St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Monthly Archives: November 2010

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Premiere Gourmet

A couple of weekends ago, I took a trip to Buffalo with some friends. Ostensibly, we piled into the car for the reason that we wanted to visit the Blue Monk, but given that we could have done that on the bus, the real reason for the trip had to be to pick up some American Beer. Not that the Blue Monk isn’t worth a trip to Buffalo; It is. All you have to do is look at the tap selection to realize that it’s something of a specialty. It blows all of the tap lists in Toronto completely out of the water.

The truth of the matter is that everyone wanted to make a trip to Premiere Gourmet.

In Buffalo, he's technically "Eric Ecclestone: Canadian Badass."

It’s worth mentioning that the LCBO has actually been doing a vastly more satisfactory job for the last three months or so. They have been bringing in a variety of interesting things. You can get all of the vintages of Harviestoun Ola Dubh. You might be lucky enough to purchase a Sam Adams Utopia (which is being doled out by a lottery system that I won’t pretend to understand.) One of the problems that the LCBO seems to have is that there’s only so much shelf space. You’ll almost never see them carrying entire product lines. I could be charitable and suggest that they’re observing expiry dates, but I think that part of the issue is balancing incoming products with existing stock: They can’t afford to have too much of their warehouse space tied up.

In Buffalo, however, this doesn’t seem to be a concern. In terms of the desires of Ontario beer nerds, Premiere Gourmet may as well be a magical wonderland where the best of the output of several countries is always available and the enchanted pixies offer you samples of exotic cheeses while you fill your cart with rare and sought after elixirs and stand in dumb amazement staring at the wall of hot sauce.

I’ve only been there twice, so I have little criticism of it. Some of my friends claim that some of the beers will have reached their expiry dates before they make it to the shelves or that some of the IPAs have lost that hoppy zing. It may well be accurate. I never get far in terms of worrying about it for a very simple reason: I don’t have the depth of experience that some of my friends do in terms of American beers. I’m like a kid in a candy store or, perhaps more accurately, like an adult version of myself in a candy store.

Some of the people who were with me on the trip will periodically go on jaunts to the states. They’ll hear about a brewpub in Vermont or maybe they’ll get tickets for Dark Lord Day in Indiana and they’ll go on a road trip. On a trip like that you get to try a large variety of beers that aren’t available in Ontario and probably won’t be for quite some time. I watched them approach the shelves tentatively, as though looking at the Stephen King section in the bookstore and trying to figure out which book they haven’t read. “Is this the one where the mentally handicapped manchild saves the day? I think I’ve read that one. I think this is the one where the girl sets fire to the overlook hotel with her mind. Nah. I’m wrong. It’s the one where they bury the car in the pet  cemetery and it’s suddenly able to drive itself to the prom to exact its revenge. Oh no, it’s the Dark Tower. Maybe if I read it 18 more times the outcome will change.”

You see, they want to try things that they haven’t tried before. And if that means getting a thirteen dollar bottle of Saison, then more power to them. Learning is, after all, important. It’s what separates us from the animals.

For myself, there’s so much that I haven’t tried that I decided on a very simple operating principle: Choose a brewery and get everything. This time around it was Troegs and Great Lakes. It’s a reasonable and fairly affordable way to go about learning. Since single bottles are only about two bucks a throw, there’s no great tragedy if you get something that you don’t like. Chances are, though, that if it was able to make it across state lines, you’re not going to be disappointed.

Buying single bottles has other benefits as well. First, these are 12oz bottles. There’s really only enough for one serving, so you don’t have to feel guilty about not sharing. You don’t have to have people over to justify cracking one open. You’re not going to age them, you’re going to drink them. It’s not as though you won’t be able to find these beers again. Secondly, If you get one of everything a brewery makes you can even try the different styles when the mood strikes you. Say it’s an idle Tuesday night and you’re doing your laundry and you feel like a Porter. You’ve got one stashed away. You’ve got thirty minutes to kill. Hey Presto! Learning!

