Just outside the center of Brussels, where hustle and bustle, business, and grandiosity reign is a rough diamond of Belgium that needs no shining. The Cantillon brewery, under ordered chaos, has been producing spontaneously-fermented lambics for around 100 years. Patience, creativity, and instinct are virtues for these brewers of highly traditional, complex Belgian beers. I visited Cantillon, tucked away along a quiet side street near Brussels’ south station, for a self-tour of the ‘lambic lab.’ I was greeted and lectured about the importance of preserving traditional lambic brewing practices by the sister of the brewer, Jean-Pierre Van Roy, who, along with her brother of course, descends from a long line of lambic brewers. As I listened to her recitation, my eyes wandered to a row of elegant green 75cl bottles. Unblended lambic, geueze, raspberry and cherry lambics… tart, juicy tonics… I drooled a bit onto my shirt and snapped back to reality, quickly thanking Ms. Van Roy and shuffling off to begin my tour. A couple samples awaited me at the end.
I zigged and zagged around the corridors and stairs and attics of the dormant brewery. Cantillon does not brew very often and is limited even further by the fact that traditional lambics are only brewed during the winter months; summer can bring too many overactive, acidic wild yeasts and bacteria that turn the beer into vinegar. I asked Jean if he ever considered producing vinegar, and I got a slap in the face. First was the room housing the mash tun and the upper level where milled malt and raw wheat are fed into the tun below, along with aged hops that have lost their bitterness but retained their preservative qualities. Aged hops can smell a bit cheesy, and I had to bend over and sniff my boots a couple times to make sure the smell wasn’t me. Well, I contributed a bit. Another floor held a stock of unused barrels and bags of malt and wheat and a half-floor above boasted a sign announcing that the next room was the most important of the brewery. It housed a large, shallow, open copper vat flanked by rows of windows to the outside. The wind whipped and whistled and a brisk wind raised goosebumps on my arms. This copper vat was the coolship, where wort is pumped to cool overnight. Meanwhile, those sneaky bastard wild yeasts find their way into the sweet wort and begin their massive micro-organismic orgy. Over years, these horny cowboys will continually reproduce and eventually consume nearly all the sugars in the beer, from the shortest to the longest-chain. Different strains of yeast and bacteria act at different times but in the end the beer is extraordinarily dry – no residual sugars.
All that talk was making me hot, so I moved downstairs to the maturing room. Barrel after endless barrel filled every nook and cranny; the fruity, funky smell of lambic cut through the air and singed my nostrils. Something in the dank, dark corner hissed and I clutched the Glock 9 in my back pocket, but it was just a barrel with over-eager fermenting lambic. Luckily, I haven’t had to use my piece in two years of brewery tour service.
The hissing barrel
Finally, I brushed past the cobwebs and sneezed through the dust to find the tasting room. A small wood stove emanated its tinglesome warmth and I cradled half a glass of Gueuze (almost pronounced "gooze," but keep your lips tight), a lively blend of old and new lambic. Next came the Kriek and then the Rosé de Gambrinus, two lambics refermented on cherries and raspberries, respectively. The extra sugars in the fruit get those yeasts in the mood again, and they go at it like dogs in heat. Well, after these samples I felt strength again to find my way back to my host's house. It was just the boost I needed to face Brussels' public transportation system...
Organic gueuze referments in the bottle