Beer Guide - Notable Breweries

Profiles of breweries of interest and note.

Breweries


Cantillon (Belgium)

With the rise of industrial sized modern breweries owned by multi-national corporations, the equipment used by smaller breweries can look like museum pieces by comparison. The Cantillon brewery have taken the logical step of becoming a fully functioning brewing museum to make the most out of the traditional methods that they still employ. The brewery is based in an old warehouse that was purchased by Paul Cantillon in 1900 to use for blending lambic beers to form gueuze. Many years later his sons acquired second hand brewing equipment and started to undertake the full brewing process themselves. The brewery is today run by the Van Roy family after the last Cantillon brewer passed it onto his son in law. As such it remains a small family business with a lot of tradition.

The brewery focuses on Lambic beers and is the last lambic brewer in Brussels. Lambics are beers made by spontaneous fermentation whereby instead of adding a particular strain of yeast the beer is left in a large open tray in the loft of the brewery to be naturally infected by yeast and bacteria in the air. There is a seasonal element to this to avoid flies and other unwanted foreign elements getting into the beer. The resulting brew is then aged in French oak casks for a number of years. The carbon dioxide escapes through the barrels meaning the beers get flatter as they age and fermenting ends. The classic lambic beer, known as Gueuze, is a blend of 3 year old lambic which has deep and complex tastes with the more lightly flavoured 1 year old lambic being lively enough to allow secondary fermentation in the bottle. Once bottle the beers are allowed to ferment in bottles for a year in the brewery before being sold. Here the gas cannot escape meaning the that gueuze has the traditional carbonation expected of beers.

Due to the nature of the brewing process, and how the beers are made by blending the contents of different barrels, no two batches of the beer will be the same. This concept would terrify the quality controllers at an industrial brewery but for an artisan business like this it is part of the attraction. As such you will often find the year or batch prominently displayed on the beer. Some have described the brewing process as being the beer equivalent of method champaignoise.

Despite this variation the Cantillon Gueuze has a well defined taste with a musty sour acidic flavour married with a citrus hoppiness that has more than a hint of grapefruit to it. The beers are certainly an acquired taste but one that is loved by many beer obsessives. Upon obtaining a bottle you need to be properly equipped as they are both corked and capped, thereby requiring a bottle opener and a corkscrew. Traditional lambic is made with a mix of 35% wheat to 65% barley with dried hops. However Cantillon have recently introduced a beer called Iris which is made with fresh hops and no wheat. Technically is not a lambic even though it is still made by spontaneous fermentation. The head brewer believes it’s their best beer yet, although since the beer is his own creation he is likely to say that!

Lambic beers are often combined with fruit to balance the sour flavours. The most popular choice of fruit is cherries with the resultant beer being known as Kriek. During the summer the brewery recieves 4 tons of cherries which they then pack into barrels in a combination of 150kgs of fruit to 500 litres of lambic that is about 18 months old. The sugar in the fruit provokes a new stage of fermentation with the barrels having pink foam running down the sides. The brewery keeps the flies away thanks to a family of spiders who inhabit the old warehouse building. Once the beer has had the chance to pull in the flavours of the fruit it's bottled up and left to ferment for up to five months. It's best to drink the Kriek whilst it is still fairly young to get the best of the cherry flavours.

There are countless variants of the Cantillon beers. There are raspberry and blueberry versions. There are versions that are mixed with wine grapes. They even produced a special beer when the head brewers football team won the league. The Lou Pepe beers are made by blending barrels of lambic that have reached maturity after two years. The fruit versions also contain higher concentration of cherries or raspberries

As a brewing museum, vistors are welcome to look around. Sometimes you may get a guided tour, other times you may just be given a leaflet and left to find your way around. The brewery is incredibly atomspheric with huge numbers of bottles and barrels stacked up in the old building. At the end of your tour you can try their beers in a small cafe area where large barrels are used for tables. As well as the beers, there is also glassware and a range of preserves for sale. The brewery is a 10 minute walk from Brussels Zuid/Midi station so anyone waiting for a connection can easily pop by for a look. The brewery often looks closed from the outside, just try the door and if it opens then left yourself in.

The main beers

Gueuze: Dry acidic beer with bundles of citrus (grapefruit?) flavour. Has an odd sweetness on the back of the tongue, but not at the front as there is little sugar. Swiftly develops a deep and balanced taste as you drink it.

