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Monthly Archives: September 2011

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The Adventures of Johnny Barleycorn

“Despotic the new regime was undoubtedly from the start.”

This is a sentence that I have carried with me since grade 10, and it illustrates a point that I had quite forgotten until I got into brewing school. Textbooks are frequently poorly written. In the case of my grade 10 history textbook, it may actually have been edited by Yoda. One of the main difficulties I’ve had in learning about beer is that outside of some genuinely entertaining authors (Pete Brown, Randy Mosher, Charlie Papazian, Charles Bamforth) is that there’s a disconnect between the amount of information on offer and the manner in which it is conveyed to the reader.

It has to do with the amount of detailed factual information you need to understand if you’re going to be a brewer. If you wanted to know everything to do with the barley plant, you’d need a certain amount of fine detail regarding the parts of the plant, reproductive methods, germination, steeping, kilning and storage. Now, it’s great to have all of the facts at your fingertips, but unless you’re able to impose some kind of narrative structure on them, it’s unlikely to help you in any significant way. I know myself well enough to know that rote memorization certainly didn’t help me in university Latin. The puella may well be in the tabernae, but I’m not much for declension. I need a gimmick to remember that stuff.

I remember doing some research on Robbie Burns for an Ola Dubh tasting at the Monk’s Table, and I remember coming across his poem, John Barleycorn. Now, it’s a fine poem. If you want to go ahead and read it out loud, I suggest trying to do it as Billy Connolly. It sort of anthropomorphizes barley and makes it a bit of a rebel hero, imposing a narrative structure on the entire process of brewing. It’s not all that helpful with details for a number of reasons:

1)      They didn’t know a huge number of details when Burns was staggering about writing poems and getting barmaids in trouble. People knew how to make beer out of Barley, but they didn’t know how exactly the chemical processes worked.

2)      The chemical processes are not conducive to rhyming. In fact, the only rhyme I can think of for Gibberellic Acid is Liberal Antacid, and I’m not entirely sure how you’d shoehorn that in to an anthropomorphized barley bildungsroman. Go ahead and try to think of a rhyme for Scutellar Epithelium that is in any way relevant to that context. If you come up with one, you may want to put a velvet rope around your house and charge admission. If you can figure out a way to make it fit into iambic pentameter, we’ll be saving your brain in a jar.

So, how do you explain the process without being tedious and boring and have people avoid you at parties? I don’t know, but it’s worth a shot.

THE ADVENTURES OF JOHNNY BARLEYCORN

Johnny Barleycorn was from a very small town in Saskatchewan. All of his friends were as well.

There was not a great deal to do in town. The only identifying landmark was the old grain silo. The barleycorns didn’t go to school, since there was not a great deal that they had to know about the world. Even if they had gone to school, they would not have been able to compete against other schools at intramural sports. The barleycorns, as a people, were quite tiny. They don’t make sports equipment in that size. Also, they didn’t have legs.

Even if they had had a school, they wouldn’t even have had a prom. The barleycorns were pretty largely gender neutral, which made crowning a Prom Queen a very confusing process. Eventually they decided not to bother.

Upon reaching the age of maturity, Johnny looked like this:

Deep down in his heart, Johnny only wanted one thing. He wanted to have a nice little family of his own, in the same row that he had grown up in. Imagine only wanting to reproduce (for some of you, that should not be too hard).

Little did Johnny know that that wasn’t going to happen. Mean Mr. Maltster had other plans for Johnny. He was an extraordinarily nasty and foul smelling person, who carried a very large rake around with him. Mr. Maltster had a number of friends who really enjoyed beer, and he had found that one of the best ways to make beer was to use barley.

Mr. Malster abducted Johnny one day and put him to work in what he claimed was a Spa. Johnny didn’t know about slave labour, so he assumed that Mr. Maltster was acting in good faith. “Do I get benefits? When’s lunch? What about my work/life balance? I’d really like to have a nice family of my own some day.” said Johnny.

“Sure, kid. That’ll all happen.” Said Mr. Maltster, puffing away on his cigar. “This is a great place to work. We’ve even got this Jacuzzi. Why don’t you hop in and relax, while we find you a desk.”

