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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Touring Cantillon: Alternative World for Brewing Beer

The author at Cantillon
By Wes Eaton

Today, brewing processes are guided by the tenets of a modern, positivist science. Like scientists in research laboratories, brewers, cellar-persons, and other producers employ instruments and equipment and utilize human technique and skill to understand and replicate ‘nature.’ While brewing is at its essence a promotion of natural fermentation processes, at the same time, producers want to bracket out the randomness and uncertainties of nature. I'll reiterate my point: Of the upmost importance is the control of nature. The brewery is to become a laboratory in that natural processes are to be disciplined by scientist/producers.

This is the enduring struggle of producing modern beer: warding off naturally occurring organic and inorganic ‘contaminants’ that threaten a target product and production schedule by disciplining natural processes through the tools of technoscience. The struggle is ceaseless as neither opponent, science or nature, will ultimately be victorious. Producers will always need to scrub, sanitize, and otherwise separate their laboratory/brewery from the environment—bacteria, oxygen, and excess heat. Indeed this comprises the work of nearly every stage of the modern brewing process.

The point of presenting modern brewing practices in this way is to demonstrate their embedded cultural values of disciplining and controlling nature. In her 1980 book The Death of Nature, the feminist ecologist Carolyn Merchant argues our contemporary worldview was born during the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. During this time, Francis Bacon, RenĂ© Descartes, and other “fathers of science” formulated a new view of nature. Instead of a benevolent, all-providing mother that we are to fear and revere, nature was a mistress that would only reluctantly bear her secrets under the trials of controlled experimentation. Adaptation to uncertainties and unknowns was no longer adequate, instead, we can master and tame the “wicked” randomness of nature.


I thought about this last month in Brussels, Belgium while my wife and I toured and tasted Cantillon, the renowned brewery and “living museum of the traditional Gueuze” and Lambic beer styles. These styles epitomize what American beer enthusiasts now lovingly term “sour” beers. Historically, they largely lost popularity sometime between the World Wars, only to be steadily rediscovered, as the myth goes, by later generations of beer hunters and other actors in the craft beer movement. Cantillon is in tune with this, mandating visitors take an extensive self-guided tour before sampling their sours, the hope being that through this experience, others will spread their story and continue to come back to Gueuze. We began in the back of the stone and wooden barn-like brewery with the century old but still operational Mash Tun, then up wooden stairs to the riveted “cool ship.” Lacking modern temperature control, wort is chilled in this shallow copper ship in the upper rafters, where we noted used malt bags operated as flaps that could be opened and closed, allowing more or less of a cool breeze to enter. Here the beer is left uncovered, inviting wild bacterias and yeasts to inoculate the wort naturally. As cooling is necessary, beer brewing is a seasonal project, only taking place during the colder months of the year.

After a night’s rest, the bacteria laden wort is sent to oak barrels which rest in the adjacent attic wherein the wort is fermented, messily, into ale. Like the breezy attic, the oak barrels allow the beer to “breathe” and evaporate, ultimately reducing the final volume by as much as one fifth. As air increasingly enters the barrels, the active bacterias form oxygen protective skins across the surface of the beer. Workers hand labeling bottles down below later told us the ubiquitous cobwebs found throughout the rafters and in between aging barrels were evidence of the spiders that balance out harmful insects. This is especially important during the warm summer months when brewing is avoided but whole, sticky, sour black cherries are added to selected barrels to make Kriek. This is evidence of one way in which the brewery, as a living organism itself, seeks to adapt rather than dominate nature.


When finished, the raw, still, unblended golden colored ale is deemed Lambic, which tastes acidic, tepid, and much thinner than, for instance, an American style ale. Gueuze is born when minimum three year old Lambic is blended with younger, still fermenting ales, corked and capped in champagne bottles, and left to finish fermenting and therefore ‘naturally’ carbonate on its side along the dank stone walls and amongst hundreds of others. Rather than instruments, cultivated human taste determines when the bottles are ready for labeling and enjoying. After the tour we were offered pours of unblended lambic, Gueuze, and other styles. While sipping I thought about dark corners of the brewery we were not only allowed but encouraged to crawl through, and the times we had to squeeze around producers as they tended to their labor intensive tasks. This simply does not happen in modern breweries.

At first blush the lessons from this experience are rather simple. Here we have a brewery, a production process, and really a culture that has learned how best not only to adapt to its natural environment, but to flourish in a way that enhances it. Like homemade maple syrup, each drop is not only the intended ingredients but the larger local material world captured in liquid form. We could smell the rafters, cellars, barrels, and atmosphere in our glasses precisely because they were intentionally incorporated into the beer, not bracketed out by disciplining nature.


But this is only a first step in a broader evaluation. The next is to note the existence of at least two of what Merchant calls “worldviews” for approaching beer production. On the one hand there is what we might term the “science” model premised on disciplining nature, as observed above. On the other, we have a view that lets nature in by learning to adapt to its incongruence. Spiders, porous oak, seasonal variances, bacterias, and other naturally, locally occurring elements are enlisted to bring about a final product that itself embodies the tensions between the will and imaginations of the brewers and the agendas within the local environment.

So yes, we can tease out possibly two contending world views. But please don’t mistake my mission here. My argument is not that one or the other is better or worse and should be pursued or abandoned. There are multiple points that could be argued on behalf of each “world view.” For instance, to take just one example, in regards to distributive justice, how could inefficient production systems such as Cantillon meet the demands of the burgeoning craft beer culture masses? Instead I want to make two points that will hopefully spur new ways of thinking about craft beer production.


The first is the notion that, even in the most technologically and scientifically sophisticated production facilities, beer is co-produced by both scientific technique and nature. Like a river that is both actively guided by and shaping its respective banks, particular beer products are always the culmination of the enduring struggle between controlling and letting nature in. Secondly, in regards to the two “world views” I promote in this article, no single brewery is entirely on one or another of these paths. Instead, to varying degrees, particular brewery production cultures, standards, and norms, simultaneously draw from the wells of each. This process itself leads to tensions that are constantly negotiated through interactions not only within individual breweries, but between the cadres of investors, distributors, retailers, other brewers, and of course beer fans that make up participants in the craft beer field. My point then is that teasing out these discordant “worlds” can provide a greater appreciation for the many aspects of brewery and beer culture with which we can choose to emphasize, challenge, and ultimately identify.


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