TORONTO — You don’t know Jerry Vietz, but if you like beer he’s no doubt brought joy into your life. Vietz is the brewmaster of Canada’s most acclaimed craft brewer, Unibroue, which will exhaust you of superlatives if you try to describe what its roster of beers has meant for the international reputation of Canadian brewing.
Since debuting with Blanche de Chambly in 1992, Unibroue has delivered flavourful, Belgian-style ales that stand up to Trappist stalwarts like Huyghe Brewery’s Delirium Tremens and Rochefort’s top brews. It’s also earned all the accolades to live up to its stature as one of the best breweries on the planet. La Fin du Monde, the top-selling Unibroue beer in the U.S., has won five platinum and six gold medals from the Chicago Beverage Tasting Institute’s World Beer Championships, and Unibroue beers have won 152 awards overall.
On Wednesday, Vietz was at BeerBistro in Toronto to unveil perhaps Unibroue’s finest creation, Grand Reserve 17, which in 2010 was named the World’s Best Dark Ale from the annual World Beer Awards in London. About 30 of us were invited to the event that also featured servings of BeerBistro chef Michelle Usprech’s Unibroue-infused cuisine and a special serving of a Christmas ale Vietz first made in his home. It’s not a surprise that Grand Reserve 17 is a delicious beer, what you will raise your eyebrow at, though, is how light it feels on your palate. Rather than a thick, rich ale like Maudite that announces the intent of its 8-percent alcohol content upon the first sip, Grand Reserve 17 is immensely smooth and easy to drink. It costs $9.95 for a 750-millilitre bottle and is available only at LCBO stores.
This beer with 10-percent alcohol content was the first Vietz created when he took over as brewmaster in 2007, after working at the brewery for more than four years. He calls Grand Reserve 17 “my baby.”
“We have a small batch and we cannot go to the world market,” he said, explaining why the brewery has the exclusive deal with the LCBO. It could also be that Unibroue wants to get back into LCBO stores with more beer than Blanche de Chambly, although Vietz avoided commenting on that issue. Earlier this year, the LCBO said poor sales of the pricey Unibroue beers spurred a decision to remove La Fin du Monde, Maudite, Trois Pistoles and others from its supply list.
Beer drinkers in Toronto, of course, can still find some other Unibroue products at The Beer Store and in a number of the fine beer establishments in the city, including BeerBistro, Bar Volo and Ciro’s. Unibroue started as an independent in Lennoxville, Quebec, and then moved to Chambly. It was purchased by the Sleeman Brewing Company in 2004, which was subsequently bought by Japanese mega-brewer Sapporo in 2006. Sapporo has helped push Unibroue into the Far East market and rapid expansion has meant the brewing capacity in Chambly is at peak volume.
“Four years ago, when we worked on the 17, we reached the maximum capacity. That means to put out a short-run beer, you have to create back order on the market for our other beers,” Vietz said. For many years, Unibroue put out a special-edition beer to mark each anniversary, but that stopped after the release of Grand Reserve 17. “It’s a good problem to have, selling more beer.”
As Vietz tells it, Unibroue’s founder, former Rona CEO Andre Dion, was on vacation in Belgium when he witnessed his wife enjoying beer, something she’d never done in Canada. “He said, ‘If women like her will drink this beer, I can sell that in Canada.’”
He returned to Quebec and started the Belgian-inspired brewery that now probably has more fans outside of the country than in it. Great beer bars in the U.S., from the Avenue Pub in New Orleans to Rattle ’n Hum in New York and the Tap House in Seattle, stock copious amounts of Unibroue. When I lived in New York, I would make runs to the border, driving straight up I-87 to Quebec to bring back cases of La Fin du Monde, Don de Dieu, Maudite, Trois Pistoles and Raftman. The beers made me a lot of friends in the States. Their inspired names all with compelling stories (the label on Maudite, or “the Damned,” tells the tale of early Les Habitants lumberjacks who made a deal with the devil in order to get back to Montreal from the Outaouais in time for Christmas) are splendid marketing. Then, there’s the craftsmanship of passionate employees like Vietz, who says he “works for the yeast.”
“I studied pure science for two years, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I worked in a candy factory for four years when I was younger and that was my first introduction to the food industry. Since then, I studied three years in food science, and that’s where I started to concentrate on fermentation,” he says.
All of Unibroue’s beers, even the light-coloured Blanche de Chambly, are ales. As Vietz explains, the difference between lagers and ales is in the yeast. Ale strains are fermented at a higher temperature than lager strains, which is why Unibroue beers are often kept at room temperature and in a dark place for optimal taste and for aging.
Of Unibroue’s beers, “17 is my favourite,” Vietz admits. “Of our regular portfolio, I’m a big fan of aged beer and Trois Pistoles ages very well.”
As it enters its third decade, you could say the same for Unibroue.