For a chance to taste one of the world’s rarest beers, is it as simple as giving a thumbs-up? It is not, in part because Zwanze, the brew in question, does not rhyme with Fonzie; it’s pronounced “zwahnz.” But its worship among beer enthusiasts could very well be on par with adoration for the suave, leather-jacketed mechanic from Milwaukee, the man who literally jumped the shark, during the heyyyyday of “Happy Days.” Uh, right, Richie?
While it would be difficult to determine if that were indeed true, this is for certain: On this Saturday, September 29, a carefully curated group of more than 70 bars and breweries from 22 different countries will together commemorate Zwanze Day, now in its eighth year, by simultaneously tapping kegs of the titular beer—a special-edition sour produced annually by the revered Brasserie Cantillon in Belgium. The roster includes Spuyten Duyvil, in Williamsburg, which was one of the first American businesses to sell it. The bar, which also celebrated its 15th anniversary earlier this month, is highly regarded for its commitment to serving and educating about craft and international beer.
Zwanze Day began in 2011, born as a response to the rapacious opportunism of the year before, when bottles of the limited lambic, whose recipe is different each year (it debuted in 2008 as a lambic with rhubarb), first shipped to the U.S. and were soon being flipped online for almost 15 times the original selling price. Cantillon’s fourth-generation brewer, Jean Van Roy, was not pleased, and with Shelton Brothers, which imports the 118-year-old brewery’s products to the U.S., created selling guidelines to thwart profiteers and ensure it would be kept as accessible as possible. The concept of an event built around its worldwide release soon followed.
This year’s iteration is a blend of lambics aged for two years in Amarone, Chianti and sangiovese barrels. Perhaps the most mysterious style of beer, and one that is capable of unmatched complexity and nuance, lambic is produced using spontaneous fermentation, a traditional process (we’re talking pre-Pasteur) of exposing the wort, or unfermented beer, to the air, allowing it to come into contact with the indigenous, naturally occurring yeasts and acid-producing bacteria floating about. This is different from the fermentation method for most beers, where brewers tend industrialized yeast strains or blends to yield a set of desirable characteristics, and can do so with consistency. The results can be controlled. But in spontaneous fermentation, nature rules the road, and the wild microorganisms—including Brettanomyces, Pediococcus and Lactobacillus—are the drivers, steering the wort to unpredictable realms of flavor and aroma that range from ripe cantaloupe to, yes, horse blanket. Next stop, LambicLand!
Now before you take Fonzie’s motorcycle and ride off into the sunset, know that while atmospheric yeasts are critical to producing lambic, it is not finished in the open air. From here the fermenting beer is placed in oak barrels, which possess their own wild things, for further development and complexity. The minglings that occur in the wooden womb over time help create brilliantly layered beers that deliver characteristics like tart acidity, penetrating dryness, bright fruitiness and musty barnyard funk.
A straight lambic, traditionally made with a combination of malted barley and unmalted wheat and aged hops, often serves as a base to make different styles, like gueuze, a blend of lambic of different ages. Adding fresh cherries or raspberries will sweeten the lambic mash, creating kriek or framboise, respectively.
It’s understood that true lambic can only be made in Brussels—specifically the Payottenland region, which has a town named Lambeek. This type of geographic exclusivity, captained by the area’s indigenous yeasts and bacteria and the distinct character they impart, is no different than the concept of terroir in wine. Lambic is a true study in how the surrounding environment can uniquely shape a beer’s character, giving a sense of place, an identity. “It tells a story of the locale where its made,” Joe Carroll, the owner of Spuyten Duyvil, said recently by phone from DC, where he just opened a second branch of St. Anselm, his steakhouse adjacent to the bar.
Captivated by old-world operations such as Cantillon and lambic’s growing cult following in the U.S., more American brewers are producing beers through spontaneous fermentation. The first to do so was Allagash Brewing Company, in Portland, Maine. A decade ago, it installed a coolship, a long, shallow and uncovered metal pan used to expose wort to the open air. Its series of lambic-inspired beers are named for the specialized piece of equipment.
