As part of our “Field Trip” series, we’re following Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts and her staff as they get up close and personal with some of the best beer in Belgium. Next up: a much-anticipated tour of one of the best breweries in the world.
BRUSSELS — No one got locked in a bathroom, and everyone ended their day with their wallets, passports and luggage.
We arrive bleary eyed and a bit hun gover at Cantillon at what we thought would be an achievable time for us. In fact I was pleasantly surprised that Jean set us up for a 10 a.m. tour. Owner Jean Van Roy clearly understands his visiting customer base much better than we understand ourselves; if he’d asked us to be there any earlier, we would have to come in while still up (and drunk) from the night before. Now, we would have made it, because it is Cantillon, but it wouldn’t have been pretty.
Cantillon is normally a self-guided tour. I’ve been to the brewery twice before and the crowds have increased substantially. Guiding us through the hordes (and I mean hordes), of beer tourists I question Jean on how his crew could possibly get any work done. He flashed a half smile and then gave the answer that I should have expected. As always with Jean, his motivation links back to his past and his desire to connect Cantillon to everyone — not just rich people, not just beer geeks, not just “in the know” folks. Everyone.
It was the Le Musee Bruxellois de la Gueuze that sustained and saved the brewery during the very slim 1970s and ’80s. When other breweries were adding sugar to their beers to survive, Jean’s father hung onto the family business by offering the public a view into the traditional and almost bygone art of lambic brewing. For those of you who haven’t been, the museum IS the brewery. There is no separate space for museum visitors. The museum is the brewery in action. Imagine for a minute trying to get a very physical and taxing job done while hosting 50,000 visitors a year. Yeah, that sounds like Mardi Gras every day to me. Jean and his family feel a strong sense of commitment to the concept that kept his family business alive during those starving decades. To refuse or limit those visitors now that Cantillon is a success would be a betrayal of that service.
I think you must have a very patient nature to be the kind of exceptional lambic brewer that Jean has become. Just like bourbon, the master (distiller or brewer) invests his heart and talent in the science and then has to wait years while Mother Nature does her work. Jean explains what he calls the mystic process to us with a humble shrug as if to say he can only do so much. Just like a child, you give love, the right upbringing and hope for the best. Every brewing detail accomplished by hand, no computers to program and no electronic buttons to push. Just like a child love, patience and attention make the best beer. From a purely selfish perspective, our three hours with Jean were extraordinary. I think the flavors of one particular bottle he poured for us will stay with me a lifetime and the time he spent with us was the kind of gift you cannot buy.