I think everyone has been in this situation: You’ve heard person after person and review after review give the same high praise to something (like when you’re about to see a movie or read a book or listen to an album). Maybe it’s because I usually see new movies only when they make it to TV and discover new bands only after I hear friends talk about them for months, but it happens to me all the time. So, I try to keep expectations low after hearing good reviews of something because going in with those unachievable high expectations always leads to letdown; even if it ends up being great, the real thing can never live up to the hype.
I went to Belgium knowing it’s one of the top locales in the world (some would argue it is #1) when it comes to abundance of great beer. I knew the hype. I’d heard it many times before arriving in, and countless times the previous three months while traveling through, Europe. So, as is customary in this situation I went in with low expectations; not British Real Ale or Schlitz Ice low, but low nonetheless.
I must say: I was pleasantly surprised. Astonished actually. More on that later.
I’d actually started trying Belgian beers in The Netherlands while staying with my friends Hans and Drusella. Everywhere we went I tried either a local Dutch beer or a different Belgian, which were on ever menu…and all good. These beers were exactly what I’d expected and was accustomed to from trying imported Belgian beers like Duvel and Affligem in Kansas City. As mentioned before, Belgium has (perhaps) the greatest concentration of good beer in the world. It would be fun to taste as many as possible and write about my favorites. Fun, and expensive, and something I’d be more willing to try as a 23-year-old. Because of the scale of drinking that would entail, I took a slightly different approach to this edition of European Beer Culture Unfiltered. I’d be spending 4 nights in Belgium, two each in Brussels and then Brugge, and had heard about one specific (and unique) brewery in each city. In Brussels the Cantillon Brewery and in Brugge, De Halve Maan Brewery. I decided to take each brewery tour, taste their respective offerings and report on those experiences. So, here it is:
Cantillon Brewery in Brussels
Admittedly as I approached the Cantillon Brewery, in a sort of run down looking – off the tourist tract – Brussels neighborhood, I was skeptical. Surely this ‘great’ brewery wasn’t in this neighborhood with trash on every sidewalk and abandoned buildings on every street corner. But if there is one thing you learn over and over as a traveler, it’s to not judge a book by its cover. That applies with people as well as places, so walking into the brewery I was determined to find out for myself what Cantillon, and their beer, were all about. I immediately had a smile slapped on my face that wouldn’t leave until well after I’d taken the subway back toward my hostel. Upon entry you immediately see that this operation has been around for a while…its not just trying to look vintage, but actually old school.
Started in 1900 (and currently owned/operated by the 4th generation of the same family), Cantillon brews Lambic beer, a sour tasting beer that, due to the natural fermenting agents (bacteria and yeast) which are present in the ambient air of the wort cooling room, goes through spontaneous fermentation after being transferred to oak or chestnut barrels. Historically all beers were produced this way but after 1860 when Louis Pasteur made some discoveries in the exciting world of yeasts (that eventually led to the processes of TOP fermentation and BOTTOM fermentation, both of which utilize the intentional introduction of specific yeasts) that changed. Now only Lambic is still brewed using spontaneous fermentation.
Still with me? That is the boring technical stuff about Cantillon Brewery.
The fun stuff was the tour and tasting. I’ve only been on a few brewery tours but this was definitely the best! I think that’s because Cantillon is a true old-timey, family run operation and it being a self-guided tour with a read along informational booklet provided. I was able to go at my pace, take as many pictures as I wanted, and I had time to look at EVERYTHING. At one point I sat down and read part of the booklet for ten minutes. That would never happen in a larger brewery, guided tour environment.
After spending about an hour going through the facilities I made my way to the bar to get my, ‘included in the tour fee’, two sample beers! First they gave me a tasting glass with Grand Cru Bruocsella, a three-year old Lambic that, since it doesn’t undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle and no extraneous CO2 is added, is a beer without foam. Some call it the missing link between beer and wine. It was very sour, slightly too sour for my taste but after learning about the process and the beer I definitely appreciated the craftmanship involved in brewing Lambic. Getting to choose the second beer I would taste, I went for the one that
didn’t have any fruit added (many Lambic varieties have fruit soaked in the beer for many months to impart their flavors in the beer). I chose Gueuze. I know, funny name. (side note: Since I visited Cantillon I’ve tried to use Gueuze while playing Words with Friends to no avail!) Gueuze is a blend of one, two, and three-year old Lambics that DOES go through secondary fermentation in the bottle. A good Gueuze in a good cellar can keep for more than 25 years! This was also sour, but I thought smoother than the Grand Cru and since it was bottle conditioned had a head similar to what ‘modern’ beer would have. Both beers had a nice golden color and the tasting room was full of other tour goers chatting in between ‘bitter beer face’ looks. That made me laugh!
