Inside Pit Caribou, Quebec's Cult Brewery Making Beers Out of Thin Air

November 14, 2018

By Nick Rose, November 14, 2018

On the shores of L’Anse-à-Beaufils, Quebec, microbrewing meets microbiology.

Fumes of malted grain cut through the sweet stench of washed up seaweed. All around, wild spores fill the air. It’s along these shores that Francis Joncas has capitalized on an unpredictable but unlimited supply of wild yeast to make Canada’s very first spontaneously fermented beer.

“If we were wearing glasses that could detect yeast, we’d have trouble seeing each other right now because there is so much of it floating around,” he says, standing right in front of me.

Brewing with wild yeast is nothing new—in fact, humans almost certainly stumbled their way into primitive brewing with a little help from airborne microorganisms. What is novel, however, is the manner in which Joncas approaches these life forms.

Located in an old lobster fishing port in Quebec’s Gaspésie region, Joncas’ brewery Pit Caribou is a place where land, sea, and air collide in the form of beer. And while his brews capture a definite time and place, the term “terroir” falls short of describing his most recent experimentations.

“Being near the water definitely affects the taste of the beer,” Joncas says. “Just the direction of the wind has an impact on how we make it, because there is different plant life in every direction. There are so many things to factor in with spontaneous fermentation, it’s insane.”

Francis Joncas. All photos by Mégane Voghell.

Twelve years ago, Joncas was a bricklayer with a high school education and, like many young people who grew up in rural Quebec, limited job prospects. Today, he is considered a trailblazer in Quebec’s nascent but vibrant microbrewing scene. The success of Pit Caribou has also been an economic boon for Gaspésie, employing 20 people, some of them local and many of them Montrealers fleeing the province’s economic hub in favor of maritime manual labor.

The intervening 12 years were a combination of trial, error, growth, and improvisation that inadvertently led to Joncas developing a vision of what beer in Quebec could be. “I started brewing because I like drinking beer,” he recounts. “I didn’t have any kind of underlying philosophy, I just began brewing without any real expectations. I figured, ‘If it works, it works and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.’ I was sick of being a bricklayer and said, ‘I guess I’ll start a microbrewery.’”

Joncas has since expanded his little seaside empire to include one pub in nearby Percé and another 1,000 kilometers away in Montreal. But unlike some of his contemporaries, Joncas’ ultimate aspiration is to go smaller, way smaller, with a nanobrewery called Brett & Sauvage, where he will soon be able to experiment with wild yeasts to his heart’s desire.

Pit Caribou's pub in Percé.

Pit Caribou is part brewery, part lab, and part playground for Joncas. “This is more of a research project than anything,” he says. “I would have loved to be a researcher or an architect or something, but I sucked at school. I barely graduated high school and beer has become my way of pushing my own boundaries.”

Aiding Joncas in his pursuit to push the scientific and regulatory boundaries of Québécois beer is Jean-Michel Girard, a microbiologist at the Centre de recherche sur les biotechnologies  maritimes (CRBM) in Rimouski, a nonprofit research group that works in concert with businesses seeking to fine-tune their use of biotechnology.

Any skepticism Girard had about the actual value of spontaneously fermenting beer in casks for three years was quickly assuaged upon tasting it. “Had I never tasted a spontaneously fermented beer, I would have said it was completely insane to make it this way,” Girard laughs. “But now that I've tried it, I’m a convert and I really believe in this. You can really feel the hand of nature here; she decides how the beer turns out. There’s still a lot to learn.”

Given his background in microbiology and chemical engineering, Girard had a lot to bring to the table, though he is learning just as much from Joncas. “Francis is an autodidact and a little hyperactive, but he taught me a lot about making beer; he says he’s only got a high school education, but he’s always reading scientific articles and doing research.”

Together, they are studying, isolating, and combining yeast strains that Joncas forages in the forests of Gaspésie, many of which can find their way, via the wind, into a huge cooling trough at Pit Caribou that is designed for spontaneous fermentation. “Anything that’s alive and outside has yeast on it,” Joncas says, adding that he has foraged 160 different yeast strains on everything from flowers, tree barks, moss, blades of grass, and even rocks.  

Where the magic of wild yeast happens.

“The microorganisms that are in the air in Gaspésie will give the precise taste to that spontaneous beer,” Girard adds. “If you make it in the summer, it won’t taste the same as if you made it in the winter. If you make it on Monday, it won’t taste like Tuesday, because there will be so many different things in the air.”

For all of this meticulous research, however, the mystique of spontaneous beer is only heightened by the fact that microbiologists and brewers as seasoned as Joncas and Girard still struggle to fully understand the complexity of it. Unfazed, they continue to play with the lactobacillus and leuconostoc bacteria that interact with these wild yeasts, pitting them against each other in order to fine tune the acidity and taste of the beer.

