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How Cantillon Became the Unicorn Wine of Beers

The producer of the world's most sought-after sour beers, Cantillon, has become a totem of beer greatness for today's wine crowd. Justin Kennedy on why, plus the five most sought-after expressions.

Along with images of friends’ babies and tricked-out randonneur bikes, photos of rare beers are practically etched into my Instagram feed. Most come from beer industry friends or brewers, but lately, several sommeliers I follow have taken to posting money shots of extremely rare beer, too, namely from the Belgian lambic brewery Cantillon.

Posing shoulder-to-shoulder with rare bottles of Gentaz-Dervieux and Overnoy, Cantillon has become a celebrated beer among wine lovers—in particular, the natural wine set, who undoubtedly find many familiar flavors in the bottle. In fact, anyone who’s thrown back a bottle of Agnès and René Mosse’s beloved rosé pét-nat, Moussamoussettes, can’t help but see a flavor pathway to Cantillon’s Rosé De Gambrinus, a pink-hued raspberry lambic.

But it’s about more than flavor. Culturally, Cantillon shares more with the wine world than with the craft beer world, which heavily relies on adjuncts, laboratory yeasts and flat-brimmed hat bros to spread its message. Cantillon represents the opposite: European tradition, a sense of place and unmistakable provenance.

One of the brewery’s most ardent supporters within the wine realm is Pascaline Lepeltier of New York’s Rouge Tomate Chelsea, who’s been intrigued by the brewery for more than a decade. “Starting around 2007, Cantillon has kind of popped up everywhere in my life,” says Lepeltier, who first encountered the beer while working at Le Cinq in the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris. At the time, the restaurant’s wine list included two full pages of the brewery’s bottles.

“Then I moved to Brussels,” continues Lepeltier—serendipitously, where Cantillon is located—“to work at the original Rouge Tomate and became such a fan that I was visiting the brewery every week.”

The first thing that attracted her to the beer was its tartness and structure. “A lot of somms like Cantillon’s acidity,” she says. “I also like a little brett in my wine—I’m from the north of France—and the balance of brett and acetobacter in Cantillon is something I appreciate.” Another factor was the beer’s ageability: “I like it with a bit of bottle aging,” she says. “At the restaurant, we decant and serve it warmer than most beers.”

Plenty of beers display good acidity and ageability, though. Why Cantillon, specifically? Why has it become a totem of beer greatness for the wine crowd?

“There’s a way in which these beers inherently align with the sensibilities of wine drinkers,” says wine writer and PUNCH columnist, Zachary Sussman. “Not just aesthetically. Whereas many craft beers might strike wine drinkers as geographically anonymous—to me, it wasn’t at all clear what might make one West Coast IPA different from another—small-production beers from storied, independent breweries like Cantillon can’t help but telegraph an Old-World sense of place rooted in tradition.”

Cantillon Belgian Lambic Sour Beer

Cantillon Brewery | Photo: Allagash Brewing

Sussman says that sense of place comes from Cantillon’s reliance on indigenous yeast fermentation, which lends it a unique terroir. “The wild yeast strains used during the production of ales like Cantillon imparts an utterly unique local signature, or identity,” he says. “The moment you taste them, it becomes clear that they couldn’t come from anywhere else in the world.”

Like with beer nerds, a secondary but very real draw for wine lovers may also be something a little more vain: bragging rights.

“To be honest, a lot of wine people approach beer like they approach wines; they’re looking for the hardest-to-find, most sought-after stuff and trying to drink that,” says Chad Walsh, sommelier at Manhattan’s Agern restaurant. “You tend to have people that are only ordering 100-point BeerAdvocate beers or whatever, and trying to check off the box. And I think Cantillon’s rarity is something that appeals to the worst instincts of somms—and I swear I mean that in the best possible way.”

