Eureka, and we already get to the last post about my latest trip to Brussels. If you haven’t read the previous two check out this page. Now, I only mentioned that the third post will be about a brewery resident in Brussels. And if you know me and Brussels well enough you already guessed the brewery. It is…”drum roll”… Cantillon. The pictures below are courtesy of my brother and most of the information are taken from the pamphlet you get for the brewery tour.
Cantillon is one of the remaining traditional Lambic breweries in the world and is still a family business founded in 1900 by Paul Cantillon now within Brussels. They still use the old brewing equipment and brew an average of 1700 hectoliters (1450 barrels) of beer a year. In the 1960ies Jean-Pierre Van Roy carried on brewing and today Jean Van Roy is taking care of the legendary brewery. As we visited the brewery both Van Roy’s were present and Jean-Pierre Van Roy himself gave the brewery tour…
The brewery is open for visits. You pay a small entry fee and get a nice 15 page pamphlet with some information about the brewing process and the products of Cantillon and two vouchers for a beer tasting after the tour. The brewery tour begins in the brewing area.
For the mash they use 35% raw Belgian wheat and 65% malted barley. They mix the grains with water and hold the mash temperature for 2 hours and steadily rise the temperature from 42°C to 72°C. They then lauter with hot water and collect the wort in the hop boiler upstairs.
The hop boiler is made of copper and is heated by steam and has a propeller to mix the hops with the wort. They cook the wort for 3 to 4 hours with aged hops. During the boil they lose 2500 L due to evaporation from an original wort volume of 10000 L. After the primary fermentation the alcohol level is at approximately 5 ABV. Next you climb up into the attic of the brewery. Up there they store their malt and wheat supplies and the hops. And there is the coolship were all the magic happens. After the boil the 7500 L of hot wort are pumped into the coolship to cool down. The large surface area helps to cool down the wort relatively fast. The cooling is done over night during the brewing season of October to April. During the cooling process a broad range of wild yeasts, bacteria etc. fall into the cooling wort. And these microorganisms lead to the spontaneous fermentation and in the end to the flavors in the finished product you either love or hate. It is mentioned in the pamphlet that over 100 different yeast strains, 27 acetic acid bacteria and 38 different lactic acid bacteria have been found in a single Lambic.
In the morning, after the wort cooled down to 18 to 20°C the wort is transferred into a stainless steel fermentation vat for the primary fermentation. After the primary fermentation the beer gets transferred into oak or chestnut casks.
Cantillon use casks which have been used by wine makers or Cognac producers. Once in the barrels the fermentation continues and a lot of foam and carbon dioxide escapes from the barrel as it can easily be seen in some of the pictures above. There was a lot of hissing noise in this room with the barrels above and a very nice smell in the air. The next pictures shows is more clearly…
The vigorous fermentation slows down after some weeks and the barrels can be sealed. Now begins the maturing process which can take years.
Lambic is beer straight from the barrel and thus contains no carbonation at all. On the other hand, Gueuze is a blend of Lambics of different ages. Due to remaining sugars in the young Lambic (1-year-old) the fermentation in the Gueuze goes on and provides carbon dioxide to carbonate the beer. The 3-year-old Lambic provides the taste in the Gueuze. Yet another product of Cantillon are fruit beers. Lambics with fruits such as sour cherries, raspberries, grapes or apricots. The fruits (150 kg) are added to 500 L of 2-year old Lambic during the summer season (July to August). The fruits then stay in the Lambic for at least another three-month before the fruit beer is bottled. For bottling young Lambic is added again to supply the carbonation in the bottle. Lambics with sour cherries are called Kriek, with raspberries Framboise and the ones with grapes and apricots are somewhat specific for Cantillon. Vigneronne for the one with grapes and Fou’ Foune with apricots.
Lambic is not made within some weeks like many top fermented beers. Patience is needed like stated by the sign below. Freely translated as “Time doesn’t respect those doing without it”
And if you heard the story about the cobwebs in a Lambic brewery before, this is definitely true for Cantillon. There is this story that a lot of insects might harm the maturing beer and instead of using insecticides a lot of the brewers rely on spiders taking care of these insects. And thus Lambic brewers leave any cobwebs intact. However, have a closer look at the following barrel…
It might be hard to see but there are some sort of maggots around the plug enjoying the dripping Lambic… Enough of weird stuff.
The tour ended in the barrel cleaning room and the bottling facility. Interestingly, Cantillon steam treats all their barrels prior to refilling. Thus killing any of the micro flora in the barrel formed during the last fermentation.
After the beer is bottled, the bottles stay another few months in the brewery which can easily be seen as you begin your brewery tour walking by huge bottle piles. After the amazing tour and a small talk with Jean-Pierre Van Roy it was time for a tasting. – Lambic straight from a barrel: Very pale color, not a lot of funky or sour aroma in the nose. On the palate some minor Brettanomyces notes but not (very?) sour. I encountered this before as I tasted a Lambic brewed by Girardin and was surprised that the Lambic after spending a year in the barrel is not sour.
– Gueuze: Blend of Lambics. Pours with a pale color as well (picture above, glass on the very left side). In the nose the beautiful character one expects from a Gueuze. Lactic and acetic sourness, lots of barnyard, earthiness and some leathery smell as well. On the palate a decent sourness combined again with a funky earthiness. What a treat!
– Kriek: Lambic with sour cherries. Pours with a red color (glass on the right side in picture above). Some cherry character in the nose with the additional sour lactic vinegar notes. On the palate a lovely cherry bouquet complemented with a decent amount of sourness. Not sweet as modern Krieks are.
– Iris: Brewed with pale malt and spontaneously fermented and dry hopped with Saaz hops. Pours with a darker yellow color (glass in the middle in the picture above). I never had this beer before and was quite amazed how awesome the Saaz hops work with a sour beer like this. It gives the beer a very nice spiciness. The Saaz hops are definitely detectable on the palate as well. Fantastic!
Luckily for me I already had a lot of the Cantillon beers before visiting the brewery. The only ones still missing are the Vigneronne (the Lambic brewed with grapes), the Saint-Lamvinus (Lambic brewed with Merlot grapes), the Fou’ Foune (Lambic brewed with apricots) and the Faro (Lambic blended with caramel and candy sugar). Unfortunately, none of the beers above were available at the brewery shop expect from one, the Fou’ Foune. So I went home with a 0.75 L bottle of Fou’ Foune and wait for an opportunity to open the bottle… Luckily the bottle survived the flight back home.
I know I am very lucky to get Cantillon beers in the first place and to have the opportunity to pay a visit to the brewery. Anyway, as I walked through the storage space of the brewery I saw three euro-pallets like the one below:
Maybe there is your next Cantillon bottle in there somewhere? I hope so.
I am very happy about the visit and will definitely go there for another visit in the future. The beers they brew are just amazing, although some of the visitors had a funny face expression as they lowered their noses in the glasses for the very first time. Cantillon is a definite must if you ever are in/around Brussels. Even if you are not into the whole Lambic/Gueuze stuff. It is an experience and who knows maybe some day you really like to drink a traditional Gueuze, Lambic or fruit Lambic as well. The only thing I would love to do is take some agar plates with me next time… Thanks for reading and stay tuned for further posts.