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Monthly Archives: August 2010

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Toronto Beer Week

Finally, an excuse to drink beer.

There are, of course, two things that people claim that they don’t want to see being made: law and sausage. One contains a lot of grease , pork and leftover trimmings and the other is delicious sausage.

That being said, no one ever claimed that events planning shouldn’t be open to public consumption, so I thought that it might be fun to talk about Toronto Beer Week, how it’s coming together and why you (yes you, gentle consumer/bored guy looking for something to do) should be excited.

A lot of North American cities have been having beer weeks recently, and  it makes a huge amount of sense that this should be the case since the advent of the organic and locavore movements. Beer is, after all, an agrarian product and it makes sense to celebrate the best of what’s local. Seattle had one. San Diego had one. Philadelphia had one as well, and while I know just enough about the beer scene in Pennsylvania to appreciate how good an idea that is, I still have a mental picture of the cast of It’s Always Sunny flipping cups and getting involved in a cheesesteak eating contest.

Now, I can hear the cogs turning in your head. I understand that you’re thinking to yourself, “But Jordan, isn’t this just another in an increasingly desperate series of bids by Toronto to be taken seriously as a world class city? Isn’t this the same kind of thing that leads us to send Mel Lastman to try and bid for the Summer Olympics? Remember that time we built the CN Tower and that escalator to nowhere? Where did that get us? It still takes me an hour and a half to get to the airport and my feet hurt and it’s too hot out and I’m surrounded by Canada geese.” I hear your concerns, polite but almost cripplingly neurotic citizen, and feel like I should point out a couple of things that will serve to put your mind at ease.

First of all, I’ve talked to a number of people on the organizational committee for Toronto Beer Week and I can tell you flat out that I have never heard anyone utter the phrase “World Class City” even in jest. Toronto Beer Week seems to be content to focus on the realities of what is actually possible given the beer culture in the city, and that approach has served them well. They’ve managed to get over 45 venues and 15 breweries involved during the inaugural edition of Beer Week through hard work and planning. The events list continues to grow and there’s a lot of focus on making sure that everyone who attends an event has the best time possible. The watchword is accessibility and hopefully bringing attention to products that are available locally will produce converts to small, independent brewers located around the Greater Toronto Area. That’s basically the only goal: getting you to drink a nice pint of locally brewed beer.

It’s a grass roots movement, and the Toronto Beer Week team is comprised of local brewers, pub owners and enthusiasts who are there because they want to be there. This is not some cynical cash grab perpetrated by international macrobreweries. Toronto Beer Week started as the product of nine people with a good understanding of the beer scene in Toronto. That’s not how it’s going to end up though: The fact of the matter is that I see a lot of industry professionals rallying to the cause.

I was at a media dinner for the event at The Monk’s Table the other day and while I was sitting there making copious notes I realized something interesting. They’ve somehow managed to get everyone on board. Bill White was there to guide us through the dinner, which he managed in a thoroughly entertaining  and engaging manner. Stephen Beaumont was there, lending both his credibility and wealth of knowledge to the proceedings. Mirella Amato from Beerology, who is hosting the TORONTO BEER QUEST during Beer Week was there. They had a number of legitimate journalists and some completely illegitimate bloggers like myself.

The best part is that everyone was excited about the direction that Toronto Beer Week was going in.

Now, maybe I’m just the new guy on the scene, brimming with the kind of wide eyed optimism and naivete that can only be instilled by gift bags and a developing sense of belonging, but it occurs to me that none of this has to happen: The reason that Toronto Beer Week exists is because a lot of talented people who are extraordinarily passionate about beer have banded together to share their interest and expertise. The best part is that this is not some ragtag bunch of misfits trying amateurishly to pull off a coup: These are professionals who are essentially volunteering their time to ensure that people who go out to an event are going to have a good time. There’s very little in the way of self aggrandizement. Everyone is on message and in the coming weeks you’re going to see a lot of promotion and enthusiasm and a lot of people are going to work very long hours to get the word out. Never in Toronto have so few done so much to convince so many to drink a nice pint of beer.

Starting this week, you’re going to be able to pick up the Toronto Beer Week passport at participating locations and you’d do well to check the events calendar periodically to see what those locations are going to be able to come up with. There are already some absolute corkers lined up through Bar Volo, beerbistro, C’est What and The Monk’s Table. I get the feeling that the tickets for the BrewDog dinner are going to go very quickly indeed, what with the recent press that they’ve been given.

To my mind the question is no longer “Is this going to be any good?” Currently the question is “Which events should I hit first?”

It’ll give me something to think about as I trudge humourlessly along delivering passports and coasters.

The Ontario Beer Revolution – Distribution (addendum)

I feel like yesterday’s update on beer distribution was, perhaps, overly inflammatory. It did, however, contain an interesting concept: What would the LCBO be like if it were run by foul tempered ogres instead of well adjusted citizens?

That’s why today’s update takes the form of a fairy tale: the tale of  Schenley, the Liquor Control Board Ogre.

The Ontario Beer Revolution – Distribution

While it’s very important to take into consideration the wishes of the consumer when discussing Ontario Craft Beer, one of the things that you have to factor into the consumer experience are the various methods of distribution for independent Ontario Breweries. I know that there are an ever increasing number of pubs carrying craft beer and I think the we can leave them out of the discussion for the time being since they deal directly with the brewers whose products they’re selling. Additionally, we can take for granted the on-site brewery stores as being part of the solution. They are, after all, one of the only tools of promotion for some of the beers manufactured by Ontario Brewers (Look at Black Oak’s Ten Bitter Years, which won a Tappy for best seasonal beer and was only available through these two avenues of distribution.)

