Guest series by Christopher Barnes.
Not only is Brussels the capital of Belgium, it’s also the site for the European Parliament. This has brought a lot of change to Brussels over the decades with a lot of the older buildings being replaced by new buildings in an effort to modernize the city as the capital of Europe. One of the side effects of this, along with the decline in the number of breweries throughout Belgium during the second half to the 20th century, was the loss of all of Brussels’s breweries, save one: Cantillon Beer.
Brasserie Cantillon has been a fixture in Brussels since its founding in 1900 when Marie Troch, of the Troch Lambic family, and Paul Cantillon, newlyweds, started a Geuze blending business in the Anderlecht neighborhood of Brussels. In 1937, Paul Cantillon began the process of expanding from being a blender to becoming a full-fledged Lambic brewery. The first batch was brewed in 1938 as two of the Cantillon sons were called up in Belgium’s pre-WWII mobilization. This started a long stretch of bad times for the brewery.
The brewery had almost no grain available to brew with throughout the war rendering the new brewery almost entirely unused. To add insult to injury, the Germans confiscated the brewery’s new Ford. The immediate post-war years were not much better. Production and consumption were down. The year 1947 almost proved the end for many Geuze breweries when an excessive heat wave caused stocks of maturing bottles to explode. Many Geuze producers lost a huge amount of stock, including Cantillon. Fortunately, Cantillon recovered and by 1955 they were producing a large amount of beer for a small brewery.
However, 1960 saw the start of another extended period of decline as natural Geuzes fell out of favor. Consumers were turning towards sweetened Geuzes and international style Pilsners. By the late ’60’s, the remaining Cantillons were looking to retire. Fortunately, Claude Cantillon, Marcel Cantillon’s daughter, had married a science student who ended up helping his father-in-law in the brewery. Jean-Pierre Van Roy learned the business while looking for work as a teacher. Jean-Pierre joined the brewery full time in 1970 and by 1971 he was running the brewery entirely on his own. To keep the brewery afloat, he sweetened his Geuze with artificial sweeteners to try to keep up with the current tastes. However, this didn’t help. The brewery was still in the red. Running counter to this trend, Jean-Pierre began reducing these practices in 1975 ending them entirely in 1979. Marcel Cantillon recommended against this for fear that it would put his son-in-law out of business.
It didn’t. Sales actually began increasing. Jean-Pierre continued to take steps to increase quality control, including discontinuing sales to stores that stored the beer upright. Storing the bottles upright caused the cork to dry out and let all the carbonation out. Jean-Pierre brought his son, Jean, into the business who continued his father’s work of making Cantillon beers some of the highest quality, truly authentic Lambics around. Today, Cantillon beers are some of the most sought after beers in the world, often causing feeding frenzies amongst beer collectors when a Cantillon beer is released.
Cantillon beer: Lambic & Geuze
Lambic is an archaic and ancient style of beer. Modern beer is carefully controlled from start to finish. Yeast strains and brewery cleanliness are tightly maintained to make sure the beer is clean and consistent. Lambic’s hearken back to a time before humanity knew about microbiology and fermentation was a mysterious gift from the gods. Beers were fermented via ‘spontaneous fermentation’, meaning natural ambient yeast that was floating on the air would settle into the wort (unfermented sugar liquid) and spark fermentation. The air would deposit a mix of brewing yeast, wild yeast, and bacteria. This would have caused the beer to be both funky and a bit sour.
Lambics are still spontaneously fermented. Lambic brewers only brew during the cold months of late fall, winter, and early spring. This is the time when the best mix of wild yeast is active and more dangerous bacteria are inactive. They brew the wort, transfer it to a shallow vessel called a ‘coolship’, then open the shutters and allow the cool night air to cool the wort and impregnate it with a mix of wild yeast. The beer is then transferred into giant oak barrels where it matures over a period of years. Additionally, the oak plays host to a whole variety of beer loving microbes that contribute to the beer’s development and maturation.
Once the beer goes into the barrel, the brewer becomes a blender. When it comes to Lambic, there are two type of producers: brewers and blenders. Lambic brewers create their own wort, then age it in their own oak, then blend it together to create the final product. Blenders don’t have their own brewery. They buy fresh wort that has been inoculated at the brewery. They take this purchased beer and put it in their own oak to mature. The blender (at the brewery or at the blending house) can then add in fruit or mix Lambics of different ages to make the final beer.
The Cantillon beers
Classic Gueuze – Gueuze is a traditional blend of 1-year old, 2-year old, and 3-year old Lambic. The older Lambic is dryer and more sour, but very flat and devoid of sugar which has been eaten by wild yeast over several years. The younger Lambic still has a lot of sugar in it. When you mix them together and put them in a bottle, this allows for bottle conditioning which creates the intense champagne like sparkle Gueuze is famed for.
Cantillon Kriek – Kriek Lambic is made when cherries are added to the barrels containing fermenting Lambic. The wild yeast will then eat all the sugar from the fruit and integrate the fruit into the beer creating a beer loaded with authentic sour cherry flavor. It’s both funky and fruity!
Rose de Gambrinus – This is Cantillon’s Framboise or raspberry beer. The beer is brewed in the same method as the kriek, except with raspberries.
Cantillon makes many more beers than just these three. But if you only have a limited amount of time or drinking space, these three will give you a great idea of what Lambics and Geuzes are about.
Where to go for Cantillon beer
Brussels’s Museum of the Gueuze – In 1978, Jean-Pierre Van Roy decided to create a working exhibit dedicated to the art of Lambic brewing. Opening Cantillon to the public allowed them to bring some extra revenue to help balance the books. It also helped to spread the word to both locals and to tourists. This was probably the best thing the Van Roys could do for their business as well as for Lambic producers as a whole. This put a face on a unique cultural product and helped to evangelize a whole new generation of Lambic and Gueuze drinkers. This isn’t a quite show place full of displays behind glass, but a working brewery with excellent guided tours and historical information. The entrance fee is 7€ and you get some beer at the end of the tour. It’s also a reasonably close walk from the Grand Place.
Moeder Lambic – Moeder Lambic is one of the hot new beer cafes in Brussels. It features an amazing bottle list and a well curated draft list. The draft list always features at least one Cantillon beer as the house Lambic, and the bottle list always has an excellent selection of Cantillon bottles. They have two locations in Brussels for your convenience.
Where to stay in Brussels
If you’re looking for an apartment rather than a hotel, I would recommend checking airbnb. Sign up through my link and get a discount on your first stay!
How to get to Brussels
Fly to Brussels Airport and take the train straight to the city center, or simply take the train from another city to Brussels North, Central or Midi Station.
Christopher Barnes is an American beer writer, blogger, and brewing industry professional with a passion for travel, Belgium and its beers. You can find his writings at I think about beer or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.
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