Johnny hopped in the Jacuzzi. The water was just the right temperature for Johnny; somewhere between 16 and 20 degrees Celsius. What he didn’t know was that it was laced with Gibberellic Acid.

Can you say Gibberellic Acid, children? I knew that you could.

It wasn’t like other kinds of Acid. It didn’t make Johnny all strung out or make him see music and hear colours like LSD would have. It didn’t really burn him, like sulphuric acid would have. This acid changed Johnny’s insides. It was a miracle acid that was discovered by the Japanese in the 1930’s.

It made Johnny produce enzymes and changed his insides, so that he was ready to reproduce. He suddenly had expanding rootlets growing out of his proximal end. You might know what that’s like, if you’ve seen the magazines your daddy hides in the garage.

See the Rootlets, children? This is HAPPY Barley.

“This is great,” thought Johnny. “Hey, Mr. Maltster! I’m reproducing! I’m going to go back to Saskatchewan and find a nice field to bury myself in!”

Mr. Maltster cackled maniacally. “Not so fast, kid. I guess you didn’t read your contract. You’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re going to transfer you to another department. In the mean time, why don’t you go have a seat in the sauna. Take a schvitz.”

Johnny didn’t really like the look of the sauna. It had a weird smell to it, and reminded him a little of that time he had burned some toast. The sauna seemed to be getting closer. Johnny couldn’t read, because he never went to school. If he had been able to read, he would have wondered why sauna was spelled K-I-L-N.

The next thing Johnny knew, he was getting uncomfortably hot. It was so hot in the sauna that Johnny was drying out. It was so hot that he was changing colour. It got to be nearly 100 degrees Celsius in the sauna. Johnny was really starting to have suspicions about Mr. Maltster. He didn’t know that Mr. Maltster was trying to remove his ability to reproduce while retaining all of the sugars that the germination process produced. Johnny generally believed that people were good.

That’s when the sauna started shaking. It shook so hard that Johnny’s rootlets fell off. “Oh no! Now I’ll never be able to reproduce!” Johnny cursed the day he met Mr. Maltster.

Mr. Maltster showed a certain amount of concern. “Hey, kid. I tell you what. That’s a terrible deculming accident that happened there. I feel bad. Why don’t you hop in this sack. It’s specially designed for grains like you. I’ll ship you back to Saskatchewan and you can live out your days on disability.”

Johnny was relieved. The sack was loaded on to a truck and he was on his way. It was very dark  and Johnny couldn’t see out of the sack, but if he could he might have wondered why Saskatchewan was spelled “Very Large Brewing Company INC” on the sign at the destination.

Finally, when the sack was opened, Johnny was put into a grain hopper with a lot of other barleycorns. He remembered some of them from Saskatchewan. “Hi Susie,” said Johnny. Susie was apparently dealing badly with the trauma induced by the sauna and was not responsive.

“What’s that noise?” said Johnny. He couldn’t see because of all of the other barleycorns. The mechanical sound was getting louder and closer. There was a terrible moment of panic when Johnny realized he was going to be ground up in to little tiny bits.

Oh, NO!

Look out, Johnny!

Can you fall to your knees and scream "Noooooooooooooo!" children? I knew that you could.

Oh, no. Poor Johnny.

Johnny’s shattered corpse was submerged in hot liquid and all of his starch was extracted. Eventually, Mr. Brewer would use liquid to make beer. Before that happened, though, all that remained of Johnny was raked out of the Mash Tun and dumped unceremoniously into a huge bucket. Eventually, he was fed to a smelly cow.

This is a cow. Just consider yourselves lucky this isn't a story about milk.

Isn’t that terrible, children? This all happens because your mommy and daddy like beer! This would never have happened to Johnny if they liked club soda.

Aren’t you glad you’re not a barleycorn?

