Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Visiting Lambic Producers

As prefaced in this first general post about beer traveling in Belgium, I often compile lists of places, how to get there, when to go, etc. for friends making a beer trip to Belgium. The general post covers intro and some of the basics about getting around Belgium and prompts for thinking about what you want in a trip. This post is more focused and gets into the destinations. So here are some guidelines from my experience for visiting lambic producers. I'd like to do that same sort of thing for saison breweries at some point, so keep an eye out for that.

I won't really cover anything about lambic cafes here (at least not yet). For those purposes your best resource is the book LambicLand. If you are going to put some serious time into visiting lambic cafes this book is a must. If you're only going to visit a few big name spots and the more easy to access breweries then you can probably get away without it, but it really is an excellent resource and I highly recommend it to anyone who has the time/interest to dive into the world of lambic producers and cafes.

The Senne River
If you want to learn about lambic and lambic producers, their beers and their history, is an amazing resource and I won't try to cover that sort of stuff here. So I'll focus more on what places let you do (taste, tour, etc.), how to get there, and when to go. In the brewery sections I've included some special events that they do and at the bottom I've included some general lambic special event times and times of the year to visit producers and/or drink a good selection of lambic.

This is not a comprehensive list of all the spontaneous beer producers in Belgium, but it covers most of the ones focusing more quality lambic. I used to have a strong bias of lambic producers that I felt were worth my time and those that were not (based in which ones were spending more time on unsweetened products and which were not). While this has been upheld to some degree by having the more traditional beers from producers focusing less on traditional products, there have also been times when my mind was changed (or at least my biases relaxed). As I saw posted on facebook a few months back by a Belgian lambic enthusiast named Werner, there are so few producers of lambic around that we shouldn't really take any of them for granted. I think this is a valuable point of view and while I certainly wish there was more traditional lambic and I don't have an interest in sweetened products, some producers who are making sweetened products still contribute to traditional lambic by either their products or by supplying wort to blenders (professional and home). It does seem that some of the larger industrial producers who make a lot of sweetened products are turning some focus a bit back toward unsweetened characterful lambic, but we'll have to wait and see on the full extent and results of that. I've tried to strike a balance here by including some producers doing more sweetened stuff and if I make visits to some of the places that I left off this list then I will definitely add them with notes about my visits there.

As a disclaimer, to the best of my knowledge this info is accurate as of the time I posted it. But lots of it is subject to change. As I become aware of changes I'll update, but it is probably best to look into these a bit more to ensure that you know what opening times/availability/event dates are. Directions to get places are all by public transport and walking as I'm assuming you've got some navigation method figured out if you are driving.

Here are some of my other posts about lambic and lambic producers:
Gueuzerie Tilquin Visits
Cantillon Visits part 1
Cantillon Visits part 2 (these are a bit dated now having been written in late 2013)
-See also these videos of wort entering the coolship and barrel cleaning as well as some miscellaneous pictures including racking cooled wort into barrels.

Last updated: 14-January-2016

Lambic Brewers

Being centrally located in the city of Brussels and much better known internationally than any other producer, this is already a main stop on the radar for most. And I've talked about Cantillon a fair bit in a two part post from the early days of this blog which focused mainly on a public brew day (part 1 and and part 2). Cantillon offers self-guided tours 6 days a week (open 9-5 mon-fri, 10-5 sat). Around noon and the early afternoon it gets more crowded with tourists (pretty much every day I've been in there in that time frame). The plus side of that is that there are generally other people to share bottles with. But I tend to try for earlier in the day. Note that they close at 5pm, last tours at 4 and last bottles at 4:15.

