Brussels Irish is a short, personal series of reflections and profiles about being an Irish man drinking beer in Brussels. This is the second article in the series; read the first - where I drink Guinness for the first time - here.
“Jameson is a pretty big and beautiful distillery. And we got to drink a lot of whiskey,” says Arthur Ries, co-founder of Brussels’ Beerstorming brewery, as he and Sean Deane, Jameson Whiskey's brand ambassador for Belgium, reel off some of the perks of participating in Jameson's Caskmates programme. I'm sitting down with the two men in Beerstorming's front room to talk about how one of the world’s largest drinks brands ended up working with one of the smallest breweries in Belgium, maturing beers in Irish whiskey barrels in a Sint Gillis cellar underneath the brewery.
It is barely a brewery at all, though. More, says Ries, a “small laboratory”.
A brewery in two rooms
Beerstorming was founded by Arthur Ries and his father Olivier – both from Luxembourg – in 2016, after Ries père was looking for a business investment. It is based in a boxy chipboard-and-ceramic-walled retail space located high up on the Chaussée d'Alsemberg. The two rooms that house the brewery, bottle fridges and tap installation, are filled with shelves stacked with all sorts of ingredients – different malt varieties, tea bags, herbs and spices – and beer labels in Beerstorming’s signature blue branding. They are all waiting to be used by the breweries patrons, who come here twice a week to elaborate beers alongside Beerstorming’s two in-house brewers.
Public participation in the brewing of their beers is the core of the brewery. “Here it is all of our beers on the market have been imagined, elaborated, brewed and chosen by the public,” says Ries. “It’s super collaborative. From a Beerstorming perspective, we try to differentiate ourselves. We don’t want to look like any other brewery. We try to have a contemporary image.”
"If the beer is not good, it's not a big deal"
“We have a set up of basically 100 litres batch and that allows us to be super creative and allow us to bring a lot of innovation,” says Ries. “We are not risking too much compared to other breweries. If it’s (the beer) not good, we can just throw it away, it’s not a big deal.” Anyone – groups of friends, companies on team-building activities, homebrewers, and even other brewers – can pay to brew at Beerstorming. During the brewing sessions, participants are guided in the process by Arthur and his brewers. They explain the brewing process, the different ingredients and their impact on the end product, and they try to interpret what a group says it wants from their beer.
These crowd-sourced beers are available to drink at the brewery, and every four months the most popular five beers are put in front a tasting jury – “people that know beer very well to others that don’t. I don’t want only to have beer geeks...we want our beer to be liked by a large quantity of people”. The jury then selects the beer it thinks is the best, which is then put into large-scale production off-site in two breweries in Wallonia (Brasserie Deseveaux, and Brasserie Valduc), guided by Beerstorming’s brewers. ultimately the Ries’ ambition is to open their own full-scale production site of their own, but not yet.
It is a scattershot approach to brewing, which might cause some of Brussels’ more ascetic brewers to blanche. Arthur is happy enough to admit that not every beer that goes through the process is fantastic, but for him that’s not the point of Beerstorming. “We are the brewery that like to say, ‘Yes, we are maybe not making the best beer in the world, but we are trying a lot of different stuff. There are few breweries in Belgium who can already say we have made 200 different brews. That’s what we are focusing on.”
It is that focus that drew the attention of Jameson.
"Sine Metu - Brewing without fear"
Sean, Jameson’s current brand ambassador describes the pairing of a combination of chance and similar philosophies. And probably a good dose of canny marketing was no doubt involved too. Says Sean: “The Jameson motto is Sine Metu, Latin for ‘without fear’. It was that kind of ‘sine metu’ that we saw in Beerstorming. They’re not afraid.”
Sean’s predecessor – they are replaced, Logan’s Run style, each year – walked into the brewery one day to join one of the brewing sessions and eventually established the connection between Beerstorming and Jameson’s Caskmates initiative.
Caskmates is a project whereby Jameson sends out used whiskey barrels to – usually – craft breweries around the world. It started, inevitably, in a pub in Ireland.
