The Bruery’s First Day in Brussels

Our day began with the usual wi-fi check in at the nearby hotel, followed by a brisk walk through Bruges to the train station. All of us were equally excited at the idea of purchasing Belgian beer from a vending machine to drink on the train, but alas, it required ID and none of us trusted that our California ID would work. So we ended up having fun buying several bottles of cola which had our coworkers’ names on them.

Once in Brussels, it was another short walk to Cantillon. Like nearly every other beer geek, Cantillon has been on my list of bucket list breweries to visit since my first introduction to the Cantillon Gueuze in my craft beer drinking infancy. I had heard stories of others’ visits, so I knew to expect the brewery to be oddly located in an unassuming industrial building, in a not-so-glamorous area of town (sound familiar?).

The instant we walked in, a change in atmosphere could be felt. We went from the warm sweaty streets of Brussels to a cool, pleasantly humid, and deliciously smelly interior. The stern-faced lady behind the counter greeted us with a friendly smile and gave us her spiel of the brewery basics, the lambic brewing process, and how to proceed on the self-guided tour. Soon enough, we were on our merry way.

The first stop was the ‘Mashing tun’. The rustic white walls and floor of the room complimented the rustic wood and antique looking metal equipment as if it were staged for a museum… except, unlike a museum, this is completely functional and makes some of the best lambic beer around.
Before we knew it, everyone wide-eyed and snap happy with camera phones in hand. We then ventured to the ‘Hop Boilers’. The copper topped kettle greeted us again like a piece of rustic brewing art amongst maze of cranks and pulleys lining the room. Everyone continued to browse with the highest levels of curiosity and excitement that I have witnessed on my co-workers’ faces (I’m sure my expression was priceless as well).

As we proceeded through the tour, we saw the glorious coolship. They pride themselves on the fact that the massive vessel was never touched by a welder, but 100% riveted.

This large open vessel is where the wort is chilled, allowing the natural culture of wild microbes to do the work that us American brewers rely on a laboratory to complete. There is no heat transferer, no glycol, not even a low-budget ice bath like us homebrewers use. Instead, the cooling and inoculation is left strictly to mother nature.

On a cool night, it may be a quick cooling process, while on other nights, it may take longer to prepare the beer for barrels.

There are around 100 different strains of yeast in the resulting beer, working in perfect harmony to create an amazing flavor both fresh (although in this case, fresh really means after a year or two) and aged (up to 20-30 years, according to Jean). After this nature driven process is complete, the beer is transferred to a stainless fermentation vat where the yeast continues to work its magic until the beer is ready to rest in oak or chestnut barrels.

We then made our way to the glorious barrel room. Lined with spiderwebs, dust, and holes in the ceiling, it felt exactly as I dreamt it would. If I could set up a cot and spend the night in this majestic attic, I certainly would – unless of course, that meant disrupting the fragile eco-system responsible for creating the delicious lambic beer.

The barrels sat peacefully stacked on top of each other with a coding system written on the outward facing heads of each barrel.

Before consuming a drop of beer, I already felt drunk with excitement and awe. A barrel head hung on the wall stating “Le temps ne respecte pas ce qui se fait sans Lui” which translates to “Time does not respect what is done without him”. I shamelessly snuck in a selfie in front of this sign.

As we began to make our way back down to the front room, we observed a brewer transferring Lou Pepe Kriek to a brite tank in preparation for packaging. I admire this guy’s patience in dealing with the countless wide-eyed beer geeks passing through while snapping pictures and asking questions.

After taking a quick look at the bottling line and snapping a few pictures of the hundreds (?) of bottles that seemed to be precariously stacked in interlocking rows along the walls, we met Jean van Roy for some tasters. We tasted the Kriek, Gueuze, and an 18 month old unblended lambic served still out of a pitcher, as part of the normal tasting provided with each tour.

Then much to our delight, Jean decided to bless our tastebuds with some other scrumptious delights. The first of these was Zwanze 2012, which is a traditional Lambic with Rhubarb. I tried my hardest to follow his advice and let the beer ‘open up’ for a few minutes before drinking it, but I could not help my self from going back for sip after sip. Next came the Cognac barrel aged 50N 4E, which he decanted and serves to us in a beaker. We ended on a bottle of 2006 Gueuze. I was (and still am) a happy camper.

Cantillon brewers are true artisans. Hearing Jean talk about the rich heritage surrounding the brewery was like listening to a proud father talk about his children. I’m pretty sure he even let out a little fist pump out of excitement upon first sip of his 2006 Gueuze. I felt an overwhelming sense of passion and admiration and I feel truly honored to have stolen away a few hours of his time to talk beer.

Afterwards, we made our way over the fantastic Moeder Lambic where we met up with our friend Kyle from Kern River Brewing Co. and enjoyed some more Cantillon Lambic, this time served on cask.

After admiring the architecture around the Grand Place, we made our final beer stop at the classic Delirium Café for a few more delicious beers before hopping back on the train back to Bruges.

It was a good day.

Post written by Matt Olesh, our Director of Retail Operations and cheif wearer of fashionable hats.

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