Toronto Beer Week 2011 – Day One – Drinking Sumac, Eating Crow

Competition tends to bring out the worst in people and for all that brewers exist in a sort of brotherhood (siblinghood, so as not to exclude the brewsters) most of the time, there is a significant amount of smacktalk that surrounds events where there’s going to be a significant amount of friendly rivalry. One such event was Barrel Bragging Rights at the Monk’s Table last night.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, Mike Warner from A Year of Beer organized an event whereby a number of local bloggers and beer writers were tasked with teaming up with a brewer in order to design and brew a beer to be served on cask at the Monk’s Table. It’s a departure for the midtown pub in that they mostly serve European imports. I wouldn’t want to say that this was the first time that they’d had Ontario beers on offer, but if it isn’t it’s a near run thing.

The thing is that objectively, I’m not sure that the event should have worked. Not a lot of beer writers and bloggers have experience brewing anything for public consumption. Oh sure, we’re pretty in touch with the brewing scene in Ontario and a lot of us have pretty good ideas, but the realization of those ideas is usually beyond us. Essentially, most of the success can be attributed to the brewers we teamed up with, who patiently listened to our ideas and then explained why they wouldn’t work. Originally, I had suggested attempting to define a new style of beer by attempting a White IPA. I think the only people that had tried that before were Deschutes and Boulevard, who had collaborated.

Between us, we had managed to come up with some beers that should probably have been untenable. Chris Grimley and Mike Lackey had a sort of peppered Saison. Matt Caldwell and Andrew Bartle ended up brewing something between a brown ale and a porter that involved date sugar and a lot of brown malt. Josh Rubin from The Star made an Imperial Milk Stout and used the two gallon wooden barrel to his advantage by soaking the insides with brandy (I think he’s the only one of us with an expense account).

In the days leading up to the event, there was a lot of infighting on twitter. I, for one, went into full on WWE promo mode, stealing heavily from The Rock. I may have even used the phrase “roody-poo candy-ass” when describing Chris Grimley. I even went so far as to troll Josh Rubin by sampling his beer at the brewery before it was casked. I took a picture of his beer and tweeted “This is your beer.” I took a picture of me drinking his beer and tweeted “This is me drinking your beer.”

By the time we arrived at the Monk’s Table, we had all pretty much given up on that line of spirited japery. There was a lot of nervous energy, mostly because some of us hadn’t tasted the beers that we designed yet. We didn’t know how they would be received. Around 4:30, the terrible thought occurred to us “what if no one shows up?” Ideally, the upside of having all of the beer writers in the city involved in an event is that there will, at the very least, be a lot of publicity for the event. If no one showed up, it would mean that our efforts were really some sort of recursive loop and we were the only audience for our writing. We can be a little backslappy and self congratulatory, but that would actually confirm our worst fears.

It turns out we needn’t have worried. By 5:00, there was a lineup of about 40 and people just kept coming. I’ve never seen the Monk’s Table that busy. If pressed, I’d be forced to admit that I’ve never seen ANY pub that busy. Judging by the looks on the faces of the staff, I would bet that they hadn’t either. I don’t know what the capacity is for the location, but we were pushing the limit. This reinforces my opinion that Adam Grant is an extraordinarily shrewd pub owner.

Here’s the thing: I was prepared for all of the beer to be at least drinkable. We were working with talented brewers and they weren’t going to let us down. Using oak barrels added a bit of difficulty, but realistically, wasn’t that big a problem even if people hadn’t used them before. After all, we’ve got google.

I wasn’t prepared for the majority of the beers to be excellent, though. It was genuinely surprising. Aside from one entry that was a little wine-y, I would have ordered all of them again. For me the standout was the Black Creek/Dick Snyder collaboration IPA, which was as good as any IPA I’ve tried in Ontario. It was balanced, nuanced, delicious. I’m not sure I’ve ever met Dick Snyder, but congratulations are due; also to Ed, the brewer. I got the dregs of the cask on that one, and felt absolutely no regret in preventing other people from trying it.

The winner was Pantalon Saison brewed by Chris Grimley and Mike Lackey, and it probably should have been, given that it was a public judging. Not only was it of really high quality, but it had a small advantage in that there was enough of it that more people got to try it and probably derived more votes because of that. It likely would have won even without that advantage. I must therefore retract my assertion that Chris Grimley is a “roody-poo candy-ass.” His status is hereby upgraded to “Jabroni.”

