Visiting Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen – the best lambic producers

Brussels: December 2023

Lambic beer, despite its rising popularity, remains a somewhat difficult-to-understand niche segment. Having written our guide decoding what it is, how it tastes and how it’s made, the next logical step would be to introduce its best producers – Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen.

Both producers provide guided tours and tastings. For gueuze enthusiasts, 3 Fonteinen’s lambik-o-droom  is a must-visit – a 30-minute commute by train from Brussels. There is simply no better place to taste a well-aged gueuze. For those passing through Brussels and pressed for time, Cantillon presents the best option. Conveniently located, it’s just a short walk from the main station, Gare du Midi.

Table of contents
In Brussels: CantillonOutside Brussels: 3 Fonteinen


Founded at the dawn of the 20th century by Paul Cantillon, today Cantillon is the last lambic brewery in Brussels. Initially, the brewery focused on blending lambics to create gueuze. However, in 1939, under the guidance of Paul’s sons, Marcel and Robert, Cantillon began brewing lambics using second-hand equipment. The brewery experienced significant growth after World War II, reaching a peak of half a million litres of lambic in maturation by 1957. Despite this success, Cantillon faced challenges in the 1960s. The beer industry was shifting towards pure yeast beers, which fermented faster and were more profitable, overshadowing lambic’s traditional spontaneous fermentation method. By the end of the 1960s, the future of Cantillon was uncertain, with no immediate successors in the family to take over.

Fortunately, Marcel’s daughter, Claude, along with her husband Jean-Pierre Van Roy, assumed control of the brewery. Jean-Pierre, who learned the brewing craft under Marcel’s tutelage, encountered significant economic challenges during the 1970s and 1980s. To navigate these difficult times, they inaugurated the Brussels Museum for Gueuze beer within the brewery’s premises. This strategic move was crucial in keeping the brewery afloat. The resurgence of Cantillon began in the 1990s, buoyed by international interest and export opportunities. Today, the brewery is managed by the fourth generation, Florian and Magali, with the fifth generation, Simon, Magali’s son, already actively involved.

Their brewing style

While the process of producing lambic is quite specific, brewers and blenders still have ample opportunity to infuse their own style into it. At Cantillon, the foundational lambic recipe consists of 35% raw wheat grain and 65% malted barley. In each batch of 10,000 litres, 24 kilograms of aged hops are used. This is followed by a boiling process lasting three hours, reducing the volume to about 7,500 litres. The aim is to create a lambic with an alcohol content of 5%. However, the range of beers Cantillon offers, all based on lambic, vary in character and final alcohol content depending on the specific brew.

The offering is extensive, including the classic gueuze and kriek, along with fruit lambics featuring a variety of fruits, wine grapes or the prized Schaarbeek cherry (Kriek Lou Pepe). Noteworthy are the cuvée Saint Gilloise, made with fresh hops, and Sang Bleue, macerated with haskap berries. Typically, the more sour lambics, which don’t blend well for gueuze, are reserved for making fruit lambics. To ensure fruit lambic production continues through the winter, Cantillon freezes part of their fruit supply to keep it available for brewing throughout the year.

For the fermentation and élevage, the brewery employs a range of barrel sizes – 225, 228, 300, and 400 litres – primarily acquired from the wine sector. Although larger barrels are available, the limited space at Cantillon restricts their usage. This limitation notably influences their gueuze style, resulting in a more pronounced vanilla flavour from the French oak.

Tasting notes

Cantillon – Gueuze 2022
Nose:Very complex nose. Notes of vanilla from oak, green almonds, and yellow plums. A mild touch of acetic.
Palate: Green apples, and yellow plum dominate over a tart citric note of lemon. Through the midpalate and finish, the vanilla rounds it up. Delicious, probably one of the best beers we have had.
Structure: High acidity, dry, 5.5% alcohol, light body.

Cantillon – Rose de Gambrinus 2023
Nose:Very aromatic with aromas of fresh raspberries, rhubarb, and a touch of yeast.
Palate: Fruity core of raspberry juice, with a large proportion of fruit per bottle. Good body and sweeter, which balances the acidity of lambik to a more tamed tension.
Structure: High acid, medium sweet, 5.5% alcohol, medium body.

Cantillon – Cuvée Saint Gilloise 2022
Nose:Relatively muted notes. Notes of lemon and green apples.
Palate: Similar to Gueuze, but with a less ripe fruit and much less oak. Green apples and a citric note of lemons and lime zest. Sharp, more for an aperitif?
Structure: Very high acidity, dry, 5.5% alcohol, light body.

Cantillon – Cuvée Saint Gilloise 2023
Nose:Very aromatic, with very hoppy notes reminiscent of an IPA, just milder. Background hints of lemon zest.
Palate:More body than the Gueuze, with primary notes of lime and lemon and a mild yeasty finish dominated by hops. Mild lemon pithy bitterness on the finish.
Structure:Very high acidity, dry, 5.5% alcohol, light body.

