St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Monthly Archives: January 2011

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Great Lakes/St.John’s Wort Collaboration #2 – Adequacy Prevails!

If you’re an amateur brewer, you’re probably familiar with the phrase, “Relax! Have a homebrew.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t find this to be the comforting mantra that it is no doubt intended to be. In the back of my head when I’m brewing beer I’m mostly thinking, “Don’t screw up. Don’t screw up. Is everything sanitized? Oh crap! I’ve got to sanitize the airlock. The stuff is already in the bucket! It’ll all end in tears. Probably already has. Where the hell did I put the Star San?”

Wall of infamy

Mike Lackey and Me on the Great Lakes Wall of Infamy

This is why it’s gratifying to work with Mike Lackey at Great Lakes. He’s the chillest of dudes; Even his goatee is laid back. Mike knows exactly what needs to happen at every step of the process. Instead of screwing around measuring star san into gallons of water, he’s just got a hose and what I have to assume is premeasured sanitizing solution.

At home, if I’m brewing a beer and I get to the step where I need to mash some specialty grains into it, there’s always that moment of trepidation when I look at the packages of malt and wonder whether the grain has been crushed yet. Several minutes of beating a towel full of malt with a 1.5 litre grolsch bottle or transferring grain in and out of the burr grinder ensue, and always with unsatisfactory results. Too big. Too small. I find myself either worrying about starch conversion or wondering why everything smells like the inside of Ideal Coffee.

Great Lakes has one of these, which gets everything the same size even if it does look like it would be more at home in a Saw film.

That's what she said

This thing gives your forearm a pretty good workout.

After the moderate success of the Breakfast Stout that I did with Great Lakes a couple of months ago, I was invited back to try again with a different recipe. Deciding what you’re going to brew in Ontario is easy; All you have to do is look at what there isn’t. We’ve sort of reached a point in Ontario where I don’t feel bad about taking US craft beers as inspiration since they’re so far ahead of us in so many different categories. This time around, I thought it would be fun to try an Old Ale. I know that’s a typically English style, but I figured that by throwing some American hops at it and keeping the malt slightly lighter than would usually be called for in terms of roast, we might be able to create something interesting. The inspiration for it was Great Divide Hibernation Ale.

BEHOLD! St.John’s Wort Old Drawing Board

Let me tell you, the name was more appropriate than I had initially anticipated. If you’re like me, you’ve got just enough knowledge about what is possible to end up with a recipe that pretty much ignores the probable. This is especially true when you’re working with the ingredients that are on hand at someone else’s brewery. (What? I’m going to complain about getting to use stuff for free when the alternative is buying everything myself and sanitizing bottles?) We didn’t have two varieties of Crystal, so we had to use American 70-80 Crystal Malt for both Crystal additions. We didn’t have Carastan, so we decided to use Melanoidin. We switched the Biscuit malt out for Cara. We did have all of the hop varieties that we needed. Nugget, Columbus and Styrian Goldings.

Brewing this way reminds me of a criticism I once got from my university music theory professor, who claimed that I tended to view the process of theory exercises not so much as an aesthetic pursuit, but as a crossword puzzle. I have a tendency to take a top-down view in recipe creation, choosing a style that I want rather than a flavour profile in order to create a beer. For that reason it’s great to work with the materials that are on hand in order to create something. It forces me to think about what the likely outcome is going to be and it forces me to make real choices instead of using ideal ingredients. The other fun part is that since I’m partially colorblind, SRM measurements mean relatively little to me. I don’t know what colour something is going to be even when my software displays a little coloured box.

I'm not sure that colour exists outside of October

Going into the fermenter, to wreak havoc on yeast

In this case we ended up with a colour that I’m not sure I’ve seen before. As you can see, it’s sort of an opaque rust orange. Also, the Great Lakes pilot system has a conversion rate that’s slightly lower than the idealized 75% rate that my brewing software assumes.

