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A Visit to the Historic Cantillon Brewery and Museum

Brussels, Belgium (November 2003)

Also be sure to see the Travel/Geography Blog

Deep in the heart of Brussels, not far from the Grand' Place, sits a small throwback to a simpler time when people had a more intimate connection with the food and beverages they consumed. The Cantillon Brewery is a working museum, and a couple times a year the brewers also hold an open house. Here the public can observe the brewing process taking place in its most natural form, devoid of the industrial sterility of modern breweries. We happened to be in Brussels on one of those rare days. Cantillon brews lambic style beers in the most traditionally manner with organic grains and natural fermentation sparked by ambient yeast.

Bags of Grain

Bags of Grain in the Brewery Attic

Cantillon Brewery, Brussels, Belgium

Bags of grain line the attic floor of Cantillon and serve as a basic ingredient of their beers. Cantillon's lambics are composed of wheat (35%) and barley (65%). These are the traditional grains used in lambics. There are no shortcuts or adjuncts designed to save money used in this process.

Climbing among the grain bags

Certified Organic Grain

My quick web search on the Flemish writing found on these bags points towards a Belgian company that specializes in organic products. Certainly this befits a beverage made in such a traditional manner. Here, our little guy enjoyed climbing among the bags as we took our tour through the facility. Notice the two bright spots in the background. Those holes are intentional; the roof does not need to be repaired. Small openings throughout the building allow air to pass through the walls naturally, bringing wild strains of yeast along with it. This will become important later in the brewing process.

Hops Wagon

Dried Hops

The next basic ingredient is hops. Cantillon uses dried hops that have been aged for three years. An example is shown in the photograph above. While this nicely arranged wagon and its precious cargo were obviously there for display purposes only, it gets the basic point across. Hops is a bittering agent and flavoring enhancement, somewhat analogous to a spice. So why would Cantillon use hops that have been aged to the point of dessication and essentially devoid of flavor? Hops has another important and historical attribute ñ it is a natural preservative ñ and that is the primary use here. It's not the hops flavor, it's the preservation that is important to Cantillon. Their beers are aged considerably before maturing and consumers can cellar them for another twenty years if they like.

Brew Kettle

Brew Kettle

Grain malts and water combine in the brew kettle. Dried hops are added during the boil. The entire building filled with a wonderful aroma that is familiar to anyone who has ever been a homebrewer or who has spent time near a brewery.

Cooling Tun

Cooling Tun

The resulting wort is then transported to a cooling tun, which in this instance is simply a large, open, and shallow copper pan. This allows a tremendous amount of the hot liquid's surface to be exposed to chilly air. Two things happen here: first, the liquid cools down quickly; and second, it is inoculated with natural yeasts that happen to be floating around the building at that time. In a modern brewery this would be a disaster. Great pains would be taken to chill the beer using a heat exchanger and to introduce a specifically-cultivated yeast in a controlled environment. That's not how it would have happened historically however, and that's not how it happens at Cantillon. The special yeast that ferments lambics can be found naturally only in one small area in close proximity to Brussels.

Fermenting Barrels

Lambic Aging in the Brewery Basement

The cooled wort, newly inoculated with ambient yeast, moves into oakwood or chestnut wood barrels for fermentation and aging for one to three years. Marks are placed on each barrel to denote vintage. The brewmaster carefully notes physical characteristics and attributes of each batch over time through regular tasting and testing. Batches of different ages are blended together to create Gueuze. People who have tried lambics only from the larger breweries will be surprised by the pronounced sourness of a traditional Gueuze. It is somewhat of an acquired taste. Fruit is added to other lambics to produce Kriek (cherry), Framboise (raspberry), or druivenlambik (grape lambic). It's also possible to use other ingredients such as apricot or peach.