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A Tale of Three Breweries

Three of the most disparate breweries imaginable on Iron Liver I
Beer Travels June 22, 2002      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

On the first Iron Liver Tour, back in 1998, I drank an impressive amount of beer, and visited a large number of breweries. Most of those breweries were brewpubs like the great Im Füchschen in Düsseldorf, the famous Pinkus Müller in Münster, or the working brewery and restaurant school Perho in Helsinki. Given the number of brewpubs I've seen, I really didn't break my neck to secure a tour of any of these, not even at landmarks like 't IJ, P.J. Früh, or Hövels. But I did visit three breweries the likes of which I'd never seen before. <P>The first was Cantillon, in the Anderlecht district of Brussels. I was staying in Molenbeek, and the walk down to the brewery was, to say the least, interesting. Other than Quebec, this was the first day I'd ever spent in a non-English speaking locale and that alone lent an air of intimidation. I tried to follow my vague set of directions and came across the Senne. The invocation of this river's name stirs great reverence among beer lovers, but the piddle of fetid bile that I crossed was, at best, underwhelming. Having successfully entered Anderlecht, I discovered a district that we Canadians would determine rather filthy. The presence of so many grungy-looking characters hanging out of every doorway watching my every move didn't exactly fill me with confidence either, although these days I get a chuckle out of my naivete. <P>The brewery was nondescript and I walked right past it the first time. But before long I was on the self-guided tour of lambic paradise. For those who have not seen a lambic brewery, it is an experience unlike any other brewery tour. The stories of dust and cobwebs do not do a place like Cantillon justice. They literally never clean the place. The equipment is old, and the gleaming coppers of your local brewpub are a world away. Then again, so is the beer. For a true beer geek, there is nothing as rewarding as standing in a dank cellar filled with rows of barrels, all fermenting and aging lambic. Amidst all this funk lives a handful of mangy cats, whose purpose I presume is to keep the rodentiary population under wraps. The cats are pretty coy though, but at least it's better than getting scratched like I did at the launch party of Blanche de Brooklyn (which incidentally was another rather intimidating walk - two suburbanite white kids roaming a section of industrial Brooklyn distinctly devoid of life, but that's another story).<P>The next brewery was the antithesis of Cantillon - the almighty Carlsberg Brewery in Copenhagen. Part of my motivation, I admit, was to taste all the different Carlsbergs without having to actually pay for them (Scandinavia isn't the cheapest place for beer-tasting). But I'd never been through a gigantic brewery before. While I did get the expected infinite bottling line, I was surprised to see just how much real estate this brewery chewed up. My parents live down the street from the Labatt's plant in New Westminster, BC, and that facility is but a mere mosquito on Carlsberg's backside. Part of the Carlsberg tour involved taking a bus from one part of the plant to another, to the fermenters, which I think were equipped with flashing lights so that airplanes didn't hit them. Another part of the tour took us to the "small, old" fermenters, which would service a Sierra Nevada expansion just fine. The size and scope of the facility was truly magnificent, and it is one of the more historically interesting macrobreweries you can visit. They have a museum you can visit, and spend a fair bit of time trying to explain the swastikas on the elephant statue at the brewery gates (the statue having been carved long before WWII). <P>Whereas Cantillon gave me two measly samples, Carlsberg were more than happy to ply me with copious amounts of lager, made worse by the fact that half of our tour group didn't even want a drink! The Brits and I cleaned up, and discovered that yes, macrobrew may not be the most characterful, but if done right can be quite pleasant, as the flawless, glossy product of Carlsberg exemplifies. Two drawbacks, though, were the use of a summer student to give the tours (not exactly conversant with the in-depth brewing questions you're likely to ask) and the emphasis on their lagers, to the point where more traditional Danish-style products like the Gammel Porter and hvidtøl were not given at the tasting.<P>The last brewery tour I took was more of a standing tour, in the shed that poses as the production facility of Joutsan Sahti Oy. I took a bus from my home base of Jyväskylä to the small town of Joutsa, in central Finland. My research had indicated that the brewery was in town. Well, that was not the case. I walked along a country road for about a half hour before coming across the correct address, and the small white barn with the sign "Joutsan Sahti Oy". I was in the right place, now for the tour. I had expected a more professional facility, I have to admit, and knocking on the door of the farmhouse wasn't really how I had envisioned the beginnings of my visit. The proprietors were, I suppose, friendly. That is to say they looked it, but since they didn't speak any English and my Finnish was limited to minä en puhuu suomea (well, that and yksi olut), we didn't really have an in-depth conversation (if it is possible to have such things with a Finn). So I stood there and watched while he made cider and we tasted some sahti, which comes in a plastic jug like ones we use for antifreeze. <P>The brewer suggested that if I wanted more, I should visit the pub Jouto-Tupa, across from the bus stop. I did, and although the one person there who spoke English was more interested on my take with regards to the Finnish players in the NHL than on explaining to me the subtleties of sahti-making, I did notice the tiny contraption in the corner of the bar. This turned out to be something of a one-piece brewery. The only other small, smoky, one-horse-town "brewpub" I know of is Olde Heidelburg, in the Mennonite country outside of Kitchener, Ontario, but sure enough Jouto-Tupa made a pale lager, with distinct but interesting house character, and sold it for 2/3 of the price they were charging for Koff. The fact that I was the only one willing to give it a go on that afternoon I suppose explains why they no longer brew. Too bad, though, as the owner was apparently very proud that he had his own brewery (even if it was the size of an espresso machine). After Joutsa, I engaged in one of my greatest beerhunting misadventures trying to reach the Sahti-Hariikka, a sahti brewpub evidently located deep in the woods outside Hartola, which is just down the road from Joutsa. Of all the breweries I saw in Keski-Suomi when I lived there, I believe Joutsan Sahti Oy is the only one still brewing, which I suppose speaks well of their staying power, but looking back on my time there I feel kind of bad that everyone else has fallen by the wayside in the Jyväskylä area, with nobody to take their place. <P>After seeing a neverending supply of near-identical microbreweries and brewpubs over here, though, I certainly found it very refreshing to spend some time in these three very different facilities.


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