The competition does make me wonder. Since beer writers tend to have some pretty good ideas, and local brewers are clearly able to run with them, I don’t see why this kind of thing shouldn’t happen more often. This time we ended up with Sumac, date sugar, and brandy as ingredients. I’m not sure that would have happened organically without the competition. It seems like it could be a good ongoing resource.

I tied for third place with Josh Rubin, whose beer was great, if heavy for the season. This means that the eternal battle between The Toronto Star and The Toronto Sun continues.

Next time, Rubin. Next time.

Time Spent in Reconnaissance

As regular readers will be aware, I have somehow managed to get into the Niagara College Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program. It’s my intention to write about the experience whenever the mood takes me. I doubt that I will be talking frequently about the content of the courses, as some of the material is fairly dry. I will not be committing sentences like “What you want is a friable barley corn so that the starch of the endosperm can be easily extracted after the deculming process” to paper with any kind of regularity outside of exams. That’s the kind of thing that makes for relatively dull reading, unless you’re actually in the course. Also, I would probably have to explain a lot of the specific jargon pertaining to various brewing processes.

I won’t lie. There will be some of that, mostly because it’s fascinating stuff in its own way.

Mostly, I’ll be talking about my experiences.

I’m starting from a relatively humble place from an intellectual standpoint. After the huge number of applications for the program in the first year, I decided that I would start writing about beer in order to create some credentials for myself should the program end up being competitive. I didn’t realize it would work out this well. I landed a gig with Quebecor, writing the beer column for the major regional newspaper markets and for canoe.ca, and thanks to the support and feedback of my editor, I’ve been improving at writing for that format.

The problem is that up to this point, whatever information I’ve had about beer has been self taught or picked up from conversations with brewers and industry professionals. If you’ve ever picked up books about brewing, you know that it’s almost impossible to come up with a complete system of knowledge pertaining to the processes involved. I have a relatively decent understanding of the process generally, even having designed a few recipes and seen them through to service. The problem is that many of the technical details have thus far eluded me. It’s a sort of Rumsfeldian “known unknown.”

My experience in talking to people in the industry is that there are relatively few people who understand everything about brewing. That’s as it should be. Everyone has their areas of expertise, and the reality is that people end up in a certain job and it helps to define their ongoing knowledge base. There are things that they need to know on a daily basis. If you ask a brewer who makes ales for help designing or brewing a lager, there will be trepidation. It’s a lot of information to have floating around inside your skull.

What I’m hoping to be able to do is learn as much as possible about brewing in order to be able to talk about every step of the process with some degree of authority. I freely acknowledge that my own understanding is currently incomplete, and I’m sure that at some point in the middle of this program there will be times when I look back on blog posts from previous years and cringe when I notice that I got details wrong.

There are a couple of questions that I’ve gotten from people about the program, so I’m going to do my best to answer them:

The first question is sort of universal. I’ve gotten it from profs and brewing students and brewers when I explain that I’m going to Brewing School. It’s frequently charitably worded, but it boils down to “You don’t actually picture yourself becoming a brewer, do you?”

The answer is: Possibly!

I really don’t know as yet whether I’ve got any facility for it. People seem to like the beers that I have made, but I think that in order to decide whether this is going to be a career, I’ll need to scrub in and work in a brewery. Fortunately, the school has one of those and luckily I have some access to a pilot system outside of the school which people will let me work with if I ask really nicely. I think it’s about finding a working rhythm and understanding the process. I know that the appeal for me is the creative process: At the end of the day in a brewhouse you have something to show for your work and if you have done it right, it will be something that people actually want to buy. It’s a lot more fulfilling than shuffling numbers in Excel, at least for me. I suspect that I will talk about that in greater detail later.

Usually, when answering that question, I’m quick to point out that even if I don’t end up as a brewer, wouldn’t you rather have someone writing about beer with a really in depth understanding of what goes into it? Instead of some schmuck who is piecing together an imperfect understanding from fragments of information gleaned off the internet and from whatever books are to hand? That would also be a fairly valuable use of everybody’s time.

The second question has more to do with logistics: “Isn’t that a long commute from Toronto?”

