This is a story of love and hate—a beer that I love and the pain of trying to come even near brewing it and a beer that I absolutely hated until it taught me to love my ingredients. Oddly, it helped me with the beer that I love. Confused? Good!
After being asked whether homebrewing is really legal, the next question in sheer volume that any homebrewer gets is, “What’s your favorite beer?” That’s a question to which I reply—with my best dad-joke jocularity—“The one in front of me!” Or, “Free and cold!”
But these are lies. We all have a beer we truly love. Maybe it’s situational, like an ice-cold Modelo on a Mexican beach, barefoot in the sand. Or maybe it’s an infatuation, like the ex you see five years later and wonder, once you sober up, what you ever saw in each other—think pastry stouts, lactose bombs, and fruit purees.
But maybe in your heart there’s a true love that will always be welcomed, no matter the day or hour.
Avec Les Bons Voeux
Mine comes from about 50 miles southwest of Brussels, in the village of Tourpes, home to the Brasserie Dupont.
The brewery is charming, the village even more so. On the right day, the Tourpes fête may be going on—with a huge tent, petting zoo, crepes, and beer. It’s something like an Iowa county fair but with less fried food and better beer. It’s a scene as heart-warming as the romantic “history” of saison.
While their regular Saison Dupont is justifiably renowned, it’s their special strong ale, Avec Les Bons Voeux, that I could quietly, contentedly savor no matter what the situation.
The name means “with the good wishes,” with the rest of that phrase being, “of the Brasserie Dupont.” It began in 1970 as a special holiday treat—a thank-you to their best customers. It’s a souped-up, turbo-charged riff on their saison, and it grew so popular that the brewery started making it year-round.
I say it’s related to Saison Dupont, but that’s like comparing a really smart person to Einstein. They’re both likely to outthink us, but one is in a class all its own.
At 9.5 percent strength, Bons Voeux is not a stunty, boozy bomb. It carries that spicy, graceful Dupont character forward to the utmost. It’s dry, spicy with notes of clove, cinnamon, and black pepper. The alcohol hides behind a rich golden malt character, a yeast haze, and a bright lemony-citrus burst that also carries just a touch of a hop leaf and tannin. And the finish—just the right hint of fruity sweetness that fades into a fluffy, foamy, cloudy dryness that avoids stinging harshness. The result is a beer that is stealthy, happy, and so very much my jam.
Being a homebrewer, certified dork, and saison lover, you know I tried to make this beer. How could I not? Was I setting myself up for failure? Well, I’m no Einstein, but even I knew the answer was … yeah, maybe.
What went wrong? Just about everything. My attempts were too cloyingly sweet, too boozy, too chewy. I pushed the water chemistry, making them too harsh and metallic. The yeast gave me fits—it refused to work (it has a reputation). Pitching a neutral finishing yeast always left a disappointing linger. Switching to the more reliable “French Saison” strain worked well, but the beer felt flabby, gloopy, and common. Spices felt natural to add but ended up tasting wrong.
I admit I made some decent beers. I made some awful beer. I never quite got the beer I wanted. I felt defeated. What I didn’t realize was I needed to hate first, before I could truly love.
Fat Man Barleywine
That leads us to the next most-asked question of brewers: “What’s your favorite beer you make?” The usual dodge is, “I love all my children equally.” Another lie. We know the truth: There are some recipes we love more, and some we downright loathe. The surprising secret is that the things we hate can be revealing and instructive. There’s a beer I hated so much that it changed how I brew forever.
It all started with a barleywine. Remember those? Craft beer lovers used to hoard these booze monsters—big, brown, malt-bomb beers with massive IBUs and funny names, usually involving some imagery of a crusty old grump. This was back in the days before everyone decided that malt was the enemy, since overt maltiness distracts from the American passion for hops.
But back then, when the Internet was young and we were naïve about what was going to happen to our beer, we loved our barleywines as annual celebrations. We traded vintage notes and tips. (Like, “Sierra Nevada Bigfoot really comes into its own at five years. It’s way too hoppy before that. No one can handle that much bitterness.”)
