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Monthly Archives: June 2010

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Bar Volo – Your Friendly Neighborhood Nanobrewery

Bar Volo has acquired quite a reputation for itself. Between the annual Cask Days festival, the rotating tap selection and continued importation of rare and interesting bottles, it has managed to rank 61st in Beer Traveler Magazine’s 150 Perfect Places to Have A Beer. I can tell you right now that they’re going to rank higher next time around. Today, at about 10:30AM, Bar Volo started on the road to becoming a functioning brew pub.

Over the last year or so there has been a lot of speculation amongst visitors about the timeline that this process was on. After all, the pilot brewing system has been sitting idle for what seems like a tantalizingly long time. Ralph Morana, the owner and now head brewer, had to make sure to conform to licensing requirements before it was possible to brew on premises. Perhaps more importantly, he wanted to make sure that he had the expertise to do justice to his vision of creating quality cask ales. Ralph has recently returned from three months of intensive training at Brewlab in Sunderland, UK. While he certainly possesses the technical expertise to be able to create his own products, he has wisely enlisted consultants in the form of the Biergotter Home Brew club in order to take advantage of their experience and manpower. You don’t want to try moving a 100 litre brew kettle by yourself. We’ve all seen that public service announcement.

Biergotter consists of Russ Burdick and Eric Ecclestone. For the last six years, they’ve been creating high quality beers with a DIY ethos. Their Hopocalypse and Hopocalypse Redux are legendary amongst Toronto cask ale fans. These beers topped out at over 100 IBU three years before American style IPAs caught on in Ontario. The boys haven’t been resting on their laurels, either. This year they submitted five beers to homebrewing competitions and four of them won

Eric Ecclestone: Local Badass

Eric Ecclestone: Local Badass

medals. They won the American Ale category at the Great Canadian Homebrew Comptetition. Last year they produced 195 gallons of beer. This is not some fly by night operation. These are journeymen. When asked why Ralph had chosen them, Eric responded, “Because we’re the best. Put that in your blag, St.John.” This collaboration has been a long time coming and Eric went on to explain that they’d been looking for a project to work on together for three years.

I’m mostly familiar with Russ and Eric from time spent with them at beer festivals and nights at the pub, meaning that this was one of the first times I’ve seen either of them without a pint glass in their hand. Imagine my surprise upon walking into Volo this morning to find sober people with wrenches, sealing tape, clipboards and yeast slurry laid out in an organized manner. At the time I arrived, Ralph and Russ were hunched over their laptops planning out the brew day and making recipe adjustments. Ralph was decked out in his Brewlab shirt and reading glasses. Russ stared fervently at his Promash software. It was clearly business time.

Today was a first attempt at using the equipment that Ralph purchased last year. While there was a certain amount of time spent on trying to figure out exactly how all the pieces fit together, the most impressive thing about the collaboration is the adjustment of styles that took place during the brew run. Biergotter’s setup is almost entirely manual. If things need to be moved, there’s going to be some heavy labour involved. The pilot system at Volo is a three tiered system designed to allow for a certain amount of stability and automation. A typical brew day for Biergotter takes between six and seven hours, but the technological advances of the pilot system allowed for a significant reduction in the amount of time expended. In terms of the experience he gained at Brewlab which dealt mostly with British Ales, Ralph benefited from Biergotter’s technical expertise with other styles; skimming excess proteins from the brew kettle and adjustments to hopping levels based on Original Gravity, for instance.

Ralph and consultants

Look at all this professionalism.

This is a move that makes a great deal of sense for Bar Volo when you stop to think about it objectively. Because of their reputation for having high quality cask ales available the majority of the time, this will allow them to ensure that there is a constant supply of fresh and interesting products available. The ability to customize recipes and experiment with various styles of cask beer will also ensure continuing innovation and promote discourse about the possibilities of nanobrewing as a viable enterprise in Ontario. The cost of materials for nanobrewing is a great deal lower than the cost of bringing in a cask or keg from another brewery. The system is capable of producing nearly 100 liters of beer which, if you take the inevitable spillage during production into account, should result in four 20 liter pins. It gives Ralph and his consultants from Biergotter carte blanche to experiment, given that if a batch doesn’t work out the financial loss is manageable. It also means that the same quality control measures can be performed from batch to batch and there’s no chance of damage to the beer in transit. When the plans for the system are complete, it will include a fermentation room in the basement regulated to 20 degrees Celsius which will allow for optimal conditioning.

Emptying the Mash Tun

Russ provides stability while Ralph empties the Mash Tun

While it remains to be seen exactly what will result from today’s experimentation, it’s clear to me that there are great things in the works. Tomas Morana let it slip that future plans involve scheduling a lineup of consultants to provide Ralph with their expertise and provide Toronto beer nerds with delightful collaborative brews. There’s even the possibility that they might let Julian near the thing (sometime before he turns thirty).

It’s early days to claim that this is going to be a gamechanger in Ontario. It does provide a framework for people trying to experiment with nanobrewing, and that is useful information to have as the industry continues to expand. This is going to be a success for Bar Volo and for Biergotter. While this brew run may be more about working out the kinks in the system than anything else, there’s always the possibility that you could be enjoying the Saison they brewed today on the patio in a couple of weeks. Coming up to the boil

Ontario Craft Beer Week – An Epilogue OR “Look Back Hungover”

Now that the booths have been packed up at the Sunnyside Pavilion and the events of the week have come to an end, it’s a good opportunity to take a look back and see exactly what Ontario Craft Beer Week accomplished. For me, there were high spots and low spots evident throughout the week, but since I’ve already covered my opinions pretty thoroughly (even I’m tired of listening to my prattle), I’ve decided to abide by a new metric: How successful was Ontario Craft Beer Week in spreading the word about Ontario Craft Beer?

One of the problems in sponsoring a week-long series of beer events in Toronto seems to be the fact that preaching to the choir is unavoidable. Without the ability to provide for large media buys and television spots, promotion is available through a relatively limited series of channels. Bar Towel is a good example of this phenomenon. It operates as a good channel of information and the forums are full of people, both registered and lurking, who are definitely interested in going out to the pub and seeing what’s available. There are thirty thousand registered users, which is a pretty good group. The problem is that in order to have heard about Ontario Craft Beer Week through Bar Towel, you would have had to visit the site; you’d already have to be seeking out information about it. The same can essentially be said for TAPS, which has a fairly devoted online following both at their website, but also on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. You’d already need to be following a national beer magazine in order to hear about the events.

Josh Rubin had a nice piece over at the Toronto Star, which was published five days before the events started. It included a limited list of the events taking place throughout Toronto. I’m googling my spacebar off over here, and that’s about all the mainstream coverage that pops up in the first five pages of results. I know that Jed from the Griffin Gastropub had a Breakfast Television interview scheduled on Tuesday. That may have singlehandedly reached a larger audience than all other attempts combined, but a segment like that is a one shot deal. Once it’s over, it’s not going to get replayed unless it makes the website. I didn’t see it linked anywhere online, so I’m guessing that it didn’t (the BT website is down as of this writing, the servers probably having either been set on fire by the black bloc or bashed by a riot shield). There’s nothing in Eye Weekly and there’s nothing in NOW Magazine. It didn’t even make Torontoist.com. I feel as though it should have been possible to reach a larger audience in the run up to the events.

