One of Quebec’s oldest microbreweries, Brasserie Charlevoix, located in Baie St. Paul, about 1.5 hours outside Quebec, has been brewing beer for 16 years. Yet it has just eleven beers in its lineup—bucking the current trend of releasing new and zany bottles every few months. They’re also bucking the Quebecois impulse to grow their business by exporting to thirsty drinkers in the U.S., especially in the face of restrictive interprovincial red tape. While Charlevoix has expanded in recent years, they plan to share their brews with the rest of Canada before going south. Doesn’t that just feel right?
What’s your approach to making beer?
It’s a really personal approach. When we think about a new beer, we think about its personality. We talk about what we would like it to be, and feel like when we drink it. It’s almost like we are talking about a person: the kind of body, its approachability, bitterness and aroma.
All of my brewers are really involved: Nicolas Marrant, the director of production, Gérald Bourdaudhui and Séraphine Dupont—who are a husband-and-wife brewmasters from Belgium, Gerald is the brewmaster in our production facility, and Séraphine in our brewpub doing more experimental stuff.
And what about your existing lineup? How do you check in on those guys?
We have production meetings where we taste the last three batches of one brew. Last week it was the Dubbel, we were just testing it again to make sure that it was on par with our expectations. We talked about tweaks to make, because year in and year out the ingredients change a little bit and the malt profiles will change. We really like to talk about our beer—and drink it of course.
What is the most difficult beer in your portfolio to get perfect?
The Brut is an interesting story. We don’t brew it right now because we’re still working on the process. The first time we brewed this champagne beer was even before all the other Belgian breweries had released their Brut. But when we moved to a bigger brewery, we scaled up production to 10 palettes at a time and we had some issues and we’re not happy with it. It was too cloudy. We wanted it clear, like champagne, so we stopped brewing it on the market. Instead, we’re just brewing one palette at a time until we figure out how to get it right on a bigger scale. Nicolas even travelled to the Champagne region. He spent two weeks there and talked with the Champagne Institute—it should be ready by 2016 but we’re not in a big hurry. We want to release it when it’s finished so it’s something we’re really proud of.
Can we expect any new beers from Charlevoix anytime soon?
We have a new product we’re working on at the brewpub and maybe in a year from now it’ll be released on all our markets. There’s no point for us in releasing a product that we’re not sure if it has its own place on the market. We like to make sure that it’s not yet another Double IPA, yet another Saison, yet another Blanche. So our Vache Folle Double IPA, it was the first bottled Double IPA in Quebec. We want to give the customer something new.
You pride yourself on keeping things just a little different from what other brewers are doing—but that’s got to be hard to do with so many more craft breweries in existence today then when you opened up. Can you give me an example of how you’re doing that?
We did some tests with barrel aging awhile back. We had some Jack Daniel’s barrels and a lot of people were using dark beers, porters and stouts in there. Some of my friends suggested that we use our milk stout. But then my tastes buds started talking to me. I’m a big fan of Jack Daniels. When I traveled to Nashville I tried every different age of Jack Daniels that I could find. I think I had more Jack Daniels than beer when I was there. I was really crazy about it. I liked the little corn taste—the juicy tender taste that you have in it. I combined that memory with my love for our triple. Some people told me a triple would be too aromatic and too soft to match with Jack Daniels, but we did it anyway. And since we had four barrels of Jack we filled one with the stout. Obviously the result was much better with Jack and Triple and we release Triple A Jack once in awhile. It’s a very good match.
You’re best known for Dominus Vobiscum: a Belgian triple crossed with an American IPA– why merge these two styles?
Nicolas and I travelled to Yakima Valley for the hop harvest and we discovered Simcoe hops, which were new at the time. Prior to that, the only hops we were willing to work with were classic hops from Europe like Hallertauer, Saaz and Tettnang. Personally I don’t like Cascade, I wasn’t really into American hops back then, but after two weeks in Yakima we fell in love with Simcoe and Amarillo hops. So we decided to brew our triple with these and make a really hoppy beer.
Your brewpub and brewery are in the artsy enclave of Baie St. Paul. How can beer fans get the best experience if they come to visit you?
The most interesting part is going to the brewpub. That’s where it all started. We always have ten beers on tap, usually four regulars and six rotating beers, brewed by Séraphine. They’re beers we’re experimenting with to try out new styles that might make it into our regular lineup one day. There’s always a session IPA and a single hopped or Double IPA. You’ll find a lot of locals, and a lot of tourists in the summer. When it’s busy, waiters don’t have a ton of time to chat but if you’re a beer geek, just tell the staff that you’re a mad crazy geek about beer and they’re going to find someone to talk with you. You do have to ask though, we go from 10 staff to 40 in summertime, so just come and ask if you’re really into it and they will really help you.
Charlevoix is a foodie region—famed for its cheeses and artisanal products, how does your brewery fit into this?
We strive to make very good food. We have homemade smoked meat, smoked chicken, and three or four kinds of poutine with beer gravy. We focus on local food, Charlevoix is known for its flavour trail, we were one of the first regions in Canada where all the farms and chefs were working together. People can visit and talk with the farmers. Those relationships are one of the reasons why Caroline and I decided to leave Montreal and come back to Charlevoix and start a brewery—it’s why we did it.