À la Fût: Quebec’s Cowboy Brewers
There is the potential for a Western-themed brewery, where saddles are used as bar stools and the workers call each other cowboy, to be hokey. Add the fact that the brewery is located in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, and it might seem a bit out of place, too. And yet, À la Fût, a cowboy-themed, co-operatively run brewery that uses organic ingredients and produces a slew of award-winning barrel-aged sour beers, pulls it all off and then some.
To start, they do have an authentic Quebecois cowboy heritage to draw from. The 5-barrel brewpub and production brewery is housed in a 150-year-old building that once served as a general store in the small town of Saint-Tite, about two hours north of Montreal and an hour from Quebec City. The town’s leather industry, including cowboy boot maker G.A. Boulet, spurred the enormous Festival Western Saint-Tite, a 10-day rodeo event that takes place every September.
The event draws more than 700,000 people through a town with a population of 4,000, and, as À la Fût co-founder Philippe Dumais puts it, “Drinking beer is one of the most famous activities.”
The guaranteed Western Festival crowds, which is how the brewery makes about 10 percent of its annual sales, was part of the draw of Saint-Tite, says Dumais. He met fellow founders Pierre-Paul Carpentier, a Saint-Tite native, and Francis Foley as electrical engineering students at École de technologie supérieure in Montreal, where they picked up homebrewing and made plans to open a brewery in the countryside with proximity to Quebec’s cities.
When they opened À la Fût in 2007 they stuck to classic styles, says Dumais, like a Nut Brown Ale, a Witbier and a Czech Pils, which they still produce today and sell in 473-milliliter (16-ounce) cans. Then, a wilder, wood-aged transition took place, prompted by Lambic-seeking travels around Belgium and “cowboy road trips” to the Western US, including a stop at Russian River Brewing Company.
The first breakthrough was in 2009, when their brewer at the time returned inspired from a two-week Belgian trip and purchased three oak barrels for the brewery. Six months later they brought their first oak-aged beer, a Brett-fermented Tripel called Tripe à 3 Brett Bruxellensis, to the Mondial de la Bière, Montreal’s largest beer festival, where it won the festival competition’s top prize.
Next came the release of Co-Hop V Rouge de Mékinac, a cross between a Flanders Red Ale and a Kriek that’s oak-aged for 18 months and named for the Mékinac region where the brewery is located. They sent it off to the Canadian Brewing Awards and it won Beer of the Year in 2012. “It was another success for oak-aged beer,” says Dumais. “So at that time, with those prizes, we decided to purchase a lot of oak.”
They now have around 130 oak barrels, most of which are stored off-site in a warehouse, and five barrel-aged sour ales in rotation, from a Brett Porter to a blended Vieille (meaning “old”) Gueuze, alongside their Belgian and British styles and hoppy ales. The awards have continued to roll in, from bronze in the Wood- and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer category at the World Beer Cup in 2014 to six medals at the Canadian Brewing Awards in 2015.
Sébastien Gagnon, founder and CEO of Brasserie Dunham and the Montreal beer bar Vices & Versa, attended high school with Carpentier and tasted pre-commercial batches of beer ahead of the brewery opening. Vices & Versa has sold À la Fût’s beer since the brewery’s early years, but Gagnon noticed a marked difference in the quality, style and experimentation of the beers several years in. “It was a simple beginning, but it evolved pretty fast and very well,” he says. “Bottom line, those guys are engineers. The evolution process is pretty clear. It’s scientific, and they give it enough time for the beer to be completed.”
Patience, dedication to process and a hunt for inspiration continue to drive the brewery. Several staff members took the Toer de Geuze in 2013, a bi-annual open house of Belgian Lambic breweries and blenderies, and the brewery’s meeting room is coined the “Boon Chamber” in honor of traditional Lambic and Gueuze producer Boon Brewery. They’ve even started fermenting with wild yeast collected from locations around Saint-Tite, including a local vineyard.
One of the brewery’s most award-winning beers, the Rouge de Mékinac, is also the most engineered beer they produce, says sales manager Simon Bellerose-Veilleux, citing the amount of research and microbial monitoring it requires. And yet, there’s something else at work, too.
“Every time I pass by here,” he says, standing in a small room above the brewery that holds several barrels, “I look at them and give them a little love. Pierre-Paul, who manages the barrels, when he does spontaneous fermentation, he spends 24 hours without sleeping. He’s just awake, and he’s in it, and he’s in the product. You see when he’s working that he’s always smiling. I think it’s part of a recipe, it’s part of what we do.”
All organic base malt, grown in the Mauricie region and malted at Quebec’s Malterie Frontenac, highlights the brewery’s local focus, as well as its foundation as a community-oriented co-op with members pitching in on whatever needs to get done. It’s the three brewers on staff, Alexandre Lemire, Mathieu Brochu and Pierre Toussaint, who work together to create recipes though.
“We all have our individual strengths: yeasts, cereals, hops and wild fermentation knowledge. We find inspiration from what we drink and like, [and] from there, we fix a style and everybody jumps in [with] suggestions about the ingredients and brewing process. It’s not the work of one brewer, but a collective work,” Toussaint says.
The brewery isn’t large—it produced around 1,250 hectoliters (about 1,065 barrels) last year—and the founders intend to stay small, although growth is the next big question, says Dumais. “We surely have to make a move, but we don’t want to be really industrial and too big,” he says. The expansion will focus on oak aging, with the addition of more barrels and multiple foeders, and will likely involve building a second fairly small location.
And aside from the festival in September, when staff members work for 10 days straight pouring Blondes and Red Ales for rodeo crowds, À la Fût is still a laid-back brewpub for locals and passersby—an ideal spot where some Quebecois cowboys can keep busy brewing sour beers out on the range.
3 10-bbl fermentors
1 20-bbl fermentor
Co-Hop V: Rouge de Mékinac: A cross between a Kriek and a Flanders Red, aged in oak for 14 months with wild yeast, bacteria and cherries. 6.3% ABV
Tripe à 3 Brett Bruxellensis: A triple-fermented Tripel with a Belgian yeast primary fermentation and a transfer to oak with wild yeast before bottle refermentation. 9.0% ABV
La British: This pleasant Nut Brown Ale with notes of caramel is one of the standouts in the regular lineup, available year-round in 16-ounce cans. 4.7% ABV
Cowsûre: A Berliner Weiss-inspired Saison that gets its acidic and lemony profile from the addition of Lactobacillus. 6.3% ABV
Session IPA VI: From the rotating hop variety IPA series, this Session IPA features Dr. Rudi and Equinox hops. 3.5% ABV ■