Written by Jess R.
If you all recall, and how could you forget, bb.com took an epic trip to Belgium in March of this year, marking one of the most exciting, most educational, most delicious beer experiences of a lifetime.
Among the beer tastings, beer bar dominations and brewery visits, we stopped at Cantillon. Founded in 1900, Cantillon is a staple in Belgium beer making. Known as the Museum of Geuzes, this brewery has perfected the process of making lambics and gueuzes. Time stands still here despite the ever changing background of the city of Brussels.
On March 16, 2010, Day 7 of our trip, we make the hour or so drive from Antwerp to Brussels. First stop, a little piece of history. We pull up in our rental car, and walk up to a non-descript facade with a large open garage door. We are greeted with a “Bonjour” as Brussels is primarily French speaking and receive a glass to taste Rose de Gambrinis and Faro. I am instantly in love.
Touring the Brewery:
A self guided tour is offered with a beer in one hand and a brochure in the other. I found this description on Cantillon’s website that I wanted to share:
Machines, most of them original, barrels with Lambic, Kriek or Framboise, cellars where bottles of Gueuze, Kriek or Lambic Grand Cru wait patiently till they get transferred to a customer’s table, a mashing tun and boilers, a granary with a cooling tun where the Brussels air has free play, a filter and a bottling machine, these are the things you’ll see during your visit.
We begin our walk through the process- the mashing tun, boilers, the process of natural fermentation, barrel aging and the bottling of these amazing beers. Each piece of equipment shines with copper lining and glistens with wisdom. I remember climbing up these rotting wooden stairs to the attic area. Open rafters let the sunlight in, as well as the wild yeast used to ferment the beer. When I first became a fan of lambics, I was fascinated by the natural occurrence of wild yeast in Belgium.
Brettanomyces is a genus of wild yeast important in brewing lambic, a beer produced not by the deliberate addition of brewer’s yeasts, but by spontaneous fermentation by wild yeasts and bacteria. Brettanomyces lambicus, B. bruxellensis and B. claussenii are native to the Senne Valley region of Belgium, where lambic beer is produced. Here at Cantillon, once the beer is ready to be fermented, it is placed in open containers begging for the hungry yeast to eat the sugar and produce alcohol.
Next is the barreling room. Lambic fumes escape from the barrels in which the beer matures for three years. This process is not for the impatient individual. After our tour, we were lucky enough to try a one year old lambic straight from the barrel! Subtle in taste and without carbonation, it still possessed a sophistication and complexity that I will never forget.
Throughout the tour, cobwebs hung from the corners, from the machinery and cats wandered throughout the aisle and slept on window sills. Every creature, every organism plays a part in the creation of these beers. A well constructed eco-system was before us and we reaped the benefits of these lambics and guezes.
At the end, we took a seat by a fire place (as the place was on the colder side), glanced at the list consisting of Gueuze, Kriek, Rose Gambinus, December 2008 Lambic, Faro, Saint Lamvinus and Lou Pepe (Kriek, Framboise and Gueuze). What a sight! We sat in silence, in awe of this church of beer.
Side notes about Cantillon and the beers they produce. 1. Lou Pepe refers to their top notch batches. A Lou Pepe Kriek would be their best cherry lambic, for example. 2. Gueuze are not brewed, lambics are brewed. Gueuzes are blends of lambics. See how much you just learned?
Cantillon remains a staple in my growth as a beer writer, beer lover and beer drinker. To see this process, to acknowledge the dedication to historical integrity while producing high quality beers is something I think about quite often when tasting beers of this nature. Brewing lambics is a tedious, scientifically extravagant and well defined process. To honor the memory, we brought back several bottles (at 8 euro per 750ml, how could we not) and a little piece of our amazing trip!
The time has arrived for another dip into the mighty archive. We pick up, oddly enough, on the same day that we left off last time, the 4th of October, 2007. It was a hell of a day for beer drinking. Let’s see what was had and how they tasted shall we…
Stone Brewing Co. (Escondido, CA) – 11th Anniversary
Stone is king. Anniversary beers are prince. Black as death, hoppy as heaven. Boggled? Yes! When comparing the smell with the color, well…it’s confusing. The hop flavor is perfect throughout the sip. Maltiness is present, but quite. Drinks hearty but doesn’t feel overpowering. I really don’t understand this beer. Genius!
The above paragraph is the complete original review. I feel inclined to offer further commentary, in retrospect…so I will. 11th Anniversary may or may not be the original black IPA, I can’t say with much certainty, but I do know that it was one of the first on the market in the U.S. with any prominence. I can still recall how perplexed I was when I tried it. Jumping back a little further, of course, I had to purchase the sequel to 10th Anniversary, which was the first Stone Anniversary beer I ever had, and still the best to date (it was a double IPA and it was increadable). This beer (11th) was so good and unique that it not only spawned a permanent member of the Stone lineup (Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale), but has inspired countless craft breweries around the country to make their own version. Call it what you will, black ale of various names and prefixes, it was based on this one. Stone, like always, proves the game changer.
Brasserie Caracole (Falmignoul, Belgium) – Ambree
8%. Gorgeous amber, maybe a bit richer color, and lively carbonated head. Smell and taste coincide, kind of nutty. Coats the mouth in sugary goodness, taste lasts so long after the sip. I just want to bow respectful to the yeast. Many tastes, most hard to explain.
More commentary: I’ve now had this beer about 5 times, though the above review was written during my initial sampling. This beer is amazing. The brewery as a whole is amazing. Saxo, Nostradamus, Troublette, all great beers. The self-titled (if you will) amber ale, reviewed above, is my favorite. It’s not “kind of nutty”, it’s really nutty, in the best way possible. Like in almost all Belgian ales of any quality, the yeast really is the work horse, and this strain is best in class. Best enjoyed in the colder weather, bring this one as a gift to your next Thanksgiving party. You will impress.
De Proef Brouwerij (Lochristi, Belgium) – Reinaert Flemish Wild Ale
Triple fermented using 2 yeast strains (saccharomyces and brettanomyces). 9% abv. Golden color, nice crisp head, moderate carbonation. Nose of, you guessed it, wild yeast. Much different from all other wild yeast beers I’ve had, much lighter, no fruitiness at all. It’s a true homage to the yeast. I like this beer almost solely out of respect for the yeast. Needs something else to really make it sing.