Long Ago and Faro Away

More warm froth and drool, fresh from Beer Advocate, came across my desk this morning. It seems that once again the organizers of the site – the unsubtle Brothers Alstrom, Jason und Todd – are arguing with me. Of course I don’t participate in the ‘chat’ there (and truth be told, can’t even bring myself to read it) but other people do like to express my opinions there on occasion. Knowing that I’m always interested in what I’m doing and thinking, friends occasionally forward me bits and pieces of Beer Advocate blather that mention me by name.
Today’s bit arises, I gather, from a public service message posted by Jason, the quieter Alstrom, announcing the imminent arrival of something splendid and new called Lindemans Pomme, which is described as an ‘apple lambic.’ A few people reacted to this urgent news by noting that any new fruit-candy product from Lindemans would surely not bear much resemblance to what might be called ‘real’ lambic, and, further, that calling a concoction like this ‘lambic’ is an insult to ‘real producers,’ as well as misleading to consumers. At this provocation, Todd, the less quiet one, snarled. Referring to Cantillon, the most rigorously traditional of the lambic breweries, the one that (along with Drie Fonteinen) is always offered up as a rebuke to the more ‘commercial’ lambic producers, Todd typed:

“Yeah … they’re so insulted that they too add sugar to Lambic blends and bottle ’em as Faro. [This] is funny and ironic for anyone who has taken the tour or talked with Dan Shelton – same purist rhetoric drivel, basically. Especially the [Cantillon] tour which bashes other Belgian breweries for using sugar, and not “pure” ingredients.”

Now, normally I’m just happy with all the attention I get on Beer Advocate. I’ve never seen any reason to ruin a good thing by trying to set the boys straight on their facts, or point out that I never did or said half of the things they credit me for. But real lambic and Gueuze is a particular passion of mine – and don’t ask me to choose between Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen, both of which we import with love – so I have a hard time keeping quiet on the topic. Todd’s screed is hard to decipher; that’s the way a lot of people write on the Internet, apparently. But I think I’ve got the gist. And since I’m pretty sure that the ‘Dan Shelton’ mentioned is me, I’ll just assume that everyone is intensely interested in my opinion on the matter. So, ahem . . . .

Faro has been around for at least 150 years – probably longer, but reliable written records don’t go back much further than that. Making faro was originally a way to sell lambic that otherwise would have had to be thrown away. Lambic made in the traditional way is delicate and variable; the weather and other factors result in some batches being notably touched by acetic acid, or vinegar. (The sourness in real lambic – the good sourness – is mostly lactic acid, which is something like the sourness of plain yoghurt, to be distinguished from the stinging, corrosive acidity of vinegar. The distinction is lost on some people, sadly. Other people just don’t like sourness or acidity of any kind. C’est la vie.) Mixing in a quantity of dissolved sugar and caramel made this spoiled acetic lambic palatable to some people. More than that, some people really liked the tense flavor combination of very sour and sweet. Over time faro become something to be made and drunk for its own qualities, using not spoiled lambic, but good, young lambic. Faro was known as ‘brown beer’ in the old days. It was distinguished from ‘white beer’ (sweetish lambic only a few weeks old, still full of yeast in suspension), and ‘yellow beer’ (sour and relatively bright lambic aged a year or more). Faro, made with real, sour lambic aged for a year, is traditional, and it still has its adherents.

Cantillon, and Drie Fonteinen as well, still make very small quantities of faro for summer festivals and at the request of special customers. To make faro at Cantillon, lambic aged for one year – which is as ‘young’ as lambic can be for the traditional lambic brewer – is drained directly from the wooden cask into a small plastic keg. The brewer adds a modest amount of a sort of caramelized sugar, which adds sweetness, a slight roasty flavor, and a brown color. This stuff is, basically, the same ‘brown beer’ of 150 years ago or more, traditional faro.

The suggestion that faro is bottled at Cantillon is badly mistaken. Real faro can’t be bottled, at least not for any length of time. The live, unpasteurized and unfiltered lambic that becomes faro comes with all the wild yeasts and other bacteria that define true lambic. As soon as the sugar is introduced, these untamed and voracious enzymes begin gobbling it up, producing carbon dioxide in the process. If you tried to put real live faro in a bottle, not only would the sugar and the sweetness be gone in a matter of a week or two, disappointing faro lovers, but the excessive gas would blow the bottle apart. To repeat, you just can’t bottle real, live lambic with a bunch of sugar.

But wait a minute. Don’t other ‘lambic’ producers put faro in the bottle? They used to, anyway. How do they do it? Could it be that they’re not playing with live lambic? There’s no other way to explain it. There are three possibilities: (1) They’re putting something other than real lambic, with its wicked and dangerous wild yeasts, in the bottle. (2) Whatever is in that bottle, it’s pasteurized, so there’s no live yeast in there. Or (3) whatever is in that bottle, it’s been sterile filtered. My guess: all three. It certainly doesn’t taste like lambic, which is sour and acidic; pasteurization is the absolute safest way to make sure that there aren’t any dangerous wild yeasts in the mix to ‘spoil’ the beer; and there’s no sediment in there, which means a pretty heavy-duty filtration.

So, if I were really arguing with Todd, I’d point out that faro, for hundreds of years, has been made with sugar. It has sugar in it by definition. Cantillon’s occasional keg of faro is perfectly traditional, made in the old-fashioned natural way. It doesn’t reflect some secret desire at Cantillon to sweeten its sour lambics and build a bigger market. On the contrary, Cantillon’s faro is sweetened according to tradition, but its other beers (99.99% of production) remain resolutely unsweetened and uncompromised. Yours is not a winning argument, I’d say.

But all this is entirely beside the point. The real issue, of course, is the nature of the lambic that goes in the faro. Specifically, is Lindemans lambic at all? People can argue about what makes a lambic ‘traditional,’ ‘natural,’ ‘real,’ or whatever – or if those words have any meaning at all. But if you take Cantillon and Drie Fonteinen (add in De Cam, if you want, though you can’t find it here) as the current benchmarks, as most people do, the question becomes how far away you can stray in methods and ingredients before what you’re making ceases to be lambic.

What say we talk about this more tomorrow?

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