In a departure from regular “Stylistically Speaking” practice, this month we will look at four American breweries making Belgian-style beers, rather than at any specific style. It occurred to us that these four breweries, three run by husband-wife partnerships, were worthy of special mention for their entrepreneurial and creative efforts.
After graduating from college with a BA in geology, owner Rob Tod took up odd-jobs in Colorado before returning to Vermont, where he took work that changed his life. “The first job I found was washing kegs at Otter Creek Brewing in Middlebury, VT. I fell in love with the brewing business and was fortunate enough to get exposure to many aspects while I was there. I spent one year at Otter Creek and then moved to Portland, ME, where I began work on Allagash Brewing.”
He decided on Portland because it had a strong population of beer drinkers who appreciate craft brewed beers. “Although more breweries did mean more competition in many ways, I believed that we would likely be better off getting a start in a town with a consumer who had been exposed to the craft beers relatively early and was also willing to experiment with new styles.”
There were three reasons he chose to brew Belgian-style ales. “I was interested in the potential challenge posed by brewing Belgian-style beers. At the time, there were very few commercial breweries brewing these types of beers. As a result, we knew we would have to internally solve many of the inevitable problems we would encounter, instead of being able to pick up the phone and ask other brewers or consultants. We believed that by working out as much as we could on our own, the result would be a more interesting learning process and a unique product. [Next], there were very few Belgian-style beers available at the time, and I looked at this as an opportunity to brew a style that fit into an unfilled niche. [Finally], soon after I was introduced to craft brewed beers, I had my first Belgian-style beer. Since then, I have loved the unique flavors and style varieties available to choose from in the Belgian-style beer category.”
Since before I started writing about beer in 1988, Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield have been known for their involvement with Belgian beers. In 1980 they visited Belgium and fell in love with the nation’s remarkable beers and met many of their brewers.
“In 1982 we founded Vanberg & DeWulf, and began importing Belgium’s classic beers. Our aim has always been to help family run breweries stay independent. In 1997, together with the makers of Duvel and Scaldis, we opened Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown. So, on a traditional site (a former hops farm), using time-honored Belgian brewing methods, we’re making traditional beers. Our aim is to set the standard of quality and authenticity for American-made Belgian-style brewing in America. We also want to help restore the connection between beer, as a farm product, and the land.
“Recently, we have taken it upon ourselves to champion the cause of Belgian brewing in America. This, too, has a long, intriguing, but mostly forgotten history. Some of the first brewers in the British and Dutch colonies in the New World were Belgian. We are reviving an ancient, august, Belgo-American brewing tradition. Cooperstown was the first center of commercial hop growing in the US and many Belgians settled Upstate New York.
“Also, Belgium has perhaps the best cuisine in Europe. Beer is part of that cuisine. I love good food and believe good drink is part of good food. The Belgians believe beer fits the description as well [as wine] and they give it a place at the table. After living in Belgium, I came to agree with them.”
Whilst some American brewers aim to faithfully reproduce Belgian beers, Don and Wendy take a different approach. Don uses the expression, “‘Belgian-style’ because we are an American brewery and proud of it! We impart an American interpretation to our beers.”
New Belgium Brewing Company
NBB was established in 1991 by the husband and wife team of Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan. They are the principles, but every employee with one year’s service becomes a stakeholder in the brewery. Before starting the brewery, Jeff’s background was in electrical engineering, and Kim’s was in social work. In its present structure, Kim is the CEO. “Jeff is semi-retired. He’s on the board of directors, and provides big picture consultation for energy efficiency and plant engineering,” Kim said.
They chose Ft Collins, CO as the site for their brewery for the simple reason they live there. Jeff added, “Of course we looked at important issues like water quality and local demographics, and we were quite happy that those factors were favorable for opening the brewery in the city where we had lived for a number of years.”
The brewery is in its third location. When asked if they’d expanded the brewery since founding it, Jim replied, “Yes, a bit”.” To which Kim replied, “I think Jeff’s being funny here. We started out brewing 400ish barrels in 300 square feet. We’re in our third location where we now have 70,000sq ft. We anticipate production of 230,000bbl in 2001. Expansion is a way of life around here.”
But why brew Belgian ales? Jeff replied: “I became fascinated with the quality and unique variety of beers available in Belgium, and worked to develop similar beers that I brewed at home. With the relative success of the homebrewing efforts, we decided that there was an opportunity to introduce these world beer styles to the American craft-brew scene, where previously there was little representation of Belgian beer styles at all.”
New Glarus Brewery
Located in Wisconsin’s dairy country, this brewery is known for the authentic European beers it produces, most notably, but by no means limited to, its Belgian-style cherry and raspberry beers.
Their motto is: “Life’s too short to drink cheap beer.” This should the standard to which every beer-drinker holds himself.
In June 1993, Daniel and Deborah Carey founded their brewery in New Glarus a town with a strong Swiss heritage. Their first brew was unveiled in November of that year. Deb’s background is in marketing and graphics, which she studied at college. She raised the capital for the start-up as a gift to her husband, establishing herself as the first woman to found and operate a brewery in the United States.
Daniel studied brewing at University of California, Davis, where he earned a BS degree. He was also valedictorian of the Siebel Institute’s course in brewing science and technology. In 1993, he passed the Institute of Brewing Diploma Master Brewer Examination, and served his apprenticeship at a small Bavarian brewery. He has operated and constructed numerous breweries throughout the US.
Allagash: Tripel Reserve, batch13ABV: 9
Tasting Notes: Somewhat hazy gold (I poured in some bottle-yeast); depending on how you pour, either a moderate or a huge white head, of long duration. Medium body; delicate, perfumy nose, with hints of raspberry sherbet and Nigel’s nicotine (nicotiana) plant blooms. Lively, very fine carbonation that actually lightens the body; the hop adds a slightly dry element on the palate; the finish is very fine; but this is interesting, every element on the palate seems to stay in perfect ratio with every other element from start to finish; alcoholic warming; smoothness increases as this beer warms.
Brewery Ommegang: OmmegangABV: 8.5
Tasting Notes: Medium brown, with ruby tints; huge brown head of long duration; Belgian lace inside. Medium to full-bodied; complex nose of malt, earthy notes, prunes, molasses, and moist pipe tobacco. Excellent carbonation and conditioning; initial soft malt, then an alcohol interlude, followed by a slightly dry finish. Alcoholic warming returns at the end of long, pleasant finish; the aromas and taste explode once this beer warms.
New Glarus: Raspberry TartABV: 4
Tasting Notes: Unless your tongue’s turned to boot-leather, by God, you’ll love this beer. Got a date with the new Salma Hayek in your life? Bring a bottle of this when you go pick her up and she’ll never let you leave. Deep red, with a gorgeous pink cast on its big, creamy, long-lasting head; no off odours. Medium body; absolutely stunning raspberry rotes on the nose--if an aroma could be described as "deep," this is it. Perfect carbonation and conditioning; tart yet sweet raspberry from start to finish; perfect, slow decline on the palate; a sipping beer. This is a magnificent world-class pilgrimage beer.
Rob Haiber is an American Homebrewers Association certified beer judge, homebrewer, and beer writer.