Sheldon Lesire’s family has become dear to my own since Kate, Molly, and I moved to Silverton five years ago. The Lesires radiate joy, humor, creativity, and kindness. Sheldon and I call one another our “best new friend.” And so I’ve watched with no small measure of pride and excitement as Sheldon, a Special Education teacher by day, has patiently built an acclaimed brewing business on evenings and weekends. Belgian Underground Brewing uses handcrafted Belgian-style beer to help collect, preserve, and share stories of the Belgian Resistance during the Nazi occupation. (His grandfather was an active member.) To satisfy some of my own lingering curiosities—and to get more information about their recently launched Kickstarter campaign—I did something unusual: I did a “formal” interview with a close friend. Sheldon and I talked about “Slow Beer,” his Belgian heritage, the urgency of memory-keeping, and the process of growing a brewery. By coincidence, I’m publishing this interview on his birthday.
I’m half-Belgian. I was born in the same hospital that my father was, in a town called Hasselt in northeastern Belgium. His father, my Opa, was part of the Belgian Resistance in World War Two. For a long time I didn’t know many details. He didn’t talk about it much, and when he did it was mostly in offhand remarks. In general, most of the stories of the Resistance are slowly slipping away because so few of them were ever written down. But the stories that I hear second- or third-hand are intriguing and inspiring. I wanted to find a way to keep them going. We were starting to brew Belgian-style beers, and then it came to me one afternoon: we’ll use Belgian-style beer to tell stories of the Belgian Underground, and we’ll use stories of the Resistance to introduce people to great Belgian-style beers. It was an idea I couldn’t let slip away.
What did you eventually learn about your Opa’s involvement in the Belgian Resistance?
I first found out about it when I was teenager. My Oma was late in her life, she was starting to part with her possessions, her memorabilia, and the things she and my Opa had collected together. Over the last six or seven years, when we visit Belgium, we bring some of those things back to the States with us. My parents and I now have family documents that go back 150 years. That’s how we ended up with my Opa’s pay card from during the war and some of his membership papers from the Resistance. (After the war it was safe to create and keep records, and former members of the Resistance started fraternal organizations.)
Belgium was invaded when my grandfather was 19. At the time, he was working for the railroad in Hasselt, a rail hub near the border with The Netherlands. He kept track of train schedules and German troop movements, and he passed that intelligence along to the Underground. The Underground wanted to track the Germans and hoped to sabotage or delay the trains down the line. That’s what we know about my Opa’s role. We also know—though we don’t know the details—that he was arrested three times. He was released all three times. Maybe he was able to tell convincing enough lies to divert suspicion.
Do Belgians and Belgian-Americans talk much about the Resistance?
Not really. I’m involved in some Belgian expat groups, and they are interested in preserving these stories too, but their stories are similar to mine: their parents and grandparents just didn’t talk about it. Their experience during the war was so much worse than we can imagine. As Americans, we’ve never really been invaded by an occupying force; it’s a completely foreign experience for us. But Belgians have lived it multiple times. Belgium is where European powers have gone to settle their differences for hundreds of years. If you make it through that, if you make it to the other side, these aren’t the bedtime stories you tell your kids. You suck it up, try to move on, and hope to forget. Maybe it comes out decades later when you’ve had a chance to deal with it just enough. That said, what stories my expat friends do have, they’ve been sharing with me. That has been amazing.
It sounds like Belgian Underground Brewing is not only a vehicle to share some of the stories you know from the Resistance, but also, on a small scale, motivation for others to come together to share stories of their own.
That’s our hope. We like to say that we are a storytelling company that just happens to make beer. Our goal is not to be hugely productive or massively profitable. We just want to do something meaningful. We want to make beer we can be proud of. We want to tell good, important stories. And we want to incite good conversations.
What responses are you getting from Belgian-Americans who hear about what you are doing with the brewery?
The responses have been overwhelmingly positive. As you can imagine, they love the storytelling mission. But we win them over with the beer too. Belgians are a famously prideful lot. Many of them have a beef with American breweries claiming to brew Belgian beers. You don’t get to call it “champagne” if it’s not from the Champagne region in France; you shouldn’t get to call your beer “Belgian” if it’s brewed in the United States. That’s why we describe our beers as “Belgian-style.” And yet we try to source as many of our ingredients from Belgium, or from the same places that Belgian brewers get their ingredients—Germany, the Czech Republic, etc. We’ve had expats try our beers and they say, “Aah, this tastes like home.”
