Tag Archives: Belgium

Of Coolships, Cobwebs, and Cantillon

Cantillon needs no introduction. Even if you’re not yet a convinced imbiber of wild-fermented beers, chances are you’ve at least heard of Cantillon, that legendary Brussels brewery of mythic proportions and mystical imaginings. If lambic and gueuze producers in Flemish Brabant merit pilgrimages, Cantillon is the holy grail.IMG_7968Cantillon’s sterling reputation rests on its charm, and has as much to do with its defense of tradition as it does with what’s in the bottle. Pulley-and-gear-driven mash tuns, shallow cool ships in the attic with louvers to control the airflow and temperature, a hop-aging room smelling of old hay and cheese, cobwebs stretched between the rafters, a barrel fermentation room with its characteristic musty-woody smell, and row upon row of aging racks downstairs: The brewery stands as a testament to how beer was brewed at a time when Paul Cantillon set up shop in the Anderlecht district of Brussels at the turn of the twentieth century.IMG_7904 Unlike many other lambic and gueuze producers that have updated their facilities, the dark, timbered, and cobwebbed Cantillon brewery is like a trip back in time.

In Defense of Tradition

Back when Cantillon started slaking the thirst of Anderlecht’s workers, Brussels was home to over a hundred breweries. Today, only two remain: Bellevue, an InBev entity that caters to mass tastes with its sweetened gueuze-like and kriek-like beers, and Cantillon. As the Cantillon brochure pointedly puts it, nowadays “the world of Lambic is dominated by big business and its centuries-old name has been tarnished by large-scale industrial production.”

Up early, we hit the bikes and headed in the direction of Anderlecht, arriving at Cantillon well before noon. Wary of leaving our bikes on the street, we asked the elderly woman selling tickets in the brewery if we could bring our bikes inside. As it turns out, she’s the last living Cantillon, wife of Jean-Pierre Van Roy, the gent who took up the reins of the brewery in the 1960s. And there she was, working in the family business on a Saturday morning, selling 7-euro tickets for the self-guided tour and tasting to follow.

A brewery dominated by the dictates of big business Cantillon is not. The spiders in the rafters upstairs bear witness to the fact. (More on those spiders later.)

Turning Wheat and Barley into Lambic and Gueuze

Cantillon does things in a manner reminiscent of days when artisans were aided by the labour-saving devices of early industrialism. Cranks and pulleys drive a mash tun that looks like a museum piece, and wood’s the word when it comes to fermentation.IMG_7913

Once the wort has finished its boil, it spends the night cooling in a shallow copper vessel tucked among the rafters of the attic. This vessel, known as a coolship, is designed to expose as much of the wort as possible to the evening breezes regulated by wooden louvers that open out into the cool night. Microorganisms resident in the attic and evening air inoculate the wort during this early stage of the fermentation process. An ambient temperature between 3 and 8 degrees Celsius is crucial; too warm, and undesirable yeast and bacteria gain the upper hand. This is why the brewing season typically lasts from October through April only, although recent global warming trends may eventually spell an even shorter brewing season.IMG_7920Bright and early the next morning the brewers set to work transferring the wort into oak or chestnut barrels, where fermentation can take up to three years. During this time, the microbes that inoculated the wort overnight, together with the organisms that inhabit the barrel, produce the astounding array of aromas characteristic of lambic.

Now it’s just a matter of patience. Here’s where the spiders and cobwebs come in. Insects just can’t seem to resist the fermenting beer and the summer deliveries of fresh fruit that Cantillon uses to make its kriek and other fruit beers. Cantillon uses 150 kg of fruit for every 500 liters of two-year-old lambic, so it’s no wonder that the insects are drawn to the brewery. Rather than risk having insecticides seep into the casks, the brewers leave the job of insect control to the spiders.

A word on the barrels: the type of wood used to make the barrels is not as important for lambic makers as it is for winemakers. Rather, lambic brewers prefer barrels already used by winemakers and, to a lesser extent, Cognac producers.IMG_7933 New barrels impart too much tannin and oak character, while used barrels lend that beguiling suggestion of wine. Over repeated use, each barrel develops a character unto itself as the diverse microflora take up residence.

