On a sunny afternoon in the fall of 2013, I met with Joe and Lauren Grimm at their apartment in Gowanus to write a story about Grimm Artisanal Ales, the charming couple’s nascent gypsy brewery. It was shortly after their second release — Bees in the Trappe, a Belgian-style ale infused with local wildflower honey — and we spent a few hours sampling different hand-bottled homebrews in their kitchen, the site where each of these recipes had been developed.
Over the next year, all of the homegrown prototypes we tasted that day would be made commercially by the pair at an existing brewery. This aspect of Grimm’s brewing process, equal parts intimate and itinerant, is central to its identity; Joe and Lauren always hone their recipes at their abode in Brooklyn, brewing five gallons at a time, sometimes several times, before traveling to a rentable facility (mainly Sterling, Virginia’s Beltway Brewing Company) to make their large-scale batches.
While the craft-beer market has become increasingly crowded, and subsequently somewhat homogeneous in recent years, Grimm’s portfolio has been an inimitable needle in the IP-Aystack. Whether it’s enamoring industry critics with Double Negative, an imperial stout that has captured two medals at the Great American Beer Festival (silver in 2014 and gold last year), or captivating beer loons with an elusive string of canned IPAs (Pulse Wave was my favorite of the deliciously soft, juice-bomb brews), high praise for perhaps New York City’s most versatile beermakers has come on all levels. This sweeping success has even propelled the couple on a new path: toward opening their own brewery in Brooklyn.
Before the significant operational change (which has no timetable) occurs, Joe and Lauren will continue to make beer nomadically, driving the 500-plus miles round-trip to brew at Beltway. But their newest beer, to be released in 750-milliliter bottles next month, is the result of a different kind of trip. It’s a dream project for cult-beer fans and incorporates the country that inspired Grimm’s formation: a collaboration with Fantôme Brewery in Belgium.
We spoke with the pair about their journey to Fantôme’s bucolic headquarters, the experience of brewing with Dany Prignon (the enigmatic brewery’s charismatic founder) and the resulting beer, simply named Fantôme Grimm.
Edible Brooklyn: As a quick refresher, what was your introduction to Belgian beer?
Joe Grimm: Around 2005, Lauren and I were already doing a lot of wild fermentation projects with mead and spontaneously fermented fruit wines, but we weren’t really interested in the beers we’d tasted up until then. But when we went through Brussels on a music tour — I’m a musician as well — we discovered how beautiful and complex beer could be.
Lauren Grimm: That trip got us to start homebrewing and eventually to start Grimm. It was a lot harder at that time to find imported beer, and the American beer renaissance was just getting started. So we started brewing what we wanted to drink: Belgian beer.
EB: Did it feel different to return as professional brewers with a growing brand?
LG: Maybe. It definitely brought a lot of nostalgia for those beers that we were brewing and drinking ten years ago as homebrewers. It also put in perspective the overall shift in American brewing over the past decade. Joe and I, and a lot of other brewers here, we’re inspired by Belgian brewing. But we’ve all become a lot more experimental in technique and ingredients and we’ve created our own styles. For us, that’s our dry-hopped sours.
JG: American brewers are known for pushing boundaries… but on the other end, sometimes it’s the simplest beer perfectly executed that deserves the most praise. Belgian beers, they’re all styles that focus on fermentation-derived flavors with very simple grists. And drinking saisons like Dany’s and a lot of other beer while we were there, we kept thinking, man, these are perfect. I want to drink these every day.
EB: How did you connect with Dany?
JG: We asked our friend at Shelton Brothers to put us in touch. We reached out. We’ve been big fans for a while.
EB: How would you describe Fantôme’s beers?
JG: Dany mainly makes saisons and they tend to be eccentric with a lot of variation from one batch to the next. He may add different spices or sugars to particular batches of the same beer. And I like to think that we have the same idiosyncratic brewing habits.
LG: When we first started Grimm and decided to brew one-offs, Fantôme was definitely an inspiration for us. He showed us that we didn’t have to brew the same consistent beers all the time.
EB: What did you make together? A wild guess: saison?
JG: [Laughs.] Yes. But in person Dany doesn’t really like to use the word saison. He referred to what we were making simply as a “special beer.”
EB: Can you describe the beer?
LG: It’s a pale beer, around 8 percent ABV. It contains some secret things that we brought, and some secret things Dany chose to complement them. The yeast was chosen by Dany. We brought herbs and spices from home.
EB: Can you be more specific?
JG: Dany’s brewing equipment and process are important aspects of what makes his beer what it is. It’s very specifically cobbled together over decades. That’s why it’s difficult to categorize the beers specifically.
EB: Have you tasted it yet?
JG: Not yet, but Dany cracked a bottle recently and told us it tasted “soft and cool.” We’re excited to try it.
EB: What were some of the highlights of brewing with him?
LG: Dany reminds me of Doc from Back to the Future — if Doc made beer. He’s a mad scientist, a recluse, and one of the kindest people we’ve ever met.
JG: And it’s almost like the beer world all comes to him. Brewers from all over the world visit him and give him bottles of their beer, even though he’s in this ancient cottage in a very pastoral countryside, with cows wandering around nearby. It looks like it’s made from stone, wood and mud.
EB: That’s wild.
LG: The doorways are so short that we kept hitting our heads as we walked through. And he only has a 10-barrel system, which amazed us because Fantôme has made such an out-sized impact on American brewers’ imaginations. It’s wild to know that all of his beer comes from this one-man operation in a little building in the middle of nowhere.
JG: Before we left we told him that he should come visit us in the U.S. and he said that it was impossible because he never wants to leave the countryside where he makes his beer. He hasn’t even gone to Brussels in a long time. He said there’s too many people.