Friday, January 16, 2009

Cantillon Brewery: Brussels

Brussels - a party city if there ever was one, I'll tell ya! Especially if you like beer (or Absinthe - which I'll tell you about next time). We arrived by train and were able to walk from the station the few blocks to our hotel (we recommend the Aris Grand Place - fabulous location just steps from La Morte Subite, the Grand Place, Delirium Cafe, and most things that tourists want to see. Not expensive, clean, modern, has air conditioning (rare in Europe!), and big elevators (you laugh - but sometimes, Jeff & Deb and I couldn't all fit in an elevator with our luggage! - and my bags are tiny!!!!!!!!). As soon as we got settled, we headed to the south end of town to tour the Cantillon brewery - surely the highlight of any visit to Belgium!!!

On the way, we stopped for a Belgian waffle - they sell them at walk-up stands, and you carry it around in a napkin. Yum! After locating the must-see Mannekin Pis statue, we hiked through the city to the cantillon brewery. Next time, we'll take the train, I think!
The Mannequin Pis is one of Brussels' most celebrated attractions. This little guy is probably no more than two feet tall! Often visiting dignitaries bring little outfits for him, and apparently he wears them occasionally. This particular week, in August, when it was hot, he was naked:

Below is a view of the "new" part of the city from the "old" neighborhood - a couple of blocks from the brewery. Not a good neighborhood to be in after dark, by the way.
Somehow, even though we knew this brewery was in a rough neighborhood, we still can't shake the romanticized notion we had of it being out in the country, surrounded by pastoral scenery. After all, the brewery is very, very old and has been fermenting with whatever yeast is naturally hanging around in the air all these years. Somehow, I didn't picture it with car and truck exhaust!
Because of the need to not disturb the yeast, Cantillon does not use chemicals till do away with pests. This is one of their pest control specialists - my little brother (he wouldn't tell me his name). The place is musty and dusty, and they don't mess around with that too much. So it all adds to the atmosphere!
How does that yeast get into the beer? Through these slats in the side of the building's eaves:
Here's Deb, doing the self-guided tour. It's cool, cuz geeks like us get lots of information on these kind of tours. We like that! You can move through it at your own pace and actually stop and read everything. They give you a nice little booklet which explains what you're looking at. Although most of the brewing equipment is old and made of copper, we did find a few newer, shiny pieces, as you see here.

Don't fall in, Gumballhead!!!!!!!!!!!!! :0

All the beers are barrel-aged for at least three years before bottling. They pick up the wonderful, musty aroma of the place. The aroma just smacks you in the face when you walk into the brewery. Nothing like it - you either love it, or you hate it!

This old bottling machine is no longer in use. But it's cool lookin', huh? I can just imagine how noisy it was to use!
At the end of the tour, of course we sampled a couple of beers: the Kriek (cherry lambic), and a gueuze - a blended lambic. Both were really good. Lambics are naturally fermented beers (the yeast adds a unique sour flavor), produced largely in a small area (actually the Lambic region) roughly ten square miles on the southwest side of the city. Seriously. We bought three bottles while we were here, including one we'd never seen before: Iris -- a dry-hopped lambic. Usually, the lambics tend to only use dried, aged hops for their preservative qualities. They don't really have much flavor left at that stage. Dry hopping is a process of adding hops to the beer after the boil for the purpose of adding hop aroma. We didn't really find anything here that you can't buy in Chicago - although I think it's a lot more expensive in the US.

Here's a cool beer bar and street scene in the old city center, near the Mannequin Pis. We wanted to eat lunch there, but the kitchen was closed. It is fairly common for European restaurants and bars to close their kitchens right after lunch, so we often had to skip the food because we would be traveling when things were open. This can be very frustrating. I recommend packing your own lunch, and then you don't have to go hungry.

Next time, I'll show some more of Brussels and tell you all about my first Absinthe experience!


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