Our columnist visits Brasserie Cantillon in Belgium to sample the wonders of a uniquely Belgian beer style: lambic.
IF you are a beer enthusiast, there are two places that you simply MUST visit if you ever get a chance to go to Belgium. One is the St Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren, which brews the Westvleteren Trappist Ale I wrote about a few weeks back.
The other is Brasserie Cantillon (Cantillon Brewery) in Brussels, which specialises in one of the most traditional of traditional Belgian beers styles: lambic.
Lambic is arguably one of the most unique beer styles of them all. Conventional lagers, ales and stouts are brewed in closed vats using specially cultivated yeast. Lambic brewers, however, rely on natural wild yeast and bacteria in the air to spontaneously ferment their beers.
These micro organisms are native to the Senne valley region; which is why lambic beer is only brewed in two very specific parts of Belgium: in the Pajottenland region south-west of Brussels, and at Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels itself.
Located on the bank of the Senne River, which runs through the Belgian capital, the building looks more like a warehouse than a brewery from the outside, and you could probably miss it completely if not for the unique laughing man signpost hanging outside, as well as the unmistakable whiff of malts, hops and beer as you pass by.
Paul Cantillon founded the brewery in 1900, and much of it has remained unchanged till today (a switch to all-organic ingredients in 1999 aside). Visitors can opt to take a self-guided tour around the brewery, which only takes about 30 minutes and ends with a tasting of some of the beers.
According to Cantillon’s official website (cantillon.be), traditional lambic is made with raw wheat (35%), malted barley (65%), and three-year-old dried hops (about 5g per litre of beer).
The process is quite similar to normal beers at first – the ingredients are brewed, filtered, and hopped, before being moved to open-topped cooling tuns where it is then allowed to come into contact with the open air.
It is here that the natural fermentation process begins, as the wort (the liquid extracted from the mashing process) comes in contact with the wild bacteria and yeasts present in the air around that region.
During my visit to the brewery last year, I was lucky enough to see the spontaneous fermentation happening in one of these open vats in the brewery attic. It was a truly unique sight – most breweries ferment their beers in closed vats, but here, you could actually see the wort bubbling merrily and steam released from the fermentation process rising, giving the air a strong, malted barley scent.
When the wort has cooled down to about 18°C, it is pumped into oak or chestnut wood barrels to continue fermenting until all the sugars in the wort have been transformed, a process that takes about three years. After that, the beer is bottled, and then left for another year (or more) to re-ferment.
The word “lambic” usually refers to the style of beer, and pure lambic fresh from the vat, while still drinkable, is a long way from the smooth elegance of lambic-derived beers such as the traditional Gueuze, Kriek lambic, Faro and so on.
The most common flavour characteristics of a lambic beer is sourness, though the degree of sourness can differ from brewery to brewery and depending on how long the beer has been aged for.
The true measure of a lambic brewery, however, is the quality of its gueuze. Conceived in the 19th century by a brewer in Brabant who blended different lambics together and left them to spontaneously ferment in the bottle (a process very similar to how Champagne is made), Brasserie Cantillon’s Gueuze 100% Lambic represents half of the brewery’s production.
Gueuze is produced by blending lambics of different ages and flavours, and every single blending will produce a different gueuze. “Since we work according to a natural process, it is impossible to make a standard beer,” explains the official website.
It is therefore up to the brewer to taste lambics from different barrels and select the five or six brews that will best represent the traditional flavour of Cantillon brewery’s gueuze.
One sip of the beer, and you instantly know this is something special. In fact, with its wine-like properties, it’s hard to believe that it is actually a beer. It has a very smooth Champagne-like texture, with a soft sourness complemented by a hint of sweetness, and is about as far from a conventional ale and lager as a beer can get.
Another excellent beer I tried at the brewery was the seasonal sour cherry-flavoured Cantillon Kriek, one of several fruit beers made by filling barrels with fruits and “healthy lambics which are more or less one and a half year old”, and leaving them to ferment. Though the sourness can really shock your taste buds at first, subsequent sips bring forth the sweetness and fruitiness of the sour cherries, which slowly balances out the sourness. It grows on you so well that you’d be halfway through that glass of wonderfully vibrant red beer before you know it.
The highlight of the visit for me, however, was the Grand Cru Bruocsella Cantillon, which is a pure lambic that has been matured for three years in oak barrels and bottled without any further additions. A brilliant beer with a soft, sour and surprisingly hoppy nose, it had a wine-like complexity that tasted fresh and vibrant with a fruity sweetness complement by a tangy sourness that just lingers on long after you’ve finished your glass.
This visit to Cantillon was a real eye opener for me. The history and tradition of the brewery is something you won’t get in most modern breweries, and the magnificent liquid brewed there is a far cry from all the commercial and even craft beers that are flooding the market right now. Above all else, it is testament to the fact that when it comes to beer, there is no better country to be than Belgium.
Cantillon beers are currently unavailable in Malaysia, but if you are curious about lambic beers, Taps Beer Bar (One Residency, No. 1, Jalan Nagasari; 03-2110 1560; firstname.lastname@example.org) has a few lambic-style beers, including the decent Kriek Boon and the Spontanlambic beers from Danish brewers Mikkeller.
Michael Cheang doesn’t usually like sour drinks, but he’ll happily pucker up for a good sour lambic beer. Write to him at email@example.com.