Patience Rewarded

After the lambic reaches a certain point in the fermentation and maturation process, it’s ready to drink straight from the barrel. More often than not, though, the lambics are blended to make gueuze. Gueuze is made from a blend of one-, two-, and three-year-old lambics originating, in Cantillon’s case, from as many as eight barrels. The oldest portion of the blend provides the character, and the youngest portion of the blend initiates a secondary fermentation in the bottle. The result: a dry and tart ale with a dense and frothy foam cap.

Lambics and gueuzes are sometimes described as vinous or cidery, and have a distinctive sour quality. Aromas and flavours range from fruity (citrus, green apples, tart cherry) to phenolic-spicy, from earthy and leathery to oaky with hints of vanilla. And then there’s all that funk: horse blanket, barnyard, cheese, hay.

Not your father’s BudMillerCoors.

***

Now that we’ve spent the past half hour or so wandering through the brewery on our self-guided tour, it’s time to put those tasting tokens to work.

The lambic exhibits a solidly tannic note from the wood, some fresh meadow scent, and a slight tartness. As for the gueuze? Scents of tropical fruit, aged hops with a distinctive cheese quality, pungent flowers, barnyard, ghee, and green apple. On the palate it was creamy, tannic, and with a pleasant lemon-funk rounded out by green apple and a touch of slate-like minerality.

*Of note: The Cantillon lambics and gueuzes that I tasted at the brewery and elsewhere in the Brussels region in May 2016 had an interesting cheese-like pungency on the nose when young –– not overpowering, but clearly present. Later, in June 2016, I tasted a gueuze that was bottled in June 2014. The aged version had developed plenty of additional complexity, and the “cheese” character had aged out into hay, horse/horse blanket, pineapple brett, and gooseberry.IMG_7944

Rosé de Gambrinus is made in the same way as kriek, but with raspberries instead of cherries. Thanks to the skills of the good brewers of Cantillon, the raspberry shines through bright and fresh, as if it has just been picked. The star of the show, though, was a bottle of Foufoune (apricot gueuze-lambic). The subtle yet intense apricot aromas and flavours were exquisite.

Alas, much as we would have liked to taste our way through all of Cantillon’s intriguing offerings, we had made previous arrangements to take a bicycle tour of Brussels. Needless to say, it’s just a matter of time before I head back to Cantillon.

If you’ve had a chance to try the Vigneronne, the Cuvée Saint-Gilloise, the Saint-Lamvinus, the Iris, or any of the Lou Pépé bottlings, let us know how they tasted.

Related Tempest Articles

For more on the differences between lambic, gueuze, and kriek, and for tips on where you can find all the Belgian beer you’d ever want to drink, see my Where the Wild Beers Are: Brussels and Flemish Brabant.

A Twist of Sour: New Belgium’s 2013 La Folie and Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne

Three Vintages of Goose Island’s Sofie

A Rodenbach Grand Cru in the Fridge, or a Six-Pack of Lesser Beer in the Fridge?

Sources

On the technical and aesthetic aspects of lambic brewing, including turbid mashes, hop aging, and characteristic ester and phenolic profiles of various yeast and bacteria strains, see Jeff Sparrow, Wild Brews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewers’ Yeast (Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2005).

“Brewery Cantillon: Traditional Family-Run Brewery,” (Brussels, n.d.).

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All images by F.D. Hofer

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Your Saturday 6-Pack, Vol.5): Saison

Said Theseus to Philostrate: “Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments. / Awake the pert and nimble spirits of mirth.”

And said a more contemporary Jane to Dick: “Get thee hither and fire up that damn lawnmower, for it has been more than a fortnight since you’ve put your sickle to a blade of grass!”

Back by popular demand, and just in time for the dog days of summer, Your Saturday Six-Pack. Let us raise a few glasses of suitable ale in honour of those days that occasion dreamy hallucinations. Bring on something crisp, dry, effervescent, fruity, and spicy!

Saison it is.

