By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The brown bottle on the low table in front of Hilda Stevens is labeled Westmalle.
“It’s Belgian-style tripel. In Belgium you have dubbels, tripels and quads. And the tripel comes from the fermentation process. It follows a traditional fermentation process; making beer and then double fermenting it — meaning they add more sugar to get the alcohol level up. In this case it is tripel fermented. So, right before they bottle it they add a little bit more sugar so it helps the alcohol build up. It helps in the aging process. In the case of tripels, for instance, you can age it for five, eight, 10 years if you want to.”
The popularity of Belgian-style beers has been on the rise in Portland for several years now. The flavors can tickle your tongue with a range of styles more complex than hop-heavy IPAs.
As for those flavors, Hilda explains: “Traditionally, in the case of Westmalle, because they’re a Trappist brewery, they use their own yeast. So, the yeast will have a lot in the flavor profile. They also add some candy sugar to it. In tripels you’ll pick up some caramels, some roasted notes because they’ll use more of a roasted malt in it as well. It’ll have a nice golden color. Usually, in the case of the bottles, you get a lot of the effervescence. Westmalle tripel has a really nice creamy head when you pour it in the right glass; it opens up more of the aromatics, too.”
It’s just after 3 p.m. on a quiet, drizzly March afternoon. Bazi Bierbrasserie on Southeast 32nd Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland has just opened. There’s some music playing. The beertender is checking glasses. A couple wanders in, orders a couple of beers and hovers over them in quiet conversation. The drinks are undoubtedly Belgian or at least, like Hilda, Belgian-inspired.
Beer is not Hilda’s first job. After undergraduate and graduate work, she landed positions with high-tech companies and start-ups. Along the way, she did a lot of business traveling and during one of her stops in Philadelphia she first tried a Belgian beer. It was love at first sip.
The romance turned torrid during a vacation in Europe. On the advice of a couple she met while traveling through France, Hilda took a detour to Bruges, Belgium — an ancient city she refers to as “the Venice of the North.” Hilda began studying Trappist beers, appreciating and understanding their balanced flavors.
By 2011 Hilda was ready to do what would seem foolish to many people. Encouraged by her entrepreneurial father, she walked away from a six-figure paycheck and used a plan developed for her grad school thesis to open Bazi. Originally, she’d planned on operating a European-style bistro, but she soon realized she needed to find a market niche. Looking around, she realized what was missing — there were no Belgian-focused taprooms in Portland.
Something else was beginning to happen about the same time. Brouwerij Huyghe, a 111-year-old brewery based in Melle, Belgium was marking International Women’s Day by making a special beer. Hilda explains the idea was in response to Belgian women saying, “We drink your beer, but we don’t have a beer of our own and we want to learn more about making beer.” The event began slowly “with just women in Belgium; restaurateurs, homebrewers, everyday women who were interested in beer and learning more about it.”
Dressed in white lab coats and bonneted in white hairnets, dozens of women followed brewers through the Huyghe facility learning about and making beer they dubbed “Deliria.” It is the little sister of Huyghe’s best ale, “Delirium Tremens.” Both beers come in white bottles with blue foil cap wraps and feature ‘de roze olifant,’ a pink elephant, on the label. The name is also found on a bierbrasserie sign in Melle.
The “Deliria” event has been slow to open its doors to outsiders. At first it was only for Belgians. Then applications were accepted from other European countries. But finally through Wetten Importers, Huyghe’s U.S. distributor, Hilda heard 2017 would be “the first year they invited women from the U.S. and their goal was to send two women from the U.S.”
When Huyghe accepted Hilda’s application, they got more than a rookie brewer. She has done some collaboration brewing in Portland, surrounding herself with “people who are passionate about it ... I’ve brewed with Upright and Lompoc and Widmer. And any time you brew with somebody, everybody has a different way.”
