Saturday, November 14, 2015

Rare Lambic Tasting: Hanssens

I haven't posted much original material in some time, but felt inspired enough by an event on November 5th that I thought it was time to write something more substantial. I was running late to this event, which I was supposed to be bartending, so things were not looking good. However, my mood quickly brightened when I remembered that this was the evening that the Hopleaf was tapping five kegs of rarely seen on draft Hanssens sour ales.

Hanssens was founded in 1896, when Bartholome Hanssens bought a farm in Dworp, which he converted into a brewery. During the First World War, the Germans occupied Belgium and took the copper and metal from many local breweries, including Hanssens. Thus, brewing was no longer an option for Hanssens. In 1918, Hanssens blended beer purchased from neighboring brewers to produce lambics and geuze. Since then, Hanssens has purchased beer and put it in barrels with an open bung that allows natural yeast in, causing spontaneous fermentation to occur. These are more traditional lambics, meaning that the sugars are almost fully fermented out of the beer, which results in a more tart and funky/earthy sourness without any hint of residual sweetness. Hanssens lambics stand in stark contrast to the very sugary and commonly available lambics created by Lindemans.

These very traditional and special beers are now being produced by the fourth generation of the Hanssens family. Sidy Hanssens and her husband John Matthys, both of whom have day jobs, continue the family tradition. They have even added some new beers to the Hanssens repertoire. The new experimental raspberry and experimental cassis (black currant) were joined at the Hopleaf by a Geueze, the hard to pronounce Oudbitje (a strawberry lambic), and of course the Scarenbecca Kriek.

The beer that stood out, both in terms of flavor and scarcity, was the Scarenbecca Kriek Lambic. This beer appears only when Hanssens can procure enough cherries from the few remaining cherry trees in the Brussels neighborhood of Schaerbeek (Scarenbecca is a 12th century reference). Prior to succumbing to the pressures of urbanization, this area was filled with cherry orchards whose fruit was primarily destined to become sour beer. Suffice it to say, there are scant few of these Scarenbecca cherries to be found today.

However, there is a strip of what was, following the Second World War, low-income housing, that now contains yards with a variety of fruit trees, including the famed Scarenbecca cherry trees. These cherry trees yield very tart cherries that the owners were not interested in eating. Thus, the cherries simply fell from the trees and rotted. Several years ago, Sidy and John, along with other local lambic blenders, including Cantillion, went around these houses asking if they could pick the cherries. There are not many cherries available, and the harvest can be inconsistent based on multiple factors. Suffice it to say, this is a very rare beer that does not arrive in large quantities. In fact, it wholesales for about one dollar per ounce of liquid.

I would venture, after having tasted the Scarenbecca on draft for the first time, that this sour ale is worth every penny. This beer was simply amazing. There were lovely hints of cherry on the nose. The color was reddish-brown. As is typical for a traditional lambic, there was no carbonation. The tartness of the cherries was quickly replaced by an earthy funk in what is a very complex ale.

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