Posts Tagged 'brussels'

Honeymoon beers, part 5: Cantillon

Cantillon is the only active, open-to-the-public brewery in Brussels, and it’s the spiritual home of traditional lambic beers. Cantillon lambics have very little in common with the typical lambics you find here in Houston. The ones you get locally are very sweet and very fruity, to the point that they seem to have more in common with wine coolers or European alco-pops than with typical beers.

Traditional lambics are sour. Cantillon brews their lambics through 100% spontaneous natural fermentation, which means the yeast that feeds the brewing process is literally wild, atmospheric yeast. This timely post from Jester King does a much better job than I could describing this kind of traditional farmhouse brewing.

Back to Cantillon. The brewery is in Brussels proper, walking distance from the touristy areas and the town square (Grand Place), tucked into a warehouse in a very urban part of town. Their website has a great feature which I was glad I caught before the trip: a scenic walking tour of Brussels that begins in the Grand Place and ends at the brewery. We followed that route to Cantillon, enjoying the sights and the history along the way.

When you walk into the brewery, you feel like you’re being transported, if not necessarily back in time (they have some modern equipment standing alongside their old stuff), then most certainly to a completely different place. You don’t feel like you’re in the big city any more.

After a short introduction from one of the staffers, you take a self-guided tour of the brewery, with nothing off limits. It’s pretty amazing, really, that you’re able to just walk around from room to room – from the small but relatively modern bottling room; to the copper- and stainless-steel-lined fermentation room; to the bottle room were thousands of unlabeled bottles lay on their sides, stacked practically to the ceiling; to the huge, dark and dingy barrel room, where dozens and dozens of wooden barrels store lambic in various stages of development, aging and blending.

Cantillon’s brewing philosophy is to let nature do the work. That goes for the wild yeast, obviously, but it also explains all the cobwebs and bugs you find throughout the warehouse. As the tour brochure says, any sort of pesticide would interfere with the natural fermentation, so they don’t worry about the bugs – the spiders and their webs will take care of them.

At the end of your self-guided tour, you get small servings of two of their beers. We got two half-glasses of gueuze (a blend of young and old lambic), and then one half-glass each of a raspberry and a cherry lambic. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I don’t love sour beers, although I do like them more every time I try them. Regardless, you can’t help appreciating the way this stuff is made, and drinking these expressions side-by-side really helped me notice the subtle differences. Even the “fruity” expressions aren’t that fruity. They use 100% real, fresh fruit, which is added to already-brewed natural lambic, kicking off secondary fermentation. The result isn’t an overwhelming cherry or raspberry or white grape flavor, but instead it’s subtle notes of fruit and a noticeable but not artificial change in color.

I could go on and on about the place. It was remarkably interesting, and I have to echo the thought that, if you’re in Brussels and you like beer, you simply must visit Cantillon.

One final note – Chez Moeder Lambic (the Fontainas location) is walking distance from Cantillon, situated between the brewery and the tourist center of town. We visited the two places on different days, but I can’t imagine a better way to dedicate a day to beer than by visiting the brewery, and then stopping at CML afterwards for a world-class beer or three.

Near the start of the tour

Mash room #1

Mash room #2

Mash room #3

Fermentation room #1

Fermentation room #2

Storage room

Barrel room #1

Barrel room #2

Barrel room #3

Bottling equipment display

Close-up of bottling display

Bottling room

Bottling line & bottle storage

Hundreds of bottles aging

A glass of gueuze after the tour, gift shop in the background

The bar

Gueuze & guidebooks

Two-for-one lambics...

Raspberry & cherry lambic (not necessarily in that order)

Honeymoon beers, part 4: Brussels, A La Mort Subite, Chez Moeder Lambic

We spent one night in Brussels, so we only had time to check out two beer bars. However, we also made sure to hit what many people call the best beer destination in the city, if not the country: the Cantillon brewery. I’ll get to that visit in the next post.

The first bar we visited was A La Mort Subite, a 1920s beer hall a few blocks from the town square. It has long wooden benches all along the walls and really high ceilings, giving the impression that it could be a raucous good time when there are a lot of people there (that’s what the reviews say, too). We were there in the middle of the workday, however, and it was nearly empty.

Their selection is limited but relatively impressive, and they also brew their own traditional lambic. I originally intended to try that, but a sign advertising their seasonal tap caught my eye:  De Dolle Brouwers Bos Keun Biere de Paques. It’s De Dolle’s spring seasonal (“Paques” means Easter), a bright, fruity pale Belgian ale. I enjoyed it, although I must admit that it was relatively unremarkable, and without taking notes I’m struggling to remember much else about it.

De Dolle Bos Keun

The other Brussels beer bar we visited couldn’t have been much more different: Chez Moeder Lambic, a newish, modern bar on a small square next to one of the main streets in town. What it lacked in historic charm, however, it more than made up for with great beer.

The long list of draft beer, displayed on chalkboards along the walls, was very impressive. After much deliberation, I opted for a Val-Dieu Grand Cru, a big, delicious quad. The waiter also helped us pick a beer for Mrs. Beernerds, as I told him that she liked sweet lambics as opposed to sour ones. That meant we didn’t try any of their extensive list of Cantillon beers, but she was happy with his selection.

Our first round came with a small bowl of tasty malted barley to chew on, which I slowly enjoyed over the course of a couple of hours. A really nice touch, I thought.

Val-Dieu Grand Cru & some malt to snack on

I hadn’t drunk any cask beers on the trip thus far, so I went with a Cuvee de Ranke on cask for my next one. Yep, another sour. I’m not nearly at the point where I can fully appreciate nuances in sours, but I think it’s a good sign that I’m knowingly ordering them and, most importantly, enjoying them more and more.

Cuvee De Ranke

When I ordered, the waiter made sure to ask if I knew what it was like, and I assured him I knew what I was in for. It was a nice touch – the crew at Anvil often does the same thing when you order a sour there – and I think non-nerds would appreciate the warning if they haven’t had a sour before.

I hadn’t even looked at the bottle menu yet, and once I finally did I was very impressed. There was no Westvleteren, but there were dozens and dozens of interesting options, including plenty of aged beers and some really tempting Mikkeller beers (standard and barrel-aged 1000 IBU, plus standard Beer Geek Brunch Weasel and two barrel-aged versions, each featuring a different scotch). There was even a page for, loosely translated, “Beers that the Gods drink”, a handful of aged bottles priced at 150-200 euros.

The Mikkeller offerings

The waiter must have noticed I was having a hard time deciding, so he struck up a conversation. He asked me what I liked and I responded that I was willing to try anything good. So he rephrased the question, asking me what style I would pick if I had to drink just one, and I told him I love dark Belgians, dubbels and quads especially. He suggested De Ranke Noir de Dottignies on draft, and he hit the nail on the head. It wasn’t a huge abbey-style ale, just a really tasty dark Belgian with a lot of fruity malt and a surprising amount of non-bitter coffee flavors.

De Ranke Noir de Dottignies

Before we left, the waiter asked how long we were in Brussels, and we told him just the one day. He said we absolutely had to hit Cantillon, which echoed what we had heard from many sources. That definitely sealed the deal, and we made Cantillon our main target for the next morning.