Saturday, May 31, 2014

Cantillon and The Night of Great Thirst: Beertrip Day 12

Day 12 of our Beertrip.  Getting close to the finish line here, but we still have some craziness in store!

Due to our previous late night of a Grand Sour Tasting at Moeder Lambic, Sj and I had a late start to the day.  After a somewhat leisurely breakfast and several well-needed cups of coffee, we headed out to wander the streets of Brussels.  We had been here about 2 years ago and had by no means seen all the sights.  So did we go to more museums and see more churches today?  Do not be ridiculous my friends!  No we had bigger game in our sights!

Brussels is known for it's comics (Tintin anyone?) and surprises abound around the city

Not to be sated after the previous night's sours we were headed for the Grand Daddy of all sour beer breweries--Cantillion!  The brewery is a fairly easy walk from the city center, through a predominantly middle eastern neighborhood, of less than beautiful architectural detail.  We arrived before noon at the brewery.  From the outside this is just a yellow painted building with a large barely marked warehouse door.  A smaller door opens into the brewery itself.  Contrary to the popular imaginary picture of lambic breweries opening their ceiling louvres to let in the wild yeast from a bucolic Belgian countryside, this place is smack dab in the middle of an urban neighborhood!  These guys have been brewing sour beers here since around 1900, using the same methods of open spontaneaous fermentation and barrel aging.  They have tried some unusual ingredients over time as well, but the process is very traditional. 

The Night of Great Thirst, a sour beer festival, was to occur this evening and many sour-heads from across the globe had travelled to the area to take part in that.  Like me, these folks wanted to get to Cantillon before hand!  The place was crowded and bustling with beer geeks of all nationalities, while poor brewery workers struggled to wheel palates of bottles past the throng.  They've made some changes in set up since our last trip out and now have a small tasting bar near the entrance where you can sample beers or order full bottles of the rare stuff.  We saw our favorite beer from them (possibly favorite beer ever), the Lou Pepe Kriek, up on the board.  We ordered the bottle and it came to us unlabeled and coated in a fine layer of dust, uncorked and lying at an angle in a long wicker basket. 

Beer geek heaven...

The place was packed and the small seating area was beyond full.  We managed to find one free stool near an old bartop in back, and set up Sj and the beer there.  We met Cody and Angela, some fellow sour-heads from Texas, while sitting there.  They were drinking a bottle of the Rhubarb Zwanse and we ended up doing a mini bottle share with them.  Later, on our way out, we ran into Mark, a fun guy from Chicago who knows more about beer than I ever will!  We had met him on our previous trip (also at Cantillon) and of course he was headed to the festival later that day as well.  This was a busy, but entertaining trip to visit the holy land of sour beer production.  Most of the rare beers for sale at the shop were long gone by the time we showed up, but we did end up getting a few bottles of the Kriek, Geueze and Rose de Gambrinus for smuggling back home in our luggage.  We'll always have Belgium, my Lou Pepe Kriek...

Moeder Lambic!

The route back home conveniently took us past Moeder Lambic's second location and we stopped there for a not-so-quick lunch of quiche for Sj and a meat and bread plate for me.  There I tried the Band of Brothers, a hoppy Belgian style IPA made by Brasserie de la Senne in collaboration with Moeder Lambic.  This was a very hoppy beer that I liked, since I hadn't had a really hoppy beer in almost 2 weeks, but may have pushed the limits for me.  Since it took a while to get our check, I ended up ordering a second beer, the Cantillion Iris Grand Cru on tap, which was much more mellow than the regular version.  I love this beer bar!

2 Cantillon twins at Moeder Lambic

Next we walked briskly back to the hotel to meet up with our tour group again before the festival.  We took a quick tour of Delerium Cafe, where three levels and uncountable beers waited for thirsty tourists.  Mike bought us a couple of cool beers including a bottle of Deus--the Champagne of Beer.

It was really dark down in the basement, but I was able to lighten up the picture a bit

We gathered all the ducklings in tow and ended up exactly where we had just left from: Moeder Lambic.  Oh the horror!  Back to the best beer bar in Brussels, oh no!  What were we to do?  Why order another beer of course!  Most of our group ordered food, but since Sj and I had just had a very late lunch we didn't need much more.  Mike shared a rare bottle of Italian IPA that was as good as most anything in the USA.  I was conserving my strength at this point, and just trying other people's beers.  Drinking a ton of beers just prior to a beer festival is a recipe for hurling later.  I may speak from past experience.

