The Old Ways: A Tour of the Cantillon Brewery

Cantillon exterior

There’s something a little bizarre about us beer geeks. It doesn’t matter how many times we look at the same cookie cutter, stainless steel conical fermenter; as soon as we walk into a brewery and someone says, “You want to take a tour?” we’ve already got our camera turned on and the flash adjusted to compensate for the reflecting light off all that shining steel.

I’ve lost count of how many breweries I’ve visited and toured over the years, but while I can never resist the temptation to visit a new one, it’s almost always a sobering experience. Maybe it’s just that my expectations are too high, but can you blame me? Just look at those bottles with their elegant labels. Pour yourself a glass of that ambrosia, breathe in its scent, taste its magic. And then visit its origin, stranded in a sea of industrial warehouses or soulless business park strip malls next door to carpet wholesalers and discounted auto part shops. The sterile ambiance of the modern-day brewery so often clashes with the heady romanticism of the product they so artfully craft.

All save a select few, that is. And the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, Belgium, has to be near the top of that list.

 Cantillon cases

For those not already in the know, Cantillon is famous among die-hard aficionados for a style of beer called Gueze, which is not to be confused with the sour, salty German-style Gose that has become especially ubiquitous here in the Northwest. Gueze is a sour beer style as well, but far more complex, as it’s a blend of one-, two-, and three-year-old Lambics.

Familiarity with Lambics amongst the mainstream population begins and ends with Lindemans’ output of sugary, fruity, wine-cooler-ish beers. But a true Lambic starts out unblended with any fruit and is typically very dry, with a lingering, sour tanginess as a result of yeast strains like Brettanomyces Bruxellensis and Lambicus that are either pitched by a brewer to induce fermentation or, in the case of Cantillon, are already prevalent in the air and ferment the exposed wort naturally. This beer is allowed to age for at least three years in used wine and cognac oak barrels, picking up the subtle flavors of the spirit-drenched wood in addition to evolving flavors from the yeast’s esters.

cantillon bottle

If three years sounds like a long time to wait for beer, it is. By comparison, most “barrel-aged” beers from American craft brewers are only in barrels for a few months to a year at the most. The expense, storage space, and care that goes into storing a beer for even that amount of time is tremendous, especially compared to the speed with which brewers can produce, keg, bottle, and ship out standard ales. It’s the reason that breweries focus on a standard line of quick moving product and then use the resulting revenue to fund their barrel-aging passion projects.

Well, most breweries do it that way. Cantillon doesn’t even produce saisons, blondes or white ales, let alone IPAs, amber ales or stouts. The brewery’s youngest beer is a two-year-old Lambic blended with cherries, a.k.a. Kriek, and unlike practically every other brewery in the world, Cantillon only brews two-and-a-half seasons out of the year.

cantillon barrels

Clearly, these guys are playing by a different set of rules. And of course, that knack for What-The-Fuckery carries over to the brewery tours as well.

Now, stop me if this doesn’t sound familiar, but my tour experience usually involves some jackass teenager who’s not even old enough to drink ostensibly teaching me how beer is made… and then managing to somehow get most of it wrong.

Here’s your tour guide at Cantillon:

 cantillon tour guide

This inanimate fifteen page booklet is by far the best tour guide I’ve ever had at a brewery. Hell, there is more IQ ingrained in the blue ink on its glossy white paper than in my last five guides combined. There are no bad jokes, no mispronounced words, no rushing through the scripted speech so Chad or Brody can get back to his cigarette break. And best of all, no arrogant, empty boasts about how this brewery is the best brewery on the planet because it only uses the best ingredients and triple hops its beers!

