Monday, February 24, 2014

Wendy Littlefield of Vanberg & DeWulf - Lady Crush Interview

At Tales of the Cocktail 2012, I had the privilege to attend the Beertales: The Most Chemically Complex CKTLS seminar, led by Wendy Littlefield, Fancesco Lafranconi, Adam Richard Seger, and Doug Frost.  One of these crazy complex cocktails in, and I was sold.  Beer in Cocktails!  Genius!

But there’s more to this story, dear readers, before there were Beertails, there was Beer.  Before Wendy Littlefield and her husband Don Feinberg started their importing company Vanberg & DeWulf in 1982, beer in the United States was, well, bad.

Vanberg & DeWulf was the first company to specialize in importing Belgian beers to the United States, which, one could argue, was a catalyst for the entire craft beer movement in America.  Where there was once 52 breweries in the United States, there are now 2500, making a wide range of different style beers.

So what beers does Vanberg & De Wulf import?  A few you've most likely heard of: Lambic, Saisons, Wit Beer, Belgian Stout, Smoked Ales, Abbey Singels, Bobbels and Tripels….(ok, maybe you haven’t heard of all of them).  Know that some of the breweries that they import from have been making beer since 1769, and all showcase the unique method of Belgian brewing.  They were the first to import Duvel, the well known Belgian beer that can be found in almost any discerning beer bar.  Today, V&DW imports beers from elsewhere in the world including Italy, Flanders, England, and Iceland.  One notable selection, LAVA is a smoked Imperial Stout that is brewed at a farm next to an active volcano, is on the top of my list to try TOMORROW.

What struck me the most about the Vanberg & DeWulf story, other than changing the perception of beer in the U.S. and inspiring microbreweries to pop up left and right (NBD), was Wendy’s story.  30 years ago it was an obscure choice to pursue importing beer, and as a woman, I’m sure it had it’s own particular challenges.  We spoke on the matter a bit, Wendy mentioned that it was not uncommon for her to be the only woman not in a bikini at the Beer Wholesaler’s Conventions.

Yet, the Yale grad was not deterred, instead, she found that her male colleagues were curious, they wanted to meet her, and do business with her.  She has proven herself as a knowledgeable importer, an expert on beer and it’s production, and has helped develop some of the most innovative and experimental beers in the last few years.  Lambrucha, for example, was named “Experimental Beer of the Year” at the U.S. Open of Beer and “one of the world’s healthiest beers” by Esquire Magazine.

She’s also quite the hostess.  This year, Vanberg & DeWulf hosted its 3rd annual Coast-To-Coast Toast on November 14, 2013, a national celebration of Belgian Beers held in hundreds of bars around the world (723, to be exact).  The main event was held at the notable Fat Rice in Chicago where all of the beers of the V&DW portfolio were offered.  (Ah, to be a fly on the wall at that party…)

In summation, Ms Littlefield is a force to be reckoned with.  A pioneer in the beer industry, she is a woman who continues to introduce innovative beers to the US market, and never ceases to wow us with new ideas and flavors.

And now, in her own words, after the jump:

Gastronomista:  Vanberg & DeWulf is one of the most prominent beer importers here in the US, when did you start importing beer, and why Belgian?

Wendy Littlefield:  Many of the best things in life are "happy accidents of propinquity". My husband, Don and I met at Yale and eloped to Brussels. We lived there for 3 years.  The beer landscape was barren in America, but bountiful in Belgium. Our companies were transferring us back to [New York] and we thought “if Americans knew about Belgian beers they'd love them”. We began importing in 1982 and in short order had the best indigenous example of every style brewed in Belgium, albeit the market was small.  For 7 years we worked full time and did beer on the side. Our import career very much mirrored Michael Jackson's - we were all proselytizers.

G:  Why beer?

WL:  Beer is the national drink of the country we called home in the first three years of our  marriage. It is a beautiful expression of the originality, talent, and terroir of the Belgians. We could share our love of Belgium in a bottle, and in so doing bring something great that very few of our American friends had ever experienced, while doing our part to rehabilitate and ennoble a drink that had become debased in the USA. We think of ourselves as cultural anthropologists explaining a society through its gastronomy.  Belgium is the size of Maryland. Consider the influence it has had on the US (let alone global) craft beer scene. We like to think we had a little hand in that.    

