In all the years I’ve lived in Brussels, and as long as Cantillon have been organising their annual Zwanze celebration, I’ve never been organised enough to buy tickets for the main event at Moeder Lambic Fontainas before they have sold out. 2017 was no different. That is how we found ourselves schlepping up the hills of St. Gilles on Saturday evening to the original Moeder Lambic.
If one leg of a worldwide celebration of Lambic, Geuze and Cantillon was about to begin, it wasn’t obvious from the atmosphere. A couple of husky men in beards hunkered down on the terrace around a spent bundle of 75cl green bottles. A faded Pliny the Elder t-shirt here. A purple Cloudwater baseball cap there. Glimpses of Untappd yellow. The beer geeks were here, but they were not here in numbers. They had made for the centre of Brussels, leaving this corner bar with its local crowd and its bar staff in their Game of Thrones-inspired Zwanze t-shirts largely unperturbed.
The Australian couple next to us as we sat down were nursing a bottle of Cantillon Gueuze 2006, hunched over their phones. They were on a 12-country tour of Europe, and had the good fortune to land in Brussels just in time for Zwanze. They had witnessed the Lambic obsessives descend on Cantillon for their pilgrimage the previous day, they were happy to sit in the quiet. An irregular stream of foreign accents rolled up to the bar in the hour or so before the big launch, picking up their pre-ordered tickets or sussing out the set-up.
All the better to enjoy 2017’s Zwanze edition when it came. A waiter launched into an awkward countdown, and when he hit zero the Game of Thrones theme blasted out of tinny speakers behind the bar. And that was it. The most impatient lined up half-heartedly in front of the brass handpulls, and the waiters were soon buzzing around the tables delivering trays full of tulips of amber-gold beer. Later I saw that the throngs that made it to Moeder Lambic Fontainas were entertained by Cantillon owner Jean Van Roy arriving on a horse – a real horse – with lackey in Game of Thrones dress up. What pageantry.
2017’s Zwanze edition is a two-year-old Lambic infused with Oolong tealeaves. Not being a tea drinker of any description, I found it hard to get any tea bit there was fruitiness and mild funkiness and some cheesiness to the aroma. The funk was there in the taste, along with green apple, some citrus and a not-overwhelming sourness. Compared to the glasses of Mamouche and Fou’Foune from earlier in the evening, it felt like it could benefit from a few more months maturation.
And then, as quickly as the buzz had built, it dissipated. Our Australian neighbours made a move, on to Bruges the next day for more beer and brown bars. A couple of excitable Spaniards attacked the bar, hoping they were not too late for their ration of Zwanze. They weren’t, and it did not look as if they were going to run out before the end of the night. In need of a palate cleanser and a tummy settler, I ordered an All In Jim APA from Time and Tide Brewing. The citrusy, resinous pale ale, backed up by a harsh hop bitterness fulfilled its brief, I drained my glass, and we headed off into the night for a kebab before bed.
Next year. Maybe next year will be the one when we finally make it to the main event in Moeder Lambic Fontainas. But if we don’t, there’s always the quiet brilliance of this corner bar.
(With apologies to Stromae...)