JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Through conversing and tasting beer with monks, Chris Cates was able to discover the delicacy and uniqueness behind Belgian-style beer.
In August of 2022, Cates, the owner of Little Animals Brewery in Johnson City, visited Belgium and ended up uncovering the art behind brewing the well-known but complex style. The trip fell into his lap when a fellow brewer and friend from Florida, Bob Sylvester, invited him to tag along.
While in Belgium, Cates and Sylvester were able to tour and taste beers at one of the most renowned Trappist breweries in the world. The Rochefort Brewery does not allow tourists to visit, but Cates and Sylvester were able to attend after reaching out and demonstrating their interest and admiration of the brewery’s rich history. The brewery directly inspired Cates’s creation of the drink ‘The Reliquary’ when he returned home.
Trappist breweries are monasteries that are run by monks who brew beer that is sold to fund the church. While observing at the Rochefort Brewery, Cates said something clicked. He had reached the last 10% of what made those beers good, and it was only a matter of yeast, fermentation, handling and a key ingredient selection.
“What I learned was I had a lot of things right,” said Cates. “But there’s particular finesse and nuance that I didn’t quite have a grasp on and that a lot of things clicked for me through having conversation while tasting the beers.”
Rochefort has been advised for years to only brew dark beers due to the calcium-rich spring water that they use. The three Rochefort beers all take the same ingredients in varying amounts: spring water, pale malts and caramel malts, Rochefort house yeast, aromatic and bitter hop varieties and white and brown sugar. These nuances can be reflected in ‘The Reliquary.’
“There’s a lot of complex flavors going on there,” said Cates. “Things from nutty plum raisin flavors, a little bit of burnt sugar crust, brown sugar, and a little bit of underlying pear from the yeast; a really beautiful complex beer.”
Cates has been brewing beers inspired by the Belgian style for years, but the refinement and variations of ingredients that he discovered on his trip make the world of difference to him and his customers. These ingredients create a serious impact on the taste of the beer, and he believes that since getting back and incorporating his new-found knowledge, the beers in that genre have gone from good to great.
“I remember drinking a few over there, and being like, ‘These are it for me, they are so complex, and I appreciate them so much,’” said Cates.
Cates said the drink became very popular around Christmas time because of the flavor and its relation to the holiday season. Regular customers demonstrate their satisfaction with this drink as they continue to come back for more. Kathy and Dennis Davis frequent the breweries in downtown Johnson City and lauded the ‘The Reliquary.’
“The Reliquary has a little more sweetness than I would expect for a dark strong,” said Dennis. “But Chris learned well from the Belgians.”
Customers have found joy in these new brews, as well as the atmosphere of the brewery itself. Little Animals Brewery is in the heart of downtown Johnson City and invites everyone in, including pets. The atmosphere offers a relaxing environment for customers and is coherent with the funky drinks that they provide.
The large, colorful mural that is seen as soon as customers enter was created by Allissa Walker. The animals that are depicted in the mural are described as being the little animals that ferment the beer. “Little Animals” comes from the word animalcule, which is another word for microorganisms.
Cates plans on creating more beer like ‘The Reliquary’ that relates to what he learned in Belgium. Little Animals Brewery brews more than just Belgian-style beers; it is also the creator of saisons, sours, bitter sweets and dark strongs.
“We try to do a little bit of everything, but we always try to have some sort of Belgian beer and sour on,” said Jordan Sams, an employee at Little Animals Brewery. “We try to have something for everybody.”