In Belgium, Hilda learned more about the evolution of the brewery that has been working since 1906 — how it ferments and filters, but also how it is adopting eco-friendly policies such as using gray water from the brewing process for cleaning up and keeping plants hydrated.
But more important to Hilda was the social aspect of the one-day event. “I really enjoyed brewing with women from different parts of the world ... and the influence that a family-owned brewery, like Huyghe, can have on women brewing. What I loved about that experience, it wasn’t just industry related. They really cater to the community. We had some of the women brewing that day who were stay-at-home moms who wanted to have that experience.” The beer and how it’s made may be different, country to country, but the community beer creates seems to be the same wherever you go in the world.
Though she did taste the wort from the beer made that day, Hilda did not taste the Deliria she worked on until this Easter Sunday when she debuted it at Bazi.
Proost, de roze olifant!
This year was also not Hilda’s first time brewing in Belgium. Her house beer is Hofbrouw Tripel. “Two years ago I went to Belgium. A friend of mine owns a nano-brewery. We created a recipe and made 120 cases.” There are only 20 cases left. Hilda will go back to Belgium to make more.
Cecilia French, who has been a brewer at Lompoc for a year now, used to be a bar manager at Plank Town in Springfield and then worked in international sales for Rogue. She recently produced a beer for International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day with several other Oregon women who work in the industry. Photo by Andi Prewitt
By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
Had the professional world of vocal performance been less pretentious and the craft beer community been more elitist, Cecilia French might be singing opera right now instead of brewing at Lompoc in North Portland. But her switch in majors at the University of Oregon was one step that put her on the path toward a career in beer making. French, who has been at Lompoc for a year now, ended up graduating in 2012 having majored in molecular biology with a minor in organic chemistry. The science background she gained in college has certainly been put to good use, as French joins the small yet growing number of female brewers in the state. And she’s already worked to make connections with other women in beer by helping organize a brewing session for International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day earlier this year.
French possesses a spirit of inquiry and found herself intrigued by the different styles of beer before she was even old enough to legally order a pint. Her mother encouraged this interest by surprising her with a homebrewing kit for Christmas one year. French took to it immediately and described it as one of the most rewarding hobbies she’s ever done. She then decided to gear her degree toward areas in science that would help her with brewing. Although French enjoyed vocal performance, she found the culture wasn’t always welcoming.
“I didn’t like that kind of competition. I am the type of person who likes to be like, ‘Hey, good job!’ So I liked that about the beer industry,” explained French. “It’s very competitive, yes. But everybody’s like, ‘Hey, you made a good beer. I made a good beer. Let’s make good beer together!’”
Like all homebrewers, mistakes were made and lessons were learned in the early days. For her very first batch, French produced a beer that was much higher in alcohol content than she expected. And while that’s certainly not the worst error one could encounter with a debut brew, it wasn’t discovered until she’d downed several beers along with her friends who wanted to try what she’d made. Needless to say, the buzz hit them hard and fast. French contends that it didn’t taste pungent and had good body.
“I don’t really know exactly what I did wrong, but I definitely didn’t read the hydrometer correctly,” laughed French. “And I think it’s easy to make that mistake with a 5-gallon system considering that there’s so little grain and so much room for error. But that was a fun party!”
In 2013, French took a break from homebrewing and started focusing on getting into a brewhouse at an actual business. She continued learning about beer as the daytime bar manager at Plank Town Brewing Company in Springfield. It had just opened and even though the owners planned to eventually expand and bring on more people to work in the brewery, French couldn’t get a definite answer about if or when that would happen. But she soon got a definite offer from Rogue Ales to join its international sales department and moved to Newport to take the position. It was there where she managed the documentation for sending the company’s beer to 42 countries. Although it wasn’t brewing, French was gaining more experience in the industry. She became intimately familiar with trade and customs agreements. She also learned about some of the quirks of international shipping, such as the inability to send a Frisbee to the World Cup because toys have a particular Harmonized Tariff Code that wasn’t allowed at the event. But the beer had no problem getting in. French was also somewhat surprised by what styles of beer would be popular in different parts of the world. For example, Rogue’s dark beers would sell well in South America. But French now suspects that consumers there wanted an American beer that wasn’t the typical, mass-produced lager. While her time in international sales proved to be invaluable, French was glad to finally get an opportunity to become a brewer at Lompoc.
