French Canada’s Master of Balance: 10 Questions with Unibroue's Jerry Vietz
INTERVIEWED SEPTEMBER 20, 2019
Unibroue’s Jerry Vietz is a self-proclaimed ‘simple man.’ But, his resume would suggest anything but. Prior to joining the brewery in 2003, he’d previously studied applied science, food biochemistry, and science & technology of malting and brewing for eight years. That, of course, coincided with plenty of experimented concoctions that he was eager to share with family and friends, and as he puts it, a “pretty profound relationship with yeast.” All of this lead to what seemed to be a role waiting for him, when in 2007 he was anointed the Brewmaster title at the famed Canadian brewery.
Vietz, more than anything, is passionate about ‘balance’. From his wide-ranging list of favorite musicians (several of whom he has collaborated on beers with), to his self-sufficient life on a nearby Québec farm with his family, to of course his award-winning beers. We recently caught up with him to get some insight on the power of yeast, balance, and restrained creativity has led to beers known the world over.
Unibroue was the continent's first brewery to bring Belgian Trappist-style brewing to this side of the world, back in 1991. How has focusing on Trappist-style recipes still allowed you, as a brewer, to convey your creativity?
We are very proud at Unibroue to be the first brewery to specialize in Belgian-style bottle- and keg-refermented ales on this side of the globe, ever since we were founded in ‘91. While most people refer to Unibroue beers as “Belgian-style” because of the origin of our yeast strains–I like to say that I simply brew flavorful beers in which the key drivers are balance, complexity and consistency. There are so many sources of inspiration as well as ingredients to play with and combine to express my creativity. In the end, the main goal and challenge is always focused on mastering the creation process in order to strictly reach these three parameters and deliver a flavorful, quality product to our consumers.
The majority of Unibroue's beers rely heavily on yeast to convey each style's final characteristics, by way of bottle-conditioning ["on lees"]. Is yeast the most underrated component of beer?
To me, yeast is definitely the most important ingredient in the science and art of brewing. I like to say that the yeast is the “signature” of the beer. I sometimes wonder which of us is in charge: Is the yeast working for me to achieve the same result batch after batch? Or do I work for the yeast to make sure that these tiny little microorganisms are continuously happy–ensuring a quality product time after time?
One thing I quickly learned over my years of study and experience: When the yeast is happy, beer tastes great! Once I learned that, my life became way easier. This is one of the reasons why–unlike most brewers–at Unibroue, we never reuse our yeast. In fact, we are propagating fresh yeast batch after batch to ensure quality and consistency in our beer. This entire process is very time-consuming, but I really do believe that the yeast deserves to be treated with the utmost respect. Judging by the feedback from our consumers and fans as well as the numerous international medals we have earned to date in a relatively short 28 years of history, that effort and care certainly pays off. I remember when I was working on our Blonde de Chambly back in 2010. I came out with four different versions of a single recipe just by changing the yeast strain in the formulation and the resulting liquids were so distinctive in flavor. Obviously, this is true in balanced beer where no specific flavor or aspect overpowers the others–I’m not sure that the result would come out the same in an IPA, for instance, where the hoppy notes take up so much space.
You joined Unibroue back in 2003, but had a previous career in the cider and wine world. How did you make your way to the brewery–and what is one similarity that ties all of these beverage worlds together?
I have been fermenting pretty much everything that contains carbohydrates over my past 25 years of experience in the beverage industry. I remember when I first met the team at the brewery and shared my experience with them. They were interested in tasting my own little creations and the feedback was very positive from the brewery owner and the rest of the team. They believed in me, and I am very grateful that they allowed me to join them and contribute to the continuous success of the brewery. Honestly, if there is one thing that ties every successful piece of food–liquid or solid–it is indisputably the "balance." This has always been a key driver for me. From the kitchen to the brewhouse, I like to combine different ingredients–spices, herbs, fruits, flowers, etcetera–and aim for a perfect balance, in a way that people are not easily able to detect the specific ingredients used in the formulation. It is always so motivating and challenging for me to create a beer in which perfect harmony resides–where no single ingredient is overpowering and all of them complement one another. This is what I call “The Art of Brewing.”
In a current world of many wildly un-balanced beers out there, how do you champion tradition and balance to new beer drinking audiences?
