St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Monthly Archives: May 2011

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St.John’s Wort – Year One – Brothers in Arms

It will come as a surprise to few frequent readers that one of my best friends passed away last October. I feel that if I am handing out thank-you’s, one of them should be to my friend Tim Mitchell. He inspired the following piece which I submitted to the Oxford Gastronomica beer writing competition. I am not sufficiently religiously minded to assume anything of his current position.  All I know is I for certain is that I  miss my friend and I have not published this yet. All I can say is that I loved the man. It has been hard for me to let go of him. He hath never borne me on his back, since he knew I was actually quite heavy. He hath bought rounds of beer as frequently as he reasonably could have, considering.

For those of you who appreciate the  maudlin or, y’know, some considerable fingerpickin’ skills,  I submit this to listen to as you read:

A wonderful thing happens when you walk into a pub to order a pint of beer.

It’s not an observable phenomenon, but it happens as you cross the threshold; you become nearly anonymous.

You might be from any walk of life. You might be a lawyer and father of two or an ex-convict with no prospects to speak of, but as soon as you enter the pub those societal roles slough off. If it’s a pub you’ve spent some time in before, people might be able to identify you by your first name or by the beer that you’re likely to order. It’s a situation in which nothing is expected of you and it’s for this reason, in addition to the inhibition loosening qualities of a couple of glasses of beer, interaction with others is made nearly effortless.

This is the reason that so many jokes start with the line, “A man walks into a bar.” In a situation with such limited inhibition, with such anonymity, anything is possible or, at least, slightly more probable. If you can picture the fictional pub in which these jokes take place, you’d be unsurprised to see a priest, a rabbi, a Scotsman,  a twelve inch pianist and a horse with a particularly long face. The bartender’s concerns would likely be mitigated by the fact that at the very least it’s not as bad as last week when that bus full of nuns and the murderous panda were in residence.

Entering a pub is a license for personal freedom on a very small scale: Not for a complete lack of responsibility, but for a suspension of certain kinds of responsibility. No one will micromanage you as you sup your pint of beer. No one will care whether you went to university. Unless you’re actually having your mail delivered to the pub, your creditors won’t be contacting you. You’re a problem free version of yourself on a very short vacation.

If you sit there for any length of time, possibly long enough to have ordered a second pint and a small snack, it’s as likely as not that someone will ask what you’re drinking and whether it’s any good. It’s the only common ground for conversation, and the marvelous thing is that it doesn’t matter what your answer is. The cask might be in great condition. It might be a few days past it. More than a simple exchange of information, this interaction is a tacit acknowledgement that you’re both sitting in a pub, drinking a pint of beer and that the situation is a vast improvement on being elsewhere.

It’s one of the very few social situations in which people are liable to carry on a conversation for an hour without ever learning the other person’s name. This is the joy of beer: you can walk into any pub, anywhere on the planet and be sure of finding some likeminded person to be your temporary equal.

In a good pub, this situation repeats between any number of people and eventually they become a community of nodding acquaintances. It all comes down to a common bond based around beer; a few stolen hours when the pressures of life are relieved. This brief respite has as much to do with the company in which it takes place as it does with the pint itself.

It might be a pint of ordinary bitter, with slight fruity esters wafting from the glass. It might be some highly sought after Belgian nectar, served in a chalice. There might be an IPA on offer, with a spiky citrus aroma and a bitter sting in its tail. The type of beer matters little, since it’s the act of sharing the experience of drinking that beer that is important. The conviviality of a pub can even redeem a particularly bad beer through mockery. Whether you’re sharing awe created by the skills of a brewer or a private joke about the abysmal quality of a beer that never had a chance of measuring up to your standards, it’s the collective nature of the experience that makes it worthwhile.

There’s a comfort in that shared experience. I have not been to my pub recently, but I can tell you with some degree of certainty which people I would be likely to find there on a given day of the week. I wouldn’t be able to tell you where most of these people live or what their last names are, but I could probably tell you which teams they support. I could tell you about the girl whose obsession with John Lennon borders on psychosis. I have listened to one of our group talk seemingly endlessly about growing up straight-laced in the early 1970’s.

There’s a canon of stories that develops as people define their niche within the group. They tell these stories over a bottle that they’ve decided to share or a round that they’ve bought. It blurs the line between the shared sensory experience of a particular beer and the development of a communal memory.

Since I’ve been going to my pub, a number of people have passed in and out of the group, some moving across the country for work, some simply eschewing the place because of the rising price of a pint.

About six months ago, my friend from the pub died very suddenly. We had been very good friends, by pub standards; he had actually seen the inside of my apartment. He was one of those figures that everyone feels immediately at home with. He was effortlessly kind and genuinely interested in everyone’s welfare. He would do just about anything to get a laugh, but he was also the first to try and head off ugly situations if he saw them coming. I vividly recall the tactics he would use to talk people out of that final drink at the end of the night. Once he even waded into a street fight to act as peacekeeper.

We had a wake at the pub. What other course of action could there possibly be in a situation like that? What else did we have in common? The astounding thing was that nearly everyone who had ever shared a glass of beer with him turned up. People flew in from across the country on short notice and took up residence at the bar for nearly twelve hours. He had been an Everton supporter, and the sheer number of blue jerseys was staggering. There were any number of toasts given. There was weeping and people held each other in some bid for consolation in the face of an unforeseeable tragedy.

