Brasserie Cantillon’s Zwanze Day and beers have become well known to many beer lovers around the world, and the event has become so popular that many locations sell tickets to their events, and sell out weeks in advance. You could say it’s a very tough ticket to find at some bars.
But, just what is Zwanze Day? Cantillon Brewmaster Jean Van Roy says: “Zwanze is a sort of Brussels joke, about a person making fun of someone else, but also their self. Made by a sort of sarcastic person, you might say. Zwanze is a well known Brussels humor.”
I have been told that a Zwanze is not only capable of producing a laugh, but also of possibly hurting the feelings of those who might lack a sense of humor. This seems like classic bruxellois humor.
Van Roy continued: “About Zwanze Day: we released the third Zwanze beer in 2010, and then we saw bottles on the black market not long after, at crazy prices. So, we decided to have an actual Zwanze Day where the special beer brewed for the occasion is only available at certain select bars around the world, and where bottles are never sold to go. Zwanze Day is also a celebration of friendship. The first Zwanze Day was in 2011. It’s a way to bring beer lovers around the world together.”
Zwanze Day usually happens on a Saturday late in September every year. For 2021, Zwanze was held at 85 locations in 22 countries around the world.
Each Zwanze beer is different. The first was bottled in 2008, and was a lambic with rhubarb added. I tasted that one on an earlier visit to the brewery, and very much enjoyed it. This beer later evolved into today’s Nath, a tribute to Jean’s wife, Nathalie. The Zwanze beers are lambics, but always with some non-traditional twist-hence the name of the beer. Other versions have included elderberries, such as the 2009 vintage, which became the semi-regular Mamouche in 2010.
Zwanze 2021 was described by Van Roy in detail: “At Cantillon, the Zwanze and the trials are not from yesterday…
Early 50 s, Paul Cantillon had already mixed oranges with Lambic. However, the experience had not been long since the corks of all the bottles had curiously jumped. To avoid being sprayed, workers at the time were speeding up the step as they walked past the bottle cellar. It is for this reason, more humorous than historical, that this story was often told by our grandfather Marcel Cantillon.
70 years later, as a tribute to our ancestors, we reiterated the experience of assembling citrus fruits, mostly oranges, and Lambic. The acidity of beer and fruit, the coldness of citrus, combined with the bitterness of zest, make this Zwanze a very quenching beer. That’s why we named it ‘Parasol’ a name that will remind Belgians of a certain age of the orange drink we drank at the time.”
So, where does one start Zwanze Day in Brussels? At Brasserie Cantillon, of course. Precisely at 10 am. If you can. If you want to buy some bottles to take away, you had better be there early, as there were over 100+ people lined up inside and outside the brewery by 11 am….
I went straight into the upstairs tasting room, and there was no line for that! I met with Cantillon’s regularest regular, Dave Atkins of the U.K., who was already enjoying a delicious Vin de Paille. This lambic is is similar to La Vie est Belge, one of my favorite Cantillon beers. For more info on La vie est Belge, see this article here.
I started with the obvious, 2019 La Vie est Belge. I had tasted the same vintage when it was young in 2019, and it has continued to develop and ripen with age. A fabulous beer, and one of the best Cantillon beers I have ever tasted.
Next, I picked another lambic to taste, this one being Gewurztraminer, which is made with Gewürztraminer grape pomace from Germany. Though I liked the first two lambics a little better, this is still a great beer! Cantillon’s consistently high quality brews are one of the reasons beer lovers adore this brewery.
Next, it was the Dave’s turn to pick out a beer, and he got a great one: a magnum of 2013 Lou Pepe Kriek, bottled in 2015. I had already tasted this beer on the previous Monday, 20 September, during a long research and tasting day at Cantillon. This vintage of Lou Pepe Kriek is just about prefect right now, with an incredible interplay between the intense cherries, lambic funk, and medium tartness. The aroma is pronounced as well. I highly recommend it.
This might seem a a good bit of lambic for just two people to finish in a reasonable amount of time, but it was so good that it went as fast as a 75 cl. Yum. Some people even came by and asked for samples…
Next up, it was my choice, and I decided to revisit the excellent Cuvée des Champions Gueuze. This lambic was made in honor of the beloved football club, Royale Union Saint-Gilloise (USG for short) winning the championship in its First Division B league (officially: Proximus League or 1B Pro League, the second-highest division in the Belgian football league system, one level below the Belgian First Division A.) in March 2021 against neighboring Molenbeek. USG was then promoted back to First Division A (also known as Belgian Pro League or 1A Pro League) play for the first time in 48 years. This is the highest division/play of the Belgian football system. (Yes, we’d call it soccer stateside.)
