Does lambic beer taste better first thing in the morning? Or have we finally “got it” with lambic?
Having had a great long weekend in Belgium, there was time for one last trip before the Eurostar trip home. The Cantillon brewery is very handy for Gare du Midi (5 minutes away) so with luggage and rare beers stashed away in left-luggage, we set out into the Brussels rain to find out more about this lambic lark.
We knew a bit about lambics before we set out – we knew that the classic lambic beer is created from “spontaneous fermentation”, matured for several years and mixed with younger versions of itself to make Gueuze, cherries to make Krieks, raspberries to make, well, raspberry beers and so on. Little baby lambics are called “Faro” and are supposed to be less “extreme”.
I think it’s fair to say that lambic beers are an acquired taste. Long maturation and the distinctive yeasts used elimate all of the sugar so there is absolutely no sweet taste – it is overwhelmingly sour, with some bitter notes. Cantillon has a reputation of being one of the hardest “tastes” to acquire.
We were still comparative newbies to lambics. You know: the stage where you drink one and say “hmm, very interesting; isn’t it sour” and then choose something else next round. We’d enjoyed a couple of Gueuzes from other breweries, but our only brush with Cantillon was a “Rose de Gambrinus” (Cantillon’s raspberry lambic) at the Great British Beer Festival. It had tasted rather like a raspberry vinegar that my dad used to make. However, we were not put off by this – many beers are not at their best in that kind of environment – and were determined to give them another go. And where better than at the brewery itself?
Despite knowing the theory of lambic production, it’s only when you see the equipment used (and particularly the rows and rows of maturing barrels and bottles throughout the brewery) that you can picture the production process. (NB – you can probably go one better if you visit between October and April. Brewing stops during the summer months)
You get an introductory spiel (possibly from the head brewer, Jean van Roy himself) and an informative leaflet to guide yourself around. We learnt a number of interesting things. We learnt that large amounts of hops are added for their preservative / antiseptic quality – but they’re aged for three years first to cut out the bitterness. We’d both assumed before we went that the beer was open to the elements for a long period of time, but actually the window for “spontaneous fermentation” is very small — only overnight, while the beer cools. Yet it (almost) always works. This is down to the apparently unique natural yeasts in the Brussels region.
The cooling room is really atmospheric – an enormous (but shallow) square copper dish in a dark attic, with shutters to control the heat and light. Apparently the roof tiles are original, re-installed after the roof itself was replaced to preserve the “micro-organic equilibrium”. Someone should write a ghost story set in a room like that.
We got to the end of the tour with some trepidation about the tasting session to come. Tasting one of the world’s sourest beers at 9:30 in the morning? (8:30 UK time!)
We were given some Gueuze, and it was a revelation. For a start, we could taste much more than just sourness — a real full and fruity flavour with a subtle bitterness at the end which we’ve never really got with other lambics. I don’t know if this revelation was due to us slowly becoming accustomed to lambics (in the same way that we only recently “got Koelsch“); the fact that Cantillon is “better”; or just perhaps that our tastebuds were more alive at such an early hour. Whatever it was, it left us keen to try more.
They gave us a glass of Rose de Gambrinus, which was also delightful. Whereas before we could only really taste sour, the fruitiness really came out and left a lovely aftertaste.
We left with as many bottles as we could carry, some glasses and a t-shirt. We’re converted.
I wonder what wild yeasts in the London area are like…
The Cantillon brewery is 5 minutes walk from Gare du Midi Station (where Eurostar comes in), assuming you go the right way out of the station. Come out at Horta Place (entrance/exit nearest the Eurostar arrivals with the taxi rank), go up the street you can see with the bus / tram stops, straight across the roundabout (Baraplein) up Limnander-Straat, then over the road at the top into Rue de Gheude. It’s at number 56.
It’s open 8.30am-5pm Mon-Fri, and 10am-5pm on Saturdays. At 4E, including two small glasses of beer, it’s well worth a visit. They also run various public brewing days. The next one’s on 10th November 2007.