Where the Wild Yeasts Are: Belgian Lambics

Since life is short and airfare deals abound, travel whenever you can. This is my motto. As a beer enthusiast, it seemed only fitting that a recent trip to Holland to visit a friend merited a brief excursion to Belgium — land of wild yeasts and eccentric brews. With a limited amount of time and money, I set out on a trip to see the sights in Belgium, otherwise known as beer paradise.

A trip to Europe is not complete without a visit to at least one museum. Throngs of tourists visit the Louvre, the Rijksmuseum, the Uffizi, and other famous art museums while in Europe. In Belgium tourists can visit museums that are dedicated to a Belgian work of art — beer. These are breweries that disdain modern technology, even such advancements as stainless steel, and brew in a very traditional manner on antiquated equipment. And they produce some of the most highly regarded beer in the world.

Curiosity and a short train ride from Holland led me to Brussels and eventually to the Brasserie Cantillon, also known as the Brussels Gueuze Museum. The Brussels Gueuze Museum was founded in 1978 with the aim of preserving and promoting the production of traditional lambic beer and maintaining its qualities and reputation. Gueuze, a style of beer distinctive to Brussels and its environs, is made from blended young and old lambics.

The Last Brewery

Lambic, also known as liquid rhubarb or the champagne of beers, is a tart beer made with the help of spontaneous fermentation. Depending upon the definition of a lambic, these beers are hard, if not impossible, to produce outside a limited area of Belgium that includes the Senne Valley and Brussels. It is here that ambient yeasts and bacteria unite to produce this distinctively sour and acidic beer. Although homebrewers and commercial brewers have tried to approximate the flavors of Belgian lambic, brewing a traditional lambic will always be out of reach because of geographic limitations. American homebrewers sometimes call their own versions “pseudo-lambic” or “plambic.”

About half a century ago the city of Brussels had approximately 50 breweries operating within its limits. Now Cantillon stands alone. Cantillon is a fully operational, very small, charming craft brewery. The brewery is tiny by modern standards, producing only about 800 hectoliters (682 barrels or roughly 21,000 gallons) of beer annually. (According to the Confederation of Belgian Breweries, all Belgian breweries combined produce 14 million hectoliters of beer, about 12 million barrels, annually.)

After a short walk from the main tourist area in Brussels, I located Cantillon without much difficulty. However, the brewery is very unimposing. After visiting about a dozen breweries in the United States and abroad, I was surprised by the size of the building. No grand elephants led the way to the brewery as at Carlsberg. Instead, I walked right past the brewery since it is considerably smaller than neighboring buildings and its facade is painted in unobtrusive and faded colors.

Paul Cantillon established the brewery in 1900 for blending the lambics of other brewers to create gueuze. Cantillon began brewing its own lambic in 1937. The original equipment, which is still in use, is operated by the original family; Master Brewer Jean-Pierre Van Roy, the husband of Paul’s granddaughter, runs the brewery today with the assistance of his family. While I sampled the beers of the brewery, I watched family members pouring and selling beer, corking and washing bottles, and mopping floors. Van Roy gets help from his wife, daughter, son, and son-in-law. No job is too menial. I spied the master brewer himself amiably washing bottles.

Cantillon does not brew from March to October due to concerns about the heat and the possible over-exuberance of the ambient yeasts, so the machinery was idle, but the atmosphere had its own energy. I did not have to see the actual beer being produced to get a feel for the brewery and the brewers. Visitors who drop by the brewery/museum, as I did, can take a self-guided tour with the assistance of a fairly detailed handout and a brief verbal introduction on the history of the brewery.

Since I have visited other breweries and have a passable knowledge of brewing, I enjoyed giving myself a tour and lingering around the equipment. As several other tourists whizzed by probably thinking of the beer sample at the end of the tour (including a family that most likely broke a sweat because they moved so quickly), I stopped, stared, and took in the wonderful sights and scents. No one moved me along or blocked my view. At the end of the “tour,” I had my questions answered by the person serving the beer. However, be aware that this may be dependent upon the server’s English or your French.

