Originally published June 2, 2010
If you’ve gone to an event at the Toronado, one of San Francisco’s best beer bars, during the last seven years, chances are you’ve met Betsey Hensley. Up until recently, she could be found behind the bar or behind the scenes, coordinating the Toronado’s special events, and that’s where I met her, years ago.
But these days, the former Air Force fighter mechanic and space shuttle guard is on a new mission: she’s a Belgian beer disciple, out to spread the word by importing little-known lambics and tripels for Waterloo Beverages.
It’s been an unorthodox path.
Hensley grew up near St. Louis, so her first encounters with beer were, naturally enough, Budweiser-centric — and August Busch IV was her high school chemistry classmate. But Hensley never really warmed to American beers, and the idea of becoming a beer importer was never even a blip on the horizon.
Instead, she joined the Air Force, telling the military she’d take any job that didn’t involve a kitchen or a desk. They taught her to work on laser and infrared targeting systems for F-4 jet fighters, and she found she loved working with her hands. She spent the next years in a variety of jobs — among them, mowing cemetery lawns and guarding the space shuttle — until 1999, when she found herself in San Francisco in an apartment a few blocks from the Toronado.
That’s where she sipped her first Belgian beer, a classic Chimay — and an epiphany. Hensley quickly became a regular of the bar and a fan of Belgian beers, a passion that eventually landed her a job ordering beer, changing draft lines and helping run special events for bar owner Dave Keene.
Meanwhile, Flanders-born John Vanloo recently had sold his California soda distribution company and was looking for another way to tie together his Belgian home and his love for California. He noticed that Belgian beer had become very popular in America, but most importers were on the East Coast, so any beer headed here had to make two long, expensive journeys.
So Vanloo began mulling the idea of his own import company, named after one of Belgium’s most famous sites — and a friend immediately suggested he contact Hensley. It was a perfect fit. Last winter, Hensley and Arne Johnson, brewmaster at Marin Brewing, embarked on a scouting expedition to find new Belgian beers to bring directly to San Francisco.
Best unknown beers
The result: nine beers from seven little-known Belgian breweries. Unless you’re a hard-core Belgophile, the only familiar name may be Oud Beersel Brewery, which makes Oude Kriek (a cherry lambic bottled once a year), Oude Geuze (a traditional straight lambic) and the brewery’s only non-lambic beer, Bersalis, a tripel whose sales help support lambic production. The tripel uses wheat, as well as malt, and includes spices that give it great citrus and spicy notes. It has a nice dry finish, and you’d never guess it’s 9.5 percent alcohol by volume.
Another tripel in the portfolio, the Arend Tripel from the Brouwerij de Ryck, is a favorite of local brewer Brian Hunt, who owns Santa Rosa’s Moonlight Brewing. Hunt asked Hensley to bring in the beer, saying De Ryck “is a third-generation family brewery, and makes some of the finest beers in the world, with a brilliancy and passion you don’t often see.”
Hunt had become friends with Anne De Ryck, one of Belgium’s few female brewers. “I don’t think a man can make that beer,” Hunt says. “Her beers have a grace that I haven’t found in others. We can’t make it, but we can appreciate it.”
And it is a beautiful beer, soft and subtle, with delicate flavors. It may be the best tripel you’ve never heard of.
The remaining imports include an Ichtegems Grand Cru from the De Strubbe Brewery is a Flemish red ale aged in oak barrels, and an Abbaye de Sint Amand, a bottle-conditioned strong blonde ale spiced with juniper berries and made by the Brunehaut Brewery. The juniper is subtle and gives just a hint of the berry’s distinctive flavors, with a great dry finish.
The last three beers are all organic. The first, Gagaleer, is a blonde brewed with sweet gale — a bog myrtle, a traditional spice used in gruits that predate the use of hops in beer. Leireken Wild Berries is a bottle-conditioned fruit beer made with pomegranate, cherry and strawberry juice, along with the pulp from blueberries, raspberries and the red elderberry, all organic and unfiltered. Surprisingly, this light, zesty beer is more tart than sweet.
The final beer is perhaps the most unusual — and it’s sure to be a hit at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. Jessenhofke is a bottle-conditioned strong strawberry blonde, with a red tint from unrefined cane sugar, brewed with organic garlic. The garlic provides mostly body and mouthfeel, although its presence is evident in the aroma.
Hensley will be taking her passion — and these terrific, hand-picked beers — and finding homes from them throughout the Bay Area. So far, they can be found at City Beer Store, Beer Revolution, Ledger’s, the Church Key, the Village Market and, of course, the Toronado.