A small wooden sign with the words “Le temps ne respecte pas ce qui se fait sans lui” hang inside the beer cellar at Cantillon Brewery in Brussels. The single phrase “time does not respect what is made without it” perfectly captures the essence of the beer making philosophy at Cantillon, maker of one of the world’s best and most sought after lambic beers.
Cantillon specializes in spontaneously fermented lambic beers. Unlike most beers which rely on a particular strain of yeast added during the beer making process, Cantillon beer is left in open vats and collects wild yeast from the atmosphere. No two batches are identical, and the flavors change depending on the season, climate, and nature of the yeast that is in the air.
The brewing process is slow and takes a lot of time. They still use the same traditional methods and equipment since the beginning, such as red copper containers and barrels that are over 100 years old.
For example, their lambics are made by aging their spontaneously fermented sour ales for an average of 20 months before being further mixed with fruit, then blended with an aged lambic, and then further aged in oak barrels. I fell in love with their Lou Pepe “kriek” ( lambic made with rare Belgian schaerbeek cherries), sour peach ale Fou Foune and “gueuze”, blended lambics that are further aged between one and three years.
We were excited to find out that the brewery was not too far from our hotel, about a 40 minute walk (or 10-15 minutes cab ride). Even though we are crazy and we love walking, I would recommend taking a car because it’s not the prettiest walk, and there are some parts of the path that that don’t have a lot of people.
The Tour at Cantillon Brewery
We pre-purchased tickets for an English language tour for only € 9.50, which lasts a little over an hour and includes a free tasting of a couple of their beers (well worth it!). Openings times are quite limited and not every day, so check the website before you go.
The tour was great and we learned so much about the art of spontaneously fermented beer. We got to see all the equipment that they use, and we got to learn about all the different steps of the beer making process. If you want to actually see them brewing beer, they occasionally offer special tours (I think they are about 6 hours), where you spend a portion of your day at the brewery watching the process live.
The Bar at Cantillon Brewery
After trying a few (small) tastes of a few of their classic lambics, the best part is to visit their bar after the tour, which is only open on Saturdays from 10AM to around 5PM/6PM.
This bar is special because it offers the largest selection of all of their beers, most of which are not available anywhere else in the world. There are several extremely hard-to-find bottles that they don’t even sell for take-away. You can only order a bottle, open it up, and drink it at the bar. In fact, they typically severely restrict the number of bottles you can buy to take away since they want to give as many people as possible a chance to buy their beers.
At the bar, most people will border a bottle or two (they only sell them in 750 mL bottles!) and then share with the other strangers in the bar. By the end of the afternoon, we had become friends with the people sitting around us. Everyone was tasting each others’ different bottles. It was fun to try so many different types without having the responsibility to finish our own big bottles.
We couldn’t help it. Even though we knew we had limited luggage space, we still picked up several bottles of their special beer.
Bottles of Cantillon Beer
Despite the fact that we planned to return, we never made it back during our 7-week stint in Belgium. In fact, after knowing that we would be stuck in Brussels for quite some time, we even drank some of the bottles of Cantillon in our hotel room, therefore lightening our load to bring back to Hong Kong.
We still have a couple bottles of Cantillon sitting in our Hong Kong apartment right now, and we have yet to open a bottle since coming back. Now that the world has completely changed, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to go back to Brussels again. However, if I do go back, this will be one of the top places on my list to visit again.