Lambic is a wheat beer with straightforward ingredients. Cantillon’s lambic is composed of 65 percent malt and 35 percent unmalted wheat. Hops, aged for a least three years and in amounts greater than two to three times that of other breweries, are also added, but mainly for their preservative qualities rather than for flavor and aroma.

After the wheat and barley are crushed in a grain mill, they are turned into grist in a copper mash tun that looks as if it might take off at any moment due to its “propellers.” Massive, intimidating “corkscrews” mash the grains with water, creating a turbid mash of about 72° C (162° F) in approximately two hours. Resembling something out of a Frankenstein movie, a rudimentary albeit utilitarian belt-and-pulley system is used to provide power to the brewery equipment including the mash tun. After mashing, the wort is extracted, pumped into copper hop boilers, and boiled with the hops for three hours. The wort is subsequently pumped into the coolship, or cooling tun, in the loft.

The room in the loft of the brewery that contains the coolship is the most fascinating for anyone who loves lambic or eccentric methods of brewing. Here it became evident how unusual lambic breweries are. The large, shallow, flat, rectangular, entirely riveted, red copper coolship takes up most of the loft and holds up to 7,500 liters of wort. The wort is cooled while the ambient yeasts (Brettanomyces bruxelensis and Brettanomyces lambicus along with several dozen other identified and unidentified types of yeast) and bacteria are beseeched to inoculate the wort and produce lambic’s characteristic flavors and aromas. Louvers, or vents, on the sides of the room permit air flow and can be opened and closed depending upon weather conditions. The roof is also vented for air flow. Cooling the wort overnight permits the yeast to inoculate the wort, which is transferred to barrels when it has cooled to 20° C (68° F).

A distinctive feature of the roof makes it particularly intriguing. Even though the roof was replaced in 1985, the original tiles, darkened by age and the environment, were retained under the new roofing tiles to maintain the “micro-organic fauna” of the brewery. Continued preservation of microflora in a lambic brewery is extremely important, since the beer’s distinctive characteristics are partly due to the distinctive microflora of a particular brewery. Lambic breweries, as a result, are not nearly as sterile as other breweries. Bacteria adds to the flavor, so old roofing tiles and dusty rooms are not only acceptable, they are considered integral to producing good lambic beers.

After cooling, the wort is pumped into oak barrels. These barrels, originally used to ship wine, have been used for decades so their microflora contributes additional characteristics to the beer. In several days fermentation starts and bubbles pour from a bunghole in the barrel. The barrels are not secured for fear of explosion. After a few weeks the barrels are sealed and remain closed for as long as several years.

The barrel or cask storage area could have inspired Edgar Allan Poe. It is dimly lit and extremely dusty, with cobwebs for added effect. Dust accumulates on barrels that have had beer aging in them for several years. Mold grows undisturbed on the barrels, feeding on the beer left after the vigorous fermentation. Insects, attracted especially by the fruit beers, are counteracted by spiders, which are permitted to produce their works of art on the walls and barrels to reduce the insect population. Insecticides could be harmful to the maturing beer, so they are never used. According to the brewery handout, this atmosphere is all part of the “biological equilibrium” of the brewery and “a lambic brewer never destroys a cobweb” or kills a spider. Stains from fermentations past make patterns on the floor like modern art, and a faint, wonderful, somewhat sour odor drifts in the air. Although I would not recommend trying this type of brewing at home, this brewery illustrated that brewing is as much an art as a science.

The lambic is aged in the same barrel for one to three years or possibly longer, depending upon its intended use. Up to 20 percent of the lambic is lost to evaporation during this time. Given the capriciousness of producing a beer that relies on bacteria, wild yeast, and wooden casks, maintaining consistent flavor and aroma is difficult.

The finishing touch is a cork with the name of the brewery and the bottling year, and a cap. Once bottled, corked, and stored horizontally in a cool cellar, the beer continues to age and ferment. It takes two years of bottle conditioning before gueuze, a blended combination of one-, two-, and three-year-old lambic, is ready to drink.

