MartinT interviews the man behind the brews at Dieu du Ciel
July 1, 2005
Written by MartinT
There’s a sparkling glass of Solstice d’Été aux Framboises in front of me. A splendid berliner weisse with the creative twist of fresh raspberries. Behind it, Jean-François Gravel, 33-year-old master brewer and part owner of Montreal’s much lauded brewpub Dieu du Ciel!. No wonder a generous conversation followed! Luckily, if all planning goes well, you who will attend this July’s RBSG in Montreal will understand how much of a conversation feeder this berliner weisse is, and, most importantly, how welcoming and passionate the Dieu du Ciel gang is.
RB : So with a rather eclectic brew in hand, what do you think of the Montreal beer scene? Surely such an imaginative selection must be a testament to your desires for difference? You want to stand out right?
JFG : Well yes, we always try to lead the way, or at least do as we wish. We want to be a reference in our city. In my tastes, the quality of the microbrewing scene in Montreal is somewhat deficient, save for a few like Bièropholie and Ma Brasserie who brew some interesting products. McAuslan is a bit static though, Boréale and Unibroue have been lackluster and redundant lately, and Brasseurs RJ is definitely not reaching me as a craft beer lover, except maybe for the few old Cheval Blanc recipes which linger. Thankfully, the brewpub level is more adventurous and I’d like to think that we’ve played a part in offering Montrealers a higher quality and diversity of products. When I started drinking craft brews, I would trip in the doorstep of the Cheval Blanc brewpub pretty often, but back then 3-6 different beers were the most you could get at any given brewpub in the city. And everyone seemed to be brewing a specific genre, be it English or Belgian, never branching out into more creative areas. With our 10-12 different beers on at almost any time, from strict stylings to style bends to sheer freestyling, I’d like to believe that we’ve pushed other brewpubs into brewing more products, and in some cases, to let the brewers loose to go wherever their whims take them.
RB : Speaking of old times, what inspired you to brew what you are doing today? Cheval Blanc I imagine were a part of it?
JFG : Yes, they were my first common brewpub experience. I started drinking McAuslan beers at the age of 16 years old, so I got my tastebuds developed pretty quick. Pretty soon, I was on to Belgian beers that were available at the SAQ (provincial liquor stores), such as Duvel and Maredsous, basically anything that was strong-flavoured and/or well-hopped. I started out as the typical party homebrewer, soon using Charlie Papazian’s books, and developing my knowledge with further studies, readings, and tasting anything I could find. I chose to study biology in college, and let’s just say I saw a practical application for my courses. I met Patricia and Stéphane while doing my master’s thesis, and they loved the beer I used to bring at parties. They basically pushed me at first to start this brewpub with them, and they convinced me soon enough. I therefore have followed, I think, the very traditional progression of the North American homebrewer become professional brewer.
RB : What are your culinary tastes? Are they as eclectic as your tastes for beer?
JFG : I am essentially supposed to be vegetarian (laughs), but a nice cut of meat sometimes finds its way onto my plate. I think my tastes are as diverse as the spectrum of recipes I create for beer, so lots of fusion cuisine, Japanese, traditional French, etc. Just like beer, I love pungent flavors, so spices are very common at home as well. I adore black pepper in my soup for example, so the idea for La Route des Épices (a black pepper ale) came naturally.
RB : Dieu du Ciel is spearheading the movement to change brewpub laws in Quebec, which prohibit the sale of beer-to-go in establishments which do not have an expensive, industrial license. Where are you now in this process?
JFG : We have a scheduled meeting with the president of the Régie des alcools soon, and we’re looking forward to seeing where that will take us. We don’t do this to make more business really, but rather for the principle of it. We wouldn’t be able at first anyway to answer demands for take-out, so we are really not doing this for ourselves. Sadly, Arthur, our pal who was managing the file and making contacts, died a couple weeks ago, so now we have to do it on our own, which will be difficult because of time constraints and lack of experience in that field. This Régie des alcools has broad shoulders, the process is long and tiresome, but we don’t want to give up. As I said, we wouldn’t benefit much at the beginning from a change in the law, but others would and the craft beer market would be healthier.
RB : Nice to see you persevering despite the many thorns in your side. On a lighter note, would you like to tease our Ratebeer travellers who will be attending RBSG Montréal this coming July? What can they expect from a few hours at Dieu du Ciel?
JFG : Well, as I had told you, there is going to be some Péché Mortel on tap. Can’t wait to hear the comments about that one. There will be some Dernière Volonté, our dry-hopped blond Belgian abbey beer. Some Route des Épices as well, that black pepper beer which I mentioned earlier. Maybe a few bottles of Quintessence as well, 4-5 bombers or so that we could split into samplers. I still haven’t gotten new barrels from the maple syrup liqueur producer to brew another batch of it, so supplies are running low. We have a cask of it that we’ll probably save for our 10th anniversary, or the Chicago Real Ale Festival, if it comes back. Apart from that, we’ll dig into our reserves a bit, I’d like to impress the Ratebeer gang and, moreover, get some comments on our brews. We might put a barrel of the Solstice d’Été aux Framboises aside as well.
RB : Excellent! What about that lambic you started with Cantillon yeast? Still aging away in the barrel?
JFG : Yes, it’s been there for about 18 months now, and it’s still fermenting. It smells great, tastes great, but I want to let it grow some more. Maybe I’ll add some brettanomyces later as well. I don’t know, I haven’t played in it in a while. Maybe we’ll take it out next March, it will have been in the barrel for 2 years then. We’ll probably sell some of it straight, and make different versions/tests of it. Haven’t decided about this part yet, we have to see how it evolves.
Always exciting projects at Dieu du Ciel! So you beer-travelling readers should get your bags packed soon I hope, and your tastebuds in olympic form. Dieu du Ciel has quite the day planned for you on July 9th. See you there I hope!
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I chose to study biology in college, and let’s just say I saw a practical application for my courses.
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