The cover of Cantillon's mash tun
I regularly stop there in my mornings in Belgium as they open at 9 am. So as long as you are amenable to morning beers (at least on vacation) here is how I would suggest you start a normal day in Brussels that doesn't require you to get an early start to head into the countryside:

-wake up in Brussels at a reasonable time such as or before 8-ish (sidenote - Belgium is basically all reachable in day trips from Brussels unless you need to make some tricky connections and/or have early or late times you need to be places, see the general Belgium travels post). Do whatever sort of thing you do for breakfast.
-Go to Cantillon at 9-9:30 (assuming it is a weekday). If you're tight on time, get a glass of gueuze or lambic or something else. If you have more time, get a bottle and have a leisurely morning there before it gets busy while deciding what to do for the day and/or getting ready for it if you've already decided.
-Leave in the late morning to do whatever you've planed for the day. Chances are you can still get wherever you want by about noon even with a leisurely morning at Cantillon.

The full coolship on a brew day
Best times to visit: Really any day (but it can get pretty busy). They have a couple of special events that let you either try more of their beers in a short time or get a little more insight into their processes:
  • Open brew days (November and March) - If you're interested in the production of lambic, then checking out a Cantillon open brew day is pretty cool. This is also the best chance to get a word or two in with Jean van Roy. On normal days he is working and not always around the tasting room but on the open brew days the point is that you can watch the production so Jean is much more accessible. Cantillon gets unreasonably busy on these days (and any other special event days really) so I would recommend getting there early. If you can stick it out until the wort hits the coolship that is sweet to see as well. Early afternoon is probably the worst time to be in there. At times it can be tricky to move around. Check Cantillon's website for updated open brew day dates.
  • Barrel room on a Quintessence morning
    Quintessence (generally a public holiday near the start of May on even years) - This is a beer 
    and food event that Cantillon hosts inside the brewery every other year. In previous years they have also invited other brewers to join in the event with them. And it seems this is the trend for now. Tasting stations are spaced throughout the brewery and you get access to rooms that are not generally open to guests. There is also often some special beer to go along with the event that is not normally available. In previous years a certain number of people were let in every half hour or so with tickets corresponding to each beer that was served, and they were free to wander as long as they wanted and have their beers at their leisure. I could see this changing in the future (though not sure how such a change would be implemented) as it got super busy in the afternoon because much of the morning crowd didn't want to leave. And why would they? Anyway, if it keeps the same format in years to come then getting in early has definite advantages in terms of no crowds and better chances to talk with the visiting brewers (beers probably won't run out, so there is no danger of that).
  • Zwanze day (September 19th) - At Cantillon this is a normal day, but the yearly one off beer is released at some Brussels bars. Some years this release has been accompanied by a really impressive list of current and vintage Cantillon stuff, but on other years there isn't much special on offer. Following Zwanze day bottles are generally available on-site at Cantillon.
  • Regular yearly releases generally tend to fall around the same time and as time goes on they last  to go for less time (they are still available for a good amount of time for on site consumption), so if you are looking to pick up something specific you might want to plan accordingly. Sometimes they also announce well in advance roughly when less frequent releases are coming.
Getting there: It's in Brussels and is easily walk-able from the Central or Midi station. Go early and often.

Armand at 3 Fonteinen
3 Fonteinen:
With their (relatively) newly acquired brew system, 3 Fonteinen (3F) is back to brewing their own lambic. They may still be transitioning from mixed origin lambic to blends of purely their own, but they are well on their way. And with a young brewer/blender training to take over for Armand and an administrative/marketing/etc. partner joining the business (facebook link and news article in Flemish), it looks like 3F is securing their future well. They currently have lambic spread all over the Beersel area in various cellars, but that they are looking for a new building to centralize all of this in the nearby town of Lot (see here and here). Such an acquisition may change visiting options for the better.

Generally the brewery and cellars at 3F are closed to the public, but there are a few times a year that the public is welcomed in. The first of these is in their open brewery days in the beginning of September. This is generally accompanied by pulling vintage stuff out of the cellar for sale to go and/or special new releases. The other open time to visit falls around the end of April to coincide with Zythos, the major beer festival held in Leuven every year. 3F has decided in previous years that rather than attending the festival they'll invite those with a real interest in lambic to come out to them for a tour of the brewing facility and one of their multiple barrel cellars (and hopefully this continues).

