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Friday, 31 August 2012

Brouwerij Cantillon - Brussels, Belgium

Past the grubby, grease-flecked windows of Eastern European takeaways; a carpet of carrier bag shifts gently in the wind; flanks of chain fence keep derelict land from busy hands, opposite an imposing, solid door that stands firm like armour against the outside world.

Through intimidation the armour protects its threshold; no sign welcomes me, no instruction validates my inadequate, hollow knock. Silence answers me like a test. Swallow hard and hope you’re right.

Relief hurries me inside; a crackle of conversation warms the air, people graze about the room like cattle; my insecurity forgotten like those carrier bags. In a corner sit three Japanese teenagers. Organised and upright, they fight to conceal their discomfort. They look upon an open bottle as though about to perform an autopsy; none dare move, none dare pour. Their stand-off is watched by a pair of Scandinavian men from across the room. They wear thick leather boots with heavy soles that surrender shards of dried-out mud to the already dusty floor. Glasses appear as thimbles in their immense hands; their beards hang long and wild, God-like fashion from the catwalk of Mount Olympus.

A troupe of excited Americans make their way toward the machinery at the back of the room. I pause and catch my breath: a lungful of damp, heavy air - flavoured by the growth that persists across the room’s neglected walls. Following them past rows of unlabelled bottles, a sign catches my eye that reads “Cantillon C’est Bon”.

Outside stands the city of Brussels, where man manufactures coffee cups that warn of hot contents and people outlaw straight bananas. Here, here the spider makes its happy home alongside raw ingredients and fermenting beer. Cogs with viscous teeth spin centimetres from my face and boiling liquid erupts onto the floor around my feet. I’m standing inside the belly of an anachronism; a sanctuary from change, where the power of man is secondary to the will of nature.

It’s here that the Van Roy family have been making their unique beer for a century. Soured by the hands of bacteria and time, in old wooden barrels; beer that nobody wanted to drink, but that the brewery refused to let die. Gueuze and lambic with its citric complexity, its dry finish and its sour bite. Kriek and framboise, where the lush, ripe sweetness of local fruit is tempered by lactic acidity. Beers that are the same now as they were decades ago; brewed with the same tools, by the same process. Beers flavoured not by modern hop varieties or imported yeast, but by the indigenous airborne life that has forever made Brussels its home.

I float from room to room as the brewery tour passes me by. A young bloke scribbles endlessly into a scruffy little notepad whilst others take photos of themselves in front of sacks of malt. They see their surroundings in black and white; they listen to this story with the sound on mute. It occurs to me that Cantillon isn’t a brewery where beer is made, it’s a brewery that makes beer. The mash tun and the kettle like arms and legs, marching to a familiar old tune, the brewer like a brain, capable of balancing a hundred variables with a single instruction. But the heart and soul of this brewery is less tangible, it lies in every fibre of every wooden rafter, in every brick, in every tile, and in every single cell that inhabits these four walls. Only these brewers can make Cantillon wort, and only this brewery can make Cantillon beer.

The beer-lover is incomplete without a visit here. When the Van Roys welcome you into their brewery, they introduce you to their oldest family member. A great-grandparent with open arms and secrets innumerable; whose stories of life will leave you enchanted, full, overflowing with a sense of magic and wonder.

You can read more about Cantillon here. It's a short walk from the central train station and easily reachable by Eurostar.

Ageing Beer

What do we know about the ageing of beer?

Born unsure of itself in a spiky body, all knobbly knees and disobedient limbs; angles of rough bitterness and awkward disparity. Discrete sweetness and bitterness, torn apart by an empty mid-palate, kept at bay by angrily-hot alcohol.

A middle-aged calm where there’s nothing to prove, no reason to shout and nobody to impress. Flavours integrated and harmonious, points and spikes weathered blunt to bring equality and balance.

A peak, a fall, an irreversible slide into old age. Ghostly flavours of youth, masked by the wrinkles of sherry, oxidation and dried fruits.

Or so they say.

Then I meet Dorian Gray, the oak-aged double IPA. A beer style full of volatile hop aroma and flavour, eager to be drunk young and in its prime; yet a beer clearly blessed with eternal life for the fact that, at 2 years, it still tastes vibrant and youthful and like it was kissed by the grassy, citrusy lips of dry-hop but yesterday.

Or a bottle of Rosé de Gambrinus, with its fuel tank full of residual sugar, yeast and relentless microbes. Clearly in it for the long haul; brewed for the patient among us with time and dedication enough to build a cellar of vintages. Yet at mere weeks in the bottle, it’s a revelation. Bright, bold, vibrant fruit flavours like none I’ve tasted in a beer before; backed by bright, assertive sourness that makes improvement with time seem impossible.

Beer that breaks the rules.

Bottles of Brewdog Tokyo* and Rogue XS Stout. Juggernauts, powerhouses both. Beers with enough alcohol content to fend off the years like David Beckham. Yet at 18 months, the bottles I encounter taste tired and burnt-out, already well past their best, like they’d given all they could and were heading to the 27 club.

Beers that break the rules.

What do we know about ageing beer? The consensus says that if it’s bottle-conditioned and strong, then it’s fit for the cellar. But, whilst that might be true a lot of the time, there are clearly exceptions to the rules. Beer will change with time, whether or not that’s a change for the best, well that’s something I’ll be thinking about more closely in future.

What's your approach to a beer cellar? Drink it all now, or save some for later?

Pictures from here and here.