Also, if you’ve got a basic understanding of beer styles, you can put together a pretty decent mental picture of a single brewery’s approach based on what they do with the requisite styles.

So here’s what I’ve learned:

Troegs! It must be good: it has a halo.

Troegs seems more interested in innovation than accessibility. Everything they make seems to be fairly high in alcohol and they’ve gone for big flavors rather than screwing around worrying about making people like them. For that though, their beers are not at the point where you would have to beg for mercy after one of them:

Java Head Stout, for instance has a dominant coffee flavour in the middle of the palate, but I found that it really only intensified on swallowing. Nice body as well. It’s 7.5% alcohol, which is a touch deceptive considering the ease with which is goes down.

Dead Reckoning Porter is a little lighter at 5.8%, but I found it a good deal sweeter as well. I’m reading about it online now and apparently it’s got 53 IBUs. I would not have guessed that.

Troegenator Doublebock. It’s not a style that I tend to enjoy, but this sort of cuts through to what my perception of a Bock should be. It’s definitely malt heavy, but it’s not overwhelming and there’s a lot of caramel and a little bit toffee in there. At 8.2% there would have to be.

Their Sunshine Pils is accessible while managing to be interesting, and while a lot of people in Ontario tend to decry Pilsners, I’ve got to say that this might be one of the best I’ve ever had. It manages to retain body while being refreshing, which I have to assume is a hard balance to strike given that I don’t see it happen much.

I’ve got other Troegs stuff sitting in my fridge. I imagine I’ll get to them eventually. By the time I finish them, I will have spent around 15 bucks to try a number of their beers. I will have a decent mental picture of the brewery and how they approach the market. For the price of a rare bomber of something I would have had to share, I’ll have expanded my understanding of American craft beer by a tiny margin. After all, a brewery is only really as good as its core lineup.

Keith’s goes west

Much has been made recently of the decision to shift some of the production of Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale to Ontario and Quebec. The problem with the coverage of the issue is that it fails to take into account the corporatization that has existed around the Keith’s brand since its rise to national prominence. The article in the star makes a great deal of the fact that Keith’s is now Labatt’s number one premium brand in Canada. That’s the issue: They’re owned by Labatt and have been since 1971. Labatt has been owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev since a series of mergers took place in the first decade of this century.

As far as I can tell, the entire structure of Keith’s success is predicated upon a series of quite successful marketing campaigns and slogans based on the concept of Nostalgia: The Pride of Nova Scotia; Those Who Like It, Like It A Lot; Hold True. These slogans are usually displayed below the Stag’s Head logo which incorporates the founding year of the brewery, 1820.

Let me tell you about the Halifax of yesteryear. It’s time to jump in the wayback machine and return to those heady days of nearly a decade ago.

It’s hard to believe the stranglehold that Keith’s (pronounced “Keats”) had on the imagination of the people that I went to university with. I suppose it was like brand loyalty in any market. At Mount Allison, you were either drank Moosehead products or Keith’s products. Sackville, New Brunswick is a border town, so the division was a geographical one. Oh sure, people would sometimes buy whatever was on sale, but the division was pretty clear. Once a year, there was the Keith’s birthday party at the campus pub. People would stagger back to residence with foam antlers and free t-shirts which may not have converted anyone to being a Keith’s drinker but did manage to stave off doing laundry for another day (a valid concern amongst male undergrads.)

Being within a two hour drive meant that I spent a bit of time in Halifax. The downtown core, it’s worth noting, had a bustling tourist trade based on nostalgia for a simpler time, almost as though there was an ongoing fight between a city trying to just get on with its business and a theme park based largely around pub crawls and Stan Rogers ballads. The Halifax Alehouse, for instance, had female waitresses who dressed in beer wench style costumes which may or may not have reflected any period in the province’s history.

