What the world drinks as beer is not even close to what evolved in Belgium as a form of the same beverage. Belgium took beer to heights of complexity, which many wines cant achieve. A beer in this little country is so refined a taste that even wine seems secondary and inconspicuous in its near absence. Sure, you can order a bottle of some French or Aussie but why really bother
So, I was at Cantillon, a one-of-a-kind brewery, not just in Belgium but also in the world. Cantillon has helped keep a tradition alive that other breweries have forgotten: spontaneous fermentation. Unlike the beer industry which relies on commercial yeast to brew its wort (the base for making beer), the wort here is allowed to naturally cool in a large copper tun. Overnight, as it cools, the natural yeast in the air of the brewery settles on the surface and starts the natural fermentation process. This is tricky business because the wort has to cool enough and the yeast, being natural, may take time to settle and start the reaction. This also means that if they were to shift the venue to some other place far off, the yeast they find there could be different and produce not an entirely similar brew. Thus, this limits their production capacity as also, to an extent, geography. They make no more than 1,70,000 litres of beer a year and considering that Belgium alone drinks almost 74 litres of beer per capita per annum, it doesnt leave a lot for the rest of us.
Luckily, there are many good beers in Belgium; so, beer lovers like us need not lose hope yet. Upon my visit, the owner showed us around, tasting a good few batches and styles with ushe even showed us one which was three years old, flat with no added gas, and yet sour enough to feel fresh and pricklyand constantly insisting that his beer wasnt wine and we shouldnt confuse them so. Given his barrel cellar, his cork closures, his talk of secondary flavours and benefits of ageing, it was only getting tougher not to!
This style of beer is called a Lambic. It almost died in the middle, when tastes were changing and the fashion of sour strong drinks died down as people took to sweeter, softer styles. So, they converted their brewery into a museum which helped bring in people and that fuelled a demand for their product. This was a bit tough to manage, as the museum was a working brewery and what visitors got was not a mere display but actually a first-hand look at the beer being made.
Now, the US of A has got whiff of it and is doing its bit to promote the style. We all know how good the Americans are at making something popular even when it isnt good. Now, when they have something of actual value, it is a phenomenon waiting to happen.
Meanwhile, at Cantillon, the father and son have shown us quite an array, I purchased my souvenir T-shirt and poster, and even a few bottles to drink back at home and re-live the joys of drinking.
If you have never tried or heard of this beer, then take it down as a must-try. For one, it is cheaper than any wine that you may try with even half the calibre of this fine beverage.
The writer is a sommelier