By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The brown bottle on the low table in front of Hilda Stevens is labeled Westmalle.
“It’s Belgian-style tripel. In Belgium you have dubbels, tripels and quads. And the tripel comes from the fermentation process. It follows a traditional fermentation process; making beer and then double fermenting it — meaning they add more sugar to get the alcohol level up. In this case it is tripel fermented. So, right before they bottle it they add a little bit more sugar so it helps the alcohol build up. It helps in the aging process. In the case of tripels, for instance, you can age it for five, eight, 10 years if you want to.”
The popularity of Belgian-style beers has been on the rise in Portland for several years now. The flavors can tickle your tongue with a range of styles more complex than hop-heavy IPAs.
As for those flavors, Hilda explains: “Traditionally, in the case of Westmalle, because they’re a Trappist brewery, they use their own yeast. So, the yeast will have a lot in the flavor profile. They also add some candy sugar to it. In tripels you’ll pick up some caramels, some roasted notes because they’ll use more of a roasted malt in it as well. It’ll have a nice golden color. Usually, in the case of the bottles, you get a lot of the effervescence. Westmalle tripel has a really nice creamy head when you pour it in the right glass; it opens up more of the aromatics, too.”
It’s just after 3 p.m. on a quiet, drizzly March afternoon. Bazi Bierbrasserie on Southeast 32nd Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland has just opened. There’s some music playing. The beertender is checking glasses. A couple wanders in, orders a couple of beers and hovers over them in quiet conversation. The drinks are undoubtedly Belgian or at least, like Hilda, Belgian-inspired.
Beer is not Hilda’s first job. After undergraduate and graduate work, she landed positions with high-tech companies and start-ups. Along the way, she did a lot of business traveling and during one of her stops in Philadelphia she first tried a Belgian beer. It was love at first sip.
The romance turned torrid during a vacation in Europe. On the advice of a couple she met while traveling through France, Hilda took a detour to Bruges, Belgium — an ancient city she refers to as “the Venice of the North.” Hilda began studying Trappist beers, appreciating and understanding their balanced flavors.
By 2011 Hilda was ready to do what would seem foolish to many people. Encouraged by her entrepreneurial father, she walked away from a six-figure paycheck and used a plan developed for her grad school thesis to open Bazi. Originally, she’d planned on operating a European-style bistro, but she soon realized she needed to find a market niche. Looking around, she realized what was missing — there were no Belgian-focused taprooms in Portland.
Something else was beginning to happen about the same time. Brouwerij Huyghe, a 111-year-old brewery based in Melle, Belgium was marking International Women’s Day by making a special beer. Hilda explains the idea was in response to Belgian women saying, “We drink your beer, but we don’t have a beer of our own and we want to learn more about making beer.” The event began slowly “with just women in Belgium; restaurateurs, homebrewers, everyday women who were interested in beer and learning more about it.”
Dressed in white lab coats and bonneted in white hairnets, dozens of women followed brewers through the Huyghe facility learning about and making beer they dubbed “Deliria.” It is the little sister of Huyghe’s best ale, “Delirium Tremens.” Both beers come in white bottles with blue foil cap wraps and feature ‘de roze olifant,’ a pink elephant, on the label. The name is also found on a bierbrasserie sign in Melle.
The “Deliria” event has been slow to open its doors to outsiders. At first it was only for Belgians. Then applications were accepted from other European countries. But finally through Wetten Importers, Huyghe’s U.S. distributor, Hilda heard 2017 would be “the first year they invited women from the U.S. and their goal was to send two women from the U.S.”
When Huyghe accepted Hilda’s application, they got more than a rookie brewer. She has done some collaboration brewing in Portland, surrounding herself with “people who are passionate about it ... I’ve brewed with Upright and Lompoc and Widmer. And any time you brew with somebody, everybody has a different way.”
In Belgium, Hilda learned more about the evolution of the brewery that has been working since 1906 — how it ferments and filters, but also how it is adopting eco-friendly policies such as using gray water from the brewing process for cleaning up and keeping plants hydrated.
But more important to Hilda was the social aspect of the one-day event. “I really enjoyed brewing with women from different parts of the world ... and the influence that a family-owned brewery, like Huyghe, can have on women brewing. What I loved about that experience, it wasn’t just industry related. They really cater to the community. We had some of the women brewing that day who were stay-at-home moms who wanted to have that experience.” The beer and how it’s made may be different, country to country, but the community beer creates seems to be the same wherever you go in the world.
Though she did taste the wort from the beer made that day, Hilda did not taste the Deliria she worked on until this Easter Sunday when she debuted it at Bazi.
