Montreal is a city of brewpubs. Scattered around the city in nearly every major neighborhood, there’s one, if not two, quietly brewing away behind the casual food service. On the surface, it’s not easy to tell the difference — many offer a wide portfolio of beers from blondes to IPAs and a couple dark beers. But with a keen eye, and a willingness to get up at the crack of dawn, a true discovery awaits. This is Benelux Brasserie Artisanale et Café.
I left my wife sleeping soundly in the apartment at 6:30 in the morning in Le Plateu Mont-Royal neighborhood of Montreal and walked in the spritzing rain about a mile and a half to Rue Sherbrooke. I ate eggs and toast at a small coffee shop and waited for the brew team to arrive across the street at seven o’clock. From my seat near the drizzling window, the name Benelux shone in all white letters at the bottom of a 1970s hi-rise apartment building. It was a confusing sight — I’m more familiar with the brick warehouses and garage doors, light industrial parks and the sprawling storefronts of American breweries and brewpubs. But Benelux looks akin to a small sandwich and smoothie shop in a college neighborhood.
Promptly at seven, the side door swings wide and a slender man wearing all-black, short-sleeve workwear and a weary look bends down and drives a wedge into the ground to prop it open. “Hi, I’m Benoit,” he says, straightening his shirt with a quick sigh. “Welcome. We’re just getting the liquor heating up.”
The night before, I sat at this bar and ordered a hot dog and three different saisons. Most brewpubs in Montreal offer a wide variety of beer styles, and most are quite competent. There’s always a blonde ale. Always an IPA. And always a stout or porter. But Benelux had a menu with a point of view — three different saisons, from funky to savory to citrusy. That’s when I managed to find my way to the man responsible — Benoit Mercier, one of the founders and head brewer alongside Angel Tarrino and Philippe Tremblay. “We brew early in the morning,” he said in a voicemail, “so if you want to get up and have coffee with us, we’d be happy to have you.”
Benoit fired up the hot liquor tank, and moments later started hitting buttons on the espresso machine with a similar sense of muscle memory. And that gave us some time to talk about beer in Montreal.
The Benelux location on Sherbrooke is part of a university community, with both McGill and the University du Quebec nearby. That means that Benoit and his team are catering to a diverse set of palettes in beer. Left to his own devices, Benoit would make Belgians. But his customers push him to offer other popular styles as well. “Sometimes we do our own thing and people adjust to it. More and more ,students are joining the craft beer army here. We try to attract them with deals on blonde beer, but 'Benelux' means Belgium/Netherlands/Luxembourg — those are my passion, saisons and Belgian beers, northern European, funky styles. But the minute I had an IPA on the board, I saw the demand. That was six years ago and since then we’ve been brewing West-coast type beers too. People here demand the American styles now.”
Eponyme is Benoit’s flagship, an herbaceous, lemony saison with a dry finish. But for summer, it’s all about Karma, another saison with a bit of smoked malt and thyme. “Sometimes we have four saisons on the menu at once,” claims Benoit, “like the rye triple with a saison yeast. I love that one.” The menu used to be even more ambitious. In the summers, they would shut down the cafe and stack barrels on the floor, aging sours and brett beers. “Those days are over for now," says Benoit. "We’re brewing full-time. This is the slowest time of year still but it only lasts a week. There are so many festivals, and we get no breaks.”
Most of the beers are brewed on-site in an impossibly small room off the back. Barely big enough to squeeze the brewhouse in, Benoit and Angel work in a near-vertical fashion, climbing and hoisting everything over their heads to make way. Off in a corner, tucked in between fermenters, a lone French oak barrel ferments. With so little floor space to spare, Angel works meticulously, threading tubing from one valve to the next, and then quickly packing it away agin. After an hour, he checks the hot liquor tank — no heat.
"Yesterday a control broke, then the chiller. This morning the hot liquor too apparently.” Their shoulders slouch together for a moment, like two young boys that hit a ball over the neighbor’s fence — they look at each other and nod, and then they go digging for parts. Twenty minutes in, and they repaired the circuit that fires the tank. “Good for now,” says Benoit. “Good for today.”
