It’s 11 a.m. in Val-d'Espoir, Quebec and a battered red pickup truck is pulling up to Auval brewery. A tall Frenchman steps out and begins shovelling hundreds of pounds of spent grains—still steaming from being malted—into the cargo bed of his truck.
“My cows go crazy for these grains,” says cattle farmer Bertrand Anel, pointing to a broken tail light, as the impassioned moos of nearby cattle grow louder. “They know I’m here and they’re hungry.”
Minutes later, on a neighboring plot of land, Anel’s livestock stampede toward his red pickup, eager to feast on the byproduct of one of Quebec’s most celebrated and hard-to-get beers, tail lights be damned. The eventual byproduct of these cows will become fertilizer for Auval’s fields, closing the tight agricultural loop at the heart of Benoit Couillard’s Gaspésie brewery.
In a few weeks, a thousand kilometers away in Montreal, beer enthusiasts will line up with cattle-like eagerness outside of beer boutiques to get their hands on the latest shipment of Auval—two bottles maximum per customer in most locations. Of the 160 cases of beer Couillard shipped to Montreal in early November, almost none remain on shelves, but the lucky few may still be able to find some on a 5,000-member Facebook group called Auval Spotter.
Back at the farm, Couillard reflects on the trappings of making a brew so popular that it temporarily transforms beer stores into Supreme stores. “I’d like to think this happens because the beer is well-made,” he says. “I’m a hardcore beer geek, but even I wouldn’t wait in line for a beer that I really like. It can also make people’s expectations a little too high. I’m not complaining either, because I sell everything I produce pretty quickly.”
Ultimately, however, Couillard is far more concerned with his honey bees than he is with brand recognition. “I think I’m more of a farm brewery than a microbrewery,” Couillard says. “There’s a big agriculture aspect to what we do and I’m lucky that there was already a structure in place here for me to experiment with farming. Plus, I really like bees.”
That structure includes beehives, berry fields, and nearby pastures for Bertrand’s cows to roam freely and feast on malted grain. Despite being at the cutting edge of beer in Quebec, there is an almost medieval simplicity to Couillard’s little ecosystem: The humans drink the beer, the cows eat the grains, and their manure feeds the plants that go into the beer.
Formerly a woodworker, Couillard moved to Gaspésie in 2006 to found Pit Caribou brewery with his former business partner and native Gaspésien Francis Joncas. Together, they helped kickstart Quebec’s now-vibrant microbrewery scene, though Couillard eventually went his own way in 2014 in order to pursue smaller, more experimental brewing with Auval, with the earliest batches of Auval being made in Pit Caribou’s facilities.
By 2015, thanks in part to a depressed agricultural sector in Gaspésie, Couillard was able to snap up some farmland in Val d’Espoir, build a brewery there, and begin planting berries and harvesting honey that he now uses to referment his beer. It wasn’t long before word spread across the province of a Gaspésien brewery on a farm making very limited runs of light, floral beers. Yet, for all of the hype that ensued, Couillard’s end goal was and remains remarkably simple.
“Our signature is dry beers made with fruit and honey that I cultivate,” he says. “We’re just trying to find balance and not have a flavor profile that’s too explosive. We don’t need to put fireworks in there. I’m just trying to make simple beers that are well-executed and that I would want to drink after a day of work.”
It’s not a stretch to say that his approach, both in method and in flavour, can blur the line between beer and natural wine. Couillard works on a farm, uses wild yeasts and barrel-aging, and even collaborates with Quebec winemakers to infuse his beers with their leftover skins. There is a complexity and barnyard funk across his line of products that makes it hard not to evoke the T-word.
“I’m a big fan of natural wines,” he says. “The word ‘terroir’ hardly ever comes up in beer making, but since my brewery is also a farm, I think I can take that liberty. If there is terroir here, it’s because of my well water, my bees, and the small fruits that grow here. It’s not like wine, where even the placement of the land affects the product, but there’s still something here that reflects the a time and place.”
This parallel with winemaking is not lost on Alex Landry, manager at Montreal’s premier wine bar Vin Papillon, which specializes in small vegetable-centric plates and organic wine. Among the Georgian orange wines and oxidized Juras that he curates on the wine list are bottles of Auval’s Trifolium, made with wild yeast from his red clovers, Belgian saison-style Espinay, and Pomace Orange, a collaboration with Quebec vineyard Pinard et Filles.
If you order an Auval at Vin Papillon, it will be served in a wine glass, which isn’t really by design, though it isn’t entirely inappropriate. “We just don’t have proper beer glasses,” Landry laughs, adding that using the term “terroir” isn’t at all out of place when describing Auval’s beers. Landry’s connection to Couillard’s land is twofold, having spent many Christmases with his grandparents just down the road from the farm that would become the brewery he would visit as a sommelier later in life.
