BREWERY VIVANT is a Belgian-inspired brewpub in Grand Rapids, Michigan with a very vocal commitment to transparency and sustainability—both native qualities to the craft movement, though rarely outlined so categorically. They’re also yet another in the burgeoning field of craft brewers to ship via cans only, not bottles. In the past year alone this has become a much more common proposition, but is still infrequent enough that most partakers deem it necessary to explain (defend?) their choices on a website FAQ or even printed on the side of every can. Some prejudice will always remain, of course, yet many drinkers seem to be accepting of the changes, not least for the indisputable environmental benefits.
Leading the way for this new crew (established only December 2010) is Triomphe, a 6.5% Belgian-style IPA. A somewhat cloudy pale copper, Triomphe has a light tan head deserving of its name: thick and made of copious globs that settle into deep pits over a tenacious lifespan. If the pour was a little ambiguous about style, though, the aroma is not. Bursting with hops almost as if the pellets were dropped straight into the drink, Triomphe shows little effort to intertwine them with a malt base that must also have been considerable to achieve 6+% and cloud up the body this way. The aromas are decidedly American, too: proudly bitter and tipping tropical fruit, flowers, a little fennel, perhaps, and loads of tart grapefruit. With effort one can pick out some slightly roasted base malts and a little caramel, but not many. Yeast is not a factor.
The pendulum swings back the other way on the palate, showing a couple notches too heavy a body and not quite enough carbonation for the amount of hops. A (very) few bracketing fusel notes of alcohol, once at the end of the aroma and then again in the finish right before the concluding hop wave. The strength of 6.5% falls quite readily within the style’s range, and indeed many Belgian IPAs are much stronger than the Triomphe. Yet those strongest beers often fall further towards the Belgian side of the spectrum whereas Triomphe is considerably more akin to a straightforward, possibly even single-hopped American IPA that neither requires nor cares to completely integrate that level of alcohol. 5.5% would probably have done just as well and also could have lightened the malt load that both clouds and loads up the body a touch too much. Admittedly, the Belgian IPA is not supposed to be pellucid hop nectar, but Triomphe still carries enough extra baggage to sag a little where it should be most spry.
And in that sense it becomes a little unclear what all makes this IPA an especially Belgian affair. Vivant themselves say it is from the use of a Belgian yeast, to which they credit the beer’s slightly sweet edge. And there is one indeed. But it comes late on the palate and is more evocative of English-style acetyl than Belgium itself. A lighter emphasis on American hops would likely have drawn out this beer’s actual inspiration, whereas now we end up a little garbled in this Ping-Pong rally of inspiration back and forth across the Atlantic: Belgium’s old brewers inspire American craft innovators inspires the Belgian IPA inspires American Belgian-style IPA. It’s hard for something not to get lost in all that re-translation and so is the case with Triomphe—a pleasant and substantial beer, but one that shows Vivant still growing into its promise. Have another joust with the quintain, squire, and you’ll turn out just fine.
Served: 16 oz can (2 08 15 A 3 B R)
A concluding note: It is a pleasure to see the current trend in the States moving away from pure hop-kamikaze IPAs and competitively garish branding towards a more traditional, locally-oriented production scheme. Yet it was precisely that strident, soldier-of-fortune kind of approach that set off America’s craft revolution in the first place: filching Belgian yeasts in an attempt to brew beers with a “local mission” is a confounding contradiction that seems to undercut the most enduring qualities of both American and Belgian traditions. The real way American brewers could pay productive homage to Belgium via the IPA would be to harvest and cultivate distinctively American yeasts, then learn to incorporate those new flavors with as much harmony as do their Low Country peers.