For day three of our trip to Belgium we had one of the most amazing beer adventures I could have ever have imagined. Let us speak of that enigmatic time-capsule brewery called Cantillon. This brewery is a family owned facility that has been around for ages, still using classic techniques and antediluvian equipment to make some of the best beer on the planet. The way they make beer is very much the way beer was made in Belgium centuries ago, especially the Brussels area. The brewery itself is located in what is now a very Middle Eastern area of town, and is a fair hike from the city center. Located in what looks like a warehouse from the outside, there is a sign, and a large orange door that looks like it will open into a workspace. We stared at the door for a few minutes trying to decide if they were open and if we would get in trouble for opening this big door. Taking the plunge, we gently opened a door unto another century.
Large kettles and grain mills hearken back to a lost age of brewing, with the brewery itself looking like the inside of an old farmhouse, coated in the dust of ages and a hefty helping of cobwebs. Up in the rafters of the building lies the old flat copper coolship for cooling the wort overnight with louvres open to the outside to let in all the good local wild yeast and bacteria. Keep in mind this is not located in the idyllic farmland of the Senne Valley that we Americans lovingly imagine while talking about geuze beers...it is in the center of a bustling Arabic neighborhood. But it works! Huge rows of old wooden barrels take up much of the space in the brewery and stacks of unlabeled bottles of sour goodness line the walls. There are almost no windows and the place is dark and shadowed, smelling of a hundred years worth of old beer, wood, dust and tartness. Stacks of 2-3 year old hops that any other brewer would toss away in disgust, sit in the rafters, awaiting use in these beers. There is no other place like this on our green Earth, and that is a shame.
On this particular day we were at Cantillon for a special event called Quintessence. They did this event a few years ago, and Mike S. managed to change our tour dates to make sure we got to this. Upon arrival we were ushered up into the attic space where several barrels were lain on end, each with a station number posted above. We were given a card with 12 numbers on it...wow we were going to get to try 12 Cantillon beers in one day! The first station was manned by Jean Van Roy himself and his two young sons, serving up some pate on crackers and a one year old lambic. After tasting this beer, we discovered that our #1 on the checklist was actually more than one beer. We went back for the 2 year lambic and then a lambic served from a huge terra cotta amphora. From there we moved to the next table, trying the gueze: made of 1, 2, and 3 year old blended lambics...now that is a tart and complex beer! Oh, and at the same table they also gave us an aged gueze that knocked my socks off. Nearly every station served us from 2-3 large tastes of beer, each paired with an amazing appetizer.
After the straight lambic and geuze we got to try them with fruit added. The Kriek with sour Turkish cherries, and then the Lou Pepe Kriek made with very rare Belgian sour cherries. The latter was my favorite of the day, so sour and complex and cherry-like without being sweet. Then the Rose de Gambrinus, a Framboise made with raspberries, and the Lou Pepe version, made with even more raspberries!
Moving to a lower floor, we tried the Saint Lamvinus and Vignerone both made with grapes. And the Cuvee St. Gillouse (sp?) and Iris both dry-hopped. The Mamouch: made with elderflowers was much better than when I had this in the past. One of the best was Fou Foune: made with apricots and the name apparently roughly translates into the name for a woman's private parts. The faro was still lambic with sugar added, served from earthenware jugs...not my favorite.
The bottom floor was a pleasant surprise, as three Italian brewers were holding court down there with 9 more unusual beers. Some were sour, some were fruity (a stand out was made of Italian white plums,) some were barleywines. One brewery served up home-made salami made with his beer, and that was freakishly good.
I can not believe the number of amazing beers I had at this event. Surprisingly, I was still conscious, since I wasn't about to dump any Cantillon beer. Luckily most of these were lower alcohol and refreshing. In the end I think we sampled 27 different beers or vintages, probably more than I tried at Autumn Brew Review.
We walked several blocks in the brisk and sobering damp afternoon air and ended up at Moeder Lambic, a local beer-bar, much like the Muddy Pig here in Minnesota. We shared several beers there with some folks we met at the Quintessence.
Dinner at a Thai place hit the spot, then back to the small bar from our first day here for another Westy 12. There we had to cozy up to our neighbors, and met some nice folks from Colorado and and a family from Britain. Brussels is quite cosmopolitan. Then to sleep, perchance to dream of the best brewery in the world. Cantillon I will not forget your musty embrace!