We blush every time we read (daily) this lovely writeup from Lew Bryson. It was originally created for our Pennsylvania distributor, then got picked up by Great Brewers. We hope you like it too!
This November 15th will see a Coast to Coast Toast celebrating the 30th anniversary of Vanberg & DeWulf beer importers. You may not be familiar with the company — who pays attention to importers? — and you’ve probably never heard of the principals, Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield. But they’ve had a tremendous influence on American craft beer and craft beer drinkers by bringing the finest from Belgium since 1981, and they continue to find — and create! — great new beers today. I hope you may be a participant on the 15th, so it’s my pleasure to introduce you to my good friends, Don and Wendy.
The back story’s romantic. “We actually went to Belgium in 1979,” Wendy recalled. “We eloped while I was still in school and moved to Brussels right out of my graduation from our alma mater (Yale).” They both got jobs in advertising, started exploring Belgium, and quickly found the beers.
They loved the whole country, though: the food, the people, the architecture. They wanted to share it (and keep visiting once they moved home), and thought that since the beers were delicious, and not imported at that time…and that’s how the company was started (Vanberg & DeWulf were two names of people in Belgium; “Sounded better than Feinberg & Littlefield,” Don once told me) in 1981.
They started with some now very familiar names in Belgian brewing, a real hall of fame portfolio. “The first was Duvel,” Wendy said. “Then in rapid succession we added Jenlain, Castelain, Rodenbach, Kwak, Blanche de Bruges, Affligem, Frank Boon’s lambics, Dubuisson, Dupont, and Slaghmuylder. We had kindred spirits plowing the same row like Charles and Roseanne [Finkel, of Merchant du Vin], and the fine work that Michael Jackson did building the knowledge base.”
In the 1990s, they took the huge step of opening Ommegang in partnership with three Belgian breweries, making Belgian beer in upstate New York. It was brilliant: a farmhouse brewery, a gorgeous setting, excellent beer, events celebrating Belgian beer, food, and culture.
When Duvel Moortgat chose to buy out the other partners and Don and Wendy in 2003, though, they also bought back import rights to their beers. Other brewers went through ownership changes, and the Vanberg & DeWulf portfolio shrank dramatically. Don would rebuild the portfolio over the next five years alone; Wendy took a break, and rejoined the company in 2009.
But Don doesn’t really want to dwell on the history of the company. “I did this little roadshow for Philly Beer Week in 2011,” he said, “about 30 years of celebrating…and I hated it. I couldn’t care less about what we’d already done. I couldn’t do what I wasn’t excited about . If I’d had to say “was” one more time, I’d slit my throat. The only good time I had was when I talked about what we were going to be doing.”
In that vein, then, here’s what Don and Wendy are doing now. The portfolio’s still based on the best. “I think of myself as a gallery owner,” Don said, “a small gallery of artists we think deserve attention. We’ve changed the content of the portfolio, but not the nature of it.”
Here are the stars. Dubuisson has been with them for years (Scaldis, Prestige, Peche Mel, Cuvee des Trolls), an 8th generation independent family-run brewery. Dupont — also independent and family-run — not only has the classic saison (and wonderful Christmas version), delightful Avril session-strength, but lots of new stuff coming: “Olivier Dedeycker is doing great things,” Wendy noted, “digging through the old notebooks for grandfather’s recipes.”
A third independent, family-run brewery, Slaghmuylder, has a new brewer: young, dynamic Karel Goddeau, also the blender/owner of DeCam lambic. Watch for their newly arrived Witkap Stimulo; “Our favorite abbey single,” Wendy said. Dilewyns is a new family brewery, based in Dendermonde, that already produces five beers, including their Vicaris Tripel blended with Girardin gueuze: unique.
