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.

Brussels, Belgium: Moeder Lambic, La Porte Noire & Delirium Village

This is a continuation from last week's feature on some of the highlights of our recent trip to Brussels, found here.

Branching out at Moeder Lambic

Place Fontainas 8, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

Looking for a chic, central spot to sample a rotating selection of drinks from both tiny local breweries and further afield? Then Moeder Lambic Fontainas is your proverbial beer nirvana. This isn't the original Moeder Lambic location, which is in Saint-Gilles, but is more accessible to visitors passing through the city centre. More a sleek taproom than a dusty bar dripping with nostalgia, this is a lively destination that offers something different to entice drinkers on every visit. We designated this as our meeting point with friends who had also travelled from London. Here, we sampled the most experimental beers of our Belgium sojourn.

Inside, the place is dimly lit,  populated with stools against the bar and booths lining both sides of the venue. The drinks list is a fold-out pamphlet bolstered with a list of guest beers, scrawled on several chalkboards suspended from the ceiling. We transitioned from the classics – starting on gueuze or kriek – then moved on to modern hoppy beers including Hop Harvest from De Ranke and a barrel-aged sour beer from Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes (BFM) in Switzerland. The latter was particularly divisive, characterised by bold tartness, intense sweetness and bracing bitter notes. The razor-sharp acidic tones were too dominating on the palate for the majority at our table, who likened it to drinking balsamic vinegar; however, I found the beer oddly balanced, imparting soft notes of vanilla and oak from the barrel.

We were pleased to see Beavertown Brewery and The Kernel Brewery represented at Moeder alongside other International picks, such as Birrificio Lambrate from Italy and Le Trou Du Diable from Quebec, Canada. We didn’t have time to scrutinise the fridges, but were advised that their bottle collection was brimming with rare beers. There was a sufficiently vast selection offered across the 40 taps to keep us busy. In addition to these, there are six handpulls reserved for Lambic beers. Some of the highlights included the Band of Brothers collaboration between Moeder Lambic and Brasserie de la Senne and Witkap Stimulo from Slaghmuylder.

Sadly, our visit was in January, but the outside area of the bar was ideal for drinking al fresco. In the summer months, the stretch of patio will undoubtedly be teeming with relaxed drinkers.

Peeking behind La Porte Noire

Rue des Alexiens 67, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

Of all the drinking establishments visited during our stay, La Porte Noire – which translates to ‘the black door’ - was swarming with the largest crowd of locals. Visitors enter via the eponymous black door and descend a staircase to a cellar bar. We’re used to drinking beneath arches in London, so we were at ease in the dimly lit, claustrophobic and cramped space. Furnished with long wooden banquet tables and makeshift barrels to perch on, the energy in the bar was electric. Music swelled in the air throughout the evening and the composition of drinkers was varied, but most appeared to be university students letting loose on a Friday night. The level of English among the staff wasn’t as accomplished as other venues, implying that not too many tourists amble down the stairs.

The bar itself is small, but equipped with ten taps pouring a selection of beers – we started here, going for some pales and blondes, but found ourselves drawn towards the wall of fridges that hosted a trove of treasures, including gueuze, Trappist beers and some local representations; this is where we worked through a range of The Brussels Beer Project’s beers, as we didn’t have time to visit their brewing site on this whirlwind trip. We had a lot of success with our selections, partially due to a passionate member of staff who directed us towards the most exemplary options. 

We found The Brussels Beer Project's range both affordable and intensely drinkable, including the Grosse Bertha Belgian Hefeweizen, a good rendition of the style with a creamy body, nice citrus and banana notes accompanied by a dash of cloves and a balanced tartness in the finish. The Dark Sister, a black IPA, was just as sessionable, bringing a bouquet of sweet maltiness peppered with hints of dark fruit and married with a clean citrus edge.

This was a intended to be quick stopover that transformed into hours of working through the draught lines and fridges, immersed in the congenial ambiance and the smug satisfaction that we’d uncovered the perfect late night venue: lively, cool and with an expansive – but still manageable – beer offering.

Dizzy in Delirium Village

Impasse de la Fidélité 4, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

It would be remiss to avoid Delirium, which is home to an unwieldy beer selection that surpasses 3,000 options. It’s raucous, popular with tourists and a disorientating maze inside – qualities that might make your lip curl if you think of similar central London venues. We arrived weary from a long day, but were determined to stay for a drink. The bar is actually an assembly of buildings known as Delirium Village, comprising the Delirium Café, Hoppy Loft and the Taphouse.

You might recognise the Delirium moniker from the beer branded with a pink elephant against an opaque white bottle. Their strong Belgian ale, the Delirium Tremens, is popular both in Belgium and internationally. In the Taphouse alone, the beer selection stretched across several boards, a range wide enough to leave us straining to make a decision. There’s a bottle list – more of a catalogue – rumoured to be a hefty tome, but we opted to stick to the taps.

The taproom is littered with antique tin beer signs promoting Belgian beer and a mishmash of seating arrangements; visitors might find themselves sitting inside a train carriage or inside a hollowed out fermenter tank. The environment was less refined Brussels and more a backpacker's haven, seeing throngs spilled out into the street, stumbling over cobblestone roads and screeching to each other between venues.

Despite the shift in the ambiance, it was worth witnessing the sheer magnitude of Delirium and the frenzy unfold around us. And it was only a Thursday night. After a round of drinks, however, we were ready to bid Delirium adieu and move on towards our hotel, where we were lured into a friterie and ordered a cone of fries in shoddy French.

Between the scenes at Delirium and the late-night snack, this was the closest I’ve come to reliving my student days in years. We were thankful for our decision to refuel because our next day was reserved entirely for the main event: Cantillon.