It was obligatory for any serious brewer to make one, again as an annual tradition. So I did. I had high hopes for the Fat Man Barleywine. I brewed it with exuberance. 11.5 percent ABV! 1.111 OG! 68 IBUs! On paper, it looked solid. British malts and hops nodded to the style’s origins. I brewed, bottled, and waited … for a full year. I was uncharacteristically patient.
I presented it to people, and they loved it. Drank it right up. Praise abounded.
I hated it—with a passion. If I could launch every bottle of the stuff to the event horizon of a black hole, I would.
Instead, I entered it into a homebrew competition. I wasn’t going to drink it. It won Best of Show. I had no words. I was numb and puzzled. I sat down with a bottle to try to figure out why people liked it and I hated it. This was a very important step. I read the judge sheets. I examined my own notes.
Here’s why I hated the beer: It was too much. It was unfocused. Others really appreciated the wallop of flavor, but I found it to be overwhelming and oddly dead.
I had made all the right decisions numerically. The beer just fell over under the weight of all the little things I was doing with it. Three big chewy malts mixed with a high-character molasses brown sugar. Three different English hops (of suspect quality). It was a clash of titans. It was all so unnecessary—pyrotechnics that left everything in a fog.
That led to a spate of retooling. Did I really need a potent crystal and a toasted malt? What would happen if I just used a high-quality pale? I cleaned up the hops as well—fewer additions, just for bittering and knockout. This retooled version—christened “Little Boy,” naturally—fell closer to traditional old-school barleywines. And it was better … so, so much better.
Taking the time to reflect on what I hated so much in that beer made me a better brewer. I developed recipe frameworks to challenge myself to keep my choices wise and meaningful.
Do I really need three types of black roasted malt to make a stout sing? Am I really gaining any complexity by mixing a half-dozen hop varieties in my hazy IPA? Recent studies seem to agree with my reticence; there’s a point of diminishing returns that makes your beer more expensive, and worse to boot.
Even today this “meaningfulness,” to borrow a zeitgeisty term, drives my brewing practices. I’m not ultra-strict about it, but I do always look at things with an eye toward cutting, finding the minimum that delivers what the beer needs.
Avec Les Bons Voeux, Revisited
That brings us back to the Bons Voeux. With my new perspective, I could see more of what was disappointing me. I had too many malts, too many hop varieties, and inappropriate yeasts and techniques. I stripped the beer down to the studs and rebuilt. I started with a known quantity: my favorite tripel recipe, a blend of Pilsner malt and sugar. I know it makes a fantastic 9–11 percent ABV beer in a similar vein, so why not start there?
With a simple, firm bedrock in mind, I could change a few other things. Bons Voeux has a bit more chew to it, so I added a little Munich. Sugar augments the gravity and helps ensure a lower terminal gravity, but I pulled it back slightly to about 12 percent of the fermentables.
I replaced my Saaz and Styrian Goldings with hops that I knew were in better shape in our markets. (It’s tempting to use region-appropriate ingredients, but if they’re not high-quality, skip them.) I simplified my water additions to a small dose of gypsum to punch the hops forward a bit. And the yeast … here, I got complicated.
Over the years, from various sources, I’ve learned that Dupont has a few cultures living in the brew. Despite our desire for single manageable organisms, you can’t get there with just a single strain of yeast. (This is a good tip for a number of complex Belgian beers—mix strains!)
I started using what seems like the same yeast—Wyeast 3724 Belgian Saison and White Labs WLP565 Belgian Saison I. They both have Dupont origins, but I feel that pulling them together gives a more complex beer. From there, it’s a simple matter of learning that Dupont strains prefer open fermentation. So I keep my fermentors un-airlocked and loosely covered in foil for the active primary fermentation. (I prep an airlock for when the kräusen begins to fall.) Using the two strains and no airlock, I’ve never gotten the dreaded “saison stall.” The exact mechanism is up for debate, but I stand by the technique.
Taking all these things together, I can say that my “Triple Wish” comes closer than I have ever been before—not that I’d ever want to really hit the target. Why ruin the mystery of a piece of magic?
Photo: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com