Belgium's most prestigious lambic beer festival began as a protest. In 2004, the country's Federal Food Agency threatened to shutter a number of the nation's lambic breweries thanks to the continued practice of souring beers by exposing beer to wild yeast and bacteria in the air. But when the government moved in, lambic brewers and hundreds of fans protested — and, with beers in hand, started the first Night of Great Thirst. The attention helped the brewers fight back the regulatory threat, and the night has now become a bi-annual celebration.
The festival's growing popularity is thanks in part to a new generation of American drinkers discovering sour beers. "The international market is what changed things for us," says Werner Van Obberghen, a shareholder in 3 Fonteinen, one of the most well-regarded lambic producers. "People are also paying attention to things that are made with authenticity. There is a craft beer hype, but we think that we have something more, it is an honest product."
The focus on authenticity may be why there's only one American brewer at the festival: Rob Tod, the founder of Allagash Brewing Company. Tod's sour Coolship program in Portland, Maine, is brewed in the lambic style, one he wasn't sure would even work outside Belgium. Jean Van Roy, a Belgium brewer at Cantillon, however, convinced him that he could do it. "Jean said that if we did it at the right time of year with cold temperatures overnight, that it could work anywhere," says Tod. "And it did"
Although Allagash's brewing methodology is faithful to the tradition, they avoid the name "lambic" in deference to the brewers of the Senne valley who regard it as a regional appellation. The respect registers with the scores of locals who greet Tod with bear hugs and handshakes as he works his way through the festival crowd. "I think this is the coolest festival in the world," says Tod. "They don't pour the beer by the glass, they just sell you bottles, so everyone walks around and shares beers with strangers and meets new people. I've never seen anything like it at another festival."
Standout Lambics from the Night of Great Thirst
3 Fonteinen: Oude Geuze Golden Blend
Geuze is the ultimate expression of the lambic brewer who blends one-, two-, and three-year-old vintages to create a vibrant, tart, and funky beer. For their Golden Blend, 3 Fonteinen also utilizes four- and five-year-old vintages for additional complexity and depth.
3 Fonteinen: Intense Red Oude Kriek
Krieks are lambic beers with cherries added. The best examples use whole cherries rather than syrups and are re-fermented to complete dryness before bottling. 3 Fonteinen's Intense Red features a fuller cherry expression than their standard Kriek while remaining dry and drinkable.
Cantillon: Fou' Foune
Cantillon is the most acclaimed and in-demand lambic producer in Belgium for good reason. Their gueze and fruited lambics set the standard for the style. Fou' Foune is one of our favorite fruit lambics ever, with an apricot addition for a tropical aroma and a nice, tart zing.
Elderflower is the secret ingredient in the Cantillon's Mamouche, and it works: This beer is bone dry, tart, and reminiscent of wildflowers.
Allagash: Coolship Red
The Coolship Red is a take on a classic framboise with raspberries, and it follows the tradition to a 'T'.
Lindemans: Mikkeller Spontanbasil
Lindemans gets knocked for being the most prominent producer of sweet lambic, but they also make dry, tart lambics such as the Cuvee Renee Geuze. Now they're branching out with more innovative beers like the Spontanbasil, brewed in collaboration with the Danish gypsy brewer Mikkeller. We were skeptical about drinking a basil beer, but it works.