Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Previously in Freshly Tapped: DC Brau’s Collaboratron, Right Proper, Stone, and Pen Druid’s Soused; Denizens’ Backyard Boogie; Port City’s Colossal 6; Ocelot and Meridian Pint’s Talking Backwards; Right Proper and Pizzeria Paradiso’s Maslow; Union and Ocelot’s Lucifer’s Trees; 3 Stars and Charm City Meadworks’ Two-Headed Unicorn; Aslin and Meridian Pint’s The Adventures of Audrey; Atlas Brew Works’ Dance of Days; Old Ox’s Funky Face; Handsome Beer’s White Ale; Ocelot and Bluejacket’s Raised on Promises; and 3 Stars’ #ultrafresh.
On the second Monday morning in April, Ben Evans was working on the production floor of Hellbender Brewing, doing what he usually does where he usually does it, when he found himself in the company of a rather unusual guest.
It wasn’t a stranger per se, although the two had never met or even heard the sound of each other’s voices. It was more of a pen pal – someone the Hellbender brewer had been trading e-mails with since November. Now, six months and a 4000-mile trip later, the correspondent was standing in his Riggs Park brewery. A stout figure with hair fading to grey, the man looked just like the pixelated images Evans had seen on the internet, but he introduced himself anyway: He was Alexis Briol, Directeur de Production at Brasserie St. Feuillien.
The European brewmaster had just traveled all the way from Hainaut, a French-speaking province of Belgium that’s been home to St. Feuillien for 144 years. And he was thirsty. So, with pleasantries out of the way, Evans led Briol into Hellbender’s otherwise vacant tasting room and began pouring him beer.
From kölsch to red ale to saison, the two gradually worked through samples of Hellbender’s line-up until arriving at one last beer: a dry-hopped tripel called Days Gone By.
This was the beer that had been the subject of all those e-mails – a beer with a recipe formulated and refined over six weeks of transatlantic messages.
This was the moment that Evans had been fretting about for months – the moment he would serve the final product of that long-distance collaboration to a brewer who produces one of the world’s iconic takes on the style.
“I was definitely nervous,” Evans says. “It was the first time he’d be trying our tripel.”
As the two sipped on the bright yellow ale, Evans waited for a reaction, but an avalanche of feedback would not be forthcoming. This had nothing to do with the beer, though, and everything to do with a language barrier: Evans doesn’t speak French, and Briol’s English is more functional than polished.
“The whole American beer nerd descriptor thing – like, talking about the nose and the bouquet and stuff – didn’t really happen,” Evans recalls. “I have no doubt that Alexis could have waxed philosophic about aromas and flavors forever in French, but when he was trying to explain it to me, it was just: ‘This beer is very good.’”
Through such unadorned words and reading the Belgian brewmaster’s facial expressions, Evans slowly gained confidence that his counterpart was indeed satisfied with their tripel. The two had accomplished what they set out to do: marry a traditional Belgian style with the hops and hopping techniques of the United States.
That this happened to have been accomplished using a Meura 2001 mash filter, well, that was no coincidence.
When Ben Evans heard that the Crafter Brewers Conference would be coming to DC in 2017, he admits that the thought did cross his mind.
“Knowing that all of these Belgian breweries would be in town and that most of them have a mash filter system,” he says, “I was hoping something cool might happen.”
Cool things tend to happen when Crafter Brewers Conference (or “CBC”) arrives in your city, especially if you’re a local brewery. While the annual gathering of over 13,000 industry participants is basically a massive trade show crossed with a flurry of seminars and workshops, it also serves as a showcase for the host city’s beer scene. And one way that big, out-of-town breweries participate in that celebration is by brewing collaboration beers at local breweries. That’s why an American craft beer titan like Stone Brewing ends up making beers with Right Proper and DC Brau.
“It’s nice to drink beers brewed by local brewers at an event like CBC,” says Firestone Walker Brewmaster Matt Brynildson. “It’s important that those brewers are showcased. We’re trying to promote the region as much as we are a trade show and technical events.”