The discussion always comes down to the two government sanctioned retail outlets that are licensed to sell beer: The LCBO and The Beer Store.

Over the last couple of years, what with hanging around and paying attention to increasingly agitated conversations within earshot, I’ve heard a lot about LCBO policy as it regards various issues. I suspect that many of the things that I have heard in passing are exaggerations, if not totally apocryphal (The LCBO never actually gave anyone a swirlie during recess.) I know that some of the things I’ve heard are completely accurate and those are things that have to do with the difficulty of doing business. Consider momentarily that there are two independent companies that exist solely to bring products from other provinces to Ontario: HMH Negotiants and Cecktor Ltd. According to RateBeer.com Dieu Du Ciel, which is brewed in Montreal, is available in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Puerto Rico, Alaska and Australia.

It was unavailable in Ontario until last year despite the fact that we share a border with Quebec. Consider momentarily the number of additional Canadian breweries that are unavailable at the LCBO, or the difficulty of conforming to packaging guidelines. There’s currently a shipment of Dieu Du Ciel in a warehouse somewhere that was meant to be released on August 15th, and each and every one of those bottles has a little adhesive strip over the top of it, ostensibly to ensure that there has been no tampering.

It’s easy to suppose that the LCBO is run by foul tempered ogres, but I don’t think we should attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by bureaucracy. The fact is that they’re the single largest importer of alcohol in the world and they’re also a giant bureaucracy with concerns about labour problems, image management, and an increasingly litigious public. If you walk into the Summerhill store, which is a flagship, there’s relatively little floor space given to beer. I’m not saying there isn’t a lot of variety, but in terms of the building, it’s not a lot of space. That’s a good way to think about the LCBO: Beer makes up maybe 15-20% of their stock. I’m guessing that just in terms of day to day business they have more pressing concerns than Craft Beer; Not getting sued; Not violating trade or labour agreements; Managing what must be a labyrinthine warehousing and inventory system. If I had to guess, I would probably say that Ontario Craft Beer is somewhere around 21st on their list of priorities behind work stoppages and acquiring revenue for Dalton McGuinty.

I have observed that it’s possible to affect change, but it takes a lot of work and it happens slowly. Large bureaucracies are resistant to change at the best of times and in the case of what is essentially a governmental monopoly like the LCBO, there’s not really a great deal of impetus to change. Public demand might eventually have an effect on the selection of craft beers available, but it will not happen immediately. You can’t say that the LCBO is intentionally making it difficult; They are simply not motivated to make it easy.

“If only,” I hear you say, “there were some organization that was licensed by the AGCO that existed specifically to market beer in locations that were not attached to breweries within Ontario.” Well, there is, and its familiar orange signage and the clickity-clack of its conveyor belts are iconic. The Beer Store! I think we can safely assume that they have our best interests at heart. After all, they’re owned by Labatt, Molson and Sleeman.

Let’s talk about these three purely Canadian institutions who own The Beer Store: Labatt was purchased by Interbrew in 1995 and is now part of Anheuser-Busch InBev, headquartered in Belgium. Molson merged with Coors in 2005 and is now a huge bi-national company. Sleeman is, of course, a Guelph institution owned by Japanese brewing giant Sapporo. Of the three controlling partners, currently about half of one of them is Canadian owned. Why would Ontarians permit foreign interests to run what is essentially a governmentally licensed agency? Why isn’t this being examined thoroughly? Surely there would be some outcry if OHIP was run by Blue Cross or if the functions of the Ontario Provincial Police were outsourced to Hyderabad?

In addition to my cynicism about the intentions of these companies, I feel I have to point out a policy listed on their website:

“Operated on a cost recovery basis with a standard service fee schedule, The Beer Store is a unique retailer. Unlike other retailers, including the government owned LCBO, The Beer Store does not pick and choose the products it sells, nor does it set the prices at which those products are sold. These choices are made by individual brewers.

The Beer Store system is open to any brewer in the world with common rules for users and service fees based on volumes sold. … Any brewer in the world can sell their beer through The Beer Store provided the product has been approved for sale in Ontario by the LCBO (i.e. has met LCBO quality control, labeling and price approval requirements).”

It is written to sound like it’s an equal opportunity retailer. Not so. In order to get a listing, you first have to meet LCBO product guidelines and then you have to pay for the privilege of being listed, based on the volume that you will be able to sell. Each brewery chooses its products and is also responsible for their own marketing. See if you can think of the last time you saw marketing for The Beer Store. Not only that, but there’s a top ten list of most popular products prominently displayed immediately in front of the entrance. I’m sure that holds no sway whatsoever over the public. Small breweries can’t compete in The Beer Store in terms of marketing, price point or shelf space. Consider the listing fee: A trifle for a multinational company whose executives can afford to travel first class; A seriously limiting consideration for a brewery whose president also makes the keg deliveries.

In terms of Ontario Beer Revolution, this is the rhetoric that you need to use: Why won’t the provincial government license an Ontario Craft Beer Store to promote craft brewers? I have never heard a good reason to preclude this development. Is it because they are too invested in the entrenched foreign-owned monopoly that they have allowed to develop at the cost of locally owned interests? This is the kind of strategic rhetorical argument that could put enough pressure on the AGCO to make an Ontario Craft Beer Store happen if it’s played correctly.

The 2010 Golden Tap Awards!

Sometimes, through a dearth of planning, you end up with a previous engagement during an important awards show and end up in bustling downtown Guelph during the proceedings. The Golden Tap Awards or “Tappies” are an important Ontario beer institution and I was lucky enough to be able to dispatch my junior correspondent, Catherine Strotmann to provide some coverage for my blog, all for a couple of additional adjectives for her title and some bottles of homebrew.

