By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
There was a golden crack of sunshine in the gray, mist-filled sky that had ridden with me from Portland to visit a budding nanobrewery in Silverton on a cold November afternoon.
The “gold” was in a glass on the bar at the back end of a big, cluttered metal shed, half of which is home to Belgian Underground Brewing. Co-owner Sheldon Lesire, a school teacher, describes the brew as “a golden strong ale, bottle conditioned. It is about 9 percent ABV. Real bright golden color. It is unfiltered, but it sits so long everything settles to the bottom of the bottle.”
This is Underground’s version of what the Belgians call Duvel. The word means “devil” in Flemish, which is odd because it’s so bright and lively — reminiscent of spring in its aromas and flavor.
As Sheldon explains that Belgian beers are lightly hopped and draw most of their flavors from the yeast strains and adjuncts used to make them, his father-in-law is smiling broadly through a full salt-and-pepper beard. Dale Coleman is the brewer whose hobby of 16 years is filling Silverton taprooms with excited taste-testers.
But Dale, who also works at a company that manufacturers off-road products like winches, didn’t start out making Belgian beer. “I’ve always been a stout and porter type of guy,” he explains. Dale only decided to try Belgians a couple of Christmases back when Sheldon asked if he’d show him how to make beer for the holidays. That led Dale and Sheldon on a recipe search through every brewing book Dale had until they settled on Duvel. Several experimental batches gave them the taste and color they wanted, and taste tests in Silverton and at Portland’s Bazi Bierbrasserie, which features Belgian-inspired beers, proved they had what they wanted.
That’s when the Underground story came to a new chapter. The next beer Sheldon, Dale and third partner Eric Druliner, a Lake Oswego police officer, tried was a chocolate porter. Dale says it’s made with Madagascar vanilla beans soaked in Maker’s Mark bourbon for about a month. He also pitches Belgian chocolate into the secondary fermenter.
When Sheldon, who was born in Belgium, first smelled that porter he “had an emotional moment.” The tobacco aromas reminded him of his Opa, or grandfather in Flemish. It was then that Sheldon realized the brewery’s philosophy had to be “we make beer to tell stories and we tell stories to sell beer.”
Underground’s story actually began, then, in 1939 when Sheldon’s then-19-year-old grandfather joined the Belgian Resistance movement to fight the invading Nazis. Over the next few years he passed along information, such as railroad schedules for German troop movements. The young man was arrested three times and each time he lied his way out of jail.
But Sheldon explains that “almost nobody knows anything about the Belgian Resistance.” And, he adds, like that movement, “Belgian beers are unsung.”
Belgian Underground Brewing wants to share those stories and its take on those beers.
Both agree that any new beers will have to wait until they build out their small brewery and get OLCC approval. It could happen this coming spring.
Until then look for other Belgian Underground Brewing tasting events in Silverton, grab a glass and raise it to Sheldon’s Opa and what he inspired.
As the Oregon Beer Growler was going to press, Belgian Underground Brewing was in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign to raise $15,000 to outfit their current facility in order to meet OLCC standards for a brewery.
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