Unibroue, Quebec

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 29, Issue 6
January 1, 2009 By Julie Johnson

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.

Unibroue beers don’t imitate existing Belgian beers; it seems to me that you create your own beers in the Belgian manner.

Exactly. People ask me about it. I know we could be more well-known competing for prizes, and sometimes we lose because many of our beers are not categorized. When I talk about Maudite—yes, that’s a fantastic beer, but how would you categorize it? What style is it?

In the end, I say I make flavorful beers—that’s the category I make. The important thing to me is to express myself through the beer. If passion is not there, I know people won’t enjoy the beer as much as I do. Can we come out with a new style: flavorful beer?

Unibroue helped establish the tradition of Quebec brewing, and now there are many small breweries brewing loosely in the Belgian tradition. Unibroue is sort of the grandfather.

It’s very interesting to look at this and see how many breweries came after Unibroue. I’m asked very often about everything for other brewers, especially in the United States. It’s amazing that people would like to try to do what Unibroue did—and does. It’s interesting that we created our own style and people would like to replicate that.

In the Belgian vein, are you tempted to experiment with sour beers?

We do have one, though not very sour, the Quelque Chose. It’s closer to the tradition of the sour beers. But honestly, I worked on a project to come out with a new beer, a kind of sister of Quelque Chose, but we had to set that aside because of the brewery expansion. The main goal now is to build up the brewery, because it’s difficult now to supply the market with our regular brands.

How many different Unibroue beers are there now?

Roughly 30 brands, but they’re not all distributed at the same time. For example, we have the brand Éphémère. There is the apple Éphémère; we also have peach, black currant, cranberry, raspberry—those are all different, but the concept of the Éphémère is to have no more than two out at the same time because “Éphémère” means it will disappear.

We have had the anniversary ale since 2000, the tenth anniversary. There are four lagers that are only distributed domestically, not in the U.S. A funny thing, when we first started to brew lagers, it was the brewery’s last major investment in ‘95 and ‘96. We installed new fermenters and added new cellars for the lager beer that is filtered and carbonated in the bottle. People in the market said “Ah, Unibroue are brewing lager to compete with Sleeman”—and at the end, we merged with Sleeman.

What was your background before Unibroue?

Most of the time, I characterize myself as a student of fermentation. I studied two years in pure science—biology, chemistry, microbiology—and then three years in food processing in general. During those years I decided to concentrate in fermentation. Since then, I’ve worked in the wine industry, I’ve worked in the cider industry and of course now in beer. I’ve also brewed and made by own wine at home for 12 years. I stopped this year—with three kids, I’ve run out of space, as well as time.

I’m very passionate about fermentation in general. I’m not afraid to mix all kinds of stuff, to do trials. When I make my own fruit wine, I’ll have a look at the fruit and taste it to pick it at the best harvest point. I’ve tried beer with strawberries, peaches, even pineapples—everything in fermentation. Anything that contains sugar can turn into something very interesting.

In your free time, what do you enjoy?

I would like to have more time, but I’m a huge fan of hiking. Before I had the kids, I used to go in the Adirondacks, the White Mountains, the Green Mountains almost every other week.

I’m also a huge fan of music. Mostly very old stuff, progressive rock: King Crimson, Gentle Giant, old Genesis with Peter Gabriel. I also love Frank Zappa.

Can you play this in the brewhouse?

I allow them to play these in the brewhouse, but most of my brewers are not very huge fans of Frank Zappa!

When I was younger, I worked in a candy factory and I brought tapes—back then it was tapes, not CDs—and I put Frank Zappa and Deep Purple on for a 12-hour shift, and people nearly went insane!

This kind of job is very energy consuming: you’re never really free. If I’m here at home, in my mind, I’m still with my fermenting, or with developing new beers, so it is a kind of cure for me to have the music or the hiking. I live 10 kilometers from the brewery, and I rarely use the car to travel to work. I’ll go by foot, which takes one hour and twenty minutes, or I’ll go by bicycle, which takes 20 minute, and it’s very helpful.

How do you and your team approach the design of a new beer?

I have a team of fantastic, passionate brewers who work for me, but actually the research and development team is me…and myself. I’m the only person, since last year, to develop a beer. It was the same with my predecessor, Paul Arnott. We’re not big enough to have many brewers working on the development process. I come out with ideas, and I have fantastic brewers and a very open minded marketing team. I keep then in the loop, but the thing I like to do is to express myself through the beer.

When I was working on the 17th anniversary beer, I had support from the beginning to the end from the marketing team, because I tried new techniques and strange things in that beer. And they said, OK, you know what you are doing. It was a challenge to me, because the anniversary ale has very dedicated consumers.

Most Unibroue beers are connected to Quebec history—the names, the labels.

The Unibroue beers have a context—the context of the beer and the historical context. When I made the Quatre-Centième for the 400th anniversary of Quebec, I used four spices, because I wanted one spice for each century. You know, our beer Don de Dieu is named for the ship that discovered Quebec City in 1608, so I used the same yeast strain we used in Don de Die to make this anniversary beer. The historical context and the context of the beer are both important in the end.

I take into account that I’m very lucky to develop beer for such a brewery as Unibroue, and I don’t want to disappoint anybody by making anyone say, “No, no, no, he thought only about himself when making that.”