Firestone Walker was in on the fun this year, too. The Paso Robles brewery – and member of the Duvel Moortgat family – teamed with DC Brau to make a pale ale called Green Card. The two breweries didn’t really know each other but had been brought together by Hop Head Farms, a company seeking to spotlight new hop varietals grown in Michigan and imported from Germany. That’s another impetus behind some CBC collaborations: They can serve as vehicles to help agricultural producers or equipment manufacturers pitch their wares. Never tried the Cashmere hop? Well, take a sip of this.
And as everyone got asked to the dance, Hellbender was uniquely situated for something cool on account of those mash filter systems that Evans mentions.
To take a step back, a mash filter system is a piece of brewing equipment that separates wort (the sugary, tea-like liquid that will eventually be hopped, fermented, and turned into beer) from spent grain (the remnants of malt leftover from extracting those sugars and proteins) using a series of filter plates. For a deeper look into how such a system differs from a traditional lauter tun, revisit our Tap Takeover: Hellbender, but for the purposes of this story, there are three things to note.
First, a mash filter system allows a brewery to use higher percentages of unmalted or dehusked grains like oats and wheat without fear of a “stuck mash.” This means it can produce fuller-bodied beers with flavors from their grains that other breweries are simply unable to unlock.
Second, a brewery with this type of system can mill any of its grains down to a fine, flour-like powder, which translates to a more efficient starch-to-sugar conversion. Greater efficiency means using less grain and water per batch, and that’s both an economic and an environmental perk.
And, lastly, only a handful of breweries in the U.S currently have these systems – and one of them is Hellbender. Early in its planning stages, the two-and-a-half-year-old brewery had decided to take advantage of a new, smaller model of the system that a company called Meura (in coordination with Wisconsin’s Aegir Brewing Systems) had recently unveiled with nascent craft breweries like Hellbender in mind.
Over in Belgium, however, it’s an entirely different landscape. That’s where Meura developed the technology over 125 years ago, and it’s where institutional breweries like De Koninck and Rodenbach have long used mash filter systems ten to twenty times larger than Hellbender’s.
So, when CBC landed in DC, it was only natural for Meura to play matchmaker. After all, how often does CBC land in a city with a mash filter system? And what better way to show it off than a splashy beer?
In late fall, Evans got an e-mail from the equipment manufacturer telling him to expect a message from a Belgian brewery. Hellbender would indeed have some CBC good fortune: It would be brewing a beer with one of most prestigious practitioners of the mash filter system, Brasserie St. Feuillien.
“You had this nearly 150-year-old brewery in Belgium reaching out to a DC brewery that, at the time, was just about two-years-old,” the head brewer observes. “That’s pretty cool.”
After Hellbender committed to brewing with St. Feuillien, some education was in order.
“The first thing I learned was how to properly pronounce it,” Evans shares. “I think I had always said Foo-ellen.”
Pronounced Foo-yen, “Feuillien” derives from the name of a 7th century Irish monk called Foylan who met a gruesome end in the village of Le Roeulx. Although he was never officially canonized, locals erected a chapel to honor his martyrdom, and later built another, bigger one on that same ground in 1125: the Premonstratensian Abbey St-Feuillien du Roeulx. At some point, this abbey began producing beer, a tradition – and source of income – that it would foster until the killjoys of the French Revolution destroyed the property 1796.
Almost a century later, the village’s brewing legacy was resurrected by Stephanie Friart, who founded the Brasserie Friart on the outskirts of Le Roueulx in 1873. For four generations, this brewery has stayed in the Friart family, most recently coming under the control of Stephanie Friart’s great-grandniece Dominique in 1980. During that time, it has accrued international renown for its abbey ales, most notably the St. Feuillien Blonde, St. Feuillien Cuvée De Noël, St. Feuillien Saison, and the big, bready St. Feuillien Tripel. (It wasn’t until 2000 that Brasserie Friart officially adopted the name of its St. Feuillien series.)
