People #2: Jo Olluyn

 
Let's continue with the series of posts dedicated, as its name suggests, to people who I have had the occasion to meet in the beer scene and that, for one reason or another, I admire. Today it's about a person I met two years ago in Holland, during the celebration of the Borefts Bier Festival 2013. We were both in front of the Savoy Mont Salève stand and quickly began a passionate conversation about beer: festivals, personal tastes, trends in our respective countries, and so on.
 
 
" 'Balanced' is more than often an eufemism for bland and boring beer "
 
 
Soon our views collided, to some extent: while I was excited as usual with the beers of his country, he was being very critical with its misunderstood classicism, and praising the scene of the "new beers" that have appeared in Europe in recent years. But in the end, each of us with his own tastes and preferences, we both were actually looking for emotions and quality: either from striking or subtle beers. We really got on with each other and had a jolly good time.

Since then, we have been exchanging beers, and we have even had the chance to meet for a couple more, getting to know his wife. I've also had the great opportunity to sample his own beers, that proved his great skills in brewing, as well as his taste for flashy, revolutionary beers. Many online conversations, comments on various beers and a nice friendship emerged from the love for this exciting product.

Without further ado, I leave you with Jo: a great homebrewer, a classic attendand in European festivals for some years now, and a true lover of beer as a gastronomic and social element. A person I am more than pleased to have met.


 
#2 - Interview to Jo Olluyn
 
 

Hi Jo, how are you doing? I’ll begin asking you to introduce yourself a little bit, while giving some general background information of your personal story with beer.

Very good, and yourself? :) I am a relatively late-blooming Belgian beer geek. Until about ten years ago, my idea of beer was very much the traditional Belgian's take: Belgian beer is best, Jupiler is the best pils in the world and Trappist means good. I didn't know any better, really, and while I was always interested in beer, "any" beer was good enough for me. I reckon the most exotic beer I'd had by the time I turned 30 must have been canned Guinness, and I thought that was pretty hot stuff.

Time works its wily ways, and at some point, I started to become more interested in beer not just as a consumer commodity, but more as something of a work of art. The result of a craft, so to speak.

I'd been homebrewing on an on/off basis for some years but never took it very seriously. About four years ago now, I uprooted all my old stuff from the basement and went whole-grain. Things have never been the same. I cannot overemphasize the degree of fun and satisfaction in homebrewing all-grain beer. Ever since I started brewing my own proper beers (and I'm willing to take the definition of "proper" a long way, but still), my outlook on and appreciation of artisanality have changed my outlook on life itself and I'm not even kidding.

There's something about beer that is just so ingrained in humanity that I cannot help but marvel at it on a daily basis. Science, art, skills and crafts, curiosity, social interaction....it's all there, righ there in that glass of beer you're holding. I rolled up in a number of internet forums, wound up at beer festivals and other beer related geeky events, and apart from the beers (which were often wild, plentiful and wonderful), I was struck by the intimacy of the scene. Much like the metal scene in music, the craft beer scene carries its heart on its sleeve, and you'll find people who, in the current economic model, should be bitter competitors in a narrow market niche, but instead have become close friends who inspire and help, rather than outcompete each other.


Is Belgium the wonderland of beer? Since very recently, few people could argue against it…

It's a mixed blessing really. Sure, Belgium has a fascinating and unique beer history, which gave rise to some truly sensational brews. On the other hand, the number of downright sub-par beers in Belgium is staggering, and very little distinction is made by consumer and producer alike to set them apart. Your average Belgian, ironically, is more interested in easy and same-ish beers than in something which breaks the mold and asserts a more fierce individual sense of artistry. I could argue for hours about balance and style and approachability, but at the end of the day, most Belgians aren't (yet) used to beer they can't easily classify. Not to beers with distinct of bold flavours. 

And since the three beers we are most familiar with (Blonde, Brown and Tripel) are also often the most nondescript, your average Belgian's approach to beer is one of the greatest common denominator. We call it "balance" but often that's just an expensive word for "bland and boring".