I haven’t been to Halifax in a couple of years, but I feel like I may have been there during the high water mark of the nostalgia craze. There was one evening in particular that I remember for a very strange occurrence. I remember staggering along Granville Street and being followed by the song Barrett’s Privateers. My best guess is that a number of bands in separate pubs must have started the song at approximately the same time, because walking along, you could literally hear the next verse from the next pub. Revelers sang along happily on patios.

The point is that Keith’s was everywhere, and why shouldn’t it have been? The advertisements for it were helping to promote the sort of nostalgia that the tourism was based on. It was a happy synergy. Perhaps the ultimate example is the Stag’s Head pub, which was the last stop on the Keith’s brewery tour. During my only visit, I was shocked to find that I knew two of the people who were paid to stand around in period clothing, serving Keith’s and entertaining tourists with a rendition of Barrett’s Privateers once every hour and a half. There they stood, B.Mus. undergrads with worn smiles on their faces and only partially catastrophic damage to their self esteem, belting out lines about cooks “being the scuppers with the staggers and jags,” their enthusiasm obviously flagging.

Keith’s trades on this idealized image of early 19th century merriment. It has been staggeringly successful for them. The problem is that if you remove the product from that context and evaluate it on its own merits, it’s just not very interesting. It’s not really an India Pale Ale (as any beer nerd will tell you at great length). The decision to produce it in Ontario ignores the fundamental construct that the marketing has been attempting to sell for the last fifteen years: A product from an idealized version of Halifax which is closer to Fiddler’s Green than it is to Dartmouth.

Essentially, what the decision means is that at some level Anheuser-Busch InBev has decided to attempt to capitalize on the brand recognition of Keith’s as a premium product by positioning it as an alternative to craft beer in markets with larger populations. By moving production and forcing union employees out of work, they risk alienating their Nova Scotia market. Halifax is a union shop and people are already up in arms about this decision. I hear that some Haligonians are already switching to Propeller or Garrison.

I only wonder what expansion they believe will be made possible in Ontario and Quebec by this move. Keith’s is already the seventh most popular brand at The Beer Store. It seems like an increase in sales of the Keith’s line would probably cut into the sales of other Labatt product lines.

I think that this is a gamble which represents a lack of imagination on the part of an industry giant attempting to deal with a growing craft market share. Instead of creating and promoting a better product, they are, I suspect, attempting to hold the line. The nostalgia marketing concept only works if the product is actually from Nova Scotia and they’re sacrificing that; It will be to their detriment in the long run.

Which is a shame. I sort of like those beer wench costumes.

So You Want To Be a Brewer – Great Lakes/St. John’s Wort Lazarus Breakfast Stout

(Astute readers will have noticed that this blog has taken a heavy turn towards actually brewing beer recently. I promise you that I will return shortly to making fun of the other facets of the brewing industry and beer drinking generally. There will also be some input from a couple of correspondents in the next few weeks, so be sure to stay tuned for coverage of Houston and Vancouver.)

Mike demonstrates the top-secret fermenter draining process.

On the heels of the Amsterdam brew day, I was invited by Mike Lackey (ed. note: Laskey) to try my hand at brewing on the pilot system at Great Lakes. Clearly this was not an opportunity to be passed up, but it came with a couple of significant realizations. The Christmas Ale isn’t really for public consumption. If it doesn’t pass muster, I can just sweep it under the rug saying that everyone who helped brew got some of it and it was a just reward for a day spent hard at work.

The beer for Great Lakes was actually for December’s Project X (unless it is so bad that it’s unusable). This means public consumption: An actual stage to see whether people like it or not. And given that it’s a Project X brew, it might even show up on ratebeer; a fact I realized while idly stirring the wort. Add to that the fact that my brewing output tripled in two weeks. This is a trend which, if it continues unchecked, seems to suggest that by early 2016 I will be brewing all of the beer in the world.

So: some mild cause for alarm.

