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.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.