“To me, the definition of terroir is where landscape meets people,” Landry says. “When you drink an Auval—especially for me, because I spent so much time in Val d’Espoir as a kid—you really feel like you’re on top of a hill there. What you smell and what you drink is that place, at that time, made by this guy. Because of my wine background, which is related to terroir and soils, my mind goes straight to terroir when I drink Auval. It’s almost like wine to me, because it’s so high-energy.”
But “high-energy” winespeak is not to be confused with the heaviness or hoppiness that have come to define a lot of microbreweries. Auval can also be reminiscent of the lighter spectrum of mass-produced beers, which, as we all know, pair beautifully with food.
“The food that we serve at Vin Papillon goes well this kind of beer,” Landry says. “I don’t know a lot about double IPAs and all of that stuff, but Auval is easy-drinking in the same way that a Coors Light or a Budweiser is. You don’t get tired of drinking it, but they really put a terroir and an identity into their product.”
And while Couillard probably makes fewer bottles of beer in a year than either of those beer juggernauts makes in an hour, demand for it is certainly nearing something approaching mass appeal—in Montreal, anyway.
Phil Larue works in IT for the City of Montreal by day and fields requests for hopeful members of the Auval Spotter by night. In order to join this group, Facebook users must answer two questions relating to beer and promise to adhere to strict community guidelines (“Incomplete demands to join the group will be AUTOMATICALLY denied.”)
To be fair, the emphasis is more on “community” than “guidelines” with Auval Spotter. He says he created Auval Spotter in order to keep bottles of Auval out of the hands of hoarders by allowing individuals to post photos and locations of remaining bottles.
“The goal was to democratize this product as much as possible,” Larue says. “The whole point of this group is not for a hundred people to help one person, but for one person to help a hundred. It’s for individuals to help a larger community and not the other way around.”
The fact that this groups exists, let alone that it now counts nearly 5,000 members, is a testament to the appeal of Ben Couillard’s beer. But for Larue, the true appeal has been in getting to know the man behind the brew.
“I’ve rarely met a human as Zen as Benoit Couillard; he’s very focused and knows exactly who he is, as a person,” says Larue. “At first, I wasn’t sure how he would feel about Auval Spotter, but he’s joined the group, likes posts, and shares information about new releases. He even told employees when I visited that I was the invisible employee of Auval as a joke.”
The symbiotic relationship between Couillard and Larue’s respective projects, much like the symbiosis that exists between his grains and Anel’s cows, or between his beers and a Montreal wine bar, is mutually beneficial and rooted in a much broader vision of his role within his environment and community.
In the late 90s, when he visited an ancestral forest in British Columbia that had been leveled, Couillard stumbled upon an image that would become seared into his mind, body, work ethic, and, eventually, every label of Auval.
“There was an ancestral forest that had been cut to the ground, so nearby aboriginals erected a totem of a woman crying and pointing at the ground,” Couillard recounts. “Her hand had an eye in it, which I interpreted as always having a vision in your actions. Regardless of your beliefs, it’s how you act and what you do with your hands that will have a real impact on your environment. If you think in a distorted way, you will act in a distorted way. That’s what it represents for me; I got it tattooed on my arm and even used it to design our logo.”
This gets to the core of what Couillard and Auval represent in their cultural and agricultural landscape. The beers may be opaque, but they are imbued with an unmistakable clarity, both in vision and in taste. Ingredients are clearly discernible while interacting complexly with each other and with the land whence they sprouted. Supplies are scarce, but infused with a level of depth that is not really attainable without an uncompromising worldview propelled by hard work.
“Agriculture gives us a lot of control over the final product and there’s a certain poetry to it,” Couillard explains. “Growing berries is more expensive than buying fruits from a supplier, but it’s nice to have an impact on the agricultural community around here. It allows us to revitalize land that was being abandoned and to integrate into this landscape.”
For Alex Landry, who also plays guitar in a band called Reviews and compares wine pairings to building to a fluid tracklist for an album, Auval’s success is not unlike your favorite local band hitting it big. They may not be your little secret anymore, but you can’t blame them or their fans for their success.
“It would be amazing if people waited in line for a Quebec cheese that came out that day or for a local band releasing an album,” he says. “Sometimes, I find it strange that people would wait in line for two bottles of IPA, but, at the same time, I’m really happy that people are doing that for something that is extremely local and well-made.”
For Couillard, who likes to play music with his favorite cattle farmer in their spare time, this analogy seems only too apt. “I feel like I’m in a band that makes music that people really like, instead of making music that I think people like. I experiment and people respond to it. I’m very lucky—I don’t have to compromise.”