Originally published in TAPS magazine in January 2015.
Although it’s been making beer for 16 years, Microbrasserie Charlevoix has just eleven beers in its lineup—bucking the current trend of releasing new and zany bottles every few months.
Instead, the growing brewery in the small city of Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec, is focused on one thing: perfection.
“We just had a production meeting to taste the last three batches of our Dubbel,” says Frédérick Tremblay, who founded the brewery with his wife, Caroline Bandulet, in 1998. “We talked about tweaks to make, because year in and year out the ingredients change a little bit. We were just testing it again to make sure it was on par with our expectations.
“We really like to talk about our beer—and drink it, of course.”
The Dubbel is part of the brewery’s Dominus Vobiscum (latin for “The Lord be with you”) line of beers, which were created by Tremblay, who loves the flavours of spicy, complex Belgian-style ales that make up this collection. Bandulet, whose father was German and taught her to appreciate beer from an early age, was behind the second line of beers, Vache Folle, brews made from an English yeast strain, that today, include a luscious imperial milk stout and a smooth, earthy Extra Special Bitter.
In the early 1990’s the couple were busy building careers, Tremblay as an engineer and Bandulet as an administrator at a jewelry school in Montreal, but a visit to Tremblay’s hometown in 1995 changed all of that. Baie-Saint-Paul’s artisanal fare and the relationships blossoming between farmers and chefs inspired Tremblay to take his love of homebrewing to the next level.
‘What could a more welcome addition to Baie-Saint-Paul,’ they thought, ‘than a microbrewery?’ But locals were skeptical; they pictured a large brewer, like Molson, with its tanks full of beer, rumbling through town. It took the couple three years to win locals over. “We really had to fight hard to explain the whole microbrewery concept back then,” says Tremblay.
He was brewmaster from 1999 to 2002, and his philosophy—to strive to create something different, and let the tastebuds lead—is still very much in play when it comes to creating new beers.
One of their most popular beers, Lupulus, was created in the midst of Yakima Valley’s verdant hop harvest. For years, Tremblay had rejected American hops. The Cascade aromas of spicy botanticals and grapefruit peel turned him off. “I never liked it,” he says, and so he stuck to perfecting his line of Belgian and English-style brews.
But on a 2007 trip to Yakima, America’s largest hop-growing region, Tremblay and his head brewer, Nicolas Marrant (now the brewery’s production manager) became believers in bright, brassy U.S. hop varietals—or at least some of them. “We discovered and fell in love with Simcoe and Amarillo.
But instead of creating an American-style beer with the hops, they decided to infuse a ton of those two varietals, plus Saaz, into the brewery’s popular Dominus Vobiscum Belgian tripel. When the beer was released in bottles in 2007, it was the first in Quebec to cross an American IPA with a Belgian-style tripel—and quite possibly the first in the country.
Runaway hits like Lupulus and Hibernus, a 10% ABV wintertime Belgian dark ale, along with increasing demand for their signature brews, led Charlevoix to keep their brewpub, but expand into a production facility in a local industrial park in 2009. Today, there are 20 employees at each site and a husband-and-wife brewmaster team from Belgium head up each of the breweries. Gérald Bourdaudhui leads brewing at the 35 HL production site, and his wife, Séraphine Dupont creates experimental and one-off brews at the brewpub.
Last year, Microbrasserie Charlevoix churned out 5000 hectolitres of beer, but it’s not nearly enough liquid to slake the thirst of Canadians from coast to coast, so the brewery is currently doubling its production and adding new fermenters, a bottling tank and a centrifuge. “Expect to see more of us across Canada in the near future,” says Tremblay. “We have demand from U.S. distributors but we wanted to get into the hands of Canadians first.”
Every summer, the brewpub’s employees swell to nearly double in order to serve the beer-and-food pilgrims travelling the region’s “flavour trail.” At the brewpub, imbibers can choose from ten taps—four staples and six rotating lines pouring Dupont’s latest experiments, the best of which make it into Charlevoix’s regular lineup. “If you want to know what’s coming up, the brewpub is the best place to taste it. We always have a session IPA and a single-hopped Double IPA, says Tremblay. Try those along with the brewpub’s regional fare like homemade smoked chicken and meat, foie gras, lamb and of course, four kinds of poutine made with beer gravy.
Tremblay may be busy building one of the ten largest microbreweries in Quebec into an even larger enterprise, but when he talks about making beer, he sounds like a dreamer. “When we think about a new beer, we think about its personality. I sit around the table with our brewmaster, Gérald, Nicolas and all of our brewers, and we decide what we want to feel like when we drink it—its approachability, body, bitterness and aroma.”
“We’re not trying to brew a style, or to copycat something when we talk about the new beer. Instead we think about what we would like it to be, and feel like when we drink it. It’s almost as if we’re talking about a person.”
Creating a unique persona for each beer also makes good business sense: it means there will be room for it on the market. “We don’t want to make yet another Double IPA, yet another Saison, yet another Blanche,” Tremblay explains. Instead Charlevoix strives to be unique, by being one of the first in the province to adopt a new beer style, or explore unique ingredients, or utilize complex production methods. Early on, Charlevoix’s Vache Folle Double IPA was the first Double IPA ever released in bottles in Quebec. With their Blanche, they added chamomile to differentiate its flavour from Unibroue’s popular offering.
And if a beer falls below Tremblay’s high standards? In 1999, Charlevoix released its Brut, a stunning champagne-like beer that is crisp, spicy, dry and effervescent. It was one of the first in 20th Century brewing to use a Champagne yeast, and as it developed Tremblay adopted painstaking productions methods like riddling and “degorgement, or “cutting the neck,” to release the sediment from the bottle before packaging.
But when they moved to the new production facility in 2009, the Brut didn’t scale up well. “It was too cloudy,” says Tremblay, “I wanted it to be clear, like champagne, so we stopped brewing it in ten-palette batches for the market. Right now, we’re just brewing one palette at a time.” Behind the scenes they’re working diligently to perfect it. “Nicolas travelled to the Champagne region for two weeks and talked to the Champagne Institute about our brewing methods, so it should be ready for release in 2016.”
But Tremblay’s in no hurry: “I want it to be finished and something that we can be really proud of.”