As yet another Zwanze day approaches, thousands of people all over the world wait impatiently for the curated annual roster of bars and breweries to come out. Fans know only one thing, this beer, even if they somehow get to it, wouldn't taste like whatever they had tasted before in life. So it is no crazy affair after a tang they couldn't afford to shake away.
This is lust after a surprise.
Does that all mean they've already got the beer? Far from it, they know. Cantillon, the company that releases this special beer annually, holds the cards close to its chest, until the day it reveals the names of the bars that would receive the consignment it sends from its traditional brewery in Belgium. You get a glass only if the name of a bar near you falls on the list.
Well, the festival, Zwanse day, begins.
Zwanze is a special kind of lambic beer made annually by Cantillon, one of the few breweries that make lambic beer. Welcome to the jittery world of lambic born in Belgium.
Most of you know how breweries keep guard of special strains of yeast cells for fermentation. They behave as if the DNA of a beer sits inside the particular kind of yeast they use and if they lose it, everything ends, they won't get back to the old taste with their beer ever again. But at the breweries that make Lambic, there are no secrets.
Once the mash is made, they leave it open near the roof of their breweries. The honeytrap is set to invite random yeast cells that pass by. Once they settle in, fermentation begins, followed by the birth of the lambic beer. But as it is difficult to get the same yeast strain from the passing air every time, the taste changes with each issue. But who cares! Ardent followers of lambic, love it that way. Because for them, lambic is surprise bottled.
Authentic lambic is so rare in the world because for taste it depends on those yeast cells specific to the Senne River Valley in Belgium.
Cantillon, founded by Paul Cantillon and Marie Touch in 1900, was, right from the early days, making lambic, exploiting the Belgian atmosphere conducive for brewing. But when World War II broke out, their sons Robert and Marcel could not focus on the family business that now began to decline.
Had it not been for Jean-Pierre Van Roy who married the daughter of Marcel, Cantillon would have stopped production long ago (Surprises always fly by in Belgium).
Today Cantillon blends sour ale, spontaneously fermented, with fresh fruit. It is then blended with one-year-old lambic before it is poured into oak barrels for ageing. There are different kinds of lambic at the Cantillon. They call it kriek when cherries are added, framboise when they are raspberries. Other fruits like red currants and apricots are also added to make special editions. For making gueuze, they blend lambics aged between one and three years before they are allowed to rest in bottles for an average of a year.
Zwanze is Cantillon's exclusive production brewed only once a year. Due to its huge demand even far outside the country the company began to ship it out to the US in the last decade. But the affair didn't last.
Van Roy was infuriated when he came to know that his special beers were sold in the US by middlemen for fifty times the original price. New selling practices and guidelines were immediately charted out as a response. The company decided not to sell bottles to any bar; there would only be on-site pours. Only those establishments that would comply with selling the beer at a reasonable cost could get the special consignment annually from Cantillon.
The next obvious step was to organize a world-wide event to realease the special Zwanze annually! So in 2011, the world-wide release party, popularly known as Zwanze day was born.
The list of the bars and the breweries where the beers would be available are refreshed every year. The surprise was perhaps intended to match perfectly with the content of the bottles. One thing people are sure is that each year Cantillon's batch is different from the last, thanks to the open fermentation by which lambic is made. Who knows which particular strain of yeast cells fly by a brewery on a particular night far away in Belgium!
While in 2011, the release party was held in 22 worldwide locations, it grew to 66 in mere five years. Forget the time zone, when the moment comes bartenders and owners come away from their chores, tap their kegs of the special Zwanze blend responding to the ones at the other parts of the world. It's time for the simultaneous toast.