What do you do when your dark brown, 8.7%, 93 IBU Old Ale ends up being rust orange, 8.0%, and about 107 IBU? Well, you realize pretty quickly that it’s not going to be an Old Ale. It’s not quite high enough in alcohol or dark enough in colour to be an American Barleywine. Imperial IPA? Maybe. All I can say is that I’m pretty sure it isn’t a Gruit or a Lambic. Add to this the fact that we might decide to age it in an Oak Barrel and the entire prospect becomes pretty frightening.  We’re probably also going to have to come up with a new name. Agent Orange might dissuade people. Mr. Orange might narc on us. Orange Julius would be nice because of the colour and the Imperial nature of the beer, but I think there’s some copyright infringement to consider.

Maybe the best news to come out of the brew day is that the collaboration Lazarus Breakfast Stout is going to show up again over the course of the next couple of months. If you’ve tried it before, I’m hoping this hits you as good news. If you didn’t get to try it last time, it should be making its way to an establishment chock full of beer nerds near you. I was pleased to see some positive feedback on ratebeer for the Breakfast Stout. It’s not every day you’re judged to be overwhelmingly adequate by a jury of your peers.

The Molsons, The Labatts and The St.Johns

Recently, I had an email from the nice folks over at Media Profile, who have sent me a release saying that public documents from the histories of the Molson and Labatt families are now available online as part of a promotion for Ancestry.ca. This is no time to pause and consider whether what is clearly a PR grab for a typically non-beer related site is actually newsworthy, especially when I’ve been taken up by enthusiasm for researching my own family tree and comparing the historic arcs of the Molsons, Labatts and St.Johns.

While some of the documents released are not particularly interesting in and of themselves (John S. Labatt once managed to travel to Buffalo, which is a revelation on par with the fact that he once got a newspaper delivered) some of the documents are downright fascinating.

Just for reference, I should point out that the St.Johns have a long and storied past. You name a European country, and I can guarantee you that we were on our way out of it just steps ahead of the tax collectors. Over the years we were French (fled because we were Huguenots), Swiss (left after a particularly nasty confrontation with a clockmaker), German (persecuted because we never mastered the umlaut) and Irish. The earliest record of the St.Johns in Canada is from Uxbridge, Ontario before the Irish Potato Famine. It never even made the hit parade.

That early ancestor managed to personally clear 100 acres of virgin forest during his lifetime, stopping only to sharpen his axe, darn his socks and calculate his carbon footprint. It was a hard life. There were wolves everywhere; At the drop of a hat there were wolves in the hat. My great great great great Uncle “King” Philip St.John was called that because he had the largest wagon in the county (that’s what she said). During the rebellion in Upper Canada, he raised a troop of about a hundred militia to put down the rebels. I don’t know if they ever saw action, but you can bet that they got blisters walking from Uxbridge.

The Labatt family has similarly interesting history. Sophie Labatt perished tragically at the age of 55 from an accidental poisoning. This leaves us with a great deal of speculation as to the exact nature of the tragedy and a reminder not to confuse the sugar and arsenic canisters in your pantry.

John S. Labatt, grandson of the founder of the brewery was kidnapped in 1934 by an employee of his own brewery. It seems that the kidnapping was originally meant to be a hoax for a publicity stunt in order to call attention to the brewery. Unfortunately, the Labatt family wasn’t in on it and the kidnapper, Russell Knowles, subsequently received a fifteen year sentence for his troubles. Apparently it’s only a joke until you ask for five million dollars.

My great uncle Rufus T. St.John was kidnapped as a seven year old. They sent one of his fingers in the mail to prove that they were serious, but it was returned postage due. His father paid the kidnappers twenty dollars to keep him, but was disappointed when little Rufus showed up on his doorstep the next day without so much as a scratch.

Harry Markland Molson perished in the tragic sinking of the Titanic in 1912. According to legend, he was last seen removing his shoes to swim towards a boat he saw off in the distance. I’m sure there’s a joke in here somewhere about Molson’s being cold and watery, but I don’t have a lawyer on retainer. Ironically, my great aunt Floe once had a summer internship as an iceberg (which is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard).

