Beer in Brussels: Visiting Cantillon Brewery

Of all the beery pilgrimages on my bucket-list – drinking fresh tankovna Pilsner Urquell in the Czech Republic, making my way through a tasting tray from Mikkeller in Copenhagen, glugging steins of Marzen at Oktoberfest in Munich, or being braced by brewery-fresh Stone IPA in San Diego – visiting Cantillon brewery in Brussels was right at the top.


For a start the place really has no right to exist at all. Years of decline and changing drinking habits meant that Lambic all but died out, with only a handful of breweries in Brussels keeping the tradition alive and producing tart, spontaneously fermented lambic beers for a small, niche local audience. At the same time, a worrying trend for overly sweetened ‘psuedo-lambics’ began in the 1970s and continues to this day - often heavily dosed with fruit syrups, they carry the name but not methods or true flavours of Lambic.

Eventually, Cantillon were the only ones left brewing Lambic in Brussels, but were rewarded for their perseverance through the dark years of Lambic once America got a taste for it in the late 90s and sour beers became popular amongst discerning beer drinkers. Now they are the most famous and revered lambic brewery in the World.

It’s important to understand the distinction between ‘sour beers’, which can include beers dosed with brett or any number of ‘wild yeasts’, and true spontaneously fermented lambics like those produced at Cantillon. The beers brewed in the Cantillon brewery are fermented solely by the wild yeasts in the air, which is let in through wooden slats in the roof of the brewery and allowed to come in to contact with the freshly brewed wort, which is pumped into the large, square, open topped cooling vessel located in the ramshackled loft.

At one time, this was how all beer was produced and it was only with the discoveries made by microbiologist Louie Pasteur into the fermentation process, specifically the isolation of individual yeasts, which led to the more controlled methods now widely used in modern brewing.

Cantillon has changed very little over the last hundred years and still uses the traditional methods and 17th century brewkit which they, and thousands of other international fans, believe produce the most complex sour beers in the world. This includes remaining in the same, tightly packed brewing space as they always have for fear of upsetting the delicate ecosystem of microbes and yeasts which give the beer its unique flavour.

When it is the living things in the air itself which your business relies on, you can understand why they take this so seriously. This is why you’ll never see a cobweb being swept away inside Cantillon. Because, as strange as it might sound, they are essential to the microcosm of the brewhouse and ensure that a space packed with bubbling barrels of spontaneously fermenting beer isn’t over-run with sugar-seeking fruit flies.

If there were flies around, which there aren’t, they’d have plenty to feast upon. Row after row of wooden barrels line the sprawling cellars of Cantillon. The wooden barrel heads are chalked with various letters which I decipher as referring to Gueuze, Lambic and Iris – the latter being a lambic produced with all pale malt and no wheat, leading to a slightly darker beer, which is then dry hopped for a fruitier, softer sourness.

Darkness and dankness fill the walking space between the rows and the aroma is a soft, intoxicating mix of overripe fruit and damp wood. I take in the space like a crime-scene investigator – floor, walls, surfaces and ceilings – whilst listening for the faint bubble and pop of quietly fermenting beer, breaking free of its barrel’s bung.

You feel a genuine sense of reverence as you explore the well-worn rooms of Cantillon Brewery, with every inch of the place having a piece of history attached to it. Whether it’s the thousand-stacked bottles of gueuze quietly maturing, or that magical open topped fermenting vessel tucked away in the loft, everything has a purpose and a story to tell.

And explore is exactly the right word to use. Even the modestly marked wooden doors of the entrance ensure every person who enters has a look of I found it on their face as they walk into the tasting room - before being ushered through into the brewery itself, armed with some information and a smile, then thrust into the thick of it and allowed to explore, enjoy, at their leisure.

There really is something magical in the air at Cantillon.

 

Brasserie Cantillon
56 rue Gheude,
1070 Brussels

www.cantillon.be

 

 

 

2 comments:

  1. Great post - hitting exactly on what makes Cantillon so special. It isn't so much a brewery as an ecosystem :)

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  2. Glad you enjoyed it mate and thanks for reading. As cliched as it might sound, the place really inspired me to write, which as you can tell by my recent lack of posts hasn't happened in quite some time.

    A post on the Cantillon beer I tried in their tasting room is coming up next.

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