25 January 2008

Six Pack interview with Urbain Coutteau of De Struise Brouwers

As we mentioned here recently, De Struise Brouwers recently was named 2008's no. 1 brewer by RateBeer.com. I'm sure that many of you had the same thought: "Who?" This young Belgian brewery has been making some noise in the world brewing industry, as well as some tasty beers apparently. Thankfully, brewmaster Urbain Coutteau was willing to give us a Six Pack interview:

1) Who are you and where do you work?

My name is Urbain Coutteau, I am brew master and head of operations at Struise Breweries. My fellow companions, Carlo, Phil and Peter, all have more than 9 to 5 jobs in other firms. Carlo Grootaert is a sales representative for Rabotvins Belgium (http://www.rabotvins.com/) in the wine industry. Phil Driessens is a sales representative for Pgcars (http://www.pgcars.be/) in the automotive industry. Peter Braem is a commanding officer (http://www.mil.be/) in the Belgian army and myself was active in ICT before and now working part-time at http://www.struisebrouwers.be/ since December 2007, so you can call us a bunch of good friends and amateur brewers who had the luck of being recognised by a wide International public.

2) What inspired you to start brewing beer? How did you get your start?

I had incurred brewing experience during my decennial stay in Africa and wanted to share this with my buddies, all taste and aroma geeks, certainly what artisan beers as well as wine concerns. In 2001, we developed our first beer "Struise witte" at the holiday resort “De Noordhoek” near Lo-Reninge. Of one beer came another, the beer list grew. Enthusiasm grew too and became after a year this outsized that we decided to go commercially. Not with an own installation, for that we did not have the money yet, however, as contract brewers.

3) What's your brewing mission? What are you trying to accomplish with your beer?

Yes indeed, we have a mission. Through the development of very special and original crafted beers, we try to promote our county everyday abroad, which results in growing tourism and interest from all over the world. Our county, called “Westhoek” is already made famous in the past due to other breweries like Sint-Sixtus Abbey, De Dolle Brouwers, Saint Bernardus, different world known Artisan cheese and butchery producers, world class restaurants, well kept nature, beaches, and last but not least the battlefields of WW1 and WW2. Every day, we try to put our little spot on the map while brewing the most special, and out of the box beers, though very progressive for our Belgian beer culture.

4) Was there a beer that you benchmarked your own against? How did you know your beer was good enough to take to the general public?

There was so much innovation on the brewing front in countries like the United States and Denmark than we have ever thought was possible! The last couple of years, Carlo and myself have tasted +/- 750 different beers from abroad, and we have encountered a lot of magnificent beers and different styles we never had sampled before and learned a lot regarding styles, aromas, taste, etc... Guess what, some of those unknown styles to Belgian traditional standards (sorry for saying that), blew our minds away and we started dreaming. This dream came reality with the reception of different golden awards since 2006.

5) What beer are you proudest of? Which of your beers is your personal favourite? Why?

This is a question I can not really give you an exact answer on. All our beers have something to be proud of, but a favourite, I could not really say. Maybe “Tony’s New porter”, but this beer is not commercialized yet. I never drink beer during working days, with the exception of this nice and soft creamy porter of 5% ABV, that I could drink several glasses instead of coffee in the morning! “ Houston …, I think I have a problem”.

6) Which beers outside of your own do you enjoy? What beer do you wish you came up with? Why?

I had the luck of tasting and enjoying the very best like Three Floyds Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout, Lost Abbey The Angels Share, Russian River Beatification, Three Floyds Dreadnaught Imperial IPA, Mikkeller Simcoe IPA, all world master pieces and perfectly crafted. Avec les Bons Voeux means “Best wishes” a saison style beer from Brasserie Dupont is thé beer I wish I came up with. To me, my all-time favourite perfectly balanced well hopped hazy gold blonde.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you and/or your company?

We have recently started a new joint-venture in association with Chris Lively of http://www.ebenezerspub.net/ and Sean Paxton of http://www.homebrewchef.com/. In the past we had already launched a common project, this to the general joy of a lot of beer geeks, namely the development and realisation of Black Albert for Ebenezer’s Pub, Lovell, Maine, USA. This Belgian Royal naughty Stout did climb in no time to the top 20 charts of www.beeradvocate.com/top_beers and to the top 10 charts at www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Ratings-Top50.asp. Black Albert created such a hype that thousands of beer tourists went to the well-known Ebenezer's pub of Chris Lively to taste Belgian world class beers and Belgian inspired food. In the December 2007 edition of Beer Advocate magazine, both Black Albert and Ebenezer’s pub were exclaimed to be the worldwide best.

