ld-guard Belgian brewers are a secretive lot. At the famous
, in the West Flanders village of Watou, they'd prefer that other professionals not take the otherwise public tour of their facility. Josh Pfriem admits he was less than forthcoming on his own pilgrimage to this holy temple of abbey ales.
"I did not announce myself," says Pfriem. "But I said something, and they said, 'You seem to know something about beer. Are you a homebrewer?' And, by nature, I am a homebrewer. So I said yeah, though I'd been working at Squatters/Wasatch for a few years then."
Pfriem didn't nick any trade secrets. He came away humbled, with a deeper understanding of why he'd never tasted an American beer like the Belgians of Belgium, despite all the work American breweries put into combining Westmalle yeast and Slovenian hops with imported candi sugar and Pilsner malt.
"It's a brewery and it makes beer—but it was more than that. The level of attention to detail and balance that they've given their beer for decades and decades really shows up," he says. "I came away thinking, 'Wow, we are so very young in our craft.' These breweries and the families that run them have worked out layers and layers of nuance in brewing that brings out complexities we should strive for."
Strive he did. And he succeeded wildly with Pfriem Belgian Strong Dark, which we're happy to toast as Willamette Week's 2014 Beer of the Year. Not only is it one of the tastiest beers made in Oregon, it's also a symbol of our local industry's next step forward. The Strong Dark is a rabbit hole of structured complexity. It unfolds like a well-written mystery novel—dark, spicy and sweet characters deceive in one chapter then reveal in the next. You'll want to take time considering each sip, as this brew is a nearly wine-strong 10.25 percent ABV. Best of all? Pfriem says we haven't yet had the fully formed version of this currently draft-only beer; that won't come until it's bottled later this year.
The style Pfriem calls a Belgian Strong Dark would in some places be labeled a "quadrupel," and represents the pinnacle of the traditional abbey lineup. The name that refers to the gravity of the beer—other characteristics are debated, as Belgians have little use for beer styles—which Pfriem clandestinely observed at St. Bernardus. Chimay, Rochefort and the Dutch trappist brewery De Koningshoeven also make well-regarded versions. At the top of the heap you'll find the fabled Westvleteren 12.
Often regarded as the best beer in the world, "Westy 12" is also tough to secure. Aside from a 2013 fundraiser that saw $85 six-packs sent stateside, it's only available at the rural monastery where it's made or on the gray market. (Portland's allotment of $85 Westy was off shelves in hours, later selling on eBay for up to $1,000.)
In true Belgian spirit, Pfriem hasn't set out to mimic another brew but to make his own version inspired, he says, by American tastes and "what Belgian beer tastes like over there, not what it's like once we get it here."
Pfriem, 33, has followed a steep trajectory in the world of beer. The Seattle native started homebrewing while at Western Washington in his early 20s then moved to Utah as a ski bum. He was hired on at Utah Brewers Cooperative, makers of Squatters and Wasatch, and worked there for a few years. He then moved to his old college town of Bellingham, Wash., to work at Chuckanut Brewery, which won Great American Beer Festival honors as Small Brewpub of the Year in 2009 while he was there. He moved to Hood River to work at Full Sail but left in December 2011. Pfriem Family Brewing was open by August 2012. From the beginning, the brewery looked to meld American Northwest and Belgian brewing traditions. In addition to the Belgian Strong Dark, the regular stable includes a strong blonde, a wit, a blonde IPA and, yes, an IPA. The yeast-forward Strong Dark is our favorite, but hopheads have rallied around one-offs like Nelson Sauvin Single Hop IPA and a single-hop mosaic pale ale.
"I grew up in Washington and loved the hop-forward beers, but I studied in Belgium and had a deep love of those beers," Pfriem says. "I fell in love with the quality and craftsmanship, the depth—I was drinking those in Belgium and was thinking I would like to have something in this realm to drink. So we brew with a nod toward tradition, but we definitely do them their own way, our own style."
As far as Oregon beer goes, Strong Darks are rare. Crux, in Bend makes one, and Pelican, on the coast, made one in the past. Pfriem's is different, starting with the ingredients used: Wyeast's Leuven Pale strain, usually seen in pales and blondes, plus a simple Pilsner malt base, dark candi sugar imported from Belgium and three types of European hop, mainly mild German varieties.
"All the color and darkness comes from the sugar—it's caramelized at very high temperatures," Pfriem says. "The yeast we use is aggressive at first, it takes off furiously and then it calms down and almost sort of starts acting like a lager yeast."
Unlike the European masters, Pfriem is very willing to tell us this. "In America, we're very cooperative—anyone in the brewery community that's asked about it, I've given them all the information," he says.
There's one last thing the Belgians know, though, that Pfriem is eager to show Americans: Beer is sometimes better in bottles. Belgian Strong Darks are, in fact, designed to get better with a little age, after some time undergoing another round of fermentation under a cap. So is Pfriem's Belgian Strong Dark—something we should see for ourselves when the brewery starts bottling beer sometime this year.
"In America, we brew like draft is king," he says. "In Belgium draft is not common. They believe the bottle is king. And a big part of that is the secondary fermentation that goes on in the bottle, which preserves the beer much better and gives it another layer of complexity. There's a level of carbonation that you can't fill a bottle at, or get on draft. And it'll be cool to do that with our beer.â
To read about our other nine favorite beers of 2014, click here.
Portland-Area Breweries from A to Z | Beer of the Year | Favorite Beers #2-10
Portland-Area Cideries | Top 5 Ciders of the Year | Beer Bars and Bottle Shops
Local Growler Makers | Surprising Growler Fills | Homebrew Shops
Restaurants With Great Beer | Local Beer and Liquor Pairings
An Oral History of BridgePort IPA | Beer Events Calendar | Beer Tours
Day Sips: North Oregon Coast, Hood River, Eugene, Seattle
Pfriem Family Brewers, 707 Portway Ave., Hood River, 541-321-0490, pfriembeer.com, 11:30 am-9 pm daily.