While our tradition is to brew Belgian-style refermented ales, we've been asked so many times to come out with different beer styles beyond our core brands. It has always been a concern of mine to remain true to what we do best at Unibroue: Master the art of brewing artisanal ales on an industrial scale. At the same time, we understand that it is very crucial to adapt our brand in order to reach new consumers and appeal to different palates. For this reason, last year we came out with a brand-new series of beer called Autre Chose, which means "something else" in English. This new series allows me to please new taste buds and explore other beer styles outside of our core refermented ales. The name “Autre Chose” is really important for me to clearly communicate to our fans and beer aficionados that we are not losing our DNA but simply working on other beer styles in parallel. The very first beer to be launched in that series, just in time for summer last year, was a Peach IPA and we just released the second Autre Chose–a Ginger Session Ale. These two beers are non-refermented but force-carbonated like the majority of conventional beers on the market. The last one is even filtered–unlike any other Unibroue ales. It is very different than the traditional process we normally use at Unibroue but people seem to like it, judging by the sales and feedback from our consumers.
What did the 2006 acquisition of Sleeman Unibroue by Sapporo mean for the brewery–what hurdles, and benefits, did it create for the brand?
Going through two different mergers in four years brought a lot of distortion and changes to our relatively small brewery. Most of the employees at the brewery don't even speak fluent English, so you can imagine the level of Japanese we speak! All the management team, including myself, had to work very hard to make people realize that the mergers were necessary and beneficial for all of us and many efforts had to be invested to put aside the resistance to change. It takes time and lot of patience to lead change, but I'm happy to say that we have made our way through and the entire team of passionate people at Unibroue are still embracing a very bright future for the brand. Since the acquisition in 2006, our big brother Sapporo has invested continuously in capital expenditure and new technologies to improve the overall quality of our products. The team at Sapporo really care about quality and it is a perfect fit for us at Unibroue since our products are unpasteurized and more prone to infection than conventional beer.
At one point recently, La Fin du Monde had earned more awards than any other Canadian beer. What is a beer in the brewery's portfolio that you, personally, find to still be underrated in the market but are overly proud of?
That’s a very tough question as every refermented ale I've created at Unibroue has been awarded with international medals. In fact, we earn on average 20-25 international medals per year over the past ten years–with over 360 international medals total since the foundation of the brewery. I can’t seem to find one that is underrated. Every beer has its own little story to tell–and, fortunately, there is an audience for every beer.
Unibroue has a history of collaborating with some famous musicians. What do you put on in the brewhouse if you have just one type of music choose from–or one band to listen to?
Music is my therapy. I love listening to music just as much as I love playing music. I like different styles of music and what I listen to or play all depends on my mood or inspiration. From Megadeth to The Beatles, from Led Zeppelin to Frank Zappa, there are so many distinctive great bands to enjoy. It is also true for the world of beer; I love different beer styles and every beer has its own occasion.
What makes you happy as a brewer?
It makes me happy when I get the chance to share my passion with consumers and fans. I remember in the early days when I was creating my own little magic potions at home and sharing them with my friends, family and neighbors, it was such a treat for me to get their feedback and feel the level of excitement rising when they tasted the fermented beverage. I've always wanted to have the opportunity to share my creativity with a broader audience, and my dream came true with Unibroue. Not only are our world-class ales available in different countries around the world, but I also have the chance to travel around the globe to meet and greet our fans and get their feedback. It is very important for me to stay connected with the people that appreciate my labor of love, as this is a great source of inspiration that pushes me to keep working hard on delivering great liquids to their palates.
What is in Jerry Vietz's fridge at home?
Other than Unibroue of course!? Well, as I provide pleasure to people with my gold liquids, people normally like to share their own little discoveries with me. I am very curious and like to taste the different trends the market has to offer. As you can tell after tasting Unibroue beer, I tend to like beers that are well-balanced. I also play with different kinds of ferments at home and make my own Kombucha, ginger beer, Kefir, etcetera. I prefer ingesting living beverages whenever possible. I guess this is one of the reasons why I normally stick to our beers as they are refermented and not pasteurized–and therefore alive. Our living legends not only remain fresher by the presence of yeast that protect the beer against premature oxidation, but also evolve through aging to gain more complexity.
What is one thing that most people don't know about you, that if they did, would surprise them?
Well many things would surprise them, I guess! First, the fact that I am a very simple man. I live on a little farm with my lovely wife and three sons, not too far from the brewery, in a way that I can simply walk to work rather than using my car. I like to say that I have two doctors: my two legs! When I am forced to travel with my car, I still use my old–but still young at heart–1998 Volvo that I have been repairing myself for all these years. At the farm, we are pretty much self-sufficient. In fact, we grow all our own fruits and vegetables and raise all kinds of animals. We process all our goods from garden and barn to our table. We even produce our own soaps! In the end, the fact is that I prefer living my life rather than watching other people living their lives through a screen. Life is too short to not enjoy every single minute of it.
Photography by Unibroue.
A big thanks to Jerry Vietz for taking the time to let us pick his brain about Unibroue's roots and fighting for balance in a world that needs more of it.