Traveling is a wonderful experience, and the memory of such experiences frequently leave me feeling restless and wallowing in moments of nostalgia. Recently, I’ve been thinking over a trip I made to the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, Belgium in the summer of 2011. Founded in 1900, the brewers at Cantillon produce traditional-style lambic ales, relying upon the process of spontaneous fermentation (exposing the beer to the outside air and the wild yeasts). The last operating brewery within Brussels, Cantillon is keeping the tradition of Belgium lambic ales alive in the midst of the current corporate takeover.
The trip to the brewery was an enlightening moment for me. Those who worked at the brewery, including the Master Brewer (whose name, regrettably, escapes me at the moment), spoke candidly about the state of the beer industry – specifically, the decline of the brewing industry in Belgium, and how the United States was “leading the way” in creative brewing. I remember feeling stunned at hearing both points. In my mind, Belgium produced the finest beers – Belgium was the leader in beer brewing. That trip revealed my naiveté. What I learned instead was that Belgian brewers were fighting a losing war against monster companies like InBev, and breweries across Belgium, to this day, continue to close their doors at a shocking rate. The second point was equally surprising to me. Sure, the craft brewing movement in the United States was well underway, but beer purchases in the US continued (and still continue) to be dominated by the likes of Anheuser-Busch. To the brewers at Cantillon, though, the creativity of those behind craft brewing was a source of hope for the future of the beer industry. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least (and gave me ideas for future research projects, which will have to remain on hold until the dissertation is finished…).
Meeting the brewers, exploring the brewery, and tasting some fine lambic beers while at the Cantillon Brewery was a remarkable experience. I had just completed my first year as a PhD student at the time, and though I wrote my MA thesis on beer brewing in London, this was my first experience visiting a brewery abroad. I can only hope my travels in the future take me once more to Cantillon, and to beautiful Belgium. At the very least, I will forever remain grateful that I had the opportunity to make such a trip in the first place. The taste of the Cantillon gueuze may have faded, but the impression of that experience certainly has not.
Until next time…