Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Brasserie Thiriez Visit

I've finished up my work in Germany which means I can start brewing again (but unfortunately no more Belgian brewery visits for a while). And it should also mean that I have more time to post her which I'm pretty happy about. This post is about a pioneering brewer and brewery of French microbreweries - Brasserie Thiriez. In Esquelbecq France (near Dunkirk), Brasserie Thiriez sits on the site of an old brewery which closed in 1945 (and before the brewery there was a farm on the property). Like many of the brewers in Belgium, Daniel Thiriez is exceptionally welcoming and very willing to talk about his beers and his brewery.

A great collection of old brewery memorabilia at the Thiriez bar.
Brasserie Thiriez is probably best known as the source of the Wyeast 3711 French Saison yeast. Homebrewers with experience with this yeast will know that is a bit of a monster. It attenuates lower than any other 'normal' yeast I've seen, regularly pushing my beers below 1 Plato (1.004). The attenuation numbers on the Wyeast site don't match my experience or the experience of other home and commercial brewers I've talked to. And people I've talked to at Wyeast have said that the yeast can ferment longer chain compounds that other yeast don't. I don't know what it is about this yeast that allows it to ferment beyond other yeasts but I definitely notice it happening. Another interesting aspect about this yeast is that is produces a good amount of glycerol, so while it can ferment to especially low final gravities, it doesn't leave a beer feeling too thin/watery.

While many homebrewers may be familiar with the 3711 yeast, relatively few may be familiar with the Thiriez beers. Unlike other excellent producers of saison oriented beers such as Fantome and De Glazen Toren, the production at Brasserie Thiriez is less geared toward export. Much more of it stays in the more local market, and Daniel has worked hard over the years to educate his clientele in France about beer in general and why his don't taste like the stereotypical beer. In the early days of the brewery this was quite challenging (in addition it was challenging to get supplies as a smaller brewer in France), but times are changing rapidly now for French beer. Those efforts to educate consumers have paid off well and now he is seeing increasing demand for his beers domestically as craft beer interest grows significantly in France. Here are some of the highlights from what I got out of my visit with him in spring 2014 (with some updates from a subsequent visit in fall 2015).

The 40 Hl fermenters.
The yeast - Daniel is using one yeast for almost all of his beers. As I mentioned above, homebrewers may be unknowingly familiar with Thiriez from the yeast, but there seem to be significant differences between the yeast Daniel has and what homebrewers are familiar with. Daniel said his beers never finish below 2 Plato (~1.008). I was very surprised by this as it is quite common for Wyeast 3711 to finish well below that, even with elevated (up to and above 1.080) starting gravities. I found Daniel's yeast to be a bit softer in flavor profile than 3711, but there are similarities between the two. While I do believe that 3711 could definitely be derived from his brewery, there must have been some sort of mutation that results in 3711 not being a perfect representation of what Daniel is using, and this isn't that surprising.

Another thing that stood out to me about Daniel's yeast is that he said he keeps a relatively constant fermentation temperature (5-6 days at 22 C) rather than the rising fermentation temperature profile that I am more familiar with from Belgian brewers and homebrewing. Following this primary, the beer spends 2-3 weeks cold conditioning at 12 C followed by bottling and conditioning in a warm room at ~22 C for a few weeks. Daniel feels that the beer is at its best after about 1 month in the bottle, which is faster than some of the other prominent saison producers but still a good amount of time after brew day and fitting with the general pattern I've observed in my brews and in speaking with other Belgian brewers that saisons do well with some more conditioning time.

Daniel is brewing a wide range of beers with his yeast, and it works well in both maltier amber and brown beers as well as blonde beers. I think the darker beers (such as Ambree, La Rouge Flammand, Biere de Noel) are quite nice, and I think the important difference regarding FG between the yeast he is using and Wyeast 3711 work in the favor of some of these darker beers compared to similar beers brewed with 3711. But I think the blonde beers, and especially those with prominent hop character, are where his yeast really shines the brightest (I might be biased here as those are generally the sorts of beers I prefer).

