Brussels: Cantillon Brewery –
This was one of the places we were most excited to visit in Brussels (sorry, Manneken Pis). It is the last traditional brewery in Brussels and has been a family-run establishment since 1900. Cantillon specializes in making traditional lambics - in the U.S. I think many people may equate lambics with Lindemans Framboise, Kriek, Pecheresse, or Pomme beers. While Lindemans is based in Belgium and to its credit, produces items that can be sweet but refreshing, their lambics are far from traditional both in taste and how they are made. Lambics really can be much more complex and interesting - I promise!
What makes Cantillon worth visiting is that you not only have the opportunity to learn how they make their beer and see their charming, historic facilities but also to try their wonderful (and unique) beer. So I will tell you a little bit about what we learned, because honestly, it was all really fascinating to us. And of note, Cantillon does sell their products in the US - for example, at the wonderful Monk's Cafe in Philadelphia.
different styles of "examining" the beer!
The thing that makes traditional lambics so special is that they have undergone spontaneous fermentation. This means that wort (the liquid extracted from mashing wheat, barley, and hops) is exposed simply to wild yeasts present in the air, which ultimately are responsible for fermentation. No careful decisions are made as to which yeasts are going to be used to innoculate the beer, as with ales and lagers. This is also why true lambics are supposedly only from Belgium - as only this region has the right yeast flora for the process. Anyways, this process of fermentation can be allowed to continue for several years in these beautiful oak barrels. Breweries may then make gueuze, which combines lambics of several different ages to achieve a more balanced final product. Young lambic adds sugars which are necessary for fermentation to continue even after the gueuze has been bottled and old lambics contribute more to bouquet/taste. Finally, breweries can also macerate fruit (traditionally, cherries [kriek] or raspberries [framboise]) into their lambic, which impart some of the fruits' natural flavors and color to the beer and provides more sugar for fermentation. So those are the basics.
I love that the brewery really can't exist without "Mother Nature" - it relies on whatever yeasts are floating in the air. This, interestingly, means that the brewery also has rules against killing spiders/getting rid of spiderwebs in its facilities. As you can imagine, fermentation+fruit+Summer months attract lots of insects; so instead of using insecticides, they let spiders just do their job! David and I definitely support this - from personal experience, we had gone many months (years?) without cleaning a huge spiderweb in our house in Richmond. Once "we" (aka- David) cleaned it, we had a crazy, CRAZY number of fruit flies. Lesson 1: Clean the house less often! Lesson 2: Spiders (remember Charlotte!) can be good and helpful. I love it!
And the final product - what does it actually taste like? At the brewery (as part of the 6 euro tour) we got to try two of their beers: a gueuze and a fruit lambic (framboise and kriek). All were wonderful! I think the thing to mention without going into a ton of details about the specific tastes of each of the beers we tried is that if you have never tried this style before, you will be surprised by the tart, almost vinegary nature of the beer. Now that perhaps does not sound intrinsically wonderful, but I assure you that once you let your palate explore this taste, it's really delightful and just has such a unique quality. Needless to say we came home with 6 [large] bottles of various styles they make. Lambics do age incredibly well as their character continues to change as the fermentation process continues in the bottle - but I am pretty sure we will not be able to resist imbibing these sooner rather than later!