Despite having been to Brussels quite a few times, I've never been to Cantillon, mostly because E hadn't fancied going. She doesn't like sour beer. This time we are with others who are well up for it, so off we go. We arrive reasonably early when there is just a handful of people inside the brewery which looks pretty damn unassuming from the outside. Inside we pay a modest €7, have our nationalities noted in a ledger and are given an informative leaflet and a family member takes the three of us (the rest arrive later) round the lower reaches of the brewery. Now I have read elsewhere that is is fusty, dusty and cobwebby, which I have always doubted. It isn't. It is spotless as any brewery should be, but just rather old, dimly lit and made largely of wood. It is intensely atmospheric.
We are shown a very elderly mash tun which wasn't the original, being acquired in 1936. I ask my intelligent question "Did the Germans not steal any of the copper during the war?" Now this isn't as daft as it seems, as they were a light fingered lot the Germans, during occupation. They didn't it seems, though our guide doesn't know why not. Maybe the sense of tradition fazed the occupier? Or the almost church-like reverence the place exudes? Who knows, especially as there is a fair bit of copper to be had.
After that we are left to wander around. We look at the cool ship, empty and gleaming. This is key to the whole business and where the wild yeasts do their stuff. I remember my second intelligent question and ask it when I have the chance "Does the fermentation vary by much in its quality and taste?" Surprisingly it is very consistent I'm told. These wild yeasts seemingly know what is expected of them. We wander round, following directional signs, looking at huge oak casks and return to the bar and shop. Our €7 entitles us to two samples of around 15cl. First up is a cask 18 month old (young) lambic which is flat as a witch's tit with quite a few jaggy edges. E hates it, so I have two. It needs more age and frankly I prefer gueze anyway for its more refined character. The shop, by now boosted by quite an influx of new customers, is going like a fair. I reckon it makes more money than the €7 admission. The prices for the beer are very fair but I didn't intend to lug bottles back, so passed, which I kind of regret now. Our main group arrives and swells the shop's coffers further - well the clothing part of it. I'd always wanted a Cantillon T shirt, but in my size they only have two types of brown and green in stock. E, not so subtly puts me off both. Apparently neither would suit me. I must go back and get one sometime.
Next we sample a bottled kriek which is a tremendous beer, with the cherries and natural carbonation lifting the beer and giving a very satisfying and balanced taste. Again I get E's. As we wait for the other, I buy some more kriek by the glass. This is a mere €2.50 and the glass is filled to the brim by a smiling gent who explains "When you pay, you get a glass as full as I can fill it." An excellent policy. I also have a taste of cask Iris which unusually has no wheat within, just barley. Not a great experience really. It may well be lifted by carbonation, but it was just flat and to me, Sarson's like.
Cantillon is an experience not to be missed if you are a serious beer drinker. Even if you aren't it is living history. Go there if you can.
It seems that 70% of the visitors to Cantillon are not Belgian. That's why the collect this info.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
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