Cantillon: Beer for Wine Lovers

When some friends from Belgium invited me over to have a wine dinner with them in Brussels, two things immediately came to mind: chocolate and beer. I hadn’t been there in many years, and although the love for chocolate is easy to develop early on in life, my interest in beer is relatively recent. It was only after I had what must have been one of the first Spanish craft beers in 2010—Altura de Vuelo from Valencia—that my interest sparkled. I realized there was a beer shop very near me, and I went in search of it. They didn’t have it, but I discovered a Dutch brewery called De Molen, and when I tried their beers that had very geeky labels with lots of information on them about bitterness, brewing date and so on, I suddenly thought, ‘OK, so I might be interested in beer after all.’

Though I wasn’t very keen on industrial beer, this was opening the doors to a whole new world. I started trying all the different styles, and one of my favorites turned out to be Saison (or, farmhouse ale), which still remains at the helm, with the Saison Dupont from Belgium being my house beer. One day, I stumbled upon a bottle by Cantillon Brewery, a small family brewery in its fifth generation in Anderlecht, close to the center of Brussels. It had a cork and a crown stopper! It was sour, with acidity, tart and dry, somehow closer to wine and with a ‘best before’ date of years! Some of the beers even had a vintage date on the label. Hell, that’s different! I can’t find them very often, as I was told they were “weird and people in Spain don’t like them,” so I took the opportunity to drink them on my many trips to Sweden.

Fast forward seven years or so, and Cantillon has become somewhat of a cult figure in brewing—their beers are hard to find because they are highly allocated and even victims of speculation. And now I was going to Brussels and successfully secured an appointment with Jean ‘Cantillon’ Van Roy to visit the brewery! Lambic, a particular style of beer produced in or around Brussels, is fermented with natural yeasts and bacteria (one of them brettanomyces!) and aged in barrel, and their most iconic example is Cantillon.

Cantillon is a working winery and a museum of Gueuze, the most popular style of Lambic beer. I’m not sure what part is brewery and which is museum, as the equipment used is mostly the original from when the brewery was created back in 1900. I saw a filter in action and stopped to admire it. “It’s over a hundred years old,” Jean told me proudly. “There’s nothing this old working in Europe. There might be another one in Africa, but we aren’t sure.”
An amazing working filter over 100 years old showcases the technology used in making the Cantillon Lambic beers.

The spirit of the Lambic beers resides in the wild yeasts and bacteria that live inside the breweries and are responsible for natural fermentation. “The place is very important, because it has all the ambient yeast and bacteria needed to create our beers.” He explained the basic process as we walked through the old building, looking at incredible machines that really looked like a museum. A living museum. “Perhaps the other thing that is completely different in our beers is the use of hops. We use lots of hops, but we don’t want the bitterness they add. That’s why we age them, so the bitter component, the alpha acids, diminishes. They add everything else but the bitterness. The brews we’ll start making later in 2017 will have a mixture of hops from 2014 and 2015. That way our beers will have a lot of hops and remain sour, not bitter. As hops are preservatives, our beers can age for a very long time in bottle.”

Their beers ferment and age in oak casks, “all used, never new, as we want to avoid the aromas of new oak. We buy used barrels from different wineries, as we want neutral containers. Sometimes we use special casks, like Cognac ones, because in the first use they impart a special flavor to the beer, and others we bottle them separately as a special brew, as it has a special character, but after that the barrels go to the normal beers.” 

The Wine Connection

I had had the chance to drink a couple of these beers, produced in Vin Jaune barrels from Stéphane Tissot, in Jura. “Ah! You are lucky!,” Jean told me. “We made a small batch that we auctioned for charity, and they went for about €150 per bottle! There are two different batches, one fermented and aged in Vin Jaune barrels and another one that contains some Vin Jaune must.” I remember Tissot telling me some time ago how, “making this beer with Vin Jaune must is very expensive! Vin Jaune is scarce, and using just a little of it to put into beer represents a big effort for us, because we have very little Vin Jaune to start with!” They are unique, and certainly have the signature curry note so representative of the flor aging of Vin Jaune.
Cantillon beers fermented and aged in Vin Jaune and with Vin Jaune must from Stéphane Tissot in the Jura.

Most of the Lambic beers sold are a mixture of older and younger beers. “I select some older barrels and I blend them with younger beer, which still has a little sugar, so when we put the beers into bottle they undergo a second fermentation, which is what created the high carbonation of the Gueuze style. Our single vintage beer we call Grand Cru Bruocsella—the old name of Brussels—is bottled unblended after three years in barrel, so that’s why it has very little to no gas.” This is a beer that can age forever, and has often been described as a ‘beer closer to Fino Sherry than industrial lager.’ Touching on the subject of Sherry, I asked Jean if he had ever tried using Sherry barrels, to which he answered, “someone else has done it in the Lambic world, and I don’t want to be seen as copying others, and that’s why I have never used Sherry barrels,” which I think it’s a real shame, as it could result in something spectacular. 