I have essentially adopted the following principle: Plan big. If you can’t manage to be a great success, you will have at least been a spectacular warning. Think of Guy Fawkes. He’s famous in song and story for not quite managing to blow up the houses of parliament, but he has a day named after him. Think of John Brown. Didn’t quite manage to take Harper’s Ferry, but he’s got the Battle Hymn of the Republic. History is littered with examples of splendid attempts that resulted in failure: The Titanic. The Ford Edsel. Betamax.

With this in mind, I designed a beer based around two things that I really like. Breakfast Stout and Oaxacan Mole sauce. Great Lakes, it has to be said, has produced John Bowden’s Morning Glory Breakfast Stout on several occasions and it’s always been something that I’ve enjoyed. Last week, I got to

The Great Lakes Pilot System

try Founders Breakfast Stout for the first time. I liked it so much, that I decided a modified Breakfast Stout was the thing to try, but with a couple of additions. Most Breakfast Stouts according to my research have chocolate and coffee flavour and some oats for body. To me, this sounded like it could be a Mole sauce if you added some chili and some spices. I decided on Ancho chili since it’s not particularly hot and lends an interesting sweetness and some cinnamon for a little kick. It sounds farfetched, but I’ve been putting cocoa powder in my chili at home for some months now, and I know it’s a flavour range that works.

BEHOLD!

Besides, with Mike Lackey guiding me through the process, how could it fail? (Disclaimer: if it fails, please do not blame Mike Lackey. I’m the maniac with the recipe.)

I rolled in to Great Lakes around 10:00 on Tuesday with my Senior Superlative Correspondent Deluxe, Catherine Strotmann and got down to business.  The Great Lakes pilot system is a lot more advanced than the equipment that I had previously used and also a great deal bigger, but I found it interesting to note that producing 15 gallons of beer is not actually any more time consuming than a 5 gallon batch. You just have to be prepared to lift buckets of water a great deal higher in order to get them into the mash/lauter tun. It was also gratifying to note that the milling system was identical to the one we borrowed during the Amsterdam brew day, except that it had the addition of a power drill for ease of use. You don’t want to mill 42 pounds of grain by hand unless you have no alternative. It would be time consuming and eventually give you brewer’s elbow.

Chili, cocoa, cinnamon and hops. Breakfast of Champions.

Unlike the Amsterdam brew day, we took notes. Perhaps most importantly, we had to note the substitutions that went into the recipe. Instead of all pale ale malt for the grain bill, we had to substitute in some Maris Otter. There wasn’t any Biscuit malt, so we eschewed that in favour of Coffee Malt since the Maris Otter would give it a small amount of biscuit flavour. There were no Willamette hops on hand, so we substituted Styrian Goldings. There wasn’t any Columbus on hand so we used Chinook. I couldn’t find any Star Anise, so we did without. Probably just as well.

We mashed in at a relatively low 151-2 degrees. It would have been higher, but the equalization of temperature between

Clarity is important

the 42 pounds of grain at room temperature and the water used brought it down a little bit. We adjusted temperature as we went and everything went along pretty well.  The nice thing about having proper brewing equipment is that the steps that didn’t make sense before suddenly did. For instance,  prior to sparging, there’s a clarifying step where you’re trying to get the grain bed to settle. Last time we did this with tinfoil and a pitcher which was, as the kids say, pretty ghetto. At Great Lakes, they have an attachment for the Mash/Lauter Tun that allows you to just hook up a hose to a pump stand back.

The boil went along nicely, and we had our hop additions premeasured on a side table. We somehow ended up using an extra ounce of bittering hops, but I think the IBU measurement will still be under 70 (which is slightly higher than Founder’s Breakfast Stout, but not by a whole lot.) The best part of the brew day for me was the first opportunity to mix the Ancho chili and Styrian Goldings together. They both have a slightly earthy flavour that I think should complement each other in the final product. It’s always nice to find out that you weren’t so very far off base with your assumptions.

Catherine Strotmann: Destroyer of Coffee

In coffee that would be a "crema." I don't know what it is in beer.

