Brussels likes its beer. And we were happy to sample our fair share of brews during our stay (woo wooo!) But we knew that we were still missing out on some of the finer details surrounding Belgian beer. And we decided to educate ourselves instead of trying (and failing) to inconspicuously hide our beer ignorance from everyone we encountered.
Enter the Cantillon Brewery.
This place had been recommended to us by a high school classmate (thanks, Bailey!) He wrote: “They make lambics, which are a rather unusual style, and the process itself is very different from traditional brewing, so it’s a far cry from the usual rows of stainless steel tanks.”
I essentially wrote back: “Cool, thanks for the recommendation!” And then started googling.
Search #1: Cantillon Brewery
Alright let’s see… beer, (skimming), yadda yadda. Wait, they mention a TIME MACHINE on their website. What?? SCI-FI BEER ADVENTURE. YASSSS.
Search #2: Lambic what is that
Wikipedia. “Lambic is a type of beer brewed in the Pajottenland region of Belgium southwest of Brussels.”
Search #3: How to pronounce Pajottenland
Go to first result. Cue me clicking the audio clip a kajillion times to repeatedly play the pronunciation until it’s a sweet beat box remix of the word Pajottenland and I’m dancing to it and Michael starts questioning all of the life choices that brought him to this moment in time.
Say aloud, “Hey, we should go to this sci-fi beat boxing brewery.”
The whole thing is very low key, and the entrance is pretty easy to miss. We walked in an unmarked door, and hoped we were in the right place.
Upon entering, there was a small-ish foyer area with a bartender pouring drinks, a few groups of people lingering over beers, and a podium. We waited briefly at the podium before a staff member spotted us. We bought our tickets (2 tastings included) and got a brief oral history of the brewery.
Cantillon is a family business, opened in 1900 and totally independent of big label brewers. They still use 19th century equipment to make their beer, and super traditional brewing methods. The craziest thing is that they don’t use any artificial processes or machines for fermentation. They do it au naturel, leaving their beer in big open vats and letting Mother Nature and airborne yeasts dip right in and start alcoholizing the wort.
This reminded me of college, and roommates who attempted home brew, and realllyyyyy gross smelling closets. Which in turn, which made me wonder who is paying money for lambic beer? And are they drinking it on purpose? And why?
We were handed an informational pamphlet and begun a self-guided tour in search of answers.
(The answers were not in that thing.)
The self-guided tour was actually a really awesome way of doing things, because you can just walk around the whole brewery by yourself and look at whatever you want and spend however much time you want in each place. It was like someone gave me free reign of their house, including all the junk drawers and medicine cabinets, and told me to have fun exploring.
So you wander around and you can stick your head in the mashing tun to see where wheat and barley get crushed, like Michael did. Or peek nosily at all the stuff on the wall, like I did.
Meanwhile, your information packet will tell you about how the starch in the crushed cereals is converted into fermentable sugars.
You can also look in the hop boilers that sterilize the liquid and evaporate a ton of water and echo really loud when you yell into them.
Hops are typically used for their flavor in brewing, but lambic beers also need hops as a natural preservative. Since Cantillon uses 2-3x the amount of hops as most other breweries, they age their hops (so the beer doesn’t have that distinctive IPA bitterness).
Once the hops have been cooked and removed, the wort goes to the cooling room, which is essentially a huge vat in the attic, exposed to the air so that natural bacteria and yeasts can get ALL up in that business. These microorganisms are crucial, because they’re what will lead to spontaneous fermentation when the brew is pumped into old wine barrels.
After a few days, voilà! Spontaneous fermentation. They can’t seal the barrels during this time, because carbon dioxide is being produced so quickly that the casks might explode. (Which honestly sounds kind of cool, but I can see why they would want to prevent that.) Bubbly foam and liquid builds up pressure and oozes out of the barrels during this time. RIP to the beer that could have been.
After the razzle dazzle of spontaneous fermentation, slow fermentation begins. They hermetically seal the barrels, and then wait.
That sign roughly translates to: Time does not respect what is done without him.
And while lambic can technically be consumed a few weeks after barreling, Cantillon knows to #respect the aging process, and allows fermentation to continue for up to 3 years!
One of their famous beers, gueuze, is made by blending 1, 2, and 3-year-old lambics. Another type, kriek, is made by blending sour Schaerbeek cherries with 2-year-old lambic, and then soaking for three months. (PS- sooo good. Kriek is officially my new favorite beer.)
But we’re not finished yet! After being aged, the beer is pumped to the bottling room, where it finds a new home in champagne-type bottles, complete with a natural cork stopper and crown cap.
These bottles are then taken to the cellar and stored horizontally for several months, for even more fermentation. Of note, in a good cellar, traditionally brewed gueuze can be stored for 25 years! Which is a little cray cray, since most beers have a shelf life of 1-2 years before getting skunky and stale.
Okay. After poking all around the brewery and learning about how they make this crazy beer, it’s tasting time!
Because it’s matured in wooden barrels, this beer doesn’t foam. It’s sour and dry and delicious. (And I promise, tastes 93485x better than any college apartment attempts at natural brewing.) It definitely does have a really unique taste though, almost like a mix of cider, beer, and kombucha. The kriek has an extra fruity kick, but without the sweetness you might expect.
Santé! Gezondheid! Cheers!
Cantillon Brewery is pretty awesome and highly recommended. Still not over the whole brewing process and how they make their beer reallyyy old school. In fact, the natural fermentation process that they use dates back to 3600 BC! (Hence stepping into a “time machine.”) As for the beatboxing, you’ll have to provide that yourself. Protip: Be sure to do it while sticking your head in a boiler for extra echo factor.