Lastly, the documents published by Ancestry.ca list Percival Talbot Molson’s attestation papers and military record. There are a number of things that we can learn from this, not the least of which is that if you have enough money on hand no one will laugh at you if your name is Percival. Seeing as he perished in the first world war, I’m not sure that I feel comfortable taking too many cheap shots at him. After all, anyone who’s willing to risk death and trench foot in order to fight the Kaiser is OK with me. We owe him one for that business with the umlaut.

Interesting Facts About The Beer Convoy

One of the problems that I encountered when reading about the convoy of beer fermentation tanks that have received so much publicity lately is that they don’t come across on a human scale. It’s hard to imagine a kilometer long convoy of vehicles necessitating the combined efforts of police services, public utility companies and a fleet of trucks from Challenger Motor Freight. For this reason St.John’s Wort is pleased to provide you with a loose guide to help you picture the exact dimensions and potential importance of such an influx of brewing volume.

According to the Toronto Star, the tanks can hold 5.86 million bottles of beer. According to City TV’s website, they can hold 1.4 million bottles a piece (for a total of 8.4 million bottles). Such a discrepancy is worrying. I mean, 2.54 million bottles of beer are missing. I think we should be on the lookout for a moustachioed man in a black Trans-Am and a trucker with a dog named Fred.

Let’s assume, though, that the Toronto Star has the figure right. 5.86 million bottles of beer (assuming that the bottles are 355 ml) translates to roughly 2,080,300,000 mililitres of beer, which is 2,080,300 litres of beer or 4,160,600 pints. That translates to roughly 346,717 litres or 693,434 pints of beer per fermenter.

Assuming, for legal reasons, that you don’t actually drink anything prior to your nineteenth birthday and that you lived until 70, you would have 18,615 nights where it would be possible for you to drink beer. Given that a reasonable night down at the pub might see you drink four pints of beer, you would within that time consume 74,460 pints of beer. In order to finish the volume of beer within the fermenter there would either need to be 9.31 of you (out of the question with current cloning technology and besides, what would you talk about?) or you would need to live 494 years. I suppose you could just find 8.31 friends to help you, but what if Verne Troyer is unavailable? Regardless, you’re going to want to lay in plenty of pedialyte and advil.

This is not a challenge that I recommend undertaking. After all, a pint of 5% beer typically contains about 250 calories. A fermenter therefore holds 173,358,500 calories of beer. No registered dietitian would take you on as a client. Also, it’s probably going to be filled with Molson Canadian… so, y’know.

In terms of sheer volume 346,717 litres of beer is 346.717 cubic meters of volume. My apartment in midtown Toronto is 450 square feet and has ceilings which are 7.75 feet high. The volume of space within my apartment is 98.75 cubic meters. This means that you could fit 3.5 of my apartment into one of these fermenters with enough space left over for a brand new chaise longue.

Interestingly (if you want to take wikipedia’s word for it) Canada consumes 2,183,000,000 litres of beer annually. You would need to fill these tanks 1049 times in order to reach that amount.

According to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in the United States, if you wanted to keep two Killer Whales in captivity you would need to provide a tank capable of holding 615 cubic meters. Theoretically, you would need 1.77 fermenters worth of beer in order to do that. I think it would probably be a bad idea to fill the Killer Whale tanks with beer, though. After several hours they would get maudlin and try to start fistfights with each other, which would be unsatisfying given that you can’t really make a fist with a pectoral fin. Additionally, given that their diet consists of 227 kilograms of fish daily, they might think that an average serving of bar peanuts is a little skimpy. Eventually, their whale song would start to sound like “Louie, Louie.”