Proost, de roze olifant!
This year was also not Hilda’s first time brewing in Belgium. Her house beer is Hofbrouw Tripel. “Two years ago I went to Belgium. A friend of mine owns a nano-brewery. We created a recipe and made 120 cases.” There are only 20 cases left. Hilda will go back to Belgium to make more.
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Like many of us, Hilda Steven's journey into the world of craft beer has been one with many twists and turns. Hilda is the sole owner of Bazi Bierbrasserie in Southeast Portland, a Belgian beer bar and official Portland Timbers and Thorns partner. Raised in Texas playing street soccer and eventually drinking the default beer, Shiner, her first career was in the software industry. She spent a good deal of time on the East Coast, and Philadelphia in particular, where Belgian beer bars are plentiful and she enjoyed blonds and wits. It was during a tour of French wine country, however, where her future took a fateful turn by way of a conversation with a couple that suggested she visit Bruges. Not having been there before, she took the recommendation and subsequently fell in love with the history, character and appreciation of beer she found there.
Back in the U.S. during the course of completing graduate school, Hilda put together a business plan, influenced by her travels, for a European bistro. But before it was more than a plan, she asked herself why there were no Belgian beer bars in Portland. Sure, this was 2009 and Upright Brewing was the only local producer of Belgian-inspired beer, but she had heard rumors that five more breweries were in the works to make similar beers. That information, combined with her love of the beers and desire to "find a niche and fill it," eventually led to the May 2011 opening of Bazi.
It was a fortuitous time in Portland for Belgian beers, with Beetje Brewery becoming The Commons Brewery, Logsdon Farmhouse Ales opening and Upright's beers gaining in popularity. Additionally, it was a booming time for soccer as the Portland Timbers joined Major League Soccer and the Rose City also played host to the Women’s World Cup just two months later. The latter event was a trial by fire for Hilda and her staff since a standing-room-only crowd gathered at Bazi to watch the semifinals. They crew survived (making a few tweaks before the final match), but more importantly, the turnout showed Hilda that in addition to filling a beer niche she had created a community gathering place for soccer fans, something she had observed and admired abroad.
Bazi serves up both imported Belgian beers and local interpretations with the authenticity of the imported beers being maintained by Hilda's regular visits to Belgium. Her most recent trip was in January 2015 and it was not just to enjoy the beer. Hilda’s other mission was to collaborate with Jef Goetelen at 't Hofbrouwerijke, a nano brewery northeast of Brussels. The two met a couple of years ago, and late in 2014 she approached him about working with her to brew a beer to celebrate Bazi's fourth anniversary. Jef loved the idea and together they created a recipe for a traditional Belgian tripel with a U.S. spin. Besides being a beer Hilda wanted to drink, she felt that a tripel was an appropriate "goodbye" to Bazi's first three years in business and a welcome to the beginning of year four. She spent a week in Belgium and a full day brewing the anniversary beer on ‘t Hofbrouwerijke's 9-barrel system.
Hilda returned to the U.S., leaving the beer with Jef, which he recently bottled. The majority of the 2,000-bottle batch of Bazi 't Hofbrouwerijke Tripel will soon be making its way to Bazi, with Jef retaining some of the bottles to be poured at festivals they attend. The 750-milliliter bottles will be available at Bazi with a release party taking place Wednesday, May 27. Timbers fans will recognize that as being a match night and in the planning of the event it was something Hilda kept in mind. They'll do a cake cutting, with cake made by neighboring bakery JaCiva's, and complimentary toast at 6 p.m. to allow people to attend the party and watch the action. In addition, Bazi taster trays will be offered.
As Bazi continues to mature, Hilda is looking forward to volunteering more and deepening her involvement with the community. Most of the Bazi crew has been in place since day one and that stability has allowed Hilda to take on projects like last year's Kick Kick Score, a nine-hole fut-golf event. She worked with the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association and took the lead on writing the grant that funded the event. It involved many businesses along and adjacent to Southeast Hawthorne, an area she's called home since moving there in the early 2000s. They received overwhelmingly positive feedback on the event and Hilda is hopeful they'll be able to secure sponsors to do it again this year.
The future is bright for Hilda, Bazi, beer lovers and soccer fans alike. She's been asked by loyal customers who commute across the river about opening a second location on the west side, and while she's not ruling it out she's also mindful of pacing herself. As someone who has experienced her energy and passion for craft beer, I have no doubt she'll be seeking to fill another niche as she's done so masterfully with her Southeast Portland gem.
[a] 1522 SE 32nd Ave., Portland
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.