To return to the core of our tale, we were recently contacted again by Chris Lively with the question if we would be interested to be part of a new creation called "Pannepot Cafe" and this in Portland , Maine , USA . Portland is a beautiful coast town, east of Boston . This sounded like magnificently played music in our ears and were immediately prepared to work on the concept. After a lot of meetings a decision was taken to open not only a pub but a restaurant as well coupled to a nano brewery. With this joint-venture, we have a new extra mission, brew good beers in Portland with constant collaboration from the best brewers worldwide, and 3.5 barrels at a time. 75 to a 100 (we hope) elite draught choices, over 1,000 bottles including many vintages to choose from, and serving them at 100%, with glasses razor sharp hand cleaned, perfect lacing and colour every time, for true beer complexity. California / Fusion Cuisine is to be offered, and all of this democratically priced so everyone can come play. Further information will be published in the future on our websites http://www.struisebrouwers.be/ and http://www.pannepotcafe.com/. Opening date is planned by the end of April 2008.

Shelton Brothers is our importing partner for the USA, Roland Russell for Ontario Canada, and Horizon Wines for Alberta, Canada.


  1. This is awesome. I would do bad things to get some Black Albert.

  2. I concur. I'm hoping that Struise's BM can nudge his importer to get more of their product out Indiana's way.

  3. If only it were as simple, Jason, as simply asking for more 'product'.

    Your statement implies that you don't have a very complete understanding of either the 3-tier system, nor the brewery itself. I don't mean this as an insult, so please let me explain a bit.

    For the moment, let's just pretend that the brewery had mounds of 'product' sitting around waiting to be taken over seas. Even if this fairy tale were true, it would require a distributor in Indiana to order said 'products' from the importer once they were delivered stateside and be in good standing with them when they did so. There isn't any attempt to keep beer from Indiana on the part of the importer, Shelton Brothers, in the case of Struise.

    But let's get back to reality here...and realize that said importer has only received two rather small shipments of 'product' from Struise since the relationship began. Shipments that are counted in number of cases, not number of pallets. It isn't for lack of asking that the beer hasn't come to the US, either. The beer just hasn't been available. The brewery is small and hands on, and adheres to certain standards with regards to their beers. The result of this, is that beer can not just be cranked out like it can from a larger, mass production brewery. This is craft beer, but more exactly HAND crafted beer...That may be one reason why it has been so highly regarded. It is my belief and experience that beer from small breweries is more interesting than beer from larger ones. Calling it 'product' seems to put Struise beers on a scale that they aren't on...

    Anyway, more beer is finally set to arrive from Struise. Time for those in Indiana that want it to start asking their better beer outlets to request it from their wholesaler, so that that wholesaler can order it from Shelton Brothers while it is available.

    matt dinges
    shelton brothers

  4. For a moment, let us pretend that you have some insight into the people you are insulting, despite your pretended delicacy...

    The Beer Knights only happen to be some of the most appreciative, supremely well-informed beer "drinkers" you might come across, despite their location in an unassuming midwestern city. Not to mention, with several of their friends numbering among local distributors I find it highly suspect to presume they have no understanding as to the distribution of beer.

    Perhaps their enthusiasm for a superior "product" got the better of them and they dared to hope someone could be influenced in order to make more available something they enjoy.


  5. Let's take a breath here.

    Someone should point out that Mr. Dinges said "I don't mean this as an insult, so please let me explain a bit." I don't think he read us as rubes, or stupid - he just read us as ignorant of the process.

  6. I'm certainly sorry that this has come across as insulting to some people. That was clearly not my intent. I don't think you should assume my comment to Jason was somehow directed at Indiana as a whole. That is really stretching it, isn't it?

    I was trying to explain that getting Struise beers in Indiana has virtually nothing to do with the brewery asking the importer to send more there.

    That was the implication made in the post by Jason. More than an implication, that was pretty much exactly what it said. All I wanted to do was let him know that it had nothing much to do with that. Maybe Jason knew better and just did a bad job of wording the comment, as I apparently did my response, somehow insulting an entire state's beer lovers.

    It would have made more sense if Jason would have said, "I'm hoping my local retailer can nudge his distributor to get some Struise out this way."

    There hasn't even been any to send anywhere for many months, anyway...so any nudging up till now would have been pointless.

    The beers are quite limited, and in very high demand. To get them in Indiana, the process has to work the opposite way Jason suggested...the people that want the beer have to request it from retailers and they (retailers) must put some pressure on the distributor (in this case Cavalier) to make sure they have their business in good standing and place an order when the product is available.

    I get emails everyday from people who think that, as importers, we can just decide where to send the beer...many people ask if they can just buy it directly from us. The 3-tier system doesn't quite allow for that to happen. I don't think it's crazy or rude to ask beer lovers to consider the limitations of the 3-tier system when they make requests. I work as both an importer, and a brewer at a pub. I see misunderstanding about the 3-tier system all over the place. I think its pretty important to understand how it functions, which is why I wanted to post here and comment on it.