You can't have beers on site at the brewery shop, so for that you'll need to head to the restaurant, where they serve lambic and geuze in addition to some vintage/special bottles (for quite reasonable prices given what they are). Note that while the restaurant is still in the family and right around the corner, it is a separate business from the brewery. It sounds like the new location in Lot should improve on-site bottle options when that is up and running.

Best Times to Visit: The brewery shop is open on Fridays on Saturdays from 9:00-18:00. It is easier to get there on Fridays but coming through on Saturdays (as long as its the 1st or 3rd Saturday of the month) lets you combine the trip with a tour at Oud Beersel (see below). The restaurant is quite good and is open for lunch and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays (also Mondays and Sundays for lunch and dinner and Thursdays for lunch, closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays). Combining trips to the brewery shop and restaurant lets you drink some lambic as well as having an excellent meal.

For special events, the brewery open doors in the beginning of September generally means special releases and the rare opportunity to peek into the barrel cellar. If you miss that, late April may provide another chance to see the barrel cellar for a special open brewery day coinciding with the Zythos festival.

Getting there: During weekdays there is a commuter train that runs into the Beersel station, from which it is a short but rather uphill walk to the brewery and restaurant. It is easiest to head to the Halle station from Brussels and then backtrack to Beersel. On weekends you can get there by a combination of streetcar and buses from Brussels, by bus from Halle, or walking from the train station in Lot (it's a bit more of a trek at almost 3 km and with the same Beersel hill, but if you're used to walking it isn't too bad). When the Lot location opens, that will be reachable every day of the week by train from Brussels.

The new copper brewing system at Girardin
They don't allow visitors inside, so if your time and/or luggage space is limited I would de-prioritize a visit to Girardin They do sell 10 L bag-in-boxes of lambic and kriek lambic to go which is pretty cool. But tricky to transport, especially if you are short on time. If you just want to try straight Girardin lambic then LambicLand has a good list of cafes that have that available by the glass. So again, if you are tight on time and luggage space then Girardin might not be the stop for you.

Ok, if that hasn't dissuaded you/if you have plenty of time and space to store and drink or blend 10 L of lambic then this is probably a good stop to make. As I mentioned, you don't get to go inside so you meet them in their courtyard parking lot to tell them what you'd like and then you go into the office to pay. Their opening hours are a bit limited, but they are open early in the morning so this makes another good early day stop that still gets you back to Brussels in the morning with plenty of time to head elsewhere. You can see into their new copper brewery from outside, but I believe they are still using their older system for traditional lambic production.

Times to visit: No special events, so the general opening hours: Monday and Friday 8-12, 13:00-18:00, Saturday 8-12, 13:00-15:00.

Getting there: It is a pretty easy trip by De Lijn bus #136 from Brussels to Molenberg (town of Groot-Bijgaarden, map here) with a short walk. You can do this either from a Metro connection or straight from the Midi station.

I haven't visited Boon. It seems they take groups for visits and possibly one day a week of visits via the nearby tourist office. If I have any updates here then I will update this section.

I haven't visited Lindemans. If I have any updates here then I will update this section. Their website says they allow tours during weekdays at a group rate, so if you want to take a tour try to get a couple other folks to go with you and/or try to join an existing tour.

Barrel cleaning at De Troch
De Troch:
De Troch is possibly best known for making a banana lambic as part of a line of sweetened products that don't seem much like lambic. But they do make some traditional products as well (they have made an Oude Kriek with Schaerbeekse cherries that seems to be well regarded). Their lambic cellar feels old and unpolished more so than any other that I've seen. And their barrels have definitely seen some years.

Times to visit: The brewery is open Monday through Saturday (check their website for hours). Brewery visits must be arranged in advance.

Getting there: I got there by car, but it looks like bus #128 from Brussels toward Ninove will work (this is the same bus you'd take to get to Eizeringen to visit Grote Dorst). You'll pass the abandoned Eylenbosch brewery and the stop is a about 3 km past that. From there it is about a 2 km walk to the brewery.

