Champ Libre – An Interview with Alex Ganivet, A Review of their Core Line-up, and an Exclusive Look at their Upcoming Bottle Release

An article by Noah Forrest

Do you ever just find yourself rooting for someone to succeed and prosper? That’s how I’ve felt about Alex Ganivet-Boileau pretty much the second I met him four years ago (as he hacked into a cask of the first ever batch of LTM’s Saison Brett during La Cuvée).

At the time Alex was well into his career as head brewer for Les Trois Mousquetaires (LTM), an extremely reputable brewery on the south shore of Montreal. Their focus was largely German styles, but as time went on the brewery started experimenting with more contemporary offerings, making the brand not only synonymous with solid classics, but also for setting trends. And although he might not say it, I suspect this shift in direction was largely because of Alex’s influence and passion for brewing.

As his rubber mallet burst into the cask and the Saison began jetting out, he quickly handed glasses to those all around, like some kind of jolly French beer-giving Santa Claus. At the time “Brettanomyces” was not a household term, and most breweries in Quebec were not on the band wagon just yet. Saison Brett was tart, funky, and wild – truly something solid.

From then on, I spent a lot of time chatting with Alex over the years about his upcoming projects at LTM. Although he wasn’t a partner there, he was essentially the face of the brewery – at least for us beer-geeks on social media. As you can imagine, when I heard that my man-crush was going off on his own and partnering-up with two other entrepreneurs to create a brand-new brewery called Brasserie Distillerie Champ Libre, I was pretty damn ecstatic.

Who better to explain this journey and his new brewery’s direction than the man himself? So I got with Alex and asked him some questions.

Brasserie Distillerie Champ Libre just opened its doors to the public in May. Can you tell me a bit about how the everything got started and came together?

“My partners Alexandre and Patrick reached out to me last year to see if I was interested taking part in a new project. Timing was not perfect considering my girlfriend was pregnant and I wasn’t looking for big changes in my life. I had a good job. I wasn’t interested in switching a brewing job for another regular brewing job… But sometimes in life, the stars align. This constellation turned out to be something different from ‘’just another ordinary brewery project’’…

Alexandre had a dream to open a distillery for a long time, so the possibility to make both beer and spirits was starting to take shape. I happen to be more and more interested in spirits and distillation, and I always love to learn new things and to be challenged. With this new possibility, the project now had my curiosity hooked. But it was not enough.

The other criteria for me was that I didn’t wanted to brew in an factory/industrial type of brewery. My grandfather was a farmer and I spent most of my childhood weekends playing in the fields on his land. I always dreamed of going back to this kind of life at some point. Alexandre lives in Mercier, a lovely small town known for it’s agricultural history. When he told me he had an eye on a building located that was a farm, he now had my full attention.

The final nail, if I may say, was the possibility in becoming a partner and co-owner with them. As much as I loved LTM, to the point where I gave my heart and soul over the years to develop the business, I was getting a bit demotivated by the fact that I had no opportunity whatsoever to become a partner there. However, it was not my business and I still respected that. So when Alexandre and Patrick offered me parts in the new business because they wanted a solid brewer, I was thrilled!

So, brewery + distillery + located on a farm + co-ownership. This was an absolute no-brainer. I joined.”

You obviously gained a wealth of experience at LTM. You’ve brewed everything from simple blond lagers to blended sours using mixed fermentation. You even made a Baltic Porter aged in a bourbon barrel from 1978. What direction do you and your partners want to go with Champ Libre? How will the beers differ from what you’ve done in the past?

“Like I said, I loved my job at LTM. I learned so much over almost 10 years. I will always be grateful for that. I started a barrel-aging program with just 3 barrels in 2010, and we had reached more than 300 when I left. And also Double IPA bottle releases, growing every year to attract more than 800 people in 2017… these kind of things are addictive, you know. I cannot imagine being a craft brewer and not experimenting with barrel aging and special beer releases. This fuels my creativity. So this is definitely going to happen… In fact, it already started.