More time to talk beer. Benoit pops the top off a test-batch of a new tripel, Ergot, pours three perfect glasses, and tells a story about Montreal brewing that’s strikingly similar to many American cities that are feeling a bit crowded. "Breweries are realizing that they can’t all jump on Montreal. So they’re opening outside Montreal and getting a reputation in their own part of the province. That’s really nice. As for the beer itself, there are really no trends. Everyone is all over the place, it’s kind of funny. Everywhere you go, you get saisons, black IPAs, bocks.”
In a world with over 3,000 craft breweries in North America, the cities are a resource that’s been tapped too often — the size of those urban markets simply too attractive to ignore. Suburban and small town breweries, on the other hand, are finding their place and make their own way, without the need to fight for one of a hundred tap handles in a single bar. But there’s more to the story than easing up on the competition. "People will realize that only 12-15 handles have good turnaround,” says Benoit. "When you’re a 100 miles from Montreal and you have your own thing happening locally, farmers, hop producers, you can have a local flavor to your beer. Over time, these breweries will build their own identity based on that. We see that more and more. We have three micromalsters starting to work with breweries. Local hops, local wild yeast, local organic honey. A lot of us are inspired by Vermont actually. I looked to see what they do with their spent grain, and at a restaurant there you can get a burger that’s raised locally and fed spent grain from the local brewery, and hay from a farmer who also makes bread with their flour. It’s all connected, and we’re starting to think that way here in Montreal."
Benelux has another location in Montreal, in a much different neighborhood named Verdun. Where the Sherbrooke location is young and ambitious, the Verdun brewpub is working on another mission altogether — making beer available, at all. Many poor or blue-collar neighborhoods in urban environments are traditionally “treated” by limiting access to alcohol. These so-called vices are seen as the root of a larger problem rather than a boon to local economy and culture. Even today, some entire areas are deemed “dry” zones where no alcohol can be made or sold. Meanwhile, neighborhoods across the street thrive. “Montreal used to be made up of a lot of small villages that were incorporated,” explains Benoit. "During the last century, those towns fused together and changed their urban planning. Small areas were booming, but something was wrong in Verdun, and we wondered why. It turned out that there were no bars. The prohibition history there is complicated. They decided to give someone a chance and we jumped on the opportunity.”
Benelux has the first alcohol license issued in Verdun since the 1870s, with only restaurants serving alcohol at all since 1996. Convenience stores (dépanneurs) sold packaged beer, but Benelux is the first bar in almost 150 years of temperance. They hired Teklad “Tico” Pavisian to brew at the Verdun location with a portfolio focused on English-style ales and lagers, including a Kellerbier aged in barrels, an oat pilsner, and a lager with brett. Tremblay has taken over at Sherbrooke. Meanwhile Benoit and Angel have taken on the next major expansion for Benelux in a production facility called Brasserie du Canal down the hill from Sherbrooke near the water under the watchful eye of head brewer Jean-Michel Tisseur.
Brasserie du Canal opened in December, a 15bbl facility that brews for the Sherbrooke location, taking the edge off the production constraints there, and partner restaurants in Quebec City, which brings the concept full-circle. When Benoit was transitioning from a career in design to a career in brewing, he found restaurant partners to be the best fit. "I’ve been a designer in the visual arts, web design, graphic design, painting, special effects and I was brewing at home for many years. I kept spending more and more time on brewing, I was passionate, to the point that I couldn’t fulfill my client contracts anymore. I called a friends and said “let’s start a brewpub.” He called his friends and two days later we all said “ok.” The other owners had been in the bar and restaurant business for 20 years, so I felt confident. I just had to worry about the brewing part. You can open a microbrewery and start slowly, gradually get distribution going. But when you open a brewpub or a bar downtown, you need to have some background, or a partner that knows how to deal with customers and a bar staff. It’s a world all its own.”
Benelux now has all the pieces in place to make some major moves in Quebec — two brewpubs, a production facility, partnerships with restaurants, and a team of experienced, passionate brewers working in an integrated business and operations model. Benoit overseas the various parts of the brewing operations, and now that means prioritizing for growth. "With two new breweries in one year, we'll relax a bit. Supervising three breweries is a challenge. But we've cut down on festivals, focusing on our growth, tuning the production and creating our own events. We will be at the Vermont Brewers Festival in Burlington, VT and at Trou du Diable's Brewers Evening in Shawinigan, QC this summer. We may have some stuff coming out of Canal in bottles, in limited releases. Our IPAs are very popular, so there could be a few of those, and being a big fan of blended barrel-aged beers, we might give that a shot too.”