Monday, April 02, 2007

Jenlain Beer Supper at HopLeaf / Do American Breweries Need a "House Character"

This Sunday I got a cool chance to meet and talk to a French brewer named Jean-Jacques Giard, of Brasserie Duyck. My girlfriend and I had responded to a message sent out from Shelton Bros. distributor, Ron Extract, inviting us to sup' with Jean-Jacques, (and whomever else answered the invitation), and drink three of the very enjoyable beers that his small Northern French brewery produces. The venue was the Hopleaf, in the Northside's Andersonville neighborhood, long known as one of the best beer bars in Chicago.

(sorry about the darkness of the photos, the French are afraid of flash photography as a people)

Jean-Jacques spoke a little about his family owned, 4th generation brewery, and a little about the beers, two biere-de-gardes, an amber and a blonde, and an abbey ale known as St. Druon French Abbey Ale. They were all solid beers and we certainly enjoyed more than the $20 entrance fee we paid.

When I quizzed Jean-Jacques about why he was in the States, he said that it wasn't really to promote his beer, although the dinner did serve that function to some degree, it was more to try to understand the current American beer culture, especially craft beer culture. I was rather surprised because it seemed like a very ambitious goal, and I'm not sure how long he plans on traveling for.

While we drinking and discussing the large diversity of American beers, Ron brought up that one of his pet peeves, or complaints, or wishes, or something to that effect, is that most American brewers, (re: craft brewers), try to do a little of everything rather than focus on a few different beers and really make them specific to the region or the establishment. In Europe where one brewery might have been brewing for hundreds of years their beers tend to be very specific and have either a local flavor or a very specific house flavor. Bamberg, Germany is known for having "Rauch" or smoked beers. Schlenkerla is on of my favorites and in fact they make a helles that has no rauch malt in it but still has a house flavor of smoke. Ron's example of an American brewery that makes an effort to have a house character was Jolly Pumpkin in Michigan. (They are also the only American brewery that Shelton Brothers distributes.) Pretty much all of their beers are sour beers and the reuse of their wooden barrels and wild belgian yeasts lend to a very specific character.

So why don't most American craft brewers have this kind of house character? I personally think there are a lot of reasons. I also think that here at Flossmoor we do have a house character in our house beers. We use the same yeast strain that we have used since day one for all of our house beers, but we don't really have the facilities to store the yeast in house and use generation after generation of it like some breweries. It's a commercially available yeast strain that any brewer could buy and use so it doesn't really make us that unique.

But, 1) having a specific house character is a bit of a risk. If people don't like it they tend to group all of your beers together into a category of "beers they aren't interested in drinking."

2) We have only been around for 11 years. Most breweries that have distinguished flavors that Ron is looking for have been around for decades or centuries.

3) It's boring to always make the same beers the same ways or to have a handful of beers that all taste similar. Right now on tap we have a belgian wit, an american double IPA, a Baltic Porter, a German Dopplebock, a milk-stout, and all of our house beers. Variety is the spice of life. (I also think that we do a pretty good job with these styles whereas I think some might argue that a lot of brewpubs try to do a little of everything and get nothing right. Jack of all trades master of none kind of thing)

So what does everyone else out there think? I'll be happy to post some of your responses if you e-mail them to us using the "E-mail the brewstaff" link on the right side. I'm interested to hear what yous peoples out there think.


Anonymous said...

Both sides of the debate have valid points I think. In older countries the people would identify more with tradition whereas in the U.S. this is all new. Better to challenge beer drinkers since they come to your brewpub looking to taste new creations. There's always a sad macrobrew that can be spectacularly countered by a far more intense style of craft beer. In Europe the beer drinking culture never collapsed as it did in the late 20th century here in the U.S. until by the force of entropy craft brewing arose.

Anonymous said...

Andy & Matt,
Isn't the problem of a breswery developing a house flavor more like crating your own boring little flavor world? Maybe if you are catering to a small market. But we here in America love diversity. Where would Starbucks be without it?
Keep on brewing the fantastic beers you're making now. They're great.
Stop worrying and go have a beer.
Jerry S.


Greg Furgason said...

I don't think having a house flavor is as important as having a reputation for producing well crafted beers, which the two of you obviously have; and rightfully should have. There definitely is a different culture in Europe surrounding beer, ie how it is priced, what is available at which pub, etc. I enjoy a great deal of European beers, but I have the luxury of having the variety of choice at a good liquor store. For a brewery I would say maybe it would be better to not have a house character but a flagship beer. Something that is available all the time that is recognized as a great brew, like the Pullman has been recently. In the past I would say the Iron Horse was the most popular.

Personally I would like to see more specials rotated through. Right now is great because you have 4 on tap. When there are only 2 available it gets tough to choose which beer I want. If you were to analyze sales of the house beers and see which ones were not as popular, I would not be offended to see one or two of them disappear or become specials in favor of a larger rotation of the special/seasonal brews.

Regardless, you both do an excellent job and give me plenty of reason to stop in for a pint and bite to eat.