Brasserie Cantillon of Brussels continues to be the world’s most beloved lambic brewery, and for good reason. Brewer Jean Van Roy has been producing an amazing and growing array of lambic beers for quite a few years, many of which are aged with wine and/or matured in former wine barrels. The pace of the releases of new brews seems to have stepped up in the last several years, so there is no telling how many projects Cantillon currently has in the works.
Cantillon only produces about 2,700 hectoliters of beer per year, which would be a drop in the bucket for most large breweries, and would be a fairly low number even for a small brewpub stateside. It is the high quality and extraordinary character of most of the Cantillon beers that leads to the incredible demand for these brews.
Cantillon organizes a few events, such as the twice a year open brew days, and the yearly Zwanze Day. I wrote about the fun, farcical, and lambic filled Zwanze Day 2021 in this previous article here.
Cantillon’s most anticipated event, and the toughest one to score a ticket for, is the biennial Quintessence, their beer and food pairing event. I attended in 2008, 2016, and 2022, and each event was a very memorable experience.
The Quintessence was not held in 2020, due the covid-19 pandemic. The event was first rescheduled for 2021, and then had to be pushed back again until 2022. I was scheduled to attend in 2020, and can say the long wait was worth it!
Cantillon goes all out for Quintessence, usually featuring some rare vintage beers, and more recent and interesting small batch lambic collaborations, along with some of Cantillon’s flagship brews.
For the event, held on Monday, April 18, 2022, attendees were given wrist bands of different colors, and were allowed to stay for about 3 hours before it was time to depart. The Cantillon team knew when you entered the event due to your wrist band color. The purpose of this was to reduce the number of people in the building, and to keep the space manageable. This method was first implemented for the 2018 event. For example, I had a noon entry time, so I had to depart at about 3 pm.
Each pouring station was numbered, with a different beer and food pairing.
Let’s have a look at this fantastic event, stand by stand. Stand 1 featured a five year old Cantillon lambic, which was a great example of how some lambics can age for a long time without becoming too sour. Aging a lambic past 3 years can a bit like rolling the dice, because the longer a lambic is in a barrel, the more of a chance of it becoming too acidic. But four and five year old lambics can age beautifully, and this one did. It was paired with a cheese made with Cantillon Gueuze, and was the perfect start to the tasting.
Next up at Stand 2 was a rare one: an early batch of La Vie este Belge, vintage 2014. This is one of my favorite Cantillon beers, and I wrote in detail about the background of La Vie este Belge, and the superb 2019 version, in this previous article here.
Here is a short background about one of Cantillon’s most coveted beers: the brewery has produced a number of beers since 2014 using freshly-emptied Vin Jaune wine barrels from France. To understand why this is significant, you should first know about the Vin Jaune wine itself. Vin Jaune, which is often referred to as “yellow wine,” is produced in the Jura region of eastern France, near the border with Switzerland. Vin Jaune is a special type of white wine that is made by filling 228 liter barrels (about 60 US gallons) with a wine made with late harvest Savagnin grapes. As the barrels are not filled completely-most producers leave about 8 to 10 liters of air space, or “ullage” in the barrels-evaporation occurs, and a film that is locally referred to as the “voile” is formed after 2 to 3 years in the barrel. The “voile”, or veil, is similar to the “flor” that is created during the production of Sherry.
La Vie est Belge is, as its bottle label says, a collaboration between winemaker Stéphane Tissot of Domaine André et Mireille Tissot, 39600 Montigny-les-Arsures, France, and Brasserie Cantillon of Brussels. Stéphane Tissot and his wife Bénédicte Tissot run the family business. The estate is spread over about 35 hectares (about 86.5 acres of land) so it is indeed a small producer of natural wines, and one of the most highly regarded in the Jura region. While there are several AOC in the Jura region, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot is under the appellation d’origine contrôlée of Arbois. This is why the beer’s front label shows a barrel in the lower left corner that says “Arbois” and then a slightly wavy line upwards to a bottle labeled “Brussels.”
This was only the second time I had tasted the 2014 vintage. It was mildly tart, with a medium funk, and fine wine character that reminded me of the incredible 2016 and 2019 batches. This batch was quite scarce, with only 600 bottles being produced. Later batches have generally been about 1,000 bottles.
This delectable lambic was paired with Comté, a cheese made from unpasteurized cow’s milk in a region of eastern France, bordering Switzerland. The pairing is not surprising, and very well played on Cantillon’s part, because the Vin Jaune wine that plays such a huge part in creating La Vie est Belge is from the same region of France.
