Thursday, August 7, 2014

Cantillon: A Lambic Saga

My sister Louise and I had been in Brussels for three or so days on our Grand European Excursion. We'd drank our fair share of beer, there can be no doubt, but we had not yet the opportunity to visit a brewery. When I was researching breweries in Belgium, I started looking at the Trappist Monasteries. That was going to be a little tricky. Monks like their seclusion after all, and most Trappist Breweries are notoriously difficult to get to. Others were similarly located in the (presumably) idyllic Belgian countryside, where the locals bucolically prance around making delicious beer all day. And the weather's always perfect. Paternalizing aside, the more research I did, the more I kept hearing about this one brewery: Cantillon.  

This one brewery

Cantillon is a wonderful bastion of Belgian brewing history tucked into a little side-street just off the beaten path in Brussels. It was started in 1900 and is in its 4th generation of family ownership. If you're in the city, and are even remotely curious about beer you really ought to go. Cantillon was the highlight of my trip to Europe.

The reason, if you are indeed curious at this point, for my boisterous ballyhoo is because Cantillon produces a wide variety of Lambic beers. For a beer to truly be considered a Lambic, it must be: produced in the Zenne river valley (we might be more familiar with the river's French name - Senne), and it must ferment spontaneously. I will shortly get into the discussion of what this all means. But for now, know that a Lambic is fermented with wild yeasts, producing a distinctly sour taste unlike anything you expect a beer to taste like. 

The Path Twists

After a comfortable few days in the old city center of Brussels, amongst the tourists and old buildings, Louise and I decided we needed to venture out a little more and a trip to Cantillon was the perfect way to do that. We had loose directions on my phone but still managed to get lost a solid two or three times, effectively doubling our walk there. We shrugged it off, knowing that getting lost is where the adventure begins, and retraced our steps, eventually arriving at the brewery.
This is what it looks like, by the way

Once I geeked out and took a bunch of pictures of the outside, we headed inside and were immediately greeted by a very modern tasting room set inside one giant, old, musty cellar. It was that good smell of a basement where you know good things have been sleeping, aging. We asked about the tour: It's self-guided, costs 7 Euro, and gets you two free tasters of Lambic at the end. 

Mash tun - cool, old machinery
Much of the tour is quite similar to other brewery tours you've been to, except instead of a guide you're given a guide-book. And each room is numbered to follow along. You start in the room with the Mashing Tuns and quickly move through to the Hop Boilers. Pretty standard. 
Except: I really liked how in the self-guided version of a brewery tour I was able to sit and poke around in each room as long as I wanted. The guide-book we were given gets way into detail about the science in brewing. A normal, guided tour only barely touches on many of the details of the science and numbers involved. With a self-guided tour I was able to read through and truly digest these details that would normally go over my head. We then walk through the granary (the storage) until we reach the coolest part.

The Cooling Tun Room

Before beer becomes beer, it is wort (pronounced "wert"). Which is basically tea. It is the yeasts that turn it
Copper tun, with windows on either side
into beer. In order for yeasts to survive in the wort, it must be cool enough. Typically room temp. Cooling your wort the way Cantillon does it, is probably the oldest way in the book. They pump the hot wort up through some copper tubing and onto a giant, flat sheet of copper - copper because it's extremely thermally conductive - and open the windows to let it cool overnight. Which is why the brewing season lasts from the end of October to the beginning of April.

What happens overnight is wonderful. Wild yeasts and bacteria from the microbiome of the Senne River Valley are introduced to the beer. To quote from the visitor's guide:
The cold season favours the inoculation of the wort by a broad range of wild airborne fermenting agents specific to the room where this process takes place. The wort sterilised in the hop boilers starts being inoculated with natural fermenting agents (bacteria and yeasts) as soon as the temperature has dropped to 40 C. The cooling tun room is seen as a true sanctuary by the brewer as it is home to a unique variety of micro-organic fauna.

Here's some really cool science too:
Researchers at the University of Leuven studying the organic chemistry aspects of Lambic fermentation have identified 100 different strains of yeasts, 27 strains of acetic acid bacteria (which produce lactic acid) in just one type of Lambic.

This is quite different from other sours produced nowadays. Sours, as you may have noticed, have really taken off in the past few years. The first one I had, I wrote about last year actually - Surly's Pentagram.
The main difference is companies like Surly will still introduce their Brettanomyces in the conventional ways brewers do, by culturing the yeast and dropping it into the wort. Typically they'll only add one strain of yeast to a batch of beer, not 100. You can understand how this would conjure a unique flavor.

Oh, the flavor

Quite the active fermentation
After ogling the cellar of bottle upon bottles, we finish our tour back in the tasting room. We're given our first taster glass, which is 18 month old Lambic straight from the barrel. It is unlike any beer you've ever had. If it helps, pretend it's not beer at all. It's sour, it's tart, it's flat, and it's delicious. The only carbonation that occurs is in the bottles during its bottle conditioning and even then it's more "lightly sparkling" than totally carbonated. The tartness smacks you in the face, which I like.

The other varieties of Lambic that Cantillon produces are all based on this beer. The most well-known of these is the Gueuze, a "blend of 1, 2 and 3-year old Lambics with secondary fermentation in the bottle."

A quick rundown on some other varieties:

  • Kriek - "Two-year-old Lambic in which Schaerbeek cherries... have been soaked for 5 to 6 months."
  • Vigneronne - "Lambic in which white Muscat grapes have been soaked."
  • Fou'foune - "Lambic in which Bergeron apricots have been soaked."
  • Iris - "Produced using only Pale-Ale type malts... [and] fresh Saaz hops [giving] Iris a slightly bitter quality."
  • Mamouche - "Two-year-old Lambic in which fresh elderberry flowers have been cold-soaked."
There are a few more Cantillon produces but these ones I either tried or seemed especially interesting to me. I wish I could have tried the Fou'foune, for instance, because when my sister and I walked in we found six or eight people in the corner hanging out and cutting up apricots. By hand!

We stayed right until closing. We each got some swag (I even bought a few bottles which made it home with me) and had some really pleasant chats in one of the most comfortable brewery tasting rooms out there. Perhaps it was due to that off-the-beaten-path nature but everyone there was genuinely curious and willing to embrace a brewing experience unlike any other.

I came across some really cool articles researching spontaneous fermentation for this article. I'd recommend these:

Herz, Julia
Immaculate Fermentation (Craft Beer Muses, 2014)
Julia gets into the wide variety of styles sours come in and even what to look for in an American Craft Sour

Kline, Katie
The Role of Microorganisms in Beer (Ecological Society of America, 2010)
As you'd hope for, a really cool science-y breakdown of some cool yeasts.

Thank you for your time and readership in this very special article for Pint Problems. As you may be aware, I just returned from a month in Europe. Since returning to work I've had much less time to collect my thoughts than I'd hoped for, but such is the way of things. I hope you've enjoyed this article as much as I've enjoyed reliving and writing it.

-Ben Gappa


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