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Lost in Beer Space

A frenzied taste of Mondial de la Bière

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It’s not quite noon, but most of us in the crowd are already sipping beer as we watch Fred Cormier lope onto the stage, ponytail flopping against his back. The lanky brewer smiles as he accepts a gold medal for a beer called Greg, a luscious, spicy stout created at his Québec brewpub Hopfenstark.

The tippling starts early at the annual Mondial de la Bière in Montréal. After all, there are 637 beers to sample. Of those, only a dozen will pick up awards. Standing beside me, judge Pete Slosberg explains that the beers were judged blind, with no particular nod to style. “So you judge hedonistically,” notes Slosberg, who cocreated (and later sold) Pete’s Wicked Ale. “Of course, the judges’ biases get in the way,” he concedes. “Some like sweet, some like bitter.”

What does Slosberg like? “I like flavors in balance, so that nothing dominates,” he says.

The judges prefer beers with bold flavors, too, or so it appears from the list of winners — including two stouts, a wheat doppelbock full of dark fruit and spice, and a honey ginger tripel ale. Inside the Place Bonaventure, tracking them down among the 170 or so pubs is daunting.

Mondial, now in its 19th year, turns this concrete hall into a cacophonous miniature city for five days; a settlement of mini-pubs dispensing some of the most exquisite and unusual beers in the world. The encyclopedic list of brews is itself intimidating. So is the crowd: Some 95,000 people will wander through this hall over the next few days, most with a glass mug dangling from one hand. While many serious beer lovers commit a weekend or more to savoring as much as they can, I have just five hours and little idea where to start.

Fortunately, I’ve driven up with Steve Polewacyk of Vermont Pub & Brewery, who promptly scores a list of the award-winning beers and shares it with me. Polewacyk receives a warm welcome wherever he wanders: His good friend and former business partner — Greg Noonan, who passed away in 2009 — is legendary in the craft-brewing world. Noonan’s presence looms large here; Hopfenstark’s Greg is named for him, as are Mondial’s award certificates, each of which is called an MBiere Greg Noonan Award.

Honoring Noonan in this way was a given for Jeannine Marois, who cofounded Mondial in 1994 and is now its president. Sitting in a plastic chair on the VIP terrace, Marois explains how she was running a graphics and communications firm two decades ago when a pair of clients asked her to study the potential success of a beer festival. After some market research, she thought it could be a go. “‘So you say it would be good,’” she recalls the clients saying. “‘So want to start it with us?’ I said, ‘Why not?’”

Each of the trio kicked in $15,000 for the first event, which took place in Montréal’s Place des Arts over four hot, sunny days. “There were 10 microbreweries in Québec at the time,” says Marois, whose tousled blond bun suggests she’s in perpetual motion. “Now, there are nearly a hundred.”

Though Marois continued running her graphic arts firm until recently, Mondial caused her to turn 90 degrees in her professional life. “I fell in love with the concept, and with the people,” she says. And her taste has broadened from the lighter ales she drank in her youth. “My palate is a bit bigger than that now,” Marois quips.

Mondial is bigger, too, with seven full-time employees and festivals in Strasbourg and Mulhouse in France, as well as in Montréal. The business is not all about carefree swilling — bringing alcohol into Québec can be a complex and daunting process, Marois says, and sometimes beer gets delayed on its way to the festival, or the province’s alcohol authorities ask to analyze its contents. Despite Mondial’s apparent success, Marois admits, “We really don’t make lots of money.”

Still, in Place Bonaventure, as brewers greet each other with hugs and beer lovers stroll happily, it’s clear that Marois and her crew facilitate sheer joy — and not just among Mondial attendees. When I ask at the VIP bar, in terrible French, to try an Italian ale called Civale Mervisia, two older barkeeps collaborate to open it and laugh uproariously as the cork pops into the air.

After talking with Marois, I decide to tackle more tasting and find the award winners. I head first to the Latin Petit Pub — where the focus is on beers from South America and Italy — to try the gold-medal-winning imperial stout.

There, a Québecois economist named Guillaume Lamb doubles as a volunteer pourer. He decants the stout from Cervejaria Bodebrown, a Brazilian brewery. It’s flat, dark and powerful, almost like bourbon. (And, at 14.5 percent alcohol, it’s nearly as strong.)

