Here’s what you need to understand about gueuze: gueuze isn’t worried. Gueuze is supremely self-confident. And gueuze doesn’t care what you think of it. That’s a good thing, because the reputation of un-fruited lambics would certainly give other beers self-esteem issues. “Tart!”, they say. “Acidic!” “Funky!”, they call out. Gueuze is unfazed, because it’s also refreshing, brisk, vivacious, amazingly nuanced, great with food, and more than 1,000 years old. You should be so lucky.
Spontaneously fermented beers are fermented by dozens of different microflorae, and can emerge with a complexity that would be the envy of the greatest champagnes. A bracing acidity often leads the charge here, and it’s that acidic backbone that is going to drive our food pairings for gueuze. Think of the brightening quality lent by a squeeze of lemon, and it becomes clear that seafood is this beer’s most obvious forte.
In Belgium, mussels are often steamed in gueuze, and the resulting “moules frites” is perhaps that country’s staple dish. The same beer provides a fine accompaniment, as the salt and sweetness of the sea meet the beer’s quenching sourness. For similar reasons, oysters will enjoy an encounter with gueuze, and the beer can handle whatever sauce you might want to bring to bear.
That lemony acidity can work wonders with crab cakes, especially if you like them spicy. Oily fish make good pairings, from salmon to bluefish, sardines and mackerel. Smoked salmon is a fine partner, especially with some tangy fresh goats’ cheese.
Perhaps even better is ceviche, the Spanish dish of seafood ‘cooked’ by the acidity of lime or lemon juice. In the States we tend to think of ceviche as a Mexican dish, and it can’t be denied that Mexico has a special flair for it – chillies, lime, shrimp, fish and avocados is a hard combination to beat. Gueuze steps in with its own acidity and provides the perfect match. You’d think that there would be too much acidity here, but no – the flavours of the seafood are actually heightened.
The Belgians don’t combine gueuze with seafood, pairing it with rich farmhouse terrines, sausages, and salads instead.
Gueuze’s older uncle, straight lambic, is rich, elegant, still, and unfortunately almost never seen outside of Belgium. At home it’s often paired with game.
We’ve talked about the acidity, but let’s not forget the funk. The riotous cacophony of earthy aromas, from barnhouse to citrus peel, is what provides gueuze’s lasting appeal. Put this up against the earthiness of great stilton and you’ve got another stellar match. Funky? Damn right. Funky is gueuze’s middle name. And don’t wear it out.
Will Beckett, director of Underdog consultancy, is one of the UK’s most successful pub and bar entrepreneurs and, alongside his mother Fiona Beckett, is the co-author of An Appetite for Ale.
If the love of beer is a journey that for most of us begins in our early teens with either mainstream lagers or low ABV ales then I suspect it might finish with lambic beers and gueuze (a blend of young and old lambics).
If you haven’t tried them yet then you should probably know two things – you probably won’t like them at first, and betting someone that they can’t drink two pints of it will probably cause you endless amusement. The thing is though that many people end up being very passionate about these beers. It took me quite some time, but it was only when I started appreciating them in terms of their relationship to food that the love affair really began. Because lambic and gueuze beers are remarkably sour, and, in my humble opinion, are much better when enjoyed with food that balances them out.
For starters they make a fantastic aperitif – great for stimulating the appetite. In Belgium I’ve regularly had them pre-meal, often accompanied by small snacks like salmon in a creamy sauce or eel. In fact gueuze, especially oude gueuze (matured, pronounced owder in Flemish), generally pairs well with Belgian-style fish stews and with oily fish like sardines and mackerel. The sourness of the beers really cuts through oily or creamy dishes, and stops you getting that bloated feeling those foods can give you.
For meats, lambic and gueuze go really well with more flavoursome poultry, like goose, and with game birds like pheasant and partridge as well as rilletes and terrines. If you’re really into your food and beer matching then think about having sides like choucroute or even a salad with gueuze substituted for vinegar in the dressing.
Finally there are a number of great fruit beers based on lambics which I suggest you pair with a dessert made with the same fruits. The carbonation of the beers preserves the fruit flavours (unlike in wine where similar flavours are often lost), cleansing the palate between each mouthful and echoing but not overwhelming those of the dessert.
Garrett Oliver is the brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery in New York. His book, The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food, is the ultimate tome on the topic of beer and food.