APRIL FOOLS’ DAY: Can-tillon?

The future?
The future? Designs for Cantillon’s new packaging.

 

It’s still sinking in, to be honest with you.

The first time I visited Cantillon nearly two years ago, it was breathtaking. It was everything people said it would be, and more, because there is a level of sensory interaction with the place beyond smell, sight and sound that is hard to put into words. And that’s before you taste the beers themselves. All of them, including the fresh and utterly mystifying lambic, were incredible. Incredible because they provided new flavour experiences but also left questions. What is that flavour? What does this remind me of? Is this still even beer?

Like the best pieces of art, so much of what is great about Cantillon is unspoken; undeclared; nuanced and yet, vibrant. Jean Van Roy presides over one of the most highly-regarded breweries in the world. Why then, would Cantillon need to do anything differently? Why would Van Roy, one of the world’s most respected brewers and an undeniable master of his craft, need to change processes there?

“America” must surely be the simple answer. Bottles of Cantillon’s beers do not travel very far, and with a massive (and growing) population of drinkers interested in craft beer and unique, sour styles, the homegrown varieties are no longer enough. The lucrative export market, denied to Cantillon for so many years, is now finally within reach.

When I received the email yesterday from a slightly nervous man from the “Ni-san” PR agency, wondering if I could look at some proofs of designs sent to him by his client, a ‘very known Belgium brewery’, I had concerns. He seemed reluctant to show me any images without me agreeing to ‘consult’ on them. I said fine, I’ll help however I can, and the next email I received astonished me.

Cans. From Cantillon. The man had found my blog posts about craft beer in cans and thought I was a good sounding board for what would prove to be the early designs for Cantillon’s new canned beers.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Immediately my mind ran away with itself, picturing slabs of Fou’foune in my fridge, but no offer of samples was forthcoming. Indeed, the entire thing was over as suddenly as it began. A subsequent email just twenty minutes later begged me to delete the previous one with the images attached, said there was no longer ‘obligation for services’ and that I should act as though the entire thing had never happened.

How could I? Especially since, unknowingly, the PR had left the text from a previous email exchange in the footer, namely the text “NO DO NOT SHOW THESE IMAGES THIS IS EMBARGO UNTIL 1/4 12PM – J”

J? Jean?

I suppose we’ll find out at 12pm.

The Emperor’s New Zwanze

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A belated post about Zwanze Day 2014, hosted in London this year by The Kernel Brewery on 20 September.

I’m not entirely comfortable with pronouncing the word ‘Zwanze’ – one way sounds too much like Swansea or ‘onesie’ (and I think Zwanze Onesies would be the definitive indicator that we’ve reached ‘peak craft’), and the other way of saying it just sounds like a word for futuristic swans. However you say it, it’s the name given to the day celebrated annually when a unique beer brewed by Cantillon is released and enjoyed at various locations around the world, with all kegs being tapped at 9pm Belgian time, wherever it is in the world it’s being tapped.

This year was the first time I’d attended a Zwanze event. I’d been to limited-release-beer launches before though, so I expected a heaving crush of people swarming around a tiny bar, each with a camera-flashing phone in one hand and a artisanal teku glass sloshing enamel-stripping megabeer in the other. I was especially concerned given how busy The Kernel Brewery bar can be on Saturdays (for the Bermondsey Beer Mile) that it could be chaos.

The reality was a very civilised affair, far more calm than a Saturday day session. This a limited list, after all, of people who had registered by email for a glass of this singular beer. It was a simple and effective system: register by email and receive a flyer on arrival entitling you to a glass of Zwanze, so no worries about it running out whilst you’re queuing.

The story of this year’s Zwanze can be found here. It’s a lovely story, and the beer itself has a very considered yet playful construction that really embodies the mind of its creator. Briefly, it’s a three-year-aged, blended, dry-hopped gueuze, blended with kriek and dry hopped again with Bramling X. Reducing it to a sentence does the beer a injustice though, because the canvas it paints across your palate is so much more than its constituent parts.

The colour alone, a mahogany-rich maroon with carmine edges, thrills the eyes. The sharp aroma of citrus pith, pepper, linseed oiled cricket bats, leather and overripe blackberries is, at first, baffling. You need a taste to complete the puzzle it presents. The first sip is an artillery barrage of harsh, flat, funk, wrapped in juicy, tart luscious raspberries and white grapes, thicken by the thick cut shred of orange peel in marmalade that gets stuck in your teeth. The finish, more of a crescendo really, is a machine-gun bitterness that sprays around the palate and dries everything it touches with lemon pith, apple skin and wood. Oh, and it is sour – sour like the sky is blue – but it was the dryness that really stuck with me, remarkable and utterly brow-furrowing in its assertiveness.