One of the reasons that this difficulty exists is that Ontario Craft Beer Week was put together in a little under eleven weeks. The initial press release for the event went out on March 31st. The first organizational meeting was apparently in the middle of April, meaning that all of the logistics had to be put together within two months. Given that timeframe, what they were able to put together was beyond impressive. When you consider the number of special brews that were put together for the week and the amount of face time put in by the brewers themselves, it’s easy to see that there is definitely a huge amount of enthusiasm within the industry for an event like this. After all, a high tide raises all boats.

I lack the ability to be objective when I’m out reviewing an event, partially because I’m a complete beer nerd and partially because the notes tend to become illegible after a certain number of samples, but let’s have a bit of a think about who actually attended the events that I covered.

Granite Brewery Taste of All Ontario: Father’s Day crowd, but mostly people who are already visiting the Granite.

Bar Volo Belgontario: Young people who are willing to learn about beer and try new things, and a smattering of die hard beer nerds.

Harbord House Beer Dinner: Mostly people who go to Harbord House (based on the ease with which they launched into conversation with each other.)

Cass and Troy’s Pub Crawl: Bartowelers, industry people.

Project XXXX: They got over 150 people out, many of whom you have to assume hadn’t been there before since it was their largest ever turnout.

Session Festival: For the most part, twenty somethings with disposable income who are willing to try new things.

Out of six events, three of them managed to target non-industry people or people  not actually physically attending a brewpub. Just based on volume through the doors, Session was the most successful event in terms of reaching a new audience followed by Belgontario and Project XXXX. I don’t want to guess at the actual numbers.

Ontario Craft Beer Week didn’t misstep. It did the majority of things right when you take into account the fact that nothing like this had ever been tried on this scale. It used the promotional avenues available, even going so far as to put together a video to drum up online interest. It managed to schedule a number of events of different kinds province wide, allowing for peoples’ differing tastes and comfort levels. It was an incredibly important step forward for the Ontario Craft Brewing industry if only because there is now a frame of reference for events of this magnitude. This was a solid program, and hopefully it will encourage fuller participation from Ontario brewers for the next festival. If they’d had more time to prepare, it would have been better.

Speaking of which, Toronto Beer Week will potentially be the first festival to benefit from this testing of the waters. Here are the lessons they need to take away from Ontario Craft Beer Week: If the goal of the event is to raise awareness and reach new audiences, it is simply not enough to use online, industry friendly media outlets. In order to expand the brand of craft brewing generally, there needs to be mainstream media attention. Additionally, you need to get a combination of the larger beer bars in Toronto, and it wouldn’t hurt to get licensees on board that don’t already cater to your existing audience; maybe some kind of Toronto Beer Week “Craft Beer Challenge,” where you get bars that don’t usually serve craft beer to try it out with their clientele. Maybe get the attention of the Firkin group or something. All I know is that there has to be a certain amount of spectacle to get the general public involved.

Feel free, incidentally, to take advantage of the relative anonymity of the comment section to spitball ideas for Toronto Beer Week either based on what you saw this week or just generally.

I am now going go to take advantage of the fact that Ontario Craft Beer Week is over by giving my liver a well deserved hiatus.

There, there, little liver. You’ll be ok.

Ontario Craft Beer Week – Session: A Craft Beer Festival

The concept of launching an Ontario Craft Beer Week is a reasonable proposition. Breweries were able to prepare for the event and put together relatively small gatherings at venues throughout Toronto. The Victory, for instance, had craft beers on tap all this week. Being that they had also had craft beers on tap the week before that and for the last couple of years running, it’s not much of a stretch to throw support behind an additional week. It’s not a big ask to get a bar like Volo to display some excellent Belgian style beers, and it’s not much of a coup to get Great Lakes or Black Oak to produce excellent beer. They were going to do it anyway. These are organizations that will throw down at the drop of a hat and which will gladly throw support behind a local promotion. The fact that there’s an Ontario Craft Beer Week just means that they’ll get more attention for doing the things they’re already doing well.

Innovation, on the other hand, is risky. The Session Craft Beer Festival represents a departure from Toronto’s mainstay beer festival: The Toronto Festival of Beer. I have heard the Toronto Festival of Beer referred to by various people as “a gong show”, “a drunk tank” and “that time I threw up a bunch.” Typically the complaints that you get about the TF o’ B are that they don’t showcase any new products, that it’s incredibly noisy and crowded and that because large national brands are in evidence, it’s relatively difficult to promote smaller brands. This week I heard horror stories about serving beer there; tales of debauchery and pointless violence and poor behavior. Any time that you get ten thousand people together and supply them with an endless stream of lager, things are going to get dicey.

Sunnyside PavilionSession set out to remedy several problems associated with the larger festival. For starters, it’s a much smaller venue than Bandshell Park. The Sunnyside Pavilion, which is a marvel of a bygone age when Lake Ontario was swimmable has, according to the security guard I spoke to, a capacity of about 3000 people. The fact that the festival featured only craft beer removed the influence of national brands and also the presence of their proponents. Tickets to the festival cost $35.00 (and to be fair, included a very nice half pint stein), which has to be viewed as a strategic move on the part of the Griffin Gastropub, who organized the event. It’s certainly restrictive in demographic terms; People who are unwilling to pay the extra four dollars to avoid drinking Lucky Lager are certainly not going to shell out $35.00 for a ticket that doesn’t include beer samples. Once you had been admitted to the festival, samples were quite reasonable. The stein was marked at four ounces and eight ounces, but I suspect that the pours were closer to five ounces and ten ounces. A four-five ounce sample was a dollar, or about four dollars a pint. If you think in terms of comparison to Mondial de la Biere’s model, where admission is free but four ounce samples can run up to five dollars, it no longer seems unreasonable. It’s even fairly clever in that in order to get your money’s worth at Session, you basically had to commit to the whole afternoon.

In the run up to the event, I tried to get some of my beer nerd friends to go with me. None of them were particularly interested. For people who pay fairly close attention to the beer scene in Toronto, Session wasn’t much of a draw. There wasn’t a lot of stuff on tap that you couldn’t purchase at the LCBO or find on tap at other venues during Ontario Craft Beer Week. A lack of unique products limited the draw of the festival for a number of people, especially considering that even three unique beers would probably not have justified the price of admission.

This means that two categories of beer drinkers had been eliminated: Beer Nerds and Buck-a-Beer enthusiasts.