Depending on whom you read or talk to, the Walloons in the French-speaking part of Belgium brewed a low-alcohol seasonal beer that was meant to quench the thirst of farmhands during the summer. Others claim that Saison beers were, like the Märzens of Bavaria, brewed to a higher gravity in late spring to outlast the summer months. As with so much pertaining to beer and history, myth and fact go hand-in-hand, and I have no intention of cutting through the thicket of fact and fiction for the time being. Suffice it to say, we have enough extant interpretations –– the quaffable Saison de table, the more robust Saison de provision –– to suggest that this is anything but a settled style. Add to this the terminological slippage between “Farmhouse ale” and “Saison,” and you have a perfect midsummer night’s storm that’ll keep the beer geeks debating into the wee hours.

In lieu of a BJCP-like description of the style, I propose a few drinks. Many of these beers are widely available in sizeable North American beverage markets, some less so. One is an absolute classic. All come highly recommended by yours truly. Diversity is the only thread that unifies my selection.

Cellar Door (Stillwater Artisan Ales, Maryland)

StillwaterArtisinal - cellardoor_crop2Stillwater bills its Cellar Door as an American farmhouse ale “gently finished …. with a touch of white sage.” German wheat and pale malts overlaid with Sterling and Citra hops lie at this complex beer’s foundation. The dominant aromas that make their way past the towering foam cap crowning this hazy golden blond beer are nothing if not herbal, with a dash of lavender and citrus (tangerine) taming the sage. Add some honey, clove-spiked peach, and white pepper to this basil-sage keynote, and you might think you’ve landed in the fields of Provence. Lime zest-infused honey links up with freshly mown hay and an echo of tropical fruit before being cut through with an effervescent carbonation and a refreshing minerality. A crisp, sage-brush dryness near the finish raises the curtain on a lingering light brown sugar and dried apricot aftertaste. Note: This aromatic beer is excellent fresh, but a bit of age lends the beer even more depth and a subtle roundness. One Tankard.

Tropic King Imperial Saison (Funkwerks, Colorado)

Fort Collins’ Funkwerks brews more than one Saison/farmhouse ale, but the Tropic King laden with Rakau hops from New Zealand is one of those passion fruit-mango-peach explosions that makes you sit up and take notice.Funkwerks - TropicKing With its orange and amber hues, the beer is sunshine in a glass, and the candy floss-like foam cap lingers long enough to bring you right back to the amusement parks of your childhood. A whiff of old hay and henna mingle with an intense tropical fruit character that gives the Brettanomyces an elegant touch. Passion fruit and mango dance with honeyed malt on the spritzy palate, but pepper and zesty ginger notes keep the beer refreshingly dry. In a word, Brett-and-spice bitterness and dryness balanced by a malt richness and intense tropical fruit. At 8% ABV, you’ll want to resist the urge to quaff this one on a hot day. Two Tankards.

Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale (Boulevard Brewing Company, Missouri)

Like the Tropic King, this eminently drinkable beer from Boulevard’s Smokestack Series is no wall flower in the ABV department. It’s also the base beer for their delicious Saison-Brett, which I wrote about in May. As the story at Boulevard goes, “most breweries have a piece of equipment that’s just a bit persnickety.” Tank Seven was the proverbial black sheep at Boulevard.Boulevard Tank 7 Turns out, though, that the vessel did wonders for their Belgian-style farmhouse ale, and this delicious beer was born. Hazy honey-gold with a vigorous collar of foam, this richly textured marriage of Belgian yeast and North American hops brings apricot-accented tropical fruit to the fore, followed by waves of orange-grapefruit citrus, an earthy spice note that mingles white pepper and coriander together with a hint of pine. Big and bold, the unobtrusive malt backdrop of honeyed light brown sugar lets the mango-pineapple and muscat grape flavours shine through. Tank 7 manages to be luscious yet light-bodied and dry at the same time, with the malted wheat giving the beer a zesty lift near the finish. Two Tankards.