The Thiriez fermenters, a blending tank (left) and beer waiting for shipment.
The brewery - The Thiriez brewery is pretty modern with a computer controlled 20 Hl Czech brew system (4 vessel, 2 of which are steam jacketed) and four 40 Hl and two 20 Hl fermentors. Daniel is looking to expand the brewery building in the next couple of years to increase his fermentation capacity, but he is definitely regulating the rate at which he grows. His current growth rate is about 10% per year, and as of fall 2015 the expansions have begun to take form. He is building a second building in front of the brewhouse building (old setup pictured below) which he will use primarily for storage for now. Fermenter capacity expansion is something he'd like to get to, but he isn't rushing anything for now, which I think is great.

The brewhouse building at Brasserie Thiriez. Now there is a second building connected the the brewhouse and extending to where the hops were.
The beers - Daniel's beers cover a good range of color and in general are fairly restrained in alcohol. The darker beers receive gentle spicing, though the spices are much more apparent on brew day in the brewery than they are when the beer is in the glass. And you wouldn't necessarily know it by drinking them. I think this is what spicing in saison should be like, and what is generally missed in many North American saisons. In the blonde range, there are softer beers and some with more assertive hop character than many 'classic' saisons, and comparable in this regard to some of the beers from Brasserie de la Senne. My favorites from the Thiriez beers stood out to me due to the way this more assertive hopping played in perfectly with the yeast.

Thiriez makes a blond which is a classic saison-type beer with noticeable hoppyness and exactly the sort of complexity and subtlety that brought me to saisons. As I said above, they also make some outstanding hoppier beers like Etoile du Nord, Train to Mars and La Petite Princesse (a Jester King collaboration and based off of Jester King's own Le Petit Prince) which are pretty hoppy for many Belgian-oriented beers.  I think I've seen more different hops in Thiriez than any other belgian brewery I've visited. Some of these hoppier beers derive much of their character from European-type hops (which I generally prefer) and others use higher amounts of North American hops. Daniel is doing a good job combining North American hops with his yeast (the combination of west coast US hops and Belgian yeast does not always go well). I found La Petite Princesse especially amazing for how flavorful it was considering it is only 2.9%. I found this beer at theperfect time, when I was gravitating toward lower strength drinkable beer, and this was probably one of the more inspirational beers for me in my time in Europe from 2013-2014. I kept the characteristics of this beer in mind when formulating my own petite saison recipes (here and here) (though I would say that Petite Princesse is hoppier than my recipes). This beer has definitely had a strong impact on my brewing.

Thiriez brewed the 2014 Jean Chris Nomad - a beer of which the owners of an excellent shop Mi Orge Mi Houblon in Arlon, Belgium have brewed for them every year. The brewery changes each year and so does the style, but they are always (at least to this point) noteworthy beers. The 2014 version from Thiriez has a strong but balanced addition of myrtle and is among the best spice/herb beers I've ever had.

Train to Mars in barrels at Thiriez.
Daniel also has some pretty cool beers that are in the works or in planning. He has a small barrel aging program going, which I think is fairly unique among Belgian and French saison breweries. A couple of these beers have been released so far, and there are some cool beers waiting until they are ready. On of these, Train to Mars (an especially hoppy Biere de Mars), is at about 6-7 months in the barrel (as of fall 2015) and with some really nice balanced brett expression. The barrel aging beers at Thiriez, at least in the examples I've talked to Daniel about and those that I've tried, involve a subtle degree of acid development and fit well into the idea that mixed-fermentation beers show the balanced contribution from a range of microbes rather than one running away and dominating the beers.

Other future beers Daniel is looking into involve historical lower alcohol saison-oriented beers with some hop character. I'm pretty excited to see how this goes when it develops. Daniel and I definitely share a strong interest in low ABV but very flavorful beers and with La Petite Princesse he's shown that he can be very successful with this type of beer so I'm sure whatever he does will be great. Especially as his yeast works very well with hops.

Feb 2015 edit: I've just found this interview by the Shelton Brothers with Daniel Thiriez, which gives a good intro to him, his brewery, and the beers he makes.

Last Updated: 31-Oct-2015

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