Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, A Throwback to 1900

 

Away from the touristy Delirium Cafe and its world record 2,000 beers on offer is a lesser known gem, the family run Cantillon Brewery in Brussels. Cantillon has been brewing lambic beer with the same equipment since their inception in 1900. The active brewery and museum resides in a quiet residential neighborhood and apart from visiting Cantillon, there is little other reason to venture into this part of town. We visited on a cold wintry Saturday and while the brewery only produces beer Monday through Friday (and only from October to April), the advantage of going on Saturday is that you are free to tour the functionally historic brew house unsupervised and at your leisure. We’ve visited several active breweries and this was definitely a first just in itself. Guinness doesn’t even let you actually witness their beer being made, let alone run amuck in their brewery!

 

Cantillon brewery
Upon entry to Cantillon brewery, before this blog existed, we spoke with the owners daughter Julie for several minutes. She warmly explained some of the unique nuances of lambic beer and the brewery itself, armed us with an English pamphlet and sent us off to explore the farmhouse like establishment; complete with cobwebs, dust and an abundant supply of grains.

Aside from getting to meet the brewer’s family, what makes Cantillon unique is that they are the last surviving maker of authentic lambic beer in Brussels. “Throw out any pre-conceived notions you have of beer” Julie remarked, in regards to her families product. We’d tasted Lindemanns ‘lambic’ before, but that’s a sweetened and carbonated imitation. Real lambics, like those produced at Cantillon, have no added sugar, no carbonation and are made with aged hops and wild yeast. The beer then rests in oak casks for one to three years to allow the complex sour flavor to mature.

Many beer aficionados believe all beers fall into two categories- lagers or ales, depending on how they are fermented. But a lambic falls in neither category because its fermentation process differs completely from the sterile environment where lagers and ales are born. After mashing, the brew is dumped into a large bronze cooling tun overnight (like a giant shallow kiddie pool) in the attic of the brewery. The windows are left open so the brew can be exposed to cold outside air and micro-organisms, this combined with wild yeast, creates a spontaneous fermentation that slightly alters the taste of every lambic batch. During the process, the beer obtains flavor from the brewery itself, as “barnyard” is one characteristic that many tasters note when sampling lambics. And if you have arachnophobia, be forewarned, cobwebs are never removed as spiders kill pesky insects that are harmful to lambic production.

Cantillon brewery
 

Cantillon brewery
 

Cantillon brewery
The highlight of our unguided Cantillon brewery tour was the spacious storage room where hundreds of lambic filled oak casks are piled to age. The room bursts with a tart aroma and several of the casks literally exploded with lambic, as beer residue can be seen around the barrels plugged cork. The smell was interesting, but also amazing. It’s always a joy to be completely surrounded by literally tons of beer!

After our self guided tour we joined the large group that had congregated in the tasting room. The current €7 ($10 USD) entrance fee also includes a small beer at the end of the tour (when we visited they gave two samples). Geuze is a mix of one, two and three year old batches of lambic, created for relative consistency in an unpredictable brewing environment. While the geuze was intensely sour, it was also surprisingly smooth. After the geuze we were given the option of cherry or raspberry lambic. I chose raspberry (framboise in French) and Bell chose cherry (kriek in Flemish), a fitting compromise between the two official languages of Belgium. The fruit lambics were still intensely tart and acidic, but with a sharp lingering aftertaste of sour raspberry and cherry respectively. All three varieties were like nothing we’d ever drank before, but we both thoroughly enjoyed the full bodied taste and wine cellar-like ambiance.

Cantillon brewery
To enjoy the one of a kind flavor of lambics, you have to be open minded, even the owners will tell you that. But like anything, the taste isn’t for everyone, especially in this case. But even some people that don’t like the beer still recommend visiting Cantillon brewery, according to Tripadvisor reviewers. And if you do happen to like the beer, in addition to their sampling choices, they also brew a grape variety (Vigneronne) and several vintage offerings that are for sale at the brewery. If you’re in Belgium but can’t make it to Cantillon, look for it in your rabbit stew as Belgians love to cook with their unique beers!

Cantillon brewery

Where to Stay in Brussels, Belgium?

Luxury Hotels in Brussels

Brussels Marriott Hotel Grand Place offers great amenities and a wonderful central location.

Steigenberger Wiltcher’s is a truly elegant hotel right off Avenue Louise, which has many of Brussels finest shops.

Mid Range Stay in Brussels

Hotel Park Inn by Radisson Brussels Midi has great rooms and a good location near Brussels Midi international train station. If you have an early international train to catch, this is a great option location wise as it’s near the train station where you catch Eurostar and Thalys trains.

Budget Hotels in Brussels

Ibis City Centre has a fantastic location, just a couple minutes walk from the incredible Grand Place. Rooms are very basic but clean, and you can’t beat the location.

Motel One Brussels has slightly better rooms than Ibis but it’s a little further from the Grand Place. The breakfast buffet here is really good and well priced.

You may find the best value booking short stay apartments in the Brussels. If you’ve never used Airbnb, sign up here for free and receive $40 credit off your first stay! Look for properties with consistently good reviews within walking distance of the famous Grand Place.

Want to travel to Brussels for Free?

Play the credit card points game and use bonus point sign ups for free plane tickets! The most popular card among travel hackers is the Chase Sapphire Reserve. The card also includes complimentary priority pass lounge access with free food, drinks and wifi. The annual fee seems steep at $450, but it includes $300 in travel credits. The 50,000 bonus point sign up is good for $750 in travel credit, enough for a free plane ticket to Brussels! They’ll also compensate you $100 for free Global Entry and TSA pre-check to skip airport lines.

If you don’t travel very frequently, the Delta Skymiles American Express Gold Card is free the first year and just $95 each year after. They give a 40,000 point bonus after you charge just $1,000, so this is a great card. You’ll typically need around 60,000+ miles for a free flight to Brussels, but you can earn these miles with everyday purchases. There are other perks to having the Delta SkyMiles AMEX Gold Card, like free checked bags on Delta flights.

 

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7 thoughts on “Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, A Throwback to 1900

    1. You can probably find it at a local specialty bottle shop in your area. If you happen to try it, we hope you enjoy it!

  1. Lambics are definitely an acquired taste but one that I seriously came to appreciate during our Christmas trip to Belgium this year. Beer lovers should definitely add Belgium to their travel wishlist.

    1. Same here! Bell definitely didn’t like lambics before visiting Cantillon. We picked up a bottle of another brand from a bottle shop in Amsterdam prior and it kinda tasted like orange juice after you’d just brushed your teeth. Cantillon’s stuff was definitely way better than whatever that was! 🙂 And Belgium in general is just amazing for beers- the variety in styles of beer glasses alone is seriously impressive!

        1. Indeed, a big thumbs up to Belgian brewmasters! That’s an excellent and inspiring list that you and Scott compiled and we’ll definitely check out Moeder Lambic next time we’re over there! I’ll also look to pick up “Good Beer Guide Belgium” too. Thanks a bunch Jen and keep up the great work! 😀

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