"I can't wait until the first Trappist beer from Togo hits the market"
 

Topping that off, Belgians know about their country's reputation, and assume that any foreign beer will intrinsically be inferior to any other Belgian beer. In a country of 2000+ same-ybeers, we still scoff at Dutch, French, German, British and American beer. And in fact, any beer not being from Belgium. Not because we've tasted them, but because, being non-Belgian, they must, ipso facto, be inferior.

I am of course grossly exaggerating, but the truth of the matter is that most Belgians have an ambivalent relation to beer: one of semi-detached indifference, mixed with patriotic ignorance. Oh I could go one for hours, but really...

That being said (and I often need wiser people of foreign climes to point this out to me): where else in the world one can walk into an average pub and see ten people all drinking a different beer? Where else in the world is this normal? Even if some of these beers aren't very good and some others truly stellar but very much unrecognised as such? Regardless of the many deep-rooted gripes I have against Belgian beer in general, I know that in a way, I am blessed.

I mean, I could be living in Togo, or the steppes of outer-Mongolia, or even the not-so-distant hinterlands of France, where good beer is still pretty damn hard to find.

The idea of a global beer scene, where brewers and drinkers from around the world communicate and collaborate and keep the scene alive, is very much an underground happening, really. Most people I talk to have no idea how many people take beer very seriously, both from a consumer's and producer's perspective. But hey, it makes things so much more fun to be a beer ambassador :)

I don't mean to diss any of the belgian classics (they're often classics for a reason after all) but Belgians are contradictorily traditional is their beer preferences. Nothing to daring, too outspoken, too...well...craft-ish.

Most Belgians swear by their daily Leffe, Jupiler/Stella or candy-sweetend ladies' kriek, but I'm picking up a positive vibe lately. One of exploration, of curiosity, of hesitant non-conformity. We've a long way to go yet, but slowly, it seems our collective palates are changing and we seem to be getting ready for craft beer. In fact, the number of craft breweries in Belgium is slowly rising, suggesting that even in a country ankle-deep in diverse beers, there's still room and demand for something else.


But still, you’re producing Lambics and Flemish Sours, as well as top-notch Saisons, like nobody is doing elsewhere…

Yeah, it's a shame isn't it? We were this close **makes that between thumb and index finger gesture** to losing our last Geuze-breweries not two decades ago.

Saison? Most Belgians literally do not know what they are, and when they hear "beer from Wallonia", they'll scoff and order another Leffe Brune.

We take insane and (in my opinion) inordinate measures of pride in our trappist culture, but I for one am happy to see all these new trappist emerging in countries which, traditionally, aren't even "proper" beer countries. Really, I can't wait until the first Trappist from Togo is released, or the first Geuze from Outer-Mongolia. And it is with great relief and anticipation that I see countries like Spain and France slowly rise up from the undergrowth with some truly amazing beers.

At the end of the day, borders are just dots on the map. They should not bear any relevance at all to beer. Not to the brewing of it, and not to the drinking of it. And thankfully, I am not alone in this idea. American sours are being brewed which easily compare favourably with the best of Belgian Geuzes. Saison is such a conceptually universal beer style that literally anybody with a kettle and a spoon can brew a more-than-decent example of one. Again: borders shouldn't be important in this and many other things, but they are, apparently. Share a beer with your neighbour, and keep an open mind. It's literally the key to a better world.

Again, things are slowmy changing. many of these Belgian styles are no longer exclusively Belgian; Sonambic is an actual thing, and so is Flemish Red-Brown from the Netherlands. Siason is being brewed literally all over the world now, with some stellar (and in my humble opinion often vastly superior) examples coming from the UK and the USA. Berliner Weisse was almost extinct just a couple of years ago, but the craft beer scene has Frankensteined the style back to the forefront, and now you'll find brewers from around the globe brewing their take on it.


Two of the last beers Jo sent me. As one could easily anticipate, no classic stuff. Without dog.

