Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Great Belgian Beer Run: Day One - Part Two - Brewery Cantillon

Blogging from Belgium on the train: My excuse for crazy typo's

They were outside settling up with the cab driver as I tore open the unassuming front door. I usually attempt to maintain some semblance of manners with others, especially my friends, but in my excitement, I nearly ran in to Brewery Cantillon. This was one of two real crown jewels of our travels. Day one was for Cantillon and day two was for Westvleteren, home of the Trappist beers of St. Sixtus Abbey. To me however, Cantillon was the real prize for so many reasons. 

Upon entering Cantillon I was immediately struck with how rustic it was. It propelled me back in time to my years growing up on a farm with all of the requisite outbuildings. The walls were rough stone covered with plaster and paint. There is a simple set of tables and shelves to display there various wares, a small tasting area with tables and barrels to place your glasses on and to sit, and at the tasting rooms center a small potbellied stove that was fed wood by staff members a few times an hour. The decor was simple. They left the complexity to their beers. 

For 6€ you can receive the tour. They allow you to wander about freely with a guidebook to explain the various stations the brewery was broken in to. The breweries equipment looked to belong in a museum rather than in the work place of an actual operational brewery. My friends and I examined every inch of the brewery that was made available to us. As a brewer, a lover of history, and a beer enthusiast, it could not get much better. 
Brew Kettle
At the end of our tour we seated ourself in the tasting room awaiting our two samples that are a part of the tour's end. A young woman brought us each a glass of gueuze. Before I go further allow me to give you the abridged version of what these beers are, how they are made. 

These are low alcohol beers that usually include a solid portion of wheat in the recipe. They also utilize aged hops rather than fresh. They do this gain the preservative qualities the hops bring to beer, but without the hop flavor and aroma that leaves the hops during their aging process. Once the brewer is done boiling the wort (unfermented beer), they transfer it hot, up to the top level of the brewery into something called a cool ship. Their cool ship is a large copper vessel, wide but shallow that helps the wort to cool, due to the large amount of surface area exposed to the cool winter's air. 
 Cool ship
 Vents open to the outside

What is unusual about their beer is that they do not add yeast once the wort is cooled. Instead they open up large slats in the walls that allow the natural airborne yeast to find the surface of the wort and begin the process of fermentation. Said fermentation takes place in large oak barrels for one to three years prior to being bottled. 

The base beer that Cantillon makes is their lambic. It is still (uncarbonated) and served at cool. A gueuze is a blend of a one and three year old lambic, that is blended to maximize the final beer's complexity. This beer is carbonated, as the younger lambic still has some sugar in it, and the blended beer completes fermentation in the bottle, leaving a carbonated beverage behind. From there, the brewers will blend the gueuze with various fruits: wine grapes, apricots, raspberries, cherries, etc. 

Our goal as a three man tasting party was to taste every beer that they have available. It is not a difficult task as all of their pours are small, around four ounces. Add to that the fact that they all weigh in at a moderate 5% abv, and you have a broad horizon for beer appreciation. We tasted out way through the menu, thoroughly impressed with the depth of character that each beer displayed. I was and am wary of posting too high of praise for this brewery due to their reputation and my expectation of greatness. However, I think I can confidently say that there beers are supremely complex and so well balanced. I have tasted a long line of sour beers, and none are as consistently complex and as skillfully handled as Cantillon.  The gueuze is my favorite. 

My traveling partners were encouraging me to speak with Cantillon's brewmaster, Jean Van Roy. He is one of my brewing heroes, not just for the beers he makes, but for his brewing philosophy. I remember an interview he gave with the Brewing Network on their show, the Sunday Session. When asked if Jean had ever felt pressure to produce his beers faster, Mr. Van Roy replied, "We do not want to betray our lambic, we do not want to betray our beer." When I finally worked up the courage to approach him, I told him that I had heard that quote from him, and I explained how it was so inspirational for me, and now, the bedrock of my philosophy on beer and brewing. 

He I could tell that he was a touch embarrassed by hearing his words recited back to him, but then he continued in that same vein. He explained to me that his brewery is his family business, and that he feels as if they are maintaing a piece of history that was almost lost a few decades before as flavorless maco-beers were sweeping the globe. He took over brewing from his father, his sister does tours and sells their wares. This is why the brewery is so familiar and comforting, it is an extension of the family for them. 

It ended up that the woman who had been serving us beers all day was his sister. She interrupted Jean and I's conversation to speak with him in french. Having no idea of what she was saying, I watched her gesture to where we had been sitting as she went on for some time. Jean replied in french, but he started to say some words that I understood: Cuvee, Gueuze, and 2006. They were discussing which off the menu reserve beer they would pour us. His sister walked away to be back moments later with bottle of their six year old gueuze. It was poured, Jean told us to enjoy, and excused himself back to his work in the brewery. 
 2006 Gueuze with tasting room
2006 Gueuze merchandise counter in background

At his point my friends were enjoying their gueuze at the counter by the merchandise. I withdrew to a corner of the tasting room with my beer. As I have done with every beer I have tasted on is trip, I took pictures of it, and took audio notes. It feels silly to admit, but I held back tears while drinking our reserve gueuze. It was for so many reasons, the enormity of our trip and how unexpected it is, the time I was spending with friends, lack of sleep, Cantillon, and the people that brought it to life. It was obvious that I was near tears. Jean's sister saw this and asked my friends what I was doing, and they explained my pictures and note taking. 

When I approached the counter after finishing our six year old gueuze, I began speaking to Jean's sister. I asked her how long she had been working there, at this point I still did not know that she was family. She held her hand out and down to her knees and said, "forever." I asked her what her favorite beer was from the brewery and she admitted the gueuze to be her favorite. I asked what was her favorite place that was not Cantillon. She smiled as she said, "There is only one beer, one brewery, and one girl." gesturing to herself. Despite her joke, she gave me a small brochure for a lambic bar near by that offers a wide line of beer, cheeses, and breads that she highly recommended. When I asked to purchase a block of their cheese and a tulip glass, she would not allow me to pay, insisting that it was on them. I don't know why she extended me this kindness but it will never be forgotten. It was the perfect end to a perfect first day in Belgium. 


  1. Seriously!? You cried at Cantillon!?!

    That is AWESOME!!

  2. I am equal parts proud and embarrassed about that, but true it is. It was so bad ass, Eric. So bad ass.

  3. Almost the same experience I had in 2010, but with Jean's dad Jean-Pierre, from whom Jean took over the business. It was hard to not be a drooling fanboy but somehow I managed. Kinda. He broke open some old reserve stuff, including a dusty, label-less bottle of lambic from the late 90s. And he sent me off with an '07 Grand Cru on him. And I'm not going to lie, I teared up a bit too. This is the *ultimate* pilgrimage a beer geek can make, in my opinion. It's personal, historic and what good beer is all about-making new friends and the experience. I assume she sent you to Moeder Lambic?...