The Devil Makes Work for Idle Hands
Eoghan Walsh speaks to Matt Brynildson on his year-long sabbatical at Duvel
Saturday 13 March 2021
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The first time Michel Moortgat arrived from Belgium in Paso Robles in California in the early 2010s and wanted to take a look around Firestone Walker, the local brewery, he knew exactly who to call. Moortgat, CEO of Duvel Moortgat, didn’t get in touch with the brewery's owners but instead tapped up an old friend of Duvel’s, whose relationship with the Belgian brewery stretched back to the turn of the century - Firestone Walker’s longtime brewmaster Matt Brynildson.
Brynildson was only too happy to oblige, and when several years later in 2015 Firestone Walker became a part of the broader Duvel Moortgat empire, he had his own request. “One of the first things I said back then was, if this thing goes down, I want you to know that I’m going to be bugging you guys to come over and stay for an extended period of time and learn what’s going on over there,” Brynildson says, speaking down the phone from California. He returned in September 2020 from a 14-month working sabbatical at the Duvel mothership, ready to reflect on what he was able to contribute to their way of doing things, and excited to unleash the “Belgian black magic” he learned while working alongside his colleagues in Antwerp. But more on that later.
An Epic Journey of Discovery in Belgium
By the time Brynildson came to work at Firestone Walker in 2001, they had been in business for roughly five years - first as the side project of a winery, and then by the time he joined at a 10,000 hectolitre brewery site in Paso Robles where they’ve been ever since. Early into his career, he took a trip to Europe with a couple of brewer friends. Or, more specifically, to Belgium. “I took this epic journey...A bunch of brewers of the time, and we went on our first Belgian exploration,” Brynildson says.
Frank Boon took them around his eponymous Lambic brewery. They visited the Trappist abbey brewery at Chimay. And on a visit to Duvel he met Hedwig Neven, the brewery’s head brewer. “We really struck a chord with Hedwig,” he says, and the relationship grew over the years as they met up at beer judging competitions and festivals. Once the Duvel-Firestone deal was completed, and Brynildson had indicated to management his desire to swap sides of the Atlantic and work alongside Neven, all that remained was for Brynildson to clear his schedule.
It only took him four years - they had an unexpected blockbuster new beer, and he wanted to make sure his team would be comfortable in his absence - but in July 2019 Brynildson, his wife and two small children upped sticks and headed for Antwerp for an extended stay. Now all that was left was to work out exactly what he was going to do there. “Hedwig...He’s a hard one to nail down,” says Brynildson, chuckling. “I was like, “So, what am I going to be doing?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, we’ll figure it out.’”
Leaving for a Satanic Sabbatical
One of the spurs of Brynildson’s desire to spend time in Belgium was the opportunity to visit and explore Duvel’s wider brewery family. In addition to Duvel HQ in the town of Puurs just outside Antwerp, Duvel Moortgat also owns De Koninck of Bolleke fame in Antwerp, Achouffe of the La Chouffe gnomes, and Liefmans in Oudenaarde. “Spending time and free range around the mothership and really learning how the beers are made in each one of these places...That was the most exciting thing, quite honestly,” he says.
It was at the latter, famous for the sweet-sour Flemish Red-Brown Ales like Liefmans Goudenband, where Brynildson got to spend time with Rosa Merckx. Merckx was Liefmans brewmaster from the 1970s until her retirement, a living legend of Belgian brewing and the country’s first ever female brewmaster. “The coolest part for me was spending time with the people,” Brynildson says. “One of my favourite times was getting a drink with Rosa...and hearing her spin tales and how things transpired there, her house is still next door to the brewery!”
Even though he was familiar with the brewery and Liefmans’ beers, Brynildson was still astounded by how they worked and what they were capable of producing. “[Just] to walk through the old brewhouse, I still can’t wrap my head around how they are making those sour beers,” he says. “Whatever’s going on in that little microclimate is working. It’s insane.”
Getting his hands dirty homebrewing
When he wasn’t gallivanting around Belgium, or further afield to Duvel Moortgat’s breweries in The Netherlands and Italy, Brynildson got to know the city that was to be his home for over a year. He was living within cycling distance from the De Koninck brewery - now a destination venue with a high-end cheesemonger’s, a butcher, and bakery - and soon found himself plugged into the local beer scene.