We need to step away from "our" beer. Belgium is notoriously suspicious of foreign beers, and you'll rarely see non-Belgian beer being served in Belgian bars. Apart from beer-pubs doing tap rotation, you'll never see foreign beer in Belgium, expect in specialty beer stores. One reason of this, I think, is that we still believe ours is always best. But really, it isn't. We need to forget about the lines on the map, and brew beer for the world, and drink the beers the world offers in return.

What are in your opinion the main problems with the brewing industry in your country? How do you expect it to evolve in the years to follow?

I've ranted a bit about that already, it seems... The sad thing about statistics is that, apart from the few percentages at the fringe, we are all the greatest common denominator. The brewing industry focuses itself on marketing, which translates to sales figures. The more people you sell to, the better the figures. Somewhere along the way, we were tricked into believing this mass-produced, bland product had anything to do with beer. We drink what they sell, they sell what we drink. As long as we keep buying generic pedestrian beer, the industry will happily provide us with the cheapest, most profitable examples.


"I love beer in which I can detect the brewer's own enjoyment"

 
You can't even blame them, really. What we can (and should) bring an end to is the stranglehold these brewing corporations (or beer factories if you like) have on the entire distribution chain. As soon as the beer leaves the factory, it's shipped to yards owned by the factory, to retailers owned by the factory, to bars and pubs which are run by the factory. It's really not so different from the factories of the 1900's, albeit more in the background. 

All this translates to those 10 people in the pub I was talking about earlier, all drinking different beers, all of which were brewed by the same brew-factory. Diversity goes down the drain, identity and individuality follow after, and we all end up with beer which is litterlally poorer and cheaper than it could have been.

Besides that, Belgians need to re-educate themselves. Look around, explore the world. There's beer everywhere, and some of it will reshape the very concept of beer such as you know it today. It may sound pretentious but it's true; that first beer you taste which makes you realise you've been drinking below your expecations all your life, that's the one you should be hunting for. And today, you will probably not find it in a Belgian pub.

I may make it all seem very gloomy and grim, but things are slowly changing. Whenever I talk to people about beer, they seem to have a more open mind than I feared, and they can often be recommend a brew or two to set them on their indivual path of discovery. I wouldn't want everyone to love or hate the same beer, but there's no greater joy than to see someone's eyes light up when they say "I always thought I hated sours/stouts/lagers/whatevers but this is actually pretty damn good."

Give it time, and maybe in a decade or so, we can finally start treating beer with the sérieux currently only attributed to wines and whiskies. Or gin. Don't get me started on gin.


What kind of beer do you presently like to drink? Any styles or twists you’re missing locally?

Me, I like almost everything. The more I learn about beer, the more styles and examples I find which I thoroughly enjoy. Whenever I detect prejudices or preconceptions in myself, I try to overcome them and give whatever beer this is about a try. 

But there will always be "go to" beers for everyone. I love hops, so a good, solid, fruity IPA is something I'll seldom pass up. Ditto with imperial stouts, both "pure" and '"adulterated" with ingredients like coffee, chocolate, spices, chilies...

I love odd-ball brews: beers which are brewed without much adherence to style or tradition. But I also have a soft spot for attempts at historic authenticity like old stock ales, barrel-soured saisons, aged porters, and extinct-but-resurrected styles like sahti and gose.

At the end of the day, I love beers in which I can detect traces of the brewer's own enjoyment. If it was brewed with love, I will taste it, and it will probably make me smile.


"Beer is about sharing, being part of something that is bigger than just you"
 

Locally, things are slowly picking up. There's a lot of work to be done as most Belgians still don't know what an IPA is (and Leffe isn't helping things either with their travesty attempt to IPA-ify the brand), but there are a couple of outstandintg brewers around which know what they're doing, and who do it very well.

 
Is there any particular brew or event that made you leave the trail of classic Belgian stuff? What was your personal turning point with beer?

Silly maybe, but my interest was piqued 5 years ago or so while I was watching a TV programme about beer on Belgian TV called Tournée Générale. A bit silly, a bit superficial, with some questionable notions being raised, but it made me seek out beer more actively, and it made me try more beers I normally would have skipped.