The improbability of it is nearly ludicrous. That we had developed from temporary anonymity into a makeshift family because at some point we had wanted a pint of beer; that the simple act of sociably sharing a pint eventually allowed us this communal outpouring of grief and remembrance. Even in a situation that grim, we found a kind of joy in a shared pint of beer.

By way of a monument, the owner of the pub plans on brewing a beer for the anniversary of his passing. It’s a robust Porter. I’ve tried it. My friend would have liked it: A man walks into a bar and turns into a beer. As memorials go, it’s a corker.

Best of all, there will be people who never met him who stop into the pub for a pint of beer. They won’t know the story behind it, but they’ll sit there drinking it and discussing it. Maybe they’ll hate it. Maybe they’ll ignore it completely in favour of telling off-colour jokes, but by the end of that pint they’ll be nodding acquaintances and they’ll both feel the better for it; refreshed and ready to return to the responsibilities of their lives. It will have helped to bring a small amount of joy and laughter to their day. As miracles go, it is small and shopworn. Even so, this interaction, this shared grace remains one of our best features as a species.

St.John’s Wort – Year One

When I started blogging last year at this time, I didn’t really know exactly how everything was going to shake out. Mostly I started writing about beer because I didn’t get into the first class at Niagara College and I thought to myself that it was eventually going to be a competitive program. I thought that it would be a good idea to display willingness and have something that I could point to when the second crop of admissions came up. Something that said I had thought relatively deeply about the problem of beer in Ontario and Canada. Originally, the blog was a means to an end.

It wasn’t a huge stretch. I have a degree in English and a facility with a turn of phrase. Sometimes it makes the writing come off a little glib and my natural inclination towards making judgments on the value of things and evaluating thought processes makes sure that I’m just mildly controversial enough to be taken seriously. I owe a lot of what I have been able to do to prevailing wisdom that exists within the beer nerd scene in Ontario. In this case, there are a lot of things that are obvious to the majority of beer nerds. A lot of the more senior beer writers in the province have their own approaches, so I try to say things that everyone is already thinking that haven’t been properly vocalized if I see that as a necessity. Sometimes I say things no one cares about. It’s mostly a wash.

You may remember the article I wrote about Trafalgar. Most of the beer nerds in Ontario have the same opinion on Trafalgar. I’m sure they’re nice people, and I don’t mean to pick on them. It’s just that sometimes you need someone to step up and state the thing that is overwhelmingly obvious.

It’s like Frank Zappa said. “I’ll do the stupid thing first and then you shy people follow.”

Since starting out a year ago, I’ve somehow managed to do the following:

-Volunteer as a sales rep at Mondial for TAPS Magazine.

-garner 21000 blog hits

-be the returning officer for the Canadian Brewing Awards (for nearly an hour I was the only person who knew who won. Pretty darn neat.)

-get four nominations for the Canadian Food Blog Awards (a bit of a red herring since self nominations were involved)

-be profiled for Tasting T.O.

-Get hired for a national column in the Sunday Sun with a theoretical readership of 1.2 million (on page ~56. Who knows how many people I actually reach.)

-Take third place in the IPA category for Toronto Beer Week’s homebrew competition with the St.John’s Wort Shameless Publicity Grab IPA

-Brew a Christmas IPA that (and this is the thing I’m proudest of) got a friend of mine a girl’s number.

-Design two recipes for collaboration brews with Mike Lackey at Great Lakes. Both of which, if we brew another batch and send them to BeerAdvocate members for their ratings, would probably sit in the top hundred beers in Canada on that website.

-Host an Ola Dubh beer tasting at The Monk’s Table (Adam Grant goes on record as the only man ever to rent me a dress.)

-Help judge the 3rd annual Ontario IPA challenge at Bar Volo

-Submit an entry to the Oxford Gastronomica beer writing contest (I didn’t win, but the winner was undeniably a much better entry. Go check it out.)

-Get accepted into Niagara College for the brewing program

I think that we can all agree that that’s a good year. It’s practically a blimp. I had a goal and I reached it and there’s all this other stuff that happened along the way that has been massively educational.

That said, I feel like I should thank some people. It hasn’t escaped my notice that far from being some kind of slightly literary tipsy ubermensch, this is a thing that people are essentially allowing me to do. I have been able to succeed so far because folks have bought into the concept of me doing this thing.

First off, Nick Pashley. Reading his books allowed me the license to think of beer writing outside of the construct of whether something is good or bad. He talks a lot about the human element of drinking beer and of going to pubs and somehow manages to be sophisticated, witty and urbane even after a third pint. He and his wife Anne sort of remind me of Nick and Nora Charles. I’m of the opinion that everyone should at some point take the time to bask in his gentle good humour.

Stephen Beaumont. He probably knows more about beer than anyone I’ve met. Sometimes I ask him for help in forming an opinion because he has more information than just about anyone. The odd thing is that I’m not sure I’ve read any of his books. Also, he reminds me a little of Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine. It may just be the gunslinger moustache; fitting since that’s kind of what he is.

