Brussels, Belgium: Cantillon and the champagne of Brussels

A trip to Brussels wouldn’t be complete without an afternoon spent at the Cantillon brewery. Its proximity to the Eurostar terminal in the Anderlecht municipality of the city is opportune; unlike the Trappist breweries based in monasteries outside of Brussels, Cantillon is central and astonishingly convenient from London.

Less restrictive luggage allowances for the train are ideal for bringing back a few cases from the brewery – or even filling up an empty suitcase to capacity, an admirable feat that we witnessed on our visit.

Tourists flock to Cantillon for lambic beer, a Belgian specialty that relies upon spontaneous fermentation. In contrast to most breweries, where yeast is cultivated and large-scale production seeks consistency, lambic beers are left exposed to the air, attracting the native wild yeasts and bacteria which flourish in the surrounding Zenne valley. What effect does this gathering of wild elements have on the beer? Well, lambic is characterised by both bone-dry and sour notes. It can be like sipping a sharp, dry cider, or it can be much sweeter – but Cantillon is the authority of the lambic style and everything fermented here is flawlessly balanced. They’ve had plenty of time to perfect their technique; the brewery was founded in 1900 and has remained independent to this day, passed down through the Cantillon family line, from father to sons, then sons to son-in-law.

The Cantillon brewery is world away from the gleaming, sterile environments of most modern brewhouses. Some of the original equipment, dating back to the early 20th century, is still in use today and the crushing machines – used to masticate fruit for their kriek – look like barbed medieval torture devices. Entering the brewery, guests are thrown into the thick of palates and busy workers. Tours are offered at 7€ per person, which includes an introduction from a member of staff and a booklet for the self-guided route. At the end of the tour, visitors are able to sample 1 year old gueuze, which is both young and fresh, and one drink of their choice from the bar’s menu.

Some visitors beeline to the bar, but the tour is worth the time, allowing guests to explore the brewing area with its mash tun, then climb a set of stairs to the hop boilers, crushing machine and hot water tank. Another ascent leads to the granary, an expansive attic storage space for malts and hops; in the production of lambic beer, raw Belgian wheat, malted barley and aged hops – which have lost some of their bitter edge – are used; Cantillion use two to three times more hops than the average brewery to achieve a high level of tannin, which is a natural preservative, in their beer.

The most fascinating room held the cooling tun, which assists the spontaneous fermentation so crucial to lambic beers. An imposing rectangular copper vessel sits in a loft above the granary, like a shallow paddling pool. Also known as a cool ship, its purpose is to cool down the wort quickly across a flat surface area. The brewing season here extends from April to October because the ideal wort temperature is between 18 and 20 degrees Celsius, which is generally only achievable during the evenings in the colder months. This temperature range is ideal for the airborne yeasts and bacteria. Following this cooling period, the wort is then transferred to the fermentation vat in the room below.

From here, the wort is stored in barrels. Interestingly, the type of wood used in the casks – which are either oak or chestnut at Cantillon – doesn’t affect the fermentation of lambic beer. The process of aging the beer in wood imparts wine-like flavours to the liquid. After a few days in the barrel, the sugars present in the wort react with wild yeasts, triggering spontaneous fermentation – this results in the creation of a huge amount of carbon dioxide, causing an eruption of foam to bubble out of the bunghole in the barrel; during this reaction, 5 to 10 litres of wort can be lost per 225 or 500 litre barrel.

Following this active stage of fermentation is a slower process. After three to four weeks, the barrels are finally sealed and left to sit for three years. During this time, another 20% of the beer can evaporate inside the cask. Young lambics can be used to blend with other beers, but most brewers will wait at least a year to let the delicate flavours develop. Gueuze is a blend of one, two and three year-old lambic beers; the sugars from the younger beer trigger a second fermentation in the bottle and the older lambic imparts the complex taste profile.

As for kriek, this is a two year old lambic blended with fruit – specifically sour Schaerbeek cherries at Cantillon – where 150kg of fruit are used per 500 litres of beer. Other fruit beers include their Fou’foune, a lambic with the addition of soaked apricots, lending it a gentle sweetness. On our visit, we also indulged in the Zwanze (2012), a lambic with rhubarb, which was exceptionally delicate and refreshing.

