Thursday, May 31, 2012

21st Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation

Belgium is well known for a wide variety of beer styles and for its many beer festivals, one of the more special and longest running festivals is the Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation which was held for the 21st time on May 26-27, 2012.  This is an account of my second visit to this unique sour ale festival.

Kerk Sint-Gerardus Majella in Opstal, Buggenhout

How to get there?

Opstal is a small village on the outskirts of Buggenhout in East Flanders, about 25 km or 40 minutes drive north west of Brussels. It is not necessarily easy to get to Opstal, I don't know about the buses but you can either share a cab or take a train to the nearest train station and walk from there. Taxis are rare to find in the countryside, so don't count on finding one if you get off at a small railway station.

Feestzaal Beukenhof on Broekstraat 18
The nearest train station to the Feestzaal Beukenhof on Broekstraat 18, where the festival is held, is the one in Heizijde - a little over 2 km or 20 minutes walk away. If you're in Brussels, go to the Bruxelles-Nord train station where you can catch several trains an hour to Heizijde. From Heizijde start by walking north along the Klein-Antwerpenstraat which changes into Kakemanstraat, follow this road until it ends and then turn left onto Varentstraat. Follow this road into Opstal and finally turn right on Broekstraat where the festival area is located just past the church, on the other side of the road. The train ride should take a little over half an hour, so all in all it will take you close to an hour to get from Brussels to the festival.

I ended up sharing a taxi with three friends, to cut the travel time and expenses. It still took us a good 40 minutes to get there, because of outdated GPS data and a confused driver who failed to read the road signs (taxi drivers in Brussels seem lost as soon as the leave the city, so always be alert). We arrived a little later than planned, almost half an hour after the opening, for a grand total 60 Euro. 

So, even though taxi is the fastest and easiest way to get to the festival, always make sure to have plenty of time to get there for the 3 pm opening.

The Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation

Weekend der Spontane Gisting, as it's known in the local Flemish dialect, or The Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation is an annual beer festival arranged by an organization called De Opstalse Bierpallieters - "the beer tasters of Opstal" - in Opstal, Buggenhout. This 2-day festival is always held on the last weekend of May, 2012 being the 21st time it was held.

Casks of young lambic and kriek lining the wall.
What makes this festival so special is that it focuses exclusively on one of the most remarkable beer styles that exists in the world today, a type of beer that has died out in most other countries, that of spontaneous or wild yeast fermentation. 

Spontaneous fermentation is actually a pretty wide category and not really a beer style. The common theme is that you don't use a regular "tamed" yeast culture, such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae (for top fermented ales) or Saccharomyces carlsbergensis (for bottom fermented lagers). Instead, the brewer relies on the ambient air of the brewery to provide the untamed, wild yeast to start the fermentation. This is a much less controlled way of fermenting beer, with many potential problems such as infection due to the open cooling vats (coolships), but it also produces some of the most amazing beer styles you can immagine:

  • Fruit lambic: Usually dry, fruity and colorful beers.
    • Most often made with cherries (kriek) or raspberries (framboise / framboos).
    • Other fruits used may be peaches, currants or strawberries.
    • Some brewers sweeten their fruit lambics to make them easier to sell.
  • Faro: This is a type of geuze with brown sugar added for sweetening.
    • Faro was very popular in late 19th century Brussels but is now almost gone.
  • Geuze / gueuze: A blend of several years, refermented in the bottle.
    • Many geuze blenders use a blend of 1, 2 and 3 year old lambics, where the young lambic provides sugar for the bottle refermentation and the older character.

The geuze, in particular, has made a revival thanks to its dry, fruity and often sparkling - Champagne like - character. Thanks to its production and long maturation, the geuze is known to cellar well for up to 20-30 years!

The Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation 2012.

The atmosphere and the beers

In 2012 the festival was held on May 26-27 at the Tapperij Beukenhof in Opstal. Like the year before, the entrance was free, so you only had to pay for what you tasted - and the prices are really reasonable, with twenty year old bottles of geuze going for only 15-20 Euro!

This has to be one of the most relaxing festivals in the world, every visitor is seated by one of the many tables and all orders are placed by holding up the hand, just like in school, so that one of the staff notices and comes over to your table. The beer menu is numbered so you just have to point to the items of interest and indicate if you want more than one glass, in case you want to share a bottle. It works really well, as it removes the concept of queues and gives plenty of space on the floor, allowing guests to pass freely to the restrooms or in and out of the festival.

Parallel tasting cask lambics from four different breweries.
The visitors to the 21st Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation were treated to a great mixture of young and and old sour ales. Like last year most of the lambic brewers of Belgium and some of the blenders had sent in casks with lambic and kriek.

In all there were 12 different lambics served on cask, including very nice ones from 3 Fonteinen, De Troch, Hanssens, De Cam and Cantillon, as well as 8 kriekenlambieks.

It's smart to start out with the young lambics as they tend to be simpler and less acidic than some of the aged oude geuze bottles. As for the amount of alcohol, don't worry - most lambics are just 5% abv and the tasting glasses are 15 cl - so take your time and do parallel tastings to see how the lambics differ in fruitiness, sourness, bitterness, woodiness and other characteristics. It's both fun and educational to compare notes with table neighbors.

When through with the cask ales it's smart to gang up with some of your table mates to share bottles, many of them are 75 cl and best shared with 3-4 others. There are some 37.5 cl bottles too, but that is still a lot to drink if you want to get through a large number of beers in one sitting. So, sharing bottles is a great way to get through more beers and to make new friends.

One of the older bottles I tried was the 1993 Sélection Lambic Gueuze from Belle-Vue, a beer that hasn't been made since 1999 (probably because Belle-Vue was bought up by InBev). Unfortuanetly, this 19 year old geuze was way over the top, oxidized and with a strong lemon acidity making it almost undrinkable. 

Cantillon Zwanze 2010 - still a winner.
A far better choice was the 2004 vintage of Boon Oude Geuze Mariage Parfait, still fruity and fresh and really well balanced sour ale for just 10 Euro. 

Among the younger sour ales, the Cantillon Zwanze 2010 is always a winner with its wonderful floral (elderflowers) sourness - a refreshing beer I can drink bottles of alone. 

Another bottled highlight was the Girardin Fond Gueuze Bierpallieters 2009, the official Jubileumbier for the 2011 festival. It combined lemon sourness and a mild brettanomyces character with mild oak and dry leaves in a wonderful way. Too bad we were not allowed to buy any bottles to bring home this year.

For those who can't drink sour ales for an entire day, the festival has made an exception to the rule of only having spontaneously fermented beers on their menu: The two local Buggenhout breweries, De Landtsheer and Bosteels, are both represented with their world class beers. De Landtsheer with their Malheur series - including the 10, 12 and Malheur Bière Brut - while Bosteels come with Kwak and Tripel Karmeliet. 

Finally a few words on the food. The festival doesn't serve warm food or any large dishes of cold food, so it's common to bring snacks and food on your own, but they do have a very nice cheese and salami platter and also some sort of sandwiches (which I haven't tried).


After my second year at The Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation I feel stronger than ever that this is one of the best beer festivals on the planet, it's small, it's quiet and it has the best selection of young and old sour ales you could ever dream of trying. Thus, I have already reserved the last weekend of May 2013 for another visit to Opstal. 

Photos from the festival can be found at Flickr: 2011 and 2012.

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