Sometimes, prayers go unanswered. That’s how brewmasters John Stemler (Free Will) and Jef Janssens (Hof ten Dormaal) must have felt Wednesday morning, when they discovered the entire shipment of their limited-edition collaboration beer had been destroyed in transit across the Atlantic. For the first time since the program started in 2012, there will be no special “Philly goes to Belgium” brew served at Philly Beer Week.
Imperiled from the start
Named “Leuven on a Prayer” (Leuven is the capital of Hof ten Dormaal’s home province — and also happens to be where macrobrew giant Anheuser-Busch InBev is based), the dark saison was brewed by Stemler and Janssens during the annual Philly Beer Week trip to Belgium last winter. The project was imperiled from the start: exactly one month before the PBW crew’s visit, Hof ten Dormaal’s farmhouse brewery was nearly demolished by an accidental fire. The decision was made to go ahead, anyway, but there were challenges.
“Brewing took us twice as long as it should have,” Stemler told Billy Penn, recalling his time on the family farm in Tildonk. “There were power outages, so the boiler kept shutting off, they had lost their glycol chiller, and some of the brewhouse had no roof.” Despite the roadblocks, he and Janssens managed to salvage enough of the farm-grown grains, mash, lauter and cool their wort, and then transfer it into fermenting tanks via provisional tubes.
After fermentation, the limited-edition beer was packaged (on a borrowed bottling line) and shipped overseas on a voyage that would arrive on the East Coast just in time for PBW Opening Tap. But when the cargo container was wedged open on Wednesday, May 27, the scene was not pretty.
Damage during transport
“Upon inspection of the beer at the receiving warehouse in NY, there was a lot of damage during transport,” wrote Jordan Fetfatzes of Bella Vista Beer Distributors in a broken-hearted email dispatch to his cohort in Philadelphia, after traveling to retrieve the shipment. (Don Russell, aka Joe Sixpack, was the first to publicly report the calamity.) All of the bottles had been smashed or broken and the kegs were badly banged up, most of them irrevocably. Fetfatzes managed to extract a few barrels to bring back to Philly, but it’s unknown if he’ll be able to get beer out of them — or whether it will be drinkable when he does.
Nobody’s exactly sure what went on inside the beer vault during that trip across the ocean.
“It was the first beer brewed after the fire — might be related to that or damage related to shipping,” said PBW chairman, former brewer, Standard Tap owner and fellow Belgium traveler William Reed.
Beer bottles can explode — homebrewers are all familiar with the dreaded “bottle bomb” syndrome. Sometimes this happens no matter how you transport or store the beer: If the liquid is “infected,” unwelcome bacteria can eat away at remaining sugars and produce enough CO2 gas to shatter the container. Since the Hof ten brewhouse was far from pristine when Leuven on a Prayer was made, infection is a possibility.
“They did have some issues with the fermentation temperatures, because it was the dead of winter,” Stemler said. “I was 3,800 miles away, so I couldn’t help that much, but the Janssens thought they got it.” He also noted that Jef brought a few bottles along with him to Philly (yes, the Belgian brewer is now here; more on that below), and that beer seems to be perfectly good.
Beer that’s just fine can also suffer explosions — if it’s not kept at a stable temperature or subjected to undue agitation. Did the refrigeration system on the cargo container malfunction? Was the container not secured properly as the ship rolled around on rough seas? These remain unknowns, and the brewers aren’t that interested in investigating. That beer is gone — but they’re ready to make another.
Silver lining: the beer will rise again
Creating a second version of Leuven on a Prayer at Free Will was always part of the plan. Janssens will join Stemler at the Perkasie brewhouse and construct a similar brew. This time, the farmhouse ale will be rested on local blueberries and then aged in red wine barrels. It’ll be tapped during Philly Beer Week 2016.
Meanwhile, other Hof ten Dormaal beer will be popping up in this year’s PBW itinerary. West Philly gem Fiume plans to break out some bottles throughout the week, and Jef and John will gather for a post-brewday party at Jose Pistola’s on Saturday, May 30.
On Tuesday, June 2, Philly Beer Week founder Tom Peters hosts a special Hof ten Dormaal luncheon at Monk’s Cafe, from which 50% of ticket sales will be donated to the brewery’s rebuilding project. Another Hof ten fundraiser is set for Wednesday, June 3, at Memphis Taproom. (There’s also a GoFundMe campaign for the rebuilding.)
So while the brewers are sad about the lost work, they’re mostly happy to be part of a community that supports its members. Perhaps, like the name of their beer, they’re taking inspiration from the one and only Bon Jovi:
We’ve gotta hold on to what we’ve got.
It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not.
We’ve got each other and that’s a lot.