Faro: Belgium’s Original “Sweet-tart”

Style Profile by | Mar 2011 | Issue #50

You know those Belgian Lambics that are all the rage these days? Beer fans rhapsodize about their complex character, their funky aroma, their tart flavor produced through the vagaries of spontaneous fermentation. The brewers who make them are revered as artisans, and highly valued bottles are collected and traded. It is so special, the style is now a protected appellation and can be produced only in a tiny region along the Senne River, southwest of Brussels.

But Lambic wasn’t always so beloved. As recently as 25 years ago, Belgian Lambic was largely regarded as beer gone bad. The French, in particular, often raised their Gallic noses in disdain at the beers from the North, complaining about their unusual flavor. The bizarre beer was evidence—along with the architecture of Brussels, the climate of the North Sea and the cuisine of Antwerp—of Belgium’s inferiority.

Even the Belgians themselves acknowledge that Lambic takes some getting used to. They blend vintages to soften the edges, they add fruit—cherries, raspberries, raisins—to mask the off-flavors. And when all else fails, they dump pounds of sugar into the barrel to create a variety known as “Faro.”

It is a low-alcohol “small” beer made from secondary runnings from the mash tun, a process akin to reusing the grinds in your Mr. Coffee. The grain bill is typically about one-third unmalted wheat, and aged hops are added for preservation, not bitterness. Like any Lambic, it is fermented in an open vat, then allowed to turn sour in the barrel. After some months, it is blended with fresh beer and sugar, and perhaps some herbs. And then still more water may be added to further weaken the blend to 3 percent alcohol or so.

In its heyday, Faro was the go-to drink of Belgium. Belgians might spend hours in the cafe, rattling the dice throughout their beloved games of “Mort Subite” (“sudden death”), draining glass upon glass of Faro. It was light and refreshing, and, the French notwithstanding, a pleasant respite. Even children could drink it without risk of falling over in a stupor. Indeed, it is not uncommon to spot a 10-year-old in Brussels’ family-friendly cafés, happily stirring sugar into a glass of Faro as if it were iced tea.

Yet, even in these days of renewed interest in artisanal Belgian styles, Faro is a rarity. Only a handful of breweries produce the style, and few of them ship it across the Atlantic. Some versions, like De Troch Chapeau, are exceptionally sweet and reminiscent of Mott’s apple juice. Others, like Lindemans Faro Lambic, balance that sweetness with the tartness produced by those wild yeast strains. After a glass, adjectives like “goaty” or “barnyard aroma” come to mind… which, 150 years ago, was not exactly high praise.

The poet Charles Baudelaire held a special contempt for Faro in the mid-19th century. In a letter to his mother during a stay in Brussels, he complained of “three months of continual diarrhea, broken occasionally by unbearable constipation,” which he attributed to “the climate and the use of Faro.” In a pamphlet he titled Pauvre Belgique! (“Poor Belgium!”), Baudelaire rails, “The Faro comes from that great big latrine, the Senne—a beverage extracted from the city’s carefully sorted excrement. Thus it is that, for centuries, the city has drunk its own urine.”

Which only underscores a basic truth of drinking: One man’s pleasure is another man’s piss.

Aroma: Sweet, caramel with funky undertones reminiscent of unwashed sweat socks
Flavor: Sweet up front with a tart, crisp, green apple finish
IBU: 11–20
ABV: 2.5–4 percent
Examples: Lindemans Faro Lambic, De Troch Chapeau Faro Lambic, Girardin Faro 1882, Faro Boon, Timmermans Tradition Faro Lambic