But of course, I’m not going to replicate exactly what I’ve done in the past. I want to push things further and raise the bar. I want to go out of my comfort zone even if this means mistakes every now and then. I am now roasting malt myself. I smoked malt with peat for a collaboration. We sowed barley in the field and planted cherry trees. We will install beehives soon. We will forage ingredients for new beers. We grow herbs for future spirits. This was the next step for me as a brewer: growing and crafting things myself whenever possible. For me, this is the very soul of true craft beer. The terroir, the regionality. Working with other businesses around the brewery and having a positive impact on the local community. Reducing our impact on nature and preserving it as much as we can. This is going to sound hippie AF, but I just want our beers to be a source of hope in a fucked-up world. If I can help to make things better and generate more smiles, I will feel more useful on this Earth.”

The first beer to be bottled from Brasserie Distillerie Champ Libre is Épicentre, an IPA. Given the current IPA climate, which revolves around New England haze hype, not to mention lactose and vanilla, where does this beer fit? How will it stand out as different, but still relevant?

“Trends are funny. You know, 4 years ago almost every brewery was doing a black IPA. Almost no one does them anymore. The same with session IPAs; even if you can find some here and there, there are nearly not as many on the shelves as there were 2-3 years ago. But when I first tasted one of Tree House’s IPAs, I knew they’d hit the jackpot and that this kind of flavour profile would be here to stay. A well crafted northeast IPA (and I insist on well crafted) is simply just too good of a beer, so I think this style is here to stay. But since it’s so popular and every other brewery does one (and sometimes shamefully badly), I wanted to explore something else with our first beer. I wanted it to be something other than ‘’Oh yeah it’s another NEIPA…’’ so I kinda went for a hybrid. It definitely has some north-east influences, but the bitterness is closer to a west-coast IPA, and, of course, it’s fermented with a quite unique wine yeast. So it’s kind of a odd beer and I totally get that some were thrown off by it’s flavour profile… that was precisely the point! I wanted to use this yeast to get not just hoppy and juicy flavours. Some think it’s a Belgian IPA. Nope. Some think it’s a Saison/IPA hybrid. Nope. Oh so it must be a Champagne yeast. Nope. Is it phenolic? Of course it is. This yeast is, in fact, an actual northeast yeast, but there’s a twist: it comes from the northeast… of France! It’s an Alsace wine yeast, a little nod to my brewing background (I did an internship in a small brewery in Alsace in 2007) and it was also used in the very first LTM Double IPA in 2013. Fun fact: the yeast was changed in 2014 because we wanted something less hazy and more clean. Seems we were ahead of our time on the haziness hype… maybe should have kept it! Haha! So, yeah, I’m using this yeast again, but in a different way to get more phenols/farmhouse character. Maybe this will start a new trend, maybe not. I couldn’t care less. I love this beer, and a lot of people do too. Some don’t like it? No problem, there is plenty of beers out there, so they should drink what they want! And as I once said: I don’t care about following waves; I just really, really like the ocean.”

Since Épicentre, you have released three more beers. Can you tell me a bit about them and why you chose the styles you did?

“We don’t want to brew 37 different beers. We prefer to keep it simple, with 4-5 regular beers and some special offerings from time to time. Brewing only novelty is lazy. Some brewers prefer to focus almost only on new beers because they know they will sell easily because there are enough people who buy beers simply because they are new. Buyers who only want novelty are hurting the industry. This is a downward spiral and it’s bad. It makes people only want instantaneous reward for their brain. But this intant gratification does not last long and soon they want some more, and more, and more. What about real joy and contemplation? A deeper satisfaction? This is what we want for our beers. Fuck instantaneity.

For the process of choosing our regular beers, we asked ourselves what we would drink if we had only 4 styles available for the rest of our lives. A modern refreshing IPA, a dry but clean Saison, a bohemian Pilsner with lots and lots of Saaz and a big partly barrel-aged dessert imperial stout. I would personally love to add a sour/fruit beer to this line-up but this takes time and we have plenty of that ahead of us. Speaking of time, we wanted our beers to promote a certain way of life. Slowing down, taking it easy, being amazed at simple things. The world sometimes seems crazy, but in the end, it just depends on how you choose to see it. Powerful light, powerful darkness. And between all this, balance.”

Well, this has certainly got me exited to dive into these first four offerings. Let’s do it! 