Stand 3 was Lou Pepe Kriek 2014, paired with dark chocolate pralines from Laurent Gerbaud, one of Belgium’s premier chocolatiers. What a fantastic pairing this was! As a dark chocoholic and traditional, unsweetened kriek lover, it blew me away. This vintage of Lou Pepe Kriek is really stellar, with an intense fruit character, medium acidity, medium funkiness, and an aromatic nose that was very pleasing. The sweetness and richness of the dark chocolate contrasted perfectly with the fruit and funk of the kriek.
Stand 4 featured one of the two guest breweries from the U.S.A.: Allagash Brewing Company from Portland, Maine. Owner Rob Tod was on hand with some of his crew, pouring Curieux, Resurgam, Pomme, and Honey Berry Tumble. This was a popular stand, as many beer lover’s from outside the U.S. had their first tastes of American versions of spontaneously fermented, and then oak aged beers.
Stand 5 featured Cantillon Manzanilla Lambic and Manzanilla wine. The Manzanilla Lambic was a collaboration with Bodega La Callejuela, a winery founded in 1980, that produces Sherry, Amontillado, and other wines in Spain.
About the collaboration, Jean Van Roy remarked: “Pepe and Paco Blanco, the two brothers who are owners of Bodega Callejuela, sent me a freshly emptied Manzanilla barrel in April 2020. We filled the barrel with a two year old lambic, and let it age for 17 months, and the beer was bottled on the third of September 2021.”
I really enjoyed this lambic, and feel it will probably become even more mature with some age on it.
Just so sweeten things up a bit, the brothers Blanco also brought bottles of Manzanilla Orígen Callejuela Blanquito for the event, the same dry and delicious sherry that aged in the emptied cask sent to Cantillon. This is a great wine, with 15% abv. Who says you can’t drink wine at a lambic beer fest? Not Cantillon. I felt this was another clever pairing: attendees could taste the sherry that was in the Manzanilla cask before it was emptied, and also the lambic that resulted from aging in the cask.
Stand 6 featured another interesting new lambic/wine collaboration, Tarlantillon, and it was one of the exceptional brews on that fantastic Monday. Tarlantillon is a lambic/champagne collaboration beer from Brasserie Cantillon and Famille Champagne Tarlant of Epernay, France.
Brewer Jean Van Roy described the beer to me: “Tarlantillon is a blend of 75% two and three year old Cantillon Lambics, with 25% champagne wine “non dosé” (without any sugar added.) The champagne has a mix of Chardonnay, Chardonnay Muscaté, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Noir grapes.”
Jean Van Roy collaborated with sister and brother team of Mélanie Tarlant and Benoît Tarlant of Champagne Tarlant to create this very special brew, which is much more akin to wine than beer.
Tarlantillon was paired with a 2020 vintage of Parmigiano, a delicious hard, dry Italian cheese made from skimmed, or partially skimmed, cow’s milk.
Champagne Tarlant has a long history. The family-run business has been producing wines in the Marne Valley since 1687, and their first estate bottled champagne was produced in 1928. Benoît and Mélanie Tarlant are the twelfth consecutive generation working the family lands, and elaborating coteaux champenois, and are now the fifth generation to produce champagne at their estate in Oeuilly, to the west of Epernay along the Marne river.
About Tarlantillon, Mélanie had this to say: “I find the style of Oeuilly terroir with the straightness that comes from the chalk and limestone subsoils and the citrus side accentuated, thanks to the great freshness of the river in the Tarlantillon. It’s really interesting to explore my vineyards through the lens of Jean’s brewing.”
Stand 7 featured by far the oldest lambic at Quintessence: 1994 Saint Lamvinus, right from a cellar in France. Jean Van Roy says: “The 1994 Saint-Lamvinus was a mix of mostly Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes, and was bottled on 28 November 1994. It was found in the cellar of La Tour du Roy.”
There is quite some history behind this vintage lambic. This commentary was posted on Brasserie Cantillon’s Facebook page by Jean Van Roy in February 2020: “It’s been about 20 years now that we’ve been making the Saint-Lamvinus, a blend of lambics with Merlot grapes. The first blends were done in Bordeaux in the 90’s – the Lambic was sent from Brussels to Saint-Emilion, and then blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc from the famous Château Belair.
In 1994, the vinter, Pascal Delbeck, decided to try a blend using grapes frozen after the harvest. The grapes were thawed and pressed in early 1995, and the must was then blended with our Lambic and then transferred into barrels. The beer was bottled that summer, at the Tour du Roy in the presence of Philippe Debesse, the owner, and Pascal Debeck.
