Cantillon is widely regarded to be one of the best brewers of lambic beer in the world. Lambic, if you don’t know, is beer that is spontaneously fermented via wild yeasts that just happen to be in the air. Different regions of the world contain their own unique concoction of wild yeasts floating about, resulting in very unique (horrible) tasting beers. Brussels, and the area southwest of it, are historically considered to have excellent wild yeast strains optimal for lambic brewing. Of course, with modern technology, the beneficial wild yeasts have been isolated and can be purchased by any old brewer. Still, lambic brewing requires a tremendous amount of skill and patience. Done wrong and the taste is horrible, done well and the taste is still one many would consider to be ‘acquired’. Lambics are sour, require years to become drinkable, and are often brewed with fruit, the sugar from which cuts the sourness of the final beer. Cantillon has mastered lambic brewing and continues to produce top notch beers in the last remaining lambic brewery in Brussels. It’s still family run and they use the same equipment they’ve always used, going back to the nineteenth century. Obviously we needed to visit this place.
I’ve heard the name Cantillon bandied about with such high regard over the years that I expected a slick operation. Instead we found a hole in the wall warehouse in a suburb of Brussels that looked like it was going to fall apart. It’s old, cold, and there are spiders everywhere (spiders are considered to be great friends of natural brewers because they eat annoying bugs attracted to the sugar in unfermented beer). Amazingly, the tour was self guided and included two free tastes (gueze and framboise) for all of five euros a person. What modern brewery would let you go on an unguided tour? My favorite part of the tour was the fermentation room, which is a room in the attic exposed to the great outdoors via a few portholes. In the room was one giant shallow aluminum tub where all Cantillon beers pick up their wild yeast. I couldn’t believe they would let me in this magic room, especially considering I was a bit sick at the time. Expect the 2012 vintage Gueze to contain hints of Chris phlegm, imparted by a few careless sneezes.
The brewery at Cantillon is an amazing place to visit. It’s encouraging to see such a big name brand operating so humbly by nice people in a small, family run shop. It lived up to the hype and then some. If any of your Vancouverites are interested in trying a local lambic, Storm has 12 year aged (forgotten about in the back of the brewery) fruit varieties on sale and they are fantastic.
PS> If any pretentious North American beer douchebags try to tell you that lambic is pronounced lambeek, ask them why the staff at Cantillon pronounces it lambic? Let’s leave the bad attitude to InBev, shall we?