Yes indeed. It is a very long commute. Over three hours a day. This semester I’m waking up at 5:00 at least two days a week in order to make this thing happen. The problem is that I write for a major newspaper chain, so in order to remain relevant in a quickly expanding industry, I have to be where the action is. If you want to interview reps from import companies or attend events, you pretty much need to be where the reps and events are.

That said, it’s not without some advantage. I don’t drive, so what I’ve really got is about three hours a day where I am forced to sit quietly on a bus without access to the internet. I plan on making my way through the school’s brewing library during the commute over the course of the next six months. I figure that there can’t be more than about 40,000 pages of information there, so that should work out tolerably. I mentioned this to some fellow students yesterday and they thought I was joking, as you might. I refer you to the Duke of Wellington: “Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.”

It’s going to be a long slog, but I can tell from the outset that it’s also going to be worthwhile.

For a day to day look at the curriculum, you may want to look at Alan Brown’s blog: Student of Beer

In Which I Tour The Molson Plant or How Blue Were My Coveralls

(Disclaimer: This is essentially twice as long as most of my blog posts. Go make a sandwich or something and then come back and read it.)

Do you know, as I was walking along Renforth drive over the 427 on my way to the Molson plant this week, I was looking at it and thinking to myself “how can I fit a death star joke in here? Is there an exhaust port slightly smaller than a womp rat?” The plant is huge. You know this already. You’ve passed it on the highway. I turned on to Carlingview drive, where the brewery is situated and huge semis with Coors Light logos emblazoned on their sides buzzed past me as I trudged along.

This is the degree to which the prevailing wisdom of the craft beer movement has poisoned us against large brewers: I was instantaneously looking for comparisons to a fictional evil empire that blows up a planet to make a point. The kind of Zoroastrian binary dualism between good and evil is so inculcate in craft brewing and in beer reviews that I wound up reflexively leaping to that defensive position.

I didn’t know exactly why I was being called out there. Forest Kenney was good enough to set up a tour for me. I suspect he did this probably just because he thought I would think it was neat. I’ve pulled some shifts in small craft breweries on bottling and packaging lines as a sort of work-experience thing. I’m going to Niagara College in the fall, so any experience I can get is useful. Just walking around looking at stuff and seeing how it’s done is educational to me at this point. Backbreaking bottle packing is similarly educational.

Now, I thought, going in, that I’d maybe get trailed around and given the regular tour. This was not to be the case. I was given a reflective safety vest (that it took me the better part of thirty minutes to figure out had adjustable Velcro straps) and ushered into the brewery manager’s office. I was a little bit astounded to find out that it was going to be a tour of the entire brewery, led by the Brewmaster, Brewery Manager, and Director of Packaging Development. I don’t want to guess at the hourly salaries of the folks involved, but I’m guessing that’s probably the most expensive brewery tour I’ve ever been on.

The interesting thing to me was that they weren’t exactly sure why I was there either. I’ve written some fairly scathing things about MolsonCoors. They had actually read them and laughed at some of it. I didn’t know quite what to make of that, but I went gamely along and joked with them. Eventually Jim Pomeroy, the Brewery Manager, asked what I hoped to get out of the tour.

Now, I’ve been sort of working on a theory for the last little while. Spearhead, whose beer you may have tried employs an Ex-Labatt brewer. Hogtown, who have yet to launch (but whose IPA is going to compete with the best in the province when it does), also employs an Ex-Labatt brewer. Cameron’s is run by an ex-Molson fellow. My hypothesis therefore, was that brewing is basically brewing on any scale and that most of the guys who do it are probably pretty much the same guys, doing it for the same reasons.

So that’s what I said.

Everyone seemed to perk up a bit.

I had showed up insuitably attired for the tour. Apparently shorts in a brewery of that size are a no-no. Jim found me some beer journalist sized coveralls and off I went, steel toed slip-ons making me feel only slightly ridiculous.

