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.”