Cantillon are the last remaining lambic brewery in Brussels, and on my recent trip to Belgium I managed to make the trip to where it all happens and have a look round. For a few Euros you get a self-guided tour around their facilities and then have a taste of two of their beers. Guides only take around pre-arranged tours, but fortunately for us there was one of those going on, so we did a bit of eavesdropping to augment the ten-page booklet given out. Established in 1900, they use the same equipment (see photo below of the original red copper cooling vessel, still going strong), and traditional methods. Continuing in the hands of the same family, Cantillon and their distinctive ‘man overbalancing on chair’ logo are found throughout Belgium.
Obviously I’ve been to a few breweries in my time, but never a lambic producer – only a small corner of Belgium can claim to produce this distinctive style of aged beer (the Senne Valley area south west of Brussels is the heartland). The mash tuns look like any others, the process is the same until the wort has had the hops cooked and removed, when it is pumped into what looks like a giant pie dish for the magic to happen. Here it is cooled (during the night and only between October and April) with window shutters open to allow the airflow to bring naturally-occurring windblown yeasts into contact. Then it’s placed into wood barrels for the fermentation to take hold. In truth, there are more microorganisms in the barrel wood than arrive on the breeze, but it all helps. The beer is then aged for three years once the barrels are sealed (they are left open for three days to vent the carbon dioxide in case of explosion). But what does it taste like? The samples we were given were their Gueuze and their Framboise, Rosé de Gambrinus.
Cantillon Gueuze 100% Lambic (5.0%)
A blend of one, two and three year old lambic, the Gueuze is their stock beer and is a classic Belgian style. It’s also famously something of an acquired taste, particularly for a Brit like me raised on bitters and stouts. It was poured for us at the brewery serving area, and was (as you can see from the photo) totally opaque and extremely hazy, almost peachy in colour. A vinegary tartness dominated the aroma, with gooseberries and other sharp fruit coming out. On the palate it was colossally sour, extremely bitter with an acid tartness. My girlfriend gave up after a couple of sips, so I had both and managed to get through them, but I’m not going to deny it was a struggle. I can see why lambics are revered, but I’ll clearly need to drink a lot more before I get a taste for them.
Rosé de Gambrinus (5.0%)
The other Cantillon we got to sample was their blend of two-year old lambic and raspberries. The fruit is added for between five and six months, then before bottling more young lambic is added to promote refermentation. This one was unsurprisingly a deep, cloudy pink colour with a tart raspberry sourness on the nose. This comes through on the taste as well, which is predominantly the sour lambic with a rising bitter fruitiness at the end. It’s like mistakenly eating a green raspberry from a bush – but the fruit gives it a more forgiving finish than the straight Gueuze. These are challenging beers, no doubt about it, and ones that any beer lover should try – even if they aren’t immediately accessible like other styles.