After the brewery tour, a visitor can sample Cantillon’s beers. Large wooden casks in the entrance to the brewery serve as the bar. Since the beers are bottle conditioned, they are nestled in baskets and handled gently and with reverence. The brewers are obviously very proud of their product and, with little prodding, happy to let visitors try several kinds of their beer. I loitered near the tasting area long enough to try almost all of Cantillon’s products, including a young, non-sparkling lambic aged for about a year.

Master Brewer Van Roy ardently supports maintaining the age-old practices involved in lambic brewing. Consequently, Cantillon prides itself on the authenticity and tradition that goes into the making of its beers. The beers are made the old-fashioned way and as a result are somewhat robust and more tart than other lambics.

Cantillon makes several beers in addition to gueuze. Cantillon’s fruit beers, produced during the summer, contain cherries, raspberries, or grapes (which brings beer that much closer to wine). Two-year-old lambic is mixed with the fruits that are left to macerate in the lambic for five to six months. A young lambic is added (30 percent of final volume) just before bottling to aid with fermentation in the bottle. Kriek, flavored by schaarbeek cherries; Rose de Gambrinus, a framboise flavored by raspberries and a hint of cherries; and Gueuze Vigneronne, flavored by Italian muscat grapes, are all produced in this manner.

Some other lesser-known Cantillon products include Faro and Grand Cru Bruoscella 1900. Faro is a lambic with added candi sugar and caramel, a sweet beer that is definitely an acquired taste. Faro can only be kept for a few weeks, because the additional sugar causes fermentation in the bottle that might cause the bottles to explode. The Grand Cru is a non-sparkling, unblended lambic aged for three years.

Upon my return home, several friends tasted Cantillon’s beers and had mixed reviews. It took me several tries to really appreciate their complex flavors. The considerable sourness and unique flavor of Cantillon’s lambics are not what you might expect, even if you enjoy other distinctively flavored beers. The beers have been very highly rated and praised by Tim Webb in his CAMRA Good Beer Guide to Belgium and Holland, and Michael Jackson has given very high marks to the Rose de Gambrinus, Grand Cru, and Gueuze in current and past editions of his Simon & Schuster Pocket Guide to Beer.

The traditional beers of Cantillon are imported in the United States with great enthusiasm by three brothers, Joel, Daniel, and Will Shelton, who say they are not in it for the money but for love. Will Shelton would be “tickled pink” if they break even. Joel Shelton, a musician, met Jean-Pierre Van Roy while touring Europe and forged the relationship that resulted in this endeavor.

The Sheltons are importing Cantillon products under the name Shelton Broers. In late 1996 Shelton Broers began receiving shipments from the brewery in the United States. Five of Cantillon’s beers are available in limited supply in the United States: Gueuze, Rose de Gambrinus, Kriek, Gueuze Vigneronne, and Bruoscella 1900 Grand Cru. The beer is being distributed in more than a dozen states including California, New York, Virginia, New Jersey, Oregon, and Illinois. Shelton Broers maintains a Web site, which, along with the history of the brewery, lists where Cantillon is available:

Other Belgian lambic brands available in the United States include: Belle-Vue, Boon, De Troch, Lindemans, Mort Subite, and Timmermans.

Belgian brewers are famous for their artistic, unusual, risque, and colorful labels and Cantillon is no exception. In a “victory for art, beer, and freedom of expression,” Shelton Broers recently had two of Cantillon’s well known labels approved by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). The ATF previously rejected the labels for the Gueuze for an undisclosed reason and the Rose de Gambrinus as “indecent.” The Gueuze label depicts the Manneken Pis, a famous Brussels bronze statuette of a little boy urinating, with a glass of Gueuze in his hand. The Rose de Gambrinus label portrays Gambrinus, the mythic king of beer, fully clothed in black, with a voluptuous, nude woman perched on his lap holding up a glass of framboise.

In previous shipments, to mollify the ATF’s concerns about American sensibilities, the young woman on the Rose de Gambrinus label was depicted demurely with a long blue dress (a previous importer suggested that the woman wear a bikini). Rather than clothe the Manneken Pis, the American version of the Gueuze label abandoned the original label design for an Art Nouveau-style graphic.

