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Jerry Vietz had his first drink at age 10. It was a bottle of Miller High Life. He and his buddies bought it from their neighbourhood depanneur in Beauharnois.

 

Vietz hated it.

 

"It wasn't the best beer," the 36-year-old recalled last week.

 

"I wonder whether anyone actually likes the first beer they ever taste. In my case, it really was an experience to forget."

 

Which may sound surprising coming from a man who now makes beer for a living. Not only that, he's getting global recognition for the quality of his brews.

 

Among his creations: the best dark ale in the world. That's right, the world.

 

Vietz (pronounced vee-ETTS) scooped up the prize a week ago in Norwich, England, where judges at TastingBeers. com's World Beer Awards gave top honours to a beer of his called 17.

 

It's a Belgian-style strong ale he made in 2007 to celebrate the 17th anniversary of his employer, Chamblybased Unibroue, Quebec's largest craft brewer.

 

17 was Vietz's first creation as brewmaster at Unibroue, part of Ontariobased Sleeman Breweries, a division of Sapporo Breweries in Japan. The beer had already won several gold medals, culminating in a prestigious platinum medal at the Beverage Testing Institute's World Beer Championships in Chicago in 2009.

 

By the time it was tasted blind in England this summer, the 17 had been fermenting three years in the bottle. Just like fine wine, specialty beers like that can age 15 years.

 

The judges praised the 10-per-cent alcohol brew for its "terrific bubbles ... citrusy coolness ... (and) complex flavours." They ranked it above strong ales from England, Belgium and other nations with much older brewing traditions than Quebec's.

 

Overall, there were more than 500 entries from 27 countries in five categories: pale ale, dark ale, lager, stout and porter, and wheat. Seven beers were Canadian, including five from Quebec. Two other Unibroue products took top prizes: La Fin du Monde (world's best pale ale, blond-golden) and Quelque Chose (world's best wheat beer, fruit). You can find those two pretty easily in stores.

 

Just don't expect to come across any precious 17. Unibroue did only a limited bottling of the red-brown "birthday beer": 90,000 litres, or 120,000 large bottles. And most of it wasn't even sold here. Since Unibroue exports 80 per cent of its production to the U.S., only 24,000 bottles of 17 were marketed in Quebec, and most of it is gone.

 

To taste what the judges raved about, you'll have to make a special effort and drink what's left at a handful of specialty pubs scattered across the province. Le Saint-Bock, on St. Denis St. in Montreal's Quartier Latin, still has some at $50 a bottle. Bistro L'Autre Oeil in the Gatineau town of Aylmer has some, too. Also, try La Ninkasi in Quebec City's Faubourg St. Jean Baptiste.

 

Can't make the trip? Try something lighter that's available at the supermarket: Unibroue's flagship brew, Blanche de Chambly, a wheat ale that's a superb summer thirst quencher.

 

Or try a bottle of the brewery's brand-new Blonde de Chambly, a citrusy brew Vietz spent nine months developing and which launched three weeks ago.

 

There's no shortage of other award-winning Quebec micros to choose from, either.

 

Some have been around for a while, like Montreal-based McAuslan Brewery, a pioneer that was the first in this province to bottle its products, starting with St. Ambroise Pale Ale in 1989.

 

And there are dynamic regional newcomers like A la Fut, a St. Tite micro awarded the platinum medal at the Mondial de la biere event in Montreal in June for a Belgian-style brew called La Trippe a 3-Brett.

 

Another is Brossard-based Les Trois Mousquetaires, whose Baltic Porter was judged the world's best of its kind last week at the same TastingBeer. com event in England where 17 got its prize.

 

Another winner there was Chicoutimi brew pub La Voie Maltee's Microbrasserie du Saguenay, whose 10-percent-alcohol Criminelle was judged the best strong stout in the Americas.

 

Quebec micros are on a roll. During the past 15 years, according to the Quebec Microbreweries Association, the province's craft beer industry has managed to fend off new competition from popular foreign beers like Heineken and Stella Artois imported by market leaders Molson and Labatt. The market share of imported beers grew from a tiny 1.5 per cent in 1995 to 16 per cent last year. At the same time, microbrews' share rose threefold from 2.1 per cent to 6.7 per cent. On tap, about 10 per cent of pub beer in Quebec is microbrew.

