The finest beers of the world always defy expectations. Revelations of their historical roots are consistently made manifest, yet these brews froth forth flavor epiphanies as they become unmoored from tradition. Associating a beer with its ancestors is merely the beginning of a journey, one that becomes all the more exciting when that beer suddenly becomes unfamiliar. Intriguing complexities and that sense of something new abounds. The improbable has been actualized.
From time to time, I come across an improbable beer that is actually less unlikely than the brewery from which it springs. In 1997, Brasserie Des Franches-Montagnes (Brewery of the Free Mountains, in ancient French) came to be in Saignelégier, a small village nestled 3000 feet above sea level in the northern range of the Jura mountain region. To be sure it is surprising that a tiny, artisanal craft brewery would appear in the raw landscape of northwest Switzerland in the late 1990s; that a 23 year old, armed with a degree in oenology and penniless, made it all happen seems inconceivable.
But that is exactly what Jérôme Rebetez did. While publically pursuing a degree in winemaking, he was all the while tinkering with that not-so-noble beverage, beer, in the small kitchen of his home. Finally satisfied with the outcome of one of these homebrews, he submitted his first artisanal ale—a Stout, which later became the La Mandragore (with the addition of some smoked malt for the current iteration)—to a Swiss Homebrewing competition, and was awarded a first prize trophy. Jérôme’s true passion, you see, turned out to not be the more socially respected—and presumably more sophisticated—wine, but rather handcrafted beer. Though an obvious Swiss trailblazer in this respect, he was actually following in the footsteps of the countless fiercely independent men and women of the Jura Mountains who had come before him.
Unfortunately, Jérôme’s artistry—no doubt a result of innate talent and a flair for innovation and experiment—almost seemed a curse. With no craft brewing positions available to a man without formal training in brewing, and with the discovery that wine was not his true calling, he had few options; and the aforementioned lack of funding was precluding any possibility for the establishment of his own craft brewery. On the surface, it seems that he had made an unfortunate decision by seeking a degree in oenology, a degree that he could have utilized in finding employment; had he chosen to study brewing instead, he could have at least made a living. But Jérôme didn’t want to simply go to work as a brewer, most likely perfunctorily pumping out Pilseners for the masses. His wine training had given him a different perspective on beer and the possibilities for craftsmanship and flavor. Though unable to immediately put his wine work to use, he had unwittingly set himself up to one day have a great impact on the ever-spinning yarn that is craft beer.
Amazingly, reality television is the savior of this story. Yes, a Swiss reality show called “The Dreams of My Early 20s (in a loose translation)” found out about this young winemaker turned homebrewer; consequently he was invited to compete against 6 other Swiss men and women to convince the judges that their respective dreams should come true. And it was the iconoclastic brewer, longing to produce beers for which there was no market in Switzerland (a country dominated by inexpensive lagers), that received the cash prize of almost $50,000 (23,000 Euros). With this money, Jérôme was able to then borrow $100, 000 more, and Brasserie Des Franches-Montagnes was born in 1997.
For the first ten years, Jérôme was producing beer on an almost unheard of scale: about 600 barrels a year (or 1200 standard (15.5 gallon) kegs). Truly this is an extremely small brewery, producing very limited amounts of beer (many American microbreweries produce closer to 15,000 barrels a year). But this is a level of production wholly in accordance with Jérôme’s brewing ideas and intentions (and so even as the brewery “expanded” in 2008 and will again in 2010, BFM will max out at 1700 barrels per year). Both he and his small staff brew, bottle, sell, and distribute their beers by hand; this artisanal approach is a necessity to a man who discovered long ago that—with the proper care and craftsmanship—beer need not be mass-produced and watered down. The flavors and sophistication that Jérôme seeks from his ales are directly linked to the precious amounts produced; and the artisan’s approach allows him to sculpt each brew to fulfill his elevated expectations.
These expectations are succinctly summed up by the fact that, originally, there simply was no demand for his beer, no consumer niche he was attempting to satisfy; that market had been cornered by the lager brewers of the world. In essence, this granted Jérôme the freedom to make whatever he wanted to make, to explore the possibilities of past and present beer for the future. At its core, the beers of BFM—according to the brewmaster himself—showcase flavors beyond “sweetness and bitterness in beer”. In order to achieve this aim, Jérôme has scoured the annals of brewing to craft a new tradition.
Across the board, his beers demonstrate a touch of acidity and the earthy-funk reminiscent of the ales of old; he attributes this effect to his more rustic, hands-on approach and to the particular yeast employed, which naturally lowers the PH of BFM’s ales. But his beers are never merely throwbacks. He incorporates many unorthodox ingredients into his line-up, and even when some ingredients are borrowed from classic—albeit lesser known—styles, they are innovatively applied. As one sips an offering from the Brasserie Des Franches-Montagnes, one begins to see a modern pastiche of historical brewing curiosities, rewoven into something altogether unique, alluring, and astounding.
The newest small-batch offering from BFM is most illustrative. Outfitted with a simple, approachable acronym-name, B.A.T.S. is literally—and figuratively—much more. It stands for Biere Ambree Parfumee au Tarry Suchong, and is inspired by the aromas of the legendary asphalt mines of the Swiss Travers region. Jérôme has long been captivated by the fragrances he’s observed while wandering the mining tunnels carved into the asphalt deposits of Travers, and set out to evoke them in this ale. Identifying an underlying smoky, almost meaty, quality to the air of the mines, he began by utilizing the beech wood-smoked malt of Bamberg (a fragrant note he had encountered by studying the vestiges of German brewing). But Jérôme found an additional kind of smokiness to the asphalt, one that he could only identify with the tea for which his girlfriend of the time had had a propensity. This is called Lapsang Tarry Suchong, a black tea with big ashy, campfire-like notes resulting from the smoking of the leaves over pinewood fires. By adding this untraditional ingredient, Jérôme was able to temper the meaty overtones of beech wood-smoked malt, add that uncharacteristic bonfire nuance, and even layer some tannic complexity upon the more usual drying hop bitterness. The result is stunning, and not as strange as it may seem: a specialty of the Travers region is Ham cooked in asphalt…and is adored by the Swiss.
Jérôme Rebetez has scoured the beers of the world, with all of their concomitant traditions, and has found a way to make them new again. Many of his beers draw on the oak-aging tradition of Lambic, Flemish Red and Oud Bruin producers, others find inspiration in the Gruit ales of old, while still others incorporate the flavors of classic Bamberg Rauchbier. Yet these once common practices have been reworked and revitalized as he redacts the stories of old to suit an exciting new era.