Word soon got around his children’s school that an American brewer had moved to the city, which was music to the ears of the school’s assistant principal - an avid homebrewer and currently in the process of setting up a new Antwerp-based brewery Uncharted Brew Co.. “Living in Antwerp was awesome,” Byrnildson says. “Thom [of Uncharted Brew Co.] and one of the other dads were hardcore homebrewers, and they were super stoked that I was there, so they invited me over to their house. It was awesome.”
And while Byrnildson was ostensibly there to learn from his Belgian counterparts, he was also able to pass on some American brewing knowledge. “I think...you kind of assume that when a 150 year old brewery gets involved with a smaller brewery like us, it’s a one-way street, like they’re going to be showing us how to do things,” he says. “But it’s really been a two-way street.”
In particular, he supported Duvel’s brewers on the business’s barrel-ageing project that had launched several years before he arrived and which was moving from using Bourbon barrels to Rum barrels. It was, for him, an interesting cultural exchange - with a deep appreciation for Belgium’s Lambic traditions and their focus on long maturation and barrel-ageing, he expected his Duvel colleagues to be experts in the art of ageing beer on wood. “You always assume that Belgian brewers know all there is to know about barrel-ageing - lambic and gueule and all these things, they must just be the experts,” Brynildson says. “And then you go to Duvel and they say, ‘We got rid of all that stuff 100 years ago, as soon as we could get our hands on stainless steel!’”
“Brewing my brains out!”
Eventually, with the Covid crisis restricting his movements, Brynildson set up camp in Duvel’s 10,000 hectolitre pilot brewery, which just so happened to be missing a full-time brewer. It was a full-spec kit - “It is gorgeous...they spared no expense.” - and Brynildson got to work experimenting with different raw materials, studying dry hopping techniques, and recipe formulation for potential new releases. “I was just brewing my brains out!” he says.
He brewed styles that he’d taken with him from the US, making beers like the ‘t IJ van de Duvel Hazy IPA collaboration with Amsterdam brewery (and Duvel stablemate) Brouwerij ‘t IJ, and generally encouraging a sometimes cautious Belgian brewing fraternity out of its comfort zone. One of the last projects he worked on before packing up and moving back to California was to help on the early development and recipe formulation of Duvel 666.
It was the culmination of his experimentation with new hop varieties, dry hopping techniques, and a more provocative approach to what a “Duvel” beer could be. The success or failure of his efforts to nudge the pendulum depended on the views of the big boss. “I literally had Michel Moortgat drinking from the pilot brewery tap my trial batches of 666, that were dry-hopped pretty aggressively,” Brynildson says. “And [I remember] him going, ‘Yeah.’ I thought, oh, we’re there, it’s going to happen!”
Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis
He wasn’t able to stick around to see how the final beer turned out once it went into full production - Duvel 666 was launched at the end of January 2021 - but back in Paso Robles since September 2020, Brynildson is eager to apply some of what he absorbed to his work with Firestone Walker. “I call it Belgian black magic,” he says. “These brewers all have a trick bag that they hold very tight, and that I was very lucky to get access to.” Belgian style beers have never made up a large part of Firestone Walker’s output, but Brynildson has already planned a team-up with another American brewery in Duvel Moortgat’s portfolio, and one which was founded on bringing the Belgian tradition to the US - Brewery Ommegang in New York.
“When I got home I got the wheels turning on a collaboration with Ommegang,” Byrnildson says, a project through which he wants to adopt one of his key takeaways from his time in Belgium - that the blurring of strict style categorisations can lead to more creativity. “I’m trying to get them interested in sticking with their Belgian yeast and doing something that’s more of a hybrid, where you can bring some of the spice and esters of their Belgian yeast and the soft sensibilities of a Hazy IPA...and merge these things together to make something unique.
“You don’t even have to call it one thing or another, [it’s about] making a beautiful beer with the things that you have.” An approach to brewing that Hedwig Neven and his team at Duvel would surely recognise.
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