I would like you to know that her title is now “Junior Deluxe Extra Specially Bitter Correspondent Royale.” Take it away, Catherine:

Last night was the 2010 Golden Tap Awards. For those who might not know what the Golden Tap Awards are, it’s an event showcasing the best pubs, breweries and brews in Ontario, presented by The Bar Towel. This year’s awards, as with many previous years, was held at Beer Bistro, which is a great venue, not only for their spacious bar area and plentiful selection of the world’s finest beer, but also for their amazing staff.

I have this theory that if you dress big and bold for an occasion, it will catch on and become big and bold, so all dolled up the Volo crew and I arrive at BeerBistro fashionably late, minutes before the awards show started. Walking into a room of the best of the beer geeks Ontario has to offer can be daunting, but after a few hellos and a quick jaunt to the bar, the party started to roll. The list of draught beer for the night was a big one, with a few new names. I particularly enjoyed the C’est What Chocolate Stout and the Cheshire Pale Ale.

The award ceremony itself was quick. There were 14 awards, 9 pub and brewing awards, 4 editors choice and one best in show award voted on during the night. No huge surprises with the winners, Granite stole the show winning three awards, with Beau’s winning two. One of the best-deserved awards was for Black Oak’s 10 Bitter Years double IPA, Ken also gave one of the best speeches of the night announcing that 10 Bitter Years will once again be available mid September, not before mid September. The bar awards went to C’est What and barVolo, with Beer Bistro winning one of the editors choice awards. For a full list of the award winners and categories go to (ed. note: They don’t seem to have actually posted the winners online as of yet, so I’ll just list them here.

Best Microbrewery in Ontario: Beau’s All-Natural Brewing Company
Best Brewery for Cask-Conditioned Ale in Ontario (presented in partnership with CASK!): Granite Brewery
Best Bar for Draught Beer Selection in Ontario: C’est What
Best Bar for Bottled Beer Selection in Ontario: Bar Volo
Best Brewpub or Tied House in Ontario: Granite Brewery
Best Bar for Cask Ale in Ontario (presented in partnership with CASK!): Bar Volo
Best Regularly-Produced Beer in Ontario: Beau’s Lug-Tread Lagered Ale
Best Seasonal or Specialty Beer in Ontario: Black Oak Ten Bitter Years
Best Cask Ale in Ontario (presented in partnership with CASK!): Granite Hopping Mad
Editor’s Circle Award: Great Lakes Caskapalooza
Editor’s Circle Award: Drinkvine
Editor’s Circle Award: Milos Kral & Chancey Smith’s
Editor’s Circle Award: Brian Morin & beerbistro
Best Beer of the Festival: Church Key Black IPA)

At the end of the night I chose to finish with Cantillon Kriek and Rose De Gambrinus, which are both huge guilty pleasures of mine, again I love Beer Bistro’s selection, while waiting for the announcement for the best in show, which went to Churchkey’s Black IPA. Would I have chose that? No, but it was a good beer. Although this year was very similar to last year, I really think that the Golden Tap Awards make for good entertainment, and a nice sense of community within the Ontario beer world. I also think that although there is a question of it just being a popularity contest due to online voting, the outcome of the awards are often correct. Ontario still has a lot of room to grow compared to the international scene, embracing the best we have and putting pressure on the industry to step out the box can only help.

Thanks to Cass, The Bar Towel, Cask! and BeerBistro for another great show!

The Ontario Beer Revolution – Part Two – The Consumer

A lot of Steve Beauchesne’s original blog post on The Ontario Beer Revolution has to do with the idea that all it would take to make an Ontario Beervana possible is a shift in consumer spending and a recognition of the fact that purchasing from local, independent brewers is beneficial for everyone involved in the process. If you’ve ever spent any time standing in the refrigerated section of an LCBO or in the back room at the beer store, you may have noticed that you don’t see a whole lot of people selecting things based on the meticulous notes they have attached to their clipboard. As an experiment, why not hang around, feigning interest in some packaging design or description and check out the average consumer. We already know that only one out of every twenty beers consumed is brewed by a local, independent brewery. What about the other nineteen?

By and large the people that you see after 5:00 PM in the LCBO or Beer Store are there for refreshment. Maybe they’ve had a hard day at work. Maybe they just want something to drink while watching the game. It’s difficult to criticize people who are just looking to unwind. These are folks with a lot on their mind, and they’re on their way home and they don’t really want to think about what they’re consuming. They just want to grab it and go, whether it’s a couple of tallboys or a six-pack. I’m going to bet that sometimes they try things that look interesting, but by and large they’re just going to pick up something familiar that they don’t have to think about.

I don’t mean to imply that this is unsophisticated behavior, especially since we’ve all got problems and sometimes you just want something cold to drink after a long day of pretending to work while checking out the funny link that Carol from HR posted on Facebook. You can’t criticize the behavior without coming off like a snob, especially since even really bad beer is still, technically, beer.

I beg you to consider the widely regarded and pseudo-scientific St. John’s Wort Sliding Poultry Accessibility Scale which is largely based on the difficulty of getting a ten year old child to eat various birds for dinner. If you’ve ever had to babysit a ten year old child, then you know that what they want is relatively plain food. They want Chicken Fingers and possibly a side of McCain Superfries. You can’t convince the kid that they should eat a pan seared duck breast which was farmed locally and lived a happy, quack filled life on a free range pond. If you try to tell the kid that choosing the duck supports local farmers, it’s just not going to sink in and eventually you’re going to be asked to pass the plum sauce since the chicken fingers are kind of dry.

