Monday, September 1, 2014

Beers in Brussels

After a busy morning walking around Brussels, we were ready to enjoy the real draw to Belgium, a staggering selection of fantastic beers.

Belgian Flight in Brussels
Belgian Flight

We dropped into a bar recommended by Rick Steves near the center of Brussels and took a look at the impressive selection. The bar atmosphere was amazing, simple wooden tables, no televisions or platters of bar and grill food, just beer and bar snacks. 

We ordered a selection of different Belgian beers to start- a lambic, a kriek, a wheat ale, and a light ale. Lambics are traditionally brewed with wild yeast and bacteria, resulting in a slightly sour taste. Many real beer nuts go crazy for these beers, and they certainly have some interesting characteristics (the beers, not the beer nuts). More on lambics later. Kriek beers are straight sour lambics mixed with fruit juice for some balancing sweetness. Black cherry is a common choice. The citrusy unfiltered what beers that are becoming such a popular summer beer in America have been made here for a long time.

We decided on a straight lambic and a Delirium brand beer for our first round. Delirium is an internationally-exported beer made here in Belgium. In the States, it can fetch $10 or more a bottle. The lambic here wasn't particularly sour and was served slightly warm and flat (rather like a cask ale) in an insulated clay pitcher.

Delirium and Lambic beers in Brussels
Delirium and Lambic
After a round of beers, a little snack was in order. We ordered another round of beers (a dark tripel for Cory this time) with a cold sausage. We saw a lot of these room-temperature sausages being served with mustard and were curious. It was much like a cold (but more flavorful and less slimy) American hot dog, and the mustard was spicy spicy spicy. Perfection!

Cory with Beer and Sausage Brussels Belgium
Cory with Beer and Sausage

After all that beer it was time for... more beer! We had scheduled a visit to the Cantillon brewery that afternoon, and it looked like it was just  beyond our tourist map. We asked at the Tourist Info center and they assured us in brusk and hassled tones that it was right there, impossible to miss.

Well... we missed it. It wasn't on the road going off the map, but slightly off this main drag on an unmarked lane. They didn't mention that at the T.I. Oh, well. We found it and got our tickets for the tour.

Mash Mixer at Cantillon Brewery Brussels, Belgium
Mash Mixer

The Cantillon brand has been here in Brussels since 1900 making traditional sour lambics... and boy are they sour lambics! We learned (even beer geeks can learn new things!) that many commercial lambics are blended to make them cheaper and more palatable to modern beer drinkers. So that's why my lambic at the bar wasn't very sour. I had no idea how sour beers could be, but I would learn soon enough!

Lambic beers ferment with a combination of wild yeast and bacteria- very much like natural sourdough bread. Because they rely on wild atmospheric yeasts/bacteria mixes, these beers get a terroir much like wine of coffee grown in particular regions. The yeast in the attic of the Cantillon brewery will be different than the yeast in Moscow, Buenos Aires, or San Francisco (also famous for wild yeast). 

To capture the wild yeast and bacteria in the air, the beer is cooled after boiling not in sealed chillers, but in large, open copper vats called coolships. The beer sits here, exposed to the air, dust, and everything else that carries the wonderful fermenting microbes.  

Cantillon Coolship
Cantillon Coolship

Once inoculated with fermenters, the beer is fermented for a long time. These wild bugs aren't bred for fast fermentation like commercial beer yeasts. After fermentation, they are aged in the presence of oxygen to round out the flavors.

Aging Barrels
Aging Barrels

Once aged, fresh, unfermented beer is mixed in with the fermented and aged beer as a carbonation primer. This fresh wort/aged beer mix goes into bottles where the same fermenting microbes go to work on the new sugars in the fresh wort to carbonate the bottle. This is very much like my beer bottling process- except that I use cheap sugar instead of freshly-mashed wort.

Cantillon Bottles Brussels
Cantillon Bottles

At the end of the self-guided tour, we were able to try the straight unaged lambic as a baseline, followed by one of two aged beers. The geuze is the standard old beer/fresh beer mixed and carbonated (conditioned) in the bottle. Kriek, as stated before, is aged beer mixed with fresh fruit juice for sweetness and conditioning. We got one of each.

Kriek and Geuze at Cantillon Brewery, Brussels
Kriek and Geuze

Boy were these beers sour! Each sip was a powerful mouth punch. I can understand that this is an acquired taste- but sadly we have yet to acquire it. Clearly this was the good stuff of traditional sour lambic beers, as other visitors were buying cases of 750mL bottles to ship home. We counted it as a unique Belgian beer experience and continued on our way.

Later that night, we had another unique Belgian classic beer served in a unique glass. Kwak is a malty and beautiful dark ale that comes in bottles, but is traditionally served in round-bottomed glasses on a wooden stand. 

According to legend, the wooden glass holder was designed by Mr. Kwak for coach drivers to enjoy his beers on a bumpy horse-drawn carriage without spilling. Whatever the reason, they are still served like this today.

Kwak Beers and Glasses in Brussels, Belgium
Kwak Beers and Glasses

We spent the rest of the evening walking around Brussels and getting ready for our day trip the next day. To Bruges we go!

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