Dish of the Day: Cantillon Brewery… a victory for tradition

Rory Elsome

dishoftheday 300x225 Dish of the Day: Cantillon Brewery... a victory for traditionIt’s impossible to escape the sense of history when you visit the Cantillon brewery. From the moment you walk through the doors three generations of the Cantillon family stare down at you from their sepia photos on the wall. All the brewing is done using their original equipment, which has been producing these unique beers for over 100 years.  In the cellar you find rows of cobwebbed oak and chestnut barrels holding aging lambic beers, bearing the scars of explosive fermentations from the wild yeasts and bacteria that give them their sour and complex flavour. It seems everything at Cantillon is surviving the erosion of time.  This brewery’s story is one of near extinction and renaissance and one of victory for tradition over commercialisation and challenge to the brewing traditions of a family, and a region.

Founded in 1900 by Paul Cantillon, at the time Cantillon were one of over a hundred breweries situated around Brussels producing spontaneously fermented lambic beers. After surviving the occupation of Belgium during the Second World War, Paul passed the reigns to his sons Marcel and Robert. Their tenure oversaw a boom in production, reaching their highest output at the time of the 1958 Brussels World Fair.

Today their beers are still made in the same way as they were then. Young lambics, spontaneously fermented by wild yeasts and bacteria from the air, are aged for a period of up to three years. After which they are blended and refermented to create Gueuzes, a mixture of one, two and three year old lambics, or fruit beers, created by macerating fresh fruit into a two year old lambic.

By 1968, when Claude Cantillon and her husband Jean-Pierre Van Roy took over, the brewery was facing an unrivaled decline in popularity.  The reasons behind this are numerous and complex.  For one, public tastes began to shift, with more industrialised breweries making decent inroads into the Belgian market.  Also, the high cost of brewing in the traditional way meant lambic beers were pricier than their more modern rivals, making it another turn off for customers who began to reject this increasingly unfashionable beer.  Many Brussels lambic producers were forced to close, while others switched to producing sweeter, less sour, versions of lambics with more commercially viable techniques.

These beers are the sweet Belgian fruit beers that you can get in most major supermarkets and, as our guide protested, are considered ‘pseudo lambics’ as they are usually pasteurised and sweetened with artificial syrups. The proliferation of these beers, which were less radical in flavour and cheaper to produce, are one of the reasons why demand declined and why lambics are so often misunderstood. It’s a sad fact that, out of those 100 traditional lambic breweries in Brussels 100 years ago, only Cantillon remain.

They remain because at a time when everyone around them was changing, Claude and Jean-Pierre steadfastly refused to change the way Cantillon worked.  While continuing production, in 1978 they opened the brewery to the public as the Brussels Gueuze Museum.  As well as making some much needed extra money, the aim of the museum was to educate visitors in the traditional way of making Gueuzes and fruit beers, using spontaneous fermentations, aging and blending.

They also began exporting beer to numerous countries, including America, which, although they didn’t know it at the time, would eventually contribute to a resurgence of interest in lambics. I have written before on this blog about the growing interest in sour beers in America and the UK, which is partially driven by American craft brewer’s admiration of lambics and other great continental sours. The interest of a new generation of beer lovers has given Brussels lambics a new lease of life and you can now find Cantillon, and other traditional lambic brewers, on the beer lists of the more well stocked bars and pubs – something I find rather remarkable.  Currently, demand has increased to the point that it has outstripped what Cantillon’s facilities can viably store and produce.

Cantillon are a remarkable brewery simply because they are still here. A family’s resilience and passion for their techniques, handed down through the generations, meant they didn’t divert from the way of brewing they believed was right.  For that we should savour them, and their beers, as without them we may not have the pleasure of appreciating a true Brussels lambic.  As their posters say “Cantillon: C’est bon”.

Follow Rory on Twitter @RoryElsome

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  • SimonaSchama

    Spot on Rory! The Cantillon lambic is a gem.

    Your headline “Dish of the day…” is doubly appropriate, because aside from its merits as a tipple, Cantillon is also particularly useful for cooking purposes.

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