Gueuze is a style of beer that is notoriously difficult to “get”. This fact really hit home when I recently gave a sip of one of my favourite sour beers from Brussels’ Cantillon brewery to my other half, who chucked it back at me, screaming, “Jesus, it tastes like puke!”. Not something to put on the official tasting notes on the bottle, eh?
Gueuze (or Geuze) is one of those mad traditional styles of Belgian brewing that could not be further removed from a pint of Heineken in the local. I guess you could say that it’s a blend of infected beers – it’s dirty, filthy even. The brewing conditions are a health and safety inspector’s nightmare: open fermentation tanks, wild spores blowing in from Christ knows where through shattered window panes, and incredibly hungry strains of wild yeast that could be the ruining of whole batches of ‘normal’ beer if not kept in strict isolation.
Different ages of Lambic (sour ales brewed with barley malt, unmalted wheat, and aged hops) are skillfully blended by brewers until they’re satisfied with the end result, which is then matured in oak vats, before being bottled (usually in a corked and caged champagne bottle) for another period of fermentation which usually lasts a year. It’s a long, long process, but one that results in a style of beer that many beer geeks go absolutely nuts for – some of the highest rated and most sought-after beers on sites such as Beer Advocate and Ratebeer are Gueuzes. It’s fair to say that once you get a taste for them, there’s no turning back. Gueuze often seems to turn into the crystal meth of the beer world , with addicts going to ever crazier lengths to get their fix (check out the ‘trade’ sections of the two aforementioned beer sites and you’ll see what I mean).
Ireland (as you can well imagine) is a bit behind on this ‘out-there’ style of brew, but you’ll be quite surprised that some really world-class Gueuzes do actually come into the country and can be picked up for fairly decent prices in a small handful of locations. Yesterday, I picked up one of my favourites from Drinkstore in Stoneybatter, Drie Fonteinen Oude Geuze, for under six quid. Bargain. So, what does it taste like?
This 6% ABV blend of 1-, 2-, and 3-year old lambic is an absolute classic and hails from a brewery in the aptly-named Beersel, Belgium, which is held in incredibly high regard by the beer community.
It pours a light shade of gold with a tiny bit of bubbly white froth. As soon as your nose gets anywhere near the glass, you know you’re in for a bit of a rollercoaster ride. Straight away there’s a huge hit of pungently tart lemon juice, lemon peel, funked-up yeast notes (an earthy, musty, dank, near-cheesy, nostril-tickling array of yeastiness); there’s also sharp green apple stuff happening (think Granny Smith) and a nice bit of fairly fresh lime juice. As soon as this hits the palate – BAM – there’s the sourness. It ain’t called a sour beer for nothing. There’s a lip-smacking zing of acidic citrus (lemon and lime at the fore), some more of that funky yeast character, a sweeter green apple flavour, lots of interesting woody notes that linger in the back of your throat, a touch of musty leather in there too. It finishes so crisply with more tart green apples and lemon juice: dry and incredibly moreish.
If you’ve never had a sour beer before, you’ll have read those tasting notes thinking “What the hell kind of beer is this?!”. Yes, it’s weird. No, it’s not Bud Light or like anything you’ll have had before. It’s so hard to convey what a massive sensory experience drinking a sour beer can be – sure, you may not like it at first (or ever!), but it’s one that really needs trying. Believe me.
Gueuzes in Dublin do take a bit of seeking out, but there are some great ones available from Cantillon, Oud Beersel, Drie Fonteinen, Boon, and Lindemans. You’ll find a couple of them in bars such as the Porterhouse, but the rest will be found in beer specialist offies such as Drinkstore, Redmond’s, and Baggot Street Wines. If your local offie doesn’t stock them, then why not tell them to? They’re on the supplier lists and won’t break the bank – it’ll be well worth your time. Unless you hate them. Then you’ll be after me for your money back.