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Jerry Vietz of Unibroue Talks Beer, Brewing and Bowler Hats

Jerry Vietz of Unibroue Talks Beer, Brewing and Bowler Hats

Unibroue in Chambly, Quebec, Canada is one of the world's most highly regarded brewers of Belgian-style bottle-refermented beers with a myriad of awards to their name over their 28-years of brewing.

Founded in 1992, Unibroue immediately made waves in the craft beer industry with a focus on traditional Belgian-style beers with incredible overall quality. Blanche de Chambly, La Fin du Monde, Maudite and Trois Pistoles are just a few of the extremely popular brews that Unibroue offers.

Unibroue’s offerings are known for being bottle-refermented, which means they continue to ferment and develop after being bottled. This process contributes to the impressive quality level and staggering complexity that each and every bottle of Unibroue beer possesses.

In 2003, Jerry Vietz joined Unibroue. Since his hiring, the brewery has experienced something of a golden age with a steady stream of award and accolades coming the brewery’s way thanks to Vietz’s stylistic experiments and boundary-pushing brewing talents.

Not only has the brewery become one of the most acclaimed in the world, but Unibroue’s bottle-refermented ales remain among the most interesting and flavorful in the world of craft beer. Beyond that, the company has released multiple limited releases that are highly sought after, such as the brewery’s collaboration with the metal giants Megadeth with A Tout le Monde.

In 2020, Unibroue took home an astounding 18 medals at the World Beer Awards, including five “World’s Best Beer” awards for Blanche de Chambly, Maudite, Lune de Miel and La Fin du Monde.

We spoke with Unibroue’s brewing mastermind Vietz on a variety of topics – ranging from all those awards, how he started on the path to brewing and just what the deal is with his trademark bowler hat.

Unibroue took home an astounding 18 medals at the World Beer Awards, including five “World’s Best Beer” awards for Blanche de Chambly, Maudite, Lune de Miel and La Fin du Monde.

What led you to become a brewer?
I began my professional path in the cider industry, then moved on to wine before finally ending up in the beer world, where I was given the opportunity to share my creations on a worldwide scale. It’s a labor of love!

When did you begin working at Unibroue? Did you start off as part of the brewing team or elsewhere within the company?
I joined Unibroue in 2003 when founder André Dion was still at the helm. I had always thought that making beer was easy, but I have to admit that you need a healthy amount of conviction, dedication and passion to master the art of brewing craft beers that are both balanced and complex.

I started exploring the wonderful world of fermentation in 1997, while I was studying applied science. The interest that people showed in my creations inspired me to pursue further studies, first in applied science, then food biochemistry and, finally, the science and technology of malting and brewing. After all these years, it’s safe to say that I have developed a pretty profound relationship with yeast. Since then, I have been thoroughly mesmerized by these living microscopic organisms. My admiration for yeast is immense, and I firmly believe that it’s only by treating it with the respect that it deserves that you can craft a world-renowned beer.

Can you tell us the story behind your iconic trademark bowler hat?
I don't wear the bowler hat all the time, but since I've had pictures taken and posted on our website with the bowler hat, people are always asking for it when I show up at beer events. I've always been a hat guy and I have a wide collection at home. I have many of them, different colors, different kinds, some have the ribbon, others don’t. I also have other hats such as a beret and an Al Capone-style fedora. Most of these hats come from a famous hat shop in Montreal named Henri Henri. This 88-year-old hat shop is credited with helping to popularize the term hat trick among soccer and hockey fans. When they were sponsoring games at the Montreal Forum, if any player scored three goals they were given a hat!

unibroue a tout le monde megadeth collaboration beer

What led to you working with metal giants Megadeth for A Tout le Monde? When did you first meet Dave Mustaine?
We were first approached by the Megadeth team in the summer of 2015. They explained to us that Dave wanted to meet with us about a beer project. I said why not, I love to talk about beer and my second passion is music. I was a little surprised, since I had been listening to Megadeth since high school and Dave had always been a legend to me. We met for the fist time the week after a huge outdoor music festival where Megadeth were headliners playing in front of 80,000 people. I brought a few beer samples with me, and the connection with Dave and I was so profound that he missed his sound check that day!

In fact, we had so much fun that day that we got to spend time together the entire day sampling beer and dreaming about our first collaboration. I remember leaving his hotel room with my wife and my brand manager at dawn. That was quite a day! I felt like I had just reconnected with an old buddy from high school. We became good friends and rapidly discovered that we had a lot in common. From there we started to work on what would become À Tout le Monde 15 months later. Dave came to my house to sample beer, and I also visited him and his lovely family at their residence. It has truly been a fun and successful project judging by the different awards it has won since its arrival on the market.

Could you walk us through the decision-making process that leads to new beers at Unibroue?
I am really lucky to be surrounded by a great marketing team that supports me in my crazy ideas. The alignment of the different liquids depends on the nature of the brand or liquid. In fact, we have different series of beer in which the stakes are different. Our "Specialty Brew" series is a kind of “brewmaster playground” in which I can freely experiment, often leading to truly funky liquids praised by beer aficionados. At the other end, we also have a series named "Autre Chose" (translating to something else), in which our marketing team is carefully looking at market trends and comes in with ideas for beer styles that are outside our core Belgian-style refermented ales (IPA, IPL, Lagers, etc.). We also have a fruit beer series named Ephemere in which I experiment with different fruits grown locally. These seasonal beers are “ephemeral” and come and go with the seasons. I find lots of inspiration in the kitchen when it comes to beer creation. When the magic happens in the kitchen using specific ingredients for a special dish, the combination of aromatics used to enhance the overall flavor of the plate very often leads to something special in a beer as well. The key is in the balance!

unibroue terrible in a barrel room

What did Terrible winning our Best Beer of the Year in 2019 mean to you?
I can sum up my feelings with one word: pride. With the wide variety of products available on the market to please taste buds of beer connoisseurs, it is quite a challenge to come out with a beer that will stand itself apart from all other quality beer in the same category. It is even more difficult to replicate the experience batch after batch and year after year. Consistency is the key to achieve world-class renown.