According to the St.John’s Wort Expensive Liquids Equivalence Chart Molson Canadian costs approximately 0.0056 cents per milliliter. This means that the total street value of the beer that these fermenters would hold would be $11,649,680.00, which is approximately enough money to get David Beckham out of bed. If, on the other hand, you were to fill just one of the fermenters with Sam Adams Utopias, it would cost you $53,047,701.00

Interestingly, the entirety of the transport operation for the convoy was slated to cost $24,000,000. This means that the tanks will pay for their own transport from Burgstadt, Germany within two brew runs.

Brew Masters – Sam Runs The Voodoo Down

There’s been quite a bit of enthusiasm recently for a new program that has been airing on the Discovery Channel in the states. Brew Masters is hosted by Sam Calagione, who is the man behind Dogfish Head in Delaware. It begins broadcasting on the 17th on Discovery Canada and will probably be bookended by Kari Byron blowing things up and Mike Rowe cleaning out a stable. (While it would be disingenuous to suggest that you absolutely have to wait until next Monday to watch it on Discovery Canada, it would be irresponsible and morally suspect to mention that you can probably just punch “free tv brew masters” into Google and watch it whenever you feel like it. I suspect many of you will have done this already and I am therefore forced to denounce you as filthy internet pirates just in case any regulatory boards are paying attention.)

The show essentially revolves around two arcs in every episode. The main arc usually has to do with Sam Calagione and his thoroughly capable brewmasters being tasked with creating a beer with a specific theme. The secondary and significantly less featured arc has to do with the day to day running of the brewery. Usually these have to do with mishaps that have taken place during production.

Glue spills all over the floor, or a batch doesn’t ferment properly, or a piece of the bottling machine is found to be missing. It turns out that it’s relatively difficult to create a dramatic situation in a properly run brewery, so these problems get a lot of focus in order to create tension in the B story. The choice to focus less on these issues is essentially a tacit admission that even the loss of a half million dollars worth of product is not really interesting visually. There’s a shot of a hose pouring beer into a drain; No one is tearing their hair or committing seppuku.

The main arc may as well be titled “The Continuing Adventures of Sam Calagione.” I feel like I should talk about Sam a little. He’s thoroughly likeable, personable, enthusiastic and, I suspect, has a gift for promotion that rivals P.T. Barnum. I don’t mean that derogatorily; it’s just that Sam is everywhere. If you’ve seen a documentary on beer in the last three or four years, you have seen Sam. The glimpses of the backstory of Dogfish Head that we’re given show him to be a sort of Horatio Alger myth for the craft beer set. He’s managed to grow Dogfish Head into the 16th largest craft brewery in the US in just under 14 years, has written a number of books and has been featured in the New Yorker and on The Huffington Post. For all that, he drives around in a beat up pickup and somewhat inexplicably speaks in the manner of Keanu Reeves in Point Break. I think that it’s a carefully cultivated media persona adopted by a very savvy man, but the anachronism is delightful whether or not it is achieved by design.

The purpose of the main arc of the show is designing a beer. Whether they’re going on an ingredient run to Egypt or searching the Andes for authentic brewing methods, there’s going to be an extreme beer at the end of it. Whether that beer is period authentic or an expression of the influences observed is up for debate. One of the benefits of brewing a theoretical ancient style of beer is that there’s nothing available for comparison. It does result in a unique product that promotes the idea of Dogfish Head being a leader in experimentation.

The episode that stuck out for me is the one in which Sam is tasked with creating a beer commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Miles Davis album Bitches Brew. He decides on a blend of an Imperial Stout and an Ethiopian inspired honey beer bittered with gesho root. The reason I find that compelling is that the Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Dogfish Head’s extreme beers work so closely conceptually.

With Bitches Brew, Miles Davis basically galvanized Jazz Fusion as a concept. The album was recorded over the period of three days and much of what you hear listening to it is the result of the self-indulgence of the musicians involved. It’s improvisational to the extent that Davis actually issued cues to the other musicians instead of scores and it stands as a landmark album for the reason that it is unrepeatable and influential in terms of the soundscape that it creates. If you listen to a jazz radio station, you’re not going to hear a lot of covers of Miles Runs The Voodoo Down or Pharoah’s Dance.

