Kendall Staggs, aka the Beer Prof
Beer Historian and Tasting Guide
It’s the middle of winter, and Valentine’s Day and the Winter Olympics are approaching. For some people, I suppose, this might be an occasion to curl up on the couch with a sweetheart and watch the breathtaking television coverage of curling. I’ll likely miss most of the sports, but in honor our neighbors to the north, the inventors of ice hockey, I’ll have some world-class Canadian beer.
You heard me right: world-class Canadian beer. When most Americans think of Canadian beer—if they ever think of Canadian beer—they think of Labatt’s and Molson, and maybe Moosehead, just as most people around the world think of Budweiser, Miller Lite, and maybe Coors when they think of American beer. But Canada has a thriving and growing craft beer industry, and some of its top breweries, like the best in the United States, make beers that rank among the finest in the world.
My two favorite Canadian breweries, Unibroue and Dieu du Ciel!, have a great deal in common. They are both from French-speaking Quebec, and their brewing facilities are in metropolitan Montreal. They are not the only craft breweries in Quebec, but their beers are the best known and most widely distributed in the United States. Their beers enjoy a strong reputation for excellence, and they come in bottles that feature very attractive, colorful labels.
Brasserie Unibroue has been one of my favorite breweries ever since I first encountered it in the late 1990s. It is located in the small but historically significant town of Chambly, Quebec, on the shores of the Richelieu River, 20 miles east of Montreal. From the start, the brewery specialized in Belgian-style beers with a French-Canadian accent. Most of them are available in 12-ounce bottles, but I prefer them in the 750 ml corked-and-caged bottles, which allow for bottle re-conditioning with a secondary dose of yeast. One of the attractions to the Unibroue beers is that they are relatively inexpensive, whether in grocery stores or specialty bottle shops. I have seen a 750 ml bottle of Unibroue ale sell for as little as $5 in Corvallis. And they compare favorably in quality to some of my favorite Belgian ales, which cost almost twice as much. Unibroue’s motto is “Drink less, drink better.”
In the spring of 1992, following consultation with the legendary Witbier brewer Pierre Celis, Unibroue introduced its first bottled product, Blanche de Chambly (White of Chambly), a 5 percent alcohol by volume ale brewed with unmalted wheat and pale barley malt, coriander and Curaçao orange peel (both typical Witbier spices), and a modest amount of select hops. The bottle label features an image of Fort Chambly, where Canadian defenders repelled attacks from invading Americans in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Blanche de Chambly is a great beer, but it is only my fifth favorite in the Unibroue line-up. It’s great any time of year, but I prefer it in summer, when it goes especially well with fruit salads.
Six months after the release of Blanche de Chamby, Unibroue released Maudite (Damned), an 8 percent abv Amber Ale that features a robust, relatively sweet, malt profile that is balanced by a fairly assertive hop finish. It also has a complex, citrus and clove aroma that comes from coriander and other spices. It was the first strong beer to be retailed in Quebec. I like to pair Maudite (pronounced mo-zeet) with pizza, Flemish stew, or a spice-rubbed pork tenderloin. It’s my fourth favorite Unibroue beer. Maudite’s evocative label comes with a story, called Le Chasse-galerie (the bewitched canoe). According to this Québécois legend, there once were eight voyageurs that yearned to be home for the holidays. They conjured up the devil and pledged their souls in return for a journey across the sky in their canoe. As they sailed across the moonlit sky, one of the voyageurs freed himself from his pledge by invoking God’s name. As a result, the canoe and all the voyageurs came crashing down to earth.
Another great Unibroue beer that is readily available in the Willamette Valley is Don de Dieu (Gift of God). It is named for the ship commanded by Samuel de Champlain, who in 1608 sailed up the St. Lawrence River to a point where it narrows between high cliffs, a site that could be easily defended. There Champlain founded the first permanent French-speaking colony in North America. He named it Quebec, a modification of an Algonquian Indian word that means “where the river narrows.” Don de Dieu is a Belgian-style Tripel; it’s relatively strong at 9 percent abv, and also brewed with spices. The big difference between it and most Tripels is that it is brewed with substantial amounts of malted wheat. As a result it has a complex, fruity aroma and flavor, and a dry finish. It is my third-favorite beer from Unibroue. It goes great with lots of foods, but I especially like it with sushi or other Asian cuisine.
