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Posts Tagged ‘lambic beer’

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.

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During the first half of our day in Belgium, we scored some really nice weather.  We were graced at Orval with warm sun and blue sky.  But, as we drove into Brussels that evening, that distinctive northern European drizzle started rolling through.  Because of poor planning on my part, we ended up hitting the outskirts of the city right when rush hour traffic picked up.  Sitting in traffic is not the best way to start your evening.  After a good bit of stop-and-go, we finally reached the city center, where we made our way to our first planned stop – the famous brewer of Lambic beers, Cantillon.  Well, our initial disappointment with Brussels continued as we found out when we arrived that we had missed the brewery’s visiting hours by a half an hour.  Nuts.  So, after an hour in Belgium’s capital, it was already Brussels 3, Visitors 0.

Well, Cantillon would have to wait for another day.  We made our way through the rain-soaked streets to the historic center of town where we parked our car and proceeded on foot.  Our goal was the world-renowned bar and beer mecca, the Delirium Cafe.  However, the moment we stepped out of the garage in which we parked, the light northern European drizzle turned into southeast Asian monsoon forcing us to flee for cover under the nearest awning.  It seemed that our time this city would end in futility.  But, whenever you think things are at their worst, something always seems to come along to shine light on a dreary situation.  For it just so happened that the awning under which we took cover belonged to a quaint little store called Beer Planet!  Things were looking up!

Beer Planet would have to wait though for soon the rain let up enough to allow us to continue on to Delirium.  Delirium is known around the world as the bar with the most available beers for sale – totalling over 2,000!  The bar is located in a narrow side alley a mere few hundred meters away from the extravagant Grand Place.  The inside would remind you of just about every other bar you’ve been in before – worn down wooden bar stools, antique tin signs on the walls, young people sitting around chatting while drinking and smoking.  But, the real treasure of the place is not in the decor but in the beer offerings.  First off, there is no menu per se that you use to select a beer you want.  You actually have to spend 5€ to purchase a magazine-like catalog with a list of all of the beers available.  Once you figure out how to procure that, then the real challenge begins.

Looking back it was probably a good thing, but I didn’t really know enough about Belgian beer to make the massive selection terribly overwhelming.  I knew that I would choose my first beer based on a recommendation from a friend who lived in Belgium.  At the bar, I picked myself up a bottle of the Trappist Rochefort 8.  This Belgian Strong Ale poured a beautiful dark brown color with a medium head.  The aroma was rich with dried fruits and dark sugars.  The taste was complimentary with a strong raisin flavor combined with alcohol making it almost rummy.  But, this fruitiness wasn’t overpowering, and it didn’t remain – the light hop finishing balanced out the malty sweetness.  This was a worthy follow-up to the other Trappist delight we experience that afternoon.

Being in Belgium and knowing we had missed out on Cantillon, I thought it almost a duty that I try at least one Lambic beer.  So, beer #2 on the hit list ended up being Oud Beersel‘s Oude Kriek.  Now, I must say, I’ve never been a fan of Lambic beers.  I never quite developed a taste for that funky sourness that marks the style.  But, I figured that this trip was all about being open-minded, so I gave it a whirl.  Poured into a nice sniffer glass, the brew looked attractive enough – a nice deep red color like cherry wine.  The beer, however, didn’t quite do it for me.  The cherry-like sourness combined with a sort of beer-esque hoppiness is probably acquired taste.  But, it was an interesting enough taste experience that I wouldn’t consider it a waste.

On our way to our final beer destination of the evening, we made a pit stop at our former rain sanctuary, Beer Planet, to shop for a few bottles of take-away beers.  This place had within its tiny confines essentially every Belgian beer out there for sale.  It was a convenient place to pick up a few souvenirs.  However, there was one particular brew that Beer Planet could not offer us.  The Trappist monastery of St. Sixtus in western Belgium produces what many consider to be the most coveted beer in the world – Westvleteren 12.  This beer is even more difficult to find than its six other Trappist brothers owing to the fact that the monastery only sells it by reservation at their location in Westvleteren.  But, fortunately for us, we found out about a pub in Brussels that served this rare brew.

But, it turned out finding the Best Beer in the World would be a bit more challenging than we had expected.  We ended up wandering around the streets of Brussels for a good hour trying to find the locale.  We finally stumbled upon it in a dimly lit back alley not far from the Grand Place.  Walking into this pub was like being transported back 100 years to the time of aristocrats and robber barons.  The place looked like one of these swanky old establishments that have been around for centuries catering to Brussel’s upper class residents – genuine wood-paneled walls, brass bar rails, old gentlemen sitting in the corner booth smoking pipes.  My friends and I definitely de-classed this joint a few rungs simply by walking in.  But, if you tried to imagine the bar the served the Holy Grail of beer, you figure it might look something like this.

We would not be intimidated though.  We found a nice quiet corner to sit down and flipped open a drink menu where we found spread out on one entire page in large type: “Westvleteren 12 – ‘The Best Beer in the World’ – 10€”.  The deep dark brown brew came to us served in a typical Belgian goblet.  The aroma was nice enough – spicy and caramel smell with a nice dried fruit sweetness.  But, honestly, I was a bit disappointed when I took my first sip.  The taste was a lot more mild than I figured it would be.  I guess it was a problem of expectations.  When you anticipate drinking the greatest beer on earth, you might expect the first sip to send you into immediate convulsions of rapture.  Perhaps we were expecting too much.  But, in the end the beer did indeed satisfy.  As I took more sips, the real complexity and subtlety of the beer began to emerge.  By the end of glass, we knew we had experienced something special.

By the time we left the place, we knew the hour had come to make our way back home.  After walking around the city center in order to work off some of the lingering effects of the night’s consumption, we climbed in our car and hit the road back to Cologne.  After a full day of Belgian beer exploration, I was struck by a few things.  First, I realized that I had seriously misjudged the Belgian brewing tradition.  There was a whole world of beer here that I had never taken seriously but was now open to me.  Secondly, my foray into Belgian beer had expanded my appreciate for beer in general.  After experiencing Belgian brewing, German beer in my eyes was not any less wonderful.  On the contrary, the Belgians gave me an even greater love for the unique and beautiful aspects of the German art.  In the end, it was this trip that led to the creation of this blog and my desire to know more about beer.  Each beer style and culture has something to offer – whether it is German, English, American, or Belgian.  Our joy as the consumer is that we get to find out what that is.

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