Visiting Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels, Belgium.

9 Jul

We only spent one day in Brussels, so we tried to make the most of it. Our first stop was at Brasserie Cantillon, the last traditional lambic brewery in Belgium.

The exterior of the Cantillon brewery in Brussells, Belgium.

Cantillon has been producing lambic beers for over 1,000 years, and it’s always been family-run and independent. Their attitude toward brewery tours is a little different from other breweries: They give you a brochure and let you take a self-guided tour!

Mashing tun at Cantillon

Our first stop on the tour is the mashing house where the mash up all of the wheat, barley and hops and mix it with warm water to convert the starch in the grains into fermentable sugars. This is the only sugar that’s present in Cantillon’s beers. They don’t add any refined sugars to their beers, which is what makes them unique.

The cooling tun at Cantillon

This is the other room that makes Cantillon such a special brewery: The cooling tun room. This is where the magic happens! After leaving the masher, the liquids (now called the “wort”) are boiled with hops and then pumped into this giant cooling vessel which is shallow but has a huge surface area. After that I don’t really understand what happens. The brochure that we got explained it, but not in clear enough terms. From what I understand, this is where the wort is “inoculated” with natural airborne wild yeasts that are present in the room where the cooling takes place. These yeasts are what cause the “spontaneous fermentation” that gives lambic beer its unique characteristics. Apparently this process can only happen in the Brussels region because of the air in the Senne valley. I’d love to see other brewers in other regions experiment with lambic brewing to see if this is actually true!

Oak barrels where spontaneous fermentation is occurring

These barrels are where the spontaneous fermentation actually takes place. They weren’t fermenting anything while we were there (their brewing season is October to April), but if they were, we might have seen white foam coming out of holes in the barrels. They can’t fully close them because the fermentation is so fast and violent that it could cause the barrels to explode within a few days of being filled!

Cobwebs act as natural pest control at Cantillon

Because insecticides are harmful to the brewing process, Cantillon does it old-school: Cobwebs and spiders. Over the years I’ve learned to love the spiders that creep around in my house because I know that they kill the other bugs, and Cantillon has the same sentiments. The brochure explains that “A lambic brewer never destroys a cobweb and killing spiders is considered ‘not done’.” That being said, I didn’t see any spiders while we were there, which is something that I’m very grateful for, regardless of their usefulness.

Antique corker with antique labels at Cantillon

Antique corker with antique labels at Cantillon

It’s not in use anymore, but I adored this antique bottling machine and the old labels on the bottles in it. I wish that their labels still looked like this!

Kriek bottles being cellared horizontally

Gueuze bottles being stored horizontally

Crates at Cantillon

The last leg of the tour showed us their cellars where the final stage of re-fermentation occurs for the fruit beers and the gueuze beers. Because re-fermentation takes 6 months and the beer cannot be sold before then, the cellar at Cantillon has space for 11,000 bottles!

With the tour complete, we were invited to stay and sample so of their products. We tried four kinds: The Gueuze, the Kriek, the Rose de Gambrinus, and the Faro. We paid extra to sample the Faro, but the others were free with our 6€ admission price.

Bar list at Cantillon

Tasting the gueuze from Cantillon

Lambic beer definitely has a unique taste, and it’s one that may need to be acquired. If you’re accustomed to drinking pilsners or lagers this beer is probably going to weird you out. It’s full-on sour. I don’t know if there’s a better way to describe it. It doesn’t have the sweetness or the bitterness that most other beers have. It’s the unsweetened lemonade of beers. I wasn’t a huge fan of the gueuze when I first had it in the cool tasting room at Cantillon, but after having another one later in the week on a canal-side patio on a sunny day in Brugges, I started to appreciate it more. It’s the ultimate summer beer!

Pouring the Kriek at Cantillon

Pouring rose at Cantillon

Tasting the rose and the kriek at Cantillon

Next we tried the Rose de Gambrinus and the Kriek. I cannot remember from the photo which one is which, although you can see that one is cloudier than the other. (Cantillon lovers, if you know which one is which, please let me know in the comments!) I liked both of these, although I think I preferred the Kriek. Both have a musky fruity smell and a really light crisp sour taste. I’ve tasted other fruit lambics in the past but they were nothing like these two! In comparison to the new-style lambics more common to Ontario that I’ve tasted (like Mort Subite Kriek and Belle-Vue Kriek) these are incredibly tart and very light tasting. I can see why the new-style fruit lambics are more popular because these traditional fruit lambics are very subtle on the fruit and very heavy on the sourness. That style isn’t for everyone, but I did appreciate them.

Tasting the Faro at Cantillon

Our last taster was the Faro, which is a lambic that’s had candy sugar and caramel added to it. The sweetness is still very subtle and allows the sourness of the lambic to shine. I wasn’t a fan of this one myself and preferred the Gueuze, which has more carbonation because of the re-fermentation, and which I also thought was a bit more complex in its flavours. Still, it was very special to be able to taste this beer since it can’t be kept more than 4 weeks in bottles because the addition of sugar causes such a strong fermentation that there’s a danger of the bottles exploding. Also… Don’t you love the glass?

Our visit to Cantillon was a truly special and unique brewery tour experience and one that I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in beer. The owners are genuinely passionate about preserving the traditional lambic brewing style and they’ll be more than happy to answer all your questions about the beer, the brewery, and the city, right down to where you should go for dinner and drinks after the tour.

If you don’t want to go all the way to Brussels to enjoy their beer, you can visit Brasserie Dieu du Ciel on Saturday, September 17th for Zwanze Day 2011!

Cantillon Brewery
56 rue Gheude
1070 Brussels

Open Monday to Friday from 9 AM till 5 PM
Saturday from 10 AM to 5 PM
Closed on Sundays and public holidays
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