With Bitches Brew, or really any of the extreme beers that Dogfish Head produces, you end up with similar genre defiance and stylistic melding. Peruvian Chicha? Egyptian… something? Does that fall into a category or is it a new and experimental thing? Can it be replicated? Would anyone want to?

There are a couple of issues that both Miles Davis and Dogfish Head engender:

First of all, they are both very high profile. If you become interested in jazz, you’re going to end up with a copy of Bitches Brew within a few months. Similarly, if you become interested in craft beer you’re going to try Dogfish Head fairly early on. In the same way that it might be difficult to have much interest in the Glenn Miller Orchestra after hearing Bitches Brew, it can be difficult to be interested in a Pale Ale after drinking a Dogfish Head World Wide Stout. They may neither of them be the first point of contact for a budding enthusiast, but their iconic statuses ensure that there will be exposure and the amount of hype that exists around them can inform an opinion.

It requires context. Are they both interesting? Definitely. Are they both important? Certainly. Could you listen to or drink Bitches Brew all the time? No. Definitely not. Both the Miles Davis album and the Dogfish Head beer exist because of an underlying conceptual framework which is being expanded upon. Look at how many jazz musicians cover How High The Moon or Mack The Knife. Look how many breweries make a standard English Pale Ale.

Secondly, they both spawn imitators. Once you create Jazz Fusion, you have the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report. Once you create Extreme Brewing, you have people aging 15% beers on spruce shavings and creating Galactic Imperial IPAs with theoretical IBUs of over a thousand, incorporating a heretofore unrecognized variety of turnip.

Eventually, because of the imitators, the popularity of the thing dies off somewhat. Once the initial work has been done to show what is possible, the importance of subsequent attempts within the genre tends to lessen. On the other hand, Tony Bennett and a hoppy Pilsner never go out of style.

Tortured analogies aside, Brew Masters is an interesting show that we can all learn a lot from. If you’re an Ontario brewer, it’s a good chance to see what Sam can do with a gift for self promotion and a willingness to experiment. If you’re an Ontario beer drinker, it’s a good chance to make a wish list for a trip to Buffalo.

The Kingston Brewing Company

Typically, one of the best things about Christmas in Kingston is that I get to revisit, if briefly, an old haunt. The Kingston Brewing Company is the oldest brewpub in Ontario and Canada’s oldest wine producing pub.

Back when I lived in Kingston for a short period of time after university, it was a place that my brother and I would hang out. We were both working in a call centre and as relative newcomers we had been put on the night shift. It was a call centre for an American cell phone company’s activations line and we were dropped into the queue at a time when it suddenly became possible to port a number from other service providers.

I think this is actually a pretty good representation of the concept of "festooned."

Of course, the technology wasn’t perfect when it was introduced. People were promised that their numbers would be ported within 48 hours and in some cases it took several months. More often than not the port would fail, the number would drop back into circulation and people would be entirely without phone service.

What I’m getting at here is that there was a lot of yelling which we had to sit good naturedly by and accept as per the provisions of the script. If you can picture yourself being paid to sit quietly at a half cubicle desk getting yelled at by Foghorn Leghorn, it was sort of like that: a dunk tank, but instead of water there was verbal abuse.

Typically, by the end of the week, you’d need a trip to the pub. There was a pleasing alignment in that our paycheques were usually deposited by midnight on the last day of our weekly shifts and that the KBC was close to our house and took interac. We would sit and drink Dragon’s Breath and mercilessly take the piss out of people from Alabama who wanted their cell phones “cut back on.”

I have a lot of good memories of the place, but until this year I was never a beer blogger and never thought about it from a professional standpoint, so it was interesting to visit this year and see how my perception of it changed based on the amount of context I have.

