Across Northern Europe: Authentic Belgian Beer

Belgium is home to the EU, many very fine restaurants, important art and beautiful architecture. But it is also a tiny country with a giant selection of excellent beer and if you like beer and live in New York (where Belgian beers are fairly scarce and cost close to $10 with tip) you can easily justify a trip to Belgium simply to drink beer.

If I’m being honest I’ll admit to having done that. If I’m being really honest, I’ll admit to having done it twice.

I don’t like to drink alone so I met a friend this weekend for a survey of lambics and trappists. I arrived in Brussels a day before him and decided to sample some tourist attractions. Having already visited the beer museum (and the EU headquarters, thank-you-very-much) I scampered to the Cantillon brewery. The guidebook gave the address of a street just off the map and when I arrived the sign was so small (and so not in English) that I nearly turned around.

When Paul Cantillon started making beer in Anderlecht more than a century ago there were heaps of traditional breweries in Brussels but today there is just the one. Cantillon is fighting the good fight in part by giving tours of its 19th century production behind the subtly marked door at Rue Gheude 56.

I graduated university and have been to several breweries and have a pamphlet here on the process but making beer is still quite a mystery to me. But what became clear on my Cantillon tour is that the beer makers of the world have sold out to new techniques and changing public desires, leaving Cantillon nearly alone in defending the ancient traditions. They do so with the stubbornness of someone selling a product they know almost no one wants but insist they should.

“A true lambic is never sweet,” the guide/brewer told us. “But the masses want sweet. And since there is no protection in Belgium for the traditional methods, you cannot tell by the label if you are drinking a true lambic or they simply call it a lambic because people know the name.”

One principle difference – I’m cheating from the pamphlet here – is the type of fermentation. Cantillon uses “spontaneous fermentation” meaning they simply pour the wort (the base liquid of mashed up grains) into a big, flat pan and it let it cool overnight. Instead of inoculating it with yeast cultures they let the special Belgian air do it naturally. This is apparently how all beer was made until Pasteur got creative in the 1860′s.

It’s at this point – if I’m being honest again – that my thoughts generally turn to the beer tasting and I fail to learn how to make beer. So soon after they poured small glasses of the Gueuze and Rose de Gambrinus. Gueuze is a mix of one, two and three year old lambic; Rose de Gambrinus is a fruit beer with fresh raspberries (not fake syrup!) in two year old lambic.

The Cantillon, as promised, is not a sweet beer. It’s a bit like eating Wheaties when you’ve grown up on Frosted Flakes. But the taste is complex and different and worth a try. I bought two bottles and had them ready when my friend arrived that night.

I explained to him the different types of fermentation and the use of the traditional methods. I told him how all the Chimay and Leffe and Kwak and La Couffe and Rochefford and Palm and Duvel we were about to drink wasn’t how the monks made it 500 years ago. This seemed to weigh much more heavily on me than him.

“I don’t know, I like the Belgian beers,” he said. “However they’re making it seems good to me.”

And with that we went out into Brussels and bought pitas for dinner and drank a giant Chimay Grand Reserve on the church steps of the Grand Place. The bottle was $4.50 at the grocery store outside town instead of $18 at the bar in New York.

I’m in Amsterdam now with another friend and the two bottles of authentic Cantillon beer are chilling in her refrigerator. I can report that they are heavy bottles which I’ve carried diligently through three cities and two countries in hopes of finding someone appreciative of their authenticity. My friend is German and favors Becks Green Lemon beer when Smirnoff Ice isn’t readily available. Wednesday I’m going to Denmark, and I’m afraid the Gueuze and Rose de Gambrinus will be joining me.

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Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland
  3. Iceland Gone Wild
  4. A Trip to the Airport
  5. Why Bother Going to Berlin?
  6. A Perishable Feast
  7. Globians Film Festival
  8. The Elusive Dutch Drivers License
  9. Terror in Berlin

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.