Sailing on the S.S. Lambic
After the introductions, I took a seat in the galley and watched the barmaids chase down nonpaying customers. Off to starboard, I managed a glimpse of a mangy old mutt sleeping next to his owner, who had clearly overindulged. He reminded me of Disney’s blithering idiot in a rocking chair, hiccupping after too much grog. Next stop, Never Never Land.
I have now attended open-brew day at Cantillon on four occasions, and, like an epic amusement ride welcoming new riders, this scene repeats itself throughout the day. There is always a group of new enthusiasts boarding the ship, setting sail on the sea of lambic with Jean and family calmly navigating them through the waters. Disneyland has nothing on this place. Did I mention they sell beer here?
But in reality, this is but one day in the life of lambic, one of many in which the show must go on. Once the lights come up, the crew will swab the brewhouse decks and prepare provisions for the next journey. Artisanal lambic producers, such as Cantillon, do not set sail by brewing each day. Old vessels and systems need a chance to rest. Cantillon only produces about 20-21 brews per year, solely between November and March. This short brewing season forces the organisms to work together in a concerted effort, with no one organism able to dominate.
All of the beer is made during the winter season and left to slumber in oak barrels for no less than 12 months and up to three years before being released. Lambic production requires multiple years and vintages to achieve the goal of blending a great batch of beer. So much of what makes a lambic blender great is his ability to predict the future, to sample barrels of young beer and know how they will behave in years to come. The best producers can be thought of as lambic whisperers. As Jean Van Roy has told me on numerous occasions, the lambic speaks to you when it’s ready.
A living and breathing creation, lambic is very much a live beer, hellbent on always evolving. This is due to airborne yeast and organisms that refuse to take “no” for an answer. In many ways, the micro-organisms and wild yeasts that populate the air near Brussels (Pediococcus, Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces) are the Pirates of Wort Spoilage. Universally derided by modern brewers, these voracious critters are rarely invited to set sail in breweries. Yet, every fall we can count on the Roy Family taking to the stage and casting these very same Pirates of Wort to spin barley sugars into liquid gold in a very Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me fashion.
Where once I was intimated and nervous to invite these souring organisms into our brewery, we are now on a first-name basis. Patience has become our friend when they come to visit. It’s true that our methods of production have a decidedly less Old School feel to them. Still, the results speak for themselves. We’ve come to understand the best barrel beers take time. Kind of reminds me of Disneyland like that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go speak to Captain Jack Sparrow about his drinking.
Tomme Arthur is director of brewing operations at The Lost Abbey Brewing Co. in San Marcos, CA.