Good Beer Hunting

Signifiers · Dropping Pins

Brasserie Dunham — Quebec's Brewers without Borders

There isn’t a brewery that I’ve thought more on, recollected on more often, and re-visited in my mind more vividly than Brasserie Dunham. About 90 minutes from Montreal, close to the Vermont border, Dunham is a mysterious entity. Past small, rural towns, apple orchards, and cheese makers in the Eastern Townships, as they’re known, Dunham sits like a small-town brewpub in obscurity — and that’s because that’s exactly what it was. But in the last 24 months it’s transformed into one of Canada’s most progressive brewers and barrel agers. And I happen to have visited in the midst of their transformation as they were emptying some of their first framboise and brett saison barrels. 

"These guys were just about to close,” recalls head brewer Eloi Deit. "Business was not doing good. The beers were not that good actually. So Sébastien bought the brewery in 2011.” Sébastien Gagnon is an owner of Vice & Versa in Montreal, one of the city’s most craft-dedicated bars nestled into a hip neighborhood near Little Italy. When he purchased Brasserie Dunham, many of the beers were being shipped to France, even as coolers around the corner were empty. The brewer at that time quit, leaving the brewery leaderless. Sébastien needed to right the ship quickly. At the time, Eloi was brewing at the historic Le Cheval Blanc brewpub in the city, and he agreed to moonlight for Sébastien as a friend, hoping to get things back on track and then walk away. 

"When I came here,” recalls Eloi, "I tried all the beers and said ‘Okay. This is not a Witbier. This is not a Belgian IPA.’ I redid all the recipes. Only the APA I didn’t touch because it was the only beer on target. The English IPA was fermented with an American yeast and hopped with American variety. The Witbier was not re-fermented. I thought it was just a dull Witbier. He wanted me to come here right away but I had a good position in Montreal.”

Eloi drove into the country once a week, or every other week to help. As he re-formulated recipes and trained the local crew, things turned around. And then they started winning awards. "We won Canadian brewing awards, Gold and Silver this year, two years in a row,” says Eloi. And gradually, he started steering them away from predictable Canadian brewpub beers altogether. "I said don’t do the blonde ale, shitty blonde ale, and the witbier. We’ll do something else. So I came with the Pils. The witbier became a beer called Propolis. It’s a witbier brewed with a little bit of rye and oats and fermented with a Saison yeast and honey from a local farmer nearby. We added some lemon and orange peels to create something more complex. It’s still something that can reach a large audience, but more interesting. And there’s a bit of Brett too, that develops over time.”

It’s easy to look back, in hindsight, and see the narrative arc of Eloi’s story developing even as he was in the middle of it. As a shift brewer at Le Cheval Blanc, the technical expertise of his day job, combined with the freedom of expression he had at Dunham must have been an incredible force. It’s almost impossible to imagine that he’d stay in the city as a shift brewer. But at the time, it didn’t really occur to him that he could become Brasserie Dunham’s heart and soul. “At Le Cheval Blanc, I was always fighting with the owner. He was like ‘I need a blonde, an easy amber ale, and a witbier.’ Business-wise he was right because 60% of the sales were these two or three beers. All the funky beers I would make made little sense, but after a while he saw that the IPA’s were selling as much as the blonde ale. It had started to change.”

That approach is indicative of many markets that are still in the early phases of palate conversion. Los Angeles in the States, for example, and places like Phoenix, Miami, and innumerable mid-size cities that are still tapping into mainstream audiences with their first IPAs. That first breakthrough takes time. “It’s funny how the mentalities have been evolving over the past 15 years,” says Eloi. "Here, lots of the brewpubs are still a bit conservative. When I came here I said ‘I’m not coming here to give you a blonde and witbier.’ Sébastien agreed immediately. He knows that at Vice & Versa he’s known for this because he has a large menu. We had some problems with locals here who were like ‘What?! All your beers are bitter!’ Too bad, you know! Go buy your shitty beer at the market. We decided not to succumb.”

It was an attitude like this that put the Montreal brewing scene on notice, and garnered the respect of some of their more progressive colleagues. In fact, it was Benoit Mercier of Montreal’s rapidly growing Cafe Benelux that put Dunham in my purview at all. “You need to drive into the country to see these guys,” he said during a sleepy morning brew session. “You’re going to like what they’re doing.” As a brewer with three different saisons on his menu, his recommendation was duly noted. 