His Ompteeness in a candid momentIt’s a clever strategy, if you pause to think about the fact that the folks at the Griffin Gastropub managed to draw a crowd of twenty somethings with disposable income who are willing to try out new things. It’s unlikely that they would have already tried all of the beers on offer and they probably wouldn’t have gone to many of the other Ontario Craft Beer Week events. It’s fairly likely that these people will walk away from the festival having found something that they liked and that they would drink again and even actively seek out. The key accomplishment for the festival is the fact that they managed to reach and address an important demographic which is, if not untapped, then usually not taken seriously. Between the pricing structure which ensured a captive audience for an afternoon and the lovely scenery around the Sunnyside Pavilion, the attendees were relaxed and genial and even avoided having to wait in long lines.

It should have been an overwhelming success, but there was the timing.

To say that the timing was unfortunate is like claiming that war orphans are underprivileged. This was a beer festival in a remote location in the middle of the world cup on the weekend of the G20 when protestors roamed the streets of Toronto. And it rained! On the way to the festival, I caught the bus out of Keele moments after the announcement that all subway services in downtown Toronto had been stopped due to a security incident, giving the 80 Queensway the feel of the last chopper out of Saigon. People stayed home in droves. You can expect a certain amount of hunkering down when there are seven thousand people walking along Queen Street West, smashing windows and setting fire to police cars. By 3:30, people at the festival were obsessively checking their iPhones for updates on the situation. Throughout the afternoon, the crowd did pick up, but not substantially. Even after the sun came out, the festival remained fairly empty. In point of fact, more people may have been arrested in Toronto yesterday than attended Session.

Beer and a lake: An Ontario WeekendIt may have actually worked in their favour. For the people in attendance, there was the ability to talk to the brewers and actually learn about the beer they were drinking. There was in-depth conversation and people enjoyed themselves. I was able to spend half an hour having a good natured conversation, enjoying a tasty beverage while looking out at Lake Ontario and I was never jostled once. For the people who braved the confusion of the events surrounding the G20, it was a delightful afternoon.

To sum up, Session was a good idea that almost worked. It was valiant attempt at a craft beer festival that didn’t quite make it. I suspect that on any other weekend, this would have been a much greater success. I want the festival to succeed if they do it next year, so all I can hope for is that it can be scheduled during a period with less rioting and arson.

Ontario Craft Beer Week – Project XXXX

Project XicansGreat Lakes Brewery hosts a monthly event called Project X on the second Thursday of each month. At its inception a year ago, the idea was that they would show off one cask conditioned ale and a number of their beers on tap. The $10 membership would get you a t-shirt and inclusion on the mailing list, and you would have to pay $10 on each subsequent visit to cover the cost of snacks. I’ve been out there a couple of times, and it has become fairly obvious to me that the event has evolved way past its original model into something unique. The number of cask conditioned ales on offer has gone through the roof. The event is frequently tied to other, larger events. Project XX was a benefit event with proceeds going to the Women’s Habitat of Etobicoke, featuring food and cask ale produced by women (the rather excellently named Great Lakes “Does this muu-muu make me look Hefe?” Imperial Hefeweizen is seemingly based on one of the beers from this event and is available tonight at Volo). This month’s edition not only marks the one year anniversary of Project X, it ties them to Ontario Craft Beer Week.

This month’s edition, Project XXXX is a fine jumping off point to talk about the spirit of the event. Great Lakes is Toronto’s oldest craft brewery and for the most part the thing that has sustained them to this point are the brews that they have produced in order to appeal to the mass market: Golden Horseshoe Premium Lager and Red Leaf Smooth Red Lager. In 2006 they started releasing more substantial fare and their Devil’s Pale Ale and seasonal releases followed from that point on. There’s a Pumpkin Ale, a Winter Ale, an Orange Peel Ale, a Green Tea Ale and the Crazy Canuck Pale Ale, which was released in time for the 2010 winter olympics. For those of you keeping track at home, that’s six beers that have made it into the LCBO in the last four years.

In order to develop new beers, it seems to me that you need three things: A pilot brewing system, competent and enthusiastic brewers, and the willingness to get the hell out of their way and let them experiment. Great Lakes has all three of these things, and Project X exists in order to show off the results of the process and also to recoup a small amount of the R&D outlay. The sheer variety of products that they’ve produced as a result of experimentation just in the last year is massively impressive. There have been Barley Wines, Double IPAs, West Coast IPAs, Saisons, Rauchbiers, Breakfast Stouts, Imperial Hefeweizens, Hoppy Weissbiers, English Milds, and two beers based on medieval styles and techniques: a Gruit Ale and a Steinbier.

Everyone seems to be getting in on the act. I already talked about David Bieman’s Saison over here. John Bowden is responsible for the Morning Glory Breakfast Stout, which was a favourite at Cask Days last year. And then, there’s Mike Lackey. I’ve spent a small amount of time taunting Mike about his maniacal hop obsession this week, claiming that I was going to make sport of him at some point. I came up with a number of potential jokes, which I include here in a Rostand style categorization:

Melodramatic: When he approaches the mash tun, the soundtrack swells with pizzicato strings.

Chuck Norris: Mike Lackey doesn’t love hops. He hates tooth enamel.

Illegality: Mike Lackey’s hops are delivered daily in bales dropped from a low flying plane.

Corporate: Mike Lackey has more hops than a malfunctioning energizer bunny.

Agrarian: Mike Lackey is personally responsible for the continued subsidy of half the hop growers in Washington State.

Concerned: I hope he doesn’t end up in a padded room, rocking slowly back and forth, repeating “Columbus” over and over.

Straight-up Thievery: He must love the little beer nerds, to give them this to drink.

In truth, there’s no reason to mock the guy. He’s the brewer behind My Bitter Wife IPA, My Bitterer Wife Double IPA, Miami Weiss, Lackey’s Caskey, Armadildo IPA and other excellent products. He’s got a signature style and he may be the only brewer in Ontario whose beer is immediately recognizable. His beer is going into round two of the Volo IPA challenge with a commanding lead and I have no doubt that he’s going to win. The best part, as a beer nerd, is getting to see how he’s tweaking the recipe with every new brew run. It’s a useful insight into the refinement process and a great display of his enthusiasm and ability.

Great Lakes' Take on a Fake LakeProject XXXX had a great party atmosphere. Having lucked out on the weather, Great Lakes splurged on a G20 style fake lake of their own. There was a small lakeside area with Muskoka style deck chairs. They were serving pork and lamb sausages with roasted red peppers and a mixed salad with a Green Tea Ale vinaigrette. The Rollergettes, the Great Lakes affiliated roller derby team, were onhand and provided what looked to be the most entertaining impromptu day care service in the GTA. (Roller Derby Daycare. Someone pitch it to Fox.)

Roller Derby Daycare

Taken moments before little Johnny was hipchecked into oncoming traffic.

They invited F&M, Flying Monkeys and Muskoka to supply casks for the event. F&M supplied a Strawberry Blonde lager, which was refreshing in the afternoon sun. Muskoka brought a dry-hopped Cream Ale. Peter Chiodo from Flying Monkeys brought both a cask and bottles of his new Smashbomb IPA (72 IBU, Citra Hops) in order to allow people to do a side by side tasting. The cask version had an effusive mouthfeel and an overwhelming citrus quality, while the bottle version was served slightly colder and seems to concentrate its attack on the mid palate. Great Lakes provided Lackey’s Caskey, My Bitter Wife and Miami Weiss.