There’s not a whole lot that I can tell you about the brewery tour itself that you don’t already know if you’re interested in beer. The processes are the same everywhere. Mash Tun, Lauter Tun, Kettle, Fermenter. The thing that I want to impress upon you is the sheer size of the brewery. That’s really the only difference. They produce four million hectoliters of beer annually. Their kettles have a 667 hectoliter capacity. For reference, some of the smaller members of the Ontario Craft Breweries would only have to do three brews a year on a system that size.

Dave Sands, the Brewmaster, took me on the brewery portion of the tour. He’s the youngest member of the team by years.

The first stop was the grain loft, but there’s not actually very much to see outside of the size of the grain hoppers, especially when they’ve already done that section of the brew. At that point it’s sort of like a giant empty metal funnel; like a Kinder Egg without a toy inside.

Yes, this is a picture of a giant, empty metal cylinder. Who says blogging isn't glamorous?

You could smell the next stop coming from down the hall through a thick wooden door. If you like hop aromas, do yourself a favour and see if you can get out to the Molson plant. Pallets of boxes of just about everything you can imagine. We stood there, talking about the things beer nerds talk about, holding handfuls of Citra and Goldings, crushing the hops and appreciating their aromas. I asked about hop extract, which they have on hand and Dave started explaining to me about aroma fractions and bittering fractions of the hops.

The door to the hop room, where they keep the snozzberries.

He said something exceedingly intelligent which I have not heard put forward elsewhere. If you can separate just the properties of the hops that you want, doesn’t it make sense to do that? Essentially it’s a deconstruction of the ingredient, not unlike molecular gastronomy. You’re taking the essence of the thing and using it in the way that you want it used. How is that different than Heston Blumenthal or Wylie Dufresne? I’m not sure I buy the analogy completely, but I’m sure that given some time and thought it could be a very convincing argument from a purely intellectual standpoint. Heck, I may rip it off and do it myself.

I finally got my Death Star/Evil Empire moment when we got to the brew house. Amongst the four 667 hectoliter kettles is a small room that actually looks like something out of a supervillain’s lair. It’s a squat control room built out of gunmetal struts and black tinted glass. “Ah-HA!” I said to myself.

We went inside and we found two French-Canadian brewers, Mike and Jean-Luc, who have been working for Molson for something like 60 years between them. They sat in front of three monitor computer setups, with a lot of data on them. Mike sipped at a ten year old travel mug that might have been filled with something like coffee. Jean-Luc sat in a chair that was mostly held together by duct tape and willpower.  They had a downbeat samba version of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five playing on the stereo. “Oh-HO!” I said to myself. The Death Star doesn’t have muzak.

667 Hectolitres. That's only 666 Hectolitres more than my last batch. Unintentionally metal.

I was becoming increasingly confused about the whole good/evil thing.

The next stop didn’t help. One of the things that I had noticed about the brewery is that nothing really matched. I mean, sure there are a number of vessels in the fermentation area, but the style differs by room. In room one, huge horizontal numbers with more head space and welds that looked like something out of a picture of a wartime shipyard. In room two, there were more modern cylindrical fermenters. In the newest sections, the huge jobbies that came down the highway last year.

I like that the fermentation plant looks like something out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil

The thing I didn’t appreciate was that originally it had been a Carling O’Keefe plant (Molson took it over in 1989). Nowhere is this more evident than in the fire doors between sections of the brewery. The oldest doors are easily four inch thick oak slabs that are probably original, but there are also heavy metal doors with mesh glass windows that I remember from high school corridors. The very newest sections have brand new state of the art fire doors. From a historical perspective, it’s fascinating. The brewery is a mesh of various kinds of industrial architecture from the last sixty years. It also points out that all across the industry people suffer from the same limitations: All of the equipment is cobbled together into a system that you make work. You figure out how to make the pieces go together and you tweak them to get the best results.

The next part of the tour was packaging. For this part Jim Pomeroy and Jeff Nancekivell showed me around.

Jeff is the kind of guy that you want running a warehouse that size. I’d bet he knows every inch of his department. The thing that surprised me a little about him was the exuberance about the various parts. He’s got two bottling lines that do a thousand bottles a minute. He’s got a canning line that automates an ungodly number of seals a second. He knows down to a less than a tenth of a percent what the failure rate is on it. He knows what percentage of recycled bottles fail standards and get crushed (it looked like just over 1% to me, which is reasonable even by Six Sigma standards.)

