In mid-November 2014, the brewing team made a beery pilgrimage to Brussels visit Brasserie Cantillon and discover how they brew their wonderful beers.
We set off on a Friday afternoon and arrived in Brussels later that night, we wasted no time making our presence known in the incredibly popular Delerium bar. With an astounding selection of bottled beer on offer from all over the world, we were absolutely spoiled for choice.
Bright and early Saturday morning, the team (noticeably down a few men!) set off to the world famous Brasserie Cantillon. As brewers we are always on the lookout for new ideas and techniques, but the methods utilised by Cantillon and a handful of other breweries in Belgium couldn’t be further from the way we work at Rye River and on the face of it you would never believe how incredible the results can be.
Cantillon produces what are known as Lambic beers. These beers hark back to the days when yeast was an unknown entity and fermentation a mystical occurrence. Rather than fermenting their beers as we do, by adding a carefully chosen strain of yeast under super sanitary conditions, Lambic brewers simply let whatever’s floating around in the air ferment their beer, which is how all beer was once made. The wort produced by the brewers is left to cool over night in a large shallow vessel known as a coolship which is located in the rafters of the brewery. The distinctive roof features slots that open to the outside world inviting airbourne micro-organisms in to take up residence and turn the sugary liquid into beer!
Once cooled overnight, fermentation of Lambic beer takes place in oak casks and can last up to two years, after which time it is often re-fermented in the bottle to produce a style of beer known as gueuze. The long fermentation has two distinct phases. A primary phase, which lasts around 3 months, during which most of the alcohol is produced, followed by a long secondary phase, when lactic acid is produced. These distinct phases are the result of the successive development of mixed microbial populations, initially several types of bacteria, as well as yeasts (including normal brewer’s yeast), followed in the secondary phase by two very important micro-organisms, Pediococcus bacteria and Brettanomyces yeasts. Often times fruit is added to the oak barrels, usually cherries or raspberries, to produce Kriek and Framboise beers respectively, which are wonderfully refreshing and great for toasting a special occasion. Naturally, given the way the beer is produced, each barrel of lambic is different and part of the skill of the lambic brewer is blending the beers to the house style – not unlike Champagne. Only the very best casks are left unblended.
We wandered around the brewery for ages, in awe of the ancient equipment and the spider webs at every turn. Lambic brewer’s will not touch the dust and webs for fear of disturbing the delicate balance of micro-organisms that exist within the brewery and that help produce their wonderful beers.
Lambic beers have a sour character and often pungent, funky aroma and can at first be a shock to the senses, but given the chance they are incredibly enjoyable and complex beers to be savoured. We ended our trip to the brewery by tasting a selection of Cantillon beers, including a framboise called Rosé de Gambrinus. No joke, it smelt like a wet dog, but just like how stinky cheese can taste so good, it was a real treat to drink!