When I began writing about beer for the Globe two years ago, the name of one prestigious brewery surfaced over and over again in conversations with people who know the industry. Brasserie Cantillon is the most respected brewer of traditional Belgian lambics, a style native to Brussels and produced in limited quantities. The beers “are among the most interesting and complex drinks ever created,” according to The Oxford Companion to Beer. Cantillon’s lambics are said to be among the world’s best.
I wrote “said to be” because up until a few weeks ago I’d yet to try any of Cantillon’s beers, a lapse as egregious as a wine reviewer sitting out the Bordeaux region. Cantillon is not easy to acquire here, but that’s not likely to be an excuse that holds up with a jury of my peers.
My first Cantillon experience came courtesy of the Portland, Maine, bar Novare Res Bier Cafe, which sells a bottle of Cantillon Classic Gueuze for $35. A gueuze is an unfruited form of lambic, a sparkling beer that is a blend of two or more lambics of different ages. The beer can age for up to 20 years, according to the bottle, but my brew was from 2013. The bartender brought the 750-ml bottle over in a little wicker basket.
There’s a certain pressure that comes with trying something you know is supposed to be great. Cantillon Classic Gueuze is rated as world class by Beer Advocate and similar review websites, but it’s miles away, flavor-wise, from highly rated beers like the double-IPA Heady Topper from the Alchemist and Firestone Walker’s Parabola, a Russian imperial stout. You’re supposed to like those beers, too, despite the fact that one is bitter, one sticky sweet, and one funky and tart.
The term “craft beer” is becoming overused, but in Cantillon’s case the wording signifies serious labor in production. Lambics are spontaneously fermented; Cantillon’s gueuze is a blend of five or six of these beers, as “young” as one year and as old as three. This careful blending assures the final beer is tart but not too much so, funky but not off-putting. Throughout, the brew is dry and effervescent like a good sparkling wine, just the right amount of green apple balanced by musty hay. In case you were wondering if that’s a good thing, it’s absolutely delicious.
Cantillon makes a couple dozen other beers, but this one is a great introduction. Spring for one on your next special occasion.
White Birch offering
Speaking of special sour beers, I broke open a bottle of Dark Oaked Wild from White Birch Brewing of Hooksett, N.H., over the weekend. Dated April 29, 2013, my bottle was one of 24 produced by brewer Bill Herlicka. Herlicka operates out of a former used-car dealership, the showroom of which houses the retail shop. A trip north is the only way to get your hands on these small-batch releases, of which there have been more than 120. Herlicka has been brewing his Belgian-inspired beers at White Birch since 2009.
Boston beer history
At the start of the 20th century, there were 31 breweries in Boston, the most breweries per capita of any city in the country. Roxbury and Jamaica Plain were home to 24 breweries. By 1964 they were all gone, a product of Prohibition and the expansion of large Midwestern breweries eastward. Today, Boston is home to three breweries and two brew pubs, with the recent explosion of craft breweries scattered outside the city.
Author Norman Miller chronicles all of this in his new book, “Boston Beer: A History of Brewing in the Hub,” available now.
“I didn’t realize how big of a role people from Boston played in the Prohibition,” Miller said in a phone interview. “I was a little disappointed about that.”
In the book (144 pages, The History Press) Miller takes readers on a journey from those early days, to the start of Boston Beer Company and Harpoon Brewery, through today, when tiny Trillium Brewing is carving out a niche in Fort Point. Asked what he expects for the next 10 years of Boston brewing, Miller says, “I think you’ll see another five or six breweries all doing exciting stuff. I think you’ll see them do very well.”