Saturday, March 12, 2011

Unibroue's "Chambly" Series Three Pack Review

Ask any American craft beer aficionado to name a great Canadian brew and chances are extremely high that their answer will probably be one of Unibroue's lineup of Belgian-inspired ales.  Although the Canadian craft beer industry is expanding almost daily, only so much of it gets across the border without involving a road trip or a trade with a gracious Canuck.  The same goes for American brews here; if I were to go to an LCBO right now, chances are I'd only find a few American craft beers on the shelves at any given time.  As craft beer becomes more popular (remember, sales of which increased 50% in Ontario last year), I'm sure this will eventually change, but for now both countries must be satisfied with the offerings available to them now.  Fortunately for us, in many an American specialty beer store, Unibroue is one of the few Canadian breweries to be represented, so at the very least we are putting an excellent foot forward.  Thanks to a lucrative partnership with Sleeman (which in turn is owned by Japanese brewing-giant Sapporo), Unibroue of Chambly, Quebec has been able to distribute its brews further than pretty much any Canadian craft brewery out there, especially to the States.  Remember that great beer store I found in Orlando last summer?  Yeah, they had every Unibroue offering on their shelves, often in different sizes and quantities.  I can't even get some of these beers in Ontario on a regular basis, but in Florida they occupy an entire rack on the shelf.  Granted this was a specialty beer store, but the point remains.  Unibroue is by far the most reviewed Canadian brewery on BeerAdvocate and RateBeer, chocking in at some 2000 reviews for the big guns of La Fin du Monde, Trois Pistoles and Maudite, and the vast majority of reviewers have been of the American persuasion.  And they love them. 

Unibroue owes its success to many factors - a strong ownership, a unique bottling method, visually striking labels and names that salute Quebec's fascinating culture and history - but of course, it's all about the beer itself.  According to the brewery website (which is fantastic, by the way) Unibroue was one of the first breweries in North America to take advantage of the unique yeasts and brewing techniques pioneered by Trappist monks of Belgium and the Netherlands, thus tapping in to more than a thousand years of brewing heritage.  In 1992, they released Blanche de Chambly - which I'll get to in a moment - which became the first abbey-style witbier brewed in North America.  Unibroue's offerings were different, not just because of their Belgian inspiration, but their corked bottling system that produced beer on lees, whereby the dead yeast and sediment was kept inside the bottle, rather than filtering it out.  This made for beers that could be aged for long periods of time by allowing the lees to continue to ferment in the bottle.  That, it they are damned tasty.  An expansion period in the mid-1990s allowed Unibroue to ship their brews further than ever before thanks to their impressive distribution network and large brewing facility in Chambly, just southeast of Montreal.  In 2004, the brewery was acquired by Sleeman of Guelph, Ontario, which partnered with Unibroue to ship product across Canada. 

In honour of this excellent Canadian brewery, here is a review of the brews from Unibroue's "Chambly" line.  As per usual, the beer labels are pure Quebec history and are each visually spectacular.  We'll start with Blanche de Chambly, the brew that started it all:

Beer: Blanche de Chambly
Type: Belgian Witbier
ABV: 5%

This brew was designed in honour of Jacques de Chambly, a French commander who in the late 17th century was tasked with securing the settement and fortress along the strategically-vital Richelieu River, which connects Lac Champlain to the St. Lawrence river and Montreal itself.  During his tenure, Chambly successfully kept peace between the French settlers and the local Iroquois natives, allowing the settlement that eventually bore his name to prosper.  (All of this information is available at the brewery's website.  Seriously, you should check it out.  Each brew's history and composition is explained through well-produced videos, which prove to be history lessons in and of themselves.  I've been killing the better part of the afternoon watching them all.)

Poured into a tall pilsner glass. A hazy, light golden hue, effervescent carbonation, two inch head that recedes into a thick ring. Some lacing when the glass is tilted.  Looks splendid. 

The nose is typical witbier: yeast, coriander, citrus (lemon, tart orange), mild banana, floral hops.

