In the Heart of Brussels…
A trip to Belgium without beer is like going to Italy and not eating pasta. If you’re looking for a great beer experience while in Brussels, do yourself the favor of visiting Cantillon Brewery. Formally named Brasserie Cantillon, it also houses The Brussels Museum of Gueuze. Located in a more industrial, gritty part of the city, it’s a nice break from from the hustle and bustle of Brussels’ pristine tourist center, without being too far away. The building doesn’t look like much from the outside, but upon entering you know you’re witnessing something special.
Cantillon has been brewing beer the same way it always has since it’s founding in 1900. When I tell you that not much has changed in this location over the past 100 years, I’m being dead serious. The same family is still brewing traditional farmhouse style lambic, gueuze and kriek style beers. They use the same brewing methods, open air fermentation, and barrel & bottle aging techniques that their ancestors did back at the onset of the 20th century.
Visiting Cantillon Brewery
While the traditional form of brewing is on display at Cantillon, I assure you the vibe is causal. It’s best to book your spot on the guided brewery tour before you arrive. Inside, you’ll find a fully working brew operation that’s much different from the new world brew facilities on display across America and Australia. You feel as if you’re in a warehouse, as aging beers rest in racks and a small bar welcomes you for tastings. The low ceilings add to the coziness of the place and give off an old timey feel.
Check in at the merch counter and purchase your tour (€6). The self guided tour begins with a brief history of their beer and their brewery from a staff member. Guests also receive a lesson about the open air fermentation and the aging process of the Cantillon beers. Once the little spiel is completed, guests tour at their own pace, following the numbered signs. Each station tells you about every step of the brewing process. You pass the mash tun, the spent wort, open air fermentation bath, aging barrels and racks of bottle aging brews. It’s really a process you should see for yourself.
The highlight for me was the open air fermentation bath. Instead of spending time in fermentation tanks, these beers ferment and cool out in the open in huge troughs. The open air cooling with wild yeast, native to the region, gives the lambic brews their dry, sour flavors. The A-frame building is designed to keep hot air rising, but the temperature is more or less contingent on nature. This means they can only brew during certain times of the year, in the colder months between fall and spring. It’s a very different approach to fermentation than machine controlled facilities seen at most modern breweries.
Let’s not kid ourselves…while all this brewing stuff is cool and interesting, it’s all about the tasting. The final station of the tour finds you back out front in the bar. Here, a Cantillon staffer fills a tulip shaped glass with fresh lambic style beers. I personally love sour beers. Lambics especially. We were offered 3 styles of Cantillon beers:
Gueuze – Blend of lambics produced in different years mixing young lambics (1 year aging) and fully mature lambics (3 years). Just delicious. This classic beer is crisp. It’s sour on the front of your tongue but smooth going down. I won’t lie, it smells a little like foot, but like a nice tasty cheese, you just have to get past the smell.
Kriek – Lambics flavored with sour cherries. Amazing fruit beer. The cherry flavors work perfectly. It’s just tart enough to pucker your tongue, but the flavors are flawlessly balanced. This is the best sour I’ve ever had
Framboise Lou Pepe – 2 year old lambics flavored with raspberries. Another great, great beer. This beer receives praise for it’s wine like characteristics. Like the cherries, the raspberries are a nice added touch to this lambic. It tastes fresh and would be a great drink on a hot summer’s day.
I really liked all the beers, and was very surprised at how different they all tasted. Our travel mates didn’t love the beers quite as much, as they simply aren’t fans of sour beers. They did however appreciate the peek into beer history and the chance to taste, proving that everyone can enjoy the whole experience of visiting Cantillon Brewery.
Lambic Pilgrimage at Cantillon
If you are a lover of lambic, this is the epicenter, and an absolute must. If you are a beer lover of any degree, this is an extremely unique experience. We recommend you make time for a tour and visit. There’s much more to the process that I didn’t get into here because this isn’t science class or a tech blog. This is a beer blog about drinking and loving beer. Cause that’s what I’m good at. It’s a “Should I go? Hell Yes!” type of blog.
When in Brussels, try the muscles (they are also awesome), but make time for visiting Cantillon Brewery. We came away with a great experience and better understanding of lambics and beer in general. But that wasn’t all. Our gregarious host dropped a pearl of wisdom during the tasting portion that I’ll never forget. The beers he was pouring were rather foamy. In an attempt to serve everyone in a timely manner, he was working quickly. When a fellow patron gave him a quizzical look because of the foam, our host looked the guest in the eye and said, “Don’t worry. The foam turns into beer.” It’s not just a great way to approach a foamy pour, but a great approach to life.
Visiting Cantillon Brewery is an incredibly unique beer-venture!