Somewhere close to the edge of the world, or at least the edge of Switzerland, is Jura and here you’ll find the Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes, better known as BFM. The brewery of Jérôme Rebetez is the only Swiss brewery with a global reputation and with his Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien, BFM brews a modern classic. Therefore this trip to BFM was like a pilgrimage for us.
In this interview, Jérôme speaks about inspiration, the Swiss beer scene and umami, as well as the Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien Festival, collaboration beers, and whether or not he brews anything exclusively for export.
You started as a homebrewer. Are any of your homebrew recipes a BFM beer now?
No, not really. Perhaps a trace of a homebrew recipe still lies within La Salamander: principally a wheat beer but with plenty of flavor. For me, brewing always has a close relationship with the kitchen. Brewing and cooking is almost the same thing for me, when you are creating the recipe. And, like cooking, sometimes you create something eccentric or ridiculous.
To me it seems that with cooking you can have a direct and immediate influence on the result. But when it comes to beer, you need to plan ahead much more in order to control how the beer will come out.
Yes, with beer you definitely need more experimentation.
What can a brewer learn from a chef?
I don’t know, I am neither a chef nor a brewer [laughs].
Can you recommend any great food pairings for your beers? Do you usually aim for contrast or harmony?
I am mainly looking for contrasts. Most importantly I want to find an element in the food that contrasts well with a particular beer and thereby enhance that flavor.
This actually works very well with our B.A.T.S., our smoked beer. Just recently I was in a Geneva restaurant that cooked a prawn carpaccio with niora peppers and an asian fish-sauce infusion. It went perfectly with the smoky notes from the B.A.T.S..
That is certainly a great beer to pair with, one way or another.
Yes, you soon realize it is much more subtle than your first impression of it. Honestly, it really is one of my favorite, non-sour, beers.
There are three different sources for the smoke:
smoked malt such as used in Bamberg, peat smoked malt and Tarry Souchong (smoked black tea.) And now I want to experiment with a fourth source: I’m using oak chips from used Bon-Chien Barrels to smoke my own malt.
Each year you release a special anniversary beer. What inspires these recipes?
Travel and a sense for upcoming trends. This year’s “4 × 4” beer has just 3 percent alcohol. However, the trend for session beers with less alcohol will only arrive in Switzerland in a few years’ time. Number 7 was an IPA, and that was 10 years ago.
In Solothurn you once served a tomato beer. What was the idea behind it?
I am always interested and eager to brew a beer with umami.
What creates the umami flavor in beer? I have already asked several brewers and so far, no one could give me an answer.
Well, for example it can come from a tomato.
While each of my beers are technically listed under a specific beer style, I don’t want them to be clearly dictated by the guidelines of that style. My beers are in the BFM-style. Naturally, this sometimes makes them harder to sell. For example if someone wants something light, they might get La Meule, but if they drink it and don’t like it, they’ll probably think that they won’t like any of our other beers either. La Meule is a pale beer, but it is so much more complex than beers of similar color.
When ordering a “Helles” (standard term for Euro Lager in Switzerland) at Biercafé Au Trappist in Berne, they’ll server you a La Meule.
Yes, but you’d get it in an environment where they’ll explain what to expect.
Some time ago, the board of the Oufi brewery visited our brewery. First I served them a Saison, then a three year old Bon-Chien and lastly a B.A.T.S.. Then someone asked, “Well, can we now try a few of your Lagers?” They are convinced that people always want to drink a pale lager. Maybe that is still true today, but the beer scene is Switzerland has developed over the last few years. And a brewery with only a Lager finds themselves entering a cutthroat market. These breweries are in competition with the major breweries.
At the Erzbierschof Bars, there is always a local Pale Lager on their number one tap.
Yes and that really annoys me. I have nothing against Lager beers, there are some excellent ones available and for example he could have Extra Hop by Birrificio Italiano on that tap. That is a super Lager. But he has his principles.
At the same time the Lager tap and the Weizen tap are probably the ones with the most turnover.
I’m not surprised. A little while ago we made a company trip to his bar in Liebefeld. He had nine beers on tap with an ABV of nine percent or more. That is just something I cannot understand. And the majority of the taps were from Gypsy brewers. If I had a bar, I’d boycott gypsy brewers.
For many years now you’ve served your beer at the Solothurner Biertage (Solothurn Beer Festival). What kind of changes have you observed?
That many of the participating breweries are now serving not only a Lager but also a Weizen. Actually, Saturday is still fun. That’s when the connoisseurs and gourmets attend the festival. But the music in the evening is horrible – that’s not beer culture. Solothurn is not Munich. But Alex Künzle [organizer of the Biertage] loves his oompah music.
Same thing at the Unterländer Bierfestival: you’re also assaulted with folk music.
And it can just as easily be done differently: At our Brassin Public [open house at the brewery] we don’t have any folk music. We have a different identity. And the people like it here.
My dream at the beer fests would be a couch, two boxes, a small fridge and only Bon-Chien to serve, by reservation only [laughs].
Have you noticed an increase in beer consumption in the region since you started brewing?