If you haven’t been out to Project X yet, you’re missing out. Next month will be different, but no less impressive. It’s definitely worth the trek out to Royal York and the Queensway. Plus, where else can you get great food and sample several kinds of beer for ten bucks?

Ontario Craft Beer Week – Cass and Troy’s Excellent Adventure

Last night, night four of Ontario Craft Beer Week, was the inaugural edition of Cass and Troy’s pub crawl, which looks to be a continuing feature of Ontario Craft Beer Week. The pub crawl serves a number of purposes mostly because of the affiliations of its hosts. Troy Burtch is the man behind the Great Canadian Beer Blog and in his capacity at TAPS magazine not only a fine addition to the team, but also an inspiration to everyone who has ever dreamed of giving up their day job to get into the industry. Cass Enright is the founder of the Ontario beer website Bar Towel and also the man behind Free Our Beer, which endeavours to expand the amount of choice available to Ontario beer drinkers by bringing beer into the province that’s not yet available through the LCBO.

The crawl, which was announced last week, allowed representation for Bar Towel and TAPS magazine during the week. Upon joining the crawl, each guest was issued a wristband (to allow for discounted pricing at some of the stops) a raffle ticket for the giveaways throughout the evening and a snazzy new Bar Towel keychain. The crawl also allowed for members of Bar Towel to put faces to online handles. There’s a certain amount of anonymity on online forums that creates a decent amount of disconnect even between people who are in complete agreement about the fact that death is a favourable alternative to having to drink Schlitz. In this case, rather than having their remarks listed in chronological order by bulletin board software, people were able to voice their opinions at the same time without making Cass moderate them. The pub crawl turned out to be a relative who’s who of beer drinkers, beer writers, beer purveyors and industry professionals, all out for a night on the town. It’s an interesting exercise to discover that someone you know from a pub is the same person that you’ve been arguing with online.

The first stop of the tour was the Victory Café, a beloved Mirvish Village institution which serves a number of very decent craft beers, not to mention the fact that they have a guest cask tap. The cask of the day was Neustadt Double Fuggled, which is slightly reminiscent of Deuchars IPA and therefore a thing very much to be desired on a hot, muggy day. As guests of the pub crawl gathered in the front room of the pub, which rapidly surpassed maximum capacity, Cass and Troy explained the format of the crawl and people tended to have to introduce themselves twice; once using their real names and a second time using their online handles. It’s a fairly bizarre procedure and should have been a tip off about the level of nerdery which became evident later in the evening. Seemingly minutes after introductions were made, Troy took the reins and announced that it was time to move on to the second stop, Caplansky’s.

Caplansky’s, if you haven’t been yet, is a wonderful deli in the tradition of Schwartz’s or Yitz’s. The specialty of the house is the smoked meat, as it should be. If you’re ordering it in any cut other than fatty, you’re doing yourself a disservice. It’s moist and juicy and seemingly impossible to eat without abandoning dignity and just diving in. They  had four craft beers on tap and I opted for the Denison’s Dunkel. It’s an excellent idea during a pub crawl to lay down some fodder relatively early in the evening so that you don’t end up staggering around saying things like “This guy… I love this dude… this is.. the guy…(blurghhhh).”

The third stop was Ronnie’s Local 069, which I skipped. I should perhaps explain the reasoning behind this decision. It was hot and muggy out to begin with and Ronnie’s is an extremely cramped and crowded place. With the humidity it was over thirty degrees out and the back room that we were going to be sitting in was essentially a sauna at this point in the evening; a sauna that smelled more than faintly of cat urine. I was worried that it was actually the stench of the alpha hipster marking his territory. You can pick the alpha hipster out of the crowd by the fact that he has the most obviously ironic moustache style, the tightest girl jeans and the most obscure tattoo sleeves. His mate will be the one in the least form fitting dress, which has been fashioned out of either burlap or sackcloth. I’m sure the CBC will eventually produce a field guide in a Hinterland Who’s Who format. (Now say what you will about me: I was born with a silver spoon lodged squarely in my forebrain. I’m midtown Toronto white anglo saxon protestant yuppie bourgeois reactionary scum. In high school I was voted most likely to turn fifty before I turned thirty. Some people are afraid of the unknown. I’m just leery of d-bags.)

After a brief stroll through Kensington Market, I headed to the fourth stop on the crawl: The Embassy. This was more my speed. Black Oak Summer Saison on tap. Geometric designs on the walls. Mood lighting in a Victorian space. It’s a nice pub and one I’d gladly go back to. It was at this point in the evening that Cass made an announcement regarding Free Our Beer. They’ve acquired a second brewery; Picaroon’s which is based out of Fredricton, New Brunswick. Cass will be spearheading the import of five of their beers, highlighted by their Imperial Pilsner. I keep hearing good things about them, so this should be a win for Cass. This was also the point in the evening when the crowd began to thin out. Depending on your size and how gung-ho you are about the pub crawl experience, the fourth hour can certainly represent something of a rubicon. Troy was no longer able to move the crowd along with the efficiency displayed earlier in the evening as stragglers delved into conversation and revealed which World of Warcraft server their alt characters were on.

The final stop on the pub crawl was the Cloak and Dagger, which is pretty much what you want in a late night pub. The dark oak paneling tends to absorb the light from the room, they offer 23 beers on tap and employ a very competent Jack Black impersonator as entertainment. Almost to a man, the remaining crawlers ended up ordering the cask ale: Lackey’s Caskey. You may recall that this was on offer the other night at the Harbord House. This version was almost certainly better. I find cask ale from pins to somehow contain less flavor than those drawn from a handpump, probably due to some of the oxygenation that occurs during the pumping. This was smooth, hoppy and delicious and probably would have worked with the cheesecake. They also had Duggan’s #99 double IPA, in which I feel Mike has doubled the amount of malt rather than the amount of hops. It’s drinkable, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to order it again.

The pub crawl was a vast success. People chatted and schmoozed and drank and enjoyed themselves and each other’s company. If the other events this week are a showcase of Ontario beer, this was a showcase of Ontario beer drinkers. By and large they’re a jovial, pleasant and extraordinarily nerdy group of people to spend time with.

Ontario Craft Beer Week – Harbord House

One of my goals in covering Ontario Craft Beer Week was to try and get out to a number of different kinds of events. I knew that I wanted to cover an event that had food pairings involved, and it was hard to narrow down the field. Mirella Amato is hosting a Neustadt tasting and sausagefest at The Only Café on Wednesday and yesterday there was a lobster boil at the Cloak and Dagger. The option that looked the most interesting to me was a cask beer dinner at Harbord House. Harbord House has been on my radar for a while because I have a group of friends that frequent the place pretty regularly. One of them happens to be the reigning cribbage champion of the pub, the prize for which seems to have been a year’s supply of beer. Despite the prospect of free beer for cribbage, I’d never spent much time there.