    In this case, I was simply trying to explain that it really isn't Struise or Shelton Brothers that decides if the beer comes to Indiana.

    For my part, I can let distributors know that people in their state may want a certain beer, but many of them just don't care unless they have orders from retailers.

    That's just the reality of small batch beer, its not a cash cow for anybody and many distributors still see bringing in 5 cases of a single beer as a hassle. Most beer distributors simply aren't keyed into the beer world like their customers are...and guaranteed money is the one thing they respond to.

    It is very different for me, the seller of a beer, to tell a distributor to buy it...than it is for a retailer to tell their distributor they want to buy it. The promise of money and keeping a good relationship with their best customers tends to get distributors moving a little quicker.

    And they'll have to move quick to get any of this Struise shipment, because people all over the country have been asking about it for months...some distributors already have their trucks practically waiting at the dock.

    Please don't read so much into this. I'm simply trying to help get you folks the beer you are asking for. If I didn't care about getting it to Indiana, why would I have even bothered to post here?

    And the comments about Midwestern rubes? Please, I live in Lincoln, NE. You can't make that up! nor would you want to ;)

    Again, my apologies for any offense. That isn't even close to my intent. I just want you guys to be able to get Struise beers.

    also of Modern Monks Brewing, Grand Island, Nebraska

  7. Wow, amazing how one line can set off so much discussion!

    The problem with emails, websites, comments, etc., is that there is no tone, no personality that goes along with it. So things that some might read as "insults" or "slights" aren't at all.

    I should also explain that most regular readers understand that I am a wordy mo-fo and I try my best to condense my statements when possible. When I replied to Matt, I condensed several paragraphs of background story to one line that apparently didn't read well to some. So here is the full story on my comment. My reply was based on the fact that I was having a back and forth email conversation with Urbain.

    The first person I contacted was the local distributor who informed me that dispite the many attempts to get Struise here (because it has been requested by many people and locations), he has received only one case of Witte.

    So I sent an email to the importer asking about Struise. Actually, I sent two six pack requests, the first asking questions just about Shelton Brothers, the second about Struise in America. I sent that on 1/24/08 to the only email I found on Shelton Bros. website. No one has replied.

    I then mentioned to Urbain that in Indiana, we've only received one case of his beer, in spite of the distributer's request. He suggested I contact someone specific at Shelton Brothers. For the record, I have not done that yet.

    I understand there is only so much product to go around. I understand that there are larger markets on the east coast that probably receive (and maybe rightfully so) attention first in these cases. But I know that there are 10 pallets of Struise product on its way to Shelton and my hope with my statement is that Urbain might request of his importer to show a little more love towards Hoosierland so that those geeks (who have given a fair amount of press to a beer they can't even buy) might be able to purchase and consume and enjoy and write more about their product.

    As for the word product, that is exactly what craft beer is. They produce it, therefore it is a product. It is certainly not meant to slight their product as nothing better than Bud.

    So that is my explanation. I want to thank Mr. Dinges for explaining to everyone the distribution process of hand crafted beers. No insults were taken.

    To Mr. Anonymous, I'm glad to see that HBG has achieved a status that we have others coming to our defense! It just means we are finally going places!

    To Mike, thanks for moderating and trying to calm things down before they got out of hand.

    And to everybody, be prepared. From now on you get my uncondensed long ass ramblings!

  8. HBG Belgian Adventure anyone?

    We can just sit outside the brewery with cups and signs that state:

    "Tell me what you think of Americans for just one pint!"

  9. Anonymous, chill out! I've been trying to order any of their beer for the past 2 years, and it simply has not been available when we've tried to order it. Supply and demand, and getting an order in at just the right time.

    Case in point, I've been trying to get Fantome beers in my store for 3 years. Our distributor got an order in with Shelton Brothers at a time they had this hard to get product in stock, and now I actually have Fantome on my shelves. Right time, right place.

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. I think there was some confusion, Jason, as to who your email was addressed to. It appeared to me that it was a request to Struise, not Shelton Brothers, and that Urbain's response covered it. You wanted us to fill out one to?

    I think that 10 pallets is an exaggeration...I sent antzman a list of what was on hand and what was coming, and it doesn't look like 10 pallets to me. 6, maybe 7 at most, split between 5 different beers.

    There will supposedly be another shipment in a few weeks time, although it isn't certain what will be on that shipment yet.

    Thanks for your efforts to promote these beers!


  12. Matt, I edited your post to prevent spam or harassing calls. Hope that's all right by you.

    And I sent an email.