The tour of the Cantillon brewery is a half an hour well spent, moving from the brewing area to storage and the bottling line. At the end, visitors are rewarded with a taste of young one year old lambic and another glass of a beer of their choice. From here, the natural tendency is to get comfortable next to the bar, where seats are tables are arranged around a wood-burning stove. As a group of five, we worked through the styles available on the day, taking some recommendations when it came to the rarer (and more expensive) bottles.

The 750ml bottles come wedged in a wicker basket that makes the act of decanting both ceremonious and occasionally awkward. We relished the Kriek and Fou’foune, then eyeballed the more unusual selections, such as the Saint-Lamvinus, a lambic soaked in black Merlot grapes, and the Grand Cru Bruocsella (2007), a three year lambic selected for its superior colour, taste and flavour. We concluded our afternoon on a Lou Pepe Kriek (2013), where secondary fermentation in the bottle is aided by the addition of cane sugar; this process would usually rely upon the reaction when a young lambic is added in the gueuze blend. It was intensely juicy with the flesh of sour cherries, boasting a vibrant ruby red hue and a faint pink head. Its predominantly lick-puckering tartness married with hints of lactose and funk. Not as delicate as the more subtle styles, but its robust flavour profile made it intensely memorable.

Visitors are welcome into Cantillon until 5pm and until then we stayed, sipping and savouring the champagne of Brussels.

Review: The Hiver Experience

Using honey in fermentation isn’t a novel or radical notion. The early Anglo Saxons imbibed alcohol made by fermenting honeycomb and today it’s added to honey beers for flavour. Hiver Beers don’t rely upon honey as an additive to their beer, however– instead, they use raw honey as sugar in the actual brewing process. This imparts a distinct flavour and buttery texture into the composition of the beer. 

Based in Bermondsey and founded in 2013, Hiver focuses on extoling the British tradition of honey beer in the most authentic way possible. Committed to sourcing all ingredients from local suppliers– and this naturally includes the pollinating bees themselves– three different honeys are used in brewing their range. Like beer, honey is best served unpasteurised and characterised by a variegated and idiosyncratic flavour dictated by the flowers local to a hive. Just as varietals of malts and hops can lend specific flavours to a beer, honey from a particular region demonstrates comparable nuanced features.

Instead of offering brewery tours, Hiver have opted to promote their beer in a more hands-on and atypical way: they have partnered with Bee Urban, a community project based in Kennington Park where they sponsor two hives, to host two hour urban bee-keeping experiences. Not only do guests become more acquainted with Hiver’s beers, the role of honey in the brewing process and the company’s ethos during a tutored tasting session, but they will interact with the star insects. Donning a beekeeping suit, they assist the project’s head beekeeper to undertake a full hive inspection.

It might sound daunting, but the whole afternoon is a tranquil and congenial event. Led by Hiver’s founder, Hannah Rhodes, and Bee Urban’s Barnaby Shaw, I experienced it as part a small group of four. Both Hannah and Barnaby demonstrated a depth of knowledge and enthusiasm that quelled any nerves before we ventured out to the garden to ‘meet the ladies’. We were given a brief entomology lesson, were introduced to the tools of the trade and the structure of the hive. We were shown the interior components, including the super frames– where honey is stored– and brood chamber– where the queen lays her eggs. Finally, we were advised to avoid obstructing the entrance of the hive and practised passing a frame from person to person. Sufficiently tutored, we were ready to suit up.

We were escorted to the hives and watched as Barnaby smoked the colony, rendering the bees more docile, before accessing the brood chamber. It’s a remarkably serene experience– we had ample opportunity to discuss the behaviour of the bees and to observe each stage of the bee lifecycle up close. Some frames boasted perfectly symmetrical combs that hosted clusters of eggs, grubby larvae and even new bees breaking their way through a cell cap. After an extensive search, one member of our group spotted the queen bee, marked with a blue dot and perceptibly larger than her counterparts.

The level of activity in the hive is staggering and we were impressed with how unfazed the workers were in spite of their sudden exposure to the sunlight and, more generally, their diligent and myopic nature. Barnaby talked us through the health assessment of the colony and what indicators he was looking for– in particular, he was searching for any signs of swarming or deformities in the larvae or new bees.