Harbord House occupies a space that was formerly Rowers Pub & Grill. It’s been open for two and a half years, and has been serving exclusively Ontario craft beer since its inception. They’ve had cask beer for about a year now and their standard choice is Wellington Arkell Bitter. They’re marketing themselves as a gastro pub, and the label is not misapplied as a brief look at the menu certainly indicates. Anybody that uses Berkshire pork shoulder for a pulled pork sandwich is ok in my book. I came to the conclusion that I’ve been missing out, and figured that I should see whether my friends knew something I didn’t.

The other thing that intrigued me is the fact that a cask beer dinner is a relatively risky proposition. It’s a condition of cask ale, as a result of it being an unfiltered product with live yeast, that you don’t necessarily know exactly what you’re going to get until the tap goes in. The beers were all from Great Lakes, which was an encouraging sign since they’ve been producing consistent cask ale for several years at this point. The owner of the pub, John, explained to me that this was the first time that they’d attempted a dinner of this kind. It’s a fairly difficult logistical situation to pull off a five course menu for over thirty people. Great Lakes supplied two cask beers that they had chosen and John had insisted that they brew a beer that he had tried the previous year at Caskapalooza.

While the brewers had supplied some suggestions for food pairings, the menu was designed by John and their chef, Jake.  I suspect that the process of creating a dinner like this must be a lot of fun if you’re working in a pub environment with a relatively small set menu and a few daily specials. The end result was certainly ambitious; the food prep started three weeks ago. Our guide for the evening and my dining companion was David Bieman, a sales representative and brewer for Great Lakes. David is definitely a good choice to host an event like this. He had worked on an organic farm in British Columbia prior to getting into the brewing industry, so he has a unique perspective. The man’s a wealth of information and he fielded questions both ably and entertainingly from diners throughout the evening.

Charcuterie PlateThe first course was a charcuterie platter, accompanied by the Rauchbier that John had persuaded Great Lakes to brew for the event. As you can see, this was an expansive platter. It included house made smoked hunter’s sausage, chicken liver pate and a scotch quail’s egg accompanied by stone ground mustard, red onion jam, sweet cornichons and toast points. As a pairing the Rauchbier went very nicely, although I felt that it could have stood to be a little smokier. David actually agreed with me, but made the convincing point that given its place on the tasting menu, it might overwhelm the palate on subsequent courses had it been more aggressive. The other consideration to be made was the fact that for many of the guests, this would probably be their first experience with a Rauchbier. Subtlety is often more persuasive than a blow on the head.

Just in case anyone was overwhelmed, the tasting menu proceeded to a palate cleansing second course; a salad of watermelon, feta and mint chiffonade drizzled with a balsamic reduction. It was light and fresh and while the pairing for this course was water, which was a very good idea considering, David pointed out that a something in a flavoured beer might work very well the dish in another setting.

The third course was a seafood salad of crab, tomato and capers topped with a pea and potato pancake and a pan seared scallop with a mint and pea reduction. It was the only course paired with a draft beer, Great Lakes Golden Horseshoe Lager, which I thought was completely appropriate. What with the flavors of crab and scallop being fairly sweet and subtle, the contrast that was being aimed at was with the saltiness of the capers and the acidity of the tomato. A more strongly flavoured beer might have gotten in the way, and it’s an important consideration when attempting to pair beer with food that sometimes the focus is going to be on the dish rather than the glass.

David's SaisonThe fourth course was a roasted loin of lamb with fingerling potatoes, asparagus, quenelles of chevre and crème fraiche and a light mustard sauce. It was paired with a Saison that David had brewed himself. He was quite modest about the Saison, and explained something of the design process. This was only the second attempt at a Saison for David. The first time around, a year ago, he had wanted to include a variety of spices in the brew and the end result was not encouraging. This time however, he decided that restraint was called for and opted simply for honey. The Saison came out at about 6.0% with a noticeable honey sweetness at the start, which fades away to spice in the mid palate. The pairing is inspired, given that both the Saison and the chevre include barnyard notes, meaning that you get similar yet distinct tangy flavours from them which compliment the slight gaminess of the lamb. Also, I should point out the plating which places quenelles at 12, 3, 6 and 9 on the plate, interspersed by a sauce of a contrasting colour. It’s nicely artistic without seeming forced.Roasted Loin of Lamb

Dessert was chocolate cheesecake with a strawberry and orange compote (Coulis? It’s been a while since I leafed through Harold McGee), which was paired with Lackey’s Caskey, which derives a citrus flavor from the hop varieties employed. I think that the pairing could have been improved upon by a more pronounced orange flavor in the dessert. The dessert and the beer were both very good, but I’m not sure the combination worked.

Looking back on the evening, I can say that I’ve definitely been missing out on Harbord House. The five course dinner was ambitious and the ambition paid off. It’s an effort that John and Jake should be very proud of. While it seemed to me that the guests were mostly regulars of Harbord House, this won’t be the case next time. When word gets around that they can hold a beer dinner of this quality, they’re going to have lineups for tickets.

Ontario Craft Beer Week – Belgontario @ Bar Volo

One of the things that tends to define Ontario craft beer is the history of the province. While Toronto may currently have one of the most diverse populations in the world, it’s worth reminding ourselves that for a long time we were wall to wall redcoats. You don’t need to look very far for reminders. The annual beer festival in Toronto is held at Fort York and, as Alan McLeod points out in the Ontario Craft Beer Week editions of his blog, Kingston spent a long time as an edge of the empire garrison town.

We were British and Quebec was French. It almost certainly accounts for the fact that Quebec craft brewers have traditionally been more willing to experiment with European styles. France is bordered by several nations with distinct brewing traditions, and as such their descendants are more comfortable with their styles. England is an island, and they were content with ale. So symbolically was Ontario beer an island for many years. I don’t mean to oversimplify. There have been lagers and pilsners (Kitchener used to be Berlin after all, and there’s a lot of history between Queenston Heights and the banishment of the stubby bottle), but the mainstays have been English style ales.

That’s one of the reasons that the Belgontario event at Bar Volo is so fascinating. It’s a showcase for the experimentation of Ontario craft brewers in traditional Belgian styles of ale. It’s really only in the last five years that this kind of expression has been possible in Ontario, and many breweries have been experimenting with these styles for less time than that. Bar Volo has put together an interesting lineup that includes products from: Amsterdam, Beau’s, Black Oak, Duggan’s, Grand River, Mill Street, Nickelbrook and Publican House. It’s a great opportunity to see what these breweries have come up with.

