The following classic Beer Culture post is one of many which disappeared in the Wormhole Incident™. It is being reposted now because more people should think about beer with a sense of place.
The best thing I heard was when Jean-Pierre Van Roy said “Now we’re going to open the ‘75.”
We were talking about his life and work at Cantillon, the last remaining lambic brewer and geuze blender in the city of Brussels, and Jean-Pierre Van Roy decided that he wanted to open a beer he’d bottled 33 years earlier.
Someone asked “What?” in the way that means “Are you crazy?” Jean-Pierre just nodded and said “It’s time. It needs to be drunk.”
That was the second best thing I heard at Cantillon.
But there was a lot more to hear. Jean-Pierre seemed relieved when I told him he could speak French, and when he asked if I spoke French, too, I said that wasn’t really the point.
“You’re the one who’s talking,” I said. “Me, I write.” (Or rather, “C’est vous qui parlez, monsieur. Moi, j’écris.”)
So Jean-Pierre Van Roy poured a round of lambic and started talking, about beer in Belgium and Cantillon in particular, about how he had taken over the reins from his father-in-law in 1969 on the day after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, and I wrote down everything I could. And over the course of several hours, I heard a lot. A bit of it would go into my assignment, a piece on European beer travel for an airline magazine, but most of it was superfluous, a bounty of information and opinion that had no real destination.
For example, what do you do with a quote like this?
“It’s not because a beer is industrial that makes it bad. I’m not against industrial production. I would rather have a well-made industrial beer than an artisanal beer that tastes bad.”
(You embroider it into a sampler and hang it up on your wall, that’s what you do. You write it down and put it into the New Gospel of Beer. You ponder it and share it as often as you can with your beer-loving friends, hopefully over a glass of something good.)
I found him to be extremely contrarian, but charmingly so. When I said that I had come to Brussels to drink geuze and lambic, the original styles of the region, and said that I wanted to drink a local beer from a local place, not Belgian version of a pilsner, which comes from where I live now, he stopped me.
“Hang on,” he said. “Belgium made some very good pils once. Very good. Excellent beers.”
Take the ‘75. He opened it and said that it smelled right to him. He poured it, careful to keep the sediment in the bottle, then offered a glass. I thought it had a black tea nose and tastes of tannins, citrus blossoms and acacia honey. But before I could say anything, he waved the beer away.
“Myself, I prefer it younger than that,” he said. “It’s lost the freshness.”
Most Cantillon beers are in 75-centiliter wine bottles. He showed how the cork on this one seemed a bit damaged and noted that, over the last 33 years, the bottle had lost 10 centiliters of liquid to evaporation.
We talked about how breweries lose their way, about how things get worse when beers get more popular.
“A brewery is a building,” he said. “If you make a brewery, you start by making a building with a specific volume of production in mind. Let’s say that you make a brewery to produce 25,000 hectoliters per year. But then a beer becomes popular. In order to supply the demand, the owners need a new building, but they don’t want to make a new building. So what do they do? They cut the production time from three months down to a month and a half. And then they’re producing 40,000 hectoliters per year.”
Cantillon’s own survival has been tough sledding. Jean-Pierre said that in 1970, the brewery directly supplied 220 cafés and bars in Brussels alone. Now? Just eight or nine.
In part, he blamed a change in taste toward sweeter beverages. Several brewers mentioned Coca-Cola during my trip; Jean-Pierre recalled the date when he first tasted it. Sour beers like geuze and lambic have a hard time surviving in a candy-flavored world, and the vast demographic changes in Brussels itself have also had an impact. Located not far from the Gare de Midi, Cantillon is in a neighborhood awaiting gentrification, with many empty shopwindows and vacant lots but not many good places to get a beer. And yet Jean-Pierre said that when he took over the brewery, the neighborhood was thriving. Cantillon used to sell 2-3,000 bottles a month, he said, just to the cafés and bars within 800 meters of their door.
Today, he said, 68% percent of their production is exported.
“Without the United States and Japan…,” he started, raising his eyes to the ceiling.
I held the ‘75 up to the light, sniffed it and took another sip. Before I could write down my notes, Jean-Pierre stopped me.
“Beer is not made for judging, nor for looking at,” he said. “It’s made for drinking.”
ADDENDUM OF 5 MARCH 2009: Notice the “Sold Out” signs in the background behind Jean-Pierre? Those were for some of Cantillon’s special beers which were no longer available. Such a sign would be a rare sight in central Europe, as most brewers here make no special beers at all.
In hindsight, I find it incredibly ironic that one of the world’s greatest local beers is surviving on its exports. Ironic, perhaps, but necessary. As the man said, “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”