I started three years ago, on my thirtieth birthday. My father-in-law, who is now one of my business partners, had already been homebrewing for fifteen years. He’d wanted to brew with me for while. I told him that since it was my birthday, I wanted to make a Belgian-style of something I can get off the shelf, and I wanted to do a side-by-side comparison. We found a clone recipe for a Duvel, which is a strong golden ale. We made it in my kitchen and it fermented in the basement. When we tried it a few months later, it was surprisingly close to the original.
Instead of moving on to something new, we decided to keep working on this recipe until we got it just right. We brewed it again and again and again. Then, when it was perfect, we modified the recipe to make it our own. And we brewed that again and again and again until it was repeatable and we knew exactly what was working and exactly why it was working. We worked on it for a year-and-a-half. It’s now our golden strong ale. It’s called Armée Secrète, named after the largest Resistance group active in Belgium during World War Two.
That’s been our pattern ever since: one beer at a time, repeating it until we get it just right, and only then moving on.
How many beers do you have now?
Five. The golden strong. Our lager, Het Vrije Woord [The Free Word, named for a clandestine newspaper]. A farmhouse ale called Safehouse. Then we did a raspberry seasonal beer. Then we developed a Belgian chocolate porter, called Long Last Kiss. We have plans for at least four more.
For fun, we had been putting Belgian Underground Brewing labels on our beers, but we hadn’t had the idea yet to tie the beers to the Resistance. We initially called it Belgian Underground because we were brewing in my basement! When Eric came in to brew with us two years ago, he almost immediately had a vision for doing Belgian Underground professionally.
We didn’t—and still don’t—want it to get so big that it takes over our lives, or force us to quit our day jobs. Our goals were more modest: to start a nanobrewery and to see our beers on a grocery store shelf here in Silverton. We had no idea at the time how much work even that was going to take. [Laughing.] It’s shocking. We still have that original goal and we’ll do what we need to get there.
You’ve had several public tastings so far. How has the beer been received?
It’s been extremely positive, which has been surprising and completely humbling. I’m proud of the beer we’ve crafted, of course. But to put it out into the world, and then to have somebody I respect tell me how much they like it too—that’s very encouraging.
Have you benefited from a spirit of cooperation among some of the other breweries in the area?
Absolutely. Even though we’re good friends with the owners of Seven Brides Brewing here in Silverton, we didn’t tell them what we were up to for nine months. When they found out through word-of-mouth, they laughed and said, “Why didn’t you tell us? We could have had you down the road another six months already!”
In Oregon at least, the demand for craft beer is still greater than the supply, so the brewers in this state can afford to be more collaborative and cooperative than competitive. It’s like what a trade guild would have been a couple hundred years ago—you’re all interested in the same thing, and you’re helping each other produce the same product while putting your own spin on it. You don’t have to be cutthroat here.
Seven Brides helps by ordering ingredients for us at cost. They order grain and yeast in bulk, so we now get them at wholesale prices too. We emailed the guys at Vagabond Brewing in Salem to ask about their successful Kickstarter campaign. They invited us to come over, gave us a tour of the brewery, gave us start-up tips and helpful information about licensure, and he let us pick his brain for an hour-and-a-half.
On Thanksgiving morning, you launched a Kickstarter campaign. What are you hoping to do with the funds you raise?
The Kickstarter campaign will help us complete the construction of our physical space so that we can pass inspection and get licensed by the State of Oregon. If the Kickstarter campaign is successful, we hope to be selling beer by June. We’ve already made our largest equipment purchases. We have two two-barrel fermenters and a one-barrel brewing system. We’ve got a hot liquor tank, a mash tun, and a brewing kettle. We have a couple refrigerators and freezers that we use to temperature control our fermentation, and then all the bits and bobs that go along with that. We have a couple stainless steel tables, and a gigantic steel sink that we got for a steal from Seven Brides. We even found a wooden bar for the shop.
