Beerism Celebrates Saint-Bock’s 7th: A Q&A with Owner Martin Guimond

“I was the director of communications in marketing. I left everything to pursue this for the world of beer. I am making a fifth of the money that I used to. This passion animates all the brewers in Quebec.[but] it’s not easy. I just want there to be more choices in beer.”

–          Martin Guimond

When going out to drink good craft beer in Montreal, one thing that is often missing is good food to go along with it. Saint-Bock artisanal brewery on St-Denis has filled that niche. The menu offers everything from excellent appetizers to hardy bistro main dishes that will satisfy everyone, whether you’re a curious passer-by or a serious beer geek that sticks around for the evening. And there is plenty of reason to stay.

Since opening in 2006, Saint-Bock has offered a selection of over one thousand different imported bottled beers on their menu, known as the Beer Bible. Throughout the year this brew pub offers a regular rotation of between 850-900 bottle beers, and makes their own beers offered on their 20 different taps. That is what’s available every other day.

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On October 5th Saint-Bock will hold its anniversary party to celebrate its success. The owner, Martin Guimond, has taken the opportunity at these anniversaries to share some of the rarest beers in the world with his guests as a thank you. On this beer-soaked day there will be a healthy mix of homemade beers, including a four year old Russian Imperial Porter, a four year old Scotch ale, a Bourbon barrel aged Old ale, and the winner of the gold medal at the Mondial de la Bière: L’Extrême Sacrilège Ultime, a 16.7% extreme beer brewed with maple syrup and aged in Porto barrels since 2009. There will also be tasting platters of their best bottled imports like Mikkeller, De Molen, Hill Farmstead and Brew Dog. There are vintages from here and abroad, beer-infused food and chocolate – pulled pork doused in Rochefort 10 anyone? – and a conference with master brewer Yves Leboeuf, from La Brasserie des Franches Montagnes.

Beerism recently had a chance to chat with Martin by phone while he was traveling in Italy scouting out some new breweries. Here’s what he had to say about the temple of beer that is Saint-Bock, the beer scene in Quebec and what’s next for him and the pub.

There are a handful of bars and brewpubs in Montreal that offer quality craft beer. What sets le Saint-Bock apart from the rest?

There have been many precursors to us. When I founded Saint-Bock, I had pretty much toured the microbreweries in Quebec and found that there was something missing here and there that would have satisfied me. Not to say that one philosophy is better than the other, just that many places did things differently. I know that back in the day, I went to certain bars and would say to myself, “Well, I’d like to have something to eat.” […] We go once and it’s fun, we go again and it’s still fun. But eventually you go and you think to yourself, “I’m kind of hungry. I’m going to go somewhere else.” In going somewhere else to eat, you lose clients. Some places had good beer but they weren’t restaurants. They closed at midnight. Also, back then the mentality was different. When I used to go to places, sometimes there weren’t any Quebec beers. There were almost no Quebec beers back in 2006, but a lot of imports. So there were these places that had imported beer but no Quebec beers, others had Quebec beers but there was no food, others had Quebec beers and food, but it’s a restaurant so it closes at midnight […]. You know, there was a hole in the market. That’s the hole I wanted to fill. There needed to be this complete, ultimate paradise where we could find imported beers, good food, or at least something relatively interesting, available late – our kitchen often closes at 2 am – and offer micro brewed beer made on site alongside Quebec beers. In short, everything.

“…[T]here was a hole in the market. That’s the hole I wanted to fill. There needed to be this complete, ultimate paradise where we could find imported beers, good food, or at least something relatively interesting…”

So, that’s how I built my concept. Like all brewers, we started small with almost no money. We had a lot of help, with family and friends. That led us to be able to offer the biggest choice possible. Of course, I didn’t start off thinking that we would offer what we do today. Close to 850 beers annually are available to our clients, which is enormous. And you know, I’ve pretty well traveled all across Canada and I still haven’t found a place that offers more. Obviously we didn’t have that when we first opened. We had Quebec beers in bottles – there was no choice, the Quebec government took one year to give us the microbrewery licence. When we started, we had the second smallest outfit in Quebec. That’s 3.5 American Barrels, which is roughly 350 litres, which are very small batches. Because we were looking on St-Denis, we knew that we would never succeed in meeting demand. That’s when we started mixing our beers, the local Quebec micros, and about a year later, we got a few bottles from the SAQ. The response was good. Slowly we added imports, and the response to that was good too. We had about 100, then 200, 250, 300, 400, 500 and now today that’s one of the ways we stand out.

