Prior to this trip, I had minimal exposure to Unibroue. My first experience drinking their beer was years back. I grabbed a bottle of La Fin du Monde at a hole-in-the-wall pub in Pittsburgh simply because the label appealed to me and their unflushed taps seemed unappetizing. The second, snagging a bottle of À Tout le Monde just to tickle my mid-90’s Megadeth affinity with zero intent to consume. The bottle’s sole purpose was to sit on my shelf, more a piece of art or homage.
Needless to say, I knew as much about Unibroue as they knew about me when I received the invitation to tour their brewery in Chambly, Québec. I have always wanted to visit Montreal, which is just west of Chambly, so naturally, I jumped on the opportunity to visit, as any sane person would.
Well in-advance of my stay, we were given security measures to abide by when touring the Unibroue brewery (more on that later), which included (in bold) “Socks are a must.” Well, this dude did not abide. So, my first venture out in Montreal was to find socks. Yes, I walked around one of the most historically profound French-Canadian cities for an average pair of socks, but it turned out to be a great way to explore. What initially struck me, was how clean the city was. This metro-hub did not have the sordid smell of waste, or the stain of paper and plastic on the street. It was a proper palace with its regal cityscape, cathedrals and clock tower – along with respect from residents that maintain the aesthetic and longevity of life. This would turn out to be an unforeseen theme throughout my week.
After finding the damn socks, we were in for a night of pleasantries and planning for the next day- the big brewery tour. The group of visiting retailers got through group introductions, enjoyed trendy French cuisine at L’Assommoir Notre-Dame, and put-back a pint of Autre Chose, Unibroue’s newly released (in Canada) Peach IPA. It is a departure from their recognized refermented and Belgian-style brews. It is dry hopped, unfiltered, not refermented and not fair. This deliciously flavorful beer is not available yet in the states, so the slightly sweet and balanced bitter taste was a big tease.
The next day we arrived in Chambly, a small suburb south east of Montreal where Unibroue is located. The brewery is not typically open for public tours, so we were already giddy with the allure of secrecy. We entered into their tasting room where we were handed hefty earplugs fit for the front row of a Slayer show and lab coats more tempting to steal than a 5-star hotel robe. They reiterated the security and safety regulations (mentioned earlier) which were quite extensive. It illuminated how serious they are about ensuring cleanliness and quality standards which left me very impressed. Along with the problematic socks, we were required to wear rubber shoes over our standard shoes. Issue #2: My feet are roughly the same size as a small child’s—at best a large doll’s. Needless to say, there were no rubber shoes for my abnormally small baby feet. We had to make do. A couple of very helpful men ran to the bathroom and returned with paper towels to stuff in the toes of the rubber shoes. One of these knights of the beer table is Sylvain – Unibroue’s own beer sommelier.
It is very unfortunate that most, and perhaps none,of you reading this article will ever meet Sylvain because you are truly missing out. His charismatic presence and passion for the craft of brewing beer is palpable. He has a personality as effervescent as the beers he loves talking about.
After joking a bit that he just learned English a couple of weeks ago, Sylvain gave us our pre-tour speech and led us on our way through the brewery. I took the caboose and slowly waddled behind everyone, clutching my feet as tightly as possible so the rubber shoes wouldn’t fall off – each step making a piercing kerclunk, kerclunk. Then we come to a set of open-back metal stairs.
Again, Unibroue takes their craft very seriously and there are many precautions and high standards set in place to ensure the cleanliness of the brewery. As you walk in, you don’t see as much as a fingerprint on any kettle or fermenter. Thee stairs are the start of what I feared would become my ultimate nightmare scenario: Arrogant American loses shoe on brewery stairs; entire beer batch destroyed beer. I couldn’t let that happen, so instead, I froze and lingered at the bottom of the stairs unnoticed while the group moves on. Mortified, I stood there for two hours. OK, two minutes, but it felt like two hours until another knight brought me some child-sized baby rubber booties they never had to use before. I was ready for a beer now and raced to catch up.
When asked about the immaculate machines, Sylvain explained why they take such serious precaution. “The quality and control of our entire process reflects in the quality of our beer,” he said. “Our world class ales are not pasteurized and therefore it is very important to stay away from any potential risk of infection that would spoil our products and affect the quality and consistency for which we are renowned for. This rigor is also a pre-requisite to comply with our food safety regulations and to ensure that we always provide our consumers with a safe and clean product.”
Sylvain walked us to the mash room where we could smell the coriander, curacao and Citra hops. We walked alongside the giant fermentation tanks that stood at attention like five-story-tall silo soldiers and made our way to the bottling process, which is what really makes Unibroue stand out.
“Almost all products on the market are partially or completely filtered before they are bottled, “Sylvain said. “Moreover, carbon dioxide is added to create effervescence. At Unibroue, the method we use to make our beers effervescent is one that was used by French monks in Champagne and by Belgian monks: bottle refermentation. At the bottling stage, instead of CO2, we add fresh yeast and a bit of sugar to the beer. The beer is therefore not fizzy at first but only after two weeks, once the sugar fermented in the bottle. This process is longer and more complex but ensures more effervescence and very fine bubbles impossible to obtain with any other process.”