The portfolio has expanded somewhat, beyond Belgium. “We are now free to promote not just Belgium, but a Belgian sensibility,” Don said. “I call the non-Belgian beers we bring in HBB: Honorary Belgian Beers.” They’ve imported Castelain for years, of course; a variety of bieres de garde — including the organic Jade — and you’ll see draft in October. Amiata is a tiny Tuscan brewery (“The brewery is the size of your kitchen. ‘Artisanal’ doesn’t begin to define what this guy is doing.”), producing Contessa IPA: “Italian Pale Ale,” a hoppy beer with a deft touch of chestnuts.
Then there are the projects Don’s been working on; beers he develops as ideas, then matches to a brewery, then tests till they’re right. Or as Wendy put it, “Don gets the ball rolling, then they’d send us samples and we’d taste them in the kitchen.” Lambrucha started when Wendy brought a bottle of kombucha tea home from a yoga class. They tasted it, were struck by the lambic similarities, tried some blending, and…next thing you know, Don’s approaching De Troch with a project.
Hop Ruiter is made by Schelde. Vanberg & DeWulf sell it internationally, but Schelde sells this brilliantly balanced hoppy golden ale in the Low Countries, because Don and Wendy want to help them succeed.
Then there’s Lambickx. “My motivation was ‘I love lambic,’ and I wanted lambic.” Don said; not fruited lambic, not faro, not gueuze, but still, unblended lambic. “If you really like the taste of spontaneously fermented, barrel-aged pediococcus and brettanomyces beer, it’s lambic. Gueuze is champagne, but I don’t like champagne, I like still white wine. Lambic could be the chardonnay.” So he’s convincing lambic blenders — not always willing to say who they are — to sell him straight young lambic beer, with the idea that he’ll blend and bottle to his tastes; much like a negociant or an independent Scotch bottler. It’s novel, and it changes all the time.
Those are the beers that will make up the Coast to Coast Toast; a celebration of Belgian beer as much as it is a celebration of this unique importer. You’re welcome and encouraged to participate.
Mike Naessens at Eulogy Belgian beer bar in Philadelphia is. “Thank God for people like Don and Wendy. They are good, honest, hardworking beer people and that is my favorite thing about them. I could always count on them to keep a fresh supply of the products our guests loved in stock, so it’s been 10 years of constant momentum build. I feel their love of what they do gives them a patient and nurturing attitude with the beers. The breweries they represent go beyond anything we could accomplish as humans, the breweries are like living fairy tales.”
So is Jon Myerow at Philly’s Tria Café: “I cannot imagine making a beer list without the beers of Brasserie Dupont, everyone’s favorite Belgian farmhouse brewery. Don and Wendy’s contributions to making Belgian beer popular in the United States are monumental. They are now commissioning beers that they want brewed, like commissioning great works of art. They are two of the most intelligent, kind, witty and passionate people I’ve come across in the beer industry. They manage to speak like Ivy League professors, yet come off as incredibly down to earth. No small trick.”
Indeed, and as I think back over our years of friendship, I agree. These two people changed my life: my first amazingly eye-popping bottle of Duvel in 1984, introductions to Belgian brewers, and a steady stream of brilliant interviews and expansive ideas. I’m excited about these new projects.
They’re excited too…and a little nervous. Wendy asked me what I thought of the new portfolio, and I told her it was promising, but really new. Don laughed, and said, “When you’re out front this far, you worry that you’re out front because you’re going in the wrong direction!” A delicious bottle of Hop Ruiter quickly puts that concern to rest.
Don then summed it up. “At the end of the day, our job is this: there’s this great place, Belgium, and here’s this beer you have to try.” Pretty great job you’ve got, guys; keep up the good work.
Upon returning from a three-year stint in Belgium, we founded Vanberg & DeWulf Importing. Since 1982, the specialty beers of Belgium and the North of France have been our passion. This region is the richest repository of gastronomic beers in the world.
For over a millennium, talented, idiosyncratic brewers have been brewing a staggering range of beers. We are proud to be the first importers to specialize in Belgian beers. All come, as always, from independent, family-run breweries committed to traditional methods of production.