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!
It was a normal Wednesday in every sense of the word. I woke up, ate breakfast, went to work and planned on coming home, going for a run, cooking dinner and watching TV. Yes, my life in general is boring and so is yours. Around 4PM, I got a call, an invitation to the beer experience of a lifetime.
In the midst of Seattle Beer Week, I went to the Tomme Arthur Experience at Brouwer’s Cafe, a five course meal paired with 15, yes 15, Lost Abbey/Port Brewing (Lost Abbey is one brand which focuses on Belgium style beers and Port Brewing is the other brand which focuses more on American style beers, such as IPAs) beers out of San Marcos, CA. A normal, boring Wednesday turned into a night to remember.
First off was a cheese course, 5 delicious cheeses ranging from tangy to savory paired with farmhouse style beers from Lost Abbey: Devotion, Avant Garde and Red Barn. Tomme Arthur described Devotion as having the most hop quality of all three, but was dry and one-dimensional. I do not think he meant anything negative by stating that Devotion was one-dimensional as it was the perfect food pairing beer and allowed the various flavors from the cheese to distinguish the direction of your palette. Avant Garde is Mr. Arthur’s “Saturday Afternoon Beer.” In response to that, I found it slightly strong, although I would drink it on a Saturday afternoon. Again, this went particularly well with the strong flavors from the cheeses. Red Barn was my personal favorite from this course: spicy….just the way I like it. Ginger, black pepper with a slight funk.
Next up, the one and only course that was paired with Port Brewing beers. We had a tostada with smoked trout topped papaya and Habanero chili salsa and arugula paired with pure hops. Wipeout IPA is the best-selling beers across both brands and I can see why. It is well-balanced, not too bitter, not too citrusy but has an intense, complex, hoppiness.
My new-found love, Mongo Double IPA came with a story, Mongo was a cat who was born into the brewing business (“litter”ally). This beer, unfortunately for me and 99.99% of the population is available only on tap. I feel very fortunate to have tasted this beer. Mongo is a big beer with the smoothest finish of any IPA, I personally have ever had. To round out this course was Port Brewing’s Anniversary Ale which had a pure, hop resin character and was sweet in the nose. All of these IPAs paired perfectly with the citrus of the papaya, the salted flavor of the trout and the spiciness of the Habanero. Hats off to the chef.
Next up, the “Raisin Course” appropriately named, “Who the #$#% Put Raisins in My Beer?” This course, was rich, flavorful and down right unimaginable. Pork pate with duck tongue paired with dried, sautéed cherries and dates. This salty, sweet, savory, ‘raisiny’ course was paired with Lost and Found, Judgment Day and 10 Commandment. Lost and Found is an Abbey style beer originally made with raisin puree and is a well-rounded, strong, yet subtle sipping beer. Judgment Day as T. Arthur put it, “oozes raisin texture” and as stated on Lost Abbey’s website,
A stronger and more contemplative version of our Lost and Found Ale. Judgment Day is the base beer for our Cuvee de Tomme.
10 Commandment was my knight in shining armor this course, with rosemary and honey added to this brew, it remains the strongest of the three at 9% ABV. The addition of complex flavors masks the brut strength of this brew.
Interestingly enough, Tomme decided to pair the main course with three sour ales. He made a point to include these delicious brews as the attraction of the night. Generally, sours are a starter beer or paired with desserts. A hearty, medium rare, fine piece of meat with caramelized onions was cut with these fruity, at times oak barreled sour beers. Red Poppy was my favorite and is considered a sour brown ale with sour cherries. This Kreik if you will is one of the better ones I have tasted, as it is not overwhelmingly sour nor highly carbonated. The cherries leave a balance of sourness, sweetness and a savoriness with a dense mouth feel. The Framboise was very challenging to brew and with three different additions of raspberry during the brewing/aging process, it turned out perfectly. Locally sourced raspberries were added, then this beer was aged for a year. More raspberries were added and after three months raspberry concentrate was blended. There is a strong fruit quality (surprise) and that puckering sourness I have come to know and love.
Lastly was the Duck Duck Gooze which is a blend of 1, 2 and 3 year old lambics (these lambics were not spontaneously fermented). Once this is blended, the brew spends one year aging in the bottle- I love me some bottle fermentation! There is not a fruity component to this beer, but a complexity that arises out of an age old process which should be respected and desired by all beer lovers. Duck Duck Gooze is going to be very limited, so if you can grab a bottle, please, send me one.
I know, we aren’t done yet? You do remember I said 5 courses, 15 beers, right? Well on to the last, the dessert, the stouts. At this point my mind wanders off, away from the delicious, chocolate, hazelnut dessert in front of me. I do recall a side of Angel Share ice cream made that day by the chef.
Paired with this wonderfully decadent dessert was Serpent’s Stout, Angel Share and the 2009 Older Viscosity. I have had all three of these beers, but they were better than ever. Serpent’s Stout, encounters both brandy and bourbon barrels during the brewing process. Notes from their website are spot on:
Pours dark and thick, with a creamy mocha-colored head and aromas of roasted malts, dark chocolate and french roast coffee.
Angel Share is a beast of a beer. It is finished in a brandy barrel for the Fall release and has a bourbon finish for the Spring release. You can taste the liquor, the liquor almost cuts right through the texture of this heavy, complex stout. I closed my night with Older Viscosity, one of my favorite stouts. If you all recall this is the salted pretzel doused in chocolate and dipped in liquor. Older Viscosity is aged for 15 months and is worth the wait.
So yes, this was to date, one of the best beer experiences. After I was full and slightly intoxicated (15 beers!), I had the chance to chat with Tomme Arthur, the man behind the magic. What stood out during our conversation is despite the undeniable fact that he is incredibly passionate about making quality beer, innovative beer, he wants beer to remain accessible. This beer dinner proved that Lost Abbey/Port Brewing beers span an entire spectrum of palettes and will show you the light. Thank you to Tomme Arthur for the insight into your amazing beer, the chef at Brouwer’s Cafe for creating masterpieces and to Ian for the last minute invite to this event. Not to be forgotten.