As we made our way to Belgium, I asked the geekiest of my beer geek friends what breweries to visit. There was a resounding answer: “Cantillon.” In fact, one of my friends said, “If you don’t go to Cantillon, I will personally kick you in the nuts.”
In the heart of Brussels, lies Cantillon brewery. In a part of town where you’re more likely to find immigrant Muslim communities and enough road construction to make driving up on the place nigh impossible, the Cantillon family has been producing Lambic there since 1900. Today, it is done almost exactly as it was at the turn of last century.
Now, in fact, a museum, stepping into the brewery is like stepping back in time. And because Lambic production involves spontaneous fermentation—where the unfermented beer is left in open vessels to allow it to be exposed to wild yeast and bacteria—the atmosphere between the walls, inside the walls, and even the walls themselves are contributors in the innoculation of the wort.
This is true terroir in beer, people. And that is not a silly trifle. This is the ONLY spot on the earth where the beer can taste this way, act this way and evolve this way. Move the brewery two blocks away, and all will change.
We were fortunate to meet brewmaster Jean Van Roy (the son-in-law of the last Cantillon) at a beer event at Birrificio Baladin in Piedmont the previous month. When I mentioned we would be in Belgium at the end of June, he told us to contact him. Four weeks later, we opened the front door to the brewery and stepped back in time. And when I left the brewery later that day, my perceptions on beer had changed. This is a family doing things the traditional way. More hours, more heartache, less certainty. But with a product so built on artisan craftsmanship that the mere mention of the word “shortcut” will get you strung up in a spider web for dinner. In fact, I will be forever haunted by a spider I saw there that was the size of a baby’s fist.
Jean Van Roy is the man. But Cantillon Brewery is an entity all its own…devoid of man’s influence.