It’s immensely difficult to cite the extreme pleasure of high end items. Consider Ortolan. For those of you who don’t know this is a small European bird which is considered a delicacy in France. It’s captured, put in a box to gorge itself on millet, oats, figs and grapes and then, when it grows to four times its original size, it’s drowned in Armagnac. After it’s cooked, you pop the whole thing in your mouth and bite off the head. It’s served at such a high temperature that the fat and the Armagnac fumes roll down your throat while you allow it to cool on your tongue. You then chew the entire thing, bones and all over the course of about 15 minutes. This entire process is done with a cloth over your head in order to block out other sensory information and enhance the flavours. It’s meant to be one of the all-time, hall-of-fame, culinary experiences.

Try getting a ten year old to think that’s a good idea. There will be actual crying, not least because of the bones pricking the insides of their mouth and the fact that it is recognizably a bird. The worst part is that after going to all the trouble of presenting something elaborate and interesting, you know you’re eventually going to capitulate and fish the box of chicken nuggets out of the back of the fridge.

It’s largely the same with beer. Substitute, say, Black Oak Nut Brown for Duck and Vanilla Aged Dark Lord for Ortolan. For the most part, mass produced macrobrews are made to be as inoffensive as possible, thereby appealing to the largest number of people. Molson Canadian and Labatt Blue are the beer equivalent of Chicken Fingers. There’s nothing challenging about them and they appeal to people because they’re always the same. You may not be impressed with a macrobrew, but you always know what to expect.

It’s folly to assume that the consumer is going to change on their own. Sure, you might get some of the more socially conscious consumers to buy local based on what they’ve read about the 100 mile diet. I don’t think I’m wrong in assuming that the majority of people don’t care about that kind of thing. If you want the consumers to change, then you need to change them. Of course they’re not actually ten year olds, so the time honored “Three Big Bites” tactic isn’t going to work. You’re dealing with adult consumers and I think you’ll find that they want to be treated like adults.

If one were to launch a campaign suggesting to them, in relatively gentle terms, that they are in essence grown people who are still at the kiddie table, that might goad them into giving craft beer a try. That, in itself, isn’t enough. You have to make craft beer accessible, and I think you do that by replacing the seemingly randomly chosen OCB Discovery packs with packages based on beers of a single style. Include some educational material. Let people learn about what they’re drinking with a punchy and informative insert. Tell them what to eat with the beer they’re drinking. Make it inclusive: Thank them for giving craft beer a try. Welcome them to the fold. And for God’s sake make it fun! Beer drinking is meant to be a largely frivolous pursuit, so why not make the marketing for Ontario Craft Brewers entertaining? The marketing actually has to reach people and make them think about the issue. You don’t want it to fade away into the background. Fortune favours the bold.

The expansion of craft beer’s market share is going to depend largely on getting the macrobrew crowd to choose to try craft beer instead of something familiar. It’s probably not enough anymore to simply let people know that craft beer exists. You’ve got to challenge them to try it and then once they’ve tried it, you can tell them why it’s good for them. You also have to be prepared for the fact that some people, regardless of how you well you explain your position or cajole them into trying a new experience, just like Chicken Fingers. Sometimes there’s no accounting for taste.

The Ontario Beer Revolution – Part One

There has been much made lately of a talk that was given at the Toronto Festival of Beer by Steve Beauchesne from Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company. It was titled “What If Ontario Had A Beer Revolution” and you can find the full text of it over at Steve’s Blog. Now he’s not talking about walking around with a little red book of beer ratings or some kind of guerilla incursion on the Labatt facility. He’s talking about a hypothetical scenario in which half of the beer consumed in Ontario is actually brewed in Ontario by independent brewers. Currently it seems that one of every twenty beers consumed in the province is made by a local independent brewer. According to the figures he has come up with, this would require 315 new breweries to be founded in order to meet the volume necessary to fulfill the criteria that he has set out for the scenario. Steve is quick to point out that it’s not as outlandish as it sounds given that Bavaria has a population roughly the same as Ontario’s and they’ve got 629 breweries.

Look. I don’t mean to be a buzzkill here, but I feel as though I have to point out that some of the math being used is fanciful in the extreme and much of the reasoning is fallacious. Don’t get me wrong. I like the concept of The Ontario Beer Revolution. I consider myself a hatchetman in the fight for better pints of beer. But I’m sitting here thinking to myself things disloyal to our fearless leader. Things like “But surely Bavaria is smack dab in one of the oldest continuous beer cultures in the world and has had hundreds of years to develop?” and “That seems like a lot of breweries for a province with a couple of fairly centralized population hubs” and “What exactly is the timeline for this explosion of industry and where the hell are you going to get 315 brewers on short notice?”

It’s all very well to dream of a future in which Ontario is a world leader in brewing, but there’s a problem: You can’t drink possible beers. You need actual beers. To drop some Rumsfeldian science on you: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

Think of it this way: There are about 40 independent brewers in Ontario. The first one was founded in 1984. It would not be entirely disingenuous to point out that in 26 years, we have gained approximately 1.53 breweries per year. (In reality they get founded in fits and starts. I seem to recall 1996-1999 held a larger than average concentration.) At this rate it would take 205 years, 10 months to open 315 breweries. Of course, you could take into account the idea that some of the existing breweries would expand the volume that they produce, which would be more likely. It would take a considerable amount of pressure off of the theoretical brewers who are plonking down their capital in order to start up their own breweries. Let’s assume that the existing breweries expand their production to 120 million litres a year. In that case we would only need 245 new breweries, which would only take 160 years of continuous Maoist style revolution during which time no breweries would fail or be allowed to close or merge.

By the year 2170, we could have quite the selection of beers. Of course, by then Zefram Cochrane will have invented the warp drive, initiating first contact with the Vulcans and Ontario brewers will have to compete against imports from the Romulan Empire.