“Dominique and St. Feuillien have been giant champions of traditional Belgian styles,” says Dean Myers, beer director at Brasserie Beck, who cites St. Feuillien Saison as his gateway into a career of Belgian beer. “Amongst this explosion of craft popularity, it’s really encouraging to see a brewery that’s devoted to its traditional beers. They’re not adding fruit to their beers. They’re doing Belgian beer the way that it used to be done.”
It would be a mistake, however, to characterize St. Feuillien as a staid operation. Over the past decade, Dominique Friart has overseen a period of significant investment, most notably by partnering with Meura in 2012 to install a state-of-the-art automated brewhouse with, of course, a shiny new mash filter system.
“I’ve long been inspired by Dominique Friart,” says Drew McCcormick, the Executive Beverage Director of Pizzeria Paradiso. “It’s personally motivating to see women in leadership roles in the beer industry – and a female brewmaster who has been at it for so long!”
While Friart’s brewery has remained committed to its Belgian classics, it also hasn’t been afraid to experiment outside of them. In 2010, St. Feuillien teamed with California’s Green Flash to brew a Belgian strong golden ale that combined Belgian yeast and spices with American Amarillo hops. It was called Bière De L’Amitié – or, “friendship brew.” Since then, that friendship has blossomed into a full-blown business relationship. Three years ago, the breweries announced a partnership whereby St. Feuillien would produce and sell the Green Flash’s West Coast IPA across Europe. They also collaborated on an initial version of the Belgian Coast IPA, a light-bodied, hoppy hybrid of Belgian and American styles that has turned into a St. Feuillien flagship.
“IPA is not a style traditionally brewed in Belgium, but as the proliferation of hops in flavoring beers spreads across the world, eventually you’ll see people start to play with the style,” observes Myers, whose restaurant hosted a St. Feuillien event during CBC. “It’s really been interesting to see Alexis do some of these things. From talking with him, it’s not that he needs inspiration or reinvigoration, but it keeps him on his toes.”
Given this history, it makes sense that Briol would want to continue the interpolation of American hops into Belgian classics with Hellbender. All they had to do was nail down a recipe. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
For over a week, I tried to get Alexis Briol’s attention. I was hoping to talk with him about Days Gone By. A telephone conversation would have been great. Some question and answer over e-mail would have done the trick. I even would have settled for a generic statement or two.
Eventually, I received an e-mail from the St. Feuillien brewmaster with the subject line: “Some details – Hellbender St-Feuillien ‘Days Gone By’ collab.” It wasn’t really a response to my message so much as a standalone fact sheet for the beer. “Please find here some details about the beer,” he wrote.
Yeast: Belgian abbey beer yeast
OG/FG: 18,8 °P / 2,2 °P
Alcohol: 8,8 % ABV
Bitterness: 42 IBU
Malt: Pilsen (mainly)
Sugar: Cane sugar (some)
Aroma : Sterling / Citra / Amarillo / Spice?
Dry-hopping : Azacca/ Idaho
I had to chuckle at “Spice?” Belgian brewers are notoriously secretive about what spices – if any – they use to accentuate the spicy yeast character of their rustic ales. And as Jeff Alworth writes in The Beer Bible: “Breweries like St. Feuillien use [spices] so skillfully in their ales that it is difficult to tell which element of the spicy flavor comes from the yeast and which comes from actual spicing.”
Putting aside the possible existence of a mystery spice, these ingredients added up to a style that Briol called a “Tripel IPA hybrid.”
In his initial e-mails to Evans, the Belgian brewmaster had pitched the idea of a Belgian ale with an American twist, but declined to spitball any particular styles.
“In my mind, I really wanted to defer to his expertise and have this beer be more of a learning experience on our end,” says Evans, who prodded Briol to suggest some base recipe ideas.
Briol sent back two. One was a grisette – a well-hopped, low-ABV farmhouse ale – brewed with an array of specialty grains that would showcase what the Meura mash filter system could handle. The other was a tripel – a light-colored but boozy ale from the monastic tradition – brewed with next-generation American varietals.