After our encounter with the hive, we were fully equipped to appreciate the fruits of the colony’s labour by sampling Hiver’s range. Hannah had set up a spread of nibbles to showcase how the sweetness of the beer harmonises with the salinity of vegetable crisps, the stodginess of a honeyed fruit cake and the intense smokey flavours of spicy sausage and charcuterie. We were invited to taste the Bee Urban and heather honeys, then raw honeycomb from the hive.

The eponymous Honey Beer is a blonde style with a malt profile of organic barley and wheat in addition to UK cascade hops. Three variations of honey, including Bee Urban’s own, English blossom and heather honeys, are used in the fermentation. The result is a bright golden beer with pleasing citrus hop aromas on the nose. Unpasteurised and using lager yeast, the beer is crisp, not overly bitter and the honey– which makes up 20% of the blonde's recipe– lends a viscous texture to the body. On the palate, the honey is tangible and tempers the bitterness introduced by the hops, but it remains a subtle component of the beer. Paired with savoury snacks, the mellow sweetness of the honey was amplified.

The second beer in Hiver’s range is their brown ale, the Honey Ale, which uses raw blossom and heather honeys in fermentation to balance the intense flavour of roasted barley malts. Boasting a burnished copper colour, the beer’s aroma is dark chocolate, espresso and mild earthiness. I didn’t pick up honey on the nose at first, but it was evident on the palate, balanced with sweet malts and some bitterness from the Bramling Cross hops used. This beer is surprisingly light and refreshing, warming up nicely in the glass, causing the aromas and flavours to become increasingly prominent. More so than the Honey Beer, I found it paired well with the salty and sweet foods in equal measures, due to the complexity of the ale.

Both styles were quaffable and categorically dispel the notion that honey beer is cloying or uninteresting. These balanced and accomplished beers are anything but. The distinctive characteristics of each honey were apparent upon tasting: Bee Urban’s honey had softer and more herbaceous notes in contrast to the creamy, pungent and floral profile of the heather honey.

The Hiver Experience was a memorable foray into both urban beekeeping and the brewery’s range. Developing an understanding of how honey is produced and how it can complement the brewing process so harmoniously, I was also inspired by Hannah’s obvious passion for her product and her extensive knowledge of brewing and beer styles. She confidently guided us through a journey from flower to pint and hinted towards exciting future growth in the range for Hiver, including the launch of a special black IPA fermented with Scottish heather in partnership with Laine’s London.

A black IPA with Scottish heather? Yes, it does sound slightly off-kilter, but that’s always been Hiver’s approach to brewing– and it only seems apt that they would turn the brewery tour concept on its head accordingly. It’s a memorable afternoon that leaves you with a newfound appreciation for the bees, the beer and the all-important British honey. Once you’ve handled live bees, the appeal of peering into the belly of a mash tun somewhat pales in comparison.

We paid for our tickets to The Hiver Experience. They can be booked or purchased as a gift here

For more about Hiver Beers, visit their website here.

 

 

The Five Points Brewing Company: the brewery tour

If you’ve ever ordered a pint in East London, you’ve undoubtedly come across The Five Points Brewing Company’s pentagon branding. A brewery with deep roots in Hackney- even taking their moniker from a nearby five way junction- the founders, Edward Mason and Greg Hobbs, both reside in the area. In three and a half years, the brewery’s success has seen it outgrow its Victorian arch underneath the Hackney Downs Overground station. As a consequence, they’ve recently moved staff and distribution to a warehouse located about 20 minutes away by foot on Mare Street. They utilise every iota of the brewery space, including its yard, where three 60 bbl fermenters tower over pallets of barrel kegs.

I was invited to take part in the monthly brewery tour by Doreen Joy Barber, the Five Points’ Community and Marketing Manager, and enthusiastically took up the offer as both a local resident and fan of their beer. Entering the yard at noon on a dreary Saturday, we stepped through the open arch, where we were warmly greeted and encouraged to have a look around. A row of banquet tables were set up in the heart of the brewery and each attendee received a Five Points chalice. In total, we were a group of 23 enthusiastic guests- only four of us had never been on a brewery tour before- and the majority were familiar with the Five Points’ range.

The Pale Ale began flowing as Doreen, Francesca Slattery and Alix Shaw were introduced and their roles explained: Francesca as the Sales Representative with a patent passion for beer and Alix as a self-described Lead Packaging Operative. The team eagerly divulged the specifics of how the brewery supports the local community and how it has gone from strength to strength since brewing its first commercial batch in March 2013.