Some, like the Referend Bier Blendery in New Jersey, have made spontaneous fermentation the sole focus of their businesses. Texas’s Jester King Brewery, meanwhile, worked with Belgium’s High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers and other producers to create a certification mark, Méthode Traditionnelle, that brewers outside the Zenne River Valley near Brussels can use to designate their lambic-like beers made according to Belgian tradition.
Carroll said that he has enjoyed most of the American spontaneously fermented sour beers he has tasted. Still, those of Cantillon are “the gold standard. When you taste one, you know why.” He recalled with a similar vehemence the first Zwanze Day, in 2011. “There was a palatable excitement in the air. We couldn’t believe that Cantillon was doing this.”
Unlike other high-profile beer releases, Zwanze Day is unique in that its participants have built their own excellent events around the annual drop. Spuyten Duyvil’s, for one, is known to grant drinkers access to a voluminous lineup of spectacular sour beers, among them obscure and vintage Cantillon in bottles and on draft.
Tickets for this year’s fete are $15, which include a five-ounce serving of the limited-edition lambic, to be tapped at 3:00 p.m., and, for the first 100 people, a commemorative glass. Only 165 tickets will be made available, Carroll said, sold to people waiting in line starting at 10:00 a.m. (Expect a crowd to gather early.)
Below, the rest of my conversation with Carroll, lightly edited for clarity and length. He spoke further about Zwanze Day and, as this was days after his bar’s 15th anniversary, some key points in its history, including a beer made in partnership with Cantillon that has fetched a hefty price.
Edible Brooklyn: First off, congratulations on 15 years. That’s quite a feat for any small business, let alone a bar in New York City.
Joe Carroll: Thank you. I appreciate it.
EB: Take us back. What do you remember about the bar’s early years, and the city’s beer scene during that time?
JC: Wow. That was an odd time in the craft-beer scene, not only in New York but in general. That was at the low point between two peaks. There was the first movement in the early ’90s, that’s when the fire was really lit. That movement was based mostly on imports, with a handful of domestic beers. But by the mid to late ’90s and early 2000s—craft beer didn’t disappear, it wasn’t that bad. But it had really faded, especially in Williamsburg. It was the $2 cans of PBR that ruled. I remember there was such a disconnect with the hipsters and that culture, who were eating organic and really cared about these kinds of things, but they were drinking the ironic, mass-produced beers. So it seemed to be a logical place for craft to step in.
When we opened in 2003, there was very little domestic craft in the city. Even those beers from California, they weren’t really known here. This was the days of Pete’s Wicked Ale. So the majority of what we were doing was serving really great beer from overseas, Europe in particular, augmented by a little craft. Obviously now with so many breweries here, it’s gotten so far in the other direction, and people don’t really know a lot of the legendary European breweries. It’s like night and day now. You know, everyone would be so excited when a brewery released a new beer or tried a new style. But now that rules the day. It’s a norm for breweries to do 70 beers a year now. I have trouble keeping up, honestly. Back then it was simpler.
EB: Zwanze Day has almost become another anniversary for you, since you’ve been a participant from the event’s inception eight years ago. What does the event, and being among a select few that are chosen to pour this limited beer, mean to you?
JC: Knowing the Van Roy family and being one of the few in the world that they’ve chosen to be a part of such a great event, it means the world to me. Lambic to me is the greatest style of beer in the world, and Cantillon’s is as good as beer can ever get.
EB: Do you remember the first time you tasted Cantillon?
JC: The first time was in Belgium, around 1993, I think. That was the first time I had tasted traditional lambic. Any time before that, it was like Lindemans or the equivalent, which, in the lambic realm, that’s really the fake, pasteurized, sweet stuff. It’s basically a wheat beer with fruit. But the first time I had traditional lambic, my friends and I were in Belgium and we bought a bunch of bottles: Oud Beersel, Drie Fonteinen and Cantillon. We sat and shared them all, and I remember just freaking out; we were all floored. The stuff I was drinking home before that, the American stuff, it was all malty or hoppy. And here was not only a searing acidity to each sip, but also this element of funk from the bacteria and the Brettanomyces. I remember it being overwhelmingly tough to identity the flavors at first. And at first, I don’t think I necessarily liked it. But after that trip, I got hooked and started seeking it out. It’s just so amazing to see over the last, say, seven or eight years, how much the perception in the U.S. has changed. Even from when we opened Spuyten to now. In 2003, the opinion of lambic beer and sour beers were vastly different. More people seek it now.