G:  What are your favorite beers that you import?

WL:  What is your favorite child relative or parent? These are our children and we love them all equally and know each in its time will have their moment in the sun.

G:  There’s a lot of exciting things happening domestically in the beer world, are you involved in any domestic beer programs?

WL:  Very much so in the sense that we are working with great bar owners, chefs, retailers and distributors, [and] we founded Brewery Ommegang. Given 64 years of combined importing experience we can lend some perspective while celebrating the current state of the market.

G:  The beer world can be very intimidating to those who know nothing about it - can you offer any navigation tips to the beer drinking novice?

WL:   We...offer our downloadable portfolio and suggest everyone read anything ever written about beer written by Michael Jackson.  Especially The Great Beers of Belgium (we published the 1st US edition).

G:  We’ve seen a lot of exciting things happening in the beertails (beer cocktails) world, highlighted by your seminar at last year’s Tales of the Cocktail.  I walked out of that seminar dumbfounded by the explosion of flavors I experienced, namely in the Rub & Rye made with Bulleit Rye, Lemon, Maple Syrup, Egg whites, topped with Brasserie Dubuisson Peche Mel, and BBQ Bitters.  How did this innovative cocktail program start?

WL:  One hundred percent of the credit is due to Adam Seger. It was his idea and he said he would like to use our beers.

1.5 oz Bulleit Rye
0.75 oz Lemon Juice
0.75 oz Maple Syrup
1 oz Egg White
5 oz Brasserie Dubaisson Peche Mel
1 g Mesquite Salt
1 g BBQ Bitters

Mixing Technique: Shake
Ice: Rocks: Kold Draft cubes
Garnish 1: Mesquite Salt Rim
Garnish 2: BBQ Bitters-3 Dashes
Special Instructions: Fill Glass 2/3rds with Ice and Batch. Guest will pour the Peche Mel over the cocktail.

G:  One could argue that the hardest part about making beertails is tracking down the very specific beer choices used in the recipes.  What’s the best way to find Belgian Beers?

WL:  On a national basis it is not impossible. Whole Foods carries a big selection - Total Wine has all our beer authorized. There is an organization called Rare Beer Club that often features rare beers from our collection. The Beer Shack stocks and ships a lot. [Same for] Halftime Beer, ... Wine Warehouse, Beer Temple, Binnys in Iliinois. If people write to us we will identify the closest retailer and  distributor. We are family run and very hands on.

G:  What tips should the home bartender know about mixing their own beertails?  What kind of flavor combinations, and or flavor balancing techniques are recommended?

WL:  Think about punches - Belgians are great hosts and chefs. Make the aperitif easy on the host through a self-serve punch.

Consider the aromas that the yeast of a particular beer expresses…[and] explore the spices that the brewers use, and examine how they came to be (through trade routes).  Think of cultural alliances antipathies associated with Belgium - domination and colonization and mine those themes. Belgium is an orchard -so incorporate fruit. It was also the centre of the spice trade for Northern Europe.

And now for the Lightning Round:

G:  Favorite Bar/Restaurant

WL:  ...As a native New Yorker and huge Ludwig Bemelman's fan - the  Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel in NYC.  The lampshades and murals knock me out.  Bobby Short's home away from home.  [Additionally] Fat Rice in Chicago, La Fleur en Papier Dore in Brussels, Mort Subite in Brussels, Abbot's Cellar in San Francisco, and Jimmy's 43 in New York City.

G:  Most memorable meal  & Most memorable cocktail

WL:  Oh my gosh there are so many - Lago di Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, In DeWulf in Belgium, my father's martinis and Adam's beertails at Tales of the Cocktail

G:  Guilty Pleasure

WL:  Rainier cherries

G:  Pick your poison

WL:  Lambic

G:  Last Meal

WL:  Knedliky - Czech Dumpling with Sauerkraut and roast duck.  My grandmother made this and then my mom carried on the tradition. Fantastic with Foret organic.

Check out Vanberg & DeWulf’s portfolio here!


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