Of course, with every event like this, there is plenty of commentary online, both positive and negative. Almost universally positive from the people there, and a smattering of negativity from those that aren’t. It’s just the usual stuff, from honest jealousy to more bitter sentiments about the Emperor’s New Clothes, and whether the people attending can fairly judge a beer they’ve registered to try and pay a premium for.

I handed over a paltry £3.50 to taste a third of a pint of that incredible beer, from an exquisite glass in great company in one of the greatest breweries in the world. Considering the beer’s story, the process that made it and the experience I had while drinking it, I fail to see how I got anything less than the best value glass of beer in the world for that money.

Still, it’s a common debate in craft beer that goes way beyond Zwanze, which is normally universally loved every year, and it’s a debate that I struggle with. I can’t logically argue with the notion of people enjoying a beer more because they think they should, or because they’ve paid more for it. Equally, it can easily be argued that such limited release or rare beers can genuinely be astonishingly good. I actually laughed aloud with how good Zwanze was. It tripped across my palate, somersaulted into my brain and hit the necessary synapses to release a laugh of delight from my lips (Fou’Foune prompted a similar reaction, but more from my incredulity at just how sherbety and juicy it is).

I grow concerned that with the maturity of our craft beer scene there is also a steady increase in cynicism, not just the healthy kind that keeps you financially solvent, but the kind that closes one’s mind. The beer itself was a stone cold masterpiece. There can be no doubt about that whatsoever.

Whilst it used to worry me that I too was getting all caught up in the moment and not judging these rare and limited release beers as critically as I should, lately I find myself asking a different question: what if the Emperor’s New Clothes are actually, you know, incredible? What if the reason these people can’t see the Emperor’s New Clothes is because they weren’t there to see them?

Of course, there’s another side to this – criticism of tickers. For me it comes back to The Seeking, something that, more and more, I’m convinced is a very different mindset to that of ticking. I don’t have a problem with ticking – for the most part it’s merely the search of new beers and what they taste like – but it definitely has a dark side to it: those that turn up, tick, leave; or simply wish to be the Mayor of their favourite beer. All harmless enough of course, but for some tickers, it is the tick that motivates them, not the experience that comes with it.

As I grow as a beer drinker and as a writer, it is that concept to which I try to hold fast, no matter what: seek the experience, not the tick. That way, if the experience is this good, then the Emperor’s new clothes look just fine to me.

Golden Pints 2013

golden pints

The year that was 2013 saw ‘craft beer’, whatever the hell it is, become a truly, sort-of mainstream-ish and widely-noticed thing of some kind.

What I mean is, we in the beer blogoshire (hat tip to Boak and Bailey for that infinitely preferable alternative to the cold, corporate-sounding blogosphere) say more than ever before, but we communicate in increasingly fuzzy and inconsistent terms. The year has seen attempts to unify people and ideas, but there have been just as many fractures and splinters within already fractured and splintered groups.

There’s been a collective obsession with measuring What This Is All About, as people try and define Who We Are as drinkers and what beer is, as A Thing. I’ve read loads of blogs and articles this year about things in the present, events that are still unfolding, as if they are already history. Well, they’re not.

I hope 2014 sees a more patient and reflective attitude; less trying to define everything and more trying to understand things.

Many have struggled, even more so than usual, with their choices for this year’s Golden Pints, which has got to be a good sign. I have tasted some fantastic beers this year, many of which rank among the best I’ve ever had. I’ve even been asked to write what I think the best beers in the world actually are, which was of course broader in scope, but still a task laden with similar difficulties.

As with any test of naming the Best Thing You Had of That Type This Year, this feels more a test of memory than anything else. Taste as a sense is (I am told) the one with the strongest links to memory, so this should be easy. It isn’t, though, partly because of the vastly different flavours I’ve bombarded my palate with, but also because of the Inherent Obstacles in beer writing (the memory of a man drinking beer).

As with last year, I’ve tried to focus on what is new to me; beers that have Expanded My Mind in some sense.

Best UK Cask Beer

To ‘doge’ this issue: wow much difficult.

This should be an easy win for Oakham Citra, a beer that has been in almost perfect condition every single time I have tasted it. It’s a sensational pale ale that I will happily order a second or third pint of, and I say that as somebody prone to ordering as many beers in as smaller measurements as possible these days.

That said, even a shoddily kept, limply pulled, warmly-glassed, flatly served pint of cask Beavertown 8 Ball Rye IPA puts all five toes right into the nuts of any other cask beer in the country, including Citra, so there.

Best UK Keg Beer

This is an even messier decision to make. On a good day with no breeze and good-to-firm ground, a pint of BrewDog Dead Pony Club is hard to beat. It has a brightness all the way through its middle, right to the last drops that languish in the very bottom of the glass. Just delightful.