Cantillon – Sang Bleue 2022
Nose:Very fruity tart red berries: mostly cranberries and red currants.
Palate:The palate confirms the nose, with the midpalate showing lots of malic acid. Notes of violets and mild acetic aromas.
Structure:Very high acid, medium sweet, 5.5% alcohol, medium body.

Cantillon – Saint Lamvinus 2022
Nose:Aromatic nose, more unidimensional. Plums from the Merlot and lemon zest of the lambic. May need more time for Merlot integration.
Palate:Confirms the nose. Good concentration of fruit. Note of oak in the finish evoking a red wine note, reminiscent of oak chips.
Structure:Very high acidity, low tannins, medium sweet, 7% alcohol, light body.

Cantillon – Nath 2023
Nose: Medium intensity on the nose, there are some wafs of volatile acidity and Brett which are not very pleasant. Behind them we get some floral notes of rhubarb and apple skins.
Palate: Cleaner than the nose. The oak is not very noticeable, giving a floral and green apple profile. The rhubarb notes shine through here. The acidity is surprisingly tamed for a lambic, very well balanced.
Structure: High acidity, medium sweet, 5.5% alcohol, light body.

Cantillon – Grand Cru Bruocsella 2023
Nose: Amber colour and medium intensity. The nose is more oxidative with notes of hazelnuts, apricot, raisins and a touch of leather.
Palate: The palate shows a lot of body for a lambic, with a much milder toned-down acidity. The attack is driven by apricots, with the midpalate showing oak tannins that give a sensation of drinking an orange wine. Flavours of apple skins, apple cider and hazelnuts also show here. The finish is slightly honeyed.
Structure: Crisp acidity, dry, 5% alcohol, medium body. Long finish.

3 Fonteinen

3 Fonteinen has been a gueuze blender since 1882 with the establishment of an inn in Beersel by Jacobus Vanderlinden and Joanna Brillens. The name, ‘Drie Fonteinen,’ likely originated from the three types of draft beer they served: lambic, faro, and kriek. In 1953, Gaston Debelder and Raymonde Dedoncker took the reins and enhanced the inn’s blending operations. Their tenure marked a significant period of growth, leading to a relocation in 1961 to a larger site on Beersel’s church square, now also accommodating a thriving pub-restaurant.

Gaston and Raymonde’s son, Armand, who had been involved with the family business since his teens, assumed leadership in 1982, taking charge of both the kitchen and the gueuze blendery. Despite the waning popularity of geuze beer beginning to affect the company through the 1990s, Armand’s dedication led him to start brewing his own lambic in 1998, complementing the existing blending operations. A major setback occurred in 2009 when an accident destroyed much of their bottled gueuze stock and nearly drove Armand into bankruptcy. The recovery, spearheaded by assistant brewer Michaël Blancquaert and later aided by Werner Van Obberghen, saw 3 Fonteinen resuming the brewing operations in 2012.

New beginnings and continued legacy (2005-Present)

After Gaston’s death in 2005, the 3 Fonteinen estate was divided, with the restaurant and brewery each taking independent paths under the same name. In 2016, the brewery expanded, moving key operations like the barrel room, bottling, and labelling lines, the warm room, and the administration to a new location in Lot, just a five-minute drive from Beersel. This new site hosts the lambik-o-droom, a bar where patrons can taste most of the 3 Fonteinen cuvées alongside select back vintages, just like they did in the original restaurant. The year 2022 marked the end of an era with Armand’s passing, but the legacy endures with Michael, Werner, and a more silent investor at the helm.

A purist approach to lambic

All brewing continues in Beersel, taking advantage of the cooler night temperatures ideal for cooling down the wort. Despite having the huge warehouse in Lot, the brewery remains small, capping at 4000 litres per batch. Traditionally, 3 Fonteinen has been more renowned for blending different lambic beers than for its own brewing. Indeed, walking through the barrel room, one sees plenty of markings from Boon, Lindemans and Girardin.

Compared to Cantillon, the brewery uses larger barrels and foudres, ranging from 300 to 500 liters, mostly made of old French oak. These barrels typically have a lifespan of 10 to 20 years. The goal is to acquire barrels that are as used as possible, to minimize the influence of their previous contents on the lambic. For identification, barrels are colour-coded: green labels are used for Pilsner barrels, while red labels indicate Barolo or Piedmont barrels. Their standard cuvées of gueuze and kriek are influenced less by the oak than Cantillon’s, which again uses smaller barrels. However, 3 Fonteinen engages in extensive experimentation with different types of wood and oak provenances. Their delicious cuvée Zenne y Frontera is made using single-use Sherry barrels, infusing the lambics with caramelised and oxidized Sherry aromas. Other experiments involve American oak, German oak, acacia or chestnut woods, all available for tasting at their lambik-o-droom.

As a blender, in their production of gueuze they generally blend lambic from other sources. Still, the cuvée Armand & Gaston is an exception, being crafted solely from their own lambic. The brewery’s meticulous approach to brewing, with a focus on using only organic grains, is a point of pride. A helpful tip for recognizing their top-tier cuvées is the bottle colour: regular varieties are in green bottles, whereas the best ones tend to be in brown bottles, offering better protection from light.