While this lambic is based on the fabulous Cantillon Cuvée Saint-Gilloise, it is very different, due to the Bramling Cross hops used. In fact, Cuvée de Champions was dry-hopped with the Bramling Cross hops, which gives this lambic a bit of a spicy character. Jean Van Roy remarked on this beer: “For a classic Cuvée Saint-Gilloise, we blend German hops, but this time we opted for English,” explains Jean Van Roy. “It is to pay tribute to Union Saint-Gilloise’s English investor, Tony Bloom, and its President, Alex Muzio.”
This was my third taste of this excellent gueuze. I also visited the brewery on Friday the 17th and Monday the 20th. Next up was a rare treat…sometimes you get lucky, and are at the right place at the right time, such as in August 2018, when Jean broke out a bottle of the predecessor of Lou Pepe Kriek, 1996 Pure Kriek Cantillon. See this article here for more info on that beer.
This time, Jean broke out something even older, a bottle of Gueuze from 1992. This one was brewed for the Delhaize supermarket group. Yes, you used to be able to buy some Cantillon beers in a supermarket! How times have changed. It had aged superbly well. It had a mild to medium funk, mild to medium tartness, and a fine complexity. A great 29 year old gueuze.
The tasting room and brewery had become so busy that Cantillon locked the doors at about 130 or 2 pm. At this point, Dave and I decided it was time to head over to the famous beer bar, Moeder Lambic Fontainas at Place Fontainas 8, to secure a good outside table, where Cantillon would put on a Zwanze show that night. But we decided to first do a bottle shot of the beers savored that day. See photos below.
Dave and I then made the twenty minute walk to Moeder Lambic Fontainas, near the famous Grand Place of Brussels. There was already a sizable crowd at 2:30 pm, but we did find a good table in the heart of the action outside.
Moeder Lambic and owner Jean Hummler have been friends with Jean Van Roy and the Cantillon team for many years, and they enjoy a very close relationship. So, it should be no surprise that the most amazing Zwanze beer list is to be found at both Moeder Lambic Fontainas and Moeder Lambic Original, which is located in Saint-Gilles, at Rue de Savoie 68.
The always innovating Hummler ramped things up a notch this year, offering a sort of mini-Zwanze Day on Friday 24 September, as well as the main event on Saturday 25th, at both of his Moeder Lambic locations. The list of Cantillon beers on draft was extensive, with the smaller Moeder Lambic Original having the following beers:
Lambic d’ Aunis 2020; Cuvee St Gilloise 2016; Mourvedre; Yellow 2017; Kriek Moeder; Raspberry Moeder; and Sea Buckthorn.
Moeder Lambic Fontainas had the following draft list for Zwanze Day:
– Nath 2021
– Lambic 2011
– Fou’Foune 2014
– Fou’Foune 2016
– Fou’Foune 2021
– Lambic Jaune 2018
– Carignan 2017
– Lambic d’Aunis 2017
– Cuvée Saint-Gilloise 2017
– Cuvée Saint-Gilloise 2021
– Camerise 2020
– Aronia 2019
– Iris 2012
– Iris 2016
– Menu Pineau 2018
– Magic Lambic 2020
– Cuvée 10 ans
– Special Gueuze
– Kriek Cuvée Moeder (at the bar inside)
– Framboise Cuvée Moeder (at the bar inside)
– Reine des Prés & Sureau
– Zwanze 2021 (Saturday 9pm)
Moeder Lambic offered a variety of ticket packages, and I purchased the “Ultimate Zwanzer” which included tokens for nine 25 cl pours, including a Zwanze at 9 pm, as well as a 75 cl bottle of 2017 Fou Foune.
The Parasol/beach umbrella theme was very evident. Cantillon’s team of friends put on a sort of “Baywatch” theme, dressed as lifeguards and beachgoers, with a portable pool on the patio of Moeder Lambic. The weather was actually almost summer like, as it was a sunny, 74 degree day in Brussels. The absurdity of it all reminded me: this is what Zwanze is all about.
Zwanze Day 2021 was an absolute blast. This was my first time doing Zwanze Day in Brussels, and it was an amazing experience. It should be on every lambic lover’s bucket list!