Unfortunately, Dead Pony is simply outclassed by the one-off wonder that was Kiwi Wit, the NZ-hopped version of Camden Town Brewery’s Gentleman’s Wit (thanks to Tandleman for reminding me of this). Only a single keg of that gloriously beer was made, a damned uncommon delight of gooseberries, grapes and citrus. Urgently address its absence from our lives, Camden.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer

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It would be remiss of me, given my constant harping on about canned this and canned that, not to award this to a canned beer. Even if I hadn’t been going on about canned beer all the time, I’m pretty sure that Camden Hells Lager in its exceptionally decorated can would have knocked my block off regardless. The freshest, crispest lager with the best possible protection from everything but your ravenous thirst. It’s the definitive version of Hells as far as I’m concerned.

Best Overseas Draught Beer

I spent the last part of my holiday in Belgium this year in the beer Mecca that is Moeder Lambic, and there tasted the sensational IV Saison by Jandrain Jandrenouille. It’s a beer so flavourful and wholesome and perfect that it outshone almost every beer I’d had on the trip, with the exception of…

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer

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I had Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus for the first time this year, at the brewery. No further explanation needed.

Best Collaboration Brew

Another tricky one. Wild Beer Co/Burning Sky/Good George’s Shnoodlepip is about as craft as it gets, and I mean that in a good way. An experimental but totally quaffable beer that is worth every penny and Does Things to your palate/mind.

On the other hand, Weird Beard/Elusive Brewing’s Nelson Saison had a purity and elegance to it that was quite disarming. If you asked which I would like to have four pints of right now, I’d pick the Nelson Saison every time.

Honourable mention goes to BrewDog/Brodie’s Berliner Weisse, which taught my face a new expression: Berliner Weisse Gurner Eyes. A proper gob slapper.

Best Overall Beer

Beavertown 8 Ball. It’s been present at some of my favourite moments of the year, and I think of it often. A total class act.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label

I love Beavertown’s branding. All the little details, the boldness, the oddities, it’s cool without really trying too hard, i.e. the definition of cool. Once they (as rumoured) move into canning their beers, they’ll look sensational.

Until then, there’s only one brewery that dominates any shelf its beers go on: Partizan. So, so pretty.

Best UK Brewery

I think The Kernel have hit – and maintained – a momentum that’s frankly astonishing. Every beer coming out of the new brewery in Bermondsey has been a showstopper. Freshness is key.

Best Overseas Brewery

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Cantillon. My trip to the brewery is etched into my mind permanently.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013

Three different beers in the space of an hour from Burning Sky were enough to convince me they are a new force to be reckoned with. The Saison l’Automne was just fantastic, sensible strength and bursting with flavour. Believe the hype.

Pub/Bar of the Year

Really tough. I’ve been massively impressed with BrewDog Shepherd’s Bush every time I visit, but it’s still early days there. I’m fairly certain it’ll be a contender for my favourite bar this time next year.

Really, there can only be one contender. It’s a pub where I’ve met loads of ace new people this year, and tasted some incredible beers on every visit. If pubs are places where people + beer x location = bliss, then the location in that equation for me this year has been Craft Beer Co Islington.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013

This is quite simple, really. My summer wouldn’t have been the same without Urban Sessions, a great place that had some of the best beers (including Nelson Saison) that I’ve had all year, in a location perfectly suited to the glorious summer we enjoyed. I really hope that something else like it will happen next year.

Beer Festival of the Year

If I have to pick one it would be London’s Brewing.

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I’m not joking.

I’ve been to plenty of beer festivals this year, from the daft and craft to the golden oldies, but London’s Brewing has to be my favourite because it took us all down a peg or two, and I think we needed that.

You need a good, solid fuck-up every now and again, especially in a movement that can occasionally get its head stuck up its arse fairly frequently, just to make it clear just how things really are.

It’s easy to get feverishly excited about the diversity and the variety and the experimentation and just how nice everyone is, but if you can’t organise a piss-up in a brewery, in a very literal sense in this case, you’re not perfect.

Never again etc.

Supermarket of the Year

Waitrose always seems to have just what I want, whenever I need it to, so I can’t ask for much more than that. Still, credit is due to M&S for getting an impressive range of beers in from some of the country’s best breweries. Popping into an M&S Simply Food in a train station for a journey-enhancing bottle or two of Citra IPA is heartwarming experience.

Independent Retailer of the Year

I’ve made an effort to visit Utobeer in Borough Market several times this year, and they’ve just about won the crown from Kris Wines, which has let me down a couple of times with a few past-their-best imports.

Online Retailer of the Year

Don’t use online retailers much, but all my Abstrakt Addict parcels from BrewDog were delivered without issue.

