Monthly Archives: January 2011

Visiting Cantillon in Brussels

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.

The Cantillon Beer Lineup

The Cantillon Beer Lineup

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 Magic Brewing Room at Cantillon

The Magic Brewing Room at Cantillon

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?

Old school brewing at Cantillon

Old school brewing at Cantillon

The barrel room at Cantillon

The barrel room at Cantillon

Bottle Room at Cantillon

Bottle Room at Cantillon, they bottle age for years

Cantillon bottle room, a particular vintage

Cantillon bottle room, a particular vintage, Lou Pepe Kriek (cherry)

Cantillon dirty bottle

A dirty bottle, in more ways than one

Cantillon tasting time

Time for a taste

Pilgrimage to Westvleteren

Westvleteren is one of only seven Trappist monasteries in the world where the monks brew traditional Belgian beer.  What makes them special? They are the one Trappist brewery that only sells their beer on the premises, not in beer stores.  You can get the beer of the other six Trappist breweries all over the world, including in London and in Vancouver.   The only place you should be able to taste Westvleteren is in Cafe In De Vrede adjacent to the brewery at Saint Sixtus abbey (Westvleteren is actually the name of the nearest town), or in your home if you’ve visited and purchased a few bottles.  However, some sneaky beer store owners have made the pilgrimage to Westvleteren and put their horde up for sale.  I’ve come across this rarest of beer in Amsterdam and in Antwerp.  I did buy some, but specifically avoided the legendary quad until I could make the journey myself.  The aforementioned quad is widely considered to be the best beer in the world, just check out Beer Advocate and for proof.

Beers of Westvleteren

The Beers of Westvleteren

Since getting into beer and learning about Trappist brewing tradition, I’ve had it as a goal to make the trip.  Now I’ve finally done it.  This past Christmas Erik and I, along with the wives, took a trip to Belgium.  We took the Eurostar from London to Brussels, spent the night there (Cantillon, Delirium, Mort Subite, Bruges, Antwerp, and so many more posts to come), then rented a car and drove out to West Flanders.  The trip was supposed to take over an hour and a half, but, thanks to our rental car upgrade (Audi A4 diesel wagon) and my prodigious driving, we made the trip in just over an hour.  We were getting a bit worried as we neared our destination since it looked as though we were in the middle of nowhere amongst the farmland of flanders fields.  Our apprehension was not lessened as we approached what appeared to be a desolate monastery.  Then we turned the last corner and saw a slick looking cafe and hundreds of other cars in the parking lot.  Turns out we approached from the rear.

In de Vrede Cafe Westvleteren

In de Vrede Cafe, bit modern looking eh?

I was a bit disappointed to see a shiny new visitor center with a modern cafe restaurant staffed by normal looking people.  I expected tonsured monks pulling bottles out of hay lined crates and blessing the beer before selling it to me.  Oh well, at least I still had the best beer in the world to drink.  We ordered one each of Westvleteren 12 (the quad), Westvleteren 8 (a dubbel), and Westvleteren Blonde (pale ale).  They were all very good beers, but when something is billed as the greatest beer in the world, you expect magic.  In that respect, I was a bit disappointed.  I am quite sure the exclusivity of this beer helps it in the ratings department.  Turns out the St. Bernardus brewery brews the same beers using the same recipes and St. Bernardus 12 doesn’t get quite the same attention, though it is still quite highly rated.

Don’t get me wrong, all of the Westvleteren beers were excellent examples of their style.  Going right to the monastery and trying the best and most exclusive beer in the world was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.  I bought two bottles of each style and I haven’t drank them yet, so I’ve got a few more Westvleteren sessions to get through yet.  If you like beer at all, I definitely recommend making the pilgrimage yourself.  If not for the beer, then because something else happened on Flanders Fields a few years back.

When you consider the population of Canada at the start of WW1 was about seven million, it’s quite impressive that over six hundred thousand Canadians served in the war.  When you think of what Canada was like at that time, we were barely a country, we barely had an army, and most everyone was a European immigrant (not necessarily from the UK).  And yet Canadians, who were mostly farmers/labourers and possibly of German decent, signed up in droves to fight for Britain.  Most of the sixty seven thousand Canadians that died in WW1 did so in Flanders fields.  We saw monuments to Canadian soldiers all over Belgium and Flanders is littered with military cemeteries and monuments.  Think of what the trenches of WW1 were like (I was freezing just standing outside for ten minutes) and consider the way Canadians fought for the UK and for Belgium.  I did and being there, taking it all in, I’ve never been so proud to be Canadian.

Menin gate Ypres

The Menin Gate in Ypres, a monument to commonwealth soldiers who died in Flanders Fields

names on Menin gate

Some of the 55000 names on Menin Gate

monument to Canada menin gate

Recent wreaths laid for Canadian soldiers at Menin Gate

Cemetery in Flanders Fields

Random Cemetery in Flanders: Their name liveth for evermore

Tyne cot cemetery

Tyne Cot Cemetery at night: 12000 graves, 9000 unnamed