If you’re used to brewpubs in Toronto, there are a certain number of expectations that have cropped up in the last few years. First of all, the place is going to look corporate. Think about Mill Street or Three Brewers or The Granite. They all have relatively clean looks to them and they all have pretty elaborate layouts capable of seating a hundred people simultaneously. Duggan’s sort of resembled a sensory deprivation tank for the first months of its existence; I don’t know whether plain white walls can be classified as “decor.”

That polar bear has been looking at those towels for the better part of a decade.

The Kingston Brewing Company, on the other hand has been amassing memorabilia from all over the world since 1986 and has a collection of bartowels that I have never seen matched. During the regular course of business, the sheer number of framed towels is pretty daunting. During the Christmas season, they really go to town. Lights and garlands everywhere. Camels festooned with ornaments. A Santa hat on the papier mache polar bear that lives over the entranceway. It’s enough to throw an interior designer into an apoplectic rage. That said, it does give the place character and a certain joie de vivre.

Another marked difference is the fact that Toronto brewpubs are likely to have several of their beers on at any one time and that they will have only their own beers on offer. Additionally, they’re caught up in the current atmosphere of development and brewer’s whimsey. Mill Street and Duggan’s keep coming up with new beers in order to stay at the cutting edge of the Ontario Craft Beer scene. Even The Granite will periodically come up with a new release, the most recent being their smoked porter.

The Kingston Brewing Company, on the other hand, is one of the only venues for Ontario Craft Beer between Toronto and Ottawa and it seems like they’re completely willing to share the stage with any number of Ontario Brewers. It’s not something that you can really fault them for when you see the size of their brewing setup. I think that the brewing facility (located just behind the bar) would be hard pressed to accommodate more than two people at a time and I’m sure that given the customer volume I’ve observed over the years there’s no way that they could possibly keep up with demand. Brewing of their two most popular beers is outsourced. Their Whitetail Cream Ale is brewed by Brick and the Dragon’s Breath Pale Ale is brewed out of province by McAuslan.

So I guess the question is “What do they brew?”

Well, they still brew their Real Ale on site and they also brewed a winter seasonal called Figgy Puddin’.

Figgy Puddin', just hanging out in its natural habitat.

I tried both of those and I don’t really know what to think. The seasonal brew actually contains Rum as an ingredient, so I have no idea what to make of that. I’m not advanced enough as a brewer to know how that would even work. I suspect it’s dark rum added after fermentation to create depth, but I don’t know for sure. The Real Ale is just sort of alright, which is about fair when you consider that they’re trying to do cask conditioned real ale on an extract brewing system.

Truth be told I think I’m judging the Kingston Brewing Company harshly based on the fact that I want it to be better. I certainly seem to remember it being better. For a period in the late 90′s Dragon’s Breath was contract brewed by Hart and was fairly widely available. At the time it was one of the hoppiest beers in Ontario and was certainly different than just about everything else on the market. I don’t know how it would stand up today, since it was an English style IPA and those have fallen out of favour.

I think that the issue is probably complicated by the fact that it’s a very popular brewpub in a town dominated by tourists during the summer and university students during the rest of the year. I suspect that since much of their business is based on volume of sales, they probably don’t have to try very hard to make a great deal of money. That’s the sort of thing that might engender a certain amount of complacency.

I tell you what: The place doesn’t lack for character. They once reprinted their menus in order to fit in “decriminalized pot-pie.”

Anyone who’s willing to stretch that far for a joke is OK in my book. I just wish they had a little more pride and experimentation in their brewing. It occurs to me that in the wake of the first crop of Niagara College graduates, they’d do well to pick up an apprentice brewer and switch to an all grain system.

When there's no more room on the walls, the memorabilia will walk the earth.

It’s one thing to rest on your laurels as the first brewpub in Ontario. It’s quite another to remain relevant. My hope for the Kingston Brewing Company is that they can manufacture some type of resurgence in the next few years and not only reclaim some of their former glory but surpass peoples’ expectations.