Cantillon Public Brew Day, Brussels, 7 March 2009

Cantillon Public Brew Day, Brussels, Belgium, 7 March 2009.

It's six thirty in the morning on a rather chilly morning in Brussels somewhere near the Gare du Midi. Me and Dave been following The Beer Nut and his wife who have negotiated the train system and given all the directions because it's too early for us. We're now somewhere in a run down looking neighborhood passing some waste ground when what looks like an old garage turns out to be the brewery we're looking for. The famous Cantillon lambic brewery.

Walking inside is like walking back through time, it's one of the most unusual and unique breweries I've ever been in. We met fellow Irish Craft Brewer Sean who directed us to the coffee and croissants which we ate in the brewery bar beside the fire which had just been lit. I think I woke up enough at that point to really start looking around at that stage.

It was announced that the english tour was starting so we traipsed off after our guide who was great, he gave a good explanation of brewing and how Cantillon brews for the non beer nerds though I suspect only beer nerds would be on a brewery tour at 6.30 in the morning.

The mash in was just beginning. A mixture of 65% barley malt and 35% unmalted wheat is fed into the mash tun where it's mixed with hot water. Paddles driven by a system of gears and belts mix up the porridge. We left the mash tun at this point where hopefully the enzymes would be gearing up to convert the starches in the grains to fermentable sugars.

We walked up the stairs which were old, wet and wooden. I liked this complete disregard for modern life with it's stainless steel stairways with handrails and signs telling you not to fall over. If anything the look of these stairs would make you more careful.

We had a look at the two kettles which would be filling up with wort in a few hours. The boil lasts three hours with an evaporation of 25%. Hops are added for their antiseptic qualities only. They are aged hops and they don't add any flavour or aroma hops at all.

It was then up to the attic where it's cold as the fresh air getting in is vital to the process. It also helps with the storage of ingredients. This is where Cantillon veers off on a tangent from most breweries. Up until this step it's merely eccentric, they use old equipment and a rather odd mash regime but up here is where it gets properly strange. Most breweries pitch or inoculate their wort with a specific strain of brewing yeast and any other organism in the beer is considered to be undesirable.

In Cantillon however they open the windows give a big shout out and invite anything and everything to a party in the big copper bath tub. Here's the aptly named cool ship before all this happens.

Later on in the day it looks like this.

The wort is splashed and aerated as it falls into the bath. The copper in the bath and the cool temperature outside ensures the wort cools down by the morning. Cooling wort is most prone to infection as all manner of beasties want to eat all that sugar. In most breweries the wort is cooled rapidly in sterile conditions and the yeast pitched as quickly as possible to avoid infections. In Cantillon whatever lives in the air and rafters is allowed to colonize the wort, it's a mixture of different wild yeasts, brettanomyces, and various other microbes.

They are somewhat picky about which microbes come to the party and only brew in winter as in summer the real trouble making bacteria are about. After the all night party the wort is moved to old wooden casks to ferment. When you walk into the room the smell of sour beer hits you in the face. It was pretty potent particularly as it was so early.

The casks are left open with the hole covered for the fermentation. When fermentation finishes the cask is sealed and the wait begins. A sign in the room says 'Le temps ne respecte pas ce qui se fait sans lui' which means time doesn't respect that which is done without him. Many breweries advertise their dedication to time and tradition but most of them measure time in weeks. Cantillon will wait three years before tasting and blending of the casks begins. Each cask is different so they must all be tasted and then the skilled brewer blends them together to make the famous gueuze.

In the cask room there is also a fruit press and filter which is used to crush fruit to make juice for the kriek and framboise. Kriek is made from cherries and the framboise from raspberries which are blended with year old lambic. Many lambic breweries have given up on this tradition and use sugar, aspartame and flavoured syrups to make their fruit flavoured beers. I've had one of them and it tasted like an alcopop.

Our guide also explained the casks are cleaned the traditional way by putting hot water and some chains into them, sealing them and then spinning them.

The lambic is then bottled and after this it can be stored for a long time. Our guide pointed out that we are witnessing the beginning of a process that will take three or more years. It's a small brewery and they only brew 20-30 times a year and since it's aged for so long they can't brew to meet demand.

A brewery tour wouldn't be a tour without a tasting. At this stage it was eight in the morning so breakfast beer was on the menu. I've had a few lambics since Dave has liked them for years. I've not liked any of the lambics I've tried and was worried I was coming all this way to watch the brewing of a beer I did not like. We can't get Cantillon in Ireland you see.

I tasted some gueuze and it's extraordinary, I know everyone says that about Cantillon but it really is. It's nothing like any beer I've ever had. It's wonderfully tart and fresh with fruit flavours of sour crab apples. It's more like champagne or something than beer but it's much better than champagne.

We also tried the Iris which I loved. It's smells a lot better than the gueuze which is probably due to the fresher hops that go into it.

After our early morning tour we went back to our hotel for a snooze. Beer that early in the morning is too strange. Later on in the day after lunch we came back to look at the beer filling the cool ship.

We decided to split a bottle of Rosé de Gambrinus after our second tour around the brewery. Yes it's pink beer! Not just any pink beer, I can confidently state that this is the best pink beer in the world. It's absolutely amazing, tart and fruity like the raspberries that go into it. The Beer Nut very kindly agreed to bring home a bottle of it for me, I'll have it instead of champagne for my 30th birthday.

The rest of the photos are here if you want to see more.

Cheers guys.

4 Responses to "Cantillon Public Brew Day, Brussels, 7 March 2009" (Leave A Comment)

Anonymous says
March 19, 2009 at 11:43 AM

3 year old beer sounds pretty hardcore. As for drinking at breakfast time ask Davo about the early houses in smithfield :)
Stevo C

Barry M says
March 19, 2009 at 1:32 PM

I'm still rather jealous/sad I didn't meet up with you guys there. I was within spitting distance of Cantillon earlier this evening waiting at Midi. Next time maybe.

The Beer Nut says
March 19, 2009 at 4:03 PM

Davo: what's up with the early houses on Smithfield? Some of us locals could use an eye-opener and couldn't be arsed shlepping to Capel Street.

Luke McKinney says
March 20, 2009 at 10:41 AM

I don't usually enjoy such text-version tours, but with a correspondent I respect it was a great read!