The whole experience, from walking in to taking the tour to tasting the finished products was great. And since I’d recently been told, by two different people, I was wearing one of two or three shirts in all my pictures (because I’m only traveling with a few shirts!), I bought a new Cantillon Brewery t-shirt. It was a great morning in Brussels!
De Halve Maan Brewery
Going back six generations the De Halve Maan Brewery in Brugge, formerly Henri Maes Brewery, has been operated by the same family. After a few incarnations of the company over the last few decades, including a name change to De Halve Maan (The Half Moon), this is the last brewery of what once were hundreds within the Brugge city walls. This, brewery which has been used for generations, is still being in production today and along with their other facility nearby but outside the city (there was no room for expansion) the beer they produce is, in my opinion, phenomenally good.
Located on a busy square in touristy Brugge it’s a much more commercial looking set up than the Cantillon Brewery. It has to be more commercial to survive in this environment. That said,
the price for a tour was inexpensive at 7 Euro (including the beer) and the guided tour, while fast paced and crowded, was interesting (I had a great tour guide) and informational. And by placing myself at the end of the line most of the time, I was able to hang around in some areas to snap a few photos as if I were there alone. Like I said, this brewery has been in operation for well over 100 years and while they’ve upgraded to more efficient, modern equipment in many areas of the operation, the ambiance of generations past remains. More ‘modern’ styles of beer are brewed here, no Lambics, so there would be nothing sour about this day, not even the taste! The complimentary beer received here is not a taster, rather a full pint of Brugse Zot in their signature glass (every beer has its own glass in Europe, and they are all shaped differently). This goldenblond beer is the brainchild of the sixth generation leader of this brewery and was introduced in 2005. To me it was kind of a cross between really good craft brewed Pale Ale and Wheat beer in the States. There was nothing overpowering about the taste or aroma and at the same time I could tell I was enjoying a something special.
Later I would find out people come from all over Europe, and the World, to drink this beer in the exact place I was sitting. But why? Being the only beer still produced in Brugge’s town center, it is said to have a different, better taste at the brewery. Although I didn’t hear if there is any validity to this claim, I would guess it has something to do with the beer served here being at its best and not sent to a bottling facility outside the city. Whether it’s local legend or actual fact, I felt truly lucky to enjoy a truly great beer in this place.
The next day, my last in Brugge, I was out getting a bite to eat and noticed the other style of beer produced by De Halve Maan, Straffe Hendrik (Strong Henry). There are a couple different varieties: Straffe Hendrik Tripel and Straffe Hendrik Quadruple. Since I’ve tried a few in the past I went with the Tripel so I could compare it to others. First off, it was better than other Tripels I’ve tried. A smooth, hoppy taste with a complexity of flavor I’ve rarely encountered. And it was better than the Brugse Zot I tried at the brewery, I wasn’t expecting that. In fact Straffe Hendrik Tripel is the best beer I’ve ever tasted. Again…the BEST BEER I’VE EVER HAD! EVER!! I really wasn’t expecting that! The intense flavors somehow manage to not overpower each other and it’s drinkability remains even though it is a 9% beer. Also, this beer has an awesome history I didn’t know until writing this article. It was developed on demand of the local Mayor in 1981 to be served at the inauguration of the statue of Sint-Arnoldus, the saint of beer brewers. How cool is that?
So knowing I wouldn’t be able to try all the great beers in Belgium I narrowed my scope and tried beers from two local brewers owned by two brewing families in two great cities. The results were interesting, educational, and…well…tasty! I couldn’t have been more pleased with both experiences: the traditional and historic sour taste at Cantillon Brewery (one of the last breweries still doing it the ‘old way’) and the indescribable perfection at De Halve Maan.