One of the problems that you run into in attending an event of this nature is the fact that unless you’re very careful and order small samples of everything, it’s basically impossible to try all of the beers on offer. This is not a series of low alcohol milds. Belgian ales tend to be pretty high octane, and the styles on offer vary wildly. I eschewed the Black Oak Summer Saison because I had tried it fairly recently; It’s a tasty pint of beer, and it suits a hot summer night very nicely. It’s not so complex as to be inaccessible to people trying it for the first time, but it’s a success within the style and is one the only Saisons in Ontario. Black Oak produces cask varietals of this beer using various fruit flavours. I avoided the Grand River Ploegers Vlaams Rood for the reason that I find sour ales can have unpredictable effects on my stomach when mixed with other styles. To highlight this point, I should mention that one of my friends chose a food pairing of sour patch kids. I’m not sure you’ll find this as a suggested pairing in any instructional book.

I tried the Amsterdam Oranje Weiss, which I suspect clocks in at around 5% alcohol. It’s a drinkable wheat beer flavored with orange. I found that the flavor was reminiscent of a slightly watery freshly squeezed orange juice and that masked any banana or clove flavours typically associated with a weissbier. It’s a little bit like a beer mimosa, if that makes any sense. I’m not sure I would order a full pint of this one, but I have to hand it to Amsterdam for stepping outside of their comfort zone in order to produce it.

I found Duggan’s #10 Trappist Dubbel to be slightly disappointing, but mostly for semantic reasons. It’s not exactly cricket to use the term “Trappist” for beers produced outside a select group of monasteries. Technically, I think it falls somewhere between copyright violation and heresy. The beer itself is pretty good, but I went to it straight from the Amsterdam, so my tastebuds were shocked a little by the roastiness and coffee flavours on the first sip. It’s a well made Belgian brown ale, and in truth it’s impressive that a Belgian Dubbel can come out of a brewpub that has been in operation for such a short space of time.

There are two Belgian style trippels on offer. The Publican House Eight or Better Trippel is a good approximation of the style, but I was distracted by the presence of the alcohol within it, which made it seem downright boozy. The Mill St. Betelgeuse was overly sweet. It’s practically like candy, and I can’t claim that this particular brew run is their best version of this beer. I had it on tap last year in a blind tasting with Urthel Hop-it and Delirium Tremens and it was nuanced enough to stand up to them. It feels like a recipe tweak gone awry.

By far the most interesting beer on the list is a collaboration brew: Vrienden from Beau’s and De Koningshoeven. It’s the first collaboration for De Koningshoeven, which you have to admit is a heck of a get for Beau’s who are relative newcomers in Ontario craft brewing. Fortunately for me, Steve Beauchesne was at the bar drinking a pint of it and was pleased to explain how it came to be:

Vrienden

Freedom from oppression for tulips and beer. Good trade.

The Dutch have always been grateful to the Canadian troops who liberated the Netherlands in May of 1945. In order to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the event the Dutch Embassy approached Beau’s and asked them to brew a beer as part of the celebration. They could have done just that, but in order to make it authentic and also to engage in the spirit of the celebration, they wanted to collaborate with De Koningshoeven. After a small amount of exhortation on the part of the Dutch government, an agreement was reached. Unfortunately Lodewijk Swinkels, the brewmaster for De Koningshoeven, was unable to make it to the brew day because of the cancelled flights in the wake of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Matt O’Hara, the brewmaster for Beau’s, kept in touch by phone and email and proceeded anyway. Eventually, Lodewijk managed to cross the Atlantic and gave Matt his blessing. Matt has apparently been walking around with an elated grin on his face ever since.

It’s not like Belgian style Witbiers that I’ve seen in Ontario before. It’s not just citrus and coriander; there’s subtlety here. It’s relatively light in alcohol and very refreshing. It contains maple syrup and juniper berries in order to reflect the input of the respective countries involved.  It’s a pleasing colour and nicely opaque. I guess that technically this beer could actually bear the label Trappist since it involves De Koningshoeven, but that would be showing off. This isn’t about showing off. It’s about the mutual past of the two countries and exploration of common ground.

I can’t say that Vrienden is the best beer on offer at the Belgontario event (It’s actually edged out in my mind by Beau’s Belgian Imperial Stout). What I can say is that it captures the spirit of the event very nicely. If the event is about pushing past the ale styles traditionally associated with Ontario, then Beau’s has achieved that goal admirably, using as their inspiration the legacy of one of Canada’s greatest triumphs.

Ontario Craft Beer Week – The Granite

One of the events that I was most curious about in the lead up to Ontario Craft Beer Week was the Taste of All Ontario at the Granite Brewery in Toronto. There are a number of reasons for the curiosity, not the least of which is that the Granite Brewery is a comfortable stumble from my apartment. Despite this fact, and my claim to prefer English style cask beer to just about every other variety, I don’t spend very much time there. I get over there maybe twice a year, and given my proclivity against doing a great deal of planning for a late afternoon outing, I always forget to bring back the empty growler that has been sitting under my sink for yonks.

The Granite is tucked away at Mount Pleasant and Eglinton. It’s just far enough away from the subway line that people tend to forget about it as a beer destination in Toronto. I know that at Volo, the regulars are always pleased to see a cask of their beer turn up, but I’m not aware of a large number of people that actually visit the place. I suspect that the majority of the local business that they do is supported by people from within a radius of a couple of kilometers: essentially people who actually live in North York, Forest Hill, Leaside and Davisville Village. It’s a sprawling place with a dining room, two patios, a bar area and a cozy library. The brewing area itself is crowded into a glass partitioned area halfway down the corridor to the dining room, and it’s from this cluttered area that the place has derived its reputation for excellent English ales. The selection is fairly astounding when you consider the space that Ron Keefe, the brewmaster, has to work with.

Granite Hopping Mad

Hopping Mad: The beer with Thomas Dolby on the label.

There’s the Best Bitter, which is sort of a typical northern pub ale, brewed with Yakima Fuggles. For the patio crowd, there’s the Summer Ale and the Ringberry Ale, which are fairly lightly flavoured and which go well with a lazy afternoon. There are three separate varieties of cask ale on offer at the moment. The Best Bitter Special, The IPA, and the relative newcomer Hopping Mad which is a perennial contender in the Volo IPA challenge. These are all fine products which the brewery should rightly be proud of.

This is why the event is such a curious departure: It’s your typical coals to Newcastle situation. The selection of Ontario beers available are in bottles and cans, and I’m not sure that it’s possible for them to live up to the Granite products in comparison. Some of the beers have travelled across the province. The Granite’s beers have travelled maybe 30 feet, depending on where the kegs were stored.

Here’s what’s on offer during Ontario Craft Beer Week at the Granite:

Amsterdam Big Wheel Amber; Barley Days Harvest Gold; Black Oak Pale Ale; Brick Waterloo Dark; Cameron’s Auburn Ale; Cool Buzz Beer; Denison’s Weissbier; Durham C’est What Hemp Ale; F&M Stonehammer Pilsner; Flying Monkey Hoptical Illusion; Grand River Galt Knife Old Style Lager; Great Lakes Devil’s Pale Ale; Hockley Valley Dark; King Pilsner; Magnotta Copper Altbier; Mill Street Organic Lager; Muskoka Dark Ale; Neustadt Lager; Niagara Best Blonde; Nickel Brook Ale; Old Credit Pilsner; Railway City Dead Elephant Ale; St. Andre Vienna Lager; Scotch Irish Sgt. Major; Skeena Wolfgang’s German Style; Steam Whistle Pilsner; Stratford Pilsner; Trafalgar Paddy’s Irish Red; Wellington Arkell Best Bitter.