Despite having some coffee malt in the wort, we decided that since we couldn’t add coffee directly to the secondary fermenter due to the likelihood of plugging the system up, that we would instead add it to the whirlpool. The whirlpool was a new step for me, and one that I was unaware of. It essentially helps to clarify the wort by separating the trub and hops from it. It also cools down the wort somewhat after the boil. By waiting until the wort was at a lower temperature and then adding the coffee as it cooled, it not only removed the likelihood of acidity, but also ensured a dark roast finish which should be really nice. Think of it like a giant French press that makes beer. Catherine was given the job of grinding the coffee. If you work for me, you better be able to swing a hammer.

I think that this is going to be good, at least I hope that it’s going to be good. I don’t think the chili will be overpowering (2oz in a 15 gallon boil should be gentle). I think that it will probably come out around 7%. The important thing to remember here is that I’m not insanely overconfident about this project. I never claimed to be some kind of zymurgical messiah. In fact, I’ll be content if I don’t look like a moron in front of the beer nerds and if the recipe turns out to be viable.

It’s sitting there at Great Lakes, bubbling away. Now we play the waiting game.

Amsterdam Brew Day

In the run up to the brew day at Amsterdam, I was pretty nervous. You never know exactly how something like your first all-grain brew day is going to go. There are a lot of considerations: Is my recipe any good? What goes on at an event like this? Does this ridiculous moustache make me look like a hobbyist or a walrus?

It was for this reason that I showed up early. I was told that the doors would open at Nine AM and I was shocked to discover that there were already people on the ground with their setups basically ready to go. I thought that I saw a couple of stations where people had already started their water heating when I got there. The rest of my team trickled in over the next hour or so.

We ran into a number of problems almost immediately. Not only did it take us the better part of a half hour to figure out how the equipment we had been provided fit together, our ingredients didn’t arrive. The guy from Homebrewers Retail had apparently had a number of late orders and had to load everything into his van, which was then promptly encased in traffic.

This was a good opportunity to avail ourselves of the donuts and coffee provided and walk around looking at the other homebrewers practicing their craft. You may not credit it, but it reminded more me of a grade seven science fair than anything else. All of the brewers have come up with slightly different techniques for what they’re doing. There were grain mills powered by electric drills, Coleman coolers that had been converted into mash tuns, and one station had come up with an ingenious method of mashing in the brewing kettle using a mesh bag to lift the spent grain out of the wort. It’s a very clever idea, but I feel like any system that requires the use of a pulley is more complicated than it needs to be. I may have been imagining it, but I swear that the same station had a grain mill powered by a foot pump a la a 1950’s Singer sewing machine.

This is one of the great things about homebrewing: no one does it in exactly the same manner. There’s no bog standard kit. It results in foil wrapped mash tuns and kettles and Rube Goldberg style apparatus. It appeals to the same part of the male brain that convinces a hapless newbie that he can rebuild a carburetor, or that it is patently necessary to replace the pickups on a Telecaster with gold plated Humbuckers and that it’s probably only an afternoon’s work.

We stood around patiently, waiting for the supplies to arrive, venturing upstairs to look at the memorabilia. The Amsterdam staff were clearly getting nervous about the fact our supplies hadn’t arrived. At one point they offered us the carte blanche use of whatever grains they had on hand in storage so that we could get started. I think this was only partially motivated by their desire to get home at a reasonable hour.

At about 12:30 our grains and hops arrived and we swung into action, borrowing milling equipment from a nearby station. We actually ended up borrowing equipment from just about everyone within 50 feet, since none of us had brought any useful tools. Here is a picture of Chris Schryer getting way, way too into grinding grains.

Way, way too into it.

One type of grain that we wanted, Carastan, was out of stock at the time of my order so in order to make up the difference, Andrew Bartle hit the Amsterdam loft and raided their supply of grains. It was very much a handful here and a handful there. I think there may have been some smoked malt in the mix that he came back with. It smelled great. Unfortunately, the quantities that he selected mean that if we accidentally come up with something really good it’s pretty much completely unrepeatable.