“There is mystery involved with spontaneous fermentation,” Girard explains. “If you take a bunch microorganisms and put them in a sugary solution that’s super rich in nutrients, it’s all-out war and they all want to win. They’ll secrete metabolites to try to defeat the other and consume the ressources faster than competing microorganisms. There’s an entire ecology in these batches and there’s a war going on during fermentation. These battles leave their mark in the beer.”

For now, the answer to that mystery may literally be blowing in the wind, but Joncas and Girard are convinced that their joint research into airborne microorganisms will have practical applications even beyond spontaneous fermentation. Their ultimate goal is to be able to manipulate strains of wild yeast in order to have far more control over an ingredient that is usually airborne.

“Spontaneous fermentation is the Holy Grail of brewing because microorganisms will really give the beer a distinct flavor profile,” Girard explains. “That’s why spontaneous beers are so good; there are so many strains of microorganisms, bacteria, and yeasts that are interacting to create these flavour profiles. That being said, these interactions are extremely complex and impossible to control and we don’t fully understand how all of these factors interact yet. If we could understand that process a little better, we could make a beer—it wouldn’t be called ‘spontaneous’ beer—but we might be able to make it in six months instead of three years.”

Joncas’ first batch of spontaneous beer was called Perséides, which entered the Pit Caribou cooling trough in May 2016 and spent the subsequent year and a half in whiskey casks, slowly developing a complex flavor that Joncas says tastes like apple cider and lemonade, thanks to lactic acid.  

Cultivating wild yeast at Pit Caribou.

Those hoping to get their hands on a bottle of Perséides will be sorely disappointed, however. When the first batch went out to select beer boutiques across the province in November of last year, there were more people in line waiting for its release there were available beers. Canada’s first 1,350 bottles of spontaneously fermented beer sold out in about 15 minutes. As for those hoping to try any of Pit Caribou’s products outside of Quebec, they will be even more disappointed. “I sell more than I make in Quebec alone, so there’s no point in doing all the paperwork to sell elsewhere,” says Joncas.

While the bulk of Pit Caribou’s sales are made up of blondes, IPAs, and amber ales, the explosive demand for Perséides is certainly a sign of things to come, not only for Pit Caribou, but for a province and country that were barely equipped to regulate spontaneous fermentation in the first place. When he first inquired as to the provincial and federal rules governing the commercialisation of spontaneously fermented beers, Joncas found a gaping hole in legislation.

“There was no law saying I couldn’t use spontaneous yeasts—t’s some bureaucrat who decided that while drinking cheap fucking wine,” he laughs. “To be called ‘beer’ under the law, it has to come from a mash made from malted barley, it has to have hops or some other aromatics and it has to contain yeast. They were saying there was no yeast in my beer when I make it, but the phrase doesn’t say a human hand has to put yeast in there! There is yeast in there, dude. It was their own interpretation of the law, but it wasn’t written anywhere that the yeast had to be put in there by a human hand.”

The view from the brewery.

Persistence paid off for Joncas, who ultimately convinced regulators that what he was making was in fact beer. But perhaps no one is more familiar with Joncas’ perseverance than Thalia Sakellarides.

Sakellarides is a doctoral student in ancient Greek anthropology at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris and history at the University of Montreal. She’s worked in bars, breweries, and beer festivals for over a decade and met Joncas at Oktoberfest in Repentigny in 2014. There, the two struck up a friendship that eventually evolved into a relationship, thanks again to Joncas’ tenacity.

“When he returned to Gaspésie, he wrote to me every single day,” Sakellarides recounts. “At first, I wanted nothing to do with Francis and I told him that, but he never gave up and I eventually relented. When Francis wants something, he won’t give up until he gets it.”

Since 2014, Sakellarides has been an integral part of Pit Caribou’s growth. In fact, Sakellarides says, she is one of the main reasons that Joncas opened a pub in Montreal, where she was studying. When Sakellarides moved to France for further studies, he followed suit and staged at Cantillon brewery in Belgium, where he got the inspiration and know-how to make spontaneously fermented beer in Quebec. Sakellarides, along with CRBM, even helped Joncas navigate the bureaucratic headache surrounding spontaneous yeasts.

But on the shores of L’Anse-à-Beaufils, where the air smells like beer and brine, it’s easy to see why a brewer may not feel bound by man-made law. Like much of Gaspésie, it’s a place that feels both ancient and energetic, where the wind breathes life into beer and the water reminds you of who’s really in charge.

“Pit Caribou is important because it is both a relic of past values ​​and a forerunner in the industry,” Sakellarides says. “It’s a creative space, a research laboratory, and a school for a new generation. But, above all, Pit Caribou is important because it is the playground of Francis Joncas.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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