The thing that struck me initially about this list is something that I hadn’t considered previously. I had assumed that since Ontario Craft Beer Week was hosted by the Ontario Craft Brewers that it would only include products from member breweries. This list includes Amsterdam, Cool, Denison’s, Hockley, Magnotta and Steam Whistle, which are unaffiliated as far as I can tell. It appears that the OCB are going for inclusivity and I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if they are able to announce new members shortly after the week-long festival has finished. It makes a lot of sense given that this week will likely result in an annual event and increased product awareness, making inclusion a very desirable thing.

The other thing that struck me was a healthy level of skepticism. Given the quality of the Granite products, it seemed to me like people would probably stick to them rather than ordering bottles from other breweries. The lesson I learned was this: Never underestimate the innate curiosity of beer drinkers or the pull of free glassware with purchase. In combination, these factors result in a force large enough for Stephen Hawking to derive a theory about.

Railway City Dead Elephant

Jumbo, meet Locomotive. Elephant is on the menu tonight.

The octogenarian couple at the next table were drinking Barley Days Harvest Gold. Wolfgang’s was in evidence on the patio. Groups were ordering several kinds of beer and then sharing them. Even my server was getting in on the act. I ordered a Railway City Dead Elephant (partially due to finding myself in need of a Father’s Day gift on short notice. Hooray for free glassware with purchase.) and since she had never tried it before, I offered her a small sample. Judging by the look on her face, she may not have enjoyed it, but she learned something!

That’s what this week is about: Educating people about the fact that these products exist; Sharing the pleasure of company and a quiet drink in the afternoon sun; Getting people to engage in a dialogue about craft beer. Y’know… beer… for learning.

I did learn two important things about this week-long event. First of all, because of the number of breweries involved and a certain amount of restriction of storage space, there isn’t all that much of any one product. Secondly, Father’s Day is one of the busiest days of the year at the Granite. If you want to get in on this event, you had best do so quickly. Each beer is $5.95 with a free pint glass while supplies last.

Even if you don’t make it in time for the event, it’ll be worth it for the Hopping Mad.

Ontario Craft Beer Week – An Introduction

If you’re a beer lover, you probably already know that this is Ontario Craft Beer Week. Across Ontario, there are a large number of events scheduled, and everyone is getting on board. There are tastings and pub crawls and food pairing events that you can choose to attend, and the variety of events is such that you can find a situation and location that’s comfortable for you. Perhaps the most interesting event will be the Session Craft Beer Festival, being held at the Sunnyside Pavilion on Saturday the 26th.

In the lead up to the event, I’ve seen announcements about a number of things: Beers that will be on tap, coverage that will be offered, impromptu events held by industry professionals.

To my mind the only thing that’s missing is background: Why is Ontario Craft Beer Week happening now? The odds are that if you’re just interested in hoisting a few pints of decent beer, then this thought hasn’t actually occurred to you. You may run into the concept of Ontario Craft Beer Week for the first time when you head down to the pub to watch the world cup. Don’t worry. I’m nerd enough for both of us.

In order to understand why such an interesting series of events is being announced, you have to think about the history of the Ontario Craft Brewers, the chronology of craft beer in Ontario and the climate in which the industry operated and continues to operate. (Big ol’ caveat: I am working with an imperfect understanding of all of the issues involved, and as such am making some educated guesses pieced together from my own research.)

If you try and piece together a history of the OCB from the media kit on their website, you run into some problems. The media kit includes a brief history of the organization and a fairly clear mission statement: “The small breweries have banded together under the Ontario Craft Brewers banner to provide collective marketing muscle, promote regional tourism and expose Ontario’s beer drinkers to a world of more than 150 handcrafted premium beers brewed in their home province.”

What it doesn’t provide you with is a sense of the growth of the organization or the circumstances under which it was founded.

The first thing you have to know is that craft beer in Ontario in its current incarnation has only really existed for 26 years. Jim Brickman is credited with founding the first craft brewery in Ontario, Brick Brewing Co., and that was back in 1984. Wellington, Nickel Brook, Great Lakes, Sleeman and Upper Canada were founded in the latter half of the decade. By 1995 there were slightly more than a dozen functioning craft breweries. The expanding market share and the sudden availability of craft beer in the Toronto and Guelph/Waterloo areas led to two interesting phenomena: Firstly, craft brewing was becoming, if not exactly cool, at least feasible as a startup business. In 1997, five of the current members of the Ontario Craft Brewers were founded. Secondly, it was at least theoretically possible to make money from brewing even if your last name wasn’t Molson or Labatt. A trend toward corporatization emerged in 1996 and two of the larger breweries, Sleeman and Upper Canada went public. In both cases, this worked out pretty well for Sleeman, who ended up offering to buy all shares of Upper Canada in 1998.

There were pretty significant problems in the late 90’s if you were a small craft brewer. The public had just survived a decade of Ice Beer and Dry Beer and (God help us) Red Dog. The people who were drinking beer produced by independent brewers were probably drinking Sleeman, since it had market share and the successful IPO had given them a lot of coverage in the Business section. I’m guessing that for most small brewers at the time questions of marketing and distribution took a backseat to churning out enough profit to ensure continued existence. The Ontario Small Brewers Association started in 1996 in an attempt to allow brewers to do better than simply exist. In a relatively indifferent market, they were greater than the sum of their parts. In an industry renowned for low margins of profitability, collectivization allowed for combination of marketing budgets and greater inroads to public awareness. By 2003 they had incorporated under their current name.

While I’ve been unable to find a list of the original member breweries, I was able to extrapolate some data about the current members of the OCB, which is essentially a chronology of the founding dates of surviving Ontario craft breweries:



This data is not entirely accurate. Some of the founding dates differ depending on which source you look at. It doesn’t take into account failed breweries (like Steelback, whose primary products seem to have been arena sponsorships and hubris.) What it does is paint an interesting picture of industry growth: 22 of the current members of Ontario Craft Brewers were founded after the advent of the OSBA in 1996.

Look at the accomplishments of the OCB since that date: They moved rapidly to secure grants from the provincial government. They have more than doubled their market share since 2002; They have created a craft beer route in order to establish beer tourism in Ontario; They have created a logo to delineate their products in the marketplace and act as a seal of approval; They have launched websites, blogs and podcasts; They have increased awareness of their members’ products through their discovery packs and awareness of their mission through dogged perseverance. Perhaps most importantly, they have been able to reduce the failure rate of startup breweries. As a result, they now have 30 members.