Saison Cazeau aux Fleurs de Sureau (Brasserie de Cazeau, Belgium)

CazeauFleurAnd now for something a little different. For those of you who don’t feel like pulling out your French dictionaries or googling “sureau,” it means elderflower. And the elderflower in this supple ale the colour of hay lends it an air of fragrant meadows and floral honey. But it’s not just the floral notes that make this beer unique. Along with the clove-pepper-spice calling card of Belgian yeast, you might just detect a jalapeno note reminiscent of Cabernet Franc grapes. An ample bed of wheat and bready malt keeps this dry, crisp, peppery, and subtly floral beer afloat. Clocking in at a mere 5% ABV, Saison Cazeau is yet more proof that you don’t need a tonne of alcohol to get stellar flavours in your beer. One Tankard.

Saison du Buff (Dogfish Head, Delaware)

I picked this beer up with no small amount of trepidation. An ale brewed with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme has to be a train-wreck, right? But if anyone can awake the pert and nimble spirits of mirth, I thought, it’s the good folks at Dogfish Head.DogfishHead - saison-du-buff The beer starts playfully enough, with sunny golden saffron hues sounding the prelude for sage, rosemary, honeyed papaya, green apple skin, a slate-like minerality, and the slightest trace of parsley, probably because I was looking for it. (Alas, the power of suggestion!) I take a sip and smell again. Honeydew melon, a bit like mead, with thyme becoming slightly more prominent alongside the sage. The herbs reprise themselves subtly on the palate, balanced by a sweet graham cracker-like maltiness. Highly effervescent and enhanced by a mild green apple tartness and a coriander-clove spiciness, the beer is well-balanced and not at all gimmicky. Herbs play well with the mild Belgian yeast aromatics, the one complementing and gently amplifying the other. It all harmonizes well to provide a complex herbal presence that gestures slightly in the direction of savoury, yet with a softly sweet honeyed presence. One Tankard for this whimsical beer.

Saison Dupont (Brasserie Dupont, Belgium)

Though the venerable Saison Dupont hails from Europe’s more northerly reaches, its radiant golden yellow with orange hues hints at the French Riviera. And then there’s the towering, pillowy foam, like a snow-capped Alpine peak on a hot day.SaisonDupont The best of both worlds. The aromatics open with a salvo of herbal-floral hops, followed immediately by white pepper, clove-coriander, grains of paradise, and a slate-like minerality. Peach-pear yeast notes and hints of ripe banana in the depths add fruit, with whispers of lightly kilned Munich (lightly toasted bread laced with a hint of melanoidin) making a cameo appearance. Saison Dupont is deft on the palate, combining tangerine-peach and an orange blossom floral essence with an off-dry bready-wheat-oat flake malt character before finishing crisply. The musky hops lend mid-palate spice before dried apricot and almonds take over in a finish where Crème de Noyaux meets Bon Maman apricot jam. Bright. Playfully fruity. And appetizingly bitter. The standard bearer of the style. Two Tankards.

I hope you enjoy the range of flavours and aromas in these summery beers as much as I do. For a Three-Tankard **bonus addition** to your six-pack, check out my write-up on Black Raven and make your six-pack a lucky seven.

A brief note on serving: Use a glass that allows for plenty of head space, for many of these beers have epic foam caps. Brasserie Dupont suggests serving their Saison at 12C/54F (cellar temperature), but I’ve found that slightly cooler temperatures flatter many of the Saisons I’ve written about here.

Related Tempest Articles

The Sunday Sour Sessions: Jolly Pumpkin’s Baudelaire Saison

Marking Time with a Brett-Saison from Boulevard

This Bird’s For You: Black Raven’s Pour Les Oiseaux Saison

Sources and Further Reading

Garrett Oliver, The Brewmaster’s Table (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).

Michael Jackson, The New World Guide to Beer (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1988).

Stillwater Artisanal Ales’ “My Works” blog.

Boulevard Brewing Company, “Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale.”

Brasserie Dupont, “Saison Dupont.”

Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Mendelssohn’s incidental music of the same name isn’t half bad either. Give it a listen while you’re drinking these fine beverages.)

Images

Labels and images from the respective breweries’ sites.

©2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.