In its effort to use the “indecent” labels in the United States, Shelton Broers argued to the ATF that the labels are original works of art rather than an attempt to appeal to beer drinkers’ prurient interests. Famed Belgian artist Raymond Coumans painted the Rose de Gambrinus label. Shelton Broers maintained that the Manneken Pis is a symbol of Brussels and that Cantillon, the only brewery still operating in Brussels proper, should be permitted to use its rendering on the labels. The label for the Grand Cru, which shows a detail from Bruegel’s painting The Wedding Feast, was also approved.

Although the Cantillon labels have been approved by the federal author-ities, some states are not as willing to recognize their artistic merit. Penn-sylvania rejected two of the labels, Washington rejected one, and other states are expected to follow suit.

Other Stops

After the Brasserie Cantillon, the next stop on my itinerary was the CBB (Confederation of Belgian Breweries) Museum in Brussels. The museum is located in one of the premier tourist attractions in Belgium, the Grand Place. The Grand Place in Brussels is a very impressive, even awe-inspiring square composed of ornate buildings dating from the 14th century. Gold statues and elaborate stone masonry decorate the buildings, making for a majestic view when you enter the square from a side street. Built in the late 16th century, the Brewers’ House in the Grand Place houses the CBB Museum.

The CBB museum seeks to educate rather than fascinate, which makes it a good place to start a Belgian beer tour. The museum is small and requires only a short time to tour. Located in the lower level of the building, it juxtaposes 18th century and 20th century brewing equipment in adjacent rooms. The main room of the museum contains a microcosm of a modern brewery with shiny, technologically advanced examples of where the Belgian brewing industry is headed. Displays and videos enhance the experience. Interactive computer terminals permit visitors to “tour” Belgian breweries and find out about their beers. Of course a glass of beer is available at the end of the tour.

My third and final beer stop was the Straffe Hendrik brewery in Bruges. The brewery, which opened in 1856, maintains a “museum” of brewing equipment that is no longer in use. Straffe Hendrik now uses modern brewing equipment, most of it located outside of the city of Bruges.

My visit to Straffe Hendrik made it all too clear why Van Roy is fighting to preserve Belgian brewing traditions. The tour of this museum was a history lesson that emphasized differing perspectives in the brewing industry as to whether newer is necessarily better.

During the tour, the “old stirring vessel” that the guide pointed to happened to be the same type of mash tun I saw at Cantillon. The wooden barrels on display “are not used much nowadays,” noted the tour guide and the tour group walked across the highly polished coolship (there was a mat) to get to the roof for a panoramic view of the city. This was particularly unsettling to me since I had seen how the coolship was treated as so integral to brewing at Cantillon. The guide also declared that a fear of “infections” meant that beer was only cooled for 20 minutes in the coolship. At Straffe Hendrik, as is the case with the vast majority of breweries, “bad” bacteria translated into bad beer.

This tour, like the others, ended with a glass of beer. The tour was pleasant and interesting. Straffe Hendrik, which is situated in a lovely part of the city adjacent to a picturesque canal, has an attractive indoor bar and restaurant as well as a courtyard.

A trip to beer paradise requires a certain amount of planning and research. Keep in mind that summer, especially June and July, is vacation time for many Belgians, so some breweries and bars may not be open. Unfortunately, I experienced this first hand when I tried to visit some well-known pubs in Bruges and Brussels. Brewery tours, although sometimes available generally, may need to be reserved in advance for some breweries and may not be available at all for others. Finally, if you want to see a lambic brewery in operation, do not visit between March and October.

The CBB Museum touts Belgium as the “hub of the latest brewing technology,” but Cantillon proves there is more to great beer than the shiny, sparkling, stainless steel brewing equipment of the modern age. The beer, the brewery, the brewing equipment, and brewer all made for a memorable experience. Another vistor to the Brasserie Cantillon stated it best: “That was a revelation, it really was.”

Issue: February 1998