He also knows exactly how cool all of this machinery is. My head would whip around when I’d see some new automated process that I didn’t know existed, and he would explain to me what it did and how it impacted other parts of the line.

1000 BPM, which is impressive even for house music.

Jim was interested in showing me the day to day decision making process. In the packaging wing, they have a room with day to day statistical information for the entire brewery. The entire process is analyzed on charts spread across an entire room of cork boards. It’s set up for internal transparency. Everyone can see how the entire system works from nose to tail. This is because they want people to take ownership of their position in the system, make decisions and suggest improvements. That’s just good business sense. The way he put it was that it allowed people to walk around with their chests puffed out because they knew exactly how good a job they were doing.

To me the highlight of the tour was the palletizer. I have loaded cases of beer onto pallets. It’s tiring. They have a machine that does that. My envy was palpable. From the palletizer platform, you could see the warehouse. I did a double take. It’s like Raiders of the Lost Ark. They’ve got something like 1.2 million bottles and cans of beer moving through there a week. You’d need a map to find your way through the warehouse. It’s large enough that they have a traffic system in place for forklifts.

They've got top men working on it... Top men.

So I stood there, looking out over the warehouse and I looked at Jim and Jeff for some kind of explanation, some kind of handle to grasp the thing by. They just stood there looking at it and beaming with what I have to suggest is entirely warranted pride. If you’re in charge of a system that large and it runs like clockwork, you should be proud. If your day job is supplying something upwards of 40% of the beer to Ontario and Saskatchewan, and you do that unfailingly week in and week out, you get to be proud.

After that, we went for a beer. Rickard’s Blonde, as it turns out. They’re really pushing that one.

Here are the conclusions that I’m taking away from this experience. They are not going to be all that popular:

People talk about macro beers and craft brewing. I do. It’s a useful rhetorical device for driving sections of the industry and promoting public interest in small breweries and certain types of beer. Near as I can figure it, it’s all just brewing. Brewing is the craft. Whether you’re using adjuncts or you’re brewing with all organic malt, it’s just brewing. The goals are different, and the end products are different, but the actual art of the thing is identical.

More importantly, the guys working in the brewery at Molson could pretty much be working in any brewery. Dave Sands, for instance, is kind of a nerd. So much so, in fact, that he was worried about pointing out that he has a Ralph Steadman bumper sticker on his truck just in case it didn’t jibe with his image. Jim Pomeroy reminds me of most of the other people I know running a brewery, with that sort of fatherly, proprietary air about him. It’s unsurprising that he should demonstrate that sense of pride. He’s been there 35 years, which is long enough to grow a pretty kickass moustache.

What I have essentially learned is that there’s only one reason why you do the job. It’s not a good way to make money. If you wanted to make money, you would do something else. You pretty much have to love brewing. You have to love beer and you have to love making it. It’s a craft that requires patience and objectivity and consistency across the board, from 50 litres to 4 million hectoliters. I’ve seen the same expression of pride on the faces at each of those levels and it’s identical.

The other thing, that strikes me as more than a little unfair, is that you probably won’t ever hear about these guys in the press. They’re pretty much unsung and will largely remain so, doing relatively thankless work with a level of attention to detail and consistency that is truly impressive.

I can’t hate these guys. I respect them too much. They do what I’m learning to do, and they do it well. I wouldn’t order most of the beers they make. I find adjunct beers give me headaches and I really like flavours that their brewery isn’t about. I can’t argue with the skill and dedication that goes into making their beers, though. I can’t praise the beers, but I can praise the brewers.

It doesn’t really change how I feel about the marketing, which I find semiotically offensive from time to time. And it doesn’t change how I feel about The Beer Store’s situation. These aren’t things that get a pass. What it does mean is that if I encounter a macrobrewery product out in the world, I’m going to try not to dismiss it out of prejudice. I know now that somewhere out by the airport, someone is really proud of that beer and I don’t see why I shouldn’t afford that brewer the same amount of respect as any other.