Interview with Raphaël Mettler of Brasserie Trois Dames

In Vaud, on the Balcony of Jura, lies the idyllic small town of Sainte Croix. Already well known for hiking and skiing, from this town flows a stream of beer into Switzerland and the rest of the world as well. We met with Raphaël Mettler, the owner of Brasserie Trois Dames, to talk about his career and his planned attacks on our taste buds.

Can you tell us something about yourself?

I’ve been brewing since 2001. Before that I only rarely drank beer as my interests were more towards wine and absinthe. Through my former profession in the sports retail trade I made several trips to America and got to know the local beer scene and its wonderful and generously hopped beers. That was the beer-AHA! moment for me. Naturally I wanted to drink these kinds of beers in Switzerland too, but at that point I didn’t even know that brewing beer at home was possible.
I then bought a small Kaspar Schulz brewing kit in Germany and learnt everything I could about brewing from American literature. For me, in the beginning, I wasn’t really sure what type of beer I wanted to brew so I just started with the German styles, but then, fairly quickly, I moved on to the beers styles that I particularly enjoyed, especially the American pale ales and IPAs.
We live here in Sainte Croix, a small town, and if you want to sell beer here, you need to have something at least somewhat “normal” on offer. Since that doesn’t really correspond to my approach, I had to find my clientele elsewhere. This naturally led me to the Solothurner Biertage [Solothurn Beer Festival], even though at that time I still wasn’t a professional brewer.
During a long stay in Canada with my family I had the opportunity to dive deeper into the local beer scene which gave me a chance to learn from the local brewers and hop growers. While in a microbrewery there I had the opportunity to brew and I also had the chance to enter some of my beers into some competitions, including at Mondiale de la Bière in Montréal, and I even won a few prizes.
After returning to Switzerland I realized that I wanted to focus entirely on beer. I sold my sporting goods company and used the money to start the “Trois Dames” brewery.

Raphaël Mettler of Brasserie Trois Dames

What is the oldest recipe that you are still brewing?

That’s the Fraicheur. The Fraicheur is a Belgian Wit, but with slightly less wheat than is traditional. In contrast to the original recipe, we no longer use just one Weizenhefe but instead use a variety of different yeasts.

Do the people of Sainte Croix appreciate your beers now?

The population of Sainte Croix doesn’t really differ greatly from the rest of the population of Switzerland. Approximately 90-95% of the people like to drink their lager. The remaining 5% are looking for something more special and are also interested in beer culture in general. If I wanted to venture into the mass market of beer, I would have to brew a very low cost lager.

Have you ever considered brewing a lager, whilst not a low cost, mass-market version?

I have actually brewed lagers in smaller breweries in the past, but not at this location. You can however brew some very interesting lagers and we already have some ideas that we are considering.

You started brewing because you have a passion for it. However, the brewery has now reached a certain size and has many employees. Do you still get a chance to brew?

I get to mash-in quite often, in the morning at 7 o’clock, the first of two batches per day. Then I take the first shift of cleaning. In a year I make about six full brews.

So brewing a collaboration must be fun because it actually lets you brew again?

Only in theory. In the last two collaborations that I’ve done, I actually had nothing to do (laughs). When brewing with Jester King their brewmaster did all the work while we went for a walk through the hop warehouse and their new extension, sampled the local cheeses and discussed beer and the world in general. At Crooked Stave it was a bit different as they had just installed a new brewing system. Since this was not in operation yet, we had to brew at Epic Brewing. And since the two brewers there knew the system better than us, we weren’t the ones standing at the kettles. I was more involved with the groundwork for these Collabos, like when it came to deciding what we wanted to do and creating the recipe. And then also in purchasing the coveted sherry barrels.

Will we get to drink these beers in Switzerland?

We have also repeated these visits in reverse, that is to say Jester King and Crooked Stave were also here with me to brew some beer. This will certainly be available in Switzerland, but they won’t be ready until at least spring 2015

You mentioned that Sainte Croix is not the only location where your beer is sold. Where else is the Trois Dames beer available?

Around 80% of the beer manufactured by us is sold here in Switzerland. The rest is exported. The three “normal” beers in our repertoire (Fraicheur, Rivale and Voisine) make up about half of our production. In the German-speaking parts of Switzerland our main markets are certainly in the big cities. We have also observed that the bitter beers are increasingly finding outlets. IPAs are currently quite in trend, whereas the sour beers have not yet reached the same level of popularity.

How long will it take until sour beers are popular in Switzerland?

For connoisseurs and on a small scale this is already the case. The Grande Dames are already on tap in two bars now. And the milder sour beers are ordered quite regularly. Our Amoureuse comes in two versions: the White with Chasselas grapes and the Red with Garanoir grapes. The White is a beer with a very fine acidity. Here I can see that people who come from a regular beer background initially have a little more trouble with sour beers than those with more experience with wine, especially white wines where they are already used to a certain level of acidity.

Which beer, for you, is the most fun to make?

Now, anything new. It’s just always been that way. You don’t need insane amounts of creativity to brew an IPA. Over the last seven years we have perfected out “normal” recipes, but right now I just find it fascinating and inspiring to experiment with fruits or with wild yeasts. And then comes the blending of the different barrels as well.

What are you going to do next?

As I showed you already on the tour, we have the new brewery extension. There I would like, for example, to produce 100% Brett beers, experiment with lactobacteria and we also want to brew a lot more collaboration beers, because they are really a lot of fun! There will also be some more projects with Swiss and American breweries.
At the moment I am also taking evening classes at a wine school. I find the interface between wine and beer fascinating and I would like to brew a beer with wine yeast once again, and then maybe blend it with a traditional beer, fermented with brewer’s yeast. Or I want to brew a series where one-third is brewed with normal brewer’s yeast, one-third is with wine yeast and the last third is fermented exclusively with Brett.

What percentage of your specialty beers actually remains in Switzerland?

Well, until now very little, because I have not made very large quantities. That could now be about to change with these new investments. And perhaps this is not bad timing, because until now the clientele in Switzerland was not quite ready for these kinds of beer. The majority of these beers went to America, Scandinavia and Italy.

How spontaneous can you be when developing new recipes, with respect to raw materials?

Right now I would not want to be too dependent on the hop selection. Which is why I find sour beers so cool (laughs).
Although dry hopping sour beers does open up some very interesting options.

Is it possible that you may have to remove one of your standard beers from the current range?

This may well happen. The Black Stout, for example, has already fallen out of the range as we had too many dark beers and this one was simply the trickiest to brew.
But what I find even more interesting is that I’ll add a new regular beer to the range, such as the Bise Noir, a Porter that uses Brett yeast.

Do you have a current favorite beer?

At the moment I am really enjoying the Fraicheur with Citra hops. I find that a Weissbier with Citra hops works wonderfully! And I also really like the Forêt Noir very much.

What is the common thread running through the Trois Dames beers?

My beers are all fairly robust and aroma intensive. Or in other words, sometimes they aren’t very subtle. You could take that as a criticism, but I can’t help it, I’m also cooking that way.

Thanks to Harley for helping with the translation.

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