tart lemon notes, and not much else. It was so tart, just smelling it puckered my mouth.
What you should be tasting: Gueuze brings the funk, and the sour. Again, the older Cantillon was the most complex and balanced. It is sour and long, but there is malt, citrus and wine there too. The Oud Beersel actually had some bready notes, but the sour component was not as well balanced. It came across as a bit off-dry, while both the Cantillon and Hanssens were bone dry. The Hanssens was a rough ride, even for a lambic lover like me. It was a lot like I imagine drinking straight lemon juice would be. There was a bit of winyness, a bit of funk, and it was even a touch tannic, but this bottle either needed a lot of time in the cellar, or was simply beyond hope.
How you should be drinking this: Gueuze can be so complex, it seems a shame to chill them. Cold temperatures also accentuate the sour and acidic components and throw off the balance of the beers. Cellar temperature is my preference, or at most a 10-15 minute chill in the fridge from cellar temp.
For glassware, the Gueuze tumbler in the pictures is traditional and does a good job. With beers this complex, something with a bit of taper at the top is nice to help concentrate the nose, so tulips and globe glasses are fine choices as well.
What you should be buying: While there are few producers of traditional Gueuze, we actually have access to all but one of the good ones that are imported to the U.S. here in St. Louis. In addition to those producers sampled for this article look for the Gueuze from Drie (3) Fontenein, and the Cuvee Rene from Lindeman’s. If you’re traveling to other markets, the black label Gueuze from Girardin is well worth sampling.
Related Styles: Straight (Unblended) Lambic (try Cantillon’s Bruscella 1900 Grand Cru – straight 3 year old Lambic – don’t expect it to be carbonated much, if at all though!); Fruit Lambic.