For the production of fruit lambic, only fresh and seasonal fruits are utilized. Excluding kriek, a variety of fruits such as grapes and peaches are typically left to macerate in lambic for a period ranging from four to six months. However, raspberries and strawberries undergo a shorter maceration time, not exceeding three months, to prevent bitterness from their small seeds. In contrast, in the case of kriek, the maximum maceration duration can extend to one year. The Schaarbeekskriek, a specific type of small and sour cherry, is notably used in kriek. Unlike some competitors who remove the cherry stones, 3 Fonteinen chooses to leave them intact, believing it enhances the flavour.

Tasting notes

3 Fonteinen – Oude Gueuze (Blend 75) 21/22
Nose:Very aromatic. Notes of ripe pear and apple with a lot of influence from oak, but not overwhelming. It’s actually well integrated: cedar, vanilla, clove, toasted bread.
Palate:More body and concentration than in Cantillon’s Gueuze. Ripe apples, apricot, and candied citrous would describe the fruit profile best. The oak notes do the rest with clove, vanilla, cedar and hay.
Structure:Fine soft mousse, high acidity, dry, 6.7% alcohol, medium body. Very long finish.

3 Fonteinen – Oude Geuze Cuvée Armand et Gaston Vintage 2019
Nose:Very aromatic nose, with a touch of VA that blows off with time. Green apple and lemon zest notes dominate after that.
Palate:Beautiful tension and concentration, well balanced naturally. Pure and clean palate with green apple, lemon and lime zest.
Structure:Fine soft mousse, very high acidity, dry, 6.6% alcohol, medium body. Long finish.

3 Fonteinen – Oude Geuze Vintage 2010
Nose:Nose is quite developed and very aromatic. Notes of apricot and honey are followed by very autolytic notes that are reminiscent of Champagne: brioche, biscuits and sourdough. Very layered.
Palate:No fizz left and more amber colour. Fermentation can continue overtime with gueuze, so it’s good to see that the body is still there and plentiful. Notes of apricot, dried apricot are followed by candied lemon before a long autolytic finish. The usual tension and verticality of gueuze has been rounded by time into a softer version.
Structure:Fizz is almost imperceptible, high acidity, dry, 6% alcohol, medium body, very long finish.

3 Fonteinen – Zenne y Frontera (Blend 66) 20/21
Nose:Wow, what a nose. Very aromatic and complex. There are notes of ripe apple and torrefaction (coffee or cocoa), mixed with ebony and Marsala spice. Swirling makes it even more complex, adding aromas of lemon zest to the mix.
Palate:The complexity finds itself in the palate too. The attack is driven by apple and lemon, but quickly changes to the secondary notes of its élevage in the midpalate. The beauty is how well integrated these notes are. Simply delicious.
Structure:Fine soft mousse, high acidity, dry, 8.5% alcohol, medium body. Very long finish.

3 Fonteinen – Framboos Oogst 2019
Nose:Very aromatic and complex. Funky, in a good way: sousbois, rhum molasses notes, vanilla from oak. All very well integrated. No acetic notes. Truly excellent.
Palate:Here one can notice more the raspberries, but again very well integrated into the lambic. The result is similar to green apples and raspberries. The finish is closed by those great notes from the nose. Long finish.
Structure:Fine soft mousse, high acidity, dry, 6.2% alcohol, light body.

3 Fonteinen – Druif Riesling (Blend 50) 21/22
Nose: Medium aromatic nose. Notes of citric hops and lemon. The oak influence here is less pronounced, fresher and fruitier, but still some vanilla and hay notes.
Palate: Lighter and zestier, resembling more St Gilloise from Cantillon. Green apples, rhubarb and lime dominate. The finish shows that touch of oak.
Structure: Fine soft mousse, very high acidity, dry, 6.7% alcohol, medium body. Very long finish.

3 Fonteinen – Hommage (Blend 33) 18/19
Nose: Very aromatic nose. The notes of fresh red cherries and raspberries are very forward. Mild yeasty and oaky notes round up the fruity aromas.
Palate: Very very acidic, with the fructose of the red fruit not showing at all. A fruit forward attack followed by the deep acidity and some notes of oak.
Structure: Fine soft mousse, very high piercing acidity, dry, 6% alcohol, medium body. Long finish.

3 Fonteinen – Tuverbol 2022
Overview: Aromatic and hop-forward. A mix of blonde triple and lambic. The lambic gives some acidity, but it’s mostly driven by the grainy and fresh hops notes of the triple.
Nose: The aroma is marked by a blend of grainy and fresh hop notes from the blonde triple, complemented by a subtle acidity from the lambic.
Palate: Vigorous mousse with a mix of grainy and hoppy flavors. Medium acidity, adding a pleasant sharpness to the overall profile.
Structure: Medium acidity, dry, 9.6% alcohol, full body.

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