There is an old saying that what goes around comes around, and fashion seems to confirm that. What was once popular goes out of style and then, as if by magic, gets rediscovered and becomes popular once again. Lambics are a tasty illustration of this point.
If we really want to find the roots of this beer type few beer drinkers have ever heard of, we could go all the way back to 6000 BC, to ancient Sumeria, where records show that ancient brewers produced a beer that was fascinatingly similar to the lambics which later showed up in Europe, save for the hops. If that's a little hard to accept, then just go back to the time of Julius Caeser to 57 BC. Caesar was traveling through what is now modern day Belgium and Germany. He noticed that the locals thought of wine as an effeminate beverage and banned its importation. In place of grapes, mostly unsuitable for the northern European climate, the Romans noticed an abundance of cereals, many of which were used to produce beer. Back in those times, without proper equipment and controls, these beers were spontaneously fermented for lack of other options.
That's what lambic is. Spontaneously fermented beer. Wild yeasts are incorporated into the fermentation process. Over eighty microorganisms have been identified in a modern lambic. Hops aged for up to two years are added so as to not impart the bitterness observed in other types of beers.
By the mid sixteenth century, there is evidence that the drink we know as lambic was already being referred to by that name. By 1560, but probably before that, there were already barley to wheat ratios set out by legal statute for the brewing of lambics. The beverage surged in popularity, branching out from the peasants to the Renaissance movers and shakers. Gueuze, a type of lambic manufactured by blending young lambic (1 year old) with old (2-3 years old) and then bottled for a second fermentation, became extremely popular, and many lambic “producers” were actually gueuze blenders who procured their lambic stocks from other sources.
Brewers in those times were farmers or had close community ties to the agrarian farming community. By 1839, lambics could only be brewed in a limited area consisting of Brussels and the immediately surrounding area. Two decades later, the area was slightly extended. Brewers believed that the unique micro flora required to brew lambics could only be found in the Brussels vicinity. However, in 1904, a Danish scientist proved this wasn't true. He noted that some of the yeasts present in lambics could also be found in British beers.
It was about this time, after the 1897 World's Fair in Brussels, that lambics started to gain in popularity outside Belgium. There were advances in bottling and scientific technology which made the control of the fermentation process easier so that the lambic could age properly within the bottle. Kriek lambics, made from sour cherries, were popular, with raspberry (framboise) lambics gaining acceptance just a decade later.
Lambic's ascension was just an illusion. In 1919, a law was passed in Belgium banning spirit drinks, like lambics, from sale in cafes. Though not strictly enforced, it still cut into the sale of alcoholic beverages at a time when bottled lambics were on the throes of going mainstream.
The Germans didn't help matters in more ways than one. In 1910, at the Brussels International Fair, cold and frothy German beers got all the attention. This was not a completely new phenomenon. As early as 1850, Bavarian beers were picking up steam in Belgium. These were not considered a threat to lambics initially. The German beers were mocked as “browns”, a term of derision used to refer to the initial brews a lambic brewer would make at the beginning of each brewing season in order to clean out his equipment. Browns were thought of as inferior, beers no serious drinker would touch.
But the foreign beer was a novelty and a merchant can always charge more for something new and different. Drinkers were willing to pay higher prices for German imports but not lambics, and the bars responded in kind. In 1865, only 6 establishments sold browns in Brussels. Just twenty years later, more than 8,000 offered them. By 1885, there were twenty-five breweries built in Brussels to brew the new German style beers.
During the First World War, occupying forces confiscated brewing equipment or ordered breweries to manufacture German-style beers. Many of the former lambic breweries shut down. There was a brief lambic resurgence between the two world wars, but the writing was clearly written on the beer taps. Colas, soft drinks, and other sweetened beverages had already become popular, and lambics were cheapened with syrups and sugar to increase popularity and cut down on cost.
As consolidation of the brewing industry occurred all over the world after the Second World War and industrial session lagers became the norm, lambics were booted further off the scene. In 1958, the lambic/gueuze styles were near extinction and afforded legal protection. Nevertheless, the decline continued. By 1985, production of gueuze was at an all-time low, and it looked like the only way you'd ever get a chance to sample one was to drive through the Belgian region of Pajottenland and chance upon a tiny brewery still making them in small batches.
Lambics looked to go the same route as mars beer, with only a handful of traditional brewers remaining. The late Michael Jackson, the famous beer critic, not the moon walk dancer-singer accused of child molestation, started highlighting the varieties and diversity of Belgian beer to international audiences from the late 1970's onwards. This brought the near-dead lambic style to the attention of more serious beer drinkers. When the craft beer revolution started to take off in the USA from the late 1980's and thereafter spread to other countries, it was natural for the newer craft brewers to re-examine and reinvent old styles, lambics among them.
A brand new lambic blending facility, Gueuzerie Tilquin, opened up its doors in 2011, with 75% of its production reserved for export and almost half that export lambic being sent to the USA. Lambics, we've tastily realized, aren't just for Belgian lips anymore.