Where to worship the lambic nectar

Carlton Reid makes a pilgrimage to Brussels to sample the local beers and pay homage to the breweries
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The Independent Travel
YOU would think a city that prided itself on a statue of a little boy peeing would be well served with WCs. Far from it. Brussels may be the beer capital of the world - pilgrims are attracted by 400 local brews - but when you need a leak you've got a search on your hands.

But perhaps I'm giving the wrong impression. A beer pilgrimage to Brussels isn't a rowdy pub crawl. You don't guzzle Belgian beers, not the craft ones anyway. The "artisanal" beers, as they are known by pilgrims, should be treated like fine wines. Michael Jackson, the Independent on Sunday's beer correspondent, says a Belgian ale is akin to a Pinot noir; a Trappist ale is much like a bottle-aged port; a wheat beer is northern Europe's version of champagne; and a framboise, or raspberry beer, is the equivalent of Blush Zinfandel.

For lovers of Fino sherry, Jackson recommends a lambic. This is the kind of rustic beer which would have been supped by the rosy-cheeked peasants painted by Bruegel. It's sharp, dry and tarty, unlike any beer you have ever tasted. Come to it with no preconceptions and it's a startling drink, complex and rounded, not totally unlike a mix between vinegar and scrumpy.

It's served in wine glasses at the Cantillon brewery in Brussels. This family- run firm has been going for 98 years and is proud of its strictly traditional methods and antique brewing equipment. Being a five minute walk from the Gare du Midi, the Eurostar terminus, it's the beer pilgrim's first port of call.

"Forty per cent of our sales are to tourists," says Jean-Pierre Van Roy, the owner of Cantillon, and head brewer. "Most Belgians don't appreciate good beer. The real connoisseurs of beer are from England and America."

Of the 25,000 visitors who pay their respects at Cantillon each year, nearly 8000 are British. "You can carry a lot of beer on the train," promises Van Roy, "but a lot of English people come by car. They stock up for the year."

Based in an old warehouse in Anderlecht, a run-down suburb of Brussels, the Cantillon brewery isn't in the Stella Artois league: it brews just 700,000 litres a year and provides full-time employment for just three people: Van Roy, his son and his son-in-law. It does, however, have a worldwide reputation. Cantillon beer features on the cover of Michael Jackson's Beer Companion - the beer bible - and world statesmen are devotees too.

In a cracked, glass frame next to Van Roy's office is a 1996 letter from George Shultz, the then American secretary of state, thanking Van Roy for showing him around the brewery.

Today there's no need for a guide: you pick up an English language instruction sheet at the brewery's entrance and take yourself around what's billed as a ''living brewery museum''. In each of the rooms where beer production takes place - from fermentation through to bottling and cellaring - there's a numbered cardboard plaque which corresponds to a number on the instruction sheet. Within a self-guided half an hour you're a lambic expert. For a start, you know not to disturb the cobwebs you see all around you: the Cantillon brewery is unkempt for a good reason. The dust contains micro- organisms which are an essential part of the lambic brewing process. When you climb to the loft you're at the heart of what makes lambic such an international oddity. This is the cooling tun room, where the wort - malt, wheat and water - is fermented with the aid of natural yeasts present in the air and the dust. The tiled roof has thousands of vents open to the elements so the natural yeast can enter from the Senne river valley, the only place in the world with the right combination of airborne microbes to make a true lambic.

Van Roy says the Cantillon lambic is spontaneously fermented by at least 86 different yeasts. Because of this reliance on nature's foibles no two batches of beer taste the same. For many beer pilgrims this is the ideal reason to visit the Senne valley at least twice a year.

There's nothing on tap at the Cantillon brewery. Every drop of lambic is bottled. Just as in a wine cellar, the bottles are stored on their sides. A counter-top bottle opener and de-corker can be found next to Van Roy's office and you should head here after your tour to sample the brews.

Your 100 BF entrance fee entitles you to one glass of gueze (pronounced gurrs). This is a naturally sparkling blend of new and old lambics.

Should you wish to sample Cantillon beer away from the brewery you have only 12 bars to choose from. In the 1970s Cantillon was stocked by 250 bars but the big multinational brewers now have a stranglehold on the Belgian beer market and most bars are contractually tied to one of the big names.