Épicentre (IPA)

Épicentre pours out a hazy bright orange colour. The nose is a zesty mix of citrus, with orange and tangerine at the front. Light pine and grassiness comes through as well. Some subtle yeasty aromatics lend a spicy and candied sweet layer, bringing everything together nicely.

The palate matches, carrying a bright fruit front, with orange citrus and some stone fruits as well – peaches in particular. It’s dry and well balanced, delivering an ample bitterness, while not overtly aggressive. There is a bit of the zesty hop burn you can get in an intense NEIPA, but the profile isn’t the typical juice bomb – although it’s still fruity AF. Unlike an NEIPA, the yeast profile delivers a subtle spice and some fruit candy.

Épicentre certainly doesn’t have the rich phenols of a Belgian IPA, but the flavour profile isn’t a standard west or east coat IPA either. Instead, Alex has brewed something rather unique using a particular yeast strain that lends character without being the dominant component. I think this beer will appeal to those who need the aggressive hop character of a hazy juice bomb as well as those looking for something a bit different. 

Éloge de la Lenteur (Saison)

Éloge de la Lenteur (a Saison) pours a foggy orange colour. The nose is a rich mix of yeasty phenolics, carrying some clove and cardomom at the front, followed by fresh pear, light hay, grass, and some hop funk.

The palate matches, but displays more subtly. The yeast presence is less spicy and instead has a more dry, citrus forward note. Some pithy grapefruit mixes with pear flesh, while a light earthiness in the finish cuts through everything. This is incredibly easy to drink, with a really nice balance. I think a subtle tartness would assist this one as well.

I find the yeast profile a touch too similar to the IPA, carrying a lot of clove spiciness. I tend to prefer a dustier Saison, but this is certainly well executed.

Simplicité Volontaire (Bohemian Pilsner)

The nose on Simplicité Volontaire (a Bohemian Pilsner) is a mix of herbal German hops, delivering some light citrus alongside bready malts and lots of honey.

The palate is round, but still crisp. It’s definitely a bit dense for the style, but it goes down super well none the less. The finish carries an complimentary and aggressive bitterness, which helps clean that honey and bready malt sweetness, leaving the crispyboi finish that us Lager enthusiasts love.

Some citrus fruit and herbal/tangy hops help build on the malty base, with a quenching finish that sticks with you.

Overall, I like this, but I find it a bit malty for my tastes. Even then though, Alex is nailing drinkability and balance at every turn. I could slam these first three beers all day. Let’s see about the next one…

Déjeuner en Paix (Imperial Stout)

Déjeuner en Paix is an 11% ABV coffee infused Imperial Stout, aged briefly in bourbon barrels with charred maple staves. The nose is a mocha bomb, tossing fudgy chocolate aromatics at me mixed with rich and earthy espresso beans. Some subtle maple sweetness peaks through as well.

Up front the coffee takes the lead, providing rich espresso bitterness. There are layers of chocolate as well as a touch of dark fruits coming through in the finish.

The alcohol is well hidden – extremely well hidden. The beer is balanced and again (like everything Champ Libre) surprisingly easy to drink. The body is rich, but not cloying or slick. I’m not getting too much maple on this one, but there are echoes of it for sure alongside the vanilla bourbon notes.

Overall, I think the coffee leaves a little too much bitterness for the overall gravity of the beer. It comes off a touch watery and a bit one dimensional at times. That said, it’s impressively drinkable for an 11% ABV, and despite this, it is layered, delicious and the flavours all marry well. A good first batch.

If I were to open a brewery tomorrow and I had to think of my starter line-up, I’d probably have chosen the exact four same beer styles to begin with. I guess great minds do think alike! I’m so exited for Alex and his partners, and I wish them all the success in the world! Check out their beers either in stores around the province or at the brewery itself. Speaking of which…

On July 14th, Brasserie Distillerie Champ Libre will be hosting a bottle release! There will be two brewery-only offerings:

  • Petite fleur,” a Farmhouse Saison brewed with flowers foraged in the field behind the brewery. A slight tartness but not actually sour.
  • Soleil jaune,” a strong IPA brewed with heavy doses of Amarillo hops and Amarillo lupulin powder.

If you can, you should try to make it out to this beautiful brewery.

An article by Noah Forrest

Photography by Noah Forrest