I’m taking a break from reviews this week to focus on my recent honeymoon in Brussels, Belgium. During the next few days, I’ll be covering my thoughts on the culture, the craft and – of course – the amazing beer and breweries my bride and I enjoyed while on our trip in what many consider to be the mecca of beer.
After a long night’s sleep to help recoup from the jet lag, my wife and I decided to spend our second day in Brussels sightseeing and checking what else was around the city. We took a bus ride over to the Atomium, a science exhibit built for the 1958 World Fair, and some other various historic places throughout Brussels.
After grabbing lunch and trying to plan the rest of our day, we were relieved to realize that not more than a five-minute subway ride away was one of the most popular and sought-after breweries among folks in the states: Cantillon.
Founded in 1900, Cantillon is one of original purveyors of traditional lambic beers, including krieks and gueuzes. During the last century, Cantillon’s brewing methods have stayed nearly the same: Brewing in only the cooler months of the year to cut down on contamination, using only fresh fruits in their fruit-flavored beers, and continuing to use the original brew house.
It’s likely you know someone who is a Cantillon freak, and someone who makes it their life’s mission to track down and crack open any bottle they can find. I was lucky enough to enjoy a taste of their Classic Gueuze a little while back, so I can understand what the fuss is about. But while the beer is great in its own right, the physical brewery itself is also a marvel.
After walking through the big wooden doors at the brewery’s entrance, you step into the tasting room, where you’re greeted by either the owners, Jean-Pierre Van Roy and his wife, Claude, or their daughters Jean and Julie. On the day we went, we were met by his daughters (I believe) who took our €6 admittance, gave us a short five-minute introduction to the brewery and then let us on our way.
It’s hard to believe in a brewery as historic and sensitive as Cantillon, visitors are allowed to tour the entire place by themselves and at their leisure.
The first stop is the brewing area. The wheat and barley are milled on the floor above, then boiled two hours, decanted and filtered. The wort is then pumped up to the floor above and the solids are collected to sell off as animal fodder.
From there, we took a narrow staircase to the second floor where the hop boilers and crushing machine are located. The hop boilers use a propeller to mix the aged hops (about 3 years old) with the wort. Next to that is the crushing machine, which mills the grain, and the hot water tanks, which hold 5,000 liters of water used for brewing.
Up another narrow staircase is the granary, where all the wheat, malted barley and hops are stored from the middle of October through April, which is the period of time Cantillon brews all its beer. What was really interesting to learn about was how they aged hops instead of fresh hops. Older hops have more tannin, a natural preservative, than fresh hops do, which helps keep the beers fresher. Since we were there in the middle of summer, the granary was sadly void of delicious hops.
Above the granary is the coolship, the shallow open copper tray that helps quickly cool the wort and mix it with the ambient air. The wort is pumped from the hop boilers and allowed to cool in the open air overnight. The wild yeast in the brewery has been cultivated for years, and the openings on the other side of the coolship are used to help keep it thriving. And during the cooler months, there’s less chance of wild agents getting mixed in.
From there, we moved on the barrel room. The wort is pumped into oak and chestnut casks where fermentation takes between three weeks and a month, after which time the cask is sealed and allowed to sit. The lambics undergo spontaneous fermentation as the wild yeast reacts with the sugars as it sees fit. During our walk through, we saw barrels that had been there for three years, and would later be used in gueuzes.
When the beer is ready to be bottled, the brewers taste around 10 barrels and select between six and eight of them to bottle. (Lambics are finicky, so the brewers want to make sure to get the best, one-, two- and three-year batches for bottling.) The beer is pumped into tuns for filtering. For fruit beers – krieks, peches, etc. – 150 kg (330 lbs) of fresh fruit is mixed with 500 liters (132 gallons) of lambic and allowed to sit for another three months.
Down below the barrel room is the barrel cleaning room. After being pressure washed as needed, the barrels are steam cleaned to remove microorganisms, then filled with chains and hot water, sealed and hooked up to a machine that rotates it. The chains scrape the inside surface and the water rinses it. After being cleaned one more time with hot water, the barrels are drip-dried and then ready to go again.
The beer in the tuns above the barrels cleaning room is pumped through a reservoir to a machine that can fill 1,200 750 ml. bottles an hour. They’re then plugged with a cork, capped, put on a conveyor belt and stored horizontally in their cellar. The cellar holds about 13,500 bottles of all the lambics they make, most of which sits there for at least three years before being sold.
I suggest you have a clean pair of pants ready before looking at this next photo.
And that concluded my tour of the brewery. All that walking with a gaping mouth left me plenty thirsty, so my wife and I hit the tasting room to enjoy the spoils.
Each tour comes with two free beers: The Gueuze 100% Lambic Bio, their organic gueuze, and then either the Kriek 100% Lambic or their signature lambic.
The gueuze was amazing. Slightly biting and not nearly as tart as the Classic Gueuze, with a slight sweetness, easy drinkability and just enough sourness left on your lips to leave you wanting more. My wife is no fan of sours, but she loved it, so that says something.
While I opted for the classic lambic, my wife went for the kriek. Both were picture-perfect versions of their respective styles. The lambic was soft on the palate, yet with a good tart sting and a smooth mouthfeel. The kriek absolutely exploded with rich, tart cherries. Both were just phenomenal. We both opted for an extra glass, this time of the Rose de Gambrinus – an amazing cascade of delicious raspberries – as we marveled in what the day had brought us.
Cantillon is without question the most amazing and eye-opening brewery I’ve ever had the luck of visiting. For people who are really passionate about beer and beer history, it’s hard to not wax poetic about the place. The history coupled with the importance it held and still holds to the lambic style and Belgian beer history is unmatched. Walking through the physical brewery and knowing you’re in the middle of a century-old institution – one that still does what it set out to do in 1900 – is humbling. The brewers are meticulous, perfectionists and clearly people who put heart into every drop of beer they make, and that perfection is clear in every sip.
As I said after my first taste of Cantillon earlier this year, I now see what all the fuss is about.