by Austin L. Ray
If brewmaster Peter Bouckaert seems to have particularly refined palate for beer, it may be because he got a head start on the rest of us. “From 12-18, we always had beer on the table in school,” he says, recalling his childhood in Belgium. “‘Table beer,’ we call it. Beer for kids, with low alcohol—it had like 2.2% or something.”
Long before he was creating some of the most popular beers in the country for New Belgium, the third largest craft brewery in the U.S. (and eighth largest overall), Bouckaert was studying biochemistry at Hogeschool Gent, a renowned university in Belgium’s Flanders region. But he quickly found himself bored and longing for something more. “The guys in the brewing department at university always had hoses and boots,” Bouckaert says. “I liked science, but I got tired of such a small lab scale. The brewing department, those guys were really making something.”
Here, Brouckaert reminisces on a few of the brews that defined his palate and his career, including the sours of his youth and the Sierra Nevada barley wine that convinced him American brewing was ready for a change.
Brugs refers to the city of Bruges. When I was in Rodenbach, I had done pretty much everything, and at a certain point, [my friends and I] decided to buy 95% of a brewery. So suddenly, I had this brewery that was able to grow very fast because they’d just gotten their beer in a big chain. We had to help them out, so I spent quite some time with this wheat beer that was bottle-conditioned. That was something completely new to me. At Rodenbach, we were kinda stuck—we made three beers. Now I had a whole bunch of different beers. That was fun and at the right time for broadening my brewing career. It was called Gouden Boom, which means “gold tree.” The brewery has since closed, because real estate in that town is a nightmare. The beer still exists, but I’m actually not sure who brews it now.
A lot of brewers [in the States] come from homebrewing, but I actually started very late. We found a guy with old, used equipment and a location, and we told him we were scaling up our homebrew to something bigger. He showed us a location, and it was magnificent, plus he had money, so that was great, and he was like, “I really would like to start a brewery in here.” My friend was the bartender, I was the brewer, and we suddenly had a whole brewpub to ourselves, and that became Slijtersbier. That was 1994, and I moved in 1996 and started making Slijtersbier in Boulder, which became the supplier for Oerbier’s yeast. I made it the first time for the birth of my oldest son, and the leftover we sold as La Folie because we thought it was kind of a funny endeavor. Then that name went somewhere else, as you’ll see later.
New Belgium Biere de Mars
You think about knowledge, experience, and creativity. Blue Paddle was pure knowledge. For me, Biere de Mars, was pure creativity. It started with an architect in Brussels that we kind of fell upon during a conference in Belgium. On the way back, we were like, “Wow, we should make beer the way Victor Horta builds.” He builds art nouveau, and every element—furniture, mirrors, paintings—is a function of the house, or whatever he’s designing. We thought it was a fantastic concept for making beer. For the people drinking beer, it doesn’t really matter that we used warm fermentation temperatures, or oats, or Brettanomyces, some spices, or blah blah blah. In the end, the person drinking it is going to grab the glass, smell it, taste it, and say, “Wow, this is beautiful.” You look at a Victor Horta building and you just say, “Wow, this is beautiful.” You don’t really see the details, and you don’t have to.