It took almost two years from the time the first beer went into the giant stacks of oak barrels, but Beachwood Blendery’s admittedly nerdy quest to create Belgian-style lambics in the middle of downtown Long Beach is finally showing returns. Earlier this month, the tart, funky beer-producing offshoot of beer-geek-famous Beachwood BBQ and Brewing won its first medal ever at the Great American Beer Festival (the brewpub has twice been named Best Brewpub in the Country and last year was crowned Best Brewpub in the World at the World Beer Cup).
Despite more than 70 entries in the most-crowded competition in the festival’s 30-year history, The Blendery took home a silver in the Belgian-Style Lambic or Sour Ale category for its one-year lambic, Chaos Is a Friend of Mine. The ultra-complex beer became the Blendery’s first year-round release (everything up to this point has been a one-off) in September and it remains available on draft at the tasting room in three forms: original, dry-hopped and fruited. Bottles are available as well.
Chaos is a big deal for a few reasons, not just because it adds to the Beachwood family’s already stellar reputation for excellence. The beer is powerful because it’s bottling made it one of the few beers in the country to be made with strict adherence to the same brewing and blending practices observed by traditional sour beer producers in Belgium, where the lambic (and its 3-year-aged cousin, the gueuze) style originated.
But what the hell is a Belgian-style lambic anyway and why would Beachwood go through all the trouble creating an entirely separate barrel room, blending facility and laboratory (not to mention waiting a year and a half to taste the payoff) in an attempt to re-create it?
Lambics and gueuzes are barrel-aged, spontaneously fermented golden ales that are some of the most historic and highly sought-after beers in the world. They use aged (not fresh) hops, they throw a little bit of wheat in the grain bill, they pull their dynamic yeast formula directly from the air in the brewery (instead of throwing a specific yeast into a closed vessel) and they let every beer re-ferment with even more yeast from the air in oak barrels for anywhere from 12 to 16 months. Oh yeah, and to make it official, they have to be made, aged and blended in the Senne River Valley, just outside of Brussels in Belgium.
Because of the unique terroir of the yeast there (yup, beer can have terroir just like wine), Belgian-style lambics are one of a kind and only a dozen or so brands make it right, from Cantillon to 3 Fonteinen to Boon. In the U.S., an uptick in sour beer acceptance (either you like the taste of tart liquid or you don’t) and reverence for the Belgian OGs has led many breweries to go “wild” – as spontaneously fermenting beer is known. Add the love of a cheesy, barnyard-y smelling yeast strain called brettanomyces into the mix and you have hundreds of breweries churning out a range of takes on American-style sour ales that are as acidic, fruity, dry and delicious as Belgian ones but don’t exactly conform to the laws of the lambic style.
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The Blendery is hoping to change all that. With Ryan Fields (award-winning brewer and barrel whisperer from Lost Abbey and Pizza Port San Clemente) in charge of brewing and blending operations, he’s turning the renovated 100-year-old brick building into a house where Long Beach-style lambics can be made for decades to come.
To do this, Fields has spent the last year spraying yeast throughout the barrel room, generating a house flavor, not unlike the ones found at traditional gueuze breweries in Belgium, that is now imbued into every beer that’s spontaneously fermented inside. With each batch created, he’s also able to grab tons of data that will help him see what the beer is doing in its new environment and how it’s evolving on a molecular level.
The Propagation Series of beers that were released over the last year as this process was, well, propagated was crucial to creating the award-winning Chaos Is a Friend of Mine. But from here on out, it’s all about the lambics; and in a few years, we will be able to taste a locally made gueuze, which will blend one, two and 3-year aged lambics into a grand cuvee. Keep an eye out for special bottle releases along the way, including fruited beers like the salted plum Umeboshi (a gose) and the upcoming Dia de Los Mangos, which is basically Chaos aged on mangos and tamarind, just like your favorite Mexican candy.
Long live the Long Beach lambic!