Kriek Lambic: Zing, zing, zing. A fruity and sharp beer with big hits of cherry and grapefruit (or at least the distinctive Cantillon taste) followed by a deeper interesting after taste. One to enjoy slowly but a very impressive cherry beer. Also tried at 3 years old when the deeper taste had faded - still good but better when drunk young.

Rose de Gambrinus: Sour, musty cherry beer with a sharp citrus note to it. Like the gueuze it has a distinctive full taste that is disconcerting at first but grows into a fuller, balanced flavour as you continue.

Faro: Mahogany brown sweetened lambic. The sugar gives it a malty caramel edge and balances the sourness without becoming too sweet. Good depth and distinctive from the other Cantillon brews though the sourness comes through in the finish.

Lambic: Very dry with a refreshing citrus edge and a sour base with hints of must. Distinctively the base for their Gueuze but without the depth. Pale amber in colour (Dec 08 vintage).

Vignerone: A murky pale amber beer made with mixing 2 year old lambic with white grapes. It has a tarter flavour than the Gueuze whilst retaining a dry sourness in the base. There are hints of white wine in the background with a gentle gassiness. A beer of depth and character but an acquired taste.

Iris: A sharp and bitter beer that proved to be very astringent at the first run, though there is definitely something interesting going on behind the big citrus hit. My tastebuds aren't quite ready for it yet.

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Guinness (Ireland)

If you asked most people to describe a stout then answer you would get would be a description of a pint of Guinness. Black body with a white head, a cold creamy beer with a smooth roasted taste. You might even have a description of how it should be slowly poured in two goes, possibly with a shamrock drawn on top of it. However stout existed long before Guinness and their famous beer was originally sold as a porter.

The beers date back to 1759 Arthur Guinness when took a 9,000-year lease on a disused Dublin brewery at St. James's Gate. The brewery covered four acres and the lease included water rights. Initially a range of ales were produced but by 1800 the brewery was solely producing porter. However it took a while for the breweries classic beers to develop. A hoppier export version called West India Porter, a stout version of an IPA in many ways, was brewed for the first time in 1801, this later became the Foreign Extra Stout. In 1821 the brewery released an Extra Superior Porter. This developed into Extra Stout, now called Original Stout, which is now the most widely available stout in the world. The beers only started using the name Stout in the 1840s, even though use of the term had been around since the 17th Century.

The beer was originally sold in stone bottles to avoid the payment of glass tax and was exported to England before the start of the 19th century. A London brewery was opened in 1936 and closed in 2005. Two other breweries in Ireland were opened in Kilkenny and Dundalk but these are scheduled to be closed with the brewing focussing on the original St James Gate site and a new brewery being constructed near Dublin. Variants of the Foreign Extra Stout are also brewed in Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and Asia with the unfermented wort being shipped from Ireland to be brewed overseas.

Over time the beers have continued to evolve. The most noticeable change being their strength. The beers were originally around 8% abv but they have gradually become weaker with the main beers now being between 4 and 5% abv. More recently there have been changes in terms of how the draught stout is produced. Traditionally alehouses would blend older stout with a more mature flavour with younger, gassier stout, to achieve the finished product. The draught Guinness available today has nitrogen gas injected into it. This has smaller bubbles than carbon dioxide and gives it a less acidic and smoother taste. In the 1980s way of producing versions of draught Guinness in bottles and cans were introduced making use of "widgets".

The brewery started acquiring other businesses, including a number of whisky distilleries and is currently part of the multinational conglomerate Diageo. The breweries have been modernised and production has increased. With the centralisation around the St James Gate site and the streamlining of production there may be greater consistency of output. The view that Guinness tastes better in Dublin may become purely perception rather than any effect of the differences between the different Irish and British breweries. There were rumours that the original brewery site was going to be closed down and sold off but fierce protests, and some changes to planning laws by Dublin council, have ensured that will not happen.

Diageo have also tried to extend the reach of Guinness to those who wouldn't normally drink stout. Hence the introduction of extra cold Guinness in pubs to appeal to those who usually drink ice cold lagers. Served at this temperature the beer has very little flavour - hence little to put people off. There is also Guinness Red which has a lower amount of roasted barley for those who don't like the burnt taste in Guinness.