Instead, there’s a pretty fascinating, in-depth, and most importantly, well-written accounting of the step-by-step process by which Cantillon brews truly unique and complex brew, as well as a brief history of Lambic brewing, an explanation on the differences between top-, bottom-, and spontaneous fermentation, a quick guide to Cantillon’s full range of beer releases, and useful insights about topics like cellaring, wild yeasts, and fruit beer production. But best yet, there is nothing in the booklet that smacks of hyperbole, arrogance, or self-aggrandizement. Compared to most breweries’ attempts to convince you they are the best thing that has ever and will ever exist, Cantillon’s tone is downright humble.

cantillon bottling line

Fortunately, that grounded, friendly, and helpful approach begins at the front doors of the brewery. Tucked away in a neighborhood that looks like it still hasn’t fully recovered from the ravages of World War II, discovering Cantillon is like finding a winning lottery ticket in a giant pile of rubble. Upon entering, you’re greeted like an old friend and encouraged to take your time poking around the brewery before returning to the tasting room for complimentary pours.

Remarkably, we weren’t asked to check in bags or backpacks, no one was sent to follow us around, there were no cameras recording our movements, and I didn’t spot any loud colored signs along the way yelling at us to not even think about touching this or that. Considering the stacks of expensive bottles just lying around and the delicate, ages-old equipment, this blind trust in its visitors is either remarkable or foolish, but it certainly made for a relaxed and comfortable visit.

cantillon stack of bottles

That ease extended to the homey surroundings. Unlike the fully mechanized, computer-operated, stainless steel breweries of the modern world, Cantillon is a testament to the old ways, to tradition and an analog work ethic. Contrasted with, say, the Halve Maan Brewery in Bruges, Belgium—which no longer brews on its old system but keeps it around as a museum tour for interested visitors—Cantillon is a fully functioning brewery that still uses antiquated equipment, from beautiful copper kettles and open vats to cranks and pulleys and weatherbeaten oak barrels in dingy, dark rooms filled with spiderwebs and creaky wooden boards.

But the highlight is unquestionably the coolingship.

cantillon coolingship

An anachronism in the modern brewing world, this large but very shallow copper vessel spreads out 7,500 liters of hot wort across its surface, cooling it down without the help of heat exchangers or glycol. Shutters to both sides of the coolingship are opened to adjust airflow, allowing the natural breeze in late fall, winter and early spring to naturally cool the wort.

There’s something about the coolingship that for me epitomizes the true spirit and romanticism of brewing, that lives up to the ideal of the magic I’m tasting when my taste buds tingle with the flavor of a great beer. Like all good magic, there’s the expectation on the audience’s part that there is something wondrous and unusual and clever at its heart, that the riddle of its origins is as awe-inspiring as the result. Modern breweries represent a deflation in that myth, their operations sterilized and shiny, cold and logical, and about as exciting to see in person as a computer server room.

cantillon crush
The coolingship represents something beyond that. It represents the idea of a problem solved by craft and human hands, imperfect, crude tools, and a commitment to excellence and dedication. It is a miraculous piece of art created by a master artisan coppersmith without a single weld to be found anywhere on its smooth body. And this careful, meticulous effort, this tangible, visible work of art was created for the sole purpose of supporting just a single step in the brewing process.

 cantillon mashing tun

The Cantillon Brewery, with all its eccentricities and antiquated appearance, is a throwback to the idea of a brewery as mysterious and weird, unconventional and a little creepy (as the guidebook helpfully acknowledges, “A Lambic brewer will never destroy a cobweb and killing spiders is very much frowned upon”). It is in many respects the ideal personification of Old World allure: a relic of a bygone, lost era, the only difference being that relics aren’t usually still operational, still pushing the boundaries of beer drinker’s expectations, and still producing some of the most innovative and exceptional beer in the entire world.

With Cantillon as evidence, it is tempting to consider that the old ways may still be the best ways.

Michael O' Connor
Michael O' Connor

Michael O’Connor is a writer, filmmaker, and beer aficionado based out of Portland, Oregon. A graduate of NYU and former editor for Marvel Comics and Avalon Publishing in New York, he moved to Portland in 2007 and shifted careers to the craft beer industry while moonlighting as a freelance writer on the side. He has been published in magazines and websites like The Willamette Week, The Portland Tribune, PDX Magazine, Portland Picks, Beer NW, and Brewpublic, produced several films through the NW Film Center, and as buyer and manager at craft beer bar Bailey’s Taproom, Michael is responsible for keeping over twenty rotating taps constantly fed with the finest brews available. You can follow his blog, read his short stories, and watch his films at www.oconnoblog.com. You can also find him on Twitter @oconnoblog and Facebook at www.facebook.com/oconnoblog.