 

That may be small beer compared to the majors, but what the Quebec micros lack in quantity they usually make up for in quality -award-winning specialty beers like the ones Vietz makes.

 

"Why Quebec? I think it's because we're creative," the burly brewer said over a glass of Blonde de Chambly at Fourquet Fourchette, a restaurant in the Palais des congres that features Unibroue's products on draft.

 

"We make Belgian-style beers using Belgian yeasts and traditional Belgian brewing techniques, but we have our own signature," said Vietz, dressed in black jeans and black polo shirt with a pinstriped black cloth hat.

 

At international competitions like the one in England and others in the U.S., "we win gold medals over Belgian breweries -and there are hundreds to compete against," Vietz said.

 

The not-so-secret ingredient in 17? Oak chips, added during the brewing process as an experiment. The brew is also given a dose of sugar and yeast that makes fermentation and carbonation happen once the bottle is sealed.

 

Natural compounds in the dark beer help protect it from deterioration, the high alcohol content helps preserve it, and the antiseptic quality of the hops used in the brewing process helps ward off bad bacteria.

 

The result is a living liquid, something that ages like fine wine, sealed into its dark brown bottle Champagnestyle, with a cork held by a wire cage.

 

"That's what we do," Vietz said. "We make beers that can be hard to classify, but that are always flavourful."

 

Vietz came to his job by a roundabout route. A Grade 9 dropout, he found his vocation at 16 working at a candy factory in Chateauguay, mixing fruit fillings for pies and doughnuts. By 20, he was studying sciences at CEGEP before specializing in food science at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in St. Hyacinthe, where he developed a passion for fermentation. Vietz apprenticed at an apple cider maker in Hemmingford and got a temporary job with the SAQ doing quality control of bulk wine at the Maison des Futailles in Montreal (the stuff destined for deps and chain stores).

 

He also had a stint making cheeses for the Parmalat milk company in Marieville, where he and his wife settled on a small farm and began to raise their three children.

 

Finally, in 2002, Vietz was hired by Unibroue. It was his big break.

 

"I didn't want to end up at a major brewery like Molson or Labatt. My creativity needed free rein and I knew I wouldn't get that as a small fish in a big pond. So when the opportunity at Unibroue came along, I jumped at it."

 

He spent his first couple of years there automating the brewery's filtering and fermentation processes before being promoted to director of brewing in 2004. Three years later, he was made master brewer.

 

His thirst for knowledge about the world of beer didn't end there. He took a course given by the Master Brewers Association of the Americas, at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and today is enrolled at the British Institute of Brewing & Distilling, by correspondence.

 

But the biggest challenge of his young career was his first: developing a beer for Unibroue's 17th. He had three weeks to come up with the recipe.

 

"They said, 'Jerry, you're going to prove yourself, so go crazy, make a beer you really like.' So that's what I did."

 

The youngest of three sons, born to an Alcan paymaster and his wife, Vietz draws his taste for experimentation in part from his mixed family heritage. His roots on his grandfather's side are German and Haitian, on his grandmother's British and Haitian. "I'm a bastard," he said with a laugh.

 

He's also an eclectic drinker. When he isn't quaffing beer or wine, he enjoys Camus Cuvee Speciale cognac, Boulard XO Calvados and 18-year-old Chivas Regal whisky. An avid cyclist with a love of the outdoors, he says he has no trouble holding his liquor.

 

"People often say I'm a sponge. It must be because of my German roots. But the fact is, alcohol doesn't affect me very much."

 

He added with a smile -and not a trace of irony:

 

"I'm certainly not dependent on it."

 

(Courtesy of The Montreal Gazette)

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Well, I for sure enjoyed the hell out of my first beer!

 

I was 14 or maybe 15 and we got beer at a sushi restaurant :) Later we made our way to a friends house and I had one or two Budweisers (I know) but still it was great.

 

Saturday's National Post has a big section on microbrews:

 

http://www.nationalpost.com/todays-paper/Drink+heartily+brew+locally/3398063/story.html

 

http://www.nationalpost.com/todays-paper/love+brewski/3398062/story.html

 

http://www.nationalpost.com/todays-paper/Niagara+keep+wine/3398061/story.html

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