Geuze is based on lambic, made according to the oldest of recipes. Wheat and malted barley are mixed 30-70 in a copper kettle with water, and briefly heated over an open coal fire. To the resulting wort, matured hops are added, which don't have the bitter taste of young hops, but do have the same preservative function. The mixture is cooked for hours and then cooled overnight in an open container. Natural yeasts and micro-organisms in the air react with the mix, and spontaneous fermentation takes place. Because the microbes are so important, brewing only takes place between late October and early April, when the nights are cool enough.
Traditionally, the air of Pajottenland in Flemish Brabant is the richest in the necessary microbes, and once it's fermenting the beer is transferred to oak casks to mature (see photo), for months or years. Oude geuze (old geuze) is a mixture of young and old lambic up to three years of age. After bottling, it's left to ferment further for a year before going on sale, and ripening continues to take place even when you bring it home. Three Brabant geuzes are listed as recognised streekproducten, and we tried the Oude Geuze 3 Fonteinen from Beersel, alongside two other old geuze varieties from Beersel and Dworp for comparison, and as a control sample, a simple ordinary geuze from Bellegem.
The difference between young and old lies primarily in the taste. The older varieties simply have a more complex flavour, with less harsh acidity, a more citric and less chemical taste. The sourness typical to geuze is still there, but the rough edges have been rubbed off by maturity. The beer from Dworp was slightly cidery, very dry, and somewhat flat. The Oud Beersel fizzed up enthusiastically but the head quickly vanished; the flavour was full and clean, light with a hint of something darker in the bottom notes.
The 3 Fonteinen brew was outstanding from all the rest. It fizzed like champagne, and the mousse popped noisily as bubbles streamed up the glass. It's also like champagne in its effervescent mouth-feel, with a flavour that's sharp and citric on top, with notes of honey and apricots behind it, and a hint of burnt sugar in the aftertaste. Altogether richer and more festive, geuze is sometimes called the “champagne of beers”, and this one lives up perfectly to the claim. The 3 Fonteinen brewery, incidentally, also makes an Oude Kriek which will change the way you think about that fruity, feminine beer forever; but that's another story.