Flashback to Brasserie Cantillon, Brussels, Belgium
Written by Jess R.
If you all recall, and how could you forget, bb.com took an epic trip to Belgium in March of this year, marking one of the most exciting, most educational, most delicious beer experiences of a lifetime.
Among the beer tastings, beer bar dominations and brewery visits, we stopped at Cantillon. Founded in 1900, Cantillon is a staple in Belgium beer making. Known as the Museum of Geuzes, this brewery has perfected the process of making lambics and gueuzes. Time stands still here despite the ever changing background of the city of Brussels.
On March 16, 2010, Day 7 of our trip, we make the hour or so drive from Antwerp to Brussels. First stop, a little piece of history. We pull up in our rental car, and walk up to a non-descript facade with a large open garage door. We are greeted with a “Bonjour” as Brussels is primarily French speaking and receive a glass to taste Rose de Gambrinis and Faro. I am instantly in love.
Touring the Brewery:
A self guided tour is offered with a beer in one hand and a brochure in the other. I found this description on Cantillon’s website that I wanted to share:
Machines, most of them original, barrels with Lambic, Kriek or Framboise, cellars where bottles of Gueuze, Kriek or Lambic Grand Cru wait patiently till they get transferred to a customer’s table, a mashing tun and boilers, a granary with a cooling tun where the Brussels air has free play, a filter and a bottling machine, these are the things you’ll see during your visit.
We begin our walk through the process- the mashing tun, boilers, the process of natural fermentation, barrel aging and the bottling of these amazing beers. Each piece of equipment shines with copper lining and glistens with wisdom. I remember climbing up these rotting wooden stairs to the attic area. Open rafters let the sunlight in, as well as the wild yeast used to ferment the beer. When I first became a fan of lambics, I was fascinated by the natural occurrence of wild yeast in Belgium.
Brettanomyces is a genus of wild yeast important in brewing lambic, a beer produced not by the deliberate addition of brewer’s yeasts, but by spontaneous fermentation by wild yeasts and bacteria. Brettanomyces lambicus, B. bruxellensis and B. claussenii are native to the Senne Valley region of Belgium, where lambic beer is produced. Here at Cantillon, once the beer is ready to be fermented, it is placed in open containers begging for the hungry yeast to eat the sugar and produce alcohol.
Next is the barreling room. Lambic fumes escape from the barrels in which the beer matures for three years. This process is not for the impatient individual. After our tour, we were lucky enough to try a one year old lambic straight from the barrel! Subtle in taste and without carbonation, it still possessed a sophistication and complexity that I will never forget.
Throughout the tour, cobwebs hung from the corners, from the machinery and cats wandered throughout the aisle and slept on window sills. Every creature, every organism plays a part in the creation of these beers. A well constructed eco-system was before us and we reaped the benefits of these lambics and guezes.
At the end, we took a seat by a fire place (as the place was on the colder side), glanced at the list consisting of Gueuze, Kriek, Rose Gambinus, December 2008 Lambic, Faro, Saint Lamvinus and Lou Pepe (Kriek, Framboise and Gueuze). What a sight! We sat in silence, in awe of this church of beer.
Side notes about Cantillon and the beers they produce. 1. Lou Pepe refers to their top notch batches. A Lou Pepe Kriek would be their best cherry lambic, for example. 2. Gueuze are not brewed, lambics are brewed. Gueuzes are blends of lambics. See how much you just learned?
Cantillon remains a staple in my growth as a beer writer, beer lover and beer drinker. To see this process, to acknowledge the dedication to historical integrity while producing high quality beers is something I think about quite often when tasting beers of this nature. Brewing lambics is a tedious, scientifically extravagant and well defined process. To honor the memory, we brought back several bottles (at 8 euro per 750ml, how could we not) and a little piece of our amazing trip!