Beer sampling has become a favorite pastime of mine since arriving in Belgium so when I discovered that there was a brewery in the centre of Brussels that is open to visitors, I gathered some beer-loving friends for a day out at the Cantillon Brewery, which has been brewing beer at the same site for over 100 years. While self-guided visits are available almost every day of the year, as a small group we were able to book a guided tour which taught us a thing or two about the brewing process and gave us some valuable insight into the specific workings of the Cantillon operation.
Lambic Beer Production
Cantillon specialises in the production of lambic beer, a still beer developed through spontaneous fermentation which today is produced by just a few small breweries worldwide. Cantillon has maintained a traditional production method, using the same tools and brewing process since the brewery was founded in 1900. It was impressive to see the original red copper containers still in use.
We started our tour in the ground floor brewing area where we were able to view the mashing tun, where the crushed cereals are mixed with hot water. From there we made our way upstairs to the room housing the wheat and barley crushing machine and the hop boilers, where hops are mixed with wort for the cooking process.
Next was a peek at the granary, which is used for storing the wheat, malted barley and hops during the brewing season. As a lambic brewery, Cantillon uses hops not only for flavour but also as a preservative, using two to three times more hops than ordinary breweries.
Cooling Tun Room
Adjacent to the granary was the cooling tun room which houses a key tool of the fermentation process, a large but shallow copper container which speeds up the natural cooling process by maximizing the cooked wort’s contact with the Brussels air and exposing the wort to a unique variety of airborne fermenting agents.
We were then guided to the barrel store where we were greeted by rows of wooden casks of up to 500 litres capacity. For its lambic production, Cantillon uses only casks which have already been used by winemakers or cognac producers. Their process of maturing the lambic in barrels gives the beer a wine-like flavour. It is in these barrels that the yeast reacts with the sugars in the wort resulting in spontaneous fermentation. Slow fermentation then begins three or four weeks later, before the process of continued fermentation starts for a period of one to three years.
Gueze and Fruit Beer
The lambic serves as a basis for the making of gueze, essentially a carbonated lambic produced by blending lambics of different ages and fermented in the bottle to allow the sugars to be converted to carbon dioxide. Lambic is also used as the basis for Cantillon’s faro and fruit beers – candied sugar is added to produce faro beer, while regional fruits such as cherries, raspberries and grapes are added to produce fruit beers, the most popular being Cantillon’s kriek (cherry) beer.
After the ninety-minute tour we’d worked up a thrist, so it was just as well a tasting was included as part of our visit. We made our way to the small downstairs bar to sample some of the highly anticipated lambic beer. It was certainly different to any other beer I’ve ever tasted, and even though I’d been pre-warned about its stillness and sourness, the lambic taste and consistency was still suprising. We then had the opportunity to sample the gueze and the kriek which were also quite unique.
Getting a close-up look at the brewing process gave me a real appreciation for the Cantillon beers and the traditional methods they coninue to employ. Their commitment to the craft of lambic beer production, and to preserving and sharing their knowledge through their ‘Brussels Gueze Museum’ is admirable. Thanks to our guide and the team at Cantillon Brewery for an informed and enjoyable visit. Cheers!
Cantillon Brewery / Brussels Gueze Museum
56 rue Gheude, 1070 Brussels