Bryan Kolesar won Philly Beer Week's annaul raffle trip and trekked around Belgium with a few of our dignitaries in 2015. One year later, he reflects on the long-lasting bonds and friendships forged in Europe. Remember, only PBW members qualify for the ballot.
As a beer consumer for nearly 25 years, I've constantly been on the hunt for different and better-tasting beer. My first trip to Belgium didn't come until 2012. At that time, I often wondered when the next opportunity would come to visit this beautiful country and taste their incredible beer.
Philly Beer Week has been collaborating with European brewers since 2011 and making an annual contest out of it, giving consumers the chance to win a trip to Europe with a local brewer of their choice. The yearly voyage always includes an All-Star cast of Philly-centric beer personalities, led by Tom Peters from Monk's Cafe.
My annual practice is to make a $20 donation to the cause, never expecting to win as I understand how a lot of people will plunk down $50 or $100 and maybe more. For the 2015 trip to Hof ten Dormaal (Tildonk, Belgium), I decided to put John Stemler's name and his Free Will Brewing (Perkasie, PA) on my ticket. I did this for two very important reasons.
First, Free Will was a relatively young and unknown brewery, located in the middle of Bucks County. They had been catching my attention with some interesting beers they were doing. Those beers were impressive enough that I figured they deserved the recognition that comes with brewing the official collaboration for Philly Beer Week.
Second, I was impressed with the support given to me by Stemler and his team in my research and writing of my book, Beer Lover's Mid-Atlantic. Again, as both a consumer and a freelance writer, I'm happy to bring attention to breweries (especially the young ones) that deserve it.
In yet another collaboration — this one between Philly Beer Week and Philly.com — Stemler and I chronicled our adventures to the Inquirer's Michael Klein on a daily basis, to document the experiences along the way. There was so much to see and do, and to taste, that we found ourselves typing everywhere we went — in the hotel room and lobby, on train excursions, and in cafes. Most times, we were typing with a beer nearby. (Check my website, The Brew Lounge, for a complete guide)
After a couple of days spent exploring Brussels and Bruges, things got real — and real interesting. The Philly Beer Week crew, including Tom Peters, William Reed (Standard Tap, Johnny Brenda's) and Casey Parker (Jose Pistola's, Sancho Pistola's) met up with us. And where better to meet up than at Cantillon? This is where it became quite clear, for any uninitiated, the far reaching power of the Philadelphia beer network. This was my second trip to Belgium and Stemler's first.
For all I know, this could have been Peters' 50th visit. (He is a Chevalier of the CBB and an Orval Ambassador after all). All of the networking, research and travel that he puts into Belgium shows when the owner of Cantillon takes the group on a special one-off, behind-the-scenes tour of the brewery and (at the time, unopened) a second property that was under renovation.
Or, when the highly-regarded owner of Boon Brewery, a place that doesn’t give public tours, greets us with arms wide open in their parking lot. And, later serves us vintage Mariage Parfait in the employee break room (remember, they don't do public tours or have a tasting room). Or, when the owner of Drie Fonteinen, his business partner, and his son take us from a decadent lunch in their restaurant (praise be, that rabbit dish!) into the aging room for a private, tutored barrel-tasting.
There we were, with three of the most significant lambic brewers and gueuze blenders in Belgium overextending themselves because of who we were with and where we were from. Not to say that we are the only ones they would do this for. But, it's quite clear that traveling with the Philly Beer Week crew has its perks.
Finally, after four days in Belgium and recovery from any jet lag (counter-balanced by copious amounts of beer and rich foods, and counter-balanced yet again by many kilometers of walking), it was time for the actual Brew Day at Hof ten Dormaal — a once-in-a-lifetime experience that turned into a 14-hour adventure!
By now, the story is familiar to many. In short, for those not aware, the Hof ten Dormaal brewery suffered a devastating fire in January 2015, and our Brew Day was the first one since the fire.
John's account goes into plenty of detail and our photo gallery shows much of the disarray that the brewing facility (adjacent to the barn animals and across from the family residence) was still in. The family was truly amazing in their hospitality and the property oozed true farmhouse brewery. Located several kilometers from the university town of Leuven, Hof ten Dormaal is set back off a few dirt roads and is home to three generations of the Janssens family.
Recall a couple paragraphs back where I mentioned the experience at Boon and Drie Fonteinen? Those two stops couldn't fit in the same day as a five-hour session at Cantillon. No, the trip to these two treausres took place the day after the big Brew Day at Hof ten Dormaal, and we did some train hopping around the region to get to each brewery. Visits to each of these amazing places occupy a very special and significant part of my memory bank from this trip.
So that's all good stuff, right? Who can argue that a group of 10 beer professionals and friends traveling to Belgium together isn't a great thing? But did the story end there? I can't vouch for each of the other Philly Beer Week collaboration trips to Europe, but I can certainly say that the story didn't end there for the 2015 crew.
Of course, there's the obvious stuff. Consumer and brewer have a sustained relationship. Brewer has deeper relationship with publicans. However, in speaking with Stemler on multiple occasions since the trip, much more came of this than simply improved surface-level relationships. During Philly Beer Week 2015, Hof ten Dormaal's head brewer, Jef Janssens, and his girlfriend, Stefanie, stayed at Stemler's house the night before their "Round Two" brew day back in the United States.
Big deal, you say? That kind of hospitality exists in the (mostly) friendly brewing industry. It does, but it goes deeper. Last month, Stemler told me that "Jef and I speak about every other week from bullshit to brewing stuff. Apparently, we are going to challenge another brewery to a soccer match.”
How about another level deeper? As a result of their newly-formed professional and personal relationship, Free Will Brewing has been invited to participate in the Innovation Beer Festival in Leuven, Belgium. During the visit, Stemler and his wife, Nicole, will be staying on the family farm again.
How many other American breweries will be in attendance? Only one: Boulevard from Kansas City, which is owned by Duvel Moortgat in Belgium. John adds, "Our invitation to the festival is only because of the relationship and the opportunity given to brew with them there."
And what about the "Round Two” collaboration that was brewed last year to be served during Philly Beer Week 2016? Just when I asked Stemler about this in late March 2016 he said: “As it turns out, [cellarwoman] Colleen [Rakowski] is transferring the Leuven barrels into the blending barrels as I'm typing this.”
There is one final, convincing note that the Philly Beer Week trip has the potential to go way beyond a free trip to Europe. If you follow Free Will closely, you may have noticed that the fruited sour beers no longer carry the name “Lambic” on them. They are now referred to as “Sour.”
Grape Sour. Pomegranate Sour. Peach Sour. Kriek Sour. Key Lime Sour.
“I have a totally different viewpoint on the beer market in Belgium,” says Stemler. “I have changed a few things in my processes and labeling habits as a direct result of my experiences over there. I look forward to going over there every year moving forward.”
I believe that it was following our meet-ups with Boon and Drie Fonteinen when John said he discovered a greater respect for brewing traditions. He had met the people behind the beers, and that mattered. He would no longer call his beers “Lambics.”
We may have been several beers into our day/evening by that point, but it became one of many poignant moments of the trip for me. Traveling with Philly Beer Week opens doors, both figuratively and literally.