Brewers are always under the influence, so to speak. That influence comes either from your predecessors, from admired colleagues, or from your own brewing culture. All the beers you encounter in your life—especially before you start brewing—help, step-by-step, to create a vision of what your own beers should be.
Having a vision is key if you want to make great beer. It should be something personal, showcasing your values. But unless you’ve lived all your life on an island, then you have been—even without noticing—under the beer influence of others. It’s a good personal exercise to try to understand that. It probably makes us better brewers because it forces some humility upon us and connects us more deeply to our industry. Of course, that influence should lead us to get inspired while making our own things, not to basically copy.
The first three beers I’ve selected are, for me, some of the very best examples of styles and beer cultures that influenced my approach to beermaking. As a Belgian, I have, of course, been influenced by the beers of my homeland (perhaps most importantly by lambic) but maybe even more so by traditional English bitters—with their low ABV and super-high drinkability—and by German pilsners, with their clean palate and the precision used to brew them. Those are the main causes of what my beers are today—or, at least, what I’m trying to do with them. Funnily enough, both those brewing cultures deeply influenced Belgian brewing in the second half of the 19th century.
The three other beers are made by some dear American friends whose work I admire. I know that they also have been influenced by Belgian beer culture—and I have to say they are influencing me in return. They were the most difficult to choose, as they are far from being the only ones I love, coming from what is now the most influential beer country. A six-pack is definitely too small a package!
(Schönram, Upper Bavaria, Germany)
If you’re a brewer and your brain is telling you, “I want a beer!” then the beer it actually wants is a pils—it’s the definition of beer, right? I believe in Darwinism, also for beer: There’s a reason why this style became the most successful of all time. When well-made, it’s simply irresistible. And if there is to be only one pilsner on this planet, for me it’s Schönramer. Located in beautiful southern Bavaria, the Private Landbrauerei Schönram owes its reputation to an American: Eric Toft. Eric is one of the most precise brewers I know—and a fantastic person, too! But, like all the best brewers, he can give soul to a beer—through technique certainly, but also through love, intuition, and sensitivity.
Schönramer Pils has a bright, hoppy aroma, a malt depth that gives it a perfect structure, and an assertive bitterness that is at the same time clean and sharp as a razor, yet extremely elegant. This crisp lager is simply liquid perfection.
Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter
(East Sussex, England)
Good beer is a question of volume. I’m not joking. One should not sip it but gulp it to see whether it’s good or not. And what beers are easier to gulp than traditional English cask bitters, with their perfect balance between malt and hops and their gentle carbonation? Of course, the key word here is—as it should always be—balance. And Harvey’s Head Brewer Miles Jenner is a master of balance. He carefully hand selects the best possible ingredients, allowing the magic of open fermentation and traditional yeast strains to do their thing—under his expert guidance, of course.
The results: delightful biscuity notes from the malt supported by a gentle fruitiness, a balanced bitterness, and the perfect combination of fermentation and hop flavors. The yeast(s) haven’t been propagated since the 1950s (which is just cool), and they impart a sort of tamed wildness to the beer, melting with subtle sulfur notes to give it a lot of character. It is probably one of the finest remaining examples of post-WWI British brewing. This is a beer you could drink all day (which I never fail to do when sitting at The Royal Oak, their house pub in London).
Cantillon Grand Cru Bruocsella
If I’m a professional brewer today (and that does appear to be the case), then it’s probably thanks to a few great Belgian brewers who were miraculously still active in the late 1980s. They fueled my passion for beer, especially Jean-Pierre Van Roy from the Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels. I met him first in 1989. We chatted for a couple of hours, but it didn’t take more than five minutes for him to transmit to me his passion for (good) beer. He showed me that, behind those beers, there are values, that those values can be endangered, and that it’s worth fighting for them. He was my Beer Yoda. Later, his son Jean showed me, in turn, the importance of the art of blending, when I worked for him years later.
Of course, my first Cantillon was the Gueuze, but I was quickly intrigued by the mother beer of the brewery: lambic. Grand Cru Bruocsella is Cantillon’s best three-year-old lambic, carefully chosen before each bottling. This flat, wine-like, deliciously tart and complex beer opened my mind to a new world, permanently connecting me with the roots of my own brewing culture.
I have a profound admiration for Rob Tod and Jason Perkins. Not only are they the friendliest people, but they also succeeded into doing something quite extraordinary: embracing the beer culture of a foreign country and, for some styles, surpassing the level of the beers of that country. That country, of course, is Belgium. They’re not alone in the United States; people such as Tomme Arthur at The Lost Abbey and Will Meyers at Cambridge Brewing are also experts in the field. Allagash White—another brewers’ beer, by the way—is an excellent example.
Over the years, witbier probably became the most boring style you could find in my country—sweetish, over-spiced, it became a “beer for the people who don’t like beer.” It’s sad because originally, this style was extremely interesting and way more complex than it seems to be. But the people at Allagash understood the essence of it, re-creating it in a superb way. They especially understood the importance of wheat and of overall balance in this beer. The result is a delightful, thirst-quenching, wheat-forward beer, with just the right amount of spiciness that doesn’t overwhelm. It’s a gold-medal beer in the style, as its many honors demonstrate.
Russian River Beatification
(Santa Rosa, California)
Talk about great people and great beers! Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo count among the nicest humans in our industry, and the way they brew beer should be an example for all of us. They also take bits and pieces of other beer cultures and mix them with their own ideas and terroir to create something unique and very personal, always with a strong sense of its place. They even dared to attack a stupid myth that claimed that spontaneous beers could only be made in Belgium! (They were joined by other skillful brewers such as Jester King, Oxbow, Jolly Pumpkin, Allagash, Pen Druid, and many more now.) Although it is inspired by Belgian lambic, they helped to create a new style (that one could call “American spontaneous”), which is fascinating because it is such a difficult beer to make.
Beatification is a great example. Vinnie uses his deep knowledge in wine to age the beer properly and blend it to perfection. The wild yeasts and bacteria take the lead, but in a mellow way that perfectly complements the oak and vinous notes from the barrels. Some minerality is also present, creating another bridge to the world of wine. The result is a very complex but still refreshing beer that carries you back and forth from Belgium to the Sonoma Valley in a tasteful journey.
Keeping Together The Art of Holding Space
Averie Swanson is one of the best brewers I know. She’s meticulous in the way she brews, but she also uses all her senses at all times to create the perfect beer. A master in blending, she can also talk to the yeast, which is one of the best qualities a brewer can have. Averie is also a lot of fun! And The Art of Holding Space is truly wonderful.
This table beer has everything the educated beer lover or open-minded drinker can dream of: It’s very complex while super-easy to drink; it imparts a subtle fruitiness, balanced by the right level of bitterness and mild funkiness; and it’s highly refreshing—with its low ABV of 3 percent, you can drink gallons without hurting yourself, like a light mid-19th century saison. It’s a real brew(st)er’s beer, and a real masterpiece.