By Thad Parsons
Open Monday to Friday from 8.30 AM till 5 PM and Saturday from 10 AM to 5 PM. Closed on Sundays and public holidays. Individual visits are available during opening hours for a 5 EUR charge and guided group tours are available by request (can be conducted in English, French, or Dutch).
Cantillon Brewery is a small, family-owned brewery but since 1978, it has run primarily as the Brussel’s Gueze Museum. Having seen few changes since it opened in 1900, the brewery is working museum exhibit of late 19th-century brewery technology. It is operated by the Van Roy-Cantillon family as a brewery for lambic, gueuze, faro, and kriek – all beers that are made with wild strains of yeast and undergo spontaneous fermentation. When it was founded, it was just one of many gueuze breweries in Brussels, but today it is the last!
Walking into Cantillon for a tour is like stepping into a different time. With the exception of the towers of beer being aged, nearly everything else in site is more than 100 years old and still performs a function in the brewery. Going through the brewery either on a guided tour or with the self-guided brochure, takes one through the brewing process from grain to bottle. First, in the mashing house is the mashing tun where 1300kg of wheat (35%) and malted barley (65%) are mixed with 10,000 liters of hot water (max temperature of 72C) for upwards of two hours. The wort, as the mixture is now called, is strained and pumped into the brew kettle, also called the hop boilers, on the first floor. The remaining solids, called draff, are sold as fodder. The wort is pumped into two kettles, hops are added, and it is boiled for 3 to 4 hours. At that point, it has reduced by a quarter and the sugar content of the liquid as risen. It is then pumped through a hop container to filter out the hop solids and into open-air cooling tun. This is the most important room at the brewery because while the liquid cools in this hand-riveted masterpiece of coppersmithing, it is inoculated with wild yeasts! These strains are specific to the cooling tun room and the brewer protects this room as a sanctuary for them. In 1985, when the original roof was replaced, it was not removed but covered with new tiles to prevent any disturbance from upsetting the special microorganisms that lived there.
The next day, after the liquid has cooled completely, it is pumped into oak or chestnut barrels to ferment and age.
In three to four weeks, a slow fermentation starts and continues for three years. Lambic is ready to be drunk as soon as a few weeks after fermentation starts but traditionally, brewers wait for at least one year for a better beer. Walking into the Barrel Store is a truly unique moment, as lambic fumes fill the air and history surrounds you. Throughout this area are the other various tools that the brewer uses to clean and maintain barrels – some of which are older than the brewery.
Finally, after you have made your way around the brewery, you return through the cellars and find the bar. While the brewery does not support itself through the production of beers, it does produce a fine range of beverages:
- Gueuze – blend of 1, 2, and 3-year olds, fermented in bottle. Can be aged for a long time.
- Kriek – Schaerbeek cheeries in two-year old lambic.
- Rose de Gambrinus: Raspberries in two-year old lambic.
- Fou’foune: Apricots in two-year old lambic.
- Faro: Lambic with added caramel and candy sugar for a sweet beer. (Note: Vigorous fermentation can cause bottles to explode.)
- Plus, a range of other specialty products that may be available when you visit!
So, enjoy a couple of glasses in this unique historical setting!