Visiting a selection of those 12 independently owned bars is therefore a necessary part of a true believer's pilgrimage. As luck would have it, one of the 12 disciples is directly opposite the little boy pissing. Since 1619 a great many visitors to Brussels have made a detour to see the Manneken-Pis, and since 1991 beer pilgrims have been making a beeline for the Poechenellekelder. This is a two-storey cafe with a wide selection of artisanal beers and, incidentally, a wall-mounted collection of puppets and Manneken-Pis costumes. Along with your beer try one of the house specialities, a tasty bar snack called kip-kap, a salami-and-bread combination that goes really well with a tart lambic.

Not far from the little brass boy you can't avoid stumbling upon the Grand Place, the massive and cobbled market square of Old Brussels, enclosed on all sides by imposing trade guild buildings erected from the 15th century onwards. Except for the lack-lustre brewer's guild museum at L'Arbre d'Or - No 10 Grand Place - there are no pilgrimage sites on the Grand Place. However, a short walk away at the Bourse, or stock exchange, you can find two of Brussel's finest beer stops. The Falstaff on Rue Henri Maus is a Belgian institution. From the outside it's just another cafe but the interior is a hotch potch of Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Roccoco styles. The Falstaff is first and foremost a restaurant but has an intelligent choice of beers, including Trappist brews from Belgian monasteries such as Chimay, Orval and Rochefort.

At the other side of the Bourse is the neon-lit Cirio, a favourite haunt of art students, cafe philosophers and, you never know, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who may once have downed the odd gueze or two here in between writing the Communist Manifesto at a house in the Grand Place in 1847. With its high ceilings, Art Nouveau flourishes and black-and- white liveried staff, the Cirio is exactly how a Belgian beer cafe should look. It even has ornate porcelain loos.

But perhaps I'm giving the wrong impression. A beer pilgrimage to Brussels isn't a rowdy pub crawl. You don't guzzle Belgian beers, not the craft ones anyway. The "artisanal" beers, as they are known by pilgrims, should be treated like fine wines. Michael Jackson, the Independent on Sunday's beer correspondent, says a Belgian ale is akin to a Pinot noir; a Trappist ale is much like a bottle-aged port; a wheat beer is northern Europe's version of champagne; and a framboise, or raspberry beer, is the equivalent of Blush Zinfandel.

For lovers of Fino sherry, Jackson recommends a lambic. This is the kind of rustic beer which would have been supped by the rosy-cheeked peasants painted by Bruegel. It's sharp, dry and tarty, unlike any beer you have ever tasted. Come to it with no preconceptions and it's a startling drink, complex and rounded, not totally unlike a mix between vinegar and scrumpy.

It's served in wine glasses at the Cantillon brewery in Brussels. This family- run firm has been going for 98 years and is proud of its strictly traditional methods and antique brewing equipment. Being a five minute walk from the Gare du Midi, the Eurostar terminus, it's the beer pilgrim's first port of call.

"Forty per cent of our sales are to tourists," says Jean-Pierre Van Roy, the owner of Cantillon, and head brewer. "Most Belgians don't appreciate good beer. The real connoisseurs of beer are from England and America."

Of the 25,000 visitors who pay their respects at Cantillon each year, nearly 8000 are British. "You can carry a lot of beer on the train," promises Van Roy, "but a lot of English people come by car. They stock up for the year."

Based in an old warehouse in Anderlecht, a run-down suburb of Brussels, the Cantillon brewery isn't in the Stella Artois league: it brews just 700,000 litres a year and provides full-time employment for just three people: Van Roy, his son and his son-in-law. It does, however, have a worldwide reputation. Cantillon beer features on the cover of Michael Jackson's Beer Companion - the beer bible - and world statesmen are devotees too.

In a cracked, glass frame next to Van Roy's office is a 1996 letter from George Shultz, the then American secretary of state, thanking Van Roy for showing him around the brewery.