We finished our quick second lunch and beers and headed to the bus stop just a block away.  We caught a very crowded bus with no AC and were all shortly roasting in our own juices. Mark from Cantillon was with us on this trip and pointed out various functional and defunct Belgian breweries as we passed them.  The festival itself was held quite a bit outside town, about 30-45 minutes by sweltering bus-ride.  We actually ended up missing our stop and overshooting a bit.  Surprisingly this is the only time such a thing happened on the entire trip so I can't complain too much.  A few of our group were possibly a bit cranky about it, but we all rolled with it as best we could.  Other than Mark, I was probably the most excited about the sour beers, but hey stuff happens.  We waited on the other side of the highway about 35 minutes before the next bus going back picked us up and shortly dropped us at our missed stop. 

The Nacht van de Grote Dorst, or Night of Great Thirst, is a beer festival focusing entirely on sour beers, specifically traditional lambic, geueze, kriek, and other fruited lambics.  12 beer producers bring several of their beers, and they will usually host 1-3 foreign sour beer producers as well.  This festival is run very differently to any I have been to in the states so here is a little info I wish I had had prior to going.  Entrance to the festival is free, so there are no tickets, etc.  This results in a large amount of people showing up and no great way to limit attendance.  The place was a zoo!  They sell tokens for the beers at a separate area, as well as the tasting glass for sampling the beers.  Unlike most beer festivals, you actually buy a whole bottle of beer (instead of a small sample) with your tokens and take it out of the main tent.  The bottle cost ran from 14 tokens (Cantillon Fou Foune 750 ml) to 2 tokens (Timmermans Retro Kriek 10 oz).  So if you have fancy tastes you will burn through your tokens fast and end up with only two I did.  The party was in full swing by the time we arrived and some beers were already sold out (see above Fou Foune).  Sorry... I teared up a little bit there.  Ideally, for this type of event you have a big group of folks together and each get a couple bottles to share.

After our mishap getting to the fest and finding it a bit confusing and crowded three of our group decided they were over it and just wanted to head back to explore Brussels.  The extreme sour beer tasting we had the previous night may have been enough for them!  As a result we ended up with a smaller group than expected for our bottle sharing.  There were not many tables available, so we wandered around wielding our full bottles of beer for a while until we managed to take over a corner of a larger table.  Another, quite large, tour group had staked out that table for themselves and had quite a spread of bottles there already.  We ended up sharing our beers with a few of them, especially a nice couple from California.   

Festival goers before things got really crowded...

Later I learned that most of the breweries were serving small pours of unblended lambics and Krieks for 1 token, so Hassan and I went foraging for some of those.  While the results were not as amazing or complex as the finished products, this was a rare chance to taste the "young" versions of these famous beers.  Interestingly, the Lindemans and Timmermans versions were quite tart and sour--way better than the back sweetened cloyingly sweet final beers they sell.  By the time we figured out about these little gems, the main tent was packed wall to wall with increasingly boisterous folks.  Entering at the same time, Hassan and I were swept away from each other in the merciless tide of humanity like flotsam from a wrecked ship caught in a tidal wave.  In line in front of me to try the pours of Girardin Kriekenlambic were a duo of big drunk guys in Italian rugby jerseys.  When it was my turn to get a pour, a third--even bigger and drunker--guy pushed me out of the way and snaked the last pour.  I was angry, but not about to lose teeth in a fight with most of an Italian rugby team!

Eventually the Belgian Beer Me tour group had to leave and left several partially full bottles behind at our shared table.  So we folk took over and tried them.  Thanks guys!  We invited a really pleasant couple from Sweden to share in our ill-gotten spoils as well and hung out a while longer. 

Honestly, we tried probably 30 sour beers that night.  Everything by Cantillion was amazing.  Most of the beers from Boon, 3 Fontainen, Hanssens, De Cam, and Girardin were very good.  Newcomer Tilquin was very popular and they had a special beer made with plums that was impressive.  Some of the breweries were not as impressive, but when we were low on tokens we were able to get more bottles of these for cheap: Timmermans, Lindemans, De Troch, Mort Subite.  Most of the ones we didn't like were overly back sweetened--maybe more popular internationally, but not at a sour beer festival!  I was very excited to get to try Allagash Coolship Red and Cerise at this event.  It took me going to another country to get to try one of America's finest sour breweries!  Both of those were on a par with almost anything at the festival. 

We eventually ran out of tokens and most of the beers were gone, so it was time to head home on a crowded bus full of drunk folk.  A large group of guys boarded after us, their bags full of unopened bottles clinking with motion.  Probably all full of my treasured Fou Foune.  I really enjoyed this festival, but I think they may be getting to popular (big) to keep running it in quite the same way.  They could certainly not allow folks to take home bottles to avoid all of the stands selling out of the cool stuff so early.  I actually preferred the bottle sharing method of events back home such as Where The Wild Beers Are where you donate one or more rare sour beers to gain entry to the event and get first crack at tasting the beer you brought when they open it. 

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