PINTS & UNION PORTFOLIO: St. Bernardus Tripel (heritage) and Sierra Nevada Narwhal Imperial Stout (serendipity) to debut new draft lines this Thursday, September 20.


Or, a beer list’s incremental progress.

Regular readers already know that I’m a pendulum theorist. As the pendulum pertains to the wonderful world of better beer, it recently has been swinging back toward the center. Old-school is the new counter-revolution.

For me, comfort beer is a fastball with no movement, right down the center of the plate. Accordingly, my aim as beer director during the first eight weeks of Pints&union has been to re-establish the concept of a beer list purposefully designed to showcase world heritage classics — not ignoring contemporary craft creativity, but contextualizing it.

In short, you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.

As such, phase one of the bottle and can list at Pints&union largely is complete. We have a few housekeeping tasks to complete with regard to storage, then phase two can commence, boosting the everyday list to around 50 selections, with room for a few rotating guests.

Meanwhile draft sales have been the steady engine we hoped they’d be, and in spite of being frustrated by wholesaler outages, a firm template is in place: eight lines, six of them fixed and two rotating, albeit it very slowly on a seasonal basis.

We’re using a basic, short-draw keg box system for draft, and all along there has been space in each box for a 1/6 barrel keg. I wanted to take a few weeks to assess the sales landscape, and accordingly we can now begin to use these two draft lines, beginning on Thursday (September 20).

In terms of formatting, one of these taps will be devoted to heritage, and the second to serendipity.

By “heritage” I mean ales like St. Bernardus Tripel.

Belgian Tripel derives from the Trappist brewing tradition, and especially in terms of its typical deep golden-orange hue, it stands as a relatively recent adaptation of old-school brewing methods.

Hendrik Verlinden of the Drie Linden brewery, brewing scientist and yeast specialist, had been formulating a golden ale to combat the celebrity of pale beers in Europe in the early 1930s (he helped Westmalle in the 1920s as a consultant of sorts). In 1932, he released Witkap Pater (now Witkap Tripel). His beers were marketed as Trappist, which wasn’t altogether apropos with those monasteries, but because of his earlier role in assisting their brewing, he was the sole non-Trappist brewer allowed to market his Witkap Pater as a Trappist-style beer. His role in helping Westmalle develop its tripel is nebulous, but it is known that the monks were also tinkering with this new style by 1931. Westmalle introduced its tripel, and newly built brewhouse, in 1934. It is still considered the standard by many. Ever the perfectionists, Westmalle’s esteemed Brother Thomas tweaked the recipe to include more hops. It has remained unchanged since 1956.

Note that Pints&union also carries Westmalle Tripel on bottles, but the draft of the moment comes from the St. Bernardus brewery, one-time Trappist supplier, now a producer of “abbey” styles — signifying a connection to the Trappist legacy.

Located in Watou, just 12 kilometers (about 7 miles) from Westvleteren, St. Bernardus brewed the “Trappist Westvleteren” beers under a license from the monks at Sint Sixtus Abbey from 1946-1992. There’s a billboard from that era in the St. Bernardus tasting room that reads: “Brouwerij Sint Bernardus: alleenvervaardiger van de bieren van de abdij van West-Vleteren,” or “Sint Bernardus brewery, the sole producer of the beers of the Abbey of Sint Sixtus in Westvleteren.”

That arrangement came to an end when the license expired in 1992. A new brewing facility was established in Westvleteren. Crucially, St. Bernardus retained all the recipes they had brewed for Sint Sixtus during the 46-year relationship, including that of the Westvleteren 12, a 10.2% ABV Strong Ale which RateBeer awarded “Best Beer in the World” in 2006, 2007, 2010, 2012, and 2013.

Although St. Bernardus is just a few clicks from Poperinge, a town I’ve visited many times, somehow I’ve never been to visit the brewery. This omission will be rectified in 2020. Pints&union also carries bottles of the epochal St. Bernardus Abt 12, which is the finest Trappist that isn’t a Trappist at all.

Moving to the second new draft line, we’ll be inaugurating it with Sierra Nevada Harwhal Imperial Stout, which dates to 2012. Interestingly, the idea of brewing stout goes all the way back to Sierra Nevada’s inception almost 40 years ago.

When Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi opened Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, California, in 1980, the first beer they made was a stout. Sierra Pale came along shortly after but took almost a dozen tries to get the recipe dialed in to their liking. In his book Beyond the Pale: The Story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Grossman says the pair spent a lot of time “trying to decide exactly what flavor and aroma profile our flagship beer should have. We knew we needed to create our own style of beer that would stand out as being unique and distinctive.”

Of course “imperial” stout is the boldest and strongest of the stout family.

Though the history of imperial stout is somewhat murky, it was indeed a London brewery that is credited with popularizing the style as a strong, exported stout. Around 1781, Barclay Perkins began exporting its stout to assorted ports in the Baltic region. Purposely brewed to be a formidable beer, it would easily withstand the voyage. The serendipitous extension of this attribute was that it was also perfectly suited for the cold, gnarly climate, where spirits were very much favored. When Empress Catherine II discovered it, its place in Russian legend was cemented. The commercial viability of the brew ensured that the style endured.

Recently the enduring mystery of the narwhal’s distinctive “tusk” has been partially resolved: it’s used to immobilize prey as an aid in fishing for food.

The narwhal is the unicorn of the sea, a pale-colored porpoise found in Arctic coastal waters and rivers. These legendary animals have two teeth. In males, the more prominent tooth grows into a swordlike, spiral tusk up to 8.8 feet long. The ivory tusk tooth grows right through the narwhal’s upper lip. Scientists are not certain of the tusk’s purpose, but some believe it is prominent in mating rituals, perhaps used to impress females or to battle rival suitors. Females sometimes grow a small tusk of their own, but it does not become as prominent as the male’s.

Here is Sierra Nevada’s description.

A malt-forward monster, highlighting the depths of malt flavor, Narwhal Imperial Stout is inspired by the mysterious creature that thrives in the deepest fathoms of the frigid Arctic Ocean. Featuring incredible depth of malt flavor, rich with notes of espresso, baker’s cocoa, roasted grain and a light hint of smoke, Narwhal is a massive malt-forward monster. Aggressive but refined with a velvety smooth body and decadent finish, Narwhal will age in the bottle for years to come.

At 10.2% abv, Narwhal Imperial Stout is a “gravity” beer and will be served in 10-ounce glasses. To me it’s a dessert beer in itself, to be sipped after a meal.

For St. Bernardus Tripel, we have 25 cl signature glasses. Pair with a Croque Madame and seasoned frites.

As for what will follow these two beers, I’m not sure. I’d like to keep the Tripel on tap for at least two weeks, at least until Harvest Homecoming. Narwhal’s a one-off, and I’ll see what’s available before rendering a decision.