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Monthly Archives: October 2011

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The Stella Artois Draught Master Competition

On Friday, I was one of the judges for the Stella Artois Draught Masters National Championship at One King West in Toronto. Never having really taken part in an event of that scope before, I didn’t know exactly what to expect going in. In terms of writing about beer and, indeed, drinking beer, I’m more or less a craft guy, and I think that’s fairly common knowledge. It would be hard to come to any other conclusion reading the Sun Media column or for the blog. Stella Artois is, despite its relatively modest origins as a Christmas beer at the beginning of the 18th century, a huge international brand. Were I one of their representatives, I might have easily chosen someone who is more supportive generally of huge international brands to judge the thing.

Not that I’m complaining. It’s a nice activity to switch to after commuting back and forth all week to Niagara-On-The-Lake. It’s good to have variety.

Let me explain how the Draught Masters competition works. Basically, there’s an official nine step process for pouring Stella Artois that involves making sure the glass is clean, making sure the beer has the right amount of head in the glass and, finally, making sure that you serve the beer in the middle of the coaster with the logo facing out. These are all important things to consider and they contribute to the customer’s experience. You don’t want someone else’s lip crud on the rim of your glass. That’s just nasty. Also, you don’t want a poorly poured pint that’s half foam.

The logo thing… well, branding is important. You want people in the bar to see that someone has just ordered a Stella Artois, I guess. Probably they will then think to order one themselves. It also serves an ergonomic purpose in that there’s an indent on the same side of the stem of the chalice that the logo is on. No matter which hand you reach for the glass with, your thumb will find the indent. I’m sure that’s part of the reasoning, but it’s mostly branding.

I showed up about an hour early for the event to undergo training on the pouring ritual. Clearly, it has stuck sufficiently that I am able, two days later, to recount that there are certainly some steps involved. I may not recall the precise order. It seems like the kind of thing that you would eventually become really good at if you were behind a bar repeating them several dozen times a week.

The competition worked in eight head to head brackets, leading several confused people to attempt to place a large wager on Gonzaga.  There were competitors from all over the country, and those competitors had gone through the regional finals in order to get to that point. It’s not like the X Factor, exactly, although the production budget was certainly similar. I mean, you don’t get the competitor’s life stories. If you were a journalist covering the actual event, it would be hard to make head or tails of it.

That lighting rig cost six times more than my education

All you really have to go with is that these are obviously very talented bartenders who have spent a lot of time getting their timing down in order to pour a Stella Artois properly. I mean, you can’t really ask “why are you here?” They’re there because they can pour a pint of Stella better than everyone else who attempted to pour a pint of Stella. It’s not the world championships, so you can’t very well ask how it feels to be champion of the world and whether they’re going to go to Disneyland. I think I ended up one substantive question over the course of the evening and it was “So… why did you go with the Steampunk Top Hat as part of your ensemble?” The answer was, as you probably already suspect, that it looked cool.

Sometimes you wish in retrospect that you had time to change into a tux. Or that you owned a tux. Or that you had done some laundry.

In terms of the vibe of the evening, it was very interesting. They had gone with a 60’s Hollywood theme, which I was massively underdressed for.  There were attractive young women in costume as hostesses. At the bar, there was branded glassware as far as the eye could see. Shelves and shelves and shelves. There was a DJ booth set up in the center of the room and an elaborate system of projected images matched to the architecture behind the stage. The voting was done on touchscreen systems which were explained to us at great length by a very patient man in what looked to be a very uncomfortable earpiece and black suit.

When the main event actually started, it put me in mind of the beginning of Rocky IV; the match between Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago. There were flashing lights, there was a roaring crowd. I don’t know what capacity for the room was, but given the tightly run ship they were working with, I can pretty largely guarantee that they never went over. Instead of James Brown doing “Living in America” we had a very talented vocalist doing a note for note perfect Jackson 5 tribute. Instead of Apollo Creed wearing a comically oversized red, white and blue top hat, we had the Steampunk guy from Waterloo. In fairness, Carl Weathers could not have pulled off a hat with goggles.

Joke all you want. You know you want that hat.

The contestants, since they’re pretty skilled bartenders, move with some considerable speed. It’s hard to keep absolute track of everything they’re doing when they’re going at speed. I think the judges did a pretty good job, considering. The winner, passing on to the next round in Buenos Aires, was Clement Beauchesnes (one wonders whether he bears any relation to the Vankleek Hill mob).

I’ll be entirely honest with you: I think he took it because he didn’t incorporate any kind of flair into the act. He just poured a beer to the best of his ability. Also, despite the fact that all of the competitors had clearly been doing this for a while, it’s a different thing to get up in front of a room with a couple of thousand excitable people in it and pour a beer while the PA system blasts House of Pain. I think that in that setting, keeping it simple is a winning recipe. Just do the thing and forget about the fact that The Scorpions are now Rocking You Like A Hurricane while you’re trying to line up the logo and the bass is rattling your vertebrae. He had concentration. Well done, Clement.

Clement Beauchesnes: Canadian Draught Idol

As evenings go, I think it was a success. I know that a lot of people had a lot of fun. I know that a number of talented bartenders got a trip to Toronto and that one gets to go to Buenos Aires. I know that it’s predicated on beer being served properly, which I can get behind.

It is also, if I’m being honest, a little bit difficult not to feel silly judging people pouring beer when you’ve logged about six hours lifetime behind a bar.

