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Last Friday was a really beautiful day. That sounds sort of plain to say, and obvious, given that it’s July in Toronto, but I was glad nonetheless because we had visitors in from Quebec, and I always feel better when Toronto puts on its Sunday best for company. The company in question was André Trudel, brewmaster and co-owner of the esteemed Trou Du Diable brewery in Shawinigan, Quebec, and his wife Julie. The occasion, if you’ve been watching our social media feeds, was our second collaboration brew with TDD. Some of you may remember last summer’s Frambizzle (our first collaboration), a raspberry Saison that was both fruity and phenolic, having derived much of its flavour from the distinct Belgian yeast.
Sitting down to do the interview with André was comical, in part because I’m a brewer, not a journalist, but also because we’re friends, which I’m fairly certain undermines any semblance of objectivity – or at least I think that’s what the movie Almost Famous taught us. But André is a good sport, and gives his full attention during my meandering questions save for two interruptions: one phone call with his wife, and one Facetime with his ten year old son, who appeared to be lounging by a pool (as I imagine ten year olds in summer are free to do all day long). He apologized profusely for his ‘bad English’ even though the joke’s really on him – the majority of us here at Bellwoods are unilingual baffoons trying not to bring too much attention to the fact that we’ve barely mastered our native tongue. In regards to the main subject, beer, André admits to being very picky, very hard to please, but also very impressed with the level of quality coming out of the production brewery today.
Our current collaborative brew, a smoked, sweet red pepper Saison, is a little risky and a lot exciting -- but we couldn't imagine a better partner to brew an experimental vegetable beer with. For now, it ferments.
What follows is an interview from one brewer to another, about, well, you could probably guess.
Bellwoods: The expansion of Trou Du Diable from a brewpub into a brewpub and production brewery is now going on a year old. Although things are still as busy as ever, I can sense that work has calmed down a bit. You’re not doing every single brew yourself. Not everyday is a 16 hour work day. I realize this is a broad question, but when you look at the year ahead – not 10 years or 5 -- what do you hope for?
André: I want to clarify my answer, but I hope to be working less. I still work very long days but it’s getting better. I have a great team, and they have a lot of confidence in me. They are thinking about beer and brewing in the same way that I do. Sometimes they even think of things I would never think of.
B: Do you think you’ve trained them to think like you do, or did you hire people with similar philosophies?
A: I think I’ve been lucky. If your team has different brewing philosophies, it doesn’t work.
At this point Andre talked about several of his brewers, about their range of strengths and the benefit of having employees with different career backgrounds. One of his brewers has 18 years of experience and already set up a production brewery himself. Another used to be a school teacher. They each bring valuable benefits to the company, from a strong mechanical familiarity (we can attest to how important this is) to a keen ability to anticipate the worst-case scenario. Andre admitted that he once feared he would have to think of every little detail, all day, forever on. But he’s relieved now and ecstatic to report that he has a lot of help.
A: I also want to get out of the production a bit, and focus on the new barrel room that we’re building. It’ll be something like 600 barrels with 5 foeders…that’s my project for next year. I’m putting a lot of my efforts into it.
B: I know you’ve done a lot of beer-centric travelling this year. We talked about some of the events you had planned for this summer back when we were in Denver.
A: Yeah, this year I’ve been away from home more than any other year before. I’ve never been away like that.
B: In the various countries and breweries that you visited, particularly in Europe, what did you see that impressed you?
A: In Belgium and Germany the service is really impressive. They are taking care so much in how they serve a beer. They aren’t in a hurry. In Europe the time is different. You arrive in a bar and you can wait ten minutes before anyone even notices you’re there. And then to pour a beer, the bartender will pour half a beer, with lots of head, and put it aside. Pour another one, put it aside. Finish the first one, finish the second. The beers come out with a nice layer of head, they look great, and the head is important because – well, you know why it’s important!
B: Ha, yes.
A: I was also really impressed with how traditionally beer is brewed in Belgium, especially lambics. They’re almost brewed without science. I mean, they know science, like Jean Van Roy knows what’s happening in his beer, because it’s 2014 (he laughs). But he learns a lot about his beers, he has them analyzed in Belgian universities, but he works in a traditional way, blending like an artist. I’m really just impressed with the Lambic industry, it’s still an art. It’s a métier. How do you say métier in English? What is the word for it? Career?
B: Maybe something like a “calling”.
A: Yeah, could be that.
