Zwanze Day

Anthony Gladman prays at the altar of funk


It is shortly before 10pm on a warm September evening at the Beer Merchants Tap in Hackney Wick, East London. It's a special night and the venue is crowded. As if by unspoken agreement, the anointed among us, clutching tickets to the back room, have sacrificed our hard-won places at the tables outside. We have left behind the less fortunate souls passed over for this self-selecting rapture and pushed through the crowds, heading for the beery sanctum and the communion about to take place within. Now we congregate and wait our turn to taste the holiest of holies: Lambic from the fount of funk. Zwanze.

If beer is your religion then Zwanze Day is one of its many annual observances, albeit one reserved for particularly fervent churchgoers. This ritual pertains to the Apostolic Church of Cantillon, and celebrates a style of brewing that was almost lost to the world. Every year Jean Van Roy, its high priest, releases a specially brewed limited-edition Lambic, and every year fans gather at carefully selected locations across the globe to tap the beer together at 9pm Belgian time.

Each year's beer is different. Apart from the Zwanze name, the only thing that links them is their departure from orthodox Lambic flavours.

In 2017, it was an unblended two-year-old Lambic made with oolong tea, brewed to mark the 18th birthday of Van Roy's youngest son Sylvain. In 2018, it was a blend of Lambics that had been aged for two years in Amarone, Chianti and Sangiovese barrels. In 2019, celebrants will receive a smoked Lambic made with a blend of classic pilsner malts and smoked malts.

"Rather than taking the beer to an extreme, we looked instead to find a balance between the acidic character of Lambic and the woodiness of the smoked malt," Van Roy wrote in an encyclical on Cantillon's Facebook page. "The result is a fine gueuze with the classic notes of a Cantillon, complemented by an elegant smokiness in the nose and on the palate."

If you're an unbeliever, this might sound pretty grim. As if Lambic wasn't weird enough already, with its sour snap and goaty phenolic tang, Van Roy has gone and made it even stranger. But for adherents to the cult of funk this is manna. It's highly sought after and hard to get hold of. If you found the Holy Grail, this would be the stuff to drink from it.

That's the hope each year, anyway. There's always an element of faith involved when embarking on the pilgrimage to the nearest Zwanze Day event. But there's no shortage of people willing to take the plunge, such is Cantillon's reputation.

Go forth and prosper

Like the beers, the events are all different but share a few common themes: the crowds, the carnival atmosphere, and most importantly the sense of occasion.

The genesis of these events goes back almost ten years (the beers go back a little further; the first was brewed back in 2008.) In 2010, Cantillon sent its Zwanze beer to the USA for the first time. Cantillon's beers are not readily available in the USA at the best of times, and this one was bottled with numbered stickers, making a hot commodity even hotter. You didn't need to be a prophet to see what was coming: within a week the bottles, sold for €6 at the Cantillon brewery, turned up on eBay for the equivalent of €80.

"We don't want these vintages to become marketing tools designed exclusively to make a few bucks," Van Roy wrote in response. "Because of my dedication to my work as a brewer and out of respect for the product itself, it is very important to me for prices to stay reasonable."

And so the first official Zwanze Day events were born to crusade against black market profiteering. In 2011 Cantillon supplied beers only to bars that would agree to sell them at a reasonable price, and exclusively to be drunk on site.

The good word spread quickly. In 2011 there were Zwanze days in 22 locations: 11 in the USA and Canada, 10 across Europe and one in Japan. Two years later that total had more than doubled to 46 locations. 25 were in the USA and Canada, 20 in Europe and again one in Japan. Growth slowed after that until 2016, when an expansion in Cantillon's brewing capacity began to take effect. Last year, Zwanze Day was celebrated in 68 locations: 31 in the USA and Canada, 34 in Europe and the rest in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, China and Brazil.

Despite this expansion, Zwanze remains extremely limited. Participating locations receive just one 30-litre keg of the beer each year. That means last year Cantillon released just over 2,000 litres across the world. To put that into some context, a fledgling microbrewery working on a 5BBL kit can produce a little over 800 litres in a single brew. As such the Zwanze beers and the events that surround them will always be defined by their limitations. Rarity is the watchword.

Criticism or blasphemy

With growth comes change. Part of this for Zwanze has been greater public awareness and scrutiny. Perhaps it was inevitable then that controversy would eventually attach itself to the ceremonies. In 2018 this arrived in the form of a near-naked woman dousing herself in beer on the streets of Brussels.

The performance by burlesque dancer Colette Collerette was part of the Zwanze Day celebrations at Brussels beer bar Moeder Lambic. Other acts that night included a drag artist, a contortionist and cabaret dancers — all from the Cabaret Mademoiselle troupe of which Collerette is a member. Her performance was however the only one to be filmed and posted to Cantillon's Facebook page. Taken in isolation it attracted criticism that Cantillon was using women's bodies and sexuality to sell beer. It has faced similar charges in the past for some of its beer names and label art. The church of Cantillon lost a few members as a result but overall its congregation remains numerous.

Another complaint about Zwanze Day is that it has become too commercialised and driven by hype. We can judge the truth of this by examining similar events, for example Beaujolais Nouveaux Day. This is the annual rush on the third Thursday in November to taste the first Beaujolais wines made from that year's harvest. Beaujolais Nouveaux Day was a marketing wheeze right from the outset, with races to deliver the first bottles to Paris concocted to capture media attention. It is all about selling bucketloads of vin ordinaire in a hurry to boost winemakers' cashflow. Criticising Zwanze Day for selling out rings hollow in comparison.

Another parallel might be drawn with Guinness's Arthur's Day celebrations. These were devised by Diageo in 2009 to promote the 250th anniversary of the brewery, and named after its founder Arthur Guinness. Again, this was pure marketing from start to finish (The Irish Times called it "a masterclass in how to fabricate a national holiday"). It was eventually mothballed in 2013 but not before the Royal College of Physicians Ireland noted a 30% increase in ambulance call-outs on each successive Arthur's Day and a troubling rise in alcohol-related liver disease. The "hagiographic treatment" of Arthur Guinness in order to sell lakes of stout makes Zwanze Day seem positively saintly.

Funky mystery

So how can we make sense of all of this without bearing false witness or preaching to the choir? Hype has always been a part of the Zwanze celebrations, and yet the days only exist as a way to fight back against its more extreme consequences. The events are inherently limited and exclusive but access to the beers remains at the core of the idea. And they celebrate the miraculous survival of a beer style that, ironically, very few drinkers find approachable. Zwanze then, like any religion, is full of contradictions and relies on a certain amount of faith to operate. Gueuze moves in mysterious ways.

Beer Merchant's Tap, with its high ceilings and sunlight slanting through high windows, makes a good cathedral for the cult of funk; its Lambic cage a fine reliquary. And yet last year, when I finally accessed the sanctum and took my communion cup of 2018 Zwanze, the event felt profane rather than sacred, transactional rather than sublime. I missed the sense of connection to my fellow parishioners in the room and around the world.

But as each year the beer and the events all change, perhaps it's worth keeping the faith that next time will be better, all without ever taking it too seriously. The word 'zwanze' refers to the semi-sarcastic sense of humour associated with Brussels and its citizens. Perhaps that's the best way in which to appreciate these beers, these events, this phenomenon.

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