Brussels, Belgium: au Bon Vieux Temps & Poechenellekelder

When a recent Eurostar promotion saw ticket prices to Europe plummet to £19 for a single fare, I couldn't resist the urge to plan a whistle-stop tour of Brussels. Naturally, this would revolve around a visit to the beer mecca, Cantillon. With a trusty beer bible in hand, the excellent Around Brussels in 80 Beers by Joe Stange, we jumped on a train, crossed the English Channel and embarked upon a two night stay in one of Europe's most exciting beer destinations.

Timeless drinking au Bon Vieux Temps

Impasse Saint-Nicolas 4, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

Only a stone’s throw away from our hotel in central Brussels was a curiously ornate arch. It marks the entrance to a narrow alleyway that leads to au Bon Vieux Temps, an unimposing venue, sunken behind St. Nicholas church. Inside, the moniker is appropriate – translating to ‘Good Old Times’ in English – and the hallmarks of a classic antiquated pub are in good order, from heavy mahogany to muted daylight streaming through its windows. We shared the venue with another couple whose presence was known only by disembodied murmurs from a corner of the room. The bartender was a kind woman who spoke broken English and spent the lulls in service transfixed by her mobile phone.

Next to a hulking and disused fireplace, we sat and examined the menu. Classic rock music wafted across the room. Despite this, all seemed eerily still and frozen in time.

On the menu was Westvleteren 12, a Trappist beer hailing from the St. Sixtus Abbey that, in 2014, was crowned the best beer in the world by It’s challenging to source, making it relatively rare – it's only available by appointment in advance in extremely limited quantities. Of the 11 working Trappist breweries in the world, they produce the smallest volume of beer: only 4,000 barrels annually. It’s rumoured that the monastery’s designated ‘beer phone’ gets up to 85,000 calls an hour at peak times during the year.

The Westvleteren 12 didn't come cheap, priced at 15€ for a 330ml bottle. We were asked if we’d prefer the beer from the fridge or at room temperature – we opted for the latter – and our server briefly disappeared into the cellar below the bar, emerging with a bare brown bottle devoid of any label or branding save for the generic ‘Trappist’ lettering emblasoned around its neck.

The beer is a Quadrupel boasting an ABV of 10.2%. With such lofty repute, we were apprehensive to delve in, unsure whether the beer would crumble under its almighty reputation. Thankfully, there was a lot to savour, from its creamy head to the rich aromas of sweet caramel and dried dark fruit. The complexity of the beer had us scrambling to pinpoint each of the nuances we detected, from liquorice, cinnamon, raisins and toffee. Well-rounded, beautifully rich and running silky-smooth over the palate, we agreed that this was a hugely impressive tipple. Whether or not it was the best beer in the world is impossible to categorically say, but it was a fine way to kick off our pilgrimage through Belgium’s diverse and ancient landscape of beer.

And drinking it in au Bon Vieux Temps, cloistered away from the Brussels bustle, felt remarkably apt.

Pleased as punch at Poechenellekelder

Rue du Chêne 5, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

A clumsy mouthful for English speakers, le Poechenellekelder is the perfect refuge for a drink in Brussels. It's plonked down adjacent to the city’s busiest tourist spot – the corner that hosts Manneken Pis, the beloved urinating fountain – but this shouldn't be held against it. Despite the constant flow of weary visitors, the bar draws a crowd of locals with its extensive and well-curated drinks menu. A spectrum of Belgian beer is represented, over 90 styles, including some lambics and gueuze from Cantillon, Mort Subite, Tilquin and Boon breweries. The speed of service varied drastically between our two separate sessions at this bar, but was always charming when it arrived.

The décor is kitschy, but that’s no surprise given the bar’s name refers to Pulcinella, who evolved to become Mr Punch of Punch and Judy fame in England. Littered with antique and occasionally grotesque marionettes suspended from the walls and ceiling, there’s plenty to keep your gaze occupied. The mixed cheese platter is worth a punt to keep your stomach lined as you work through the drinks menu; a plate with sliced farmhouse loaf accompanied by four generous portions of mild and soft cheeses with a tangy marmalade, it's easily shared between two ravenous patrons. Oude Gueuze Mariage Parfait from Boon Brewery was lightly sour with delicate hints of hay, crisp enough to cleanse the palate, cutting through the cheeses that we happily grazed upon.

We also indulged in some Trappist beers: I particularly relished Orval, with its bouquet of evolving flavours that leaped from its branded chalice. It was intensely aromatic with nuances of sweetness balanced with bitterness of the noble hops. The nose is mostly funky yeast esters, but the complexity of this beer makes it a widely venerated drink. I was served my 300ml bottle in two Orval glasses- a large one and a small one - the waiter going to great paints to ensure that the foamy white head remained perfectly in tact as he decanted into both.

I spotted that locals were drinking Brugse Zot Blonde from De Halve Maan brewery, arriving in a vessel akin to a wine glass depicting a grinning jester. I followed suit, finding it very refreshing and a solid representation of the style, a subtle blonde with fruity yeast flavours and hints of bready malts.

The waiters at Poechenellekelde are knowledgeable and happy to make recommendations tailored to your palate or to complement your food. And, like every good continental bar, you get a small dish of salty nibbles with every round. You might find yourself straining to get the attention of the waiters during peak times, but they’ll give you their undivided attention once hailed over.

We delighted in the discovery of both of these cozy venues, especially in advance of the main event, Cantillon. But, as we quickly found, Brussels is heaving with drinking posts that are worth your custom and deserve an extra day or two spent in the city to explore.