Let’s talk sensibly and set a reasonable goal: How would it be possible to triple the market share that exists for local independent brewers in Ontario in the next ten years? I think that’s a modest and fairly reasonable goal considering that it might actually be possible within our lifespan. Let’s use the basics of Steve’s math to lay out a scenario: 120 million litres of beer a year produced by the 40 or so brewers that already exist and by new breweries which will begin to crop up with more frequency over the next several years. The Niagara College program is important to factor in here, since brewers don’t just spring fully formed into the world. You have to assume that there will be maybe 10 graduates per year starting two years from now who will stay in Ontario (currently 6/24 students are international and are unlikely to remain in the province after graduation and I think another 8 will probably end up in the states.) So, increase the number of breweries founded per year to say… 2. By 2020 that would give you 120 million litres a year produced by 60 breweries. You’d average 2 million litres of beer per brewery per year, barring closures of breweries or unhealthy local competition between those 60 breweries.

That’s not a completely unreasonable scenario, but you’ll notice that Steve doesn’t discuss exactly how we’re meant to get to that point in Ontario. The thing is this: All we have to work with to increase awareness and market share are the products that already exist. It’s all well and good to talk about a wonderland of tax benefits and charitable giving in a vacuum, but there are concerns that I have about actually getting people to choose craft beer; for instance you’ll notice that nowhere in the manifesto does it mention what percentage of the 1400 brands of beer would be worth drinking. You have to make people actually want to drink the stuff, and this has to be the immediate focus if Ontario brewers want to get to that point. Much of the time, the desire of the public to actually drink craft beer is taken for granted because most of the discussion that takes place about it is done by people who are already loyal to the concept. That’s not something that you can afford to forget if you’re going to engage in this mental experiment.

I can tell you right now that Steve Beauchesne is on the side of the angels. It’s definitely a good thing to have someone thinking about the big picture, but if there’s going to be a revolution, there needs to be an actual strategy. That strategy will require a studied look at a very simple question that consumers need an answer to: “Why should I drink craft beer?”

I don’t know what the answer is, but I can tell you right now that it doesn’t involve a pie chart.

St. John’s Wort Shameless Publicity Grab IPA – Brew Day

Many people, when they write about brewing beer, start at the very beginning: A theoretical brewer somewhere in Egypt or Sumeria who discovered nearly eight millennia ago that by some miracle of nature, wet barley would ferment given exposure to wild yeast. It’s a relatively nonsensical place to start because you have to assume that Imhotep or Enkidu or whatever you want to call the jammy bastard who suddenly discovered that it was possible to create beer didn’t really do anything other than stumble along at an opportune moment. I feel relatively certain that the public school system in Ur didn’t have courses in microbiology and that the Tigris-Euphrates Polytechnic Institute (The Fighting Agrarians!) did not explicitly understand that millions of tiny eukaryotes were in there eating sugars and pooping booze.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic; You can bet though that shortly after this discovery, early man, with an imperfect understanding of exactly what was happening, was in there trying to replicate the results. I don’t mean to belittle this ostensible pioneer: he or she demonstrated the spirit of discovery and the sheer bloody mindedness of human endeavor. It must have been frustrating to have very little idea of what was actually going on. Brewing is, after all, a relatively complex process involving a certain amount of subtle chemistry. It would have been basically impossible to control the results. They would have been lucky to produce something similar in quality to a stale forty of Olde English. Early man must have spent a lot of time quietly whimpering in a corner with a crippling hangover and a sense that whatever sacrifice had been made to Sneddon, the God of good harvest, it must have really ticked him off.

The good news is that we’ve come a long way since then: We have all sorts of things that make brewing easier. We have sterilizing solution. We’ve got hundreds of kinds of barley and dozens of kinds of hops. You can buy millions of little dormant yeast cells for less than a lunch out. We’ve got glass carboys and plastic buckets and indoor plumbing and refrigeration and air conditioning. We don’t have to break down maize starches with our saliva anymore. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve got the internet, which will provide you with all of the information you could possibly need in order to get started with homebrewing and then just enough information to confuse you utterly. Fortunately for you, there’s also the library. I say give it a shot. You’re at least as clever as a prehistoric Sumerian and probably more hygienic to boot.

St. John's Wort. Literally.

I have no intention of walking you through the homebrewing process. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is that this is my fifth or sixth batch and I don’t want the blame for your inevitable misadventure. Suffice it to say that at some point, you’re going to screw up. Probably badly. You might pitch the yeast at the wrong temperature, killing off half of the population resulting in a half fermented batch of undrinkable liquid. You might decide to clean your bottling bucket with Sunlight and end up with an unintentional lemon tang. Probably, you will follow all of the instructions precisely, but your first attempt at creating your own recipe will just result in something you don’t like a great deal and which you will drink five gallons of slowly over the course of months because you can’t bring yourself to pour it out.

I will share some minor pointers, though:

Nylon Mesh Grain Bag/Ladieswear

First off, if you’re brewing an extract recipe like the one that I came up with that has a number of specialty grains involved, you’re going to need a nylon mesh bag for the grains. You’re going to want to steep the grains at about 150 degrees farenheit and you’re going to want to be able to get them out of the wort in fairly short order. Boiled grains can create off flavours. If you’re like me and you forget you need a nylon mesh bag, you can always go down to the drugstore and purchase a pair of pantyhose. They’re nearly ideally suited for the purpose, and with a decent pair of scissors, you can convert one leg into a grain bag and use the other one for dry hopping. If the clerk gives you a strange look at the checkout counter, feel free to make an offhand remark about the fact that they don’t seem to carry junior miss sizes.