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We also like to cook with beer. It’s not easy in the beer world. We try and train our employees. We bring some on trips to the U.S. to learn about American beers and other beers that we offer regularly.  Obviously it’s hard to ask our waiters, some of whom are students, to know our 850 beers. It’s impossible. Still, there is a lot of discovery and we are well positioned to advise our customers on our selection. These are some of the things we offer. These are some of the things that set us apart.

Your menu often has European imports. How do you go about selecting these and why do you think we don’t see more of this around Quebec?

When we first started, we began choosing a bit of everything. We told ourselves that we would import some beers and we’ll see what happens. Now, after you import a few dozen cases of beer that are undrinkable, you quickly realize – You know, sometimes we think that it’s an expense to go to Europe to choose our beers. However, sometimes it actually costs less to take a thousand or fifteen hundred dollars and take a trip to Europe to test the beers, rather than order a thousand dollars’ worth of beer and find out that it’s undrinkable.

In the long term, that’s something I do. Right now, I know what beers aren’t good, so I know what not to order. In the beginning, we ordered a bit of everything in the hopes that [everyone from] the casual drinkers to the connoisseurs would enjoy the diversity. However, the market for the connoisseurs, for the true beer geek, isn’t one that allows for such a wide selection.

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[In Quebec], the situation is that a client might be willing to spend say $10 for a bottle of beer. I mean, this will be a treat. Not even a pint but a bottle at $10. At $10, am I going to choose a 341 Ml bottle of a White beer at 5% alcohol? No. I’d think that I was being gypped. On the other hand, I’d pay $10 for a bottle that has 9% alcohol. It’s almost like the percentage of alcohol has become synonymous for quality. Of course, the other reason is that when you import beers that are really low in alcohol content, it’s much more difficult to have them last the journey across the ocean. We tend to import beers at 7% or more so that they last the voyage, and also to satisfy the economic realities – not having two thousand beers at 2% that no one will drink. Better off having stronger beers that people will pay for. It’s a bit strange, but that’s the conclusion that we came to. Now we are thinking that this tendency could change due to the American and Italian IPAs. These beers are extremely bitter, even if they are at 4-5% alcohol content, because of their complexity and bitterness.

In terms of hoppy beers, normally they are best sold fresh before that bitterness is lost. Are these problems with importation and transport perhaps the reason we don’t see more American microbreweries either in bottle or on tap in Quebec and at your bar?

It is very difficult to get American micro brewed beers. You need contacts and very good relationships. The truth is that it’s practically impossible to get American micros here in Quebec. You see some from time to time. We’ve had Dogfish Head and Jolly Pumpkin, we’ve got some American beers that will be available on tap for our anniversary party. It’s possible. The thing is that most good American microbreweries often have trouble to supply locally, so strong is the demand in their own community. In short, the rules and regulations and bilingual labels that the SAQ have in place make it difficult for American and European breweries to do business with us. It’s also difficult for them to justify going through the trouble for one bar. I don’t know if it would be the same if we were 25 bars all ordering Dogfish Head here in Montreal. Vices & Versa wants some, Bières et Compagnie wants some, I want some, etcetera.

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So then, will we see some collaboration between local bars and brew pubs to import these sought-after beers?

We are starting to see more of that. Back in the day, I don’t know if it has changed – I’m not sure who has who anymore – there was one importer that imported de Molen, I think maybe in collaboration with Vices & Versa or Dunham Brewery, and now I can have de Molen regularly, thanks to his services. In general there are no problems. We do try to collaborate. There are minimum requirements to order when importing. Often these importers will tell me that I’ve ordered 3 or 6 barrels. There might be this bar that wants some. “Can you leave three [barrels] for him and take three for you and I’ll order more on the next batch?” We do organize ourselves so that everyone has a chance to get some.