I won’t go particularly in depth on the brewing process here for the very simple reason that there are not a lot of interesting things that I can say about heating water to 158 degrees farenheit (dull!) or how to poke holes in tinfoil in order to ensure that clarification occurs during the sparging process (carefully!). I will tell you a couple of things that made me pretty proud of my team selection, though:

I had no idea that Matt Caldwell was this good a photographer. Look at this picture of grain falling out of the bucket we were using as a hopper. Clearly he has some skills that I didn’t know about.

Finally! Actual photography!

Another thing that impressed me was this: Clearly, as bloggers we talk a lot about things that we like and things that are available. In this setting I think we all started out at the beginning of the brewing session with a lot of apprehension. We have all read so much about beer over the years that it sort of came creeping back in during the brew day. Concepts that we’d only read about suddenly became a lot clearer. As soon as you start applying theoretical knowledge it starts to make sense in a way that it simply can’t otherwise. I mean, it’s all well and good to suggest that you know what sparging is and it’s great to understand the process of using a counterflow chiller for wort cooling, but until you actually muck in, it’s mostly jargon.

Since the beer we were brewing had a lot of cinnamon aroma, we got a lot of foot traffic over the course of the day. Much of the foot traffic, I suspect because of the aroma, was female. Cinnamon apparently has the same wafting effect as a cartoon pie on a windowsill. We posed periodically for photo ops or had to explain exactly what it was we were doing and the great thing is this: We were not just making stuff up in order to look like we knew what we were doing in front of girls. I was explaining starch conversion in a way that made me realize I have absorbed more about this subject than I thought. Chris Schryer actually had people tasting raw specialty grains so that they could understand what each grain was contributing to the flavour of the beer. What a good idea!

At the end, after we managed to get it into the carboy we had this Christmas Ale ready to go. Bartle pitched the yeast the next day and I understand that somewhere in the depths of the Amsterdam facility our experiment is bubbling away, forming a krausen and a colony of yeast is having a wonderful time. It only remains to be seen what we’ll do with it.

Hello, little beer. We are going to drink you.

So You Want To Be a Brewer – Learn 2 Brew at The Amsterdam Brewery

Homebrew Systems I have known

One of the nicest things about being a beer blogger, aside from the fact that there is periodically more free beer than you can shake quite a large bundle of sticks at, is that if you profess that you’re interested in learning to be a brewer, people take you at your word. After the relative success of the St.John’s Wort Shameless Publicity Grab IPA, I was so impressed with myself that I thought it would be a good idea to join the discussion board for the Southern Ontario Brewers.

“Maybe,” I thought to myself, “just maybe, I’ll be able to find some new homebrew ingredient suppliers.” Let’s face it, if you’re an extract or partial mash brewer in Toronto it can be hard to come by liquid malt extract. You can get all kinds of grain and yeast and hops from various sources, but pale liquid malt extract is a difficult commodity to track down. So I sent in a submission to get the moderator of the board to allow me access.

Which he did, but not before asking whether I would like to hand pick an elite cadre of beer bloggers to attempt to brew a beer at the Amsterdam Brewery as part of the Learn 2 Brew open house the Southern Ontario Brewers (The only Canadian organization other than Stephen Harper’s cabinet proud that every member is an SOB) were hosting. I felt a little like Yul Brynner in the Magnificent Seven, except with a great deal more hair. I tried to sell it to the other bloggers this way: View it as a challenge. We get to put our collective money where our mouth is and see whether we have any right to be criticizing things other people brew. So, after sending out feelers to most of the bloggers I know, I ended up with enthusiastic people who were not going to be out of town.

Chris Schryer, Local Blogger

Chris Schryer – You know him from the Toronto Beer Blog and as a genial man about town. As of the beginning of this project he has a combined beer-drinking experience of over a decade. No all-grain brewing experience, though.

