In his latest beer releases, George Bregar and Roscoe Bigelow of Company Brewing continues to craft beers unlike any other Milwaukee brewery.
If you head out to Center Street in the heart of Riverwest, you can drink a Single, Dubbel, Triple and a Rum-Barrel Aged (!) Quad in one place: Company Brewing. Though, as George says, “these are definitely not copies or true to style beers by any means, they are the Company Brewing riffs on Single, Dubbel, Triple, Quad.” Put simply, they are delightful, delicious takes on these Belgian styles.
What is a Belgian-Style Beer?
Each of these beers deserves to be considered on their own. But before that, I want to give some background of these beer styles that can help put what George is doing at Company Brewing doing into context.
If you’re unfamiliar with these beer style designations, Single, Dubbel, Triple, Quad are terms which arise from the brewing traditions of Belgium’s Trappist monks and which roughly correspond to the strength of the beer and the amount of malt used to produce it. They are also used by secular breweries that produce so-called Abbey beers as well as being used relatively loosely — in quintessentially American fashion — by craft brewers in the US.
Singles are relatively light in color and have around 4% ABV. Dubbels are generally amber-colored, malty, and brewed to around 8% ABV, while Triples are lighter in color, dry, and tend toward the 9% ABV range. Quads, or Quadruples, are the strongest and darkest of the beers, at around 10 or 11% Abv. If there is one element which ties these styles together, it’s the use of a yeast strain which originated from Belgium, which, in a carefully managed fermentation, produces a distinct flavor profile that spans from, fruity and estery, to spicy and phenolic, but at best balances these traits with maltiness, subdued hops, and the occasional use of spices.
George describes his Single, called Handshake, as “a Belgian-style Pale Ale,” with “some of the esters” and “some of the phenols” you find in these beers. To keep the flavor profile cleaner, more in keeping with Pale Ale as a style, George kept “the yeast profile pretty subdued” fermenting it at a lower temperature than his other Belgian-style beers.
Interestingly, George and Roscoe balanced the malt- and yeast-driven flavors of the beer through the use of Rye malt which, “gives it a spicy edge and dries it out a hair,” and which “keeps it more Pale-Ale-ish.” I am totally piqued by the concept of a yeast-driven Pale Ale.
Typically, Pale Ales are medium-bodied, balancing hops and malt. Handshake does all this yet throws Belgian yeast into the mix, adding a layer of complexity to a traditional, widely-brewed style. Add it up and you get a drinkable, sessionable, 5% ABV beer with more interest than a simple Pale Ale. As George put it, “that’s the point of our Single: to capture that character of a Dubbel but put it in a more sessionable package.
Femme-pire Strikes Back, a 7% ABV, medium-bodied Dubbel, layers caramelly, malty flavors on top of esters and a balancing spicy, phenolic quality which is emphasized by the supremely subdued use of spices. Of the spices, George told me, “when I spice beers I don’t like to go very heavy.” Spicing sparingly, George creates a beer in which the flavors and the aromas from the spices are imbued, mingling with the flavors of the malt, hops and yeast.
Fermented 4 degrees warmer than the Single, this Dubbel reveals a skillfully controlled fermentation. To avoid throwing the beer off balance, George had to manage his pitching rate, fermentation temperature, and the amount of dissolved Oxygen in the beer, as each of these variables has the potential to unbalance the flavor profile put off by the yeast during fermentation.
By spicing the beer during secondary fermentation, essentially “cold steeping”, George imbued his Dubbel with a fine layer of spice that adds depth and seasonality to his beer while nodding toward the Belgian brewing tradition.
The third beer in Company Brewing’s lineup is a “sneaky-strong” 9% ABV Triple called Zagora Major.
Strongly effervescent and dry, with “a dollop of fruit” — honeydew? Perhaps over-ripe pineapple? — that’s balanced by clove and the essence of malt, Zagora Major is exactly the hop-forward Belgian Triple that I’ve been looking for. Many national and international brewers have taken a stab an appropriating this particular style, but I’ve often found their hops jarring and mismatched with the essential Belgian qualities of the beer, or I’ve found that they downplay the Belgian characteristics to create more room for the hops to play.
Careful hop selection — “English hops, noble hops, and then we used one fruity American hop” George told me — perfectly match the flavor profile of the yeast. Kettle hopping brings through the right hop flavor while allowing other elements of the beer to shine. Through this process, George and Roscoe have brewed exactly the beer I’ve been seeking for the past few years. And in this I think there’s an important lesson for beer drinkers of all sorts: there’s better beer, closer to home, than you may realize.
Bottom line: Zagora Major is one of the most delicious beers in the city.
At this point in the flight, I found myself thinking that there was no way George could surpass the Triple, but Holiday Party, a Rum Barrel Aged Quad is such a master-work of brewing and barrel aging that it is absolutely one of the best beers available in Milwaukee. A beer of this quality should have been greeted with a line stretching from Center street to Locust.
Flavors of rum-laced raisins, dates, candi sugar, and a complex, caramelly maltiness, meld with fruity esters, vanilla, rum, and burnt sugar to create a thick layer of dark fruits which is balanced by a phenolic spiciness, warming alcohol, and subtle barrel tannins.
Aged for 15 months in Twisted Path rum barrels, this Black Quad incorporates some Dark Crystal Malt but none of the candi sugar typical of the style. Complex, layered, and eminently sippable, but without the body accompanying barrel aged stouts of similar complexity, Quad is a strong contender for Milwaukee’s best barrel-aged beer.
The news that only one barrel of this Quad remained, and that George hadn’t bottled a single 22oz bomber, has been haunting me since I tasted the beer a week ago. I have seriously thought about this beer every day since I tasted it, at times gazing over my own beer cellar with a regret and dissatisfaction, at times other wandering through the liquor store, searching in vain for something comparable.
Stop reading and go drink this beer while you still can. Seriously.
Context: Milwaukee Market
Next, take a look around at the beers menus of Milwaukee’s breweries. You might find a handful of other Belgian-style beers being brewed across the city. A Dubbel here, a Triple there, perhaps a Strong Golden Ale. But these styles are typically ignored by a Milwaukee market that is very much interested in IPAs, Pale Ales, strong Stouts, and Pilsners. All of which Company Brewing has awesome examples of: Poor House Pils is lovely, clean, brightly earthy, and malty; Highlo is a superb Pale Ale; Chairman Hecto-hop is a deeply juicy Double IPA.
So, as a small, relatively new brewery, there’s certainly some risk for Company Brewing in producing beers that break out from the trends and tastes of Milwaukee’s beer market, but I think that risk deserves some recognition and reward.
First of all, George is exploring and appropriating Belgian styles in a manner similar to national brands like Allagash or New Belgium, yet these perfectly drinkable, unquestionably delicious, Belgian-style beers buck market trends and ask Milwaukee’s drinkers to consider a new niche of beer styles being produced right here at home. Appreciating these beers can be as simple as drinking them, but because their flavors are often a complex amalgam of yeast-driven, fermentation-derived flavors, complex malt bills, and well-chosen hops, they can present a challenge to drinkers who like to think their way through every sip.
What’s more, George’s exploration of Belgian beer styles is totally different than any other brewery in Milwaukee, and it adds a depth of character and true stylistic diversity to his tap list.
Increasingly, Milwaukee’s beer market is looking for new beer, for styles that they’ve traditionally had to leave the city to find. With his series of Belgian-inspired beers, George may have just brewed up exactly what the city was looking for.