Secondly, you’re going to want to calibrate your hydrometer prior to taking your original gravity measurement. The paper scale on the inside of mine has managed to slide down inside the tube over the course of several batches of beer. If you get to the end of the boil and you’ve aerated your wort and it seems like the original gravity is impossibly low, it probably means that you’re going to need to compensate. If you forget about calibration you’re liable to stand there with your mouth agape wondering how it’s remotely possible that the fermentables in the liquid don’t seem to be registering properly. As it stands, my beer came out to approximately the gravity that it should have, but there was a moment of mind bending panic where it seemed as though something had gone horribly wrong.

Hops!

Finally, if you have created a recipe that you think is going to work, don’t deviate from the recipe. You’ll get to the point where there’s 15 minutes left in the boil and there are lots of hops left to go in. Follow the hopping schedule that you decided on originally. You may be tempted to put aside an ounce of hops for dry hopping, but let’s face it: You’re an amateur and you have no idea what you’re doing. There are many situations where that extemporaneous creative instinct will serve you well. This is probably not one of them.

This also includes the fermentation process. Don’t open the carboy. Don’t futz with the airlock. If it’s bubbling away, you’re probably going to be alright. It’s a process that will take a couple of weeks and there’s very little benefit to compulsively worrying whether a yeast krausen has formed and whether or not there’s anything you can do about it. Leave it alone. Go about your business. Put the fermenting vessel somewhere that’s not in your direct line of sight. You’ll just drive yourself crazy.

At the end of your brew day, you may be worried: About your yeast. About your badly misaligned hydrometer. About the rumors now circulating the neighbourhood about your possible transvestitism. About the possibility of poisoning several accredited beer judges at the end of the process. It’s best not to think about it.

Besides. You can always blame it on Sneddon. It’s a time honored Sumerian tradition.

St. John’s Wort Shameless Publicity Grab IPA – Preparation

Charlie Papazian is famous in song and story for having written, in The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, the phrase “Relax. Have a homebrew.” If you read any edition of his book it becomes clear fairly quickly that this is a mantra of sorts for Charlie, and it’s a good one. It’s just that I’m not sure it applies to my current situation. In announcing my entry in to the Toronto Beer Week Homebrewing Competition, I have created two problems:

Firstly, I have to actually do it. If ever there was a significant motivator, it’s the idea that there are a huge number (read couple of dozen) people reading your blog who are likely to laugh at you if you don’t carry through with your stated goal of brewing a beer to subject the judges to. I don’t want to walk in to Volo at some point in the near future and have folks ask “how’s that going for you” while tittering under their breath. It’s a reality of the situation that I’m now committed to actually doing the thing, and if nothing else I have to brew a beer in order to avoid the mockery of the Biergotter fellows and other local enthusiasts.

Secondly, there’s the preparation. As I see it, there are a number of things that you need to do in order to prepare to brew a beer. You need ingredients, equipment, some kind of plan and a sterile working environment.

Some of these things are more time consuming than others. Getting ingredients for homebrewing can be difficult in Toronto if you don’t have a car. It seems to me that the best supplier in the area is Canadian Homebrew Supplies. They have a huge number of products for homebrewers both experienced and just starting out. The main problem seems to be the fact that they’re in Brampton. If you’ve got a car, this is not worth commenting on, but if you’re like me and you have to order the products online and have them shipped using Canada Post, there’s a significant niggle at the back of your mind. The Wyeast Activator packs, (basically a package of yeast and nutrients that activates upon being hit hard enough to release the yeast into the nutrients) are meant to be refrigerated until they’re used. If you’re in the middle of a particularly hot stretch of the summer, do you really want to risk having your yeast sit in an unrefrigerated warehouse for two or three days? I mean, ideally Canada Post will deliver within 48 hours, but if you miss the initial delivery, it could be longer. It won’t kill the yeast dead, but it might stop them performing to the best of their ability. You don’t want to drink an under attenuated beer just because there was a mishap with a scanner.

Fortunately, I was in Buffalo anyway, and I was able to visit Niagara Traditions Homebrew Supply. I’ve got to say that it’s a very different experience standing in an actual store while shopping for homebrew ingredients. If you’re shopping online, you need to know exactly what you’re going to do before hand and you’ve got a checklist that you’re working from. If you’re on the ground in a store, you’ve got people who know what they’re doing to help you. The guy who helped me was pretty well informed and even suggested a couple of kinds of specialty malts for use in my beer. I had a loose idea of what I was going to do, but it’s always good to have a professional opinion backing you up. Plus, because the yeast was refrigerated, or at least unceremoniously dumped in a cooler with an ice pack during transit, I don’t have the option of claiming that it was the yeast’s fault if I end up with an undrinkable mass of hops and pure evil.

If you’re going to brew beer, you also need a recipe. If you’re just starting out, it’s excusable to buy a kit, but this is Toronto Beer Week, so I needed to put together something that’ll actually make an impression if it comes off. One of the strictures of the Toronto Beer Week Homebrewing Competition is that your beer has to conform to BJCP judging criteria for the style that you’re creating. Fortunately for hacks like me, there’s a website called Hopville that allows you to design recipes that will conform to those criteria. All you have to do is choose a style and then plug your information into the recipe form in order to avoid looking like a complete doofus.

I have chosen to compete in style 14B: American IPA. Partly this is because I’m curious about the Ontario market and how hard it can possibly be to create a drinkable American IPA, and partly it’s because I haven’t seen anyone else announce that they’re aiming for this category on Bar Towel. I figure that in a category of one, I should at least be able to come in third. After playing around with the recipe generator for a while (and getting some advice from Russ from Biergotter) I have decided on a title for my brew: St.John’s Wort Shameless Publicity Grab IPA. The recipe is over here. It contains both of the hops of the moment: Citra and Sorachi Ace, so it should contain slightly more citrus aroma than Florida.

