How long have you been with Unibroue?
I’ve been with Unibroue since 2003. When I started, it was still owned by the Dion family, the founder of the brewery. Then the brewery was bought by Sleeman in 2004, exactly a year after I started.
What was the transition like?
That was amazing. We didn’t know at that time what would happen to the brewery. We were all a little bit uncomfortable about it, because Unibroue is a brewery with a history, it is from Quebec, and there was a lot of politics when we merged with Sleeman, which is from Ontario. It worked for the good, because Sleeman came into the brewery and brought automation and technology to increase the brewery capacity.
When we merged with Sleeman, we were at 75,000 hectoliters, and we had a brewery capacity of 180,000 hectoliters. This year, we will brew 180.000 hectoliters: we are at top capacity. We are looking for investment to increase the capacity to 250,000 in 2009. I am actually investing $3 million in the brewing department, so that’s a lot of work to do that—and to be on paternity leave at the same time! My youngest son is three weeks old today.
I am the master brewer. When I first arrived at Unibroue, in 2003, it was in a state of crisis. There was a lack of staff, especially in the filtration area because employees were on sickness leave. When I arrived, it was to filter the beer and to take over the operation in the brewing department in general.
I had to filtrate the beer in the first three weeks, then brew for four extra weeks, and then when everybody came back to work, I had an agreement with the owner to work on Asset, a quality assurance program. It’s better known in the dairy field and the meat field, not very much in brewing. It ensures the quality control of processes, especially in fields that deal with pathogen…
When we merged with Sleeman, we put that aside, so I never had the chance to work on that. That first year when I worked for Unibroue, I had no staff to manage. I worked on several projects in the first two months, such as brewing automation, filtration automation, I also developed a program to run the filtration, which had been completely manual.
This sounds like a very big brewing operation, and yet the Unibroue beers have a hand-crafted character.
Yes, very artisanal, very hand crafted, and that is the challenge, to make the artisanal beer, to refresh and renew so the customer has the same experience every time. If he opens a Trois Pistole or Fin du Monde, make sure it will be the same from batch to batch, from year to year.
To keep the small character, but build the brewery… During the sale to Sleeeman, what did you do to keep your identity?
It wasn’t difficult for us. We were not the first brewery bought by Sleemans; there are actually four in the Sleeeman group across Canada and we were the very last to be bought. So there is another brewery, Shaftebury Brewing Co. in British Columbia, and they have their own home brands and their very specific character. It’s very exciting because Sleeman’s respects what we each do. It was a kind of philosophy by Sleeman.
They know we are the best brewery to do what we do, because we know our product very well. They are most interested in investing in the brewery, how you can do that in a better way,
Before merger, it was very hand-crafted, so the operator needed to know exactly what to do and the margin of error was very thin. Now with the automation, it helps to have better standards in place so we will be very, very constant.
But we kept working on Unibroue, and since then we’ve developed a lot of brands. We’ve the brewery in this little group that has developed the largest number of beer. Every year, we develop three to five new Unibroue beers, all refermented in the bottle, Belgian style
I believe Unibroue was the brewery that brought Belgian brewing tradition to breweries in Quebec.
We are the first brewery in North America to brew and promote that kind of beer. It was a project that André Dion, the founder of the brewery, believed in. He wasn’t sure there was a market in North America for that kind of beer.