Geuzestekerij De Cam
Lambic Blenders

De Cam:
To me De Cam is the best combination of Flemish culture and lambic that I've experienced so far. I'll save most of what I have to say about them for a post in the works. In brief, Karel and Steven at De Cam care greatly about their heritage. Lambic is a portion of that heritage, and it is the portion to which they dedicate much of their time (the blendery is a side job). Karel is very passionate about the preservation of traditional lambic. However it is clear that lambic is a component of their culture and the passion that leads them to spend weekends and evenings keeping De Cam alive is driven by an all around love for the Pajottenland heritage. This is a great spot to experience both lambic and the greater Pajottenland in one place. I'd recommend a visit to De Cam as highly as (or more highly than) I'd recommend any other lambic stop.

De Cam doesn't have a production side and a visiting side - the two are the same. So a visit to De Cam means talking with Karel in between the barrels. Likely with a sample or two of lambic and possibly also with some traditional local food if you're lucky. There is no official tasting room but the (unaffiliated) cafe across the street serves De Cam lambic. And usually there is a barrel open for tasting. The overall production at De Cam is small, especially compared to other lambic producers, but their beers are certainly not lacking in quality. De Cam lambics can be harder to find around Belgium, and are generally more expensive when you find them due to limited availability, so a trip to the stekerij gives you a chance to buy some bottles as well.

Best Times to Visit: De Cam is open 3-5 on Sundays. There are some Gooik festivals that it seems they may open up for, but I can't confirm that. It might be reasonable to combine a trip to In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst (opposite the church in Eizeringen and open 10:00-1:30 on Sundays) with a trip to De Cam. The two are potentially walkable, though combining the two by bus is a bit trickier. There may also be special open brewery days throughout the year.

The 3 hammers roundabout of Gooik
Getting thereFor making it to De Cam (without a car) you're going to be taking De Lijn, the bus system in the Flanders region of Belgium. But don't worry, taking the bus from Brussels to De Cam is about as easy as it gets. Starting from the option of a couple of stops on the south west end of the number 5 metro line in Brussels, the number 141 and 142 buses (alternating, one total per hour) take a pleasant bus ride through smaller towns of Pajottenland (possibly past a new Lindemans brewery location if you pick the right bus) and a left turn onto one of the more major roads is a give away that your stop is coming up. If you miss your stop then the roundabout with the three hammers, the familiar sign found on De Cam labels, should clue you in that you are there. From that point it is a simple walk into and through town until you see a patio on the right hand side with a three hammers flag.

The new barrel room at Tilquin
I've written about visits to Tilquin in this post, and I think that sums up my feelings well. This is a great place to learn about lambics and lambic blending. Pierre readily shares information and while both he and the Gueuzerie are relatively young, based on his collection of lambics he has more extensive experience with lambic from a thorough selection of different producers than many others. Their gueuze is one of my favorites as well. For now the only access to 'special' beers from a visit that one can't get elsewhere are beers that have sold out elsewhere. But that shouldn't deter a serious lambic enthusiast from a visit. And, in case it does, with the possible plans of a tasting room in the works there might be some onsite only beers in the future. I'm not sure how expansions will influence the opportunities that visitors have to walk between stacks of barrels, and hopefully this doesn't change. I'd rather walk between barrels and talk lambic with an expert than drink a hard to find beer (and there are enough cafes with vintage lists to satisfy that need).

When to Visit: Aside from special opening times such as the Tour de Geuze or special events, Tilquin is only open from 10:30-13:00 on Saturdays from September to June. Touring at other times is possible with a group and prior arrangements. Pierre organizes some special events such as English Beer Festivals with open doors at the Gueuzerie (once a year, 2015 was late April/Early May around the time of the Tour de Geuze). These provide a chance to try more Tilquin stuff than usual (maybe with some special releases) as well as some other great English beers, with maybe a Belgian or French guest brewery or two.