Sussman agrees, adding, “It has definitely become the unicorn wine of the beer world… I guess it’s an inevitable symptom of our need to transform these kinds of authentic products into a form of cultural capital, but it’s still really annoying. On the other hand, that definitely doesn’t stop me from stuffing my suitcase with as many bottles of Cantillon as possible whenever I’m in Europe.”

The beer is indeed increasingly hard to find for enthusiastic American beer drinkers. When Lepeltier relocated to New York to open the Upper East Side Rouge Tomate, she tried putting Cantillon on the list, but managed to source only a single case for the opening. Now, at the restaurant’s new location in Chelsea, she’s sourcing vintage bottles from a private collection which allows her to sell a rotating selection of rare, aged and obscure Cantillon.

She’s used these bottles as touchstone to expanding her beer program at Rouge Tomate Chelsea, where she now serves a variety of funky and sour beers including many domestic examples. “In the States, I think Cascade is doing great sours. Grimm is a good introduction to the style, and I like what I’ve had from Suarez so far, too,” she says.

Walsh maintains an exclusively domestic wine and beverage list at Agern, so Cantillon is technically off-limits there. But he still incorporates it as a training tool for his staff, a means of demonstrating the absolute apex of the sour beer style. He says it helps when referencing other blended and barrel-aged sours that do appear on his list, like those from Oxbow, Prairie and Bruery Terreux.

Sussman, meanwhile, says Cantillon has encouraged him to go in the opposite direction, steering away from “wine-like” beers, like gueuze and saison. “There are things that only beer can do, and I imagine that as wine drinkers increasingly open up to beer, and take it on its own terms, the beauty of a delicate, perfectly balanced German pilsner will become obvious,” he says. “It’s a natural learning curve.”

Still, Lepeltier says few beers can compete with Cantillon’s balance and complexity. “3 Fonteinen is good, but maybe a little more accessible for beginners,” she says. “Cantillon is so good that I have to be careful putting it on the list because it sells out fast. And I want everyone to get to drink Cantillon.”

Five of the Most Sought-After Cantillon Expressions

Cantillon produces many different lambics and gueuze (a term for blended lambic of different ages). Some are more coveted than others, though today, nearly all are relatively hard to find in the U.S. Here, five of the most sought-after bottles, according to wine folks.

Fou’ Foune

This apricot lambic is bright yellow in color with notes of wet hay, velvety fruit and wildflowers. It is released every year and is suitable for five-plus years of aging. “It’s just a delicious treat,” says Lepeltier.

Lou Pepe (Multiple)

This series of beers includes Lou Pepe Gueuze, Lou Pepe Kriek (cherry lambic) and Lou Pepe Framboise (raspberry lambic). Says Lepeltier, “The Kriek has such a distinctive taste of Schaerbeek cherries, and the Framboise is also stunning. The Lou Pepe bottlings use lambic aged longer than usual, and I think it really brings a beautiful balance with the acidity compared with regular Kriek, Gueuze, and Framboise.”

Bruocsella 1900 Grand Cru

Bruocsella is a rare, unblended lambic from Cantillon (most lambic is blended with beers of different ages or with fruit to tame their acidity and tartness). Lepeltier says it’s great after five years in the bottle, after which it’s fully tamed. “Such a complex, powerful beer, deserving proper opening, aeration and glassware. It’s really a stunning expression of lambic.”

La Vie est Belge

The wine world’s love for Cantillon flows both ways. Fifth-generation owner and brewer Jean Van Roy often takes inspiration from the wine world, meticulously blending from myriad barrels and aging beer in amphorae (that latter is yet to be released). For this beer, Van Roy sourced freshly emptied vin jaune barrels from the Jura’s Stéphane Tissot and finished lambic in them unwashed. Like vin jaune, the result is nutty and oxidized with good acidity.

Rosé de Gambrinus

Van Roy’s take on a rosé is a 20-month-old framboise matured on raspberries for two months. The cheeky label depicts a rosy-cheeked King Gambrinus, considered the patron saint of beer, receiving a sort of lap dance from a beer-toting nude lady.

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