Finally, and most importantly, if you’re going to brew a beer at home you want everything to be sterile. My attitude to housekeeping can most charitably be described as somewhat Laissez-faire. Given that the state of my kitchen is usually somewhere between “health code violation” and “AGH! KILL IT WITH FIRE!” it seems that I’m going to be forced to spend this afternoon in a hazmat suit scrubbing violently away with bleach and steel wool.

I kid. It’s not really that bad, but I do have to get all the equipment ready and break out the Star San and get ready to explain to the neighbours why the hallway smells funny.

Buffalo Brewfest 2010 – Part 2

The first booth we visited was the Harpoon Brewery out of Boston, started in 1986. I had talked with their representative Chirsan via email, and he was more than happy to explain the beers on offer. There were two of their core products, Harpoon IPA and their UFO unfiltered Hefeweizen on offer, but there was also the Belgian Pale Ale, which managed to steal the show. The IPA is an English style and clocks in at around 5.9% alcohol with 42 IBU and it seems like a quality product, but is part of the core lineup and therefore sort of a workhorse for the brewery. The Belgian Pale Ale is slightly less hoppy (33 IBU) but it’s an interesting departure for the company, having been distributed for the first time this year. I don’t claim to know a great deal about the thought process, but it seems to me this is the kind of beer a brewer would roll out in order to be able to start experimenting with higher gravity Belgian styles. I suspect their leviathan series will probably start to include more Belgian influence over the next couple of years.

Since the Ellicottville booth was right next to Harpoon, it was clearly next. It was another of the breweries that I had corresponded with. Dan Minner, their brewer suggested that I try their pale ale. The description from the press release is “Copper in color, mildly malty and packaged with citrusy cascade hop flavor and aroma. 5.5% ABV 51 IBU.”  It’s an American Pale Ale, but it reminded me a lot of Ontario IPAs because of the darker colour and hop bitterness and in much the same way as the Ontario IPAs it seems to want to be two different beers. I think it uses some English style malting, but with west coast hopping. I liked it well enough, but it seems a little schizoid if you look at it by itself. On the other hand, it would pair nicely with a number of different foods, so it’s unsurprising that it’s their brewpub’s flagship beer. Incidentally, I dare you to check out their brewpub’s food menu without subconsciously attempting to clear your schedule for a visit.

With the lines expanding, we wandered to the upper level which mostly contained booths from upstate New York and Vermont. If I had felt any dismay at being unable to access the courtyard, I quickly forgot about it because I was pleasantly surprised by just about everything I tried on the second level. Saranac, Lake Placid and Long Trail were right next to each other and had very reasonable lines. I hadn’t received replies from these breweries, so I had no idea what to expect. Being Canadian and generally apologetic, that tended to mean making snap decisions when I got to the front so that the line could keep moving and I somehow ended up with the strongest beers from each booth.

Saranac Imperial Stout:  A really roast forward Imperial Stout. They’re claiming that it includes 11 malt varieties, so it’s not unexpected that it should be both high gravity and incredibly dark. It’s 9% alcohol and while it’s very good, a 4oz sample was probably more effective than a pint since it’s very aggressively flavoured with bitterness from coffee, chocolate and hops. Everything you need to know is right there in the first couple of sips.

Lake Placid UBU Ale: I don’t know quite what to make of this. It purports to be an English Strong Ale, and it does that nicely, but it verges on being a winter warmer if only for the finish. It’s very much the kind of thing a forward thinking brewpub would produce since it’s versatile as both a standalone product and would compliment a pub menu nicely. It’s red (I think) and it seems to weigh in around 7% alcohol. I’m sitting here trying to envision whether this should be in a snifter or a pint glass, which gives you some idea of the versatility.

Kingston Correspondent's Double Bag

Long Trail Double IPA: I had only had the Long Trail Double Bag prior to this and I hadn’t been particularly impressed by it. The Double IPA completely changed my mind about the brewery, because it’s absolutely fantastic. At 8.6%, they’ve managed to squeeze in over 100 IBUs with just Chinook and Cascade hops with a lot of citrus and fruit. I wish I had managed to find a bottle of it to bring back because it is very comparable to Black Oak Ten Bitter Years. A side by side tasting would be ideal if only to see whether my memory was playing up. Doppelganger style similarity there.

I am now reporting on overhanging Labatt signage.

With the crowds getting somewhat unmanageable and with the event coordinators sidling up to suggest that people with press passes shouldn’t actually be drinking (which is a crock, since it’s a beer festival and what are you going to report on, the giant overhanging Labatt signage?) we decided to try a few more booths before calling it a day and going to find some dinner at the Pearl Street Grill.

Hoptical Illusion, NY edition

I couldn’t resist trying out the Blue Point Hoptical Illusion, if only because of the fact that Flying Monkeys also makes a Hoptical Illusion. There’s even a thread on Bar Towel comparing the two of them. They don’t really compare well because the Ontario H.I. is about 5% and really a lightly hopped Pale Ale. The American one is much higher in alcohol and is an IPA. I talked to the Blue Point representative about it and it seems like everyone is aware of the trademark situation and nobody is eager to get all litigious about it. Their representative (for some reason, despite the fact that he’s an awesome sales rep for them, the thick Long Island Moe Syzlak style accent and extensive memory for sales figures made me a little nervous) quickly pointed out that the Toasted Lager is actually their flagship brand. I tried it and I’ve got to say that it’s fantastically drinkable and the caramelization sort of reminded me of toasted puffed rice. Since there aren’t any adjuncts, it’s an interesting flavour in a very pleasant beer that you don’t have to think about much. I could drink a lot of it, if it were available locally.