Getting there: You can take a train from Brussels to the closest train station: Enghein/Edingen. From there you can walk a reasonably flat 5 km or try to work out a bus option (I've only done the walk, and looking quickly at Google maps a bus doesn't seem so promising).
Rows of barrels at Oud Beersel

Oud Beersel:
After nearly closing down not so long ago, Oud Beersel is doing great work in the lambic blending world. Unlike other blenders, all of their wort is derived from one location - Boon. Oud Beersel is expanding their capacity quite a bit and is also interested in moving toward brewing, so we'll see where that leads.

A group of local enthusiasts, De Geuzen van Oud Beersel, organize tours (including one in English) on the first and third Saturdays of the month. This guided tour takes you through a few of their different barrel cellars, old equipment, and a tasting room with a good small collection of old lambic brewerania. The tour includes a tasting of straight lambic as well as the options of the bottled Oud Beersel lineup. The lambic enthusiast guides are pretty well informed and lead a good tour. They may not be able to answer more technical questions about what exactly Oud Beersel does, so for those purposes the owner Gert can often be found in the main downstairs tasting room/shop and you may be able to ask him a few quick questions.

Getting there: Unfortunately the local commuter train to Beersel (see the 3F section) doesn't run on Saturday. The simplest option might be to take a train to the Lot station (note that there is only 1 per hour from Brussels) and to walk from there (2.6 km and a bit uphill, map here). As a plus, this will let you walk across the famous and stunningly beautiful Senne river (it's small and fairly murky, and you might even see a drainage outflow). If that isn't to your liking then you can piece together other options by some combination of train and bus (Halle is the closest major station) or metro, streetcar and bus from Brussels. You will get closer but it might be a bit trickier to navigate.

Times to visit: First and third Saturdays of the month for the English tour at 12:30 (make sure this timing hasn't changed). This can be followed with a late lunch at the 3F restaurant and a trip to the 3F brewery shop (see 3F section).

I've never been to Hanssens, and I've generally heard that it isn't really available for visits, though this may be wrong as I've never tried to go. I'll update this if I learn anything different.

Events to look for throughout the year

This is not a comprehensive list and is just a couple general events covering multiple different producers that might be of interest to the lambic enthusiast.

The mellow beginnings of the Nacht van de Grote Dorst
The Nacht van de Grote Dorst is an evening full of spontaneous beers which falls in late April on even years. It is held in Eizeringen just outside In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst. Beer is sold only by the bottle (except for possible one or two cask/draft options) so you're going to want to go with friends or make some new ones there. The 2014 edition had a thorough selection of normal offerings from many of the producers and a couple more limited more from notable Belgian brewers (that sold out fairly quick) and even some beers from the Allagash coolship series. If you're looking for a night to hang out with other lambic drinkers in a small Belgian town and try a wide array of lambics all in one place, this is your night.

HORAL's Tour de Geuze runs on odd years in late April/early May, opposite the Nacht van de Grote Dorst. For the tour a number of lambic brewers and blenders open to the public, allowing many producers to be toured and lambics and geuzes to be tasted in a short time frame. In addition to the tour, a one-off geuze produced by blending lambic from Horal's members is released. I've never made the Tour de Geuze so I can't offer any person insight here, but if your goal is to see inside as many lambic breweries and blenderies as you can in limited time, this seems like the event for you.

The Day of the Lambic, in December on even years, provides a unique opportunity to try unblended lambic and blended or fruited lambics from a number of brewers and blenders (and even excellent some home blenders). I should note that for the most part when I say lambic above in this post, I was using it to be inclusive of geuze and various fruited lambics rather than meaning straight unblended lambic, but this is a great chance to try some unblended lambic. Although unblended lambic can be found here and there, it is still relatively difficult to find (especially from certain producers and when compared to geuze). As straight lambic is the often-untasted root of geuze and fruit lambics, it can be especially informative to the brewer interested in making lambic-inspired beers. Tasting lambic of various ages and from various producers can help the brewer know what to expect their spontaneous beers might taste like at different times (such as knowing when not to be worried by a strange tasting 1 year old beer) and to help learn what is added from blending. And for the non-brewer enthusiast, tasting the roots of the more available lambic products you've had is pretty cool. I've never made it to the Day of the Lambic, but as someone interested in brewing spontaneous beers I do look for opportunities to try unblended lambic and this seems like a great event to go to.

