The last trip had me situated in the sleepy Dutch town of Heerlen, at the old Kasteel Terworm. Rebuilt several times, this castle is replete with turrets and old growth wooden beams and, of course, a moat. This castle had some local Dutch beers...the hands-down favorite that our group went back to again and again was lovingly coined the 'hamster beer'.
Availability of hotel rooms is tight this time of year as it is a tourist season in the Netherlands, with plenty of horticulturally inclined Europeans seeking out (and finding) visions of the painted fields of Lisse and the Keukenhof.
Due to the ash cloud drifting from Bjork on over to most of northern Europe, we had plenty of time to check out the muscari, daffodils, and loads of other flowers that have been known to spawn a certain bulb-inducedmania, but I had priorities. We checked out from the castle, as they weren't able to put us up for another night, and we first made rental car tracks to Brussels, a mere 125km from Heerlen, to visit Brasserie Cantillon, which is just outside of the center of the city. I had inadvertently assumed that Cantillon would be situated in a quaint little Belgian outpost of a farming town, where the ample benevolent wild microbes flourished for centuries.
Nope. Its in the middle of the city. But...to be fair, it is a city that is virtually engulfed by very close proximity farm after farm after farm. Centuries old agrarian roots are still planted firmly so the flora aloft in the Brussels air is aplenty, with only a likely minor impact from the industrial revolution. From the looks of it, some of the same equipment that was around at the beginning of this revolution was still employed at Cantillon. I was at peace as I set my own hands on the huge gear driven mash/lauter tun, koelschip, and other hand-hammered pipes and machinery.
Jean van Roy invited me and my colleague to a self guided tour, which allowed full access to every last area in the place. Certainly a tour that would induce fainting episodes in OSHA and other american minded food inspectors. So, just the way I like 'em.
Wandering through the time-tested brewery, with all of its rounded, worn edges and hand hammered equipment, hand hewn floors, and...well, pretty much everything, an immediate appreciation pervades. You just get it...a simple innate understanding of just how important what is being crafted here in a family owned, wholly earned pillar in brewing's history.
When I asked Jean van Roy about his perception of american attempts at using spontaneous fermentation, his eyes widened, and rather than expressing concern or looking threatened by oversea mimics, he rattled off his favorite american examples (ie. Russian River, Jolly Pumpkin, etc.) and gave an 'we all rise with the tide' sort of assessment of the growing awareness and appreciation for the beer.
But, romance aside, to be sure, this is still the place that has consistently turned out world class beers that are (close to) perfection in a bottle, and it's a wonderful thing that the world is experiencing a revival in the appreciation of these soulful, artisan beers. This revival ensures Cantillon's continued existence and availability, while at the same time, inspiring others to delve in to the as yet unexplored flora growing in our patches of earth and wafting through the local air, just waiting to ferment something that will, in the coming years, continue to make van Roy's eyes widen.
PS. make sure you don't leave anything of value visible on your seats when you are in a city.
even if it is in the middle of the day.
and there are plenty of friendly Belgian people walking all around.
A broken window on your rental car and a stolen laptop might (almost) ruin your visit to Cantillon.