For me – and for many American beer drinkers of un certain regard – a trip to Belgium is a holy grail event, something talked about for years and often never acted upon. I said I’d haul the whole family there for my 50th birthday, but that’s still a ways off and, well, I just finished up my first stint there. In Brussels, baby. Belgium has been ticked. I had to go to Cologne and Hamburg in Germany for work and found myself with a free weekend in between, and well – Brussels is less than two hours away from Cologne by train. I found accommodations, procured a train ticket, and it was on.
First thing I did upon arrival, after dropping my suitcases off at the front desk of the hotel? A trip to CANTILLON. Clearly this too is a right of passage for all right-thinking, beer-loving visitors to Brussels, and now that I’d done it, I can’t recommend a visit here highly enough. Let’s get something out of the way first, though. If you’ve read this blog closely, you’ll have found that I tend to vacillate pretty hard on my stance with regard to sour ales. Check this out, then compare it to this. It’s not an accident. When I feel like I’m falling prey to some sorta hype cycle and then try beers that falls square in the middle of said hype cycle, I lash out. CROOKED STAVE, I’m talking to you. But Cantillon themselves have fared only marginally on the blog as well - “IRIS” was a winner; “ROSE DE GAMBRINUS” was definitely not. I almost certainly overreacted in “The Great Sour Beer Epiphany of 2014”, but sometimes I’ll do that.
Back to Cantillon. It’s about as unassuming and as real a brewery as it gets. There’s no BS with these guys. The equipment is circa 1900, no kidding – a system of wheels and pulleys and hand cranks, plus vats left open next to windows for wild fermentation. All you Brettanomyces lovers, that picture you have in your mind’s eye of how it’s done is right here at Cantillon in Brussels. It’s crazy, man. Time stopped 100 years ago and no one told these guys, and while they’re defiantly proud of their throwback stance toward brewing in as “natural” a manner as possible, they’re obviously also practicing a phenomenal bit of niche branding as well. Their sour beers – and they’re all sour beers, built from their base gueze or lambic – are made according to a template by which they believe all others will fall short, even if the other beers taste better. No one does it as raw and as “real” as Cantillon, and it’s very likely no one ever will.
I paid 7 euros for the guided tour. It was worth every centavo. Our guide was right out of central casting – a wizened, graying, pissed-off, opinionated Belgian with beer-begotten fat folds under his XXL t-shirt, ready to school a group of Brits and Americans in why everything they believed about beer production was dead wrong. In just under an hour the guy managed to insult the Trappist Monks (“only after money – it’s all business”); brewing production after 1930 (“It’s all shit”); the people of Belgium who don’t drink Cantillon; Guinness Beer; the beer writer Michael Jackson; the entire sugar-industrial complex (this was a good third of the entire tour, quite entertaining and in many ways edifying); women who tend to not enjoy sour beer because evolutionary biology says that females reject sour tastes in order to protect their breast milk; Napoleon (naturally); IPAs and beers that use hop oils in general; sweetened lambics; beer made with an eye to alcohol content; beer served cold; the notion of beer as a “drink" rather than as a “food"; the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair; capitalism; and the United States of America, my home country. Pretty awesome stuff.
Any brewery tour worth ponying up for had better include some tastings, and this one certainly did. Two pours – the gueze and then an optional choice from three different beers (no, not Lou Pepe nor Fou’Foune). I chose the Kriek, and it was outstanding – a deliciously complex and dry sour cherry beer, “artisan” in every sense. The Gueze was OK. They even have a store with prices to make a man weep with joy. A 750ml “Fou’Foune” for 9 euros? A 750ml “Cuvee Saint-Gilloise” for just over 6 euros? Are you kidding me? I don’t yet know if those beers are truly any good but I know the dorks love ‘em, and yeah, I bought those, and yes, I’ll be writing about them here at some point. Suffice to say this was a landmark sort of tour, and absolutely one I’d council you to find a way to embark upon at some point in your beer-drinking life.