Jean-Pierre (Van Roy) was unable to be present for the bottling, so the batch was cellared to await its eventual return to Brussels…
Last year, a vinter friend of mine told me a seemingly impossible story… that during a conversation with Philippe Debesse, the topic of Cantillon came up, and that’s when Philipppe suddenly remembered that he still had around 500 bottles of St. Lamvinus aging in his immense cellar. Pascal and Jean-Pierre had also forgotten the existence of this little treasure trove, so the bottles had been left to age without the slightest disturbance in the deepest reaches of the cellar.
We recently had the opportunity to taste this precious brew, steadfastly conserved in the most exceptional conditions for the last 25 years – a cellar temperature of 12°C (note: about 54 degrees Fahrenheit) and at steady 90% humidity. The result? The beer is sublime. This forgotten edition of St. Lamvinus will be featured at our upcoming Quintessence, May 1st, and during other special events in the future.”
The Quintessence scheduled for May 1, 2020, never happened, of course, so this brew was served at the 2022 event. It was indeed sublime, as Jean wrote above, and a real treat. 120 bottles were brought from the cellar of Château Bel-Air in Lussac, France, to Cantillon, and new labels were added to these bottles.
The food pairing for the ’94 Saint Lamvinus was Salaminus salami from Amedeo Villa. A couple of Jean Van Roy’s Italian friends, Stefano Lorenzetti and Matteo Soccini, were present to serve this gourmet salami to eager event attendees.
Stand 8 featured the second guest U.S. brewery, Russian River Brewing Company. Russian River is one of the premier breweries stateside, and, as with Rob Tod of Allagash, owners Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo have been long time friends of Jean Van Roy and Brasserie Cantillon. This was the second time that Allagash and Russian River were invited to be guest breweries at Quintessence. The first was in 2014, when the three breweries teamed up to produce Friendship Blend, known in French as Cantillon Assemblage de l’Amitié. More on the 2022 vintage below.
Russian River brought their Pliny the Elder, Pomace Beer, Peach Beer, and Beatification to Quintessence 2022. I really enjoyed a glass of Pliny the Elder, as I find West Coast IPA’s to be a great palate cleanser after sampling quite a few lambic and sour beers. The Pomace beer was also very good, as were the Peach Beer, and Beatification.
Stand 9 featured a Cantillon Gueuze from 2011 blended with 2, 3, and 4 year old lambics. This is significant, as most Cantillon Gueuze blends contain 1, 2, and 3 year old lambics. The 2-3-4 year old version had more complexity, due to the more mature, older lambics, and eleven years of aging in their Bomb Shelter Beer Cellar. This Gueuze was paired with Herve, a soft Belgian cheese with a washed rind. Herve is produced from either raw or pasteurized cow’s milk.
The Bomb Shelter Beer Cellar is located beneath a park in Brussels, which I wrote about in this previous article in USA Today, and also in this previous article on this website. Note that the vintage served at Quintessence 2022 was the same 2011 vintage pictured in the photo below, from 2014.
The tenth and final stand at Quintessence 2022 was Wild Friendship Blend, bottled on December 2, 2019. This was a collaboration beer between Russian River Brewing, Brasserie Cantillon, and Allagash Brewing. About this beer, Jean Van Roy had this to say: “Rob from Allagash and Vinnie from Russian River sent me about 250 liters each of Coolship (Allagash) and Sonambic (Russian River) which were both two year old beers. After tasting their beers, I chose also a two year old Cantillon Lambic for the blend. 920 bottles in the 75 cl size were filled with this blend.”
The 2019 Wild Friendship Blend is a very good one, and was a fitting way to end such a great few hours of sampling incredible beverages. I think it has very solid aging potential. It only had about 16 months of maturation in the bottle when served at Quintessence, so it is still a fairly young brew. If you are visiting Cantillon and see it on the drink in board in the tasting room, I highly recommend it!
As a bonus for attending Quintessence, festival-goers were allowed to purchase one bottle per person of Cantillon Drogone and Scarabée, two small batch lambics that rarely leave the brewery, as well as up to three bottles of St. Lamvinus. Some of the other Cantillon flagship beers were available to go as well, as was glassware, shirts, and other Cantillon merchandise.
Cantillon’s Quintessence 2022 was yet another very memorable lambic and food pairing event, featuring a plethora of fantastic beverages and delicious tapas sized gourmet food. Quintessence should be on every lambic beer lover’s bucket list. At the top.
There were 750 attendees at Quintessence 2022. Jean Van Roy told me recently: “The date for the 2024 Quintessence will normally be May 1st, but that is not certain, and could change. Also, we have not made a decision yet about who we will invite as the guest breweries for the next edition.”
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