In the Freiberge region people drink a lot of BFM, but not so much in Delémont, for example. But regardless, if we organize an event, a lot of people show up. However, if you go here to the local restaurant and order a beer, then you’ll just get a typical Lager. And that’s despite the fact that the restaurant could be earning more money with our beer. They usually don’t even bother trying to sell our beer.
Which is why you have a bar here in the brewery?
Yes, we had to do it. Otherwise we could not meet our goals. And we only sell beer, we don’t have any other alcoholic beverages on sale.
Do people drink BFM because they have come to like the taste or because it is from the region?
I do not know, but probably both.
How would you describe the differences in beer consumption between the Western (French) and the Eastern (German) parts of Switzerland?
Apart from Stephan at the Bier Factory Rapperswil or Tom from Storm & Anchor it is a bit boring in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. That is including the new super trendy Doppelleu – what they brew is no IPA. Which is really sad.
At the same time, it is not so bad if Doppelleu shows up at a festival. They still introduce people from other regions to specialty beers. Perhaps the Doppelleu Pale Ale can be seen as a gateway in to the world of Craft Beer.
But that can also backfire: if the first craft beer someone orders doesn’t taste good, then they’ll wonder why they should bother paying more for it.
Or when the first craft beer that you drink is a BFM, then that can be a bit of a shock.
It was a shock.
Other than at festivals, where else can we get your Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien?
In Tokyo, Richmond Virginia, Belgium, Lille, Montreal, Paris, Barcelona and Winterthur/Liebefeld.
Are those the most important markets?
That list is not identical to the major beer markets, but all are good markets to be a part of. Most Bon-Chien is sold in Richmond. The Mekong restaurant has 50 beers on tap and they serve Bon-Chien and our Saison all year long.
What can we expect at the Bon-Chien fest? What will happen?
I don’t actually know yet. I would really like for the Bon-Chien to achieve the status of one of the top fifty sour beers in the world. In the U.S., the beer has already made its mark. The Mekong restaurant has told me I need to do more public relations work. Nevertheless, we are already being copied. The Struise brewery has announced a Struise Festival for next year. No idea whether or not they will succeed though. Even for American breweries it can be quite difficult. Even Dogfish Head is primarily known in the U.S. and, for example, not available in Europe.
The Bon-Chien festival will take place in selected restaurants and I think I have chosen good restaurants from the participating locations. Special Editions of Bon -Chien will be served at the festival, some that are only available on tap, not bottled.
In Switzerland, the festival will take place in the Erzbierschof bars in Winterthur and Liebefeld, and 15 beers will be available on tap. I don’t actually know exactly how all this is going to work though, because both bars are too small.
Is it true that a few of your beers are only available abroad?
Well, that depends. For Procrastinator, 2000 bottles went to the U.S. and only 500 remained here. Each retailer in the U.S. was only allowed to buy 10 bottles each. Procrastinator’s a beer-line that I really want to develop. For the second edition, part of it, approximately 200 liters, was stored in a rum cask and later blended with 1,200 liters of beer.
The beer really was treated as described on the label: we had stored a barrel of La Mandragore behind the hall and had forgotten about it. The harsh winter then froze the beer. My staff wanted to throw it away but I said “No, first we taste it, then we sell it in the United States” [laughs].
Do you know what inspired the colors of the labels? Two years ago I was in Chicago in a bourbon specialty restaurant. While there I got a green t-shirt, which I now sometimes sleep in. One morning I got up and looked at myself in the mirror with the green t-shirt and pink panties and thought, “These are the colors for the next Procrastinator beer!” So I took the T-shirt and underpants to a graphic designer and voila!
You’ve previously spoken out against Gypsy Brewers: how would you respond if Mikkeller wanted to brew with you?
That it would have to be done in his brewery.
But he doesn’t have a brewery.
But you once did a collaboration beer with Spike from Terrapin. Would you ever consider brewing another collaboration beer?
My answer may not sound very modest. Per month I get one or two inquiries, and why do people ask me to collaborate? They want to brew a barrel aged beer and sell it as inspired by Bon-Chien. That’s great for their branding, but my own branding is also important.
But, on the other hand, if a Garret Oliver from Brooklyn Brewery would ask whether we should brew something together, okay, then maybe.
So a collaboration with someone on par with you.
Well, Garret is naturally of a higher caliber, but that is why it would be interesting.
You say that you brew all the beers with the same yeast. So the Saison has no Saison yeast?
No, even here we have used a non-Saison yeast. Designing that beer took maybe 2 minutes. The idea was to have a beer with about 5% alcohol, brewed with Cascade hops and then matured in oak barrels.
Which locations would you recommend for a beer holiday?
Those that are still a little unknown, like Italy, for example. Rome is great, and I know a few good people and top-notch beer bars there.
What would you name as the top three beers everyone needs to try?
I think the Madamin from LoverBeer is great, It is a monster of a beer. Then, the 1809, a Berliner Weisse style from Professor Fritz Briem. The beer is of exceptional quality. And thirdly, the Extra Hop from Birrificio Italiano. That one is fantastic, a brilliant Lager.
Thank you Harley for helping with the translation.