There are numerous ways to infuse a sense of place into a beer. Common methods include the use of locally grown hops, incorporation of indigenous fruit, and aging in second-use barrels from nearby wineries and distilleries. While these practices produce regionally distinct flavors, nothing matches the ultimate expression of terroir presented by spontaneous beer.

Pure Project team members on a lambic camping trip at Cuyamaca Rancho
State Park. Image: Courtesy of Pure Project.

Originating in Belgium, where it is referred to as lambic, spontaneous beer is produced in a much different manner from traditional ales and lagers. Rather than use a prescribed yeast strain and meticulously shield unfermented beer from outside elements, lambic producers invite wild yeast and bacteria to exclusively ferment their beers in open-fermentation vessels which allow naturally occurring microorganisms to become part of the process. The inoculated beer is then funneled into oak barrels to age for months, or often years, where it develops funky flavors and aromas often described as “barnyard” or “horse blanket.” Those characteristics are distinctly unique to the solitary spot in which the lambic was produced and cannot be replicated anywhere else.

A stainless steel tote in the bed of a pickup truck carries
wort to be cooled in the Cuyamaca air. Image: Courtesy of Pure Project.

From day one, spontaneous beer has been at the forefront for Pure Project Brewing, where cofounding brewmaster Winslow Sawyer has succeeded in honoring old-world tradition while providing an authentic, multifaceted expression of San Diego in a glass. His vehicle for both is Lief, a blend of one-, two-, and three-year-old spontaneous beers. Such blends are called gueuzes in Belgium, but Sawyer refers to Lief by the process behind it.

“Lief is a méthode traditionnelle three-year blend brewed using the historical process used to brew gueuze in Belgium,” says Sawyer. “A lambic-based beer—turbid-mashed local grains with a significant amount of aged hops—is spontaneously fermented and then aged for one, two, or three years before blending and bottle conditioning. We only use a portion of each year’s vintage so we can continue to package Lief year after year instead of just once every three years.”

Sawyer and his team collected wild yeast for their first two lambics at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and Mount Laguna, respectively, while year three’s unfermented beer was left uncovered at Pure Project’s brewery in Miramar during the company’s three-year anniversary festival. The resultant beer was spritzy from secondary fermentation in the bottle and marked by aromas of hay and Asian pear, gooseberry tartness, and a lasting, earthy funk.

Pure Project is one of only three local breweries (The Lost Abbey and Burning Beard Brewing are the others) to have taken on the laborious process of crafting a gueuze, and the brewery has continued to expand on its spontaneous beer program with a number of specialty creations.

The Vista-based company (which also operates tasting rooms in Carlsbad, Miramar, North Park, and Bankers Hill) recently released a raspberry-and-cherry-laced homage to Belgian krieks and framboises called Electric Depths and has a Euphorik series of American lambics that have been infused with strawberries, cherries, blueberries, and black currants over the years. The fruits from the latter are given a second life through Pure Project’s Deja Fruit line of farmhouse ales, also known as saisons.

Lief and its familial offspring are labors of love, but also love letters to the county that played an integral role in birthing them.


Image: Courtesy of Pure Project.

San Diego In a Glass originally published in the winter 2022–2023 issue.

Cover image: Bhadri Kubendran.
About the Contributor
Brandon Hernández
Brandon Hernández is an award-winning San Diego-based beer journalist. He has covered the brewing industry for 16 years, contributing thousands of articles to newspapers, magazines, and online outlets, and spent nearly a decade working for craft breweries. He is the founder and executive editor for San Diego Beer News, an on-air correspondent for FOX 5 San Diego, beer-industry contributor for The San Diego Union-Tribune, and food & beverage editor for luxury publication Ranch & Coast Magazine. Follow him on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.