Last week while visiting friends in the French Alps, I looked at my map and realised I was only a 30 minute drive from Switzerland. As an American, I am still working on getting my head around the proximity of many European countries and usually wouldn’t even fathom ‘popping into’ another country for the day to visit a brewery. But when I calculated the travel time (2 hours each way) and the brewery in question (Trois Dames), the idea didn’t seem outlandish, it was actually a no brainer.
Trois Dames is located in a small, maybe sleepy, town of Sainte-Croix in Switzerland. On the the train to there from Yverdon-Les-Bains you get some beautiful panoramic views of the Lac de Neuchâtel as the train climbs 600m (2000ft) up the Jura mountains. As you enter the town, you get a sense of the agricultural inclination of the area. Its a small town, of only about 5,000 people that makes a great setting for a brewery that prefers a little solitude while still being a little connected.
A short 5 minute walk from the station, the brewery stands as a collection of four buildings seen in the photo below. The main four story building houses the taproom on the ground floor and the solera in the basement while the added-on building (to the left with the red roof) behind contains the brewhouse, bottling line and fermentors. The other two structures are slightly hidden by the photo but one is for storage of packaged beer and the last, certainly most of interest for us is full of barrels, foudres and lots of sour beer.
I got there at lunch time and had a good chance to sit down with Luigi, one of the four man team at Trois Dames, to talk about their clean side fermentations. The brewery produces a solid range of American styles with some French influences. They brew on a 2 vessel Newlands Systems brewhouse with a nice, wide lauter tun you can see below. When we spoke about their process, it all sounded like good brewing practices one would expect from a quality brewery as theirs. Lower mash temps for more fermentable worts, 10-14 day fermentations followed by a short trip to the brite tank for clearing, reuse of clean yeast strains, both dry and liquid, four to five times and a nice big rotary-head filler for minimal oxygen pickup. I got to try a number of their beers but a standout was their new collaboration Berliner-Weisse with Storm&Anchor. Made with fresh pomegranate, it wasn’t the lactic acid bomb that you often get with kettle sours; instead, it had a light, refreshing tartness that made it reliably drinkable.
Mixed Fermentation and Sours
After lunch, Raphael and I got some time to talk about some of his projects that most interested me. It was interesting to hear how he started making mixed culture beers and how quickly the program has grown. Raphael’s interest was peaked by a friend’s apricot crop. It had a beautiful aroma and he immediately wanted to put some in his beer. So he mixed some of the fruit with one of his amber/brown beers and the result was reminiscent of an Oud Bruin. Its a good story but I’m not going to put it past Raphael that he had many other influences and forays into mixed fermentations. What I do know is that now, the program is growing at such a rate that he can no longer manage it himself and has hired a well known brewer in the industry to take over that side in mid October.
Their process combines the tested techniques of Spanish sherry makers and the Rare Barrel/ Crooked Stave model of transporting wort and fermenting at another location. I wouldn’t say there is a ‘Trois Dames’ method for their sours but I’ll give you an overview. Basically there are two different areas where they make their sour beer. The traditional solera is in the cellar under the house/big building while the rest of the foeders and other barrels are housed in a large wooden freestanding shed behind the production area.
The first area we visited was the solera in the basement. As you can see in the photo below, Raphael has a good amount of area to work with and it was nice and cool down there too. Raphael got the solera on the right side going by buying lambic from Belgium and proportionally mixing it with beer of his own. On the ground level he blended 2/3 Lambic with 1/3 house beer, the middle 1/2 and 1/2 and on the top, 1/3 Lambic to 2/3 house beer. It’s a very clever idea but I don’t know how one could buy hundreds of litres of lambic and resist drinking all of it! On the left side of the cellar is a much more eclectic bunch of barrels. From what I got, this side is for playing, you know mixing and matching. It doesn’t work like a traditional solera (empty from he bottom, fill from the top) rather a collection of barrels that can be used for various purposes. I didn’t get much information on them but it seems pretty clear that its a hodgepodge of sour beer. Now, on the other side of the wall on the left is a long corridor that runs the length of the whole room. In time, Raphael is installing a long coolship (similar to Russian River’s) so Trois Dames can start spontaneous fermentations, a really exciting step I know all of us can’t wait for!
The Sour Shed
After the solera Raphael took me to what I am going to lovingly call the Sour Shed. When we walked in, I realised that the place was much larger than I thought and Trois Dames is in the process of making a load of sour beer. Their process is both efficient and effective, normally working in the following manner. All of the wort for their sours comes from there brewhouse about 20 metres away. It gets pumped the distance into the stainless fermentors you can see in the third photo. These fermentors are jacketed so temperatures can be controlled during primary fermentations. The wort is fermented with commercial strains of brett and lacto or from the dregs out of one of the foudres. Raphael sometimes pitches wort directly into a partially filled foudre for its primary as well. Using the stainless he is able to crash before transferring to collect yeast and clear the beer a little before going into barrels (something Lauren Salazar is a proponent of). I do recall him saying there have been 100% stainless beers he has done but the majority goes into oak. When the time comes for a blend, Raphael has a multitude of options to choose from. With an idea in mind or possibly a barrel with great flavour, he moves beer proportionally into one of his blending tanks, tastes the blend, adds a little sugar and sends it to his sour packaging line. This whole process is very eclectic and lacks the structure you might find in other breweries who make sour beer. However, to me its a little more akin to one big solera crossed with the creativity of a home brewer. In one way the beer does not go through a linear progression from wort to packaging, instead gets moved around learning from its elders or uses the dregs of its elders to ferment. The net volume of the oak is in essence under constant development. On the other hand, Raphael’s lack of structure allows him to play a lot more. Having a collection of different barrels means he is not putting all of his eggs in one basket and instead promoting microbial diversity amongst his beers. All in all, I think they have a lot of fun playing around in there making different blends.
I have to encourage a visit to anyone who is interested in Trois Dames or their process. They are located in a beautiful part of the world and there is some great pizza across the street.
As always, if you have any more specific questions feel free to email or comment as I could be more helpful in their techniques at a one to one level.