Matt Caldwell – Maybe you’ve seen his blog, One Beer At A Time in which he attempts to expand his beer drinking experience by acquiring new and interesting beers that he hasn’t had before. Maybe you’ve seen his slightly Ross Petty-ish goatee. Total all-grain brewing experience: 0 hours.

It was a promising group with one slight skill related hiccup: Between the three of us we have less brewing experience than a kindergarten student. This is why I decided that it would be a good idea to find a loophole. I needed a blogger who actually knows about brewing. Someone who would give us a decent shot at not looking like jerks in front of the homebrewers:

Andrew Bartle – Member of the inaugural edition of the Niagara College brewing program. Erstwhile blogger and all around swell guy. Amsterdam employee.

Now, if you are going to be using a brewery’s homebrewing equipment, it’s generally a good idea to have someone on hand from the brewery to explain to you how it works. Without Bartle we would still be attempting to put together the supports in the interior of the lauter tun, or having gotten past that part of the process, it’s relatively likely that we would have burned Amsterdam down.

Local Bartle, Andrew Blogger

Recipe creation was the next step after making sure we had a team to brew with. Deciding which style to brew was a contentious. Schryer wanted a Light Lime Lager. Caldwell wanted a Black IPA.  Bartle, I think, just wanted to brew, which is a good sign in a ringer. Because I don’t know anything about lagering beer and neither did anyone else on our team, Light Lime Lager was out. Black IPA was an interesting idea, but I’ve seen a bunch of them cropping up recently and I sort of wanted to do something different.

Behold!

It’s a Christmas Ale, alright. Molasses, cinnamon and cloves. Relatively large hopping schedule too. The hop calculation function seems to be off on hopville.com at the moment, seemingly halving the effect everything has. That should be up around 77 IBU (Or at least it is according to actual brewing software).

I won’t suggest that you don’t run into some significant difficulties creating your first all-grain recipe. Which grains should I use? There are a huge number of grains available in any recipe generator. I have to assume that people are mostly deciding based on experience. I had no experience to draw on and I was essentially limited to what supplies I could have delivered to the event from Homebrewer’s Retail. Oh sure, I consulted people to see what they thought, but the majority of the suggestions were accompanied by a raised eyebrow and a sidelong look.

My feeling is that if you’re going to fail, fail big. If you’re an extra in a western and you get shot, give it the ol’ Wilhelm scream and throw yourself from the roof; don’t just slump over. Now, you may argue that that isn’t a good way to approach your first all-grain brew. Let me put it this way: Imagine the embarrassment of completely screwing up a generic mild or bitter. Much worse than using too much cinnamon while doing something interesting.

Next Time: The Brewday

Now: I’m going to go look at some butter sculptures and maybe get some fudge.

Cheshire Valley and Burger Bar

If that were actually a pint glass, it would fall over.

Tuesday, I was invited along to a beer tasting at Burger Bar in Kensington Market. Now, for me, this wasn’t just any beer tasting. Thomas Riley Marshall, former Vice-President of the United States, once opined that what the country needed was a good five-cent cigar. I have always felt that what Toronto needed was a good sessionable ale. Well, we’ve got one now thanks to Paul Dickey: Cheshire Valley Unfiltered English Mild.

Paul, for those of you who don’t know, is the man behind Cheshire Valley Brewing. In terms of the Ontario beer scene, he’s a man of many parts. He has brewed for Pepperwood Bistro and Black Oak. Everyone enjoys a pint of Nutcracker. He created that one; Also the Summer Saison. He’s a Master Judge in the BJCP program. This is a man who knows what he’s doing. If you need proof of that, it’s worth noting that his Cheshire Valley beers tend to be among the first to run out at cask festivals. It’s one thing for a brewery to rate high on the internet amongst the tickerati (raters gonna rate), but it’s quite another to view the evidence of quality displayed by people making a bee line for a mild ale at a festival with high alcohol offerings and one-offs.

