The Reluctant Writer: Something Else to do When I Should Be Writing

January 19, 2010

Sneeking a peek at the beer book — Bob, Beer, and Me — the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels

The Beer Book is moving along well, though late, and I’m excited to finally see it’s ending on the still somewhat distant horizon.  So here’s an excerpt from the book which takes us to the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, Belgium where we entered the strangely organic world of  lambic and gueuze beers.  Hope you’ll take a look.

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The Cantillon Brewery — Brussels

There is nothing glitzy about the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels.  If you’re looking for shiny stainless steel and squeaky clean equipment, you’ve come to the wrong place.  Think dust bunnies.  Think stray cats rummaging around accumulations of cobwebs and musty smells like peat, compost and orchard floor.  Think reverence for indigenous spiders who keep the brewery clear of other more pesky bugs. Think Mother Nature because, even in the midst of a bustling city, that’s what you’ve got in Cantillon – Mother Nature at work preparing sweet delicacies for those who wait.

Traditional lambic beer, like that brewed at Cantillon, is made from 35% raw wheat, 65% malted barley, and flavorful three-year-old dried hops[1] added at a ratio of 5 grams per liter of beer.  First produced more than five centuries ago, today’s lambic retains much of the same old-fashioned dry, sour funkiness of lambics of old – as long as it is brewed under the same conditions of old – which is exactly how the brewing of beer goes down at Cantillon.

Miraculously.

And I mean that literally.  While the Cantillon brewers certainly know better and are perfectly capable of controlling and orchestrating the product of their labors, they are happy to sit back, wait on nature, then harvest the half-millennium-old extraordinary process in which wild ambient yeasts floating naturally through the air convert barley and the sugars from raw wheat into this unusual, yet elegant brew called lambic beer. Hence the cobwebs, open windows, and dust bunnies visitors find when peeping behind the scenes at the magic that is Cantillon Brewery.

If you have tasted lambic beers at home you may find yourself equating it with fruit – and there’s a good reason why.  Young (year old) lambic and aged (two to three-year old) beers, called gueuze,[2] are often blended with one another to produce a variety of tastes that can range from sparkling and sour, if the young lambic takes precedence, to off-sweet and fruitier, if the gueuze does.  When the young and old beers are blended, the unfermented sugars in the young beer cause a second fermentation to take place in the bottle.  If fruit has been steeped in the beer, as it often is, the process will result in the classic dry kriek beer you may have tasted when sour cherries are used, or frambois when raspberries are the fruit of choice.

According to Belgian beer expert Tim Webb, there are vagaries in the Belgian beer regulations which may create some confusion as to whether or not a brewer has to use spontaneous fermentation for a beer to be considered an authentic lambic.  In other words, some brewers may avail themselves of short cuts by using prepared yeast in the brewing of their beers, rather than the natural spontaneously occurring yeast, endemic to the Senne River valley.

But not Cantillon.

We entered the warehouse-type building somewhat skeptically and stood near the door for a few moments trying to ascertain the procedure for viewing the premises.  A knowledgeable looking guy with a large pallet of empty bottles rolled through just as we were taken note of by one of his few co-workers, given a pamphlet and told to follow the numbers posted along the way for our self-guided tour.

The tour started in the mashing house where wheat and barley[3] are put into a large crushing machine in the middle of the floor to be crushed before they are mixed with warm water in the mashing tun.  The sugar-laden liquid, called wort, which is eventually fermented to produce alcohol, is extracted from the tun then pumped into beautiful red copper hop boilers.  Next, the mashing room led us to the granary, an amply ventilated room where hops, malted barley, and wheat are stored during the brewing season lasting from mid-October until the beginning of April.

But it was in the next room along the route, the cooling room, where we realized how different the Cantillon brewery tour is from many of the generic brewery tours we had been on before, or have been on since.  We accessed the room by climbing a short set of stairs into an attic-like space with shuttered windows in the walls.  Sitting in the middle of the floor was a huge, but shallow, hand-riveted, open-topped, copper vessel, looking more like a sculpture than a tank, called the cooling tun.  The tank was empty while we were there but we immediately knew that we were where the miracle that is lambic beer takes place:  the place where spontaneous fermentation occurs.

Cooling of the wort happens most often during the night and always during the coolest months of the year.  It is then that tiny micro-organisms living in and about the room inoculate the wort with a variety of airborne wild yeasts[4] which will ultimately result in spontaneous fermentation once the wort has been transferred to the oak and chestnut barrels in which the wort will be stored.[5]

We next wondered through the bottling area where Cantillon beers, rather than being capped, are closed with crown corks like Champagne bottles and transferred via conveyor belt to the cellar where they are horizontally stored.  The brief tour ended where it started and we were ready to taste some of the funky, sour stuff we had been learning about.


[1] Until the twelfth century flavors like rosemary and coriander were used where hops are today.

[2] Pronounced “gurze” or “kurze”.

[3] Cantillon has used only organic cereals since 1999.

[4] At least 86 known yeasts are present in lambic beers.

[5] The folks at Cantillon are quick to remind us that in the days of old, all beer was produced by spontaneous fermentation – today, only lambic beer is.

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