Each november, and also sometime in spring, the Cantillon brewery, which is also a designated museum throws open its doors for a day, so that hoardes of geeks can flood in, and ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ over mash tuns, bubbling barrels, coolships and cobwebs. I visited them once before, but they weren’t brewing. It was still great fun to wander around and check the place out, but this time it was a lot more fun. Cantillon is unlike other breweries, as it only brews ‘lambic’ or spontaneously fermented beer. They don’t add extra yeast. More about that later.
The brewday starts early, and so at about 6am, Kev and I found ourselves traipsing down Anspachlaan towards Anderlecht with an appropriate lack of spring in our step. It pissed rain all weekend. Brasserie Cantillon looks just like a normal building on a suburban 19th century Anderlecht street, from the outside you could have no inkling what magic lies inside.
The place was already a hive of activity even at that early hour. People huddled with coffee and croissants, and a little stove in the tasting area was burning away. We latched on to one of the tours that were going at regular intervals, and made our way in to a room that contained a mash tun, with magnificent rotating stirring arms plughing their way through the turbid mash, which was in the process of being doughed in. You could see the wetted mixture shooting through a pipe in to the tun from upstairs. The place was a hive of whirring and trundling motors, and one of the few modern encroachments on the traditional brewery was that most of the moving parts were attached by a belt to a central motor that is now electric, but presumably was once steam powered.
Making our way upstairs we had a good gawk in to the empty boil kettle, which appeared to be steam driven, at least, it
had some large copper coils at the bottom. Continuing in to the attic, we saw the coolship that would be put to use at the end of the brew day. The tour concluded in the barrel storage area, where 1, 2 and 3 year old lambic beer was aging. Some of the barrels were even oozing foam, which looked great.
We also had a good look at the barrel washing area, where the barrels were being steamed clean. One of them was attached to some big gyrating frame like the thing astronauts use to train for g-force or something.
We had a little taste of some of the beer, since it’s one of the few times that drinking at 7am is socially acceptable. I tried a blend called “cuvée Gilloises” or something to that effect, probably after the neighbouring district of Saint Gilles. It was lovely. We decided to return to our womenfolk who were sensibly snoring back at the apartment.
Later on in the day we returned, hoping to catch the final, crucial stage of the brew. After a very long boil, like any other beer, lambic beer needs to be cooled. Although most homebrewers use something like an immersion chiller where cold water is circulated through a copper coil that is immersed in the hot wort, and most commercial brewers use a plate chiller, where the beer is pumped through plates that have cold water pumped on the other side in the reverse direction, the traditional method of cooling beer is to use what is called a “coolship”. This is basicaly a very large surfaced shallow copper container, in Cantillon’s case it takes up the whole loft room. The hot wort is flooded in to the coolship, which spreads it over as much surface area as possible, and since copper conducts the heat away so well, the beer cools down gradually. One of the reasons that commercial breweries for the most part no longer use this method is that it involves leaving a large surface area of warm wort exposed for several hours, and during that time, before it is cool enough to pitch the yeast in to, it is ripe for infection by wild airborn yeasts.
This is a boon for lambic brewers however, since they want those wild airborne yeasts, indigenous to the locality to innoculate the wort. At Cantillon, millions of colonies of these yeasts inhabit the very rafters of the brewery. They don’t steam clean the place, rather they let the friendly spiders take care of insects that might harm the beer, and there are some fairly impressive cobwebs in the place.
Watching the wort flood in to the coolship was almost a religious experience, indeed, you could view the mystical transformation that the wort undergoes the night after brewing, sitting in that Anderlect attic, as the brewing equivalent of the metaphysical transubstantiation of wine into the blood of the redeemer. Tastier end product though.
Having borne witness to the magic, we retired to the tasting area, to avail of our complimentary glass of unblened lambic, blended Gueuze, kriek, and my favourite, Rosé de Gambrinus, which is lambic beer blended with raspberries. We took a bottle of “Mamouche” back to the apartment, which, while nice, only confirmed my suspicion that I don’t really like elderflowers. Unfortunately they were out of “Fou’Foune”, which is lambic steeped with apricots. I still haven’t had a chance to try this. Cantillon open brew day is a great excuse to visit the bizarre and wonderful city of Brussels, to drink Lambic beer at 7am, and to see where the magic really happens. I feel this might become an annual pilgrimmage.