Friday the 13th started with vegan breakfast and a morning read by the fire. I reviewed the beer lineup and synopsis for La Rulles - the brewery visit for the day - between a few current events (or, more accurately, “The Real World: Real World Edition”). Located in the Gaume region of Southeast Belgium, near the Semois River winding westward towards Bouillon and Godfrey’s castle, the brewery habituates a unique microclimate, always a few degrees Celsius warmer than the surrounding Ardennes hills. The quaint Belgian countryside, eleven in the morning, left two American wanders in silence.
A sign reading “100% Percent Gaume” postered the facade. Above the copy, the Rulles mascot and my new, imaginary best friend, Marcel - thick (but still sporty) from excellent vittles, beetling brow and checkered Jay Gatsby cap shielding deep set eyes - raised a glass of blonde Belgian beer up to eye level near his omnipotent smirk and yellow scarf, pointedly suggesting the question, "Don't you wish you were me?" He exuded great confidence and I have to imagine sleeps with a beautiful woman every night. Drinking only the finest beer, whisky and wine alongside thick cuts of meat, fresh seafood, garden vegetables, and brick-thick slabs of French cheese, he finishes it all with a rotating menu of dessert washed with sherry, port, or grappa - depending, of course, on the evening’s sweet. Perhaps, before his nightly shag and ensuing deep sleep, he smokes a pipe, cigar, or joint reading thick volumes among a dense cloud of smoke bordering him from the rest of the world. I was obviously taken by the place before even breaching the front door. Their marketing worked in spades on me.
The brewery is notorious in Belgium for Gregory Verhelst’s (brewmaster and owner) use of American hops. Equally intriguing is his philosophy behind brewing and drinking: brew what you like and brew those beers better every time. Entering the tasting room after a brief photo shoot outside, we met with Justine, the brewery’s Public Relations representative, who showed us around and answered all of our annoying questions:
Us: Uhh, why do you guys ferment like this…where do you get your hops…what’s the craft beer scene like here...
Understandable Response: Why don’t you just shut up and drink the damn stuff. We brew it because it tastes good and gets us drunk.
Alas, she had more patience.
In 18 years La Rulles grew from annually producing 170 barrels to 3500 barrels of beer: a pace which kept them locally focused and ensured only the highest quality product left the door. Their bottles reach the USA (A small bottleshop in D.C. with deep tracks in Belgian beer comes to mind. I remember passing over a bottle during a stay with a friend last Fall…missed opportunity…); but still, La Rulles brews a seasonal beer named Houblon Sauvage showcasing wild growing hops from Gaume. Their beer is equally adored in Gaume, Finland, Italy and Washington D.C.
Working around the brewers’ schedule we toured opposite the typical order, starting in the warm room. I’m sure there are many (only relative to the humble number of total readers) queried looks on the other side regarding the “warm room.” Harkening from a land where frosted mugs and sub-zero Budweiser refrigerators draw standing ovation, I found the concept foreign; however, the warm room, maintaining a consistent 68 degrees Fahrenheit, allows yeast added to the the beer just before bottling to referment, naturally carbonating the beer. Many, namely the Brits and Belgians, argue the resulting carbonation is superior. Additionally, because the beer is still “alive” and “developing” the shelf life increases significantly. Higher gravity beers, sours, and certain wild yeast beers age particularly well. It’s not uncommon to see expiration printed on the bottle well past the date of your Medicare eligibility. I was also told on several occasions to take the “best by” date with a grain of salt: “We put the dates on there to keep the health and safety officials quiet,” quipped Bruno, an old Pajottenland man with a unquenchable thirst for Oude Gueuze, weeks later. While I wouldn’t test the best by date as I would a Westvleteren 12 or Cantillon Kriek, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a naturally carbonated beer in the U.S. familiar to most people. Nose still scrunched from the implied baby diaper sitting dirty and open in your lap? Buy any Trappist beer (Rochefort 10, Orval, or Westmalle Triple would work well), and place it in a cool, dark corner of the house. Before the movers take the fridge, cool the beer to a temperature you’re likely not comfortable with (50-55 degrees Fahrenheit, it shouldn’t take more than five minutes) and pour it into the glass typically reserved for an aged red wine. If the baby diaper smell pervades, hold your nose and take a sip. If it continues wretchedly with a foul taste, rest assured, I am likely changing actual baby diapers as you sip this future beer and am inevitably paying the price for bad advice.
Sara’s spirit sunk as we left the warmth and walked into the fermentation room. The anomalies continued between two rows of three open fermenters. “I’m assuming we won’t be in here very long, and I shouldn’t touch anything,” I commented. “Good assumption,” Justine responded. Looking to avoid a Goldeneye laboratory scene where a broken flask of liquid dominoes into bulging veins and exploding eye balls, I pocketed my hands and tread lightly. Although increasing the probability of contamination, open fermentation provides several benefits: harvesting fresh, clean, healthy, and active yeast from the Krausen (the bubbly foam above the fermenting wort); encouraging the formation of fruity esters; and the release of unwanted gases - like sulfur - which normally reabsorb into the beer. Typically, the fermentation tank is shallower and wider. To relate back home once again, Anchor Brewing in San Francisco employs open fermentation. I stepped from the room intent on a full breath of air and preventing yeast genocide.
In a country intent on breaking all the unofficial rules of beer (I’m writing this from Germany, where the beer rulebook is stored), Rulles remains truly lawless, inspiring a couple rule-breaking, cliche puns. Do what you like, like what you brew. Or, thumbing a few chapters further in the joke book your crazy aunt gifted while you were still rocking a bowl cut, you unearth this gem: if you brew it they will come. I think Shoeless Joe would be upset there’s no corn in the beer. We were not. Popping bottles at the AirBNB that evening, we poured a 750 mL bottle of Stout Rullquin into glasses inspired by medieval quest and crusade. The blend, unfiltered and unpasteurized, seven-eighths Rulles Brown Ale and one-eighths year old lambic from Tillquin Gueuzerie (that is an actual word) underwent six months of bottle conditioning, naturally carbonating the dark champagne-like liquid. Champagne bubbles cumulated in a fluffy head and carried aromas of iron, caramel, sour fruit, and wood. Dry, oaky, leathery, funky, chocolatey, and tart on the palate, the nectar finished dry with iron and chocolate notes in the background. I understood why Marcel smiles: he drinks some of the best beer in the world, and, as previously mentioned, likely bookends his days with other earthly pleasures.