Evans mulled these options with Hellbender co-founder Patrick Mullane (who is currently overseeing Hellbender’s new self-distribution model) and brewer Joe Miller. While the multigrain grisette was intriguing, the DC brewery worried it might be too similar to its flagship Souther Torrent Saison, which is also a sessionable farmhouse ale brewed with a healthy amount of wheat. So, Hellbender opted for the more formidable tripel.
The decision presented a double-edged sword of sorts. On one hand, Evans would get to tap the mind of the brewmaster responsible for one of the world’s best tripels. On the other, there would be a direct point of comparison to that same tripel, and the brewmaster responsible for it would be crossing the Atlantic to taste the results himself.
“We’re very anxious to see what they think about this beer,” Evans told me a few weeks before CBC. “At the same time, it gave us a lot of confidence having Alexis put together a base recipe that he was confident in. There wasn’t really a whole lot we could screw up if we followed his extremely detailed methodology. It was very cool to see how they do it. We just had to get the right yeast pitch, make sure there was healthy fermentation, and then stick the dry-hopping.”
Briol and Evans would trade e-mails about the recipe for over a month and a half. The communication was hardly seamless. The Belgian brewmaster would pepper his feedback and instructions with French terms, which left Evans scrambling for Google.
“I sort of had to figure some stuff out,” the DC brewer says with a laugh.
This wasn’t new territory for Evans. Coming to brewing from a background in neuroscience and microbiology research, he was used to such barriers.
“For most of my colleagues, English was their second language,” he shares. “Having been an English minor and done a lot of writing, I would assist them with their proposals and papers.”
Calibrating the recipe for Days Gone By, it helped that at least both Hellbender and St. Feuillien’s systems spoke the same language.
“For the first time in two-and-a-half years, we saw another brewery using Centigrade instead of Fahrenheit,” Evans say. “Our American manufacturers had decided when they built around a Belgian piece of equipment to program everything as liters and Celsius.”
On paper, the recipe in Briol’s e-mail reads simply enough. 100% Pilsen malt. Some sugar. Abbey ale yeast. But unlocking the flavors is in these ingredients is about process.
“The base recipe that he put together included water chemistry and all of the step mash process and fermentation temperatures,” Evans says. “It’s all very important for getting the right body and flavor out of a malt like pilsen. That was where I wanted to defer to his expertise 100%.”
St. Feuillien doesn’t run up much of a water bill.
The Belgian brewery draw its own H20 from a well within its building, reaching down some 215 feet to a creek beneath them. There, water is naturally filtered by the bedrock, imbuing the liquid with calcium and magnesium ions, and a “hard” character.
Water chemistry is not something that the average beer drinker talks about, but it has a big effect on a beer’s mouthfeel and what flavors are most pronounced. An Irish stout, for example, is brewed with hard water, which gives it an immediately recognizable chalky character and accentuates the malt’s roast. By contrast, lighter beers like Kolsch or Czech Pilsner tend to be brewed with soft water.
When it comes to traditional styles, a beer’s water chemistry is often adjusted to match the characteristics of the city where it was historically produced. Logically, then, producing a tripel with St. Feuillien meant mimicking the hard water of Le Roeulx.
“We definitely added a lot of hardness in this recipe,” says Evans, although he can’t completely explain why. “A lot of it was blind faith in the Belgians more than anything else. We know that these guys are making great beer, and at the end of the day, I went into this admitting that this guy knows a hell of a lot more than me, and I wanted to learn something from him.”
In a hoppy beer, hard water rounds out the bitterness and boosts the hops’ aromatic characteristics, which is important when the goal is to make a “tripel IPA.” But where exactly in the brewing process those hops would be added was the subject of debate between Hellbender and St. Feuillien.
“I liked the way that they introduced the hops, but they were a little high on the bittering hops and a little low on the flavor and aroma hops,” Evans recalls.