There are other various lambic oriented events throughout the year or every other year to possibly keep an eye out for (such as the day of the kriek).

Putting this all together

For my personal top picks for places to visit, I would say De Cam and Cantillon followed by Tilquin. Visits to 3F and Oud Beersel are great as well, and they combine easily to make for an excellent Saturday if the timing is right. When 3F's new location opens that will add another attraction in the neighborhood as well. Depending on your luck at Tilquin (i.e. how busy it is) and how much you want to ask about blending questions versus trying special stuff, you may lean toward combining Oud Beersel and 3F for a Saturday trip over Tilquin. But for the brewer/blender interested in asking questions about the blending process, Tilquin makes for a great visit.

Combining all the above and balancing for getting good coverage of geuzes, tours, and lesser available releases, if there is one time of year to visit Belgium for lambic, I'd say it is late April/early May on even years. Multiple breweries have special open brewery days in late April (3F and possibly also De Cam as well as Tilquin's festival/open doors). The Nacht van de Grote Dorst is an opportunity to try a bunch of different lambics/spontaneous beers in one place (and perhaps if you're quick some special seasonal fruit lambics that might not be available elsewhere). And then there's Cantillon's Quintessence. So April/May on even years makes for a great coinciding of special events and brewery visit options.

It does mean that everyday trips to lambic/general good beer spots in Belgium will be more crowded than usual with people coming into town for these events, but on a limited time frame without too many trips I think this offers the best access to brewers and really good lambic. I've never been able to make the Tour de Geuze, and that might be a similarly excellent event for the access to breweries (maybe even a bit more so) but I'd suspect it doesn't offer as much/as thorough access to more limited release and vintage lambics and maybe with the tighter time frame, more coverage but less thorough access to the brewers/blenders. September is another good time with 3F's brewery open days and Zwanze day.

This is, of course, assuming that you want to go in a bit deeper and schedule your trip around bigger events. If you'd prefer a more mellow time and want to avoid (or at least aren't prioritizing) the events, I'd say go in any warmer and more daylight time of year and plan to hit a first or third Saturday of the month. Go to Oud Beersel and 3F on that day (if you can sneak two Saturdays out of your trip go to Tilquin on the other one). Follow that up with Grote Dorst and De Cam on Sunday. Make that the central (planning wise, not necessarily timing wise) point of your trip and in two days you will have covered 3 great producers and one of the top cafes. Through the week hit other beer destinations (cafes/bars and/or other breweries) or tourist stuff after mornings at Cantillon. If you're going to be around for a while and want boxed lambic around put a quick morning run to Girardin early in the trip (maybe the Monday after De Cam).


  1. Thanks for writing this Dave. I particularly appreciated the instructions for getting round without a car!

  2. To get around in Belgium without a car, download the SNCB/NMBS app. Plug in your starting and final location and it will give you the routes, including combinations of inter-city trains, trams, and buses on these systems. Includes the exact train or bus number to take, departure and arrival times, on-time or delays, duration, and map of the route, including a map of where to walk to make the connection between the tram and the bus. You can input your start time and see the choices for the next several hours. You can do it on your phone from wifi and save a couple of routes for use off-line.
    We used it to take a train, tram and bus go from Brugge to Beersel to have lunch at Drei Fonteinen and then stops at Moeder Lambic and Cantillon on the way back to Brugge.


    1. Thanks for the tip TedJ! Sounds like a good way to get around, especially with plans that aren't as set ahead of time.