Ralph, Tomas and Julian Morana for helping me see how the bleeding edge of the Ontario beer scene works. Mirella Amato for periodically taking the time to explain to me what exactly it is I’m tasting. The bloggers (Troy Burtch, Greg Clow, Matt Caldwell, Chris Schryer, Matt Warner, Chris Talbot, Chris Grimley (edit: not to mention Alan Mcleod. Where would we all be without him?) deserve thanks for exchanging in open and frank discussions and for being a lot of fun to hang out with. Bill White for being the only man with a handlebar moustache that I can take seriously. Ken Woods for demonstrating the amount of commitment this is going to take.

Andrew Bartle and Mike Lackey deserve thanks because they’ve helped me learn how the actual hands on elements of brewing work. Mike Lackey especially deserves credit for making me promise myself never to try brewing anything with garlic.

Aonghus Kealy for pointing me towards THE SUN and Rebecca Zamon, my editor, for making my columns accessible while realizing I need to maintain my street cred.

I should thank Mom for not pointing and laughing. Without her I would be blogging about Olde Englishe from under an overpass.

Finally, though, I should thank St.John’s Wort’s sole employee, Catherine Strotmann. At last count she had been promoted to Senior-Uber-Deluxe-Extra-Crispy-Correspondent-Royale-With-Cheese. If she ever gets around to submitting something about the Merchant Ale House (piece assigned 5 months ago), I’ll be astonished. Deadlines whip past her like particles in a Hadron Collider. I’m thinking of removing some superlatives from her title.

(edit: Alex Nixon has taken the time to point out that he is my West Coast Correspondent and I am reminded suddenly that he has a piece outstanding about Central City from at least six months ago. I hope that he doesn’t take the oversight badly. If he does I won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.)

I wish I could say I had more in store for year two, but in truth, I’m still making this stuff up as I go along. That said, if you’re a brewer with a pilot system and want to collaborate, I have a couple of neat tricks up my sleeve. Get in touch at

Mondial for n00bs: A guide to not getting ganked

Sometimes, when it’s been constantly rainy for a week and you’ve developed a slight case of the sniffles from being outside signing up pubs for Toronto Beer Week in the pouring rain (some pubs don’t really check their email with the frequency that you might wish. That’s alright. They’re busy folks.) you develop a small amount of melancholy. It’s the kind of blue funk that sits over your head when circumstances you have no control over contrive to make life more difficult than it actually needs to be. It might manifest in any number of ways: Shouting profanities at commercials that use Buffalo Springfield songs to promote yogurt. Writing angry letters to the manufacturers of a store bought peanut sauce because it ruined your stir fry. Shaking your fist at a vast, indifferent sky that responds only with light drizzle and sheet lightning.

It’s at times like this that I like to break out the ol’ Mondial beer list. It serves to remind me that in a couple of weeks I’ll be in the land of saison and poutine, gladhanding French-Canadians and enjoying an extremely conservative amount of debauchery.

As everyone knows, the Mondiale de la Biere in Montreal is justifiably regarded as the premiere beer event in Canada. What no one really knows yet are how the changes that they’ve made will affect the festival.  For one thing, they’ve moved it indoors. I’ve gone for the last two years and was just getting comfortable with the outdoor layout. For another thing, it’s the same weekend as the F-1, so it’s hard to say exactly what that’ll do for attendance at the beer festival. It could be worse. Last year the Habs did pretty well in the playoffs and it looked for a while like Montrealers would either be drowning their sorrows or toasting their victory in absurd numbers.

Since it remains to be seen how those variables will change the event, I can really only give you a few pieces of helpful information.

1)      Drink early.

There is no lineup at noon. This is the lineup at 4 PM. Questions?

It’s important to show up early in the day if you have your heart set on trying a lot of different beers. By about five, the place is usually jammed pretty solid and lineups become difficult to navigate often reaching the point where it’s impossible to tell which lineup is for which booth. If you’re like me your favored size of humanity is considerably smaller than throng, and you’ll want to be able to actually see into the booths to gauge what’s on tap. It’s best to show up when the festival opens on the Wednesday, walk around and figure out where everything is.

2)      Start slow.

This is really important. You don’t want to walk up to the beer tent and order the highest octane product right off the bat. Chances are it’ll be incredibly flavourful and potentially boozy and it’ll ruin your palate completely for the next couple of samples. You also don’t want to run the risk of passing out in front of the Quebecers in the middle of the afternoon. I usually look for the Hopfenstark stand in order to see if they have their Berliner Weisse. Sorta wakes up the palate, plus it’s actually good enough that you might decide to stay there for the rest of the day.

3)      Proper Preparation

The PDF listing all of the beers that are available at the festival is incomplete and contains much that is apocryphal. There is no way that you’re going to be able to try everything that you want to try. It’s hard to tell how many tickets each sample will cost, so you can’t even plan monetarily. The Quebec brewers are by and large a talented bunch of folks and they will just whip out beers that you have never heard of. It’s a marquee event and they like to show off their skill. There’s a lot of pride, but in a very sort of laid back way.

The best thing to do is to print out the PDF and cross off every macro product you see. Then cross out everything you can buy in whatever province you’re from. Then cross out everything you’ve tried before (maybe creating a top ten list of things you’d want to try again as you go along.) In my case, this has allowed me to winnow the list down to about 60%.