The mild is very tasty. It’s about 3.5% alcohol and the flavour is malty with some small chocolate presence. The nice thing about it is that you can certainly carry on a conversation while enjoying it. Some beers grab your lapels and demand your attention. The Cheshire Valley Unfiltered English Mild doesn’t do that, but that’s not to say that it’s not worthy of your attention. It’s complex enough that you can think about what you’re tasting, but not so forceful that you absolutely have to. In a market where IPAs are not only grabbing your lapels but turning you upside down and shaking the change out of your pockets, this is a refreshing change.

It’s only available in pubs, and that’s a good thing. It’s the perfect thing for a civilized conversation. I sat there in Burger Bar with various bloggers and no one ended up with a lampshade on their head. The wonderful thing about a pint of mild is that you can go and do something else after enjoying it. If there were a warning label it might well read, “Please do not operate heavy machinery unless you absolutely have to, although if you give it about twenty minutes, a backhoe is not out of the question.”

Cheshire Valley is interesting in that it’s a virtual brewery. The beer is brewed on Black Oak’s premises, but it’s not one of their brands. It’s very much its own product line. I talked to Paul at Cask Days, so I may have some of the details wrong, but the impression that I got was that he’s only going to brew six times a year for now. The beers on offer will loosely follow the seasons. The mild is the fall offering, but the next one up is a robust porter for when the weather gets colder.

The beers don’t have names. There is no gimmickry. There is only quality. The styles are not outlandish or experimental. These are recipes that have been tried and tested and are solid and dependable. They are the result of a career’s worth of trial and error.

Paul also told me a little about the business model he’s using. All of the beer goes into keg sales, the vast majority of which have been pre-sold. By the time it starts fermenting, it has been spoken for. Now, it’s not a huge number of kegs; maybe 30-33 per batch. That’s not a volume that’s going to make anyone rich, but it’s sustainable. The impression I came away with is that it’s not about making anyone rich. Paul has simply come up with a sustainable way to do the thing he loves doing, and make people happy while doing it. It’s amazing what passion for your métier can accomplish.

Speaking of, I feel like I should talk about the venue a little.

Burger Bar, to me at least, seemed to crop up out of nowhere in early September. I hadn’t heard of it before Toronto Beer Week, but all of a sudden, there it was: Hosting events almost weekly. I talked to the owner, Brock Shepherd about this emergence and it turns out that I wasn’t off by a lot. Burger Bar really has only been around for about seven months.

The concept is pretty simple and the name tells you nearly everything you need to know. The beer is local and of high quality and Brock has already expanded the number of taps available, including bringing in a beer engine with a sparkler for cask. The menu is mostly hamburgers, but they’re of a high quality and the number of toppings makes them nearly endlessly customizable (x=16! and that’s just the additional toppings). I was also pleased to see that Brock hadn’t completely abandoned the previous concept. Some of the most popular rice bowls from Burger Bar’s previous incarnation survived. Why alienate the old guard?

Brock has been bitten pretty hard by the craft beer bug. You know you’re in trouble when you start buying toys and he’s got maybe the only Dogfish Head Randall in Ontario. He’s also got a slightly worrying glint in his eye when he starts talking about his plans. He’s talking about learning to brew his own beers, which would make Burger Bar one of only a handful of brewpubs in Toronto. Burger Bar’s in a really good location to take advantage of the growth of craft beer in Ontario and if his enthusiasm is any indication, I’m going to enjoy watching the place grow and develop.

It’s worth reflecting that the fact the Cheshire Valley tasting was at Burger Bar is not an accident. Paul and Brock have something in common: They have figured out what they are passionate about and they’re both going for it. Paul’s project is the result of a long career in brewing in Ontario and years of practice and refinement. Brock is just starting out in the craft beer world. The motivation, though, is very similar.

If you’re passionate enough about what you’re doing, you’re eventually going to make it work.