MacDougall Settlement is a small village located north of Moncton, New Brunswick, about a 30-minute drive away. There, on a 7th generation farm, lies Valonray Farmhouse Brewery. Owned by Philippe Fontaine, this is yet another small craft brewery opening with big dreams… but Valonray’s plans differ significantly from other breweries in the province. As they plan to have beer available to the public in the near future, we thought it was finally time to chat with Phillipe and get some details on what we can expect from Valonray in the coming months…
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Philippe (Phil) Fontaine and I’m the owner and brewer at Valonray Farmhouse Brewery. After graduating from university with a degree in electrical engineering, I joined the Canadian Armed Forces as an Engineering Officer and served in this role for almost 10 years. Since last summer, my wife Allison and I have moved back to south-eastern NB, cleared an overgrown area, and built our farmhouse brewery from scratch next to a planned cherry orchard and hop yard that is still in the works.
How did you get into the world of beer?
While posted at CFB Gagetown in 2012, I became interested in craft beer by being exposed to Fredericton’s vibrant craft beer community and watching the number of breweries explode. Shortly after, I started homebrewing and the hobby quickly became a passion.
Soon after, I was brewing an all grain batch once a week (or more) and reading as many books on the subject as I could find. I went from mostly brewing IPAs to eventually becoming more interested in the myriad Belgian-styles, and started to focus my reading more towards them. Some of the books that had an impact on my brewing style were Farmhouse Ales by Phil Markowski, Wild Brews by Jeff Sparrow and more recently, American Sour Beers by Michael Tonsmeire. I probably read these books 15 times, trying to hone the brewing techniques and recipe development of these types of ales.
What made you decide to take the step into opening a brewery?
By reading these books, I discovered a facet of the American craft-brewing movement that was lacking in the Canadian one, that of making traditional Belgian-style sour ales and wild fermentations in general, such as the examples of Jolly Pumpkin, The Bruery or New Belgium. When I started the business plan these types of breweries were non-existent in Atlantic Canada and they are still are quite underrepresented to this day.
Being originally from just outside of Moncton, I wanted to settle back on the family farm and I knew there was an opportunity to open a brewery in the area, being the largest population centre in New Brunswick and only having one micro-brewery and a handful of very small nano-breweries.
What is the culture or ethos of the brewery?
Our key philosophy is sourcing the raw materials as locally as possible. We are making Belgian Style ales, but all of our ingredients are sourced locally, when it’s possible. All of our malted grain comes from Horton Ridge Malt and Grain from grains grown in the Maritimes. The unmalted grain found in some of our ales comes from a farm 10 km down the road. We currently have 50 beehives on the property, and plan on growing all of our own hops within the next 5 years, as well as having a fruit orchard used for making barrel-aged fruit sour ales. Within the next year, we will release a beer that will be 100% Canadian, including the “Belgian-style” yeast. We believe beer is an agricultural product and this state of mind has a profound impact on how we operate.
Can you tell us about the beers you plan on offering initially?
We aimed for simpler recipes as an initial release. We did not want to overcomplicate things on a new system, and the beers we really want to make take longer and more tanks on hand to make. Our initial line-up of beers are all open-fermented and bottle-refermented, but they only contain various Saccharomyces strains. We have a Tripel, a Single, a Blonde ale, Pale ale and a Saison. The Tripel and Single have a similar recipe, but the results are quite different because of higher amount of simple sugars in the Tripel. The Blonde is actually closer to a Belgian Golden Strong, but with lower alcohol. The Pale ale was designed to be slightly more malt-forward to highlight our use of craft malts. The Saison is definitely our flagship, and various iterations of this recipe will be released in the future. Our five initial beers will be modified within the next year, as we plan to switch to an all-Brettanomyces production. Our first Brett-inoculated batch was brewed this week, with probable release in September.
The planned Brett lineup will look similar to the current clean beers, but we also want to offer a Saison brewed with wild Ontario yeast and Brett, a Witbier, as well as a Norwegian Kveik style ale.
We are slowly starting production of our sour beer and will eventually offer an Oud Bruin style ale, a Flanders Red style and a Lambic style (including Kriek and Framboise). The Oud Bruin is scheduled for production in 2 weeks and should be ready in a little over a year.
For a seasonal, we have a Bourbon Barrel-aged Tripel planned for the fall.
What are your plans for distribution?
Our beer will be sold solely in 750 mL bottles in our on-site sales room and in select ANBL locations and restaurants. We plan on rolling out some sort of growler program by the summer. It’s a bit of a technical challenge, as we only do bottle-refermentation. What we have planned would be in essence a bottle exchange program, to be re-used for refermentation.
Do you have some initial accounts in the area lined up to sell your beers?
We do not have any initial accounts firmly in place at the moment. Our focus has been to get our sales room approved and to get our beers listed for sale in ANBL locations.
Have you had any assistance from other brewers in Atlantic Canada?
We gathered input from other homebrewers and talked to multiple brewery owners, but had to develop most of our systems and procedures ourselves, as we were definitely going off the beaten path with our fermentation techniques. No breweries in eastern Canada use our methods, so I gathered as much info I could from interviews and articles from the American breweries.
Where do you hope to see your brewery in the next 2-3 years?
We are hoping to have a sour program established within this time frame and a cherry orchard and hop yard established on the brewery grounds.
Do you have an approximate opening date?
We should have the direct sales room open, and our bottles on ANBL shelves, within 2 weeks. All the approvals are in place and we are just waiting on the paperwork to be finalized.
What size/manufacturer/type of system are you be brewing on? Expected output (monthly, yearly, etc)?
We brew on a 1 BBL (~120 L) Colorado Brewing Systems dual pot system. We do double batches (2 BBL) on our brew days. Our current monthly output is 800 L, and the projected monthly output is 3000 L once we start working at the brewery full time.
Our techniques are quite unique in these parts, as we do open vat fermentation in a warm room at high temperature; we will eventually inoculate all our ales with Brett (some with bacteria). All our beers will be aged in barrels or in stainless wine tanks for a minimum of 4 months, and all our beers are bottle refermented in 750 mL bottles.
Do you have a favorite beer style, beer, or brewery you enjoy drinking?
I enjoy beers that use phenolic/estery yeasts, as well as sour beers, New England IPAs, and occasional British style ales.
How about a favourite style or ingredient to brew with?
I enjoy experimenting with adjuncts (raw oats, buckwheat, rye, different sugars, etc.).
Congratulations to Phillipe on all of his hard work coming to fruition! We look forward to sampling Valonray’s first beers, soon. Follow them along on Facebook and Twitter for updates on when their beers are available, and of course we’ll be sure to mention these details in our weekly Friday Wrap-Up.