From that point it’s personal preference. You might like a certain style. There are a lot of English ales this year, so I’m going to be looking at Milds, which is a style that fascinates me. Maybe you want the best of everything. You want to try only the beers that score 99 or higher on ratebeer? You’ve got some internet surfing to occupy you at work for the next week. And it won’t help you. The selection this year is so good that even that criteria applies to about 15% of the beers on offer. Try to get through all of those in one sitting and you’re likely to end up staggering through Westmount at 5AM with your shirt tied around your head, loudly proclaiming yourself the King of Smoked Meat to anyone who will listen.

Make sure you’ve got a couple of days. Go slowly and be prepared to fail utterly at trying everything.

4)      After Parties

If you’re a sensible adult person, you’re going to want to put in maybe three hours at the festival itself during the day. There’s a lot of stuff to do in Montreal, and a lot of good food. There’s great opportunity for people watching. Since you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you’re not a sensible adult person, but rather some kind of beer-obsessed party-Viking who believes themselves indestructible.

If you’re going to go out and check out brew pubs, there are always some that put on events. Dieu Du Ciel usually has something going on the first night of the festival. The event usually starts at nine and while I don’t know what it will be this year, I can tell you to get there three hours early. Just absolutely jammed with people. Benelux has an interesting looking one on the Saturday featuring beers from Vermont (I hear great things about Alchemist).

I like Broue-Ha-ha. Not just because the Thursday is the anniversary party for their brew pub. Not just because they serve a wide variety of Quebec beers and last year they passed around duck legs as a bar snack to celebrate. Not because they have a damn beer Winnebago. Not even because they show ridiculous 1980’s Andy Sidaris action movies. I like it because the combination of all those things is so overwhelmingly weird that it’s impossible not to just give up and enjoy the place.

It's a Beer Winnebago! Sweet merciful something!

5)      Bring Water

Oh, for the love of God. Please. Bring a two liter bottle of water with you to the festival. Your immediate future will be much improved. You might need a palate cleanser or a rinsed glass. You will certainly need to hydrate.

Things I Neglected To Mention

It’s definitely a sign that we have a healthy brewing situation in Ontario that it eventually becomes difficult to report on all the things that I go to. I always feel a little bad about that because what that means is that someone has worked really hard to make something happen and has invited me to show up to a beer tasting or hootenanny or whatever and I’ve essentially ignored the thing entirely. It’s kind of rude.

Some bloggers manage to mitigate this somewhat by using twitter and twitpic and untappd and other smartphone applications. You’ll see Chris Schryer updating several times a day. Even Matt Caldwell is updating constantly from California in order to make us all extremely jealous.

They have iPhones. I have an older Blackberry which is capable of accessing its data plan at speeds that make a rock look fast. It has less photographic capability than a science fair pinhole camera. I constantly feel like I’m in danger of crushing the thing. So, I can’t take pictures, I can’t get untappd to work and to be quite honest with you, it’s likely that even if I had those capabilities, I would forget to use them because I was distracted by something shiny.

For that reason, I’m going to run through a number of things that I should probably have mentioned earlier. I’m going to do it in a relatively short form and hopefully that’ll alleviate some of this blogger guilt.

Augusta Ale: Brock Shepherd down at Burger Bar has his own house brand now: Kensington Brewing Company. My understanding is that he’s looking to expand past Augusta Ale at some point in the future but that plans are not concrete at this point. He’s done something pretty clever by getting Paul Dickey to contract brew for him, since Paul Dickey can essentially do no wrong. It’s a refreshing Pale Ale and it’s quite hoppy. The combination of the Burgers and a decent pint of beer makes Burger Bar a significant draw and I fully expect that it will thrive this summer.

Cheshire Valley: In addition to the Augusta Ale, Paul Dickey is brewing up batches of his Cheshire Valley beers. I feel a little bad since I’ve tried all of them at this point without writing about them and they’re overwhelmingly satisfying. I got to try the Robust Porter at C’est What months ago and again during the Only Café’s festival. It’s impressive. It has all of the body that a porter is supposed to have while maintaining a lovely roast character and notes of coffee and chocolate: right in the wheelhouse of the style. I can’t level any criticism against the beer itself, but I’d suggest that it might come out a little earlier next year to take advantage of the colder weather.

He also made an IPA. It is also good. It’s more of an English style IPA than anything else, but since most of the IPAs we get these days are sort of hybrids, it’s nice to have something to point to as not only a solid example, but as a solid beer. It may tell you something about the quality of the Cheshire Valley beers that rather than finagling my way into extra sample tickets at the Ontario Brewing Awards, I actually paid for a pint of the IPA.

Dominion On Queen (where they held the Ontario Brewing Awards): Someday, someone is going to renovate this pub and take advantage of the huge amount of floor space and additional rooms and the conceptual history of it having been a brewery. I like the Dominion, but every time I walk in there I look at the space and the amount of seating and the layout and the high ceilings and I envision so much potential that it becomes very hard not to treat what is actually quite a decent pub dismissively. You could easily put a nanobrewery in there. Heck. You could probably manage a 5 hec system without much difficulty. It would cost a lot, but there’s going to be money moving into the neighbourhood over the next decade.

Amsterdam Tempest: Tried this Imperial Stout couple of days ago and it has a very complex grain bill going for it. All I can say is that the finished product is going to be good whenever they decide it has finished aging. I think it’s actually going to shock people a little. There are apparently going to be some variations of it. Here’s a freebie: Call the delicately flavoured one Ariel and the brutish one Caliban.