“I love the hands-on. I love the creativity of it. I think the business side and the sales side is very important, obviously. You can’t have any of this without that understanding,” she said. “But I’m a science nerd, and I like to be artistic and creative and I like to be a part of the process itself. And so that’s why I love being able to be in the brewery and be here, create my recipes, you know, be able to pay attention to consistency and take pride in that.”
French’s first few weeks at Lompoc were both nerve wracking and exhilarating. She credits her understanding of theory and experience with application as a homebrewer with preparing her for the new role. But it was still a challenge.
“Everything was brand new. I’d never brewed on a system like this when I first started, so it was kind of a ‘sink or swim’ at first,” French recalled. “I started here and, well, there was a lot of helpful training, obviously. I was supposed to be cellaring for the first several months and the guy who had been here for a year ended up putting in his two weeks’ notice right when I got hired, so I pretty much racked some kegs for a couple days and then started on the brew system.”
Within a few weeks, French was brewing on her own. Since then, she’s developed several recipes, including the first in Lompoc’s Spy Series of beers. Smoking Gun IPA included rauch beechwood-smoked malt and, in a unique move, smoked hops. French said no one at Lompoc had tried that before, so she hydrated whole hops, threw them on the brewery’s Traeger grill and added them to the brite tank. She said it gave the beer a floral-smoky aroma.
French also helped develop the recipe for the International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day beer. The event takes place annually on International Women’s Day, now held March 8. Brew Day participants adhere to the same style, which was a sessionable red this year. But French and brewer Natalie Baldwin from Burnside Brewing wanted to make something a bit different. They decided to use cherrywood-smoked malt and whole cherries that were smoked on the Traeger just like the hops. French described the beer as having some tartness to it, but smoking the cherries seemed to caramelize the sugars in the fruit, adding some sweetness to the concoction. At least five other women joined in to brew 15 barrels worth of what would come to be called Cherry Bomb. French said the experience was important because working together with women from the beer industry can be empowering.
“Just to reinforce that there’s, you know, there is a female brewing community. I mean, I don’t think that we’re ousted in any way. But, you know, it’s kind of — there aren’t that many women in the brewing community,” she explained.
French said she hasn’t experienced any challenges being a female in the male-dominated field — except, perhaps, working with equipment that tends to be designed for taller individuals. It wouldn’t be uncommon, then, to find her standing on a bucket in the brewery. And she’s surely not the only woman in beer finding solutions to problems so that they can pursue their passion. When asked what might be driving more women to be interested in craft beer, French credits the growing culture and variety.
“If you don’t like an IPA or you generally are somebody who’s going to have a fruity pink drink, you can find that in a beer here. You could probably find it at every brewery. And then, you know, your friend can have an IPA, your other friend can have a stout,” she said. “I don’t think you can really make it unless you offer variety, especially in this town. And I think that leads a lot more people to be more willing to give it a try.”
French doesn’t have plans to leave Lompoc anytime soon, but she would like to continue to learn and grow. She envisions attending the Siebel Institute of Technology and going through the International Diploma course offered by the World Brewing Academy. And like many brewers, she dreams of opening her own brewery and perhaps consulting others. At this point, French doesn’t think it’s intimidating for women to get into the industry. It just takes genuine interest. And she thinks she could play a small role in encouraging more women to become involved with craft beer.
“I think just being present and putting my work out there and, you know, saying that anybody — I don’t think it matters whether you’re a man or a woman — if you’re making good beer, you deserve good recognition for it. And I intend to keep making good beer,” she explained. “So the more women that see me out there, hopefully that motivates them.”
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