Way back in the 19th century, so the story goes, a Brussels-based brewer of lambics, those beers made with a sizable volume of wheat as well as wild yeast, ran out of barrels just as a big shipment came due. To get his wares to the client, the brewer poured his lambics into empty champagne bottles. The blending of flavors ended up giving the beer a sharp, tangy dryness and a bubbly effervescence.
A style was born.
And since the brewer, whose name is apparently lost to history, was located on Geuzen Street in the Belgian capital, the name of the new style became geuze (in Dutch) or gueuze (in French). The closest pronunciation in English is probably “cursor,” as in that blinking line in your Microsoft Word doc.
Gueuzes are blends of aged and younger lambics, usually mixed just so as to give the finished product a complex sour dryness and an enduring bubbliness bordering on gushing. Gueuzes can therefore seem the most wine-like of beers.
That second characteristic, the effervescence, birthed gueuze’s nicknames: “the champagne of Belgium” and “Brussels champagne.” It has never, of course, enjoyed the same popularity as the sparking French wine, even in beer circles. There, gueuze’s sweeter cousins faro, kriek and framboise — all lambics as well — tend to outshine it commercially, particularly the latter two, which are infused with cherries and raspberries, respectively.
Yet, if salty, sour gose can have a major moment in 2015, why can’t gueuze break out in 2016?
Allow us to play devil’s advocate. Gueuze is generally made with aged hops meant not to shine through at the end. This lack of hoppiness may be a turnoff for an American audience weaned on a generation of ever-hoppier IPAs. The same goes for the lack of sustained carbonation. Whatever that bubbliness, gueuze does not normally produce the pillowy heads Americans are used to in their beers.
Also, most gueuze is difficult to find Stateside. They’re made almost entirely in Belgium, and they involve a level of care and deftness that does not lend the style to mass production, or anything close to it. After the initial blending, for instance, breweries will age the gueuze even more. The additional time allows for further conditioning, which in turn leads to that effervescence, as the yeast in the bottle eats through the sugars still present in the younger lambic.
“Like blending wine or Scotch whiskey, blending lambics to make gueuze is an art form,” according to The Oxford Companion to Beer. And art cannot be rushed. (Some American breweries produce gueuze-like sour beers using wild yeast, but they are not of the style, only influenced by it.)
Finally, that spontaneous fermentation — the use of wild yeast to turn an amalgam of wheat, other grains, hops and water into beer — leaves each batch of gueuze that much different from the next. It’s often up to the blender to decide which lambics to mix so as to achieve some sort of uniformity for a particular brand. Still, add in the additional aging, including by consumers, and the chances of even one bottle tasting the same as the next are slim.
Which is part of the fun, no?
To whet your appetite for this dry beer, here are some fine examples, including ones relatively easy to find in the U.S. Remember: Every bottle of gueuze holds its own surprises. If ever it was acceptable to appraise a beer style in the snobbish way some oenophiles evaluate a wine, then gueuze is it. Go ahead, sniff that bouquet.
Brouwerij Drie Fonteinen, Beersel, Belgium
“Oude” means “old” in Dutch, and it’s an important designation in Gueuze Land. Long story short, some gueuze producers began just after the First World War turning out sweetened, overly carbonated versions of the style that were not really aged appropriately. A big part of this was necessity: There wasn’t nearly enough aged lambic in Belgium for proper blending because the war had so interrupted production. “Oude” denotes an unsweetened gueuze made only with old and young lambics. Drie (Three) Fonteinen’s is a pleasingly bone-dry nod to the way gueuze ought to be. It’s 6 percent alcohol by volume, typical for the style.
Lindemans Gueuze Cuvée René
Brouwerij Lindemans, Vlezenbeek, Belgium
Perhaps the easiest oude gueuze to find in the U.S., it’s especially tart and complex (at least the one we had — but again, it varies). Still, Lindemans’ Cuvée René is rather captivating, the kind of beer that would make a drinker return again and again to detect that many more variables. It’s about 5.5 percent ABV.
Oude Geuze Mariage Parfait
Brouwerij Boon, Lembeek, Belgium
Frank Boon is a giant of the style and of lambics in general. In the late 1970s, Boon, a blender and marketer, rescued a gueuze producer at a time when the style seemed in terminal decline. He turned around the company and the fortunes of traditionally made gueuze (as well as other lambics). Boon’s Oude Geuze Mariage Parfait has a green-apple foretaste and suitably crisp finish. It’s 8 percent ABV.
Gueuze 100% Lambic
Brasserie Cantillon Brouwerij, Brussels
A fantastically accessible example of the style. It’s somewhat citrusy and, at 5 percent ABV, perfectly sessionable should you procure enough, though gueuze is not the sort of style that lends itself to multiple bottles. There’s the difficulty in finding it, for one thing; but also, gueuze is great for aging. The blends will evolve ever further in the bottle over years, even decades — breweries such as Cantillon recommend aging their gueuze for as long as 20 years. Really.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution and the new fine-wine history American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story.