Turning points would definitely have been the first geuze I really liked (Boon's Marriage Parfait), my first Hel&Verdoemenis, which is also the first beer which made me eat my own words where Dutch brewing culture is involved, and my first beer festival (Borefts, what else?).

These points, combined with my re-awakened gusto for homebrewing and the realisation that yes, I could brew some pretty cool beer myself, all of those have made a convert out of me.


Since then, what have you been up to beerwise? And what’s the point of homebrewing?

I've been brewing. The more you brew, the more you learn, and the more you become aware of your own limitations and the challenges they impose. I've talked to brewers and beer geeks and I've done a lecture or two about beer for friends and colleagues. Reading, studying, turning beers inside out, poring over recipes and scouring the fora. Checking out ingredients. It's an endless treasure hunt, really!

I've enrolled in a competition or two, with varying results. I was pretty happy getting honourable mentions at Leuven Innovation Beer Festival for brewing the most innovative (albeit unblanced) beer. I was even more pleased when most attending brewers I bullied into trying some of my brews seemed to genuinely like them.

The great thing about the craft beer scene is how approachable everyone is. You can chat to a brewer or a maltster or a retailer and they'll treat you nicely and respectfully without snubbing you off. They'll answer questions, provide tips and sometimes even complete recipes. They'll mercilessly trash your beer if it's no good and that's the only way you can ever hope to do better. And when you actually do better, they'll tilt their heads, smack their lips and say "Hm. That's not bad". And maybe even ask for seconds!


In a beer festival in Poblenou, Barcelona. Beer is sharing.

Beer is about sharing, about being part of something that's bigger than just you, and homebrewing is exemplary of this too. Tell people you're a homebrewer, and you're talking about beer for the rest of the night. And they'll want samples, and even if they don't like them for whatever reason, they're still partaking in your passion. It's about so much more than just beer.

Another thing which is great about homebrewing is that there simply are no limits. You brew what you want, when you want, in whatever ludicrously un-economical quantities or formats you dream up. A friend of mine once brewed a single bottled of beer. Because he could. And it was amazing too!

You experiment, and if it's shit you dump it. Heartbreaking as it is to sink your brew, it's just a 20-or-so-liter batch, and you'll brew another next weekend anyway. And if it's good...oh the reward of tasting your own brew and realising it's actually quite good and sharing that with friends... priceless. Best hobby ever. Really.


I’ve been delighted to taste your beers. As I’ve repeatedly told you, they’re really good. Any commercial plans for the future?

Cheerz mate! It's important to get feedback, both positive and negative and I've received a lot of both. I like to brew adventurously, and not everybody likes drinking off-beat beers. Most important thing is that I seem to be learning, both from my mistakes and from the feedback I get from people. 

Plans. Oh yes. I think every home brewer dreams of one day doing this stuff for real, on a real rig, with real volumes, producing real beer. I'm no exception, I guess. 

Lately, I've been testing the waters, gauging the depths of the quagmire that seems to surround the startup of a business. A brewery is a capital-intensive investment, and with a family to support, it's not an endeavour to undertake lightly. So, while the dream is there, and the desire to shift things up a gear or two, i'm being cautiously realistic.

All that aside: yes there are actual plans to start a brewery and be done with the kitchen sink. It'll take time, but you'll be among the first to know ;). Investors, sugar-daddies and mecenases are welcome to help out of course!

Thanks for your patience, amigo.

 
---

 
If circumstances allow me, I hope to be present on the day of the première and toast for the realisation of this dream, hoping that your beers become a source of joy and communion for many Belgian beer lovers... and, why not, for many more from other parts of Europe.

 
Salut i birra!

Comments

  1. Muchas gracias, amigo!

    Now I'll go and read the Castilian translation and learn a word or two :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks to you, mate. You'd better read it... you don't know how much it took me to translate your long and complete answers! But it was a pleasant work :-).

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