If you’re determined to book a Belgian brewery tour when you visit Brussels, visiting Cantillon should be top of the list.
This traditional Lambic brewery, known as the last independent Lambic brewer in Belgium, dates back to 1900 when Paul Cantillon decided to set up a brewery in the Anderlecht neighbourhood of Brussels. At the time, it was one of around 100 brewers in the Belgian capital.
After the end of the Second World war, Paul’s sons Marcel and Robert were able to grow the business to a significant 2,500 hectolitres, which is still more-or-less the amount of beer that Cantillon produces today.
While the world of Lambic beers has become big business today, dominated by industrial producers of beer, Cantillon is perhaps unique in the world to still brew beer virtually entirely in the old styles and with some pretty vintage equipment. Spontaneous fermentation isn’t a commercially viable way of making beer as so much is wasted and so much time is spent on producing and storing the bottles.
However, for Cantillon, this is precisely the point, and the old-fashioned approach still produces one of the most famous beers in the world and the King amongst Lambics.
Belgian brewery tour: visiting Cantillon
Although dedicated groups can book guided tours of the brewery, we went for a nice compromise: a self-guided tour comprising an introduction from a member of the brewery staff, and including two tastings of Cantillon at the end. For €7 this is a great deal and offered Monday to Saturday, with the brewery closed on Wednesdays (so they can actually get on with making some beer). The main thing is that you need to arrive no later than 16.00.
On arriving at Cantillon brewery, which is distinguished by a handsome Brasserie Cantillon sign on the vintage brewery wall – you might have to wait a few minutes for the next introduction in your language (offered in French, Flemish or English). Once the basic history of the brewery has been shared with you, its off round the brewery armed with a short guide to the different rooms. From the main brewing area, through hop boilers, crushing machines and the cooling tun room, it’s all a bit Willy-Wonker-in-a-huge-barn. The intense smell of malt follows you around and is all encompassing in a comforting way.
Once the tour is over – and you can take anything from 10 minutes to half an hour to wander round, depending on how much you want to study each sector – you then return to the bar area in the main hall. Here, people also drop in to share a bottle of Cantillon or two served in the traditional basket, pick up a T-shirt or beers to go.
If you’re not familiar with Lambic ale, the best way to describe it is a cross between beer and natural wine, with the sharp fermentation aromas due to it being slowly matured in barrels which have been used by wine or even cognac producers in the past (Lambic ale doesn’t need the tannins produced by new wood, so the old barrels work just fine). Some varieties also feature the addition of fruit – cherries and raspberries in particular – to deepen the fruit aromas without particularly sweetening the beer.
The first sip is quite acidic but, as they say, the second and third bottles go down a treat! After the brewery visit, and for the remainder of my stay in Brussels, I was drawn to the Cantillon beers in the bars that I visited, becoming a true Lambic aficionado.
All in all, this Belgian brewery visit comes highly recommended and should definitely go on the bucket list the next time you visit Brussels.