Thursday, February 15, 2007

Travels in Belgium - Part I

I had the good fortune to live in Europe for 18 months a few years ago. After grad school, I took a post-doc position in Reims, France (about 90 mi NE of Paris) starting in September 2003 and ending in February 2005. From Reims, it was an hour drive to the Ardennes forest, with easy access to Chimay, Rochefort, and Orval abbeys. In a little over 2 hours, I could be in Bruges or Brussels. Because weekend work was unheard of at the company, my weekends were spent hanging around Reims or driving to other places (though only when the weather cooperated, which was infrequent!).

I made it to Brussels twice during my stay there. The first trip was just after Christmas (2003) with my wife and my brother (visiting from the States). The second was by myself in September, 2004, where I met up with a fellow RateBeerian and his girlfriend. Both times, I visited probably the coolest brewery I've ever seen - the traditional lambic brewery Cantillon.

Cantillon was interesting from both my perspective as a beer lover and from a science perspective. It's the only remaining lambic brewer within the city limits and they still use the natural wild yeast inoculation method - that is, they let the hot wort chill in a large copper vat in the attic of the building and let the yeast from the atmosphere settle in the liquid as it cools overnight. In fact, they only brew between October and April to ensure proper cooling.
In the mid-80s (or was it 90s?), they replaced their roof. But in order not to disturb the flora and fauna that makes their beer unique, they took old pieces of roof tile from the original roof and placed the pieces under the new roof! These are some pictures I took from both visits.

Once the grains are brought in via the hopper, the boil happens in this large brew kettle.

Here is the large copper cooling vat located in the 'attic' of the building. The hot wort is pumped here and allowed to cool overnight. Notice the roof tiles directly above the vat. It's quite cold up here and during the self-guided tour you can see some daylight coming in through holes in the roof! The entire building is just like a barn, really, and you'll see cobwebs and dust everywhere - bad luck to destroy the natural yeasties!

Once the beer is inoculated, it's placed in large oak barrels and set down to age for several years, depending on the type of beer being made (lambic, fruit lambic, gueuze). The room smelled wonderfully sour and musty. Very dirty in there, but nary a rodent - the resident Cantillon cat keeps those away.

When a fruit lambic is made, the barreled beer is mixed with fresh fruit juices, such as peach (peche), cherry (kriek), raspberry (framboise), currant (cassis), and even grape and apricot. Pictured is the mixing vat.

Once the beer is ready, it is bottled and goes through this labeler. The bottles are then set down for a certain time before sale. If you get the chance to visit Brussels, Cantillon should be high on your list of destinations - in light of recent crime in that neighborhood, it's even been rumored that the brewery may relocate! Check website (above) for information. Tours are self-guided, and at the end you get three tastings. Bring a tote bag, because bottles are sold at the brewery. When I was there in 2004, you could get 750mL bottles of the 'normal' Cantillon for about 3-4 euros. The Lou Pepe line were a bit pricier - 7 euros! That's one heck of a bargain compared to what we pay when lucky enough to find them in Pittsburgh.


Eli said...

Nice write-up, looking forward to Part 2.

Adam said...

Wow Nate! I didn't get to read the whole post yet, but, great stuff. I hope to travel to Belguim one day :-)