Finally, I had the Great Lakes Lake Erie Monster, which their representative Ryan had recommended to me. It was definitely a good beer to finish up on, because at this point, there wasn’t going to be much of anything that could actually reach my palate. The Lake Erie Monster weighs in at 9.1% Alcohol and 80 IBUs. I’m sort of shocked to learn that it only includes two hop varieties: Simcoe and Fuggles. It seems to me that they’ve coaxed quite a bit of complexity out of those two ingredients, so I’m even more impressed with it now than I was at the time.

On the whole, I have to say that the Buffalo Brewfest was mostly a successful event, but it seems to me that I would have enjoyed it more if it had been less crowded. Also, I think that 20 sample tickets is probably overkill. Between the number of tickets and the length of the booth lineups it sort of managed to regulate itself, which was a good thing. It’s certainly got me thinking a little bit about the way that American breweries are developing their products and what they’re able to accomplish with fewer government regulations. It also got me a trip to Premiere Gourmet, so I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

Buffalo Brewfest 2010 – Part 1

I don't see any wings.

Bloggers, I have noticed, tend to be fickle, capricious creatures with short attention spans, and I’m no different. After nearly 8 solid weeks of blogging about Canadian beer, I felt like a change of pace from the Ontario beer scene, and who can blame me? The arguments about difficulties producing craft beer in Ontario are pretty well trod at this point in time and trying to determine how to fix them tends to lead one around in mental circles. Even when new, exciting beers come out the rush to try them tends to mean that there’s a period of boredom with them before they’re widespread in pubs and the LCBO. Sometimes, even if it’s something like Smashbomb, which is really good, it’s hard to maintain excitement over the long term.

So what can be done to alleviate this zymurgical ennui? What can an itinerant canucklehead blogger do for a change of pace? The exact same thing every Ontario beer nerd with a valid passport has done since time immemorial: Shuffle off to Buffalo.

Yes, Buffalo: Where thousands of Canadians are lost each year trying to navigate the skyway, and more still attempting to find an open exit to I-90. A city where giant shopping mall complexes are named after environmentalist works by Thoreau. Buffalo! The Nickel City! Home of the chicken wing! Famous for its tire fires since 1988!

(Actually, if you ignore the pervasive roadwork, it’s a little like a more urbane Scarborough.)

Last month, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to email the organizers of the Buffalo Brewfest in order to see whether I could get a press pass. After all, I’ve been blogging for eleven weeks now, which makes me a pro by Fox news standards. I managed to get one without any real problem thanks to the kindness of the event organizers and also managed to organize a ride to Buffalo thanks to my Kingston correspondent. Undaunted by the fact that I’d be attending two beer festivals in two days I pressed on.

The truth of the matter is that for all that I hear about American beer while I’m talking to beer nerds and hanging out at places like Volo and the Beer Bistro, it’s been a long time since I’ve actually been south of the border. It’s entirely possible that the last place I ordered a beer in the US was Pickwick’s Pub in Stowe, VT and that would have been nearly half a decade ago, so my frame of reference is probably askew. The thing is this: We really only hear about the highlights from each brewery. To choose a brewery at random: Avery Brewing out of Colorado. I know that I’ve heard positively glowing things about the Maharaja Imperial IPA and the Hog Heaven Barleywine, but that’s only a fraction of what they do. They’ve got a series of ales available year round which make up the bulk of their product line and those are the things that are typically available at festivals. If there’s a Samuel Adams booth, you’re going to see their summer seasonal, not the Utopia, if you get my meaning.

Which presented me with a significant logistical problem: The 2010 Buffalo Brewfest was only four hours long and had thirty five breweries in attendance, some of which I had never heard of because they’re local to upper New York State. The other issue is that while the website had announced the breweries that were participating in the event, there was no mention of which beers the breweries would be serving, making it essentially impossible to formulate a gameplan.

I did the only sensible thing and emailed the participating breweries in order to figure out what was available, asking politely for them to suggest one or two beers that they’d be serving of which they were the most proud.  It actually ended up working pretty well, as I managed to get responses from: Ellicottville, Harpoon, Sly Fox, Great Lakes (the other one), Ommegang, Victory and Rohrbach. I was slightly surprised to find out that I was being taken relatively seriously, but then again time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.

It’s one thing to have a plan, but it’s quite another to put it into action on the ground. In a setting like the Toronto Festival of Beer, where you know beforehand exactly what’s going to be on offer and you’ve tried just about everything before, you can streamline the process very effectively safe in the knowledge that it’s a large venue and that lineups will probably not be an issue. At the HSBC centre in Buffalo, it turned out to be a very different situation.  3500 people cramped into the lobby and courtyard meant that some booths were almost entirely inaccessible.

Graaaaains

The courtyard became essentially intractable by 6:30 meaning that a number of breweries were immediately discounted, and when I provide the list for you, you’ll understand just how crowded it must have been in order to dissuade me: Dogfish Head, Troegs, Victory, Erie, Stone, Ommegang, Sly Fox and Butternuts. It’s not very surprising that these breweries had the lines that they did as at least four of them are currently world class operations. Looking down at the courtyard from the second floor of the lobby was a great deal like looking at a George Romero film, what with the staggering and the moaning. (Q: What does a beer zombie want? A: GRAAAAINS!) It’s also no surprise that there was staggering. While admission included a 4oz sample glass, it also included 20 drink tickets which over the course of the event added up to four pints of beer for the diehard value-for-money types. Since most of the offerings were well over 5%, a certain amount of gentle swaying and stumbling was certainly called for.

This meant that we decided to stay inside, where the booths were dominated by slightly smaller, more local breweries. It also meant that I had to resort to plan B: Find the guy with the most interesting beer shirt and ask him what’s good. Fortunately, a pleasant man in a Cantillon shirt hove into view and I was quickly sorted out.