There are intermittent attempts at innovation. A wheat beer called breo was dropped fairly swiftly, low alcohol versions have been tried and a dark lager is being attempted. A series of 4 brewhouse editions was abandoned after the third version. If there are creative brewers at St James Gate they must be going a little stir crazy, but it's unlikely that any brewery of this size is going to experiment wildly.

It's likely that to all intents and purposes Guinness is now frozen in aspic. The colossal sales through Irish theme pubs across the world mean that it is now aimed at a mass market trying to buy into a cultural myth rather than those seeking out nuances in stout production. That said, Guinness remains for many the only decent drinkable thing behind corporate bars that refuse to stock anything other than multinational beer brands. The quality of the core product remains high and it acts as a great benchmark for microbrewers around the world to tinker with the possibility of what stout can be.

The main beers

Draught Stout: More a landmark for the Irish Tourist Board than a beer these days, trying to assess the taste of Guinness is like trying to comment on whether the Taj Mahal is a good place to live. As with most popular global beer brands Guinness is very smooth and has a gentle taste to it, however it's balanced dry taste is subtle and rewarding rather than bland. The mouthfeel is a great balance of weighty stout with just enough gassiness to lighten it without giving a bubbly carbonated edge. The flavour blends roasted malts with a faint hoppiness mixed into a creaminess with a hint of dry salt in the finish, possibly an aspect of the nitrogen injected into the beer. The canned version has a slight sharpness not present in true draught form. The extra cold version basically just surpresses the flavour of the beer. Almost chewy in substance it remains smooth and flavourful without becoming overwhelming. A legend that can live with it's hype.

Original Stout: Bottled stout that feels slightly lighter than the draught with a gentler finish where the hoppiness comes through more. The roasted barley and carbonation duel on the tongue rather than merging with acidity that is more present than on draught where the injected nitrogen makes the beer smoother. Previously called Extra Stout.

Red Stout: Smoother version of Guinness with the malt being roasted less to give a lighter taste. Easy session fare but basically a neutered version of draught guinness.

Foreign Extra Stout (Ireland): Potent version of the black stuff with a pronouced citrus hop taste floating over the classic roasted barley taste. The finish is bitter and slightly dry and burnt. Smoother than imperial stouts there is little alcoholic edge with a biscuit malty flavour that steadily builds and is slightly warming. There is a gassy tingle on the roof of the mouth that leaves am echo in the finish. There is also a hint of soured milk. Complex, potent but satisfying and not fearsome. Guinness with the volume turned up.

Foreign Extra Stout (Nigeria): Far more bitter and earthy than the regular foreign extra. It brings out the deeper, darker side of guinness with molasses and a bitter alcoholic edge. There is a hint of musty carpets and a general robust maltiness. Very potent with an almost granular oily mouthfeel.

Special Export (Belgium): Dark, exceptionally dry beer with liqourice and chocolate. Very bitter with roasted coffee grounds to the fore. Potent but with a restrained alcoholic edge. Moderately gassy, somewhere between original and draught stout. A mix of regular guinness and a burnt imperial stout which sometimes feels feels like a majestic blend and at other times like it falls between two stools. Could have more depth and complexity for it's strength. It's like someone took all the creamy smoothness out of the draught version to allow you to wallow in the dark bitter base. At 8% it's roughly the strength Guinness was brewed at in 1840. Brewed for Anthony Martin in Belgium. An acquired taste, but an interesting and distinctive one.

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Westvleteren (Belgium)

"We brew beer to live, we do not live to brew beer" was the mantra espoused by one of the monks brewing at the Sint Sixtus monastery in Belgium. This statement was in response to rather extreme supply and demand issue the trappist monastery experienced when their Westvleteren 12 beer was dubbed it the best beer in the world. For many years their beers had only been available directly from the monastery itself and were not meant to be re-sold. The press coverage meant that even making the trip to the remote monastery was not enough of a discouragement and so the had to monastery put in place further restrictions whereby customers had to book in advance for a particular timeslot and were limited in the number of cases of beer they could buy. Despite this, the monastery still ends up selling the beer faster than it can be brewed and it’s scarcity has just enhanced it’s reputation as a heavenly brewery.

The idea of beer brewed by monks is clearly a popular one and many commercial breweries produce “abbey ales” that badge their beers with the name of a monastery. In order to distinguish the commercial beers from those actually brewed by monks the Trappist name was given protected status. Seven breweries have protected trappist status, meaning that the monks are in charge of the brewing and the purpose of the brewery is assisting the order rather than financial profit. Wesvleteren is the second oldest of these seven breweries and the only one to continue brewing during both world wars.

