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The Moment Cantillon Happened

How the cult producer of Belgian lambic went from unknown to geek obsession in a matter of years.

On what was supposed to be a sleepy Wednesday morning last November, the beloved Belgian brewery, Cantillon, had released that season’s bottles of Fou’Foune, Nath and Lou Pepe Framboise. Whereas in past years, these lambics might have lasted several days if not weeks, this time they sold out in a matter of hours due to an onslaught of atypical customers. Brewery owner Jean Van Roy claimed in a Facebook post that some of these locals “couldn’t even pronounce the name of the brewery or of the beer correctly.” They just knew they could quickly flip it to Americans on the black market.

For most people today, the only way to access Cantillon is via beer’s online black market, where bottles sell (illegally) for hundreds of dollars apiece on sites like MyBeerCellar. Over the last half-decade, Cantillon has been become a black market darling among American beer geeks. It wasn’t always this way, though.

According to Joel Shelton, in 1993, when his then-fledgling import company, Shelton Brothers, first started working with the brewery, the traditional lambic-makers weren’t just unknown in America, they weren’t particularly popular at home either.

“When we started with [Cantillon], sales were nearly non-existent, even in Belgium,” Shelton reveals. It’s been reported Cantillon had a mere 20 accounts in Brussels when they first met the Sheltons. “They mentioned that they had no U.S. distribution and that’s what I half-jokingly told [my brother] Dan when I returned home many weeks later with a pile of 750s in a green duffel bag.”

As for abruptly deciding to start a beer import company to get some bottles into America, he notes, “It was more about wanting to share my experience with my bros. I didn’t imagine anything else would come from it.”

For awhile, nothing really did. The first 1,200 cases the Sheltons brought into the country took several years to sell. Sour beer wasn’t just unpopular in America in the late-1990s, it was virtually impossible for your average consumer to find. The only makers of the style stateside in these nascent days of craft beer were a few small, hyper-local artisans like California’s Russian River and The Lost Abbey, Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin and Colorado’s New Belgium, whose La Folie was one of only three “sours” on Beer Advocate’s Top 100 Beers list in 2007, at No. 53. For Cantillon to eventually tip in America, sour beer itself would have to become far more ubiquitous.

Of course, “sour” beer is not a style per se, but instead a recently-created catchall term for everything from historical Belgian lambic (like Cantillon) and Flanders red ale up to the modern American riffs on those styles. Eventually the latter group would take the stylistic nomenclature of “American wild ale,” as in the case of Russian River Supplication (No. 36 in 2006), a brown ale aged in pinot noir barrels alongside sour cherries and wild Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus.

Russian River certainly helped pave the way for Cantillon in America. Whereas most “sour” breweries in Belgium and America exclusively focused on, well, sours, Russian River was unique in that it produced everything from pilsners to blonde ales to porters. By the mid-2000s, piny, dank west coast IPAs were America’s hottest style, and the Santa Rosa brewpub also made the best of that bunch.

In 2008, Russian Rivers’ Pliny the Elder (double IPA) and Pliny the Younger (triple IPA) both entered Beer Advocate’s top 10 for the first time. Those beers were basically unobtainable outside northern California and beer geeks began trading local buddies to acquire them. It’s not hard to imagine a Russian River local throwing a Supplication or Beatication in the FedEx box, too, which is exactly is what happened to me. It wouldn’t be long before beer geeks learned Russian Rivers’ sours were Americanized homages to Cantillon. (Russian River owner Vinnie Cilurzo visited the brewery in 2006 and came back home inspired to brew his own version of lambic.)

By 2010, American sour beer really began to garner acclaim. Russian River had four of theirs in Beer Advocate’s top 100 and Cantillon began to pick up steam, too; the days of seeing “Loons” on shelves was almost over. In fact, by 2011, the thirst had grown enough that Cantillon owner Jean Van Roy decided to reward the international beer drinkers who had made his brewery so unexpectedly popular by throwing a little celebration.

Called Zwanze Day, speciality Cantillon kegs were tapped simultaneously at eleven American bars like Monk’s Cafe in Philadelphia and Spuyten Duyvil in Brooklyn—all places that had been early devotees of the brewery. These “tap takeover” events allowed many Americans to finally taste these beers for the first time. Even then, however, Van Roy seemed to be wary that his cult brewery would soon be in the throes of, in his opinion, unscrupulous profiteers.

“Because of my dedication to my work as a brewer and out of respect for the product itself,” he wrote in the Zwanze Day press release, “it is very important to me for prices to stay reasonable. Unfortunately, there are those out there who couldn’t care less about spontaneous fermentation beer but who do care a lot about making easy money.”

By then there wasn’t a lot left he could do; Zwanze Day would only lead to a more rampant thirst for his offerings. By 2013, 113 years since Van Roy’s great-grandfather had first started producing beer, Cantillon finally conquered the American beer geek firmament. Within that year, 11 Cantillons suddenly jumped into Beer Advocate’s top 250. Fou’Foune, a lambic aged with apricots that had been unranked for years, was now Cantillon’s highest ranked offering at No. 11.

“America is the reason [Cantillon] survived,” Tom Peters of Monk’s told My City Paper in 2011, on the heels of Van Roy’s first goodwill visit to the States for that initial Zwanze Day. “We get a full third of Belgium’s lambic production, and we’d take more if they would give it to us.”

With a production capacity of only 1,500 barrels a year—which was just recently doubled—Cantillon needed only get mildly popular amongst a small sect of American beer (and wine) geeks to become completely unavailable the world over. While any Cantillon fan can tell you, anecdotally, that it’s become increasingly difficult to find Cantillon over the last decade—hell, I used to see it gathering dust in Whole Foods—the data actually supports it. According to BeerMenus, while the number of instances of Cantillon being available in bars, shops and restaurants has held steady, the number of businesses their website tracks has increased twelvefold.

In the late winter of 2014 I finally visited the brewery for the first time. Even then, Cantillon remained mostly an American beer geek phenomenon. In Brussels, few bars served it and I was amused to find cheap bottles at touristy postcard shops. I was likewise impressed that I could walk into the brewery with no hassle or ceremony and sit there all day drinking bottles for a dozen Euros.

It was unfathomable to me that Cantillon wasn’t as pursued by its hometown locals as it was by Americans. It appears today, however, it finally is—though, mainly as a profit opportunity.

As one angry fan who had been shut out on bottles commented on their Facebook page: “How about you Americans stop buying beers at rediculous [sic] prices? That way those resellers don’t have any business at all.”

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