Thursday, 27 January 2011

Cantillon Brewery, Brussels

It shows what a lucky man I am that, when on her birthday weekend away to Brussels, my wife suggested that we made a trip to one of only two breweries left in the capital city. She had seen the Cantillon brewery tour described on Pencil and Spoon and downloaded a short walk from the Grand Place to the Brewery.

Cantillon specialise in Lambic beer and it's derivatives. Lambics are fermented with wild yeasts and bacteria, microorganisms (which would be carefully avoided in normal breweries because of the undesirable flavours and characteristics they give to the beer see below for a sciencey bit on these). But not here in Cantillon, in fact the wort is left to cool and spontaneously ferment in a shallow, copper, bath-like vessel in the loft of the brewery. They even leave the windows open.
This is a picture we took on the charming, self guided tour of the brewery. Yes, they really let you wander round on your own with an informative pamphlet while they get on with the more important job of brewing.
The beer is fermented in these oak and chestnut barrels and then either blended to make gueze or has fruit, sugar or even elderflowers added to make the different varieties.

This brewery is a special place. They have maintained brewing methods that are probably the first methods accidentally used by the original brewers AND their beer tastes fantastic. If I left a tub of wort by the window and hoped for the best there is very little chance I would make something drinkable let alone safe. But a sampling of the beers after the tour left us in no doubt that this is a quality product.

The day before our brewery visit we were sat in one of our favourite bars, Poechenellekelder (try saying that after a Rochefort 10!), and in preparation for our visit to the brewery we had some Cantillons. They are brought to the table in these fetching baskets and poured with the Belgian flourish leaving a large head and room for the rest of the bottle.

A traditional gueuze is carefully blended from different years lambics in order to balance the flavours and to allow for further fermentation in the bottle. This is why there is a recommendation on the label to keep the bottle for at least a year before drinking. I cannot describe this beer using the normal beery descriptive terms. It's sour; due to the nature of the brewing process all of the sugars are fermented out and the lactobacillus bacteria produce plenty of lactic acid. It's also funky from the wild yeast fermentation. Oak ageing gives the beer a wine-like character and in fact I think that it's almost closer in flavour to a dry cider or white wine than it is a beer. The hops used are also aged for three years before being used in the boil, making the hop flavour restrained, austere even. 

However when bountiful cherries are added to year old lambics in the barrel another kind of magic happens (please read the cantillon website for more flowery prose than I could achieve even after a few bottles of their finest). The resulting beer is far from the sickly alcopops that bear the title kriek on their labels. The complex cherry fruit is blended perfectly with the sour farmyard flavours of the lambic. It seems like every sour beer I taste I come to the same conclusion. That I have never tasted anything like this before. Well this kriek was another one. 

Okay, enough sycophancy. Here is the sciencey bit I promised earlier.

Brettanomyces (Brett to its friends) is a wild yeast, often found on the skins of fruit. Wild yeasts are carefully avoided in most commercial wineries and breweries because of the unpleasant characteristics that they produce. That being said there are some wines where these flavours are considered to be desirable and in fact it was these very flavours that used to be considered the sign of a high quality burgundy. Brett can give flavours of farmyard, sweaty saddle and even plasters (band-aids). 
It tickled my science bone to discover that Brussels has it's own member of the brett family, Brettanomyces Bruxellensis, and it is likely that this is one of the more prevalent yeasts in the Cantillon brewery.

The other key component to the microbiological brew is Lactobacillus bacteria. Members of this family are present everywhere from our gut to rotting fruit and will convert sugar (and in some cases alcohol) to lactic acid and are no doubt responsible for a lot of the sourness of these beers.

Blended by the experts at Cantillon the undesirable qualities produced by these wild bugs are turned into the sublime. 


Claire said...

It was a fab trip, I'd recommend to anyone with an interest in beer. It was nice to get to taste something so different too! I look forward to trying the Cantillon kriek jam I bought...

LadyMacaron20ten said...

OMG - I got my first taste of Belgian Beer in Bruges. LOVED IT! This looks awesome.