“It can only be made ‘ere. Simple as that! I tell you why… look this glass of lambiek ‘ere.. Inside are over one hundred and twenty different strains of bacteria and yeast, most only to be found ‘ere in the precious air of le Senne Valley. You cannot make true lambeik anywhere else on earth!”.
I was being schooled on the ancient style of Belgian Lambic deep in the cobweb-strewn belly of the Cantillon brewery in Brussels, and I have to say I was impressed.
As soon as I walked in to this magnificent brewery my brain started tingling with excitement.. this is what I have been searching for, this is what my pilgrimage is all about! Most of the equipment around me was over a century old and is still used today to brew the same style of beer as it did in 1900. The brewery smelt musky and sour, undoubtedly from the billions of microscopic residents clinging to every object and riding on every waft of air, decades upon decades of wild bacteria and yeast that would make any conventional modern day brewer run and jump in a pool of disinfectant. Here however, it is an aroma savoured with pride in an ancient style that has taken the beer world by storm in recent years.
Just the name “Cantillon” holds an almost god-like air of respect amongst circles of beer-lovers around the world. Top notch craft beer bars will boast bottles of Cantillon on their top shelves and any true beer lover worth his weight in malt will have at least one empty bottle of Cantillon sitting proudly somewhere prominent in their beer den (I even met one hard-core Italian beer geek who had the logo tattooed on his arm!). But why? Why all this international commotion and obsession over one very small, musky old brewery tucked away in a strange little backstreet of Brussels? I was here to find out..
And it didn’t take me long at all.. I feel like I understood as soon as I walked through the brewery door. Very little, if anything has changed in this brewery for over a century. It is brimming with living, breathing, moving history that is compounded in the delicious beers that emerge on the other side. There are no modern shortcuts, each brew is aged between one and 3 years and bottled by hand then cellared for even longer. The hops are aged for 3 years, the wooden barrels are still cleaned using an old chain being tumbled around inside and like the brewery, the final product really hasn’t changed at all for over a hundred years.
My awe-struck, jaw-dragging walk through Cantillon started in the brew house where I was met by an almost Leonardo da Vinci-esque room of wheels, cogs and leather strapping linking up a web of mechanisms that meandered above some old copper brewing kettles. It is here where the wort (unfermented beer mixture) is brewed using a mixture of water, organically grown wheat and barley malts. An addition of 3 year aged hop flowers to the boil provides the natural preservative quality of the hops without imparting bitterness or hop flavour to the beer.
The next step in the journey was the fermentation room where the wort is spread out on a large shallow copper tub surrounded with open windows. This is the key to achieving spontaneous fermentation; by allowing as much air to flow over the wort as possible, the brewers are allowing the wort to be infected by a huge variety of naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria that live in the air of the Senne Valley. This is when the magic occurs, the spontaneous, wild fermentation that gives lambic beer its signature sour, funky flavour.
After the beer has undergone a successful fermentation, it is then barreled for up to three years in old oak or chestnut wood barrels that are themselves sometimes over a century old. Cantillon has barrels crammed into literally every spare corner of the brewery, some looking brand new while some look like they have (and probably did) go through the wars!
Barrels being cleaned by the old chain-tumbling technique (click above for video)
Between one and three years later, the beer is transferred from the barrels into bottles. Straight from the barrel we have beers such as the Grand Cru Bruocsella, an unblended lambic beer aged for three years in oak wood barrels which has a dry, slight acidic flavour and an aroma of apple, roast bread and honey.
The crown jewel of Cantillon however is their Gueuze which is essentially a blend of old (2-3 years) and young (1 year) lambic beers. Once blended by a team of master blenders, the Gueuze is bottled and then cellared for another year while a secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle. From start to end, a bottle of Cantillon Gueuze will take over four years to produce!
At the end of my tour, I got to sample this magnificent brew and it really did blow me away! The Cantillon Gueuze is an incredibly multifaceted brew that lends a medley of sour, zesty and floral notes overlaying an amazing earthy funk. It is extremely refreshing with an almost ‘squeaky’ tartness and complexity that is hard to put your finger on. A true masterpiece!
Aside from the Gueuze and Grand Cru lambics, Cantillon also pride themselves on producing seasonal fruit beers such as Kriek (cherry lambic), framboise (raspberry lambic), Vigneronne (grape lambic), Fou’ Fonne (Apricot Lambic) and Faro beers.
I walked out of Cantillon having felt as though I had truly experienced and savoured something special, a place that has completely avoided the temptations of modernisation and the short-cuts that come with it. Instead of holding profit and efficiency as their most important objective, for the family-run Cantillon brewery, it is still all about culture, dedication, art and quality.
SWISS International Airlines fly return from Sydney-Brussels from $1,790
My Tip: Get a Eurail Pass – it will give you complete freedom to jump on and off trains at your own leisure so you can let the good times roll!