The taste is wonderful, with the usual witbier notes coupled with the typical Unibroue yeast. Lovely dry, peppery finish. Hops are nice and floral, pair well with the banana and lemon notes.  The flavours are a bit thin, but man is this going down well...

Well carbonated, not overly thick. Indeed, this is quite effervescent.  Very drinkable and refreshing.

Still a damned fine witbier, a great brew to have around the house during the summer.  At 5%, having several buckets of this at a time would not be a challenge!  An excellent brew that would be excellent with brunch, salads and lighter fare.  (Grade: A-)

The latter two brews are more recent Unibroue offerings, released in 2010 and 2005, respectively.

Beer: Blonde de Chambly
Type: Saison/Farmhouse Ale
ABV: 5.5

Those absolutely stunning ladies on the label are the famous Filles du Roi, young single women of marriageable age sent over to New France by King Louis the Something-or-Other to help build the fledgeling colony along the St. Lawrence River.  Around 700 to 800 of these women made their way over to Montreal in the late 17th century, marrying soldiers and farmers of the new colony and starting families.  According to the gregarious Unibroue website host, the beer is zesty, refreshing and invigorating, just like the arrival of these ladies must have been for the men toiling to get New France off the ground.  Zoom in on the picture to the left and you'll agree with him - these ladies are gorgeous.  Saisons are fruity and earthy, yet effervescent and light on the tongue, great thirst-quenchers in the summer heat of the country.  This is Unibroue's newest offering, and is thus far only available in Canada.

Poured into my trusty Duvel tulip glass.  Pale golden straw in colour, slightly opaque, with about a half inch of head with a dash of lacing. Not much retention there.

Nose is pleasant and floral, with notes of lemon, yeast and a bit of spice.

A tasty brew this is - crisp, with a lovely yeast and citrus tang, yet sweet enough to pair well with my spicy Thai soup I made for lunch.  The lemon and pepper flavors come out nicely in the finish. Effervescent again, highly refreshing.

Zesty carbonation, slightly thick with some sediment.

A nice little beer for the evening: fresh, clean, floral and citrussy. A good little saison, I have to say. The low ABV and the flavor profile makes this one a good session brew that would pair with summer dinner fare. I would absolutely love a corked 750ml bottle of this over the summer - methinks a trip to Quebec be in order!  Only available in Canada, so this is a lovely treat.  (Grade: B+)

Beer: Noire de Chambly
Type: Belgian Dark Ale
ABV: 6.2%

This dark, robust brew was created in honor of the Carignan-Salières Regiment, which was tasked in 1665 to defend the Chambly region against the Iroquois, as well as against any European intruders. 

Poured into a Leffe chalice.  An opaque, dark brew, with a little bit of brown around the edges. The pour produces an inch of off-white head which retains itself well. Lacing coats the glass with every sip.

Nose is a bit underwhelming when compared to some of the other Unibroue Belgian ales. A bit of yeast, caramel and fruit.  Surprisingly hard to detect, even after a bit of warming.

Very smooth, slightly yeasty, with notes of caramel and plum. Slightly tart to the finish, a bit of fig there as well. A milder version of the Belgian Dark style. Very easy to drink, certainly enjoyable, but a bit bland for Unibroue.  However, keeping in mind that being "bland for Unibroue" is still pretty excellent.  I would happily drink several bottles of this.

A good session brew (about as good as Unibroue gets in this regard), but certainly pales in comparison to the brewery's successful brews. Enjoyable, but not very exciting. A good introduction beer to the style, I have to say. (Grade: B+)

With such a wonderful connection to the region in which they call home, Unibroue is clearly one of Canada's flagship breweries.  Despite being owned by an international company, they still maintain their relationship to the Chambly area and continue to display their passion and talent for brewing ales inspired by Belgium's finest traditions.  Though sometimes overlooked compared to their more popular and readily-available cousins, the beers of the "Chambly series" are wonderful brews with fascinating histories behind them.  Though you might have to do a bit of hunting, these are definitely worth-while bottles to seek out. 

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