Sunday 5 October 2014

The Cult of Zwanze

Chris and I arrive at The Kernel at about ten past seven in the evening. It's not yet busy but already buzzing. A beaming Evin O'Riordian, the Bermondsey brewery's founder excitedly shakes our hands as our names are checked off a list. I've never seen Evin so animated, he's clearly thrilled to be hosting an event that is so well respected in many circles of beer.

We join the short queue for the bar and admire a more than respectable draught list featuring sour beers from some of the UK's finest and a few from Belgium's most respected. We order both a Fou' Foune and a Lou Pepe Kriek from Brasserie Cantillon, the brewery that has caused us to be here in the first place. These beers, both as rare as hens teeth, are good enough to ruin you for most other sour brews. The subtle, sherbert and apricot nuances of Fou' Foune are delectable enough to make a grown man weep with joy and this isn't even this evenings main event. 

We are here for Zwanze (pronounced Svanz-ee) Day and right now beer geeks around the world are waiting, waiting for a taste of this Zwanze, a beer released by Cantillon only once a year. Each year the beer is different, it is Cantillon owner and head brewer Jean-Pierre Van Roy's chance to push the boundaries of his beer as far as they will go. At 9pm Belgium time nominated Zwanze venues across Europe and the United States will tap a single keg of this beer and the Belgian brewery's most ardent fans will stand in line in order to obtain a glass of what will probably be their only opportunity to taste it.  

My first Gueuze was a Cantillon, I jumped in feet first at the deep end. I've now tried countless others but I always come back to Cantillon. It may be too acetic for some but I find this beer and its variants as elegant as they are intense, it simply has no equal within the genre. I first heard mention of Zwanze Day about two years ago but so secretive is this movement, and with the beer in short supply this is almost understandable, I had no idea what it was or which brewery it involved. What I did read were reports of endless queues and disappointment, mostly from the United States where some that had travelled to a Zwanze event had failed to obtain any of that years release.

A year later and Zwanze Day came around again, The Earl of Essex in Islington was Britain's nominated venue. Again it passed me by and I didn't obtain a ticket but I did see more complaints referring to an overcrowded venue that wasn't quite prepared for the throng of zealots that descended upon it. Over the next 12 months I tried more and more Cantillon beers and I too became one of the brewery's acolytes like so many have done before me. There was no way in hell I was going to miss out on this years Zwanze.

So I followed Cantillon's movements religiously and I clung on to every hint of information they released about this years beer like a comfort blanket. When the London venues of The Dove and The Kernel were announced I emailed The Kernel faster than a thunderclap in order to reserve my space. The days ticked down and eventually I was sat there with Chris in The Kernel's tap room. It felt unusual being there at a late hour with the arches of Bermondsey drawing closed but there was an incredible feeling of camaraderie in the room as we were all here for the same very important reason. 

It gradually got busier but not as busy as it can get on a Saturday lunchtime. I watched the clock, trying to time my queuing perfectly so as to minimise my wait and ensure I got my promised third of Zwanze. I drained the last drops of my kriek, another masterclass of a beer with sweet and sour in perfect harmony. I gently lunged my way towards the bar so as not to draw too much attention to myself. I was one of the first there as I had planned it and soon the line lengthened behind me taking over the room. Finally it was my turn, I exchanged three pounds and fifty pence for a wine glass of an effervescent, russet red liquid and I dove in, feet first. 

Iris is Cantillon's dry hopped version of their Gueuze. It adds an assertive bitterness to the already potent sourness, it is divine but it is not for the faint hearted. Aged for three years in oak this beer then becomes a Grand Cru. This Iris Grand Cru was then blended with a Kriek in order to complement the base beer and then in a final twist British Bramling Cross hops were used to futher enhance this beers complexity. The beer is called CuvĂ©e Florian, named after Jean-Pierre Van Roy's son to mark his 18th Birthday and it is this years Zwanze.

Immediately on the nose are blackberries and sour cherries along with green apple skins and that barnyard musk that reminds you that this is a Cantillon beer. The nose translates almost perfectly into flavour, fruit and caramel keeping perfect control of acetic sourness. It has the tang of sour cherries but the juiciness of ripe blackberries and this lingers and lingers with a prickle of bitterness making sure that you want more. It is wonderful, it is as close to perfection as you can find in a glass of beer. 

The atmosphere in the room is electric, almost tangible and the verdict on this years Zwanze is unanimous. We have each fallen in love with Cantillon all over again. Soon the glasses of Zwanze are drained and we will have to wait another 12 months to taste Jean Van Roy's next creation but thankfully we weren't quite ruined for other beers. We work our way through the remainder of the beers on tap, smiling, laughing, comparing tasting notes, the people as much of the occasion as the beers themselves. 

Making my way home much later, still elated but significantly worse for wear I think out loud "damn, I wish I had gone to last years Zwanze day after all" to which my friend Claire replies "you didn't miss much, last years tasted like butt."


  1. Once again a nice piece Matt. I happened to be in Brussels the other week and with a couple of hours between trains I popped up to Cantillon (as I tend to do when I'm in town). Had a bottle of the new Zwanze all to myself for "lunch" and I have to say it really is very good, They also had Fou foune, Lou Pepe Kriek and Mamouche for sale to take away - got a 75cl of each for the grand total of €26!

    1. Thanks John, yes it's quite something isn't it. Funnily enough I just picked up a bottle each of those three beers too, although I did pay a little more for them from a UK store :)