Today there's no need for a guide: you pick up an English language instruction sheet at the brewery's entrance and take yourself around what's billed as a ''living brewery museum''. In each of the rooms where beer production takes place - from fermentation through to bottling and cellaring - there's a numbered cardboard plaque which corresponds to a number on the instruction sheet. Within a self-guided half an hour you're a lambic expert. For a start, you know not to disturb the cobwebs you see all around you: the Cantillon brewery is unkempt for a good reason. The dust contains micro- organisms which are an essential part of the lambic brewing process. When you climb to the loft you're at the heart of what makes lambic such an international oddity. This is the cooling tun room, where the wort - malt, wheat and water - is fermented with the aid of natural yeasts present in the air and the dust. The tiled roof has thousands of vents open to the elements so the natural yeast can enter from the Senne river valley, the only place in the world with the right combination of airborne microbes to make a true lambic.

Van Roy says the Cantillon lambic is spontaneously fermented by at least 86 different yeasts. Because of this reliance on nature's foibles no two batches of beer taste the same. For many beer pilgrims this is the ideal reason to visit the Senne valley at least twice a year.

There's nothing on tap at the Cantillon brewery. Every drop of lambic is bottled. Just as in a wine cellar, the bottles are stored on their sides. A counter-top bottle opener and de-corker can be found next to Van Roy's office and you should head here after your tour to sample the brews.

Your 100 BF entrance fee entitles you to one glass of gueze (pronounced gurrs). This is a naturally sparkling blend of new and old lambics.

Should you wish to sample Cantillon beer away from the brewery you have only 12 bars to choose from. In the 1970s Cantillon was stocked by 250 bars but the big multinational brewers now have a stranglehold on the Belgian beer market and most bars are contractually tied to one of the big names.

Visiting a selection of those 12 independently owned bars is therefore a necessary part of a true believer's pilgrimage. As luck would have it, one of the 12 disciples is directly opposite the little boy pissing. Since 1619 a great many visitors to Brussels have made a detour to see the Manneken-Pis, and since 1991 beer pilgrims have been making a beeline for the Poechenellekelder. This is a two-storey cafe with a wide selection of artisanal beers and, incidentally, a wall-mounted collection of puppets and Manneken-Pis costumes. Along with your beer try one of the house specialities, a tasty bar snack called kip-kap, a salami-and-bread combination that goes really well with a tart lambic.

Not far from the little brass boy you can't avoid stumbling upon the Grand Place, the massive and cobbled market square of Old Brussels, enclosed on all sides by imposing trade guild buildings erected from the 15th century onwards. Except for the lack-lustre brewer's guild museum at L'Arbre d'Or - No 10 Grand Place - there are no pilgrimage sites on the Grand Place. However, a short walk away at the Bourse, or stock exchange, you can find two of Brussel's finest beer stops. The Falstaff on Rue Henri Maus is a Belgian institution. From the outside it's just another cafe but the interior is a hotch potch of Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Roccoco styles. The Falstaff is first and foremost a restaurant but has an intelligent choice of beers, including Trappist brews from Belgian monasteries such as Chimay, Orval and Rochefort.

At the other side of the Bourse is the neon-lit Cirio, a favourite haunt of art students, cafe philosophers and, you never know, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who may once have downed the odd gueze or two here in between writing the Communist Manifesto at a house in the Grand Place in 1847. With its high ceilings, Art Nouveau flourishes and black-and- white liveried staff, the Cirio is exactly how a Belgian beer cafe should look. It even has ornate porcelain loos.

brussels fact file

How to get there

Take Eurostar (0345 303030) from Waterloo. You arrive at the Gare du Midi just under three hours later. Tickets cost from pounds 69 if you travel on Tues, Wed or Thurs both ways.

Scheduled flights from London Heathrow can be had for as little as pounds 69, so long as you stay over a Saturday night.

City break packages are available from Belgian Travel Service, tel: 01992 456 156; Osprey City Holidays, tel: 0990 605 605, and Cresta Eurostar, tel: 0161 929 0000.

For more travel details, contact the Belgian Tourist Office, tel: 0171 629 3977.

Shopping

To stock up on beer for the journey back you must visit Bieres Artisanales. Founder and owner Nasser Eftekhari fled from Iran in the mid-1980s. His brewing experiments were frowned upon by the mullahs and he says settling in beer-soaked Belgium was a dream come true. "I wanted to swim in beer, and now I do," he says.

His shop stocks 400 kinds of beer and is at Chaussee de Wavre, Elsene, three kms from the Grand Place. Tel: 2 512 17 88. Nasser can deliver Belgian beers to the UK. E-mail him on: beermania@skynet.be

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