Waking up early on a Saturday morning in Paris, France the wife and I grab our bags and make our way to the Paris Gare du Nord train station. Gare du Nord is the station for all trains heading north. If geography is not your favorite subject you might not realize to the Northeast of Paris is the small, yet beer rich country of Belgium and we had made arrangements to take a small break from our time in Paris so we could indulge our palates on all the tasty libations that this wonderful country had to offer.
We ride the high speed Thalys train to Brussels, which is only a 90 minute train ride. After arriving at the Midi station, which is the center of the city, we take a quick two stop ride on the metro and drop our bags at our small but very cute bed and breakfast in the middle of the tourist area. From there it’s a relatively short twenty minute walk through some of the more…colorful…parts of Brussels. Not that we ever felt unsafe at any point but it always pays to be aware of your surroundings.
Located in the middle of a nondescript street in a rather unassuming building is the Brouwerij Cantillon, Rue Gheude 56 Straat Bruxelles 1070 Brussel, www.cantillion.be. Cantillon is a very unique brewery, opened in 1900 by Paul Cantillon, this brewery is still owned and operated by the family that started it. They are very proud of that and it’s this pride, I believe, that has lead to the maintaining of such high standards for their products. I suppose what you might be thinking, if you aren’t familiar with the Cantillon name, is that it’s simply a brewery that makes beer. You would be correct, but that doesn’t tell you the whole story. Cantillon is home to one of the oldest and most rare styles of beer that you’ll find, the lambic.
So what the hell is a lambic? I’m glad you asked. A lambic style beer starts like most other beers with the same traditional ingredients, water, wheat, barley and hops, but where lambics change the game is in the fermentation process. Using the original methods employed by brewers for thousands of years, the beer is exposed in large vats to what is known as wild yeast, which in this case is a broad range of wild airborne fermenting agents that are specific to the room in the brewery where it takes place. Scientists have found over 100 different strains of yeast in lambic beer and legend maintains that the specific microorganisms required for production of lambics are only to be found in this particular region of Belgium. This specific environments has not been altered in the one hundred plus years that the brewery has existed, one example of this is that while touring the facility you may notice cobwebs and possibly even spiders. All of these elements and others help create the environment necessary for Cantillon to create the beers that they do.
If the open fermentation stage is not enough to separate what they do at Cantillon from others breweries, I’m guessing this part will. After initial fermentation it’s time to age the beer, for years, so that it can be turned into what is called “Guezue”. A master brewer will take 1,2, and 3 year old lambics and blend them together to create the Guezue and at a certain point, to be determined by the brewer, they will add fruit. A lot of fruit. For example, 500 litres of 2-year old Lambic will have 150kg (which is 330 lbs)of fruit added to its barrel. The fruit will soak for a minimum of three months as the beers takes in the fruits color, taste and sugars. Then when the time comes to bottle it, about 1/3 of the bottle gets a hit of 1-year old lambic to aide in the secondary fermentation process which then creates a Kriek style beer. To clarify, Guezue is the blended lambic, while adding the fruits is what makes it a Kriek.
To say it’s a complex operation is a bit of an understatement, but there is true artistry behind what they do at Cantillon. While not a large scale brewery by any means, they are dedicated to quality control and preserving the traditional methods of creating the styles that come from lambic brewing, like the Geuze and Kriek varieties. It’s these old school methods that distinguish them from other, more large scale lambic brewers who take short cuts to speed up production of lambics such as adding artificial sugars. Cantillon looks down on this practice and it’s one of the reasons why the brewery is also considered a museum. So if you end up in Belgium and your spouse is hassling you about all the beer you are drinking just tell her/him that your next stop is a cultural museum.
Here is a list of some of the beers available and what fruits are added to them.
Gueuze – 1,2,3-year old lambics artfully blended together.
Kriek – 2-year old lamic in which Schaerbeek (sour) cherries are soaked.
Rose de Gambrinus – Kreik but with raspberries
Vigneronne – Lambic with Muscat grapes.
Saint-Lamvinus – Black merlot grapes.
Fou’foune – Bergeron apricots.
Grand Cru Bruocsella – A 3 year old lambic that does not undergo secondary fermentation, considered a missing link between beer and wine.
I have visited a lot of breweries over the years but Cantillon has to be one of the most unique and for that it is definitely worth your time when you happen to be in Brussels. I highly recommend taking the tour while there. It’s self guided, unless you happen to make prior arrangements to go as part of a group, but they provide you with a lot of information and send you on your way without making a guide a necessity. It’s not often you have the opportunity to visit a brewery that’s been around for over 100 years.
That said, if you happen to have a good bottle shop around you, you might be able to sample some without having to dust off your passport. Hopefully, I’ve done a decent job explaining the process of lambics, but if you have questions I’m happy to try and answer them, or better yet, just try the beers for yourself. I found them to be light and refreshing with excellent flavors. The beers do not exceed 5%ABV so it on the lighter side for most of us hopheads, but they are a class act at Cantillon and their recent ranking on ratebeer.com as one of the 100 best breweries in the world is well deserved.