My second favorite Unibroue beer, and one that makes my top ten favorite beers in the world list, is Trois Pistoles (pronounced trwah-pee-stole). It is named after a 300-year-old village on the lower St. Lawrence River. Trois Pistoles is a Belgian-style Strong Dark Ale that is brewed with four distinctive malts and four exotic spices. Its aromas evoke bitter dark chocolate, dates, and raisins. In many ways it resembles the first really great beer I ever had in my life, Chimay Grande Réserve, which at the time I first tried it, in the early 1990s, was regarded by many beer enthusiasts at the best beer in the world. I now prefer Trois Pistoles, which is remarkably easy to drink despite its 9 percent abv strength. I try to keep a bottle of it in the refrigerator at all times. It goes equally well with steamed mussels and artisan chocolate truffles.
In 1994 Unibroue introduced La Fin du Monde (the End of the World). This triple-fermented, 9 percent abv golden ale was the product of 18 months of research with a Belgian yeast strain. The result is a strong but delicate, subtle beer with a fine carbonation that can only come from methode champenoise techniques similar to real Champagne. La Fin du Monde is now Unibroue’s best-selling brand. Most beer writers call it a Belgian-style Tripel, meaning that it has a lot in common with such classic beers as Westmalle Tripel and Tripel Karmeleit, La Fin du Monde’s aromas are intensely fruity, with esters ranging from peaches and pears to bubblegum. Its flavors start out sweet but it finishes relatively dry, thanks to the presence of some peppery hops. I like to pair it with assertive cheeses and with seafood, especially bacon-wrapped scallops. La Fin du Monde is my favorite Unibroue beer, and it’s another one that I try to have in my refrigerator at all times.
Stirred, Not Shaken
In June 2003 I had the good fortune to stay the night at the bed-and-breakfast on the site of the former officer’s quarters of historic Fort Chambly, just a few blocks from both the commercial brewery and the cozy restaurant-museum, Le Fourquet-Fouchette, whose wait staff wore charming 18th-century costumes. Accompanied by a beautiful, French-speaking travelling companion, I had the opportunity to sample many of Unibroue’s tasty brews and enjoy a delicious meal that featured braised caribou with cranberry sauce.
While at the restaurant I learned a few cool things. First, if you want to increase the fruity aromas and flavors in the corked-and-caged Unibroue bottles, such as La Fin du Monde, invert the bottle and give it three turns before returning it upright, popping the cork, and pouring it into a goblet. Naturally, you should expect livelier initial carbonation when you do this, and the beer pours cloudier. Second, for a unique treat, take a small bite of dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa, begin chewing, and take a sip of Unibroue’s 10.5 percent abv Strong Dark Ale, which is called, oddly enough, Terrible. The chocolate will be transformed into a cherry bon-bon in your mouth. It’s a neat trick that always gets oohs and ahs at my beer tasting events.
In addition to Terrible, Unibroue makes several other delicious beers that are harder to find in the Willamette Valley but worth trying when you can find them. These include Raftman, a 5.5 percent abv peat-smoked Whisky Malt Ale; Noire de Chambly, a 6.2 percent abv Belgian Black Ale; Eau Bénite (Holy Water), a 7.7 percent abv Tripel brewed with corn; Éphémère Apple, a 5.5 percent abv Witbier brewed with apple must, and Unibroue 17 Grande Réserve, a 10 percent abv Strong Dark Ale aged in French oak barrels.
The God of the Sky
Brasserie Dieu du Ciel! is not as well-known as Unibroue, has it made a name for itself by brewing a wide variety of beer styles, employing unique ingredients, and creating some of the most beautiful labels in the craft beer world. It began as brewpub in Montreal in 1998. Since then co-founder Jean-François Gravel has sought to create beers that are bold and innovative. The 11.5 ounce bottled versions of Dieu du Ciel! come from a brewery in the Montreal suburb of St-Jèrôme. These beers have proven difficult to find lately in Oregon, but the ones I have been able to track down have proven to be intriguing and rewarding.