Doreen outlined their commitment to the area, both locally and through collaboration with other independent breweries; they were the first certified Living Wage brewery in the United Kingdom (thankfully many have followed), all electricity used in the brewing process comes from renewable sources and they curate the seasonal London Brewer’s Market, where small breweries are given the chance to serve alongside more established entities.

Coming back to the beer, the reason that the Pale is the most ubiquitous offering in pubs is because, according to Francesca, it accounts for upwards of 75% of their sales. It was the first beer commercially brewed and is currently one of two beers available in cans, the other being their IPA. And in case you’re interested, the team were resoundingly enthusiastic about the movement towards the more lightweight, portable, safer and discreet vessels for imbibing and hope to focus on more canning in the future.

The popularity of their pale ale isn’t surprising. It’s a juicy, fresh and thirst-quenching beer, using Citra and dry-hopping of Amarillo to deliver glorious citrus aromas and a well-balanced bitterness. Paired with an ABV of 4.4%, this is the ideal afternoon summer beverage. The original core range was rounded off with Hook Island Red, a red rye ale, and their Railway Porter.

Curiously, Five Points didn’t launch their Five Points IPA until late 2014. Doreen explained that this was due to the brewery’s unwavering commitment to the production of consistent and perfected recipes. They didn’t opt to merely imitate a typical American style IPA. Instead, they circumvented an aggressive hop-forward assault on the palate in favour of a rounded, highly palatable beer. This is achieved with tropical notes from Galaxy hops and citrus character from Cascade, followed by a pleasant bitterness to finish. It’s highly quaffable character makes it surprising that it carries an ABV of 7.1%.

The Railway Porter is the brewery’s second biggest seller and Doreen highlighted that its recipe has remained the most unchanged over time. It uses all British malts- seven in total- and East Kent Golding hops. She also crowed that the Railway Porter is the most highly regarded of the Five Points range according to the punters on ratebeer.com, currently standing at 92. Like the London Smoke, used by local vendors Yard Sale Pizza to braise their mushrooms on their Mullered Mushroom pizza, the Railway Porter's rich maltiness marries well with a range of foods.

As we considered each beer in turn, we were provided with approximately half a glass each to swill. Questions were encouraged throughout the two hour tour and Doreen, Francesca and Alix demonstrated exhaustive background knowledge of the company and beer in general. We were whisked around the brewery floor, invited to climb ladders and peer inside a kettle, then to stick our heads inside the mash tun. We became acquainted with the bottling line, a hand-me-down from Beavertown Brewery, which Alix explained could fill up to 2,200 bottles per hour. The canning line can manage up to 3,600 cans per hour and we received an animated demonstration of how the cans slingshot through the machine.

One astute visitor remarked the presence of rows of wooden barrels in the far corner of the brewery. The furtive glances between our guides quickly waned, and a not-so-closely guarded secret was revealed: this was their foray into barrel aging, and their Railway Porter was currently encased inside red wine barrels. Already matured for eight months, this was a test batch to be blended.  This will perhaps appear as a limited batch- or merely kept for the office Christmas party.

In addition to their experimentation with barrel aging, Five Points have launched three seasonal beers this year- this demonstrates their confidence to finally veer from their rock solid core range. While these were not available to sample on the tour, we were directed towards their yard party happening the same day, a new monthly event held on the warehouse premises.

By the end of the afternoon, I had bulldozed through the entire Five Points catalogue, including the Yard Party Pils, the brewery’s inaugural lager, the special edition Ten Points Extra Pale, brewed to mark the Field Day’s tenth anniversary and only available in pubs local to the area, and the Brick Field Brown, a silky-smooth brown ale. The brewery tour was an edifying insight into how another independent London brewery quickly outgrew its confines and made its mark as an institution proffering a seminal range of beers. Lasting two hours, guests tried five beers, gazed inside the metal belly of the mash tun and were regaled with the history and legacy of the Five Points Brewing Company directly from the staff.

The highlight of the tour was the lasting impression that Five Points have their sights firmly set on being more innovative and visible on the market in the coming months; there’s a lot going on in the pipeline with the brewery and with their reputation for never jumping the gun, you know that the future is as bright as their beer.

I was invited into the brewery by The Five Points Brewing Company, but all opinions expressed are my own.

Photographs by @jack_dougherty.