When I visited Brussels last year it wasn’t specifically for the beery things. Of course we visited some small beery venues like the Belgium Brouwers Museum, the Poechenellekelder. Le Cercueil and the Delirium café, but the main beery thing of the trip was a Gueuze brewery, namely Cantillon.
Cantillon is not in the best of neighbourhoods of Brussels, it’s not easy to find and you’d probably not wander by it by chance, but it’s worth the detour!
I believe lambic beers are one of the oldest, still existing beer styles in the world. It is a complex wheat beer and it’s a within the EU legally protected beer style (EG 2301/97). This regulation protects Lambiek, Geuze-Lambiek, Geuze, Kriek, Kriekenlambiek, Frambozenlambiek, Vruchtenlambiek, Faro, Oude Geuze, Oude geuze-lambiek, Oude Lambiek, Oude kriek, Oude Kriekenlambiek, Oude Frambozenlambiek en Oude Fruit-lambiek. The name Lambic probably comes from the place Lembeek where the beer supposedly came from. It can (because of the yeast) and may (because of the regulation) only be brewed in and around Brussels. The beer has to have at least 30% wheat in it and around 60% of barley. Some breweries use a very specialized mashing method, with the use of Madammen, perforated discs through which some of the mash is pushed out of the mash tun, cooked seperately and then added again to the main mash. The brewery efficiency of this method is very low.
Because you shouldn’t be able to taste any hop effect in lambic beers, 1 to 3 year old hop is used. It doesn’t make the beer bitter anymore, but it does keep its antisceptic attributes (and don’t worry, the beer will not smell like old cheese even though the hops do). After cooking, the mash is placed in an open cooling ship for the spontaneous fermentation to occur. Lambic brewers are very pecular about their breweries. It is not to be cleaned or changed or anything, because the yeast and other bacteria are ín the building materials. After the infection by the yeast and other bacteria out of the surroundings, the beer is put into used barrels, which have their own bacteria and all as well.
Gueuze is a blend of lambics (the same as whisky blends). A typical Oude Geuze consists of 60% of a 1 year old Lambic, 30 % of a 2 years old Lambic and 10% of a 3 years old Lambic.
It may only be called an Oude Geuze if it has secondary fermentation on the bottle afterwards for at least 6 months as well. The same goes for Oude Kriek. Without ‘Oude’ the secondary fermentation is not mandatory, and it’s even allowed to pasteurize the beer and add sweetners to it..
Tours are available at different days and times in French, Dutch and English, although when we were there it was not with a tourguide, but with a booklet and numbered beer drinkers on the walls.
Cantillon is a traditional lambic brewery and a family business since the beginning. At the moment they produce 2500 hl a year. They still use all the equipment with which they started and which is over a hundred years old. Their coppers are made of red copper and they’ve got a huge coolship on their attic. Lambic is made with wild fermentation which means they let the yeast and other bacteria out of the surroundings infect the mash while it’s in the coolship. The coolship is an open tank where it stays for 24 hours. This is a different fermentation method than the top and bottom fermentation I probably mentioned in earlier posts. It’s because of this that all lambic style beers are sour. The fermentation itself will start a few days after when the beer is transported to the barrels. This process happens with such an intensity that the barrels cannot be closed during that time, and you’ll see the beer/yeast bubbling out of a hole in the top. After 4 weeks the slower fermentation phase begins and the barrels will be closed hermetically. This process will take 1 to 3 years, after which it will be used to blend into geuzes and krieks. The brewer will not compensate for evaporation, so there will be about 20% less beer in the barrels after 3 years.
The most famous and important wild yeast strings in lambic beers are the Brettanomyces Bruxellensis and the Brettanomyces Lambicus. You have probably heard people talk about Brett beers; they are mostly speaking about wild fermented ales, like lambic beers. Orval is also known as a Brett beer, but then the brett is used for secondary fermentation. Brett makes a beer sour and/or gives it a farmy flavour, like a stable aroma. We call it wild yeast because it lives in the surroundings and is used to infect the mash, instead of adding it yourself. Wild yeast mostly takes other bacteria with it as well into the mash, like lactic acid bacteria
Basically all yeasts are wild, and you will find all yeasts in nature. However, brewers cultivate yeast strings. By this cultivation the more controlled ‘bottom’ and ‘top’ fermenting yeasts (some day I will get back to why those terms are not entirely correct and that I should be speaking of flocculation) came into existence. Like with breeded cats and dogs, you won’t exactly find these in the wild. Not a lot of brewers like to work with wild yeasts, because once you brought one into your brewery, you are not very likely to get rid of it again. So unless you want to brew wild ales only, I’d think twice before experimenting with wild yeasts. I believe the cultivation is one of the reasons why there are such aroma differences between Belgium, German and English beers. Belgium yeasts always give a bit of a banana aroma to beers (one which is different from the banana and cloves aromas of weizen), English beer has a tendency to peardrops, although peardrops aromas also come from fermenting a beer on a higher temperature than the yeast likes. Anyway, back to Cantillon.
Kriek beers are Gueuze beers with krieken (sour cherries) added. Cantillon also produces raspberry beers and grape beers. Don’t mistake these beers for sweet fruit beers. Although they áre quite sweet in some way, they still have the sourness from the lambic. One of my friends once made this mistake and threw away a perfectly good beer thinking it had gone sour. Also the Faro beers are sweeter than other lambic beers because of the added rock sugar.
You will see a lot of spiders in the brewery. This is because the fruits attract a lot of flies. The brewers don’t want to use insecticides though, so they use a natural predator instead. The spiderwebs look nice next to all the typical mold and all on the walls 😉
Although cleaning the brewery is done as little as possible to keep the yeast and all intact, the barrels are cleaned after every fermentation by the use of a brush and scraper. They sometimes use steam, but that would kill the bacteria’s in the barrels again, so it’s not common use.
The bottling machine of Cantillon can bottle 1200 bottles an hour and they are closed with a cork and crown cap. The crown cap is to make sure the beer won’t push itself out in hot weather.
You should save Gueuze bottles lying down. that way a nice yeast tree is formed on the bottle, which is also a lambic characteristic.
Because of the old and authentic brewing techniques and surroundings, it’s very interesting to visit a lambic brewery. It’s so different to the modern breweries you’ll see everywhere these days. It’s worth it to visit Cantillon while in Brussels.
Which brewery would you recommend me to visit next?