But we need to get the shop up to code. We have people who can do the work; we just need to cover material costs. This includes insulation, two-by-fours and two-by-sixes, and corrugated stainless steel paneling. We have to run a water drain and put in a large septic tank because the property isn’t on the city sewer system. All told, it’s going to cost $15,000.
Rather than getting a loan from a bank, or finding an outside investor who might have their own idea about how profitable the company needs to be or how it should be run, we want this to come from within our community. The temptation for many brewers is to get the quick loan, but that’s not consistent with the overall philosophy of Belgian Underground. We made three primary commitments when we started the business. We said we wouldn’t compromise on quality. We committed to keep brewing fun. And we promised to put our families first by keeping the business debt-free. That means growing the business responsibly, patiently, slowly.
In other conversations that you and I have had, you’ve described Belgian Underground Brewing as “Slow Beer.” As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the Slow movement (and a little about beer too), I have some ideas of how this moniker fits what you’re doing, but I’m curious why you describe it this way.
First of all, “Slow Beer” is a literal description of our process. Most breweries take two weeks from brew day to bottling day, because they have a streamlined recipe, a more efficient yeast, and a larger process. They have to make quick money on their investment. They can’t afford to have beer sitting in fermenters for weeks; they need to move on to the next batch. In contrast, our fastest beer takes two months. A couple others take four or five. We’re patient with our processes, which contributes to the beer’s high quality.
Second, we made the decision early on that we were going to grow the business slowly and intentionally. We don’t want to overcommit or grow so fast that we can’t meet our obligations. We’ve said that demand will outstrip supply from Day One. If we can sell 100 barrels in a year, we’ll make 99.
I’d like to add a couple things to this, based on my observations of you, your business partners, and your new company. Another “Slow” value I see you guys living out is that of gratitude. Your gratitude for your Opa and the other members of the Belgian Resistance. And your gratitude to your family, who are giving you the space to pursue this dream. You also make hospitality a priority. Not only do you encourage hospitality by creating beer with the care of a craftsperson, you guys also turn brew days into community events. You post the date, time, and location on the company’s Facebook page and encourage people to drop by and help make beer.
We love having people over on brew day. It’s a family event, a low-key party. A brew day is minutes of work punctuated by hours of waiting. You find things to fill that time. You enjoy each other, you eat and drink, you tell stories.
Belgian Underground Brewing has been a community effort from the beginning. While Dale, Eric, and I still obviously do most of the work, our friends and family have leveraged many of their own talents and resources on our behalf. Our logo was designed by a bartender in town who also happens to be a very gifted artist. She offered to research the Belgian Resistance herself and then develop our logo and bottling labels. She took it in a completely different direction than we had originally foreseen. But she had such a keen insight, and did such a good job tying it into the Resistance, that it has been our brand ever since. She wanted to do it for free, but we insisted on paying her.
When it came time to launch the Kickstarter campaign, we needed a compelling video. Once again, a friend of ours said, “Hey, I have professional equipment and I have editing skills. Let me help you out.” That friend donated time over a couple of weekends to make the project a reality.
Every time we do an event, our friends, families, and fans jump in and publicize it. We’ve never had to advertise. We rely on word-of-mouth, on our reputation, and on the enthusiasm of our community. The response has always been amazing.
Author’s Note: Belgian Underground Brewing’s Kickstarter campaign has done very well. With ten days to go, they have raised more than $10,000, two-thirds of their goal. Momentum seems to be on their side. But I’m going to ask for two favors. First, will you consider sharing the Kickstarter campaign with friends and family who are interested in great beer, great stories, great local businesses, or birthday gifts for strangers? I’ve tried to make it easy for you.
A shareable link directly to the Kickstarter campaign: bit.ly/BUBkick
Tweetable quotes that link back to this interview:
- Beer is a storytelling medium. [Click to tweet]
- How one Oregon brewery is using beer to shed light on a little known chapter in World War Two history. [Click to tweet]
- Three Oregon brewers launch @kickstarter campaign to go pro with their Belgian-style beers. [Click to tweet]
Second, will you consider contributing to the Kickstarter campaign yourself? Not only will you be supporting a worthwhile cause, you’ll get some great swag in return. Together we can get this done!