EB: You were among the first in the city to sell Cantillon and other lambic brewers, right?
JC: For a year, we were the only ones that sold any Cantillon in the city. Mostly no one had ever heard of it. Again, I think the idea initially was that lambic was this vibrantly colored, sweet, fruity beer with a little touch of funk. So the people who were expecting that from Cantillon, we would basically go out of our way to discourage them. We would tell them that it wasn’t going to be sweet, it was going to be very funky and acidic, and you’re not getting their money back if you don’t like this expensive bottle. [Laughs.] But yeah, at that point you could get your hand on any Cantillon you wanted from Shelton Brothers. I remember our opening draft list had a keg. Probably about seven or eight years ago, that’s when it started to change. Cantillon went from being readily available to this almost elusive thing that everyone wanted but couldn’t get.
EB: Speaking of Cantillon and its scarcity, you made a really small batch of beer together in 2014.
JC: Yep. Cantillon Spuyten Duyvil. In November of 2004, a year after we had opened, I shipped Jean, who had been in the bar to drink, two whole boxes of cranberries from New Jersey. He put them into a barrel with lambic, and we got about a 30-liter keg and a few cases of bottles from it. To give you an idea of how insane it all is now, we’ve had a customer that’s been a regular forever, and he bought multiple bottles of it back when it came out. And again, that was at a time when most people were oblivious to Cantillon, so I didn’t have a limit on how much you could buy. I mean, I was trying to sell the beer, so why not? Anyway, he had held on to a few bottles and, maybe four years ago, sold six of them at an auction for $12,000.
EB: Wow. I hope he gave you some of that.
JC: [Laughs.] It’s just amazing that in 10 years, Cantillon went from not many people in the U.S. knowing about it to bottles selling for $2,000 a pop.
EB: I think one reason why lambic has grown in popularity stateside is there are more American brewers using spontaneous fermentation to create beers inspired by the style, and in some cases, making it a fixture of their businesses or even their sole focus. What do you think about the quality of beers being produced by the likes of Allagash, Jester King and Black Project?
JC: For the most part they’re good. Some are really well done. Look, I’d rather have a beer produced by spontaneous fermentation that’s maybe slightly off the mark than another kettle sour. There’s a place for purposely soured beer, but to me I’d rather reward someone making that extra effort, because it’s not an easy task. One issue is the time it takes to develop a house yeast culture. It’s not as simple as getting barrels. That’s why Cantillon, which expanded in recent years, they actually sprayed the walls of their new place with their beer to re-create the same microclimate. It takes a very long time, decades, to develop a house yeast and bacteria that are local to the brewery itself, and to have that reflected in the beer. But I think American breweries will only get better with time as they both develop their house cultures and bacteria, and also as they get accustomed to brewing the style, which requires backing off a bit and letting nature take its course.
EB: Participating bars and breweries build their own events around Zwanze Day itself, usually serving other Cantillon beers. How much preparation is involved in creating your beer list?
JC: As far as Cantillon goes, I’m hoarding stuff year-round. If I get a case of six bottles in, say, March, I’ll sell three and keep three for Zwanze. I’m definitely preparing year-round.
EB: How has the customer turnout changed over the years?
JC: Each subsequent year I’m taken more by surprise over the reaction. Last year people started lining up very early, 6:00 a.m. On the one hand it’s great, but then on the other you see it becoming “a thing” and you can’t help but get worried. But you know what, there’s much stupider shit for people to get into.
EB: How do you determine things like the number of tickets to release, and how big the serving of Zwanze is?
JC: We try to undersell it by 50 tickets to be cautious. The last thing we want to do is sell out at the onset. I’d rather we say there are 20 more beers left once the keg is tapped and the first tickets have been sold. Then we’ll open it up to regular sales. Every year is different, though. This year will be like the last, in that we’ll start selling tickets to people in line at 10:00 a.m. We’ll also stagger Cantillon drafts throughout the day and put a limit on some of the bottles you can purchase to one. Again, on the one hand the beer is there to sell, but this is a special event that I think as many people should experience as possible. I want everyone to get a shot to get some Cantillon.
Photo credit: Facebook/Spuyten Duyvil NYC