But their link to wine does not end with the Jura. They are organic and very close to biodynamic and organic wines. Jean was making constant references to this style of wine and wine growers, many of them customers and friends. One of Cantillon’s beers, called Vigneronne, is brewed with Muscat grapes. A very popular style of Lambic is Kriek (literally, cherry), which is fermented with sour Morello cherries, adding further tartness and certain cherry-ness to it. Therefore, there is a tradition to produce fruit beers, not only with cherries, but also with raspberries, apricots… and why not grapes! “The source of our grapes has changed over time, and it’s sometimes not easy to get ahold of them. I also try to help small growers and buy their grapes, especially in difficult years like we’re seeing lately, when frost and hail decimate their yields and some small producers don’t even have enough grapes to ferment into wine, but I can use them.”

“But our ‘wine’ range does not finish here, let’s try a St. Lamvinus,” he told me reaching for a burgundy-colored bottle. “This has Merlot grapes in it!” I enquired how it started and he explained how, “one day two French wine growers showed up in the brewery to see my father. One was Marc Kreydenweiss from Alsace, and the other one was Pascal Delbeck from Bordeaux. They loved our beers and somehow Delbeck convinced my father to do a Lambic with Merlot grapes. This must have been 1993. So in fact, the first couple of years, the beer contained grapes from Château Belair!!”

“Furthermore, for a number of years we were part of the Union de Gens de Métier association, where Delbeck was an important player, and we used to go to all their tastings,” Jean added. I remember one of their tastings that used to take part every two years in the deep, cold cellars of Château Belair coinciding with the date of Vinexpo, where I first met people like Alain Graillot or Didier Dagueneau. But I don’t remember the beers of Cantillon being there; it must have been 2001 or 2003, and I wasn’t paying much attention to beer. “Along the years new members joined the association and less and less people understood what a brewery was doing in an association of—mostly—wine producers. So in the end we let it go…”

That St. Lamvinus had a beautiful bright red color, intense with a little more body, “it has the tannins from the grapes,” and some sour berry flavors. It was a sort of link between beer and wine, not that far off from what some ‘natural wines’ of today can be. After all Lambic is the true ‘natural beer!’

Beers for Aging

About storing bottles, “nobody in the past thought of seriously keeping bottles for the future, so we have very few. We have a handful from the late 1980s, but the first vintage I consciously kept more bottles of was 1996, the year my son was born. The problem I have is lack of space, as all our beers are kept in bottle for at least one year before they are sold. But I now have an arrangement with the city of Brussels to get some extra space where I’m going to keep a lot more bottles. What I’m going to do in the future with those bottles I don’t know, but at least I have secured the space to be able to keep them and age them.” So when he asked me what I’d like to taste, I told them I had never tasted a beer from 1996…

He disappeared for a moment and showed up with a dusty bottle. “Well, you’re going to go back without tasting a beer from 1996,” he said, “instead, you’re going to taste an older one, from the end of the 1980s. I don’t know exactly the year when this was brewed or bottled, because nobody thought it was important to know these details at that time. But I do know that it’s from that era, and it’s around 30 years old now.” Great expectations! The cork broke exactly the way they tend to break when you open an old bottle of wine, the bottom part of the cork, a disk of some three millimeters, got stuck in the neck of the bottle. I showed Jean a photo of the incredible The Durand corkscrew I use for old wines. “See, I don’t have enough bottles to justify a corkscrew like that,” he said.
Jean ‘Cantillon’ Van Roy uncorking a bottle of Gueuze from the 1980s.

There was a faint ‘pop’ when the remains of the cork came out. “That’s a good sign! I think it’s going to be a good bottle, there’s still plenty of gas.” The beer poured like a recent one, with a foamy head and a slightly hazy color. The nose was glorious, but didn’t seem all that different from the younger beers. It kept the Gueuze character, with the tart lemony aromas and flavors but with some smoky, toasty and yeasty aromas that reminded me of roasted cereals and nuts, a little à la Champagne, with more depth, nuance and complexity, but all of it in a very subtle way, keeping the freshness and liveliness. It was impossible to guess it was 30 years old! 

I touched on the subject of ‘brett’ to which Jean replied, “Yeah, I know ‘brett’ is a complete no-no in the wine world, but it’s a very important part of Lambic beers. After years in bottle, basically the only yeast that remains in our beers is brettanomyces. However, they do not give exactly the same horsey and wet fur, sometimes feral, aromas you can find in wines, and they provide a different range of notes in beer that do not dominate as they tend to do in wine”. I guess it’s the combination with other basic aromatic components that give a very different result in beer and in wine. In beer you often find ‘brett’ or brettanomyces proudly written on labels, as it’s perceived as something positive and does not have the negative connotations it has in wines. To be fair, some wines should display ‘cuvée brett’ on their labels to warn consumers, but I guess it’s something we’ll never see in our lifetime!
Entering Cantillon’s brewery and museum felt like visiting the López de Heredia winery in Rioja: as close as it gets to time travel!

Jean had to run, and unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to buy any of his bottles, but I couldn’t help admiring the t-shirts they sell at the brewery. I’ve always liked their logo. It reminds me of the floating laughing men in the I Love to Laugh scene of Mary Poppins. “It could be, but it’s not! Our logo was an advert in the 1920s, forgotten for 60 years which came back to life at the end of the1980s.” So I left with no bottles, but a proud owner of a Cantillon t-shirt. I doubt it’s going to last as long as their beers though!
Do you still have any t-shirts from the 1980s?

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