The brewery that's putting all the drama, majesty and fun of the Alps into your glass
Monday 30 December 2019
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The world-renowned skiing town of Chamonix may not be the most obvious location for a craft brewery, but it was the snow that first attracted Big Mountain founder (and mountain guide) Jack Geldard here around ten years ago. Moving from England, coincidentally, at the same time as a childhood friend, the pair quickly noticed the distinct lack of beer choice. Jack had previously lived in Germany, so began shipping in his favourite Franconian beers, while his pal Matt was already well versed in the UK’s then-nascent craft scene and brought his own favourite brews to the table.
"It was prohibitively expensive getting them across, and nobody here was really doing craft, so we opted to brew our own. We spent several years perfecting our home-brewing, developing recipes and learning the trade. We had a mind to go commercial, but felt that we needed to really understand the process of brewing and also the business side of the industry before we jumped in. Our beers were a big hit, and we had people queuing up to buy them, so we flew back over to the UK to do a short commercial brewing course, and then, well, we thought we better crack on with it!"
This is precisely what they did, and in 2017 Big Mountain opened its doors in Chamonix’s, including a fantastic 12-line taproom in the heart of town. With a brand firmly tied to the pair’s passion for the mountains and snow sports, Big Mountain was a ready-made hit, and quickly expanded from a cobbled together kit to a production brewery capable of putting out 150 hectolitres a week.
“We’ve deliberately kept it very manual and hands-on,” continues Jack. “I feel there's a certain size you can get to with brewing, and above that size I think the beer quality starts to suffer. Now, we've got room to grow – we could triple our brewhouse size and still make fantastic beer – but I really believe above that you start to lose the personal touch.
“That’s very important for us. We really try and instil the lifestyle, that love of the mountain, in the beers we brew… A lot of the pleasure in those activities comes from the people you're doing them with. The sense of satisfaction you get at the end of the day comes from telling stories about who fell off their bike or whatever over a couple of beers. What we try to do is extend that outdoor adventure experience, so that after your day out you can continue to surround yourself with the outdoor vibe and feel connected to that community. That’s the concept anyway!”
It’s obviously a concept that strikes a chord in Chamonix, but Jack is keen to extend his reach even further beyond his local market, and beyond the snow sports set. Will it translate though? Ultimately the beer stands up by itself, and Jack emphasises that for all its affinity with the great outdoors, Big Mountain is a beer company first and foremost: “we’re not just white labelling a beer and sticking a picture of a mountain on it,” he says.
“We haven’t had capacity to push that much out of our region, and in terms of margin and easy sales, local is always better while we’re still growing in that market. But yes, I would like to grow the brand, and I think in terms of finding a broader audience it could be a big hit. We did the World Beer Awards this year. Some would say they’re not that craft-oriented, but you still have to pass a lot of blind tastings, and our beers did very well.
“A presence in the UK would be exciting, so we’re actively looking for a distributor to take us there next year. But it’s been an exciting couple of years and we're really pleased with how quickly it's grown.”
We really try and instil the lifestyle, that love of the mountain, in the beers we brew...
In a region dominated by blondes and rousse biers (“some of which are very nice, many of which are awful”) Big Mountain’s distinctly crafty, hop-forward line-up certainly stands out. The IPA in this months’ Beer52 box is a great example of the brewery’s approach: old-school west coast US hops, with the bitterness dialled down to suit the French palate, along with low-attenuation yeast and soft mountain water for a distinctly NEIPA-like aroma and mouthfeel. “They call this a ‘mountain IPA’ in the US, because it’s half way between east coast and west coast, so that seemed appropriate,” says Jack.
Then there’s a very classic pale ale, and a full-blown NEIPA in the core range, alongside a series of constantly changing IPAs. For those looking for a more traditional local experience, there’s also a blonde, cool-fermented for a super-clean finish, but also with a cheeky hoppy snap to keep things interesting.
More exciting projects are on the horizon too, included a barrel-ageing programme that should bear its first fruit next year. Of particular interest to me is the beer named for Mont Dolent, which borders France, Switzerland and Italy. This beer is brewed in France, and aged in French burgundy barrels, with Swiss apricots and Italian grapes. The only problem with this project, says Jack, is that everyone in the brewery is constantly looking for an excuse to put a hole in the barrel for a sample.
Jack is still in charge of recipe creation, but has brought on brewers Matt and Tom to help take the weight of constant brewing. Matt was a pisteur before he moved into brewing, while Tom – also from the UK – is an avid climber. Jack jokes that the brewery now has all the mountain sports pretty much covered, and says the whole team now enjoys adventuring together.
“It's very much a small community,” he says. “We all hang out at the bar together and go do things at the weekend. It's nice… The Chamonix locals have been very welcoming too. I've lived here about 10 years, and Matt a little bit longer. Because he was a pisteur in the valley prior to brewing, that's a very sought after job in the region and he's very well regarded locally. So you have an immediate entrance into the community.
“We've had a lot of support from the local community, French and international. We’re bringing quality beers to a region at an affordable price. We sponsor a lot of events and have an open door policy at the brewery, so people drop in to see it all the time. Basically, aside from the French bureaucracy, we’re making the beer we love and taking part in the sports we love in one of the most strikingly beautiful places on Earth. What’s not to love?”
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