Let’s Kill The Cat And See What Happens

Mostly, brewing school tends to deal with biology and chemistry, but one of the major things that I’ve discovered is that there’s a significant amount of quantum physics involved. At least, for me that’s the case.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the concept of Schrodinger’s cat. Essentially, it’s a thought experiment. The idea is that you’ve got this closed box which has a cat, a decaying radioactive element and a vial of poison in it. Because of the half life of the decaying radioactive element, the element has a 50-50 chance of having decayed during the process of the experiment, which causes the vial of poison to open and the cat to be sacrificed on the altar of science.

It’s called a quantum superposition. Essentially, because what happens in the box is unobservable until you open the box and either feed a slightly annoyed cat or dig a tiny grave, it’s impossible to know which reality exists. The answer must be that both realities exist, layered on top of one another. It’s important to stress that no animals were harmed in the process of the experiment. It’s not like Erich Schrodinger was sitting there in the lab with a plate of tuna trying to coax little fluffy into a box. I mean, if I were him, I would probably have used someone else’s cat for a start.

Let me put it another way:  A cat, a decaying radioactive element and a vial of poison walk into a bar. The bartender does or does not ask whether this is some kind of joke, the waveform of probability collapses and reality continues more or less as normal.

Because of the idea that observation is the crux of the experiment, simply the fact that the experiment is observed changes the outcome.

The same thing happens with journalism. I think the earliest example of this conceit in action is in Don Quixote. Essentially, the book has two sections which were published independently. The conceit is that Don Quixote is an actual person inhabiting the real world and that Cervantes is simply recording his exploits based on stories he’s heard. By the time Cervantes writes the second half, he has to take into account that people have read the first half of it, and since Don Quixote really definitely exists in the real world, the second half has to take into account that all of the people who have read the first half of the book are therefore screwing with him for their own entertainment.

Essentially, what I’m getting at here is that observation alters reality.

So, let’s say that you’ve got a closed system, like a brewing school. It has students, teachers, administrators and things more or less go on as normal. Beer gets made, people go to their math classes, people go to the merchant alehouse on a Thursday night and get loopy on oatmeal stout. It’s a fine existence.

But if you airlift a journalist into the situation, it changes the situation. I’ll give you a for instance. Crystal Luxmore from The Grid popped in to write an article on the school and sat in during part of a lecture Gord Slater was giving on flocculation in yeast. Suddenly, everyone in the class sat up a little straighter and tried to look as though they were paying a considerable amount of attention, despite the fact that there had been oatmeal stout the night before and it’s a 9:30 class.

Same thing happened the next week when The Grid sent their photographers to get some action shots of brewing students taking notes. Everyone was on their best behavior.

That’s fine. It’s good press for the brewing school. Gets the message out there, might drum up enrollment for next year and it’s more or less over in a couple of hours. Useful for all concerned parties; Minimal alteration of reality. On the other hand, if you throw a journalist into the mix on a full time basis, the possibility of that person really screwing with the status quo is rendered increasingly likely, even if he doesn’t do anything.

I’ve become relatively concerned about this and I’m growing a little self conscious about it.

I’ve got profs that I interact with on a professional basis. I’ve known Kevin Somerville, who’s teaching us about brewing ingredients since before there was a brewing program. I may have consulted with him on buying no-iron oxford cloth shirts as professorial wear. Our sensory evaluation prof, Roger Mittag, has a beer tasting certification program called Prud’homme, which I reviewed positively in the Sun before he got the gig at the college.

Here’s the issue: Niagara College, in addition to being a teaching brewery, is also a going concern, selling growlers and cases of beer out of their brewery store. What happens if I review their products, raise awareness of them and increse sales? What happens if I review on negatively and make it harder for one of my profs to sell the product?  Kevin Somerville is heavily involved with the Indie Alehouse in Toronto, which will be opening in the coming months. Sam Corbeil is with Sawdust City brewing.

Eventually, there’s going to come a point where I need to write about the Indie Alehouse or Sawdust City. They’re new, and one of the hallmarks of beer blogging is novelty. It would limit my scope as a beer writer not to write about new things that are happening in the Toronto scene.  There are a number of possibilities here:

1)      Not writing about Indie Alehouse or Sawdust City at all. Which is, let’s face it, a cop-out.

2)      Writing a piece about the Indie Alehouse or Sawdust City on an informational basis only. Boring.

3)      Writing opinion pieces on these breweries, which, while honest , might end up being positive or negative depending on what they do.

All three of the actions have consequences. This is one of the reasons that there haven’t been many blog posts about the educational experience. Reporting on it would alter the experience in ways that are potentially unforeseeable.

Well, I’ve done that for a month and I’ve got to tell you that it’s dull. It’s deadly, deadly dull. It’s mentally constipating as well, because you can’t do anything with the ideas you get from the program. For that reason I’m going to do something interesting and choose option three, confining myself to honest, if comical, reporting on the entire situation.

In other words, let’s kill the cat and see if the waveform collapses.

The Social Ramble Ain’t Restful

When you receive an email from an organization called The Society, inviting you to a private dinner, there are a number of possible responses. They range from bafflement (which I experienced fairly significantly) to a sense of impending dread that you might be on the radar of the illuminati or freemasons. I don’t think I’m cut out for massive planetary economic conspiracy, so that was just a fleeting thought.

It turns out that The Society are a group of likeminded culture vultures, fashionistas and social commentators. They have branches in Toronto, New York and Miami; they seem to be expanding as well into Los Angeles. In the cursory research that I did on them before accepting the invitation to dinner, I noted that they tended towards being thin, fashionable, mannered people with pronounced bone structure. They are the sort of people that would generally not look out of place in an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue; Size twos in an increasingly XL world.

Communal place setting. Pretty swank.

Mostly I wondered how in the world they had