Amsterdam Oranje Weisse: It has a lot more body than it did last year. I tried it for the first time at the BelgOntario event at Bar Volo. It was rather more like a watery beer mimosa than anything else, but for all that not unpleasant. It has been tweaked and is now more of a citrus-y witbier. Refreshing.

Muskoka Cabin Fever IPA: I really didn’t like this one. Mostly caramel with maybe a hint of oak and too much body for the hop character to be able to break through effectively. I had it on draft at the Cloak and Dagger, so that might have had something to do with it. I’m curious to see if the Mad Tom IPA is in the same vein or if it’s markedly different. Curiousity is good.

Twisted Kilt: I feel like I should congratulate the folks at the Twisted Kilt, since the bill of fare has been steadily improving. I pop in periodically to see what’s going on and the place is steadily busy. They’re usually packed Thursday through Saturday. The food is better than it was a year ago. In addition to Fuller’s stuff on cask, they’ve recently had Great Lakes Crazy Canuck, Muskoka Cream Ale and Black Oak Chocolate Cherry Stout. People are actually competing to get on the hand pump and that’s a really good sign. They’ve got Sam Adams Noble Pils at the moment and about four Paulaner taps. I feel like they’re in the middle of an upswing.

This is important to me, since I hung out there a bunch when I was younger and it was the Bow and Arrow. People would sneak in there during high school. It was referred to in shorthand as “The Archery Club” which lent it a certain amount of extracurricular credibility. I can’t really review the pub objectively since there’s some considerable sentimentality involved. What I can tell you is that even with nostalgia clouding my judgment, it’s probably as good as it ever was and it looks like they’ll continue to improve.

The Ontario Brewing Awards – A Thoroughly Biased Annotation

It is worth noting that Brewing awards tell you one very important piece of information: Which breweries entered beers for consideration. Labatt did. Apparently Molson did not. (Edit: Thanks to Mark Murphy for pointing out that they did, in fact, enter their Rickard’s brands. Not really a good strategic choice to take on craft breweries in categories where Rickard’s had little chance of succeeding. Canadian or even M might have had a shot.) Here we are then, with an entirely biased set of annotations for the awards given out.

North American Light Lager
Gold: Labatt Breweries of Canada – Bud Light
Silver: Sleeman Breweries – Old Milwaukee Light
People’s Choice: F & M Brewery – Stone Hammer Light

Well, that certainly matches the category title. St.Louis and Milwaukee are well represented in the Ontario Brewing Awards. This result will be meaningful if we can manage to annex Wisconsin.

North American Lager
Gold: Brick Brewery – Red Baron
Silver: Labatt Breweries of Canada – Brava
People’s Choice: Creemore Springs Brewery – Creemore Premium Lager

Good for Brick. It’s nice to see the oldest Ontario craft brewery get out there. Also, I’m beginning to wonder how the People’s Choice awards were arrived at.

European Style Lager
Gold: Labatt Breweries of Canada – Crystal
Silver: Cameron’s Brewing Co. – Cameron’s Lager
People’s Choice: Creemore Springs Brewery – Creemore Springs Traditional Pilsner

I’ve never actually heard of Crystal. I wonder whether I’m missing something here. I’m going to get on the horn to Labatt and see if they want to send over a sample.

Amber Lager
Gold: King Brewery – King Vienna Lager
Silver: Nickel Brook Brewery – Nickel Brook Organic Lager
People’s Choice: Nickel Brook Brewery – Nickel Brook Organic Lager

Category makes sense. Unsurprising that King wins, since that’s an excellent beer. Might want to produce more of that one, since it has been difficult to get a hold of previously.

Dark Lager
Gold: King Brewery – King Dark Lager
Silver: Brick Brewing – Waterloo Dark
People’s Choice: King Brewery – King Dark Lager

Again, glad to see King doing well. I have a soft spot in my heart for Waterloo Dark, since it’s available at Paddington’s Pump down at the market. It’s really the only beer you should consider pairing with “The Oink With Cheese.”

Gold: Mill Street Brewery – Franconian Bock
Silver: Amsterdam Brewery – Spring Bock
People’s Choice: Amsterdam Brewery – Spring Bock

About right. Both are good beers, but I think the Franconian Bock might have been a little more polished. I had the Amsterdam Spring Bock when it was quite fresh and it had some rough edges. Still a good beer though, and a nice example of the style.

Honey/Maple Beer
Gold: Sleeman Breweries – Sleeman Honey Brown
Silver: Labatt Breweries of Canada – Lakeport Honey
People’s Choice: Brick Brewing – Laker Honey

I don’t care about this category. At all. I tend to avoid maple and honey even when they’re used in big beers, since I dislike the mouthfeel it imparts. Congratulations to the winners, I guess. Well done. Huzzah!

German Style Wheat Beer
Gold: Denison’s Brewery – Denison’s Hefeweizen
Silver: Muskoka Brewery Summer Weiss
People’s Choice: Hop City Brewery – Lawn Chair ‘Classic’ Weisse

Again, about right. Seems like a tougher category than some of the others, because those are all really good. Grand River 1913 was in this category for some reason I don’t completely understand. It didn’t have a chance being judged to that style. Too bad.

