Brasserie Cantillon’s Zwanze Day described, and why you should care

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The majority of “general” beer drinkers - nay even most enthusiastic independent/craft beer drinkers – may have no idea what or where Cantillon is. There is a small, but growing, group who knows of Cantillon, and may even have some idea about the magnanimous Jean Van Roy. Some will have heard stories of his family’s small, very old, lambic brewery in a rough neighborhood in Brussels, far away if not in distance then in culture, from the grandiosity and awe of the Grand Place. Even in Brussels, the home of Jean and Cantillon, most taxi drivers still have no idea how to find this magical place.

But for those lucky few who have had the pleasure of visiting, you know. You know the power and beauty of this brewery and these people. You have had the rarified and lovely experience of walking through the doors – and instantly, viscerally understanding the definition of the word “terroir”– where the wine (or - in this case - beer) is inextricably linked to the actual place where the beverage was created, through its distinct aromas and flavors.  When you walk in to Cantillon, if you have ever enjoyed a glass of the beer made in this brewery, you know you are there. There is simply no mistaking it, and it is exceptional.

And then there are the people. Jean and his sister Julie are still there almost every day, and besides their actual jobs (brewing, aging, blending for Jean and business ops for Julie), they are busy speaking to visitors, pouring glasses from their tasting bar, selling and boxing up bottles by hand for guests to take away (on one visit, Jean grabbed an as-yet unlabeled bottle, and proceeded to label it on the fly for someone). He is the kind of guy that will carry your boxes of beer to your rental car in the snow, to be sure you (and the beer) make it safely. And the legacy continues: Jean’s son Florian is now in his apprenticeship here.

Jean has humbly shared stories of his family’s brewery struggling in years past, but he had nonetheless adhered to their century-long traditions, and has tenaciously maintained their brewing and blending techniques. He has spoken of this “new” sour beer renaissance, and how the demand for his beers has grown to a fever pitch. Even in the face of such demand, he stays staunchly, steadfastly certain in the beer he and his family have been making for a very, very long time.  He laughs and shakes his head at the raucous beer fan, who crassly orders him via social media to “just make more beer!” in an effort to satiate demand. If these folks had even once been there, or had an honest appreciation for their timeless, classic techniques, they would know this is not as simple or as easy it might sound (recently they have, however, after more than a century in operation, acquired some more maturation space, but the growth in production will take years, as the beer still must age appropriately before blending).

Remember that terroir? If this brewery moves, you see, the beer will change. This is because much of the awesome Cantillon experience is related to the traditional “cool ship” technique of helping the wort get ready for fermentation– this is where the hot wort (pre-fermented beer) is pumped into a shallow, copper bath, a knee-deep swimming pool of sorts, and allowed to cool there gradually over night. As the steam rises from the wort, it engages the lumber, the roofing materials, everything in the building, as well as the outside air of this neighborhood in Brussels, initiating what is known as spontaneous fermentation. All the native organisms that can aid in fermentation (or that will contribute to the beer’s characteristics) are given an opportunity to inoculate the now-cool liquid, and they will do the hard work of converting sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This “wild” fermentation by both bacteria and yeast creates unusual and incredible flavor and aroma profiles – each one has some small piece of the brewery Cantillon within it. The beer is eventually placed into barrels where fermentation continues, gradually, and it is aged, and will later be blended, barrel-by-barrel, to achieve the precise flavor and aroma profiles that Jean is seeking. It is this exact process in this exact place that defines Cantillon, and thereby Jean and his family.

Even still, there is room to play – and this is where the Zwanze beer (and resulting celebration) comes in. This is so much more than just another beer event. In short, Zwanze Day is a celebration of friendship, in the context of this rare, carefully brewed, aged, and blended, beer.  Each year, Jean formulates a unique beer and creates just enough for the chosen, curated Zwanze outlets all over the world, in an effort to bring people together, to celebrate friendship.  We're sure there aren't enough occasions these days to stop, to make a toast, to take a day to celebrate beer and friendship - and the history and beauty of beer. Zwanze Day is one of the best days of the year for us.

We continue to be humbled and inspired by Jean, his family and that of Cantillon, and the history and legacy they champion; we are so grateful for the invitation extended to us to participate in Zwanze Day. We want nothing more than to honor his objective - a big part of that is conveying the importance and our delight in these essential roots and long standing traditions of beer, in Belgium and beyond. It is our  hope to ensure they are understood and genuinely valued. In the current craft beer climate, both locally and globally, it feels like there is a diminishing camaraderie between young, innovative brewers and the more experienced, established ones. It seems there is less appreciation for one another, and particularly for the folks that maintain excellence and stay true, for over 100 years, even when it is difficult or less-than-fashionable to do so. Cantillon is a terrific example of this.

We hope you’ll raise a glass on Saturday - whether you’ll be with us at the brewery or not - in honor of Jean, his family, and Cantillon, and also to finding a way to embrace and celebrate the historical foundation of beer, as much as we look forward to its future.