What are your thoughts on the state of beer and brewing in 2020?
In such a competitive market, it is quite challenging to deal with such a wide portfolio of Unibroue brands. I remember the days that we were one of the few craft beers available on the shelves. The reality is quite different now with so many breweries and such a wide variety of beers. We have to adjust our sales and marketing strategies to comply with this reality.

What do you expect to be some major trends in beer and brewing in 2021?
Based on the actual demand, it seems that many palates got used to hoppiness and bitterness and this reality reflects in the style of beer I am asked to create. Above the liquid, it seems that cans are continuously gaining in popularity and this reality could affect consumer preference when it's time to buy a beer. No matter the trend, it seems that beer lovers are still very curious and happy to discover different flavors as well as the inspiration that lead to the creation of a new beer.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected Unibroue?
Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a positive effect on our business, thankfully. I like to think that as a specialist in creating natural antidepressants, I have provided some comfort to the world in these trying moments. We've encountered several challenges since the beginning of the pandemic, though. In fact, we did suffer a bit from the fact that we had to put in operation a new canning line this summer and we had delays with all restrictions that inevitably came from COVID-19. With restaurant and bar closures, we've also observed a natural migration from on-premises to off-premises sales. One of the aspects I personally suffered the most, is not having direct contact with our consumers and fans. In consideration of the restrictions brought by the pandemic and its length, we had to find ways to perpetuate beer events such as podcasts, etc. However, I think that in general we are lacking that third dimension – human warmth that naturally comes with social contact.

Can you tell us about any upcoming projects you're working on at Unibroue?
We have a lot going on. Our main focus at the moment is to use our new canning line and adapt our refermentation process and expertise to provide our consumers the same great products they enjoy from the wide Unibroue refermented ales portfolio. Besides that, we have just released our new Belgian-style IPA "Ce n'est pas La fin du Monde", a beer that combines the bitterness and hoppiness of an IPA and the finesse of a Tripel. We are also working on refreshing our packaging. I have also started to think about an exciting brew to celebrate our upcoming 30th anniversary in 2022. There’s always a lot going on!

autre chose ipa outdoors with hops

What led to the creation of the Autre Chose series? Why was a Peach IPA your first release?
While our DNA lies in brewing Belgian-style refermented ales, over the years, we've been asked to brew different styles of beer outside our core Unibroue signature. The "Autre Chose" series is dedicated to all beer styles outside Belgian-style. Our very first beer in this series was a peach IPA. I was asked by our marketing team to work on an IPA for our first “Autre Chose”. The liquid inspiration happened on an August morning in 2017. I was cooking peach muffins and it smelled wonderful in the house. On the same day, I started to draft a recipe for beer in the "Autre Chose" series. Other beers in the same series include a ginger session ale and an India Pale Lager.

How is brewing an IPA different from Unibroue's traditional Belgian styles?
Very different! Our Belgian-style refermented ales are all about balance. An IPA naturally leans toward bitterness and hoppiness. It is much harder to hide flaws or achieve consistency in a beer that is not flavored by a tremendous number of hops.

What was your upbringing like?
I was the black sheep of the family! No kidding, I hope that my sons will make my life easier than I did for my parents. However, I was lucky enough to be raised with very good roots. At a young age I was taught that discipline was very important to benefit from freedom in my life. I left home and school when I was 14 years old and at the age of 16, I was a foreman in a food processing factory. This experience has been the trigger of my fascination for the world of science and food science in general and led to 8 years of studies in science including 3 years in food science and 3 years specifically to master the science of malting and brewing.

unibroue brewmaster jerry vietz in the brewhouse

What do you like to do in your spare time (when you have any)?
Everything else than brewing. I live on a little farmhouse with my wife and 3 sons. We are pretty much self-sufficient. We raise our animals and cultivate an 8000-square-foot garden producing our own meats, fruits and vegetables. This is very time-consuming, but I truly believe that this way of life is very therapeutic, and the benefits associated are worth the extra effort.

Music is clearly important to you. Do you get inspiration for beers from music?
Absolutely! My role as brewmaster and ambassador for Unibroue is very demanding and just like it is the case for our world-class ales, it's all about the balance in life as well. Music is a therapy for me. In fact, it helps me to free my mind and therefore allow room for inspiration. I love listening to music but also love playing guitar when I find the time. I have a little studio at home with ten guitars hanging on the wall (I have no room for more). My sons play music as well (drums, keyboard, saxophone, bass, etc.). I am also often involved in music events and proudly support the local blues scene – helping them to raise funds and promote new talents by combining music and beer events. Good, quality beer and good, quality music is a perfect match!

Do you have a favorite Unibroue beer to drink? Do you have a favorite Unibroue beer to brew?
I think that every beer has its magic moment or special occasion and can lead to a memorable experience if consumed in the best context (food pairing, good company, proper serving temperature, etc.).While I do not have a favorite beer, per se, I tend to have a particular taste for dark ales. This type of beer has a better aging potential and gains lot of complexity through aging. It is the same for brewing, it just depends on how I feel at the moment. I often compare brewing to painting: the ingredients or colors used vary upon the mood and inspiration. This is what I call “the art of brewing.”

unibroue fermentation tanks with label artwork