The monastery was established In 1831 by a collection of trappist monks from the French Catsberg. It is located close to the French border in a region that produces hops and is located close to the city of Ypres. The monks started brewing beer a few years after the monastery was established. Initially the brewery focussed on producing a table beer for the monks. Given the monks do not eat meat, and at times have avoided fish as well, the beer was an important source of nutrients for them. A stronger version of the beer called Extra was produced and this is now sold as Wesvleteren 8. An even stronger beer called Abt (now the 12) was introduced in 1940 and the table beer was replaced by the blonde in 1999. The brewery is run by a team of 5 to 10 monks support by a handful of secular workers to assist them. The dark beers are not made with roasted barley but use dark candy sugar in order to get their colour. The lagering and conditioning phases of brewing the beer take up to 14 weeks which contributes to their complexity and quality. The bottles have no labels and can only be identified by the coloured bottle tops.

For nearly 50 years after the end of World War 2 the nearby St Bernadus brewery in Watou was allowed to produce versions of the beer under the St Sixtus name (as opposed to Westvleteren). The deal ended in the 1990s a few years after the monastery opened a new brewery within it’s grounds. The St Bernardus brewery still produces versions of the 8 and 12 which are far easier to get hold of than the beers from the monastery. The beers are broadly similar though most people feel the monastery’s beers are superior. One of the effects of the new brewery at Westvleteren was that the 12 dropped in strength from 12% to 10.2%. Back in the 19th century some of the monks left to found a new monastery which today brews the Chimay range of Trappist beers. These beers are widely available at specialist beer sellers but are completely different from the Wesvleteren beers.

For those who want to sample the beer there are two main ways. Across the road from the monastery is a café and conference centre called In De Vrede (At Peace). This sells the beer for consumption on the premises and sometimes has a few limited number of bottles for sale in it’s gift shop alongside branded glassware and other items related to the monastery. The café also make ice cream that has been flavoured with the beer which is incredibly tasty. The café is fairly large and functional, often holding coach parties who have been dropped off for a beer and some food so don’t go expecting a heavenly atmosphere. Those wanting to acquire more significant quantities of the beer should consult the breweries webpage (www.sintsixtus.be/eng/brouwerij.htm) for details.

The current bulk purchasing arrangements involve ringing at a particular time to reserve the beer. They only take reservations for a single type of the beer at a time and will advertise which beer is currently available. You will then be given a particular timeslot to pick it up. You are likely to be limited to between 1 and 3 crates and will be asked for the registration number of your car. A basic knowledge of French may help when calling them up. The monastery is fairly remote and so make sure you work out your directions before travelling. It’s is about an hours drive from Calais and 40 minutes from Dunkerque for those travelling from England. When you arrive at the set time there is a small gravel drive alongside the monastery and a monk will check the number plate of your car and then load the correct number of crates in. Discounts are given if you are returning old crates or bottles for re-use. Payment is taken after the crates are loaded into your car – anyone attempting to drive off without paying will have to answer to the lord. The monastery itself is not open to the public and the monks value their privacy.

Whilst the beers are difficult to get hold of, the 8 and 12 age well over a number of years. Therefore if you can restrain yourself a visit to the monastery can last you a good length of time. If the idea of a pilgrimage for the purposes of beer seems like too much effort then order yourself the St Bernardus Prior 8 and Abt 12 to get an idea of what all the fuss is about.

The main beers

Blonde: Cloudy blond beer with a wheaty and hoppy taste balanced by a bitter crispness. Gentle and very drinkable.

8: Earthy dark beer with a velvety coffee and liquorice taste balanced by a gentle bitterness. It tastes to it's best when not over chilled. Deeper and more bitter than the sweeter, complex 12, it has the heft of a stout but is smoother and more subtle.

12: Dark bitter trappist ale that is stunningly smooth. Almost closer to a liquor than an ale. A base that is a coffee tasting porter, with a spiced fruit top and a smooth middle. A beer so well balanced that it trips all the tastes receptors on the tongue equally and is absurdly packed with flavour. Deceptively drinkable and very fine indeed. The best beer in the world? There certainly aren't any finer.

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