When Jameson’s head distiller and the head brewer at Cork-based, Molson Coors-owned, brewery Franciscan Well got to drinking one night, the brewer ended up taking home ten used Jameson barrels. The brewery used them to mature a stout they had brewed, which turned out to be a roaring success but left them at the end of the process with ten barrels knocking around their small brewery. Jameson eventually took the barrels back, and their curious distillers decided to undertake their own experiment. Or at least that is how the story goes according to Jameson.
“They said, ‘Do you know, let’s put whiskey in them and see what happens,’” says Sean. “They came back a few months later, opened up the casks, the whiskey had completely changed. Hoppy notes coming through, coffee, chocolate, it still had the really smooth taste that embodies Jameson.” That whiskey became Jameson Caskmates, and Caskmates was expanded to include the likes of Beavertown in London and Het Uiltje in The Netherlands. And, Beerstorming in Brussels.
Caskmates - meeting coopers and distillers at Jameson HQ
The first step for the Beerstorming team was a visit to Jameson’s headquarters in Midleton, County Cork. That is where the whiskey drinking took place, together with meetings with the distillery’s master coopers and blenders, who helped them to select the bourbon barrels that they would haul back to Brussels. “We saw that they would fit the best for the beer. We had already some ideas before going, we got a lot more ideas when we were in there…wow, wow, wow!” says Ries.
The casks themselves are hidden away in Beerstorming’s basement, accessed by going out onto the street, through the door to the adjoining apartment building and down a narrow wooden staircase. A small hole carved into the ceiling connects the fermentation vat above with the casks below, nestled among brewing paraphernalia and cleaning products of the brewery. Unglamorous and far-removed from the cavernous cask cellars in Midleton.
In deciding what beer to put in them, Ries and his team chafed against the expectations at Jameson. “We had seen a lot of stout and porters had been done. We said, ‘we are not going to do that, we are going to do something different’,” says Ries. This led them to brew a fruited, sour ale, christened the Brussels’ Share as a nod to their hometown and the “angel’s share”, the amount of alcohol which evaporates from casks during whiskey maturation.
The Brussels' Share - a nod to Brussels and to whiskey
The Brussels’ Share – “of the three beers we are making, it’s the easiest to drink” – was barrel-aged for two months in the casks, resting on apricots soured with lactobacillus. The two men are happy how it turned out. “It’s sour but not too sour, no bitterness, no residual sugar,” says Ries. “First you have the fruity flavours, afterwards you have the complexity of the cask coming in. the vanilla, cacao notes, and not a long-lasting taste.”
The beer was launched in late-2017, followed by a Brett IPA in February 2018. The final beer of the series, and probably the most interesting, will be a sourdough beer that will be launched in April and has been brewed with a sourdough starter supplied by local bakery Hopla Geiss instead of yeast. Access to the beers themselves will be limited to the launch events and the brewery, but the Brussels’ Share has had good reviews back in Ireland, according to Sean. Not least because “everyone impressed that we didn’t do a stout.”
With the beers being well-received by Jameson, is there another collaboration on the cards? “Let’s launch the other beers first, and then see!” There is also the small matter of Beerstorming’s mooted expansion to deal with too.
First Belgium, then the world
For Ries, the brewery in Sint Gillis is just the beginning. Next up is a “lab” in Antwerp before the end of 2018. Then? “The goal is in the future to open small laboratories like this one in different cities… maybe in London, maybe in New York, maybe in Shanghai, whatever,” says Ries. His hope is that, over time, “people here in Belgium will be able to taste the beer that won the summer contest in London, in Berlin…and link a bit the culture of the beer with the country.” They will be entering more competitive markets than Brussels, however, places where collaborative breweries like UBREW are already established.
Brussels will remain an important base for the brewery. The brewery’s connection to the city was one of the reasons that Jameson wanted to work with them, and they have an established network of restaurants, bars, and bottle shops selling their beers. Ries is also encouraged by the state of the scene here, and thinks that there is still room for new breweries and distinctive concepts.
Ultimately, however, his vision for Beerstorming in the future is “small but a bit everywhere. That’s going to the point of it.”