Inside Cantillon

Beer Hawk's Patrick Gengler takes a pilgrimage to one of Belgium's most famous lambic breweries 

Belgium is a place of long, illustrious history, in both beer and war. The beer culture there, as I discussed in my article on innovation, is well established and the locals drink great beer on a daily basis, but Cantillon remains a secret to many.

When you get off the train at the south Brussels station, there isn’t a whole lot around to suggest that one of the world’s most famous breweries is just around the corner. I learned that less than 10 per cent of the people who visit the brewery at Cantillon are Belgian. Even when a few blocks away from the relatively non-descript building (save for its famous logo hanging on the wall), you would be lucky to find a local who has ever heard of it, much less, one who could tell you where it is.

Once inside, the 'tap room' is dimly lit with the faint smell of sour beer wafting about. The tour was mostly self-guided, there are tours in French, Dutch, and English and they start about every 30 minutes or so. On the English tour, you are led into a room with mash-tuns from the 19th century, and there, the guide gives you a short history of the brewery and how the beer is made.

Cantillon is another great story of a family owned and operated brewery that has been around for ages. They still use the brewing equipment purchased when the brewery first opened over 100 years ago which is mind-boggling in itself. They produce the geographically specific beer: lambic. Lambic is a spontaneously fermented ale that gets 'inoculated' by airborne yeast. Lambics were created in the Senne river valley, and it’s the only place on earth that this particular yeast lives. So to get a true lambic, you have to travel to the Brussels area to get one.

We like Cantillon for a few reasons. 1) They have been family owned and operated since they began more than a century ago. 2) They don’t produce a massive amount of beer; this makes it sought after. 3) They make some of the best representations of their styles we have ever tasted. Their standard kriek is the tastiest fruit beer I’ve had in a long time. Then they take it one step further with the Lou Pepe version and use a particular kind of cherry to accentuate the flavours of their lambic.

Due to Cantillon’s limited availability, we only get our hands on a few cases once or twice a year. If you’d like to experience the delightful flavours of a properly brewed lambic based beer we have a few that will tease your taste buds until you can make the trip to Brussels. For kriek, we advise the Oude Beersel. For a traditional gueuze, we like the 3 Fontaine Oude Gueuze. For a stronger gueuze, we like Boon’s Marriage Parfait. Happy drinking, we hope to see you at the brewery someday!