In search of harmony

Brian Lutz on brewing Belgian-style beers in Boulder

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West Flanders Brewing Co.

“I still get so excited talking about Belgian beers,” Brian Lutz, West Flanders Brewing Co.’s brewmaster, says. “I love the Belgian approach, which is just the opposite of [American brewers]: Don’t try to give everything to everybody. Try to be really, really good with one or two things, and do it for 500 years and, yeah, everything will work out.”

And it has. Among national brewing traditions, Belgium remains unparalleled in the array of beers produced. On Lutz’s last trip to Belgium, a fellow drinker told him there were “14,000 unique beers in that small geographic area,” he says. “And I’ve never had a bad one.”

Lutz has been one of Boulder County’s most prominent purveyors of Belgian-style beers for close to three decades. A bonafide beer geek, Lutz was an “incessant” homebrewer who got his professional start at Left Hand Brewing in 1994. A few years later, Lutz moved over to the long-gone RedFish New Orleans Brewhouse on 13th Street. That’s where he started selling his Belgian-style abbey ales over the counter. If you were a beer drinker in Boulder back then, chances are it was the first Belgian-style beer you tried. Or didn’t.

“It was rough,” Lutz says. “[People] weren’t willing.”

As Lutz explains, the average beer drinker in the ’90s was still resistant to experimentation. So Lutz decided to open minds with education. He called the beer Trappist Ale and committed to explaining what made it special — to each and every customer if need be.

Then came the cease and desist letter. By definition, Belgian Trappist ales are produced by Trappist monks within the walls of Trappist monasteries. It’s not a style so much as it is a trademark, and Lutz’s Trappist Ale was an infringement — at least in name. Lutz acquiesced and retitled the ale Angry Monk. But the publicity generated by the litigious monks probably did more for the beer than Lutz ever could by himself.

Angry Monk remains one of Boulder County’s iconic ales, one you’ll often find anchoring Lutz’s Belgian-inspired line-up at West Flanders Brewing Co. Lutz joined as brewmaster when the brewpub opened in 2012. Fifteen years earlier, Lutz had to practically convince customers to take a chance on his abbey ale. Now, he could model a whole brewpub around these beers.

“I’ve always been excited about West Flanders,” Lutz says. “We go the extra mile to try to bring some authenticity. … Especially when you’re trying to do a style that’s been done a million times over.”

Lutz says he and his head brewer, Erin Casey, have “11 different yeast strains going at any single time.” And yeast is the living organism that can make a beer “Belgian,” regardless of where it’s physically brewed.

“[Each beer] deserves its own personality, deserves its own character,” Lutz says of the variety of strains they use. “It’s just killer.”

It’s also incredibly diverse. Remember Lutz’s quote about the “14,000 unique beers”? If you think beer in Boulder tastes different from brewery to brewery, then Belgium will blow your mind. From the variety of brewing processes to the ingredients used, Belgian beers encompass just about everything. Categorizing it is a fool’s errand. And yet, there are beer fests and competitions in Belgium similar to those we have in the states. 

“How are they judged?” Lutz asked a brewer from Belgium.

“On one thing,” the brewer replied, “Harmony.”

And with every beer, Lutz and his team get that much closer.