With each step forward the organization makes, with each new member brewery, more things become possible. There are beer styles being brewed in Ontario at the moment that there was no market for five years ago: Flemish Sours; Imperial Stouts; Double IPAs. With each new brewery and each new style of beer, public awareness is increased and the palate of the consumer expands slightly. You want proof of the concept? Think about this: Beau’s flagship beer is a Kolsch that was until recently packaged in a ceramic bottle. At what other point in the history of the Ontario brewing industry could that have possibly worked?

The OCB is the strongest that it has ever been and Ontario craft beer is the best that it has ever been. The market share for Ontario craft beer continues to increase despite the fact that the amount of beer consumed per-capita is decreasing according to Statistics Canada. Thanks to a combination of the efforts of the members of the OCB, pub owners, industry professionals and savvy consumers, Ontario craft beer has become a success in its own right.

If Ontario Craft Beer Week is anything, it’s a celebration of the fact that after a quarter century of incredibly hard work, craft beer thrives in Ontario. It’s a party for everyone involved in the process. It’s a seven day victory dance.

Most importantly, I suspect that it signifies the beginning of a new era for Ontario craft beer.

OCB Discovery Pack Summer 2010

In gearing up for Ontario Craft Beer Week, it made sense to me to take a look at the latest promotion offered by the Ontario Craft Brewers: OCB Discovery Pack #5, or as the packaging refers to it OCB Discovery Pack Summer 2010.

The discovery pack is priced at $9.95 and contains four 473ml cans of beer, which google tells me is about $0.0052/ml or approximately $1300/hogshead for those of you really sticking it away. It’s quite reasonably priced, but that’s not the thing that’s immediately obvious. The first thing you notice looking at the thing is the relatively cheery packaging. The OCB logo is prominently displayed on both sides and the top of the cardboard sleeve, and the logos of the beers involved in the discovery pack are on both sides. There are tasting notes scrunched down into a tiny font on the top of the package. Included within is an OCB Style Guide, which is really more of a product catalogue than an educational tool. The 2010 Summer Pack includes four beers from different breweries:

First, there’s Trailhead Premium Lager. Maybe it’s just me, but I always sort of viewed this beer as being Wellington’s attempt at a mass market discount beer. If you look at the pricing on a case of 12 at The Beer Store ($16.45), it’s more affordable than Canadian or Blue and only slightly more expensive than Lakeport. There’s a separation of branding on this beer, and it doesn’t bear the Wellington name. Whether that’s a thematic concern because the Wellington range of beers are Ales or because they’re premium products in a way that Trailhead simply isn’t is a moot issue. Trailhead is refreshing and affordable, but not very interesting. It’s a good summer beverage at 4.5% alcohol and there’s a cute little cartoon salmon on the tin.

There’s Elora Grand Lager from Trafalgar, which is similar to the Trailhead. It’s got more flavor than mass produced lagers while remaining quaffable. At 5% alcohol it is exactly the same strength as mass produced lagers. I have to be honest and say that I don’t think I could pick it out of a lineup, which is one of the problems with craft brewers attempting to compete with mass produced lager. If the claim is being made that craft beer is better than mass produced beer because it contains more flavor, the question is always going to be “well, how much more flavor, exactly?” The answer, invariably, is “some.” The mere existence of the product invites comparison to the thing it claims to improve upon in a manner vaguely reminiscent of New Coke. I don’t know how productive the competition is, but I suspect probably not very.

There’s Devil’s Pale Ale from Great Lakes. I like this beer. I like the gimmick. I like the packaging, which is practically iconic. It stands out in the package as the only variety of English Ale. It’s darker and has a lot more malt and hop flavor than the lagers. At 6% alcohol it’s the strongest of the four and it’s a pretty good representation of what Great Lakes does: customization of a standard style to create a unique product.

The dark horse here is the Muskoka Hefe-Weissbier. How much of a dark horse, exactly? The tasting notes provide a pronunciation guide, meaning that they’re assuming that you don’t know what a Hefe-Weissbier is. I hadn’t tried this before and I have to admit, it’s enjoyable. It has a nice mouthfeel and the sort of clove-y banana thing you expect from a quality Weissbier. It’s refreshing and at 5% alcohol, it’s not overpowering.

The thought that snuck up on me, about halfway through the Devil’s Pale Ale, was a sort of typical beer nerd thought: “I’m not really blown away by this package. It’s fair to middling at best. And look at the breweries involved. All of this stuff is already in the LCBO. I bet you could get this stuff any time you want. Who is this helping, exactly?” I looked it up. Trailhead is available in 29 LCBO locations and Beer Stores province wide. Elora Grand Lager is available in about 55 LCBO locations. Muskoka Hefe-Weissbier is available in 53 LCBO locations. Devil’s Pale Ale is in 106 LCBO locations.

The simple fact of the matter is that the OCB isn’t catering to beer nerds this time around. Instead, they’re trying to do something clever and important.

If you look at the distribution of the LCBO stores where these products are already available, they’re pretty close to the breweries. I mean, the Great Lakes stuff got to Ottawa, but that’s really only about four and a half hours from the brewery (longer during the G20). What the OCB has done is to go province wide in a legitimate way. The 2010 Summer Pack is available in 236 stores as of this writing. It hasn’t made it to Moosonee, but these beers are now in Dryden, Elliot Lake, Thunder Bay and Fort Frances.

It’s easy to become critical of the pack if you live in Southern Ontario, mostly because with the improving quality and omnipresence of craft beer, whatever pub or LCBO you step into is going to have something tasty, enjoyable and local. There are millions of people and there’s the ability to support the industry. Fort Frances, on the other hand, has got 8300 people. Maybe 8350 if you count commuting Minnesotans.

So, let’s say Gord from Fort Frances is drawn in by the cheery packaging and looks the 2010 Summer Pack over. The choice of beers makes sense. The lagers are accessible and they’re there to draw in somebody who doesn’t know a whole lot about craft beer, but since they’re improvements on the mass market stuff they’ll be impressive. The pale ale is a good opportunity to introduce a balanced, hoppy range of beers. There are maltier beers and hoppier beers, but this is a good introduction. And then there’s the Hefe-Weissbier. That one is the risk. Maybe he won’t like it. Maybe he’ll surprise himself. Call it 50/50. Besides, it’s only $9.95. If Gord really likes one of these things, he might even ask his LCBO to start carrying it regularly.

What the store distribution, pricing and product choice suggest to me is that the OCB feel confident that they’ve solidified their base in Southwestern Ontario and the Capital Region and are now looking to start competing properly on a province wide level. In order to do that, they have to offer some basic products of established quality to draw people in and then something interesting as an attention getter. I don’t pretend that any of the OCB members have the production to be able to distribute province wide at the moment, but some of them might get there in a couple of years. That’s what makes the 2010 Summer Pack so clever. It’s accessible, but also educative. Given a couple more packs like this with a little more educational material (maybe providing a link to their website and a video for explanatory purposes) they’re building demand in northern and rural areas at a rate that will probably approximately match their increased production and distribution.

Long term marketing and planning. These guys are good.