It’s here. It’s beer. It happens once a year. This Saturday, September 20, marks the release of the venerable Zwanze. And although it sounds like some sort of infectious disease to be desperately avoided, craft beer connoisseurs line up by the thousands to experience this rare Belgian lambic produced annually at the legendary Cantillon Brewery on the outskirts of Brussels. A sort of Halley’s Comet for the craft community, it makes a brief appearance at only a handful of select bars across the globe, flashing brilliantly before vanishing as quickly as it came. Tapping at just 23 locations in the United States, New Yorkers are fortunate enough to have two options for tomorrow’s big day: Alewife in Long Island City and Spuyten Duyvil in Williamsburg.
Here’s a quick bit of background for the uninitiated: Founded in 1900, Cantillon Brewery remains the world’s preeminent source of lambic — a sour style of beer, made by way of open-air fermentation, oak-aging, and meticulous blending. Traditional beer relies upon domesticated yeast in a closed system to maintain consistency; all of the major variables are tightly controlled. With lambic production, fermentation occurs spontaneously, using whatever organisms are available in the air at the time. This results in a liquid that is typically tart, and somewhat unpredictable from batch to batch. To keep the flavor in line, master blenders combine one- to three-year-old vintages that have been aging in oak, before bottling the mixture in a process not unlike the Méthode Champenoise used to make Champagne. The bottles are then stored for a year, as the active yeasts inside continue the magical alchemy known as conditioning.
If you’re still reading this, then you are precisely the type of person who might consider queuing up on a Saturday morning for the opportunity to imbibe a precious brew that isn’t even tapped until 3 p.m. But amazing things come to those who wait, and there’s a compelling case to be made for patience here.
Zwanze Day launched in 2008, when fourth-generation Cantillon brewmaster Jean-Pierre van Roy decided to take his passion, his very birthright, and translate it into a worldwide event. He readied a very exclusive lambic, aged with rhubarb, and allotted enough to distribute kegs to two dozen of the more prestigious beer outlets peppered across the planet. To enhance and unify the global camaraderie of such a singular experience, van Roy requested a specific moment — across all time zones — for the kegs to be tapped and a universal toast to lambic to be raised. And with this simultaneous ode to spontaneous fermentation, a tradition was born.
Six years later, Zwanze Day is more popular stateside than ever before, as the American palate continues to bend toward sour suds. At the center of it all in this go-round is Cuvée Florian — a slightly bitter, gently tart offering that is of special significance to the brewmaster. With the next generation of Cantillon preparing to take charge, van Roy utilized a recipe influenced by his son. On the heels of the kid’s 18th birthday, this year’s Zwanze bears his name.
Prepping for their second straight year of participation, Alewife (5-14 51st Avenue, Queens; 718-937-7494) has opted to make the event un-ticketed. Instead, it will be available to the first 80 diehards to make it in after the 11 a.m. opening. But for everyone else, a spectacularly curated list of equally impressive Cantillons and other assorted wild ales will be served throughout the day. Not to be outdone, Brooklyn’s Spuyten Duyvil (359 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-963-4140) boasts an equally gobsmacking array of Belgian lambics to accompany its keg of Zwanze. It’s a smaller space than Alewife, though, so your chances of making it through the door here are dramatically lower.
Perhaps tasting the beer itself is secondary — the event is truly built around community. If you count yourself among the swelling ranks of craft beer enthusiasts, take note of the time tomorrow afternoon. At the strike of 3 p.m., regardless of what’s in your glass, raise it high to good grog. The whole world will be toasting with you.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 19, 2014