Much mystery surrounds the name of this most mysterious among beers. One explanation is that the name derives from that of Lembeek, a small town in the area of production. Lembeek is at the point where a small river meets the Zenne. The “beek” part of the name is Flemish version of the German “Bach” or northern English “beck”, meaning a stream, creek, or small river. The “lem” segment may be an old Flemish reference to the “lime” tree. This is supported by a shrine to the town’s patron saint, Veronus (grandson of Charlemange), in which he is shown holding a twig of lime. The theory is dented by the fact that the lime tree is usually known in Flemish as the linde (as in “linden”).
It is more commonly accepted that the town is named after limey or loamy soil (leem). The “Lime Creek” theory has recently been challenged by a suggestion the first syllable was corrupted from Leen, a word referring to loans (English also has the word lien) and rights to property: the Lien on the Beck. Lembeek was a Neolithic settlement on a piece of land almost encircled by a sharp bend in the river Zenne. The Celts protected this peninsular town by walling it off, and later it was an independent “city state” between the duchies of Brabant and Hainaut. During this period, Lembeek granted its farmers the unusual right to combine the brewing of beer with the distilling of genever gin. A farmer would have used the same part of his premises for both activities.
Did the Spanish rulers in the 1500s and 1600s simply call such a premises a distillery – an alambic? Was that corrupted to Lambic? The earliest known written reference – in French, in 1791- supports this theory. There is an appealing thread to this notion. Distilling is said to have been developed by the Arabs and introduced by the Moors into Europe, and to have spread north from Spain to the Low Countries, where grain and juniper were firs turned into gin. It is a tenuous thread, though. Yet another theory is that the name derives from Lambere, the Latin verb to sip, but that notion seems far fetched.
By Michael Jackson “The Great Beers of Belgium”