This taps into a larger discussion going on in craft brewing: how to calculate bitterness levels. Specifically, the debate breaks down over whether hops added in the whirlpool for flavor and aroma should be counted towards a beer’s IBU levels. Hellbender says yes.
“We count whirlpool additions as being nearly fully isomerized, so it’s really like a 15-minute boil addition because the wort is still incredibly hot and the hops are swirling around in it,” Evans explains. “The old school method was to say, ‘Oh that’s all zero IBUs.’ But those hops are adding a lot of bittering. You could make a beer that’s calculated on a normal calculator at 40 IBUs, but if you don’t count the whirlpool hops, it might actually be 80.”
Knowing that St. Feuillien wanted to produce a tripel around 40 IBUs, Hellbender dropped down the initial recipe’s bittering hops, and added more to the whirpool and dry-hopping phases.
“They may or may not learn anything from our dry-hopping and whirlpool methods,” Evans told me a few weeks ago. “No matter what, you need a nice bittering backbone in one of these things.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many beers with Saaz hops as when I went to Belgium,” says Evans, who took a trip to Europe with Mullane a few years back to see larger mash filter systems in action. “And the Belgians have to use massive amounts of them because those hops don’t have very many alpha acids”
Days Gone By, on the other hand, would serve to showcase the bright, citrusy hops of the Pacific Northwest. The selection of those particular hops fell to Hellbender.
In the boil, Evans and Miller opted to use Citra, Amarillo, and Sterling. And while they had initially planned to use Citra again – along with Mandarina Bavaria – in the dry-hop, they changed course to two newer peachy, tropical cultivars that would complement the citrusy character of the boil.
“Opening a bag of hops, I don’t think I’ve ever had a stronger smelling experience than with Idaho 7,” Evans. “It’s got a lot of dankness but also fruity notes and tropical components to it. It goes a long way in dry-hopping because of how incredibly aromatic it is.”
The other hop, Azacca, is comparatively more subdued.
“Azacca is not as potent of an aroma hop as a lot of people tout it as,” Evans continues. “It’s got some nice, subtle tropical fruit flavors and some stone fruit character, too.”
Hellbender didn’t have much experience brewing with either hop, so Evans and Miller made a one-off double IPA called Hello, Goodbye to experiment with Idaho 7. The resulting brew was so aromatic that Hellbender decided to use less of it – and more Azacca – in Days Gone By.
“We loved the flavors but it came out strong, and we didn’t want it overwhelm the Belgian yeast strain,” Evans shares. “We didn’t want the dry-hops to be the focus of the entire beer after we had worked so hard on all the other stuff.”
When it comes to tripels – even a “tripel IPA hyrid” – there’s no mistaking that a good yeast strain is the star of the show.
Collaborating with Hellbender, Alexis Briol was an open book – to a point.
That point was the specific yeast strain that St. Feuillien uses to ferment its tripel.
Mash rest procedures, water chemistry, fermentation procedures – these things were all fair game. But when Evans floated the idea of borrowing St. Feuillien’s yeast for this beer, he received a polite “no thank you.”
“I offered to grow up a quantity of their yeast if they sent to us via the mail,” the Hellbender brewer recalls. “He just pointed us in the direction of an existing abbey ale yeast strain from White Labs.”
Picking the right yeast was paramount. Some abbey yeasts produce esters that taste like apples, pears, and honey. Others lean towards phenolic flavors like clove and smoky aromas.
“We really wanted a recommendation because we didn’t want any phenolics in this beer,” Evans says. “We just wanted it to be very estery – something that would complement the American hops we were using.”
Hellbender sought to amplify the fruity characteristics of its abbey ale yeast by open fermenting the beer. In an open fermenter, a yeast strain is under significantly less pressure, allowing it produce more expressive flavors.
“Yeast is a microorganism,” brewing scientist Jasper Akerboom explained last year. “It breathes just like us. It need access to oxygen, especially in the beginning of fermentation, to promote cell growth. Now, imagine if you have a conical fermenter – a good old fermentation tank with a pointy bottom. Yeast can do its job in there, but there’s no real access to oxygen. It works, but the aromas and the flavors are not as nice because the yeast is under more stress than if it were in an open fermenter.”