[After the interview I used ol’ Google to help me out, and discovered that the direct translation is simply “profession”, but I sense the word in French is a bit stronger…]
A: Something though, which I don’t like, is that in Belgium and Germany, the native countries of beer, beer has become like milk or water to us. If I go to the store to pick up milk, I'm not scanning the different kinds and giving it much attention. In these countries, something similar has happened. There is variety, but only within a set number of styles, and there is less interest in the diversity of beer. When you walk into a bar in Germany, you don’t ask “What kind of beers you have?”, you simply say, “I’ll have the Pilsner”. They don’t wanna know which Pils it is. They don’t ask where the weizen came from, which brewery. Things are very traditional and lots of people still don’t want to think about different styles. In France it’s even worse. But there is a small revolution, I think De Ranke and De La Senne started it, and sours are becoming more popular. Did you know lambic breweries are alive because they export the majority of their own beer? They don’t sell their beer in their own country. Cantillon sells about 25-30% of their beer to Belgian people, exports over 50%, and the rest is sold at the brewery to mostly foreign visitors. It’s crazy.
Yvan [De Baets] is giving the Belgian people a real revolution. Brewing hoppy beers and dry beers. But in Germany it’ll take years before you see people drinking IPA’s. Maybe it’ll never happen…
B: With your frequent travels in mind and the length of time that TDD has been in existence, how has your brewing philosophy changed?
A: Oh yes, it’s changed, and I’m glad for it. I used to brew with a lot of specialty malts, lots of carmelized malts, but now I like dry beers. I think I’m a better taster now, my palate is better, and I feel like I can distinguish and separate small details in beer. Because of this I like much simpler beers now.
B: Yeah, Stay Classy is a light beer but it’s very hard to brew. Quads are easier in a sense because they’ve got so many different flavours going on. In a light beer you can’t hide anything.
A: They’re naked beers! But yes, I’m more into small details now, the science of things. I’m still intuitive, but yeah. I’m really into dry beers. Fruity dry, not fruity sweet. I like acidity rather than roasted malts. I try to keep things as simple as possible, especially with malts.
B: Our old Front of House manager used to ask this question in interviews, and I like it a lot. Essentially he wants to know which beer was the best beer you’ve ever had, and not necessarily because it is unequivocally better than all other beers, but because of circumstantial factors. Luke says the best beer he ever had was at a bar in Chicago, and the funny thing is he can’t even remember what it was. Him and his wife took a trip there right after his second son was born, they had left the toddler with gramma, and when the baby fell asleep he said it was the first time his wife and him had an adult conversation in what felt like a year. Actually, he said he felt like “a human again”. Can you remember a time when, circumstantially, you had an amazing beer?
A: Hm, I was in Italy on a long trip and we were in a small village near the airport in Milan, Giovanni had given me a lot of beer, and Julie and I were with two friends. We couldn’t fit it all on the plane so we drank a lot of it. We went to a restaurant and drank more beer. And then finally back at the hotel, my friend asked me if I wanted one last one. We drank a Beersel Morning, a blend of Saison with Lambic. It was one of the best beers I’ve had.
There’s also a beer called Calvinus, like a Belgian style wit, and every time I go to Geneva I feel so good to be there, it actually feels like home. It used to be a craft beer, many years ago, but now it’s brewed in Germany, but anyway, even if it’s just a simple beer, everytime I drink it in Switzerland, in my friend’s backyard, his garden, I feel like it’s the best beer I’ve ever had. That’s the circumstantial beer.
B: Based on our conversations, I know it’s really important for you to focus on things aside from beer. In recent memory what was the best thing you ate, listened to, and read?
A: Sushi in Montreal with Bim (Luc Lafontaine, former brewmaster at Dieu Du Ciel’s Montreal brewpub), music is tough, I love too much music… I’ll say The Knife. And for books La Condition humaine by André Malraux.
B: I think a lot about geography and how it affects craft industry. Bellwoods is in a really specific part of Toronto, and we’re lucky to have a lot of foot traffic. As for Shawinigan, I know that the brewery has had quite an economic impact on the city. But in your words, how do you feel TDD has affected Shawinigan, and how has Shawinigan influenced TDD?
A: I think the brewery has affected Shawinigan a lot. We are discovering things together. For example, the food at TDD is extroirdinary and original, and the beer – well I think the people in Shawinigan have different standards now when they are looking in the grocery store, or when they’re buying beer. I mean, it’s not just because of us, but I think we’re a part of that change in Shawinigan.
B: And do you think that TDD could exist anywhere in the world, or is it very much a Shawinigin business?
A: Well, in terms of the beer, I think it’s good because of the water we have. We have really good water. But I think our concept and the way we approach people, I think it could be successful in a big city Montreal or Toronto. Actually, I think it could work in towns too. Maybe not a small village though…
I hope my English was okay, he concludes.
PS - A few days later, in a text, André adds that he "really loved Steinbeck when [he] was young". I figure it's worth the inclusion.