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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

While We're on the Subject of Beer In Brussels

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Can't resist a cup or two before the tour.

Our Tour Guide

Where Grain meets water and yeast

Malted Barley

The huge copper cooling bath

Beer isn’t just for tossing down your throat and belching with a force that shatters glass.  That’s simple enough; any fool, or even a politician can do it. 

For the beer lover, the concoction of barley, hops, water, and yeast is a romantic tradition spanning the ages, tying us to our long forgotten ancestors, and standing as liquid tribute to man’s love for his fellow man.

Even the roughest disagreements can be bridged with the time honored, calming utterance of, “Let’s go have a beer and talk it over.”  Please send this message to your Senators, Representatives, and your wife’s attorney.

But enough soothing of lost souls.  Let’s get back to the robust business of travel, and the hearty business of brewing beer.  Seems every country does it differently.  In a country like Germany, methods and tastes change every five miles.  That’s 8.04672 kilometers for them that ain’t Mericans.  Doesn’t seem convenient to me.  “How far you jogging today? Oh, ‘bout 8.04672 kilometers, give or take 30.48 centimeters or so.

Don’t get me started on “How tall are you and how much do you weigh?”  Europeans can’t even use cups and teaspoons to measure recipe ingredients for goodness sakes!  They have to have kitchen scales to weight the flour!  Before kitchen scales came about, I bet they had to use slide rules and a periodic table.

Back to Brussels and beer.  You’ve checked into your hotel and scanned your nightly rate of 100 Euros, which at today’s exchange rate comes to $14,752.  You’ve already sold your car to pay for the weekend. Now it’s time for a brew.

As I was saying, the Belgians brew it differently and if you want to find out exactly how they do it, trot on over to The Cantillon Brewery.  It’s on a back street (Rue Gheude 56, or 56 Straat).  If you think we have a problem in the States with different languages, try using French and Dutch in the same sentence.

Cantillon Brewery gives tours and it’s the kind of tour I find very appealing.  Small groups of five or less.  About a 15 minute speal, followed by a self-guided tour, which takes about 20 minutes.  Then on to the free tasting…..well, not exactly free.  You’ve already paid at the door for the tour and samples.

Without giving away too much, what’s special about Belgian beer in general and Cantillon beer specifically?

First off, Cantillon Brewery has been in the same spot since around 1900.  At the time, there were 100 breweries in Brussels alone.  Now there are two and the other one is very new.  Since opening, Cantillon has used the same equipment and methods and continues to use both today.  See those iron wheels?  Everything is still belt driven on the same wheels.

As with pretty much any beer, raw materials are wheat, malted barley, hops and fresh local water.  What about yeast?  Most brewers today add specific refined yeasts to brew specific types of beers.  Most of the beer is what is known as ‘bottom fermented.’  At Cantillion, the yeast comes naturally from the air and results in spontaneous fermentation and top fermentation.  This is called the Lambic method and results in the name you see on Belgian beer labels, Lambic Beer.  The first 3-4 days are rapid fermentation.  Slow fermentation begins 3-4 weeks later.  The barrels have to be open because of the gas (natural carbonation).

Cantillion beer is all natural and allowed to ferment in oak barrels for up to three years, and up to 20% of the beer evaporates.  As you would guess, most carbonation is gone. If you ask me, Cantillon beer kinda bridges the gap between wine and beer, with a full complexity that makes you long to sip and savor.  Some of the beers are fruit flavored.  You’d think that would make them sweet.  Not so.  The sugar from the fresh fruit is also allowed to ferment to completion.

A master brewer blends some of the Lambics, barrel aged from 1 to 3 years, to produce Gueuze.  The younger beers contribute the natural sugars required for secondary fermentation and the 3 year old Lambics provide refined taste and complexity.

I like the fruit beers, but for me Gueuze is the penultimate of the brewer’s art.  One of the special treats about visiting The Cantillon Brewery is the chance to chat with the employees.  No matter if they are selling tickets, pouring beers, or selling keepsakes, they are all brewers with first hand involvement in the brewing process.  When at the end of the tour you’re passed a small glass of Gueuze, information flows, so you know what you’re tasting, and which flavors to look for.  Quite the experience and if you’re going to drink Belgian Beer, ya gotta, haveta, gonna visit Cantillon Brewery.

Hops add bitterness and flavor.
The Cantillon Brewery is open M-F, 9-5, and on Saturday, 10-5.

The wheels are real!  Everything is belt driven.

Some of these bottles are old


Gueuze:  the king, queen and royal court of beers

The barrels don't lie

Some new Gueuze...give 'er time, mate!