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.