Belgian Style Wheat Beer
Gold: Amsterdam Brewery – Amsterdam Orange Weisse
Silver: Mill Street Brewery – Belgian Wit
People’s Choice: Mill Street Brewery – Belgian Wit

I would have called this an upset, since the Mill Street Belgian is more traditionally a Belgian Style Wheat Beer. Then again, the Amsterdam Orange Weisse was tasty last year. Good job, Amsterdammers.

Cream Ale
Gold: Labatt Breweries – Labatt 50
Silver: Sleeman Breweries – Sleeman Cream Ale
People’s Choice: Labatt Breweries – Labatt 50

Cinquante for the win, I guess. I’m not sure it’s a Cream Ale. I guess that doesn’t matter. It could probably have been entered as an American Pale Ale or a Blond Ale or a Golden Ale. I wonder if Muskoka entered their Cream Ale.

British Pale Ale
Gold: Grand River Brewing – Plowman’s Ale
Silver: Mill Street Brewery – Extra Special Bitter
People’s Choice: Grand River Brewing – Plowman’s Ale

Glad to see Grand River dominating. Also glad Mill Street entered their ESB, which is a nice beer.

North American Pale Ale
Gold: Hop City Brewing – Happy Hour Premium Ale
Silver: Flying Monkeys Brewery – Hoptical Illusion
People’s Choice: Mill Street Brewery – Tankhouse Ale

Kind of a tough category, in the sense that they all have different qualities and it would more or less come down to the judges’ palates on the day. You could cycle the results into any permutation and they wouldn’t surprise me.

British India Pale Ale
Gold: Grand River Brewing – Curmudgeon IPA
Silver: Mill Street Brewery – India Pale Ale
People’s Choice: Grand River Brewing – Curmudgeon IPA

Interesting to see essentially a repeat of the British Pale Ale category. Grand River is doing something right.

North American India Pale Ale
Gold: Flying Monkeys Brewery – Smashbomb Atomic IPA
Silver: Amsterdam Brewery – Bonecrusher
People’s Choice: Flying Monkeys Brewery – Smashbomb Atomic IPA

Not surprising. Slight typo there on the awards that were given out. Here is a list of alternate names for the Boneshaker suggested to me by the Amsterdam staff:

Skulldingler, Skinrusher, Bonegrinder, Thighchafer, Ol’ Femur Snapper, Amsterdam’s Patented Lymph Node Exploder, Ow! My Vertebrae! IPA, Kneecapper (Now with hops!)

Amber Ale
Gold: Cameron’s Brewing Co. – Cameron’s Auburn Ale
Silver: Amsterdam Brewery – Big Wheel
People’s Choice: Railway City Brewing – Iron Spike Copper Ale

Pretty predictable result, there. Nice to see Bill Coleman from Cameron’s light up like a kid with a new lego set when given the award.

Dark Ale
Gold: Railway City Brewing – Iron Spike Amber Ale
Silver: Muskoka Brewery – Muskoka Dark Ale
People’s Choice: Black Oak Brewery – Nut Brown

Kind of a tough category here, as well. Might have to revisit the Iron Spike Amber.

Gold: Amsterdam Brewery – Two Fisted Porter
Silver: Mill Street Brewery – Coffee Porter
People’s Choice: Amsterdam Brewery – Two Fisted Porter

Both good.

Gold: F & M Brewery – Stone Hammer Oatmeal Coffee Stout
Silver: Muskoka Brewery – Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout
People’s Choice: Muskoka Brewery – Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout

I would have thought of the Muskoka Stout as an imperial. F & M’s Oatmeal Coffee Stout is pretty much above reproach, though. Deserved win.

Imperial Stout
Gold: Grand River Brewing – Russian Gun Imperial Stout
Silver: Amsterdam Brewery – Tempest
People’s Choice: Grand River Brewing – Russian Gun Imperial Stout

I guess I’m going to have to stop by Amsterdam and see if some nice person will get me a sample of this here “Tempest” which is apparently still under development. Good rule of thumb: If your beer wins an award without having made it out of R&D, you’re probably onto something.

Fruit Beer
Gold: Great Lakes Brewery – Orange Peel Ale
Silver: Amsterdam Brewery – Framboise
People’s Choice: Grand River Brewing – Blackberry Wheat

Flavoured Beer
Gold: Mill Street Brewery – Lemon Tea Beer
Silver: Brick Brewing – Red Baron Lime
People’s Choice: Mill Street Brewery – Lemon Tea Beer

I feel like those two could have been combined into a single category, since both Lime and Lemon are technically fruits. Good on Great Lakes, though.

Strong Beers
Gold: Grand River Brewing – Jubilation Winter Ale
Silver: Great Lakes Brewery – Winter Ale
People’s Choice: Nickel Brook Brewery – Cuvee

Seems about right.

Congratulations to Grand River and Amsterdam. Nice Showing, guys! You’re going to need bigger trophy cases.

So What Can We Learn From Duggan’s?

One of the nice things about the craft beer industry is that generally speaking, everyone wants everyone else to succeed. Also, in the rare instances in which this is not the case, both parties are usually too drunk to effectively fight a duel to the death. It’s very much a case at this point of cumulative success across the market. One brewery succeeding will mean that other breweries will get more business. Of course if a brewery folds after it has succeeded it usually means that the other ones will pick up the slack on whatever sales that brewery has made.

