Two brew days at Brasserie Cantillon

Published on January 24, 2018.

I visited the hallowed Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels in early February and late November 2017, to photograph and video two brewing days…and to sample quite a few of the magnificent beers brewed on site, of course. There’s no point in doing this kind of work if you can’t enjoy it!

Brasserie Cantillon, at Rue Gheude 56, in the Anderlecht neighborhood of Brussels. Brussels Midi train station is less than a ten minute walk.

Brasserie Cantillon, at Rue Gheude 56, in the Anderlecht neighborhood of Brussels. The Brussels Midi (south) train station is less than a ten minute walk.

I have included lots of photos in this article, so you can enjoy a very detailed look at what goes on during a brew day. There are photos and videos from both days included in this article, as well as a few from a 2003 brew day, as no two brew days at Cantillon are exactly alike.

The entrance to the Cantillon brewery is through the garage doors in the center of this photo.

The entrance to the Cantillon brewery is through the garage doors in the center of this photo.

While I have not counted, I’m sure I have visited the brewery over 20 times during my 35 trips to Belgium. Even with so many visits, getting to the brewery on a brewing day takes some planning, as Cantillon generally only brews about twice a week, and even then, only during the cold winter months. Brewmaster Jean Van Roy generally starts the new brew season around the beginning of November and takes it through the end of March, depending on the weather. There are usually two open brew days a year, when the public can attend and watch the viewing process. These are typically organized for early November and early March.

NOTE: The next open brew day is March 17, 2018! See here for more details.

Jean Van Roy, Brewmaster, Brasserie Cantillon.

Jean Van Roy, Brewmaster, Brasserie Cantillon.

My visits on 7 February and 28 November 2017 were relatively quiet ones, with just a few other beer journalists and lambic lovers on hand. While Cantillon open its doors at 6:30 am for its public brew days, and starts brewing at 7 am, brewing normally begins around 8 am on other days. Which is good, because every hour of sleep is precious. Especially during a beer trip to Belgium.

The first step in the brewing process is getting the barley and wheat located on the top floor of the brewery into the malt crusher on the floor below.

The first step in the brewing process is getting the barley and wheat located on the top floor of the brewery into the malt crusher on the floor below.

The first step of the brewing process is the crushing of the grains used to make lambic, malted barley and unmalted wheat. Brasserie Cantillon’s lambic recipe uses 65% malted barley, from Maltery Dingemans of Stabroek, near Antwerp, and 35% unmalted (raw) wheat. These grains are stored on the top floor of the brewery. The bags of grain are opened, and the desired quantities are weighed and then poured into a trapdoor hole in the floor which connects to a wooden conveyer leading to the grain crusher (grain mill) below. Once crushed, the grains are fed into the mash tun, another floor below. About 450 kilograms (990 U.S. pounds) of wheat and 850 kg (1870 U.S. pounds) of barley are used in each batch.

Note: as far as floor numbers, while we in the USA often refer to the ground level floor the “first floor,” it is very common in Europe to call the ground level floor “floor 0″ and what we would call the second floor would be called the first floor. I use the USA way of numbering floors in this article.

The grain mill with the two copper boiling kettles to the left.

The grain mill with the two copper boiling kettles to the left.

As Cantillon’s 19th century mash tun has no source of internal heat, hot water must be pumped into it to mash the grains. The water comes from a large tank on the second floor, the same floor as the boiling (brewing) kettles. The mechanical arms inside the mash tun spin around in a circle to agitate and thicken the barley and wheat, and mix these grains with hot water. This releases starches (complex carbohydrates) and proteins contained in the grains. Later in the process, naturally occurring airborne wild yeasts (such as Brettanomyces Bruxellensis and Brettanomyces Lambicus) and bacteria will eat these starches, turning them into alcohol.

Wort, a tea-like substnce that is the base for what will become lambic beer, is produced by this mashing of the grains. Cantillon uses the turbid mash method, as do several other Belgian lambic breweries. This old method produces a wort with a milky, murky appearance, hence the name turbid.

