A trip to Brussels wouldn’t be complete without an afternoon spent at the Cantillon brewery. Its proximity to the Eurostar terminal in the Anderlecht municipality of the city is opportune; unlike the Trappist breweries based in monasteries outside of Brussels, Cantillon is central and astonishingly convenient from London.
Less restrictive luggage allowances for the train are ideal for bringing back a few cases from the brewery – or even filling up an empty suitcase to capacity, an admirable feat that we witnessed on our visit.
Tourists flock to Cantillon for lambic beer, a Belgian specialty that relies upon spontaneous fermentation. In contrast to most breweries, where yeast is cultivated and large-scale production seeks consistency, lambic beers are left exposed to the air, attracting the native wild yeasts and bacteria which flourish in the surrounding Zenne valley. What effect does this gathering of wild elements have on the beer? Well, lambic is characterised by both bone-dry and sour notes. It can be like sipping a sharp, dry cider, or it can be much sweeter – but Cantillon is the authority of the lambic style and everything fermented here is flawlessly balanced. They’ve had plenty of time to perfect their technique; the brewery was founded in 1900 and has remained independent to this day, passed down through the Cantillon family line, from father to sons, then sons to son-in-law.
The Cantillon brewery is world away from the gleaming, sterile environments of most modern brewhouses. Some of the original equipment, dating back to the early 20th century, is still in use today and the crushing machines – used to masticate fruit for their kriek – look like barbed medieval torture devices. Entering the brewery, guests are thrown into the thick of palates and busy workers. Tours are offered at 7€ per person, which includes an introduction from a member of staff and a booklet for the self-guided route. At the end of the tour, visitors are able to sample 1 year old gueuze, which is both young and fresh, and one drink of their choice from the bar’s menu.
Some visitors beeline to the bar, but the tour is worth the time, allowing guests to explore the brewing area with its mash tun, then climb a set of stairs to the hop boilers, crushing machine and hot water tank. Another ascent leads to the granary, an expansive attic storage space for malts and hops; in the production of lambic beer, raw Belgian wheat, malted barley and aged hops – which have lost some of their bitter edge – are used; Cantillion use two to three times more hops than the average brewery to achieve a high level of tannin, which is a natural preservative, in their beer.
The most fascinating room held the cooling tun, which assists the spontaneous fermentation so crucial to lambic beers. An imposing rectangular copper vessel sits in a loft above the granary, like a shallow paddling pool. Also known as a cool ship, its purpose is to cool down the wort quickly across a flat surface area. The brewing season here extends from April to October because the ideal wort temperature is between 18 and 20 degrees Celsius, which is generally only achievable during the evenings in the colder months. This temperature range is ideal for the airborne yeasts and bacteria. Following this cooling period, the wort is then transferred to the fermentation vat in the room below.
From here, the wort is stored in barrels. Interestingly, the type of wood used in the casks – which are either oak or chestnut at Cantillon – doesn’t affect the fermentation of lambic beer. The process of aging the beer in wood imparts wine-like flavours to the liquid. After a few days in the barrel, the sugars present in the wort react with wild yeasts, triggering spontaneous fermentation – this results in the creation of a huge amount of carbon dioxide, causing an eruption of foam to bubble out of the bunghole in the barrel; during this reaction, 5 to 10 litres of wort can be lost per 225 or 500 litre barrel.
Following this active stage of fermentation is a slower process. After three to four weeks, the barrels are finally sealed and left to sit for three years. During this time, another 20% of the beer can evaporate inside the cask. Young lambics can be used to blend with other beers, but most brewers will wait at least a year to let the delicate flavours develop. Gueuze is a blend of one, two and three year-old lambic beers; the sugars from the younger beer trigger a second fermentation in the bottle and the older lambic imparts the complex taste profile.
As for kriek, this is a two year old lambic blended with fruit – specifically sour Schaerbeek cherries at Cantillon – where 150kg of fruit are used per 500 litres of beer. Other fruit beers include their Fou’foune, a lambic with the addition of soaked apricots, lending it a gentle sweetness. On our visit, we also indulged in the Zwanze (2012), a lambic with rhubarb, which was exceptionally delicate and refreshing.
The tour of the Cantillon brewery is a half an hour well spent, moving from the brewing area to storage and the bottling line. At the end, visitors are rewarded with a taste of young one year old lambic and another glass of a beer of their choice. From here, the natural tendency is to get comfortable next to the bar, where seats are tables are arranged around a wood-burning stove. As a group of five, we worked through the styles available on the day, taking some recommendations when it came to the rarer (and more expensive) bottles.
The 750ml bottles come wedged in a wicker basket that makes the act of decanting both ceremonious and occasionally awkward. We relished the Kriek and Fou’foune, then eyeballed the more unusual selections, such as the Saint-Lamvinus, a lambic soaked in black Merlot grapes, and the Grand Cru Bruocsella (2007), a three year lambic selected for its superior colour, taste and flavour. We concluded our afternoon on a Lou Pepe Kriek (2013), where secondary fermentation in the bottle is aided by the addition of cane sugar; this process would usually rely upon the reaction when a young lambic is added in the gueuze blend. It was intensely juicy with the flesh of sour cherries, boasting a vibrant ruby red hue and a faint pink head. Its predominantly lick-puckering tartness married with hints of lactose and funk. Not as delicate as the more subtle styles, but its robust flavour profile made it intensely memorable.
Visitors are welcome into Cantillon until 5pm and until then we stayed, sipping and savouring the champagne of Brussels.