The challenge for Hellbender was that its open fermenter isn’t nearly as hi-tech as its regular tanks. There’s no feedback loop. It’s just glycol chilled. So, as the beer was fermenting, Evans was left to monitor the temperature and hope for the best.
“We pitched at a fairly warm room temperature and let it free rise up to very hot,” explains the head brewer. “Alexis had a very specific ramp that St. Feuillien does, and we just lucked out that the beer hit all the temperatures that it was supposed to hit, otherwise, I’d be fiddling with the jackets, turning them on or off, and checking the probe. We’ve done that before with other beers, but I’d be fretting over it all the time.”
Since open fermentation enables a yeast to be more active, it also produces a drier beer. And from the kölsch to the coffee stout, a lack of residual sugar is the hallmark of a Hellbender beer.
“I generally don’t like a beer where ‘sweet’ is a descriptor,” Evans says. “With this beer, I wanted the estery aromatics to trick your pallet into thinking the beer would taste sweet but then have it finish dry. All my favorite tripels finish on the drier end.”
As a result, there’s a bit of trickery in the booziness of the beer, too. Tasting Days Gone By, there is no way you would peg it at 8.8%. As with all tripels, that ABV was boosted by the addition of sugar early in the boil.
“In a beer like this, the sugar completely ferments out,” explains Evans. “It doesn’t add any flavor. It just lightens up the beer and adds alcohol without adding body. You end up with this really dry, crisp, refreshing beer. That makes it a little dangerous too, because it drinks like a session Belgian pale ale and you don’t really notice how big it is.”
For the last notable ingredient of Days Gone By, we return to our old friend “Spice?” While the spices of the St. Feuillien Tripel remain shrouded in mystery, we know that Days Gone By contains coriander purchased down the street from Hellbender at an Indian market. Added during the boil, this spice complements the citrus character of the hops and abbey ale yeast.
“Indian coriander is intensely aromatic and citrusy, and a little spicy,” Evans says. “It was made for beer. In comparison, European coriander is a little dull – it’s a background spice for meat.”
Per Briol’s instructions, Hellbender exercised a gentle hand when adding the coriander. In fact, Hellbender recently used more in a 5-barrel batch of witbier than each 19-barrel half-batch of the Days Gone By.
“What’s crazy is that it still came through,” Evan remarks. “When I taste the beer, I can pick up that coriander.”
Never doubt a Belgian when it comes to spices.
On the fourth and final night of CBC, Brasserie Beck hosted Alexis Briol for a St. Feuillien tap takeover.
Beer Director Dean Myers had planned for Briol to say a few words to the crowd and then wander from table to table, mingling and conversing with guests. The last part never happened.
“It was very interesting to see how popular he was with younger brewers at the end of our bar,” Myers relays. “He kind of just got trapped. Even at CBC, where everything is American craft focused, all I kept hearing all night was, ‘Oh the Belgians, they know how do it right.’”
Ben Evans was in attendance, too. It was his 35th birthday, and he and his wife were having a nice Belgian dinner to celebrate.
When Briol spoke to the crowd, he addressed Evans as talk turned to Days Gone By.
“He said, ‘We made an excellent beer, but of course we did, we’re two very good brewers with very good brewing systems,’” Evans shares. “It was kind of cool. He seemed happy with the beer. He called it a true marriage of American and Belgian beers while still being true to the traditional tripel style in a lot of ways.”
Drew McCormick, who was one of the first to serve the beer at the Dupont Pizzeria Paradiso, has similar praise for this synthesis.
“The slight sweetness of the tripel is balanced nicely by the citrusy American hops,” the Executive Beverage Director shares over e-mail. “It’s a perfect example of how collaboration in action can highlight each brewery’s personality while still playing perfectly off one another’s strengths.”