Imagine my delight this morning to see that The New Yorker has written about my favorite beer in all the world: Belgian lambic, which is sour. And the writer, Christian DeBenedetti, focuses on the Cantillon brewery in Brussels, where I visited and drank this summer, in what was one of the culinary highlights of my life. The photo above is of lambic aging in barrels on the brewery’s second floor, which I clomped through. The French words on the barrel read, “Time doesn’t respect that which is done without it.” The wet, yeasty, woody smell up there is heavenly. From the DeBenedetti piece:
Commercially available Belgian sour beers first came to the United States in the nineteen-seventies, laying the groundwork for ever-tarter domestic beers. The Cantillon brewery, founded in 1900, in Brussels’s Anderlecht neighborhood, still brews the most uncompromising examples—specializing in lambic, spontaneously fermented sour ale, andgueuze, made of blended, aged lambics. (Other sour Belgian styles, brewed elsewhere, include the red and brown ales of Flanders, such as those made by Rodenbach.) Widely misunderstood at first, Cantillon’s austere, tart, musty character has sometimes led drinkers to declare the beer infected—and to return bottles by the case. In early 1997, when I first visited the brewery, the beers were not available in the United States beyond a few semi-smuggled shipments. “Cantillon seemed crazy at the time,” says Dan Shelton, the beer’s quixotic importer. “It took almost ten years for people to realize that’s what traditionallambic and gueuze is supposed to taste like.”
This beer could scarcely come from a more atmospheric place. Virtually unchanged since the First World War, the brewery is a marvel of weathered beams, steam-powered flywheels, hammered-copper kettles, and a koelschip (often anglicized to “coolship”), an enormous, copper-lined pan in the brewery’s attic, used for chilling wort—unfermented beer. Today, amid the barrels, Jean Van Roy, a forty-five-year-old, square-jawed great-grandson of the Cantillon line, runs the the show. Jean-Pierre, his affable seventy-one-year-old father, credited with saving lambic from death by added sweetener in the nineteen-seventies, works by his side, looking a bit like Max von Sydow.
During the cool winter months in Brussels—brewing takes place only seasonally—each new batch is pumped, steaming, into the koelschip. Then the younger Van Roy opens louvered vents and cranks on a fan, inviting wild yeasts and bacteria to inoculate the beer overnight (there’s plenty stirring in the rafters, too). The next morning, the wort flows downstairs into empty Burgundy barrels, where it will slowly transform for up to four years, and later be blended and re-fermented, sometimes with fruit, to make Cantillon Kriek (cherry), Rosé de Gambrinus (raspberry), and Fou’ Foune (apricot), among other variations. In recent years, Van Roy has also experimented with fermenting beers in terra-cotta amphorae and aging them on rhubarb, elderberries, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes from Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, and biodynamically grown Pineau d’Aunis, also known as Chenin Noir, from the Loire Valley.
If you’re a beer drinker and ever in Brussels, please visit the Cantillon brewery, which is a short walk from the Brussels-Midi station. You can get a full glass of several kinds of lambic brewed by Cantillon for only two euro, if memory serves. The first glass of Cantillon kriek (sour cherry beer) I ever had, and it was unforgettable — I remember exactly where I was sitting when I took the first sip — I bought at Monk’s Cafe, a Belgian bar in Philly, for $10 a glass. Insane, right? Yet it was so delicious I drank a second.
Happily, DeBenedetti reports that a lambic pilgrimage to the source is increasingly unnecessary. American craft brewers, he writes, are starting to make their own lambics. If this isn’t the golden age of American beer, I don’t know what that would look like.