Your brewpub is celebrating its 7th anniversary next month. How do you feel the craft beer scene has changed in Montreal since you started?

I think that it’s fantastic. When I opened le Saint-Bock in 2006, microbreweries were just getting started. There were the regulars that had been around for some time, like Dieu du Ciel!, L’Amère À Boire, Trois Brasseurs had been around for a while, Cheval Blanc had a foundation, Brutopia was there. These people were making good beer. I think that we have evolved a lot. I’ve been asked by some Americans what type of beers Quebecers brew. The only answer I had for them was that we brew Belgian and German and English styles, American, strong beers and light, Berliner Weisse – we don’t have a style, we do them all. Maybe that’s our style. We work with our knowledge to make everyone’s style with a Quebec flavor.

When I opened le Saint-Bock, we were the 13th microbrewery in the region of Montreal, and today it’s a trend to have one in almost every neighborhood. There will never be enough. If it were up to me, every neighborhood would have two or three. Quebecers know a lot about beer culture and are very curious. I want the scene to explode and I want to see every brewpub full. It’s no coincidence that people are drinking more and more good, micro brewed beer. It’s hard work every day to invest in the world of beer and to get our products known, because despite everything, unless I’m wrong, Quebec microbreweries don’t have 13% market share. There is still a lot of work to do. But things are getting much better. I think that there is a bright future for Quebec and I’m not worried about seeing dozens more open up.

In fact, there are more and more breweries starting to collaborate on beers. Now, we are small. Sure, I would like to go see Dogfish Head and say, “Want to collaborate on a project with le Saint-Bock?” Obviously they are going to have a lot more to bring to the table than I will. Certainly they are going to say no. But Dieu du Ciel! did it. They can. Us, maybe eventually when we have our own brewery, but those projects are still in the works.

“We are starting a little project between brew pubs. They are coming next week to do the first collaboration between Saint-Bock and the brew pub St. Paul in Charlevoix. So, we will brew one batch at our pub and then we will go brew one batch in Charlevoix.”

But we are starting a little project between brew pubs. They are coming next week to do the first collaboration between le Saint-Bock and the brew pub St. Paul in Charlevoix. So, we will brew one batch at our pub and then we will go brew one batch in Charlevoix. I imagine it’s going to be the same beer, but [maybe it will taste] different due to the equipment and the water. I think that it will be very interesting. There are other projects in the works. I’m here in Italy now working out things. I am going to announce something in a few weeks on our website. There’s also something else really exciting that I can’t discuss now but stay tuned! I think that it’s going to be really big.

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Your past anniversary events have offered some of the rarest beers in the world. There were also door prizes and lavish food platters throughout the night. What can we expect this year?

Now in our 7th year, we are starting to get a little experience in our own beers. First off, we’re showing off those beers that have won medals. […] We are also trying to innovate. There is something that I tasted – AH! – not to be missed! L’Extrême Sacrilège Ultime. Now, with our license, we can’t distill. But we can make a beer that is, if I remember this correctly, 16.7% in alcohol and brewed with maple syrup, which will knock your socks off. It’s just so good. Listen, I tasted this with a friend, and shared between two people, we couldn’t feel our legs by the end. And we just wanted to drink more. We’re going to have these awesome beers, and also some American. We’ve been working for well over a year to get American beers on tap. Right now, le Saint-Bock has about a 100 imported kegs from the U.S., Belgium and Germany.

Because the cost of importation is so high for some of these beers, we’ve also made tasting trays of certain beers that will allow people to try everything at an affordable price. The point of the anniversary is to celebrate beer. We want everyone to taste good beer. One thing we did this year was give a 25% discount on all our bottled beers. We have chocolate-infused beer with the IPA from Heady Topper, some more recipes that I haven’t released yet. We are still working on some surprises for all the beer lovers out there. I think that it will be a very nice night for everyone. It starts around 2 pm. It’s going to be same festive atmosphere that we’ve had in previous years: Balloons, beers, and pretty much the only time of year that you will see me in a tie.

*This interview was conducted in French.

Written and translated by: T.J. Blinn