Part 2 >> Some thirsty Philadelphians have embarked upon a beer pilgrimage this week to Belgium, where they will collaborate with the legendary Brasserie Dupont on a special brew to be poured at Philly Beer Week this June. But first, there is the adventure. Stay tuned to The Food Department - philly.com/Food's new blog - as The Inquirer's Craig LaBan reports back between sips from the land of tripel and saison.
The cool February air smells like chocolate – roasty, warm and sweet – the minute we step off the train in Brussels. But when I pause to inhale and begin imagining my first in-country bite of truffle, I look up to see my group already hustling away down the station quai. There will plenty of time for chocolates, Tom Peters assures me. But first, we have an appointment at Brasserie Cantillon – the legendary producer of sour ales known as lambic.
It is the first of several holy beer sites we’ll be visiting today. After all, this contingency from Philly Beer Week has come to Belgium with a clear and thirsty mission in mind – total immersion. And when Peters, the owner of Monk’s Café, has lambic on the brain, the man can roll luggage through the streets like he’s driving a Formula One, buzzing over the cobblestones, slicing between the diesel cars that zoom through the chaotic intersections, deftly navigating the web of neighborhood alleys until we arrive, within 15 minutes or so, in front of Brasserie Cantillon.
One could easily walk past the understated building, a two-story tan brick facade whose wide wooden doors and windows are kept shut to keep the treasure in.
That would be the wild yeast that’s lived and thrived inside the air of this building for more than 111 years. And that yeast has graced the beers of Cantillon with a tart funk that’s drawn admirers from around the world – many of them, it seems, have gathered today from America and beyond to tour the brewery and drink in the café.
Fourth-generation family brewer Jean Van Roy still brews on the century-old equipment his ancestors did, from the piston pump engine that drives belts and wheels that turn rakes through the mash tun, to the old oak barrels (some of them used for 80-plus years) where the lambics are allowed to age for one- to three-years. Even the cobwebs that hang in the windows here are deliberately not removed, for fear of disrupting the delicate balance of the building’s ecology.
The true curiosity here, though, is the “koelschip” or “coolship,” the massively wide copper basin on the building’s top floor, onto which the beer is pumped hot during one of the early stages of brewing. The beer hits the copper with a loud bang, then immediately begins to cool and steam, rising up through the rafters to a roof lined with terracotta tiles where the steam comes in contact with the building’s native yeast, condenses and drips back into the brew. And then the magic really begins, first in the patient barrel-aging, then in the masterful blending that goes into creating Cantillon’s gueuze (a blend of three different years), as well as the fruited beers.
Sour ales are one of the world’s most challenging acquired tastes – but also one of the most compelling. In fact, only now in Cantillon’s lively café, after years of attempts, does my nose finally leap with ease past that initial stink (think: gym socks) to the magnetic essence of these beers.
They are crisp and citrusy, and leave a refreshing snap that, when mixed with fruit in some of Cantillon’s best bottles, lifts the soul of those flavors with imprints that are far more vivid than the sweeter renditions from Lindemans. As Peters’ pal in the tasting room, Alberto Cardoso, brings us one wicker basket-cradled bottle after the next, those aromas waft over the table: the raspberry patch of Rosé de Gambrinus; the peppery red pineau d’Annis grapes of Loire in the Zwanze 2011; the wild cherry smack of kriek. And then there is Mamouche, which, when poured into our glasses, envelops the entire table in an haze of elderflower perfume.
I pause to inhale the ethereal aroma, envision a spring field of wild flowers, and then dive in for a sip. There will plenty of time for chocolates…tomorrow.
For the complete series, go to The Food Department blog.