Sunday, 1 April 2012

Belgium and, more importantly, Cantillon Brewery

The entrance to my favorite pub in Brussels. 

A litte while ago I went to Brussels and drank beer. No, this will not be a tirade about how wonderful the Trappists ales and the Abbey ales and all the other tripples, doubles and what have you were. They were excellent, of course, but everybody already knows that. What people don't know about are Lambics. In my opinion, Lambics are one of the least appreciated and least understood styles of beer on the planet. I, for one, didn't even appreciate them properly until I visited the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels. Although it is the only Lambic brewery I have ever visited, I can say with confidence that it is one of the premier Lambic producers in the world. I will tell you why soon, but first, a brief (and incomplete) introduction on what makes a Lambic a Lambic.

Among other things, the most prominent difference between Lambics and almost all the other beer consumed in the world today is the way they are fermented. Lambics are made by spontaneous fermentation. In a nut shell, what this means is that the wort is left to cool for an extended period, and during that time, whatever organisms are in the atmosphere (be that yeast, bacteria or other) inoculate the brew. This makes for an extremely complicated flavor profile that is unique to the brewery in which the beer was made. Also, the mix of microorganisms is constantly changing and is not necessarily the same even day after day, and there will certainly be drifts in flavor profiles over longer periods. This is why one of the main tasks for Lambic brewers is to blend different batches to achieve the desired flavor in the final product.

In many ways, what you are tasting when you drink a proper Lambic is probably as close as you will get to tasting the way beers might have tasted several hundred years ago. Long before the discovery of the importance of microorganisms in beer, both spoiling agents and yeasts. What this means is that Lambic producers go against virtually everything you learn from your first day as a brewer, which is to keep everything as clean as possible. Lambic brewers let microorganisms grow freely in their breweries, and rarely disturb them intentionally. This is not a result of laziness, but rather a way of preserving the natural cocktail of microorganisms that make their beers possible.

Now on to the actual reason why I'm writing this article: Cantillon Brewery. It was founded in 1900 in Brussels by a man named Paul Cantillon, himself the son of a brewer. One of the many things that makes the brewery special is that the equipment and brewing methods used have barely, if at all, changed in over 100 years. I happened to be lucky enough to have one of the members of the board of directors for the brewery museum foundation at Cantillon giving me my tour. He was one of the most passionate and knowledgable people with regards to beer I have met in some time. As we walked through the brewery (which as expected looks and feels over a century old) I started to truly understand where the flavor of the beer comes from. It is in the rafters, it is on the floor, it is in the dust that covers the bottles in storage. I am sure that every part of the facility contributes in some way besides its obvious functional capacity. You can smell it as well. There is a very interesting and pleasant odor that permeates the building.

As far as the actual brewing equipment is concerned, except for one piece it was very similar to what I am already familiar with. The mash tun and boil kettle were rustic and still work in the same way they did before my grandmother was born. But by far the most interesting piece of equipment was the cool ship. This is a wide, shallow copper basin where hot wort is pumped to be cooled overnight and inocculated as I explained before. It is still hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that although no sterilization techniques are used, a drinkable (in fact very drinkable) beverage is produced in this way. My tour guide informed me that they have identified well in excess of 100 different kinds of yeasts and around 50 different kinds of bacteria in their beer. My understanding is that it is pretty much a free for all during fermentation between all these different microorganisms. Some are stronger on different days, or opportunistically inocculate the brew while others aren't looking. There is also a process that goes on once fermentation starts in the barrel where some organisms are more active at different times and others take over once the others become lazy. This is why the outcome of the brews are so variable even on a day to day basis.

The old copper boil kettle. 

Not a terribly good photo, but this is the cool ship on the top floor of the brewery.

The most astonishing piece of information I heard the entire day, however, related to the extreme dryness of the beers. Previously, my understanding of the way yeast works in beer was that there are certain types of sugars, mainly larger sugar molecules, that are unfermentable and will always be left behind in finished beer. Apparently, the conditions in the barrels at Cantillon ferments virtually all the sugars out of the wort. I am not the only one that thinks this is special. Cantillon has sent samples of their beers to universities that wish to find out how this is happening. They have not had much luck as the process of fermentation with 100+ different yeasts and 50+ bacteria is extremely complicated. The lack of sugar also means that even people with sensitivities to sugar can drink Cantillon brews. You can definately taste it as well. The dryness cleanses your palate in such a way that the beer should be used to replace sorbet at fancy dinners.

At the end of the tour I sampled three different brews; a Kriek brewed with cherries, a Framboise brewed with rasberries, and a limited edition brew called Zwanze 2011 made with a rarely used grape called pineau d'aunis. All of them were good, but the Zwanze was particularly excellent. Before I left, I also bought three different other bottles and enjoyed them greatly as well.

For anyone who wants to open their minds to a very unique style of beer, head to Cantillon Brewery if you have the chance. You will not be disappointed.

The Zwanze 2011. It has a very unique reddish orange color from the pineau d'aunis.