Back in the tap room, and thirsty from the earlier embarrassment, I grabbed a pint to sip. I chose simply for its 4.5% ABV. We were about to go to a 7-hour beer festival, so I thought it best to start slow. Typical of Unibroue, it is a Belgian-style Dry Hopped Saison that is slightly cloudy. It the lowest ABV beer they brew, making it the most sessionable.
The most leisurely and refreshing beer I sampled in the tasting room was Blanche de Chambly- Unibroue’s first beer and the first refermented white beer brewed in the Belgian tradition to be bottled and marketed in North America. Fort Chambly is featured on the label, giving a nod to the city where the beer is crafted. It is a golden-yellow with notes of citrus and coriander, which is what we were smelling being made in the mash room during our tour. If you are into beer cocktails, Blanche de Chambly makes my favorite beer-mosa. Just add four ounces of fresh-squeezed orange juice over seven ounces of Blanche de Chambly. You can see Sylvain himself explain the story behind Blanche de Chambly here.
As if the rare brewery tour wasn’t enough excitement for one trip, we were on to Bières et Saveurs de Chambly, a local annual beer festival sponsored by Unibroue. However, not before we made a much-welcomed pit stop at Fourquet Fourchette, a rustic restaurant nestled next to Fort Chambly. There, Sylvain hosted a five-course lunch. Eacha course paired with a particular beer from Unibroue. I had my first taste of chicken liver mousse with the sweet, seasonal Éphémère Fraise & Rhubarbe. Then poutine soup paired with À Tout le Monde, Tapper Salad (with a duck rillette and smoked bison jerky) paired with Raftman, which is made with smoked malt. And onto my favorite, Hanger Steak which I chose to pair with Unibroue’s flagship ale, La Fin du Monde.
La Fin du Monde is Unibroue’s biggest seller in America. It is also the most awarded Canadian beer, receiving more than 50 international awards, including the title of “World’s Best Belgian Style Tripel” two years in a row at the World Beer Awards in London.
I asked Sylvain about the story behind La Fin du Monde and he explained, “The label on our La Fin du Monde bottles highlights part of the Earth that portrays the province of Quebec, in Canada, where our brewery stands, in the city of Chambly. It is brewed in honor of the first French explorers who started colonizing this land in 1534. As did all those who followed Christopher Columbus’ voyage from Spain, they were not only searching for a way to get to India and the spices it offered but were also seeking the gold many American nations such as the Incas and the Mayas possessed. These French explorers were literally searching for the El Dorado, the river where gold flowed. The French from 1534 found neither spices nor gold. What they found was a land that would later become Canada. Unibroue uses spices in La Fin du Monde, some of them originating from the New World. Its color is also golden like the gold the first European explorers were seeking.” You can see Sylvain explain the story himself here.
The lunch was capped with a small sample of Maudite. This beer is brewed so well, that it changed Canadian law. At the time it was first brewed, it was illegal to market a beer with an ABV about 5.5%. At 8% ABV, Unibroue (knowing the quality of their product) decided to move forward with Maudite anyway, making it Canada’s first strong beer. I have seen Maudite’s label on the shelves at ABC before and wondered the story behind the dark depiction. Again, Sylvain humored me with an explanation, but you can see it for yourself here.
After a few beers and a full belly of delicious French food, we sluggishly stepped into Bières et Saveurs de Chambly, where tents were set up for over 60 microbreweries. The Unibroue-sponsored festival is fitted with food trucks, live music, and as much beer as you can possibly imagine… served in glass! That is something you would never see state-side. You can imagine my perplexity when I didn’t see any overfilled trash-cans spilling over, no plastic or paper littering the grassy nooks, no broken glass lining the walkway, no belligerents blathering to themselves. To top it off, there were kids roaming around everywhere, totally enjoying their family-friendly surroundings. It was a proper celebration of hops, barley, malt and yeast.
We were given access to the Unibroue VIP section, which immediately elevated the stature of my self-esteem like Mario scoring a mushroom. I was handed a tulip glass of my newly-revered Autre Chose and started on a walking tour with a small group Sylvain was leading. He took us by a handful of pop-up tents where bystanders and brewers fussed over him like a local celebrity, straight passed a flash-mob line-dancing to a Shania Twain cover and ended at a few small tents to sample some of his favorite brews. I topped the night off by diving head-first into Bison Poutine that I would undoubtably pick as a final meal should I ever find myself of Death Row.
Needless to say, it is a trip that I will remember forever. I was allowed to take an uncommon peak behind the scenes of the immaculate Unibroue Brewery, taste my weight in delicious Canadian beers, and get a personal tour at Bières et Saveurs de Chambly with a beer sommelier whose zeal and passion for the history and craft of beer-making is unforgettable. Now, I am left to anxiously wait the arrival of Autre Chose on our shelves.