Best Beer Book or Magazine

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Joint winners:

Leigh Linley: Great Yorkshire Beer – every page written with real love for the subject matter. A lovely read.

Mark Dredge: Craft Beer World – the passion and excitement about every beer is representative of the very best aspects of the craft beer scene.

Best Beer Blog or Website

I’m going to cover this in a separate post at some point, so stay tuned.

Best Beer App

Untappd – if only for  the debate it creates about what beer apps should or shouldn’t be like.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer

Nothing has made me chortle this year as much as Let There Be Tim.

Honourable mentions for Boak and Bailey, for participating as much as analysing this year; Nate Southwood for never, ever changing; and Zak Avery for this tweet alone:

Best Brewery Website/Social media

@BrewDog is still the one to beat, though I love Wild Beer Co’s new website and Camden Town’s is very smart these days.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year

It’s been said elsewhere, but Fraoch and haggis at EBBC13 was sensational.

BONUS AWARD: The Tin Hat Trophy for Best Effort at Tackling the C-Word

After reading so many earnest, heartfelt pieces about defining ‘Craft’ this year, I found Craig Heap’s What is Craft Bear? and Defining Craft Beer Through the Ages to be the best and most useful contributions to the debate, because they made me laugh and not want to self-harm.

Here’s to next year.

The Trouble with Cantillon

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Cantillon: please consider bringing back this incredibly cool dragon logo. Far better than that dodgy old fat bloke falling off his chair.

Another post that should have gone up weeks ago and, yet again, I’m in an awkward position.

You see, I’ve read plenty of blogs and articles about Cantillon, each of them gushing over the weirdness, the smell, the gaps in the roof, the barrels, the cobwebs – oh how they love the cobwebs – and all the rest of it. I’ve read them and thought: right, I get it. It’s a special place. Lambic and Gueuze are undoubtedly Very Important Things. The brewery is a lonely bastion of a dying art form, and we must all kneel down at its spontaneous altar and take wild-fermented sacrement. I understand, okay?

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A notorious Craft Wanker wanders the cellars, sucking different ages of lambic from damp patches on barrels.

The awkward thing is, having read all of that, and having thought it was well-meaning but over-enthusiastic, I now find myself having been to Cantillon and agreeing with every single word of it. It actually is a genuinely magical place.

It’s likely you’ve read all of that stuff about Cantillon, too. It’s fairly likely you’ve been there yourself. It is, after all, one of the few places that beer geeks might consider a pilgrimage-worthy destination, and rightly so. So what’s the point of me adding to all that’s been written? I might not be able to offer up a different opinion, but I might be able to persuade those of you who haven’t been to Cantillon to seriously consider a visit.

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Lens flare? Divine intervention? Hard to say once you’ve tasted the contents.

For one thing, during the summer, when the temperature is too high for them to brew, you are basically allowed to wander around the place unsupervised. Pay the nice people at the entrance the paltry sum of €6, and they’ll turn you loose inside after giving you  a machine-gun-speed briefing on the brewery and a leaflet. We ended up wandering in on a bit of the guided tour, but my favourite memories are from the solitary exploration of the place. The deafening quiet enhanced every smell, sight and touch; made every surprised glance a discovery, every surprised intake of breath a gasp. I imagined coming across the brewery in some bleak, post-apocalyptic setting, overgrown with plants like in Logan’s Run, and the whole place being exactly the same.

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I do love a good koelschip.

The whole place is a bit like the obligatory ‘museum’ bit of a larger brewery tour (like when I visited Brouwerij De Halve Maan), except it isn’t a museum, it is the brewery. Gauges and pipes are insulated with scrunched-up paper, vessels are laid open for you to poke your nerdy head into, and that smell pervades everything. It’s one thing being told that the atmosphere of the brewery does the brewing, but in Cantillon it’s a tangible force that you can detect everywhere.

Even the beer you’re given at the end is ridiculously good. Yeah, I admit, that first taste of dusty, sour, mystical, raw lambic required some serious thought. What is this? But as it sits there on your tongue, and tells you its story, you just have to keep tasting it. All those cobwebs and damp, sticky patches on the barrels, the dust, the air, the wood, it’s all in there. And as for the Rose de Gambrinous, well, it’s simply sensational. Once again, Belgium gave me a Beer Moment(tm). Lambic and Gueuze ARE magical and weird and wrong yet so, so right. It’s all about the context, and understanding. When I sat there, drinking those beers under the gaze of that dragon, I felt like I understood What It’s All About.

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A glass of wonderment, calling itself Rose de Gambrinous. 

You see? This blog has turned into just another fawning gushfest.

The trouble with Cantillon is: it’s all true.

Go.