Monk’s Cafe co-owner Tom Peters has been taking local brewers to Belgium for six years now. The goal is to create a special collaboration brew for Philly Beer Week — and the results have always been stellar. This year, however, when he heard it was Bob Barrar of 2SP who’d be accompanying him to Europe, “I was a bit worried,” Peters admitted.
Not that the noted publican had any doubt about the brewer’s talents.
Over the course of his 15 years at Iron Hill, Barrar had racked up an astonishing 30 medals from national Great American Beer Festival. And last year, he notched the first GABF score for new brewery 2SP. It was a gold, for “The Russian,” the rich, velvety, juicy bomb of an imperial stout for which Barrar is best known.
Therein lay the issue. The brewery Peters had lined up for the 2017 collab was Brouwerij De Ranke, known for making some of the driest ales on the planet — aka pretty much the opposite style of beer.
Peters happens to be a huge fan of that dry style. He fell for De Ranke the first time he tasted it, even though the bottle he was served at a bar in Belgium had skunked.
“I knew it had potential,” Peters remembered. “I could taste the hop character. I said to myself, ‘Ooooh, I want to find a new one of these!’”
A few weeks later, at the 24 Hours of Belgium Special Beer fest (now known as Zythos), he got the chance. “I found their booth, and I must have hit it five times.” This was around 15 years ago, before De Ranke buddies Nino Bacelle and Guido Devos had their own place and were just contract brewing at others’ facilities. No matter, Peters immediately contacted Shelton Brothers importers and implored them to bring the beer Stateside.
In 2005, De Ranke built a state-of-the-art brewhouse — likely helped along financially by Peters’ boosterism.
Fast forward to 2017. Would Bob Barrar’s love of thick and sweet be able to mesh with De Ranke’s style of dry and crisp to create something up to Peters’ notably high standards?
When brewers join forces to create a beer these days, most of the conceptual work is done in advance. So via email, Barrar and Bacelle began working out the recipe for their creation. “I warned Nino that Bob would want to do a big, strong beer,” Peters said.
In the end, the collaborators decided on a dark porter, but one that would come in at a relatively sessionable 5.6 percent ABV and be more hoppy than normal.
De Ranke is one of a few breweries in the world to use only whole flower hops as opposed to dried pellets — locally, Victory and Vault do the same — and Bacelle had just sourced a new, experimental strain called 7784, so that went into the recipe. They decided to pump up the Dingemans malt grain bill with some that was hyperlocally grown, from La Malterie du Château, just a few miles from the Belgium brewhouse. And they’d use De Ranke’s house yeast strain.
Ingredients settled, all that was left to do was actually brew the stuff.
So one day in January, Peters, Bacelle, Devos, Barrar and 2SP assistant brewer Andrew “Ruby” Rubenstein gathered at the top of De Ranke’s facility. Unlike most American breweries, De Ranke’s is arranged vertically instead of horizontally. The hot liquor tanks, where the brewing water is heated and treated, are on the pinnacle floor. One level beneath them is the mash tun, where the water mixes with grain to release sugars. Below that is the wort kettle, where hops are added to the boil, and then on the bottom level are the fermentation tanks.
Why organize a brewhouse like this, stacked atop itself? Instead of using up energy pumping liquid along the brewery floor, you get to take advantage of an unstoppable natural force — gravity. Which made naming the beer a gimme: Gravity Never Fails.
And in the end, the PBW 2017 collaboration beer turned out just as good as all the previous ones.
“It’s a little more juicy than I thought it would be,” said Peters, tasting it for the first time at the Philly Beer Week opening press conference. “I overheard that,” Barrar said. “I still think it’s a bit too dry.”
Eh, they’re both wrong. It’s perfect just the way it is.
Find Gravity Never Fails during Philly Beer Week at Monk’s Cafe, Sancho Pistola’s, Khyber Pass Pub and Capone’s in Norristown, or search Philly Tap Finder.
Philly Beer Week Belgian collaboration beers over the years
- 2012: Iron Hill + Brasserie Dupont = Speciale Belge (Belgian strong pale)
- 2013: Weyerbacher + Brasserie de la Senne = Manneken-Penn (Belgo-America dubbel)
- 2014: Dock Street + Brouwerij Dilewyns/Vicaris = Philly Tripel (Belgian tripel)
- 2015: Free Will + Hof Ten Dormaal = Leuven on a Prayer (saison)
- 2016: Yards + Brouwerij DeMolen (Amsterdam) = Fire, Flood & Plague (imperial porter)
- 2017: 2SP + Brouwerij De Ranke = Gravity Never Fails (hoppy porter)