The mash tun at Brasserie Cantillon in action, with hot water being pumped in via a copper pipe on the right.

The mash tun at Brasserie Cantillon in action, with hot water being pumped in via a copper pipe on the right. For more mash tun photos and info, see page 2.

One reason that Cantillon and the other lambic breweries only brew during winter is because the yeasts and bacteria that work so well for producing great lambic beers work best when the overnight low is between about 25 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit (from -4 to +4 degrees Celsius.) These figures are just a range, and the exact ideal temperature is a matter of opinion. “I look for not only how cold it will be, but how windy,” Van Roy remarked during one of my visits this year. “The more wind, the better the inoculation of the wort can be,” he added.

The copper coolship at Brasserie Cantillon filling with hot wort. For more coolship photos and info, see page 5.

The copper coolship (“koelschip” in French and Dutch) at Brasserie Cantillon filling with hot wort. For more coolship photos and info, see page 5.

A second reason for only brewing in winter was explained by Van Roy: “There are more yeasts, and many more bacteria, active during warm nights, and to avoid bacteria development during the fermentation, we have to brew when the yeast activity is more important than the bacteria activity. One of the reasons why bacteria are more prevalent in warm weather is the presence of insects. Insects are an important trigger for bacteria being active, and…there are no insects active in the winter time.”

Lambic brewing is really a matter of having the right yeasts and bacteria to inoculate the wort, not just any yeasts or bacteria.

Additionally, it can also be too cold for lambic brewing. The brettanomyces yeast strains that are desired for producing lambic are not as active below about 25 degrees Fahrenheit. I had one lambic brewer tell me that he has brewed when the overnight low was down to -5 or -6 degrees Celsius (21 to 23 degrees Fahrenheit) and that he dared not brew when colder than that, as little inoculation would take place.

The top floor (attic) of Brasserie Cantillon, where sacks of barley, wheat and hops are stored, and used on brewing days.

The top floor (attic) of Brasserie Cantillon, where sacks of barley, wheat and hops are stored, and used on brewing days.

Another view inside the top floor/attic at Brasserie Cantillon, with sacks of grain on the right.

Another view inside the top floor/attic at Brasserie Cantillon, with sacks of grain on the right.

Cantillon brewmaster Jean Van Roy prepares to pour bags of grain into the malt mill/crusher via a trapdoor hole in the floor of the attic.

Cantillon brewmaster Jean Van Roy prepares to pour bags of grain into the malt mill/crusher via a trapdoor hole in the floor of the attic.

Close up of the trapdoor hole in the floor of Cantillon's attic (top  floor of the brewery.)

Close up of the trapdoor hole in the floor of Cantillon’s attic (top floor of the brewery.)

Jean Van Roy preparing to empty sacks of grain into the trapdoor hole that leads to the malt mill/crusher below.

Jean Van Roy preparing to empty sacks of grain into the trapdoor hole that leads to the malt mill/crusher below.

On the floor below the attic (the second floor of the brewery) the grains are fed into the malt mill/malt crusher via this wooden conveyer. Gravity does the work.

On the floor below the attic (the second floor of the brewery) the grains are fed into the malt mill/malt crusher via this wooden conveyer. Gravity does the work.

The grain mill/crusher at Brasserie Cantillon, which is on the 2nd floor of the brewery and in the same room with the copper boiling kettles.

The grain mill/crusher at Brasserie Cantillon, which is on the 2nd floor of the brewery and in the same room with the copper boiling kettles.

Another shot of the grain mill/crusher in the Cantillon brewhouse.

Another shot of the grain mill/crusher in the Cantillon brewhouse.

Jean Van Roy reaching into the grain mill.

Jean Van Roy reaching into the grain mill.

Some grains from the malt crusher.

Some grains from the malt crusher.

The malt is fed into the mash tun, shown here, from the grain/malt crusher one floor above.

The malt is fed into the mash tun, shown here, from the grain/malt crusher one floor above.

CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE-more about the mashing of the grains, and a taste of wort.

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