January 23, 2011

The Happiest Place on Earth

Cantillion: Founded in 1900, now the last traditional brewery still operating in Brussels, Belgium.

I won't name names, but that artificially sweetened "framboise" stuff so commonly seen in the United States is not really Lambic. There are no legislative mandates in Belgium regarding what can and cannot be labelled as such. Pictured above is one example of the real deal! Rosé de Gambrinus: 2 year old Lambic is blended with fresh raspberries and aged another 5 to 6 months. Finally, it gets some young Lambic added to it before bottling, which provides enough sugar to carbonate the beer. The distinct flavor difference between Cantillion's traditional creations, and what many mistake for lambic is a bright, tart, acidic taste. Traditional lambic is practically devoid of any residual sweetness. Its light, effervescent, and complex. Which makes it very easy to drink, and an excellent beverage to drink with rich foods.

If you would like to replicate what Cantillion does so so sooooooo well, then you should do it by god! You will need 65% malted barley (German or Belgian pilsner malt), 35% un-malted wheat, and aged hops (1.69% of the total weight of the combined grains).

The malt is poured through a chute on the floor above, passes through a grain mill, then falls safely into the mashing vessel. The grain mashes for 2 hours, starting at 113°F and ending at 161.6°F. This process, as most of you already know, converts the starches in the grain into fermentable sugars.

Cantillion still uses most of the original brewing equipment. Using very "low-tech" methods, they create some of the worlds best beers. The sweet "tea" created in the mash tun, is boiled in these large copper kettles. The boil takes about 3 to 4 hours, which evaporates 25% of the original wort volume. It is durning this boil, that the aged hops are added. Lambic brewers use hops not for flavor or aroma. They are primarily using hops for the naturally preservative tannins in them. By using aged hops (a.k.a. "de-bittered" hops) the lambic brewers can add a larger quantity of hops to the beer without making the beer excessively bitter.

Steam heated, belt driven. Very steam punk!

Here is the place where the real magic happens! The attic. Somewhat contradictory to what brewers are taught, that you should cool the wort as quickly as you can for fear of contamination from wild organisms, this "contamination" by the airborne cultures of Brussels is one key element to the flavor of traditional lambic. After boiling, the hot wort is pumped up to the copper "cool ship" in the attic. The cool ship is a wide shallow vessel in which the wort is left overnight to cool to between 64.4°F and 68°F. Because Cantillion uses naturally occurring cold night air to cool the wort, they only brew from the end of October through the beginning of April. In the far bottom left of the photograph you can see the vents that allow the air outside to blow in and cool the wort.
Even more importantly, as the cooling progresses, the indigenous yeast and bacteria in the cooling room, and blowing in the window, inoculate the beer once it has cooled below 104°F.
No additional yeast is needed. You can attempt this in other parts of the world, but don't expect the same (or even drinkable) results. If you want to increase your chances for success, simply inoculate your wort with the Wyeast Lambic Blend #3278.
The brewers consider this room a sanctuary of sorts, and they take precautions to protect the unique micro-organic fauna within the brewery.

The wort is then placed in oak or chestnut barrels with a capacity of between 59 to 132 gallons each, where it undergoes its spontaneous fermentation. The barrels must be left open on top for the CO2 to escape safely. Otherwise there would be some pretty violent explosions of wood and wort. As much as 1 to 2.5 gallons are lost from each barrel during the early stages of this violent fermentation.

Now the waiting begins. "Time does not respect what is made without him." The wort transforms into lambic in the barrels. It will rest quietly in the barrel room for between 1 and 3 years. The concentration of sugar in a 3 year old lambic will drop down to 0.2%. In the course of the maturation period, a good deal of evaporation takes place. After 3 years, 20% of the liquid evaporates away. And unlike wine makers, lambic brewers DO NOT top off the barrels to compensate for evaporation. To protect themselves from the air space in the top of the barrel, some yeast form a flora or pellicle at the top of the lambic which isolates the beer from the air above. After three years a barrel of a 105 gallons will have reduced to about 84 gallons! One of the reasons it is an expensive product to make.

Before being bottled the lambic is pumped from the barrels through a 5 plate filter, then into steel tanks seen in the background. These tanks sit above the bottling room below.

Though the straight unblended lambic can be ready to drink in much less time, fruit lambic uses the 2 year old lambic which has even more acidity. In the summer months of July and August, 132 gallons of the 2 year old lambic is placed in these tanks with 330 lbs of fresh raspberries (Rosé de Gambrinus), cherries (Kriek), apricots (Fou'foune), merlot grapes (Saint-Lambvinus), or white muscat grapes (Vigneronne) to macerate for at least 3 months. At that point the lambic is blended with 1/3 part young lambic, which provides enough sugar to carbonate the beer. After lightly filtering the fruit lambic, its bottled up for conditioning and aging.

The brewhouse pest control incudes a cat named "Cat," and lots and lots of spiders. There are cobwebs hanging from everything. Obviously in the summer months it is inevitable that fruit flies will try to get there dirty paws on the precious lambic. However, using toxic chemicals is not only bad for humans and the environment, it would likely destroy or alter the valuable airborne organisms that inoculate the wort in the attic. The FDA in all of its devine wisdom would never allow that in this country. Spiders are far more dangerous to our health than fecal spinach, prescription drugs, shit-filled meat from cannibal cows, teaching kids that ketchup is a vegetable in our school cafeterias, or imported seafood high in mercury that every other port of entry in the world previously rejected first. Right?!?

On display, an example of a bottling machine no longer in use.

The relatively small but effective bottling line operated by 2 or 3 brewers can fill, cork, and cap 1,200 Champagne-style bottles in an hour.

Cantillion's Gueuze is perhaps the best example in the world. The brewer blends 3 year old, 2 year old, and young lambic together in one bottle. The straight unblended lambic is always still (un-carbonated) because the oak and chestnut barrels allow the natural carbon dioxide to escape. In a gueuze, much like the fruit lambics, the addition of the young lambic provides sugars for re-fermentaion in the bottle. After bottling the lambic, the bottles are stored on their side for several months or more. This cellar when full contains 11,000 bottles. On average though, the brewery permanently stores 60,000 bottles. A well made traditional gueuze stored in a proper cellar can be matured for up to 25 years.

The best part of the tour..... the tasting. After smelling the sour oaky beer aroma that fills the building, we are ready for a drink! The Cantillion bar is simple and charming, and they offer plates of delicious gueuze cheese and tasty charcuterie to snack on while you drink.

Included in the price of the tour is a glass of traditional gueuze, and a glass of either the raspberry (Rosé de Gambrinus) or cherry(Kriek) lambic. Don't stop there! Order a glass or bottle of some of the other lambics. The Mamouche is a magical and aromatic beer made by maceration of elder flowers in the lambic. Faro is a fantastic and unstable lambic that is better to taste in Brussels, rather than trying to take a bottle home with you. Caramel candy sugar is added to sweeten the beer. It is ever so slightly tart but the sweetest of all the lambic beers. But because of the added sugar, the re-fermentation in the bottle is very strong, and risk of exploding bottles is a real possibility. They should be consumed within 3 to 4 weeks at most after bottling.

Raspberry lambic.

Mamouche (lambic with elder flowers).

Look for these other Cantillion beers: Grand Cru Bruocsella, Iris, Marmalade, and "Lou Pepe."

Our sincere thanks to Cantillion, for doing what you do, and for providing the information and much of the text used above.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Great article! Now Cantillion is on my to do list!

Chris M