This month I’m coming up on a beer anniversary of sorts. Last October, I took a trip with some friends of mine to some of the Trappist monasteries of Belgium. It was my first real experience delving into the world of Belgian brewing and ended up being the impetus for my awakened passion for all things beer. One of the disappointments of that trip though was missing out on a visit to Brussel’s most well-known Lambic producer, the Cantillon brewery.
As a commemoration of that momentous occasion, I decided to take a day trip this past week back to Belgium. My primary concern this time around though was logistic. Since Belgian beer is so hard to come by in my neck of the woods, this would be a perfect chance to stock up on some of my favorites. Essentially, I was going for an international beer run. But, like a good beer tourist, I was determined to utilize the opportunity to hit a few must-see beer locales in Brussels with Cantillon at the very top of my list.
You really can’t pick a more nondescript location for a brewery. Nestled in a narrow warehouse-type building in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood of the city, the brewery has been in continuous operation here for over a hundred years. Still owned by the Cantillon family (actually run by Jean-Pierre Van Roy, the son-in-law of the last Cantillon), this establishment is a monument to tradition craft of brewing. It is indeed the last remaining brewery in Brussels that brews Lambic beers using completely traditional methods.
While guided tours are available in many circumstances, most people who make the trek to Cantillon get treated to a very informative self-guided tour through the brewery operation. And, for someone who has done his fair share of brewery tours, this one is probably the most unique experience I’ve ever had. The hallmark of the brewery is its vintage nostalgia. Most of the equipment used in the brewing process by Cantillon are the same machines used over a hundred years ago. Large copper brew kettles and rows of oak barrels are the standard here.
One of the most interesting features of Cantillon’s atmosphere are the cobwebs. Brewing traditional lambics, Cantillon stresses the use of organic ingredients in their brewing process. That means dealing with lots of grains and fruits like cherries and raspberries, which, in turn, translates into lots of insects hanging around looking for a feast. Since the brewery shies away from non-organic methods such as pesticides, they combat this menace more naturally using spiders. The entire brewery is strewn with thousands of cobwebs and spider webs. We were told that its forbidden for any employee to disturb a web no matter where it may lie.
All of these features give the inside of the Cantillon brewery a very earthy mystique. But, their methods certainly translate into some amazing beer. At the end of the brief tour, visitors are offered a tasting of a few of the brewery’s main beers – a Gueuze, which is a blend of young and 3-year-old Lambics, and either a Kriek or their Gambrinus, which are Lambics with sour cherries or raspberries respectively.
I confess that I’m really not a Lambic fan. The barnyard funk of spontaneous fermentation is definitely an acquired taste. But, the beers produced by Cantillon are amazing. Of course, all of their beers have the typical sour flavors found in Lambics, but each of the beers I sampled had an outstanding smoothness and drinkability. Once your palate grows accustomed to the sour tastes, the many subtleties of the Lambic emerge. These beers seem to have the flavors and character of brews from a long-forgotten age. Back before the sterile mechanization of modern brewing methods, all beers would have at least some measure of this earthy, natural sourness. It’s this traditional flavor along with the highly crafted subtlety that make Cantillon a historical treasure.
On my first trip to Belgium over a year ago, I was able to pick up a few bottles of Cantillon Lambics at a beer store in the city. Since that time, these bottles have been sitting in my dark, cool closet aging slowly. I’ve been waiting for the right time to whisk them out of their lagered state and pop them open for my enjoyment. After this most recent visit, I definitely have a much deep appreciation for this dying art of brewing. Perhaps this is a poetic moment to pull out those forgotten bottles in salute to this one-of-a-kind brewery.