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!
This week we celebrated the food, beer and culture of Brussels the capital of Belgium (well The City of Brussels is the actual capital). Mussels cooked in a garlic, dry white wine broth with frites (thin strips of potatoes deep fried) is the most popular dish in the country. During and after our meal, we enjoyed three beers brewed in Brussels or the surrounding area. Please meet: Girardin Gueze 1882, Cantillon Kriek 100% Lambic and Hanssens Artisanaal Oude Gueuze.
The birth of Brussels is attributed to Duke Charles of Lower Lotharingia around 979. Damn that’s old! Charles went on to construct the first permanent fortification in the city. Originally, Brussels was a Dutch only speaking country. To date, the majority of residents speak French.
On to the next thing, our featured artist, surrealist Rene Magritte. Now, many amazing, prolific, talented, earth shattering artists are from Belgium. The majority of the most influential artists are from the Renaissance and Baroque periods (from 1300-1700). However, since Brussels is home to the largest collection of modern artist, Magritte’s artworks, this seemed quite fitting. His works frequently displays a juxtaposition of ordinary objects in an unusual context, giving new meanings to familiar things. His most popular work, The Treachery of Images, as seen above, is a picture of a pipe with a caption, in French which translates as “This pipe is not a pipe.” His point? It is not a pipe, it is a painting of a pipe.
Of course, we are all thrilled to be going to Belgium, to soak it all in and drink ALL of the beer. But tonight, tonight, we could barely sit still as we polished off 3 12oz beauties contained in green glass.
The Girardin Gueze 1882 was cracked first and accompanied our mussels and frites. Straight from the “cellar” this beer was served at approximately 50 degrees. In our opinion, the perfect temperature. The carbonation does not overpower the flavor, yet the sourness combined with the texture feels like pop rocks in your mouth. Smells like (not pop rocks) corn, hay and a sour, yet sweet fruit such as a pineapple. A sweet tartness greats your taste buds while an element of apple cider vinegar and pineapple leads the way to the back of your throat and the corners of your jaw line. This beer took a lot of tastes, independent thoughts and discussion to truly detect its qualities. An amazing beer that went perfectly with the wine based broth and saltiness of the mussels.
We decided to split up the two Guezes (although later to find they were distinctly different in smell and flavor) with a Lambic. Before we divulge the beer of choice, lets discuss the qualities of a Lambic styled beer. Lambics are traditionally brewed in the Pajottenland region of Belgium which is just southwest of Brussels. During the brewing process, Lambics are exposed to the wild yeasts and bacteria that are said to be native to the Senne valley. This exposure gives the beer its distinctive flavor which tends to be dry, cidery and sour. Cantillon Kriek 100% Lambic is brewed with cherries (krieks). Blood red in color with a slight transparency, this beer did in fact smell of dried cherries. The physical impact of this beer was unprecedented. There is a sour punch upon first sip then the effect immediately stings the corner of your jaws and dries your throat. This of course, leaves us wanting more and more.
Lastly, Hanssens Artisanaal Oude Gueuze from a brewery with a lot of history. Originally this brewery brewed a brown ale and a lambic. However, once World War I began, production ceased and never began again. From that point on and currently, Hanssens is a blend only establishment (making only Gueuzes). What a job, blending the great beers of Belgium. Once the beers are blended, they are bottle fermented in the brewery’s “caves”. This Gueuze smells like cured meats, pepper and pears. Interesting….the taste has a distinctive funkiness with a combination of malts in the background. It so interesting how the color and carbonation of this beer looks like your average American macro brewery but inside, the smells and the flavors are unique and complex, belonging to this one bottle and this bottle only.
Next week, we plan on waffles for dinner, beers from West Flanders and the cinema experience of “In Bruges”. So check back every week as we wind down the days until our trip to Belgium, Germany, Amsterdam and France!