Pucker up for Gueuze Tilquin | Bleader

Monday, March 4, 2013

Pucker up for Gueuze Tilquin

Posted By on 03.04.13 at 02:00 PM

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I've noticed in my travels among the beer nerds that sours—especially lambics and gueuzes—are often considered the last bridge to cross in the education of one's palate. I assume this is partly because, well, if you came up drinking Miller High Life, sour beers are just plain fucking weird in a way that, say, black IPAs and barrel-aged stouts aren't. But I'm sure it's also partly due to the mystique surrounding traditional sours: producers of lambics and gueuzes belong to what's de facto an exclusive club, for all intents and purposes confined to a small area of west central Belgium where the proper microflora exist in the wild, and the antique process of making these beers is complex, arcane, and time consuming.

Gueuzerie Tilquin, run by a former bioengineer named Pierre Tilquin (it's pronounced "till-CAN," with a nasalized final vowel), is in fact the first new lambic blender to emerge in almost 15 years; his commercial debut was a bit less than two years ago. Compare that to the way craft breweries have mushroomed up around Chicago just since 2010.

If you're already an expert in sour beers, you might want to skip the next three paragraphs—not least because I'm decidedly not an expert, and my hurried attempt to explain them is just going to irritate you. Lambics are generally brewed from barley malt with a bit of unmalted wheat and "spontaneously fermented," meaning the wort is left open to the air so that whatever bugs and beasties happen to be floating around (or, more likely, living in the wooden barrels and vats at the brewery) can go to work on it. (By contrast, most ales and lagers use carefully cultivated and deliberately introduced brewer's yeasts.) One of the most important "wild" microorganisms involved is brettanomyces bruxellensis, a yeast endemic to the area around Brussels that likes to live on the skins of fruits; you may have heard it referred to informally as "brett."

Lambic brewers employ hops—often quite a bit of hops—because their antibacterial properties help prevent spoilage during the long and relatively uncontrolled fermentation. But you won't taste hops in a traditional sour beer—they're dried and aged to soften their bitterness and prevent it from overpowering the other flavors.

A gueuze isn't a different beer but rather a blend of lambics of varying ages and provenances, refermented in the bottle. Blenders get new wort, and because they mature and ferment it for up to three years at their own facilities, the house microflora (and the blender's skill) give the gueuze a distinct personality. Port and sherry casks are popular maturing vessels, but Tilquin appears to prefer wine barrels. Bottle refermentation often lasts a year, and the finished product can keep for decades—"freshness" is hardly a concern. In fact a fair amount of aging is necessary to take the sharpness out of these tart beers.

So far Gueuzerie Tilquin has produced five beers, including two available in the States: the Oude Gueuze Tilquin à L'Ancienne, which I'm reviewing, and a draft version of it that's slightly lower in alcohol. A plum gueuze called Oude Quetsche Tilquin à l’Ancienne was first released in Europe last fall, and some of this spring's batch will be exported to the U.S.

Tilquin's second batch of Oude Gueuze Tilquin à L'Ancienne, marked 2011/2012, appears to have been available in States since last fall, but my bottle is marked 2010/2011—it's from his first release, which has been sold in America since summer 2011. It contains one-, two-, and three-year-old lambics from Boon, Lindemans, Girardin, and Cantillon (some sources say Tilquin is the only blender to whom the notoriously protective Cantillon is currently selling its wort). The beer is unfiltered, unpasteurized, and 6 percent alcohol.

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I decided to pick up a bottle of Gueuze Tilquin after seeing it on tap recently at the Hopleaf and Local Option, balking both times at the price, and then regretting it later. Once you uncage the cork and give it a nudge with your thumb, it almost forces itself out of the neck—the gases in the bottle create quite a concussion when the cork lets go, and you've got to hang on tight to keep it from rocketing around the room.

Even a responsible pour whips up an airy, rocky head that's thick but fleeting and leaves a persistent skin of fine foam on the beer. The smell is fruity, sour, and slightly funky: I get apple cider vinegar, lemon, apricot, rose hips, and musty grape skin, plus some parmesan and roasted sesame, grass, black earth, and wet hay (you often see the word "barnyard" tossed around in reviews of these beers).

The flavor is lively, clean, and juicy, and it largely follows the aroma—except of course that the sourness can really get down to business here. Gueuze Tilquin is powerfully tart but not harsh or acid, and its plush, generous effervescence gives it a wonderful mouthfeel. As the fruity sourness fades, oak tannins come forward, sweetly leathery and gently astringent, followed by a faintly spicy yeastiness and a bit of malt like buckwheat pancakes in the finish. It's pleasant, well-balanced, and not at all palate fatiguing, but it is seriously sour—after half a glass you might end up with a little froggy mucus in your throat, like when you drink fresh orange juice.

As I've said, I'm not an authority on lambics and gueuzes. I've had beers from Girardin and Cantillon, but not often and not recently. Though I can't say with any confidence how this stacks up against the world-class sours that have preceded it, I enjoyed it a great deal. I might even have liked it enough to pay $12 plus tax for 12.7 ounces again.

And now, because I'm a smart-ass, here's an Acid Bath song: "Locust Spawning," from the 1996 album Paegan Terrorism Tactics. The band broke up in 1997, not long after bassist Audie Pitre and his parents were killed by a drunk driver, but you might know some of the more recent groups with roots in Acid Bath's bizarro Louisiana sludge: guitarist-vocalist Dax Riggs has led Deadboy & the Elephantmen and played under his own name, and guitarist-vocalist Sammy Duet is a member of Goatwhore.

Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, every Monday.

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