Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Beer on the Wild Side

I stopped into Monk’s last night to grab a quick bite after teaching a course on classic French wine and cheese pairings. The mussels and fries were reliable as always, if not at their best, but the beer…. The beer was absolutely wild; wild as in natural and wild in its flavors.

Cantillon Brouwerij may be best known – to those who know it at all – for its beers in the style called Gueze, which are spontaneously fermented, blended lambics. Cantillon Iris, however, is neither gueze nor lambic. It’s a vintage dated beer, first brewed in 1998 in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Brussels Museum of the Gueze. I could try to tell you all about its production method but you’d do better reading all about it courtesy of Cantillon’s website. I drank the 2004 vintage of Iris, which is currently available at Monk’s.

For me, Cantillon produces more than just gueze, lambic and unusual brews like Iris. They produce what I’ll call bières de terroir, beers that speak clearly of their origins. Something tells me it’s not just the raw materials they use, the wheat, barley and hops (which are all grown locally and organically, by the way), but also the brewery itself, including its place in the city of Brussels, that speaks through their beers. Given that Iris is fermented spontaneously, using only the wild yeast and bacteria native to the brewery’s environment, I suppose that makes perfect sense.

Cantillon’s own description of Iris as possessing “vinous taste” is apt. It reminds me of old, rustic and dry Vouvray, like the 1984 “Aigle Blanc” from Philippe Poniatowski, which sticks in my memory for its tooth-aching acidity and pungent, sour, subterranean flavors. In all of Poniatowski’s wines, there was a taste of the cave in which they were aged. Call it a flaw if you will, but it was a clear part of the wines’ terroir and of their character, which sometimes varies from bottle to bottle, particularly with age – just like the beers of Cantillon. That wine was not for the timid. Neither is Iris.

It also brings to mind a good, artisan example of the Loire goat’s milk cheese, St. Maure de Touraine. It’s a cheese where I always imagine tasting the flavors imparted by the goats, by the grasses and flowers they were raised on and also by the cave in which the cheese was aged (received its affinage, if you prefer). Perhaps the comparison came to mind because I’d paired St. Maure with a Sauvignon Blanc from the Touraine only an hour or two earlier. But I don’t think so. The parallel seems real to me. In fact, it might be interesting to pair the St. Maure with Iris, just to explore the relationship mind you.

I can’t think of a brewery I’d be more excited to visit. The trip to Brussels the visit with Cantillon would necessitate wouldn’t be such a bad thing either.

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Little_Jewford said...

I had a bunch of miller longnecks last weekend...which is almost like Monks (sigh). Anyway, when you get a chance send me some Riesling recommendations....I might be up near Kermit-Lynch soon

Nancy Deprez said...

Hey, great blog here. I found you by your comment on Rockss and Fruit.

I'm also a Belgian beer fan (being married to a Belgian helps this) and your link to Monks was fun.

David McDuff said...

Almost is right, LJ. Good to hear from you. Recommendations are on their way. And have a good time in Berkeley.

Welcome, Nancy. Thanks for the compliment. I just enjoyed checking our your blog as well. Good stuff.

Philly is a little trove of Belgian beer treasures. Monk's has been a landmark for a long time but over the last couple of years a ton of other places have cropped up with fairly serious Belgian beer programs. And they're conveniently spread out around town. Makes for good pub crawling.

Anonymous said...

...or at least a place to get a really good beer no matter what part of town your visitin'

David McDuff said...

Quite right, anon!

Joe M. said...

I have had the Cantillon geuze stuff and really liked it. What can I say, I love brettanomyces! I need to try the Iris, I am emailing our beer buyer (who also happens to be the Aust-Ger-Loire buyer) at work after I type these comments.

Interesting way of describing the dirty Poniatowski cellar and its contribution to their occasionally dirty wines. 'Dirty' may be harsh, but that has been my experience with a few bottles of the '90 Clos Baudoin. One corked, the other two tasty but initially, well, dirty.

David McDuff said...

Harsh but essentially true, Joe. Having visited the estate and its cellars, I can literally taste the caves in every bottle. I look at it, perhaps forgivingly, as part of the character of Poniatowski's wines.

Not long after our visit, Chidaine power washed all of the mold -- there were inches of it -- from the walls of the winery. The wines he's producing from the same property are squeaky clean. They're also beautiful, yet in an entirely different way from PP's.

If you've been disappointed with the 1990s from Poniatowski, seek out the 1989s. Definitely the superior vintage at the estate. The last bottle of 1989 Clos Baudoin I drank was singing.

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