The next morning, we loaded up the Jeep with bagels from St. Viateur (side bar: you can’t do better than this — holy shit, I mean, it’s just...) and set out for the Eastern Townships. Farms and fields dotted the landscape like Morse Code along route 35, and then 10, and then the skinny 202 as we made our way into more and more remote country. The apple orchards were being harvested as the weather began to cool in October, and cows huddled in herds near the road to soak in the wide-slanting sun still coming up from the south. 

Dunham was closed. But they were expecting us (thanks to Benoit), and as we turned off the main road, rolled slowly past the quiet pub into the back gravel lot, the garage door ground into motion and revealed the compact brewery within. Eloi stood smiling in the late-morning gleam.

"We want to make foeders. 3000 liters foeders and try to make something really wild in there,” explained Eloi as we watched his small, but very keen team trying to set up a barrel transfer for bottling on the 6-head Elnova, more often found in wineries than breweries. surrounded by an incredible mix of microflora, Dunham is supremely positioned for wild ales. Eloi explains: “A guy came here three weeks ago to collect the natural airborne yeast in different places around. He’s going to analyze all this and we’ll check if there’s some potential to do some spontaneous fermentation.” Meanwhile the team hooked up the pump, which proved finicky at best, and explosive at worst, but ultimately submissive — and a new saison was born. 

In their country-style saloon-like pub, Eloi poured some of Dunham’s other personality – American-style pales and IPAs. Aggressively hopped, clean and bright, these were unlike most of the beers in the province, which are more influenced by Belgian and French brewing histories or the English traditions of the rest of Canada. As Benoit from Benelux puts it: “Quebecois feel more akin to Vermonters than Canadians some times."

Leo’s Early Breakfast IPA is a standout. Infused with earl Grey tea, it packs a big citrusy, mango aroma with the herbaceous notes of the tea (kept well in balance). There’s a black IPA, a pils, and ESB, many of which now have “imperial” cousins in the portfolio spread across 115 bottle shops and 46 bars in the country. At Vice & Versa, there’s often at least four handles devoted to the sister company (the three tier system isn’t a factor here). 

But the big payoff for Dunham is about to begin — Eloi and Sébastien and the team have prepared themselves for an expansion and a launch into the US market via Shelton Brothers. This little brewpub on the brink of never mattering at all has developed a lust-worthy series of beers that the US market is primed to seek out. Saison, farmhouse, Brett, barrel-aged, and soon, more spontaneous fermentation — these are the words that the most progressive segments of the US beer market are made of. Their ability to brew at the highest levels, and build relationships in the fledgling subculture of North American farmhouse ales proved valuable as they wandered the halls of The Fest this past fall in San Pedro, California. The Fest is a Shelton Brothers collaboration with Brouwerij West featuring friends and family of the Shelton Brothers global import portfolio. “We’re going to brew a collaboration with Jester King!” Eloi excitedly told me after we recorded a session for the podcast. “I truly can’t believe it!” Their moment was arriving. 

Collaborations are also in the works with 4 Hands Brewing in St. Louis, which will result in a hoppy brett Saison called ''Hugo Saison," and the crew from Mystic Brewing in Massachussets is heading north to brew with Dunham soon.

The expansion is well underway. A new 30bbl brewhouse from BCast in Ohio will enable Dunham to jump from 1,700 barely to 3,000 in the next year, and a cellar of 100 barrels, mostly wine from the Niagara Valley in Ontario, alongside a mix of California wine barrels, bourbon, tequila, rum, and brandy will enable Eloi and the team to explore further into the dark arts of aging. This week he got ahold of some cognac and Armagnac barrels, and promptly brewed a Russian Imperial Stout to store away in them for coffee blending later on. They just purchased 100 barrels of freshly emptied Chianti wines from Castello di Brolio, and plan to top 250 wood barrels by the end of the year. 

As I crossed the US border into Vermont leaving the dimming Quebec landscape behind, and drove up the long, winding road to Hill Farmstead that evening, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d found a long-lost cousin of the American farmhouse tradition. Separated by a mere 75 miles of international border, the similarities between Shaun Hill and Eloi Deit’s beers far outweighed the differences. When I arrived, I slid a bottle of Dunham’s freshly bottled Framboise across Shaun’s desk and delivered a personal message. “Eloi says he’s sorry,” I began. “That guy that was a dick to you at the festival got fired.” He smiled knowingly, without looking up, grabbed the neck of the bottle and muttered something quietly to himself, and fondly toward Eloi, as if offering up a blessing. His eyes focused and brightened — ”Oh, this is great” and he scanned the bench for a bottle opener. 

Words + photos
by Michael Kiser