Recently I tried Dernière Volonté (Last Will). It is labeled a Belgian-Style Blond Ale, but it has an intense hop flavor that melds with the fruitiness, especially in the aroma, derived from a Belgian yeast strain. Hints of peaches and peppers come through in this complex, 6.5 perent abv, beer, which I enjoyed more in successive sips and as it warmed a bit. Jason Alstrom, one of the founders of the Beer Advocate ratings website, awards this beer a rare 100 score. I was not as impressed. It was good, but I prefer my Belgian-style beers not to be so hoppy. Many of my fellow beer enthusiasts in the Willamette Valley are “hop-heads,” and would no doubt appreciate Dernière Volonté more than I do.
Solstice D’Hiver (Winter Solstice) is an American Barleywine that I recently tried for the first time. One of Dieu du Ceil’s initial bottled beers, it was first released on tap at the brewpub in Montreal in December 1998. Each year it is brewed in July and released on December 21, and a special version is aged 1.5 years before it is bottled. It is deep brown in color with ruby hues. It has a fruity aroma, sweet, liquor-like flavors, and hints of burnt caramel. It also has a lot of hop bitterness. It’s a strong, 10.2 percent abv winter warmer. There are some Barleywines that I prefer, such as Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, but I really liked Solstice D’Hiver, and was pleased to see it on the shelves of Corvallis Brewing Supply.
Rosée D’Hibiscus is 5.9 percent abv ale in which the brewers steep hibiscus flowers. It’s dark, reddish brown in color, with a modest, pink-hued head. The hibiscus flowers seem to impart an exotic, tea-like aroma and flavor, which goes with notes of lemongrass, ginger, and tart raspberries. Wheat malt also seems to be present. Rosée D’Hibiscus is a very intriguing beer—definitely worth a try—but I wish it had more malt flavor. That would make it more beer-like and less like an herbal tea.
A Beer to Die For
Last and certainly not least, I recommend Dieu du Ceil’s Rigor Mortis Abt, a 10.5 percent abv Monastic Quadrupel. This beer, inspired by the Beglium’s famous Trappist ales, rivals them with its complex fruitiness and spiciness; intense flavors of sweet malt, chocolate, and burnt caramel; and low hop bitterness. It was first released on tap at the brewpub in Montreal in August 2001. Now it is brewed once a year and released every January. This is definitely a beer that is meant to be aged. I counted myself very fortunate, then, when a friend from Eugene brought me a bottle of 2009 Rigor Mortis Abt that she found in a beer specialty store in Federal Way, Washington. She paid $10 for it. That may seem like a lot for a 11.5 ounce bottle of beer, but I think it was worth it. (Yes, I did pay her!)
The first thing I noticed when I poured the Rigor Mortis Abt 12 into a classic chalice glass was that it was cloudy and dark brown, with a low, beige head, and plenty of foam sticking to the sides of the glass (Belgian lace). Next, I gave it several long sniffs, and these revealed aromas of cherries, caramel, toasted malt, and a hint of floral hops. There were also mild phenolics, smelling like clove and nutmeg, which I expect from a Belgian yeast strain. The flavors were sweet, varied, and delicious. They evoked bitter chocolate, gingerbread, figs, raisins, apricots, and cherry cordial. It had a chewy center and a mouth-coating aftertaste. This beer hit all the marks, and I consider it one of the best Monastic Quadrupels outside of Belgium. I didn’t just survive my sampling of Rigor Mortis Abt 12, I was longing for more.
Other Dieu du Ciel! offerings that I have not tried but look promising include
Péché Mortél (Mortal Sin), a 9.5 percent abv Imperial Coffee Stout, Route des Épices, a 5 percent abv Rye Ale with peppercorns and other spices, Rescousse, a 5.3 percent abv Dusseldorf-style Altbier, Aphrodite, a 6.5 percent abv Cocoa and Vanilla Stout, Blanche Neige (Snow White), an 8.3 percent abv Winter Witbier that features cinnamon and clove, and Equinox du Printemps (Spring Equinox), a 9.5 percent Scotch Ale with maple syrup,. My mouth waters thinking about all these beers.