To concentrate solely on award winners, though, would mean missing much magic, such as Forest Bacurí, an Amazonian beer brewed with a fruit of the same name. Bacurí shares a family with mangosteens, and this beer is the color of diluted sunshine, refreshingly light — only 3 percent alcohol — and citrusy. It’s a welcome palate cleanser between the heavy-hitting stout and another Italian ale that tastes of pumpkin.

I sample an incredibly round saison-like blond ale brewed by Le Cheval Blanc specifically for Mondial, with wisps of banana layered over zesty sour notes; then two dry ales from La Succursale, a newish Québec microbrewery; and a stunning summer ale from Boquébière, a new-to-me microbrewery in Sherbrooke.

Mondial’s exhibitors are not just microbrewing cognoscenti, however. Nearly empty is the Coors Light booth, raised on a platform. Inside, a flat-screen television silently cycles Coors commercials, while a waterfall trickles in front of a tub filled with Coors Light T Glacé, a sort of lager-iced-tea hybrid. “Coors did 37 tests, and on the 37th try, they got it right!” enthuses the attendant. “It’s not like anything you’ve ever drunk out there.” Um, he’s right.

The flash of the Coors booth is in distinct contrast to the homey, cozy Vermont tent, which is a nexus for visitors from the Green Mountain State. Here, a handwritten board lists beers from six Vermont breweries, including VP&B and Rock Art Brewery. With so little time and so many unfamiliar foreign beers to try, I don’t linger long to sample local favorites.

Not surprisingly, the food stalls at Mondial are all about the beer, too. I savor a gamey kangaroo sausage from Expérience Kangourou less for its inherent flavors than for its ability to coax out the fruity notes of a Saison Tradition from Québec’s Brasseurs du Monde — which won its brewer, Dominic Charbonneau, a gold medal. Charbonneau is a wunderkind who began picking up awards almost as soon as he began brewing. Accepting yet another honor earlier that morning, he said, “I have beer in my blood.”

I steal a sip of Rogue Ales’ Hazelnut Brown Nectar (another gold medalist) from Polewacyk, then head to the microbrasserie Dieu du Ciel!, where a few guys linger dreamily over their pints at the bar draped in black fabric.

The pub’s platinum-medal-winning Scotch ale, Équinoxe du Printemps, isn’t on hand, but other treasures await, such as the Herbe à Détourne, a hazy, orange-tinged beer that brewer Stéphane Ostiguy brews with Citra hops.

The man next to me is swooning over a dark, herbaceous beer named Umami; Ostiguy brews it with morel mushrooms, which he adds at the end of the boil. “We love morels, and I wanted to bring that taste into beer,” Ostiguy says. A dark beer has the body to support the morel notes, he adds. Its flavor resides somewhere between stout and forest floor.

Ostiguy says Mondial is a “perfect occasion” to try beers from other provinces and countries, many of which can be hard to get in Québec. “Many of these are beers we don’t have access to,” he says. “The liquor board is run by bureaucrats.”

Like almost everyone else, Ostiguy cites Noonan as an inspiration when he launched Dieu du Ciel! — one of the first microbreweries in Québec. “Greg is very dear to our hearts,” he says.

Hopfenstark’s Fred Cormier also credits Noonan, not only as the inspiration for his award-winning beer but for trying new styles. “He was the guy who created the black IPA,” says Cormier. “Greg is still a big part of the beer industry.”

As for his own approach, Cormier says it can be both languorous — “I take my time and let the beer say when it is ready” — and uncannily anticipatory of coming trends. “I’ve always done styles of beer that others aren’t doing, like saisons. I’m not making beer for money,” he adds. “I’m making beer for myself.”

What’s next for Cormier? “Low-gravity beers,” he says without hesitation, referring to beer with low alcohol content.

Greg, however, is no such beer; at 7 percent alcohol, it’s robust and cocoa-like. I take only a sip or two before gathering my things to leave. Driving home, I’m already counting the days until Québec’s great outdoor beer festival, La Fête Bières et Saveurs in Chambly, coming up in September.

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