Discussion

  • SnobRitch
    SnobRitch
    Thu Sep 25, 2014 6:30 PM

    I had one of the workers there go ballistic when I used my flash to take a picture of the bottling line. He was worried that the flash would destroy the beer.

    • Michael O' Connor
      Michael O' Connor
      Mon Oct 6, 2014 7:44 PM

      Weird! Maybe they’ve lightened up a bit since your visit. I took multiple photos of the barrel room and was never told that there were any areas there were off-limits for taking pictures.

      However, while visiting a whiskey distillery, our tour was told not to take photos of the barrel room for the very reason you mentioned. I’m a little skeptical about the claim that a modern day camera’s flash could set fire to barrels. That seems about as likely as your iPhone disrupting an airplane’s guidance system, but hey, what do I know?

    • David
      David
      Wed Oct 1, 2014 2:17 PM

      I appreciate when breweries like Cantillon are highlighted and delved into in detail. And although I know the article is geared towards the “beer geek”, you do an injustice to your article in mentioning Lindemans (at all) and the people that enjoy the sweeter fruit lambics. Your comments come across as snide and pretentious. I’m sorry but beer geeks did not spontaneously ferment like the subject manner you’ve written about. First off, all sweet lambics (and Lindemans is not the only producer) uses “true” lambic as a base, but Im sure you know this. Second, you should look into the history of lambic itself (if you haven’t) in the mid to late 20th Century. If it weren’t for sweet lambics, the style could’ve been lost to the ages. Even your revered Cantillon produced sweet lambics and used Saccharin up to the late 70s, and in the early part of Jean-Pierre Roy having really taken over the brewery.

      And Im sure, a large proportion of “beer geeks” can thank breweries like Lindemans and others for introducing them to the world of Lambics. Although I highly doubt some would take the time to really recognize those breweries for their contribution. By the way, every single producer of sweet lambics, including Belle-Vue the largest of them all, makes authentic and deliciously sour Lambics….in the traditional way. Once again, sorry for mentioning information that you might know, but I’ve pretty sure some of your readers would appreciate knowing.

      Kind regards
      Dave

      • Michael O' Connor
        Michael O' Connor
        Mon Oct 6, 2014 8:04 PM

        Thanks for reading the piece, Dave. Apologies if my side (and slightly snide) comment about Lindeman’s upset you. You do make some good points, but what I was going for in that dig was that people who have written off lambics as a style because they got a cavity drinking Lindeman’s really ought to give Cantillon’s concoctions a fair shake.

        I’m actually a fan of Lindeman’s and it was one of those gateway beers to my appreciation for Belgian-style brews, but let’s face it: their lineup of beers really has more in common with dessert beers than it does with true lambic. There might be a good base beer underneath all that sugar, but the flavors of the finished product share few flavors in common with what so many of us value in that style.

        I’m also skeptical about your claim of Lindeman’s keeping the style of lambic alive during the dark days. It may have kept the name alive, but it warped the definition in the same way that Budweiser, Coors, and their ilk has warped the general public’s understanding of light lagers like Pilsner and Helles, albeit on a far less dramatic scale.

      • Brian Yaeger
        Brian Yaeger
        Mon Oct 6, 2014 3:47 PM

        If this is based on a recent tour, we nearly overlapped. If you were there for Belgian Beer Weekend, then we actually did cross paths at some point. Very nicely written. And makes me want to pop one of the treats I picked up along the way!

        • Michael O' Connor
          Michael O' Connor
          Mon Oct 6, 2014 8:08 PM

          Alas! We were there in August, not September. Thanks for the kind words, Brian!