In my last recap of my trip to Europe I talked about Brussels as a whole and about their beer culture. Today I wanted to share a bit about a specific brewery trip that we made to the Cantillon Brewery. This brewery is known the world over for their wonderful Lambic, Fruit Lambic, and Gueuze styles of beer. If you are unfamiliar with the style, Lambic beers are generally sour and aged for a number of years. They are traditionally served with no carbonation and the fruit variety is, not surprisingly, fermented with some fruit added to the wort. A Gueuze is a carbonated Lambic and the carbonation is achieved by adding “young” Lambic beer, about a year old, to aged Lambic, about three years old.
When you walk up to the brewery you would never know that world class beer is made inside. The only way to identify that the building is the Cantillon Brewery is by the two wooden barrels at the barn style doors along with a metal sign at the top of the door. When you walk you are are met with more barrels and a you can see a glimpse of a bar/seating area ahead on the left. A woman quickly approached us when we entered and told us the ground rules of the brewery tour. 1. It costs 6 Euro a person 2. For the 6 Euros you get a books of your language choice (its really a three page pamphlet) and two free samples of their beer. 3. Stick to the numbered signs and 4. Feel free to ask questions.
I’ve never been to a brewery that basically gives you free reign of the place. The reason for this is that they only brew for two months of the year and the summer is not that time of the year.
We began our tour by passing through thousands of bottles stacked one on top of another. Each batch of bottles was dated with a month and year. The oldest bottles that I saw dated to 2009. We then entered the mash tun room where hot water and grain are combined to produce wort. The amazing thing about the mash tun, and for that matter most of the equipment at the brewery, is that it is very low tech. The mash tun looks like it has been there for a hundred years and it is powered by a belt drive. Belts also power the pumps and other necessary equipment.
We then went upstairs where the boil kettle is and I still couldn’t stop marveling at the belt power. In all honest, most boil kettles look the same, so they are not terribly interesting. On the next floor up is where the mystical open air fermentation happens. There is a large copper table and open wooden slat walls that allow the natural yeast in the air to land on the beer. After 72 hours (and well after fermentation has started) the beer is put into barrels where it sits for 1-3 years.
The barrel room is impressive. Hundreds of barrels line the room and the smells of funky fermentation fill the room. While I was there works were milling about the room topping off the barrels that lose water due to evaporation. Upon leaving the barrel room we passed an old bottling machine on our trip to see the new bottling machine. And that’s pretty much the tour of the brewery.
In total it took us about a half hour to see everything. Once the tour was finished we received our free samples in a quaint bar area. I loved the lights, which were bottles with their bottoms cut off (see pictures below). The beer was marvelous. I have never been a big Lambic fan but the subtle complexity of the Cantillon’s beers were a real treat. I also loved the mix of new technology (like the bottling machine) and the traditional brewing techniques. I highly recommend this tour to anyone who wants to see a traditional Belgian brewery.