Duggan’s didn’t exactly fold. The #9 IPA is still being produced out of Cool Brewery in Etobicoke. I hear the (#5?) Asian (Sorachi) Lager will be joining it (I’m beginning to think that one might be slightly over branded). But, one day last month they had the brewpub doors closed for them. There was a tense period there while people determined whether they would be afforded the opportunity to reopen. They were not. I don’t like the way that they were closed (I have friends working there), but I’m not sure how surprising it is that it happened.

Here’s the thing: Duggan’s was in a precarious situation from the start. For whatever reason (probably because the equipment was there and it looked like a lock) they decided to take up the space that was occupied by Growlers about a decade ago. The space is ridiculous. Dining Room probably seats 75, not including the patio during the summer. I haven’t been out there, but let’s call that 40 if it’s a decent size. The bar could probably seat 40. The basement event space could fit 100 without a great deal of trouble.

That’s over 250. The square footage must have been insane. I can’t imagine what the rent was, but think about the massive pain in the ass that must have been on a monthly basis. You need to rent the space, you need to hire enough staff to make the place look occupied. Mill Street, for instance, is opening a brewpub in Ottawa, but they envision it as a destination. Even Pearl Street in Buffalo, which seats a huge number is kind of a destination spot. Duggan’s wasn’t a destination. Its interior was essentially a void without much in the way of decoration; White walls, with the occasional outcropping of brick.

Now, I’d been in there maybe five or six times and I almost never saw the basement in use. Or the bar. Or the patio. But, in fairness, the main dining room was usually pretty busy.

Apparently, it was so busy on a consistent basis that they went through a very large amount of the beer brewed on premises. This doesn’t take into account the beer that was sold offsite. There were a lot of Duggan’s  seasonals around in other pubs. Some of the beers were so successful that they couldn’t keep up with production. The lagers didn’t always have time to lager. The ales didn’t always fully attenuate. I guess if people come to a brewpub for lunch, it’s not unreasonable to expect that there will be beer on tap, even if that beer is a little green.

That’s the crux of the thing, of course. Huge amount of space with a huge amount of rent, large amount of staff (I have cards from three people whose titles were some variety of “manager”). So you’ve got to make the rent on the place, which means that you’re selling the beer you’re brewing offsite, which adds revenue, but makes the quality of the beer suffer because in order to meet production, you have to take shortcuts. So they went along for a while, with the appearance of success. It looked like a successful brand.

There were other issues, of course.

The Porter: This was their best beer and they took it off the menu for 8 months or so last year. It was a delicious, roasty London Porter. If you look at the stories that were published about the closing, the Porter is mentioned in every fourth or fifth comment. Maybe I’m naïve and idealistic, but I think that if you create a high quality product, success will just follow it. I think they took this off in order to make way for a seasonal tap. Too bad. Launch it in bottles.

The Menu: There was a lot of choice on the menu. Probably too much. This might be the result of the fact that they had a good lunch trade and needed a diverse menu to be a draw in the neighbourhood. Think of the sunk cost in terms of ingredients just in order to make the kitchen function day to day, though. Especially with the space. Who knows what the crowd size will be day to day? Who knows how many of them will order schnitzel? You have to keep a lot of stuff on hand just in case.

The Oysters: How do you even source these? They had six varieties sometimes. What if no one orders them that day? That must have happened. It seems like a losing proposition to me. Even if the raw bar was displayed in the window, I’m not convinced that it was a sufficient draw to bring people in. It did, at the very least, give people behind the bar another way to look busy. It’s hard to look idle when you’re constantly tending to seafood with buckets of ice and grimacing slightly.

Social Media: The place launched without a website. People found out that it was open through Bartowel. When they finally got a website, it looked like Geocities. It still has not been updated to tell us that they have closed. Reappropriate it for branding the beer coming out of Cool already! You still have a dog in the fight, for God’s sake.

Also, they started a Facebook page on March 14th, after having been open for about 16 months. One wonders what the impact might have been if they’d had one at the beginning. Obviously, if you’re going to put seasonal or one-offs on tap, people need to know that they’re there in order to be a draw. Twitter. Myspace. Friggin’ something.

Overall, here’s what we can learn from Duggan’s: Ambition is good up to a point. If you start out too big, though, you end up in a situation where you have to make compromises on your core competencies in order to continue and that becomes a vicious cycle.

Also, that space should be something else because it’s untenable as a brewpub. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then anyone who occupies that space next should get no sympathy when they crash and burn.

I actually suspect that Duggan’s will do better without the brewpub. The #9 IPA is pretty good. The Lager will hopefully get time to condition if it’s brewed at Cool. Maybe he can find somewhere to brew small batches and release seasonals into the LCBO.

Here’s a thought: Start with the Porter.

Southern Tier

While my editor at The Sun would probably be shocked to learn that I’m covering the international beat, it was my pleasure last Saturday to get up at oh-dark-thirty and accept an invitation on the behalf of Roland and Russell (Thanks, guys!) to visit Southern Tier in Lakewood, New York. Now, I’m not exactly a ball of fire at the breakfast table, so getting to the departure point involved great lashings of coffee.

Doug: Bon vivant, man about town and inventor of the 1970's dance craze The Hamilton Amble

I was lucky enough to get to sit next to my friend Doug on the bus on the way down. I mentioned Doug last year at about this time in reference to choosing which beers to try at Mondial. He’s developed something of a mental warehouse over the years on a number of subjects and isn’t shy about sharing his thoughts, which makes eight hours more or less fly past. I’ll skip the details of the journey except to remark that bus trips, if they are long enough, never really advance past the way that they were in grade six. There will be no bathroom. People will rediscover their inability to sleep sitting up and end up sprawled all over the aisle. Some hapless goon will have had the fiesta platter the night before to the chagrin of all passengers within six rows. It’s a very effective way of ensuring that enthusiasm builds for arrival at your destination; also a compelling argument for windows that roll down.

And so it was, with a small and slightly road weary cheer, that we pulled into the Southern Tier parking lot in time for lunch.

It’s hard to write about the Southern Tier operation without a certain amount of frustration if you’re an observer of the Ontario beer scene. I had done a little cursory research on the brewery and their offerings prior to the trip and it turns out that there’s a beer that they only make for the area that they’re in: Chautauqua Brew. It is, I think, an acknowledgement of the fact that breweries need to make things that people want to drink. It’s a lawnmower beer and is apparently only outsold by Busch Light in the area around the brewery.

Troy Burtch shares a tender moment with a brewery

I started with that sample, and as light bodied refreshing crowd pleasers go, it’s a fine beer. It’s just that it’s not the kind of thing they’re known for in Ontario. We’ve had the IPA, which is still listed in the LCBO, and the Pumking, Choklat and Crème Brulee beers. If you’re from Ontario, it’s easy to get the impression that they make large, full flavoured world beaters exclusively. Not so. They brew a full range of beers: Pale Ale, Porter and a handful of wheat beers in addition to the imperial series and a number of oaked beers.

All of the ones I tried, without exception, are standalone beers. One of the things I’ve noticed about the states is that a lot of the beers that came out of brewpubs in the states are sort of designed to go with food. They’re versatile in that respect, in that they can go with more than one dish. The flavours can become somewhat muddled because of this, or are intentionally blunted somewhat. Look at, say, UBU from Lake Placid. Good beer, but with versatility of function. The Southern Tier beers are seemingly designed with an exclusivity of purpose: To excel on their own.

I’ll say this for them. If you dislike one of their beers, it’s probably going to be because you dislike the style and not because of an intrinsic quality of the brew. I, for instance, didn’t like the Hopsun or 422 wheat beers. I can’t really hold that against them because they’re still well made.

I think this level of design and execution probably stems from the fact that these guys are nerds. Huge nerds. This is the window of the office that looks out onto the brewery. Yes. That’s a Boba Fett action figure.

I guess it might be Jango Fett, but still: Nerds.

Matt, the owner, was full of useful information. Southern Tier is 3rd in the US in terms of distribution within 300 miles of the brewery. Their production has expanded massively over the last three years, from 18000 barrels to 30000 to 60000. Their bottling line does 10000 bottles an hour. Consider, momentarily, that Creemore which is a big deal in Ontario produces 50000 hectolitres a year, or about 42,600 barrels (so says google, almighty conversion overlord.)

I'm not sure whether this adequately conveys the largeness.

What exactly am I meant to do mentally with this information besides go and have a bit of a sulk? I’ve never seen a brewery this size with this amount of diversity before. I’m used to thinking in terms of much smaller volumes. 50 litres, mostly. 5 hectolitres at a time tops. How the hell do you get to the point as a brewery where creating an established line of imperial beers and quality standards on your own terms is possible? I have no idea, but I’ve come away with some impressions.

The first among them is that Southern Tier relies almost entirely on the quality of their brews to spread their reputation. The labeling is more or less limited to a standard font on a colorful background. For the imperial series, they include a graphic that fits with that conveys not only the identity of the beer, but part of the thought process behind it: A red tractor, a smiling Jack O’Lantern, a horse with a feedbag or a hop with a crown. Minimal. Not much pretension. Just a quality product.

Secondly, the tour is completely transparent: Here’s what we’re doing. That’s where we store things. Ingredient storage is through there. I haven’t ever seen that many hops in one place. The artificial flavourings aren’t hidden out of sight somewhere at the back of cold storage. I was about to comment disparagingly about the fact that there was artificial chocolate flavouring, but as Doug pointed out to me, you can’t really argue with the results.

They've got top men working in their warehouse. Top men.

Mostly, the impression that I came away with was that Southern Tier has succeeded basically because of their virtuosity at brewing and their justified confidence in their products. Much of the time in Ontario, there’s concern about brewing beers that are too flavourful; that the market won’t accommodate the decision to be interesting. It’s nice to see a situation where a brewery can succeed by designing the best beer it’s possible for them to make and then selling it.

So, while it’s a lovely modern brewery with all sorts of shiny metal and moving parts, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with this information. If anything, the knowledge that it’s possible to succeed as a brewery based mostly on skill and competence is a good motivator.

That's a lot of spent grain.

It should also provide motivation for the Ontario brewers who will no doubt have to compete with them for draft lines come December. It looks as though there are plans afoot to bring them into the province. I don’t know which beer it will be. Maybe an imperial. Maybe part of their regular lineup. It doesn’t really matter, since they’re all good.