Cantillon: Musty Lemons, Cobwebs, and Coolships
Our more knowledgeable beer friends mention Cantillon in the hushed tones of children peering over the banister on Christmas morning: a place and product sprinkled in magical dust. Cantillon produces the best Lambic beers in the world. Walking down an unkempt street in southwestern Brussels, a sharp morning gust whipped magazine clippings and dirty napkins up on cresting waves. We turned right, leaving the haggard block behind; one hundred feet beyond the turn, bottles awaited on pallets behind the open cargo hull of a delivery truck. The recumbent, guzzling jester of Cantillon branded each bottle and hung from a sheet metal punch-out above the door. The place appeared closed but the door opened.
The American woman at the front counter registered us for the ten o’clock self-guided tour. We waited fifteen minutes in the tasting room, already filled with visitors. The room and people huddled around a small coal furnace emanating warmly dim, orange light into the drafty space. A sweet, musty aromatic signature marked every surface and visitor, contributing to the robust sensory experience.
Paul Cantillon began his namesake brewery in 1900 along the Senne River in Anderlecht (present day Brussels). The company remains very resistant to change. Ascending a staircase, we arrived to the mashing and brewing room. Lambic brewing differs from “traditional” brewing in almost every way possible - in detail, not process. The brewer uses three year old hops in the wort, brewing for four to five hours before cooling and fermentation. Just below the rafters of the attic a shallow tub sat alongside vents in the wall. As any other beer, Lambic must cool to a certain temperature before yeast can survive; however, unlike other beer, the wort is pumped to this rooftop pool - known as the Coolship - where cool nighttime air passing through open slats and shutters reduces the temperature. The requirement for cold air restricts the brewing season to the colder months; we just missed it during our late April visit.
Once the wort’s temperature drops to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, wild yeast carried by the wind settle and begin fermentation. One hundred years ago, Paul Cantillon benefited from wild yeast on the skins of cherries in nearby orchards. Today, those orchards no longer exist, but it is believed that the yeast remains in the walls and air inside the Cantillon Brewery. Consequently, cleaning cobwebs and dust actually destroys the ideal environment for brewing! Scientists have identified 100 strains of yeast, 27 strains of acetic bacteria, and 38 strains of lactic acid in a single Lambic beer. The complex interaction of these microscopic organisms closely reflects the foundations of brewing, where man worked in conjunction with nature rather than fighting it. This continues during the next stage of the process: barrel aging.
Inside Cantillon Brewery barrels filled every available nook. The first barreling room consisted of four rows stacked three high. Fruity, pungent, and leathery aromas hovered these wooden hallways. Inside the barrel walls bacteria and yeast continued to inoculate the beer adding to its complexity. Lambic beer traditionally remains in the barrel for up to three years. Employees at Cantillon blend different barrels to achieve a certain flavor profile and to naturally carbonate the beer. Depending on the desired style, the blender will include different proportions of young (one year), medium (two year), and old (three year) Lambic. Additionally, fruit is often added for flavor, the most famous being the cherries found in Oude Kriek.
We finished the tour back in the tasting room where we sampled a 14 month old Lambic, an Oude Geuze, and an Oude Kriek. The Kriek was one of my favorite beers in Belgium. Strong manure farmhouse notes with hints of cherry, oak, and musty lemon composed the nose; the palate started softly with fresh cherry tartness, and a lingering creamy sweetness reminiscent of wild strawberries; the finish balanced dry lemon and sweet, creamy cherry notes. Inhaling my cheeks, I squeezed the remaining flavor from my final sip. Walking out the door and into the wind we drifted along with the jetsam back to our apartment. The wind brought rain that evening as chicken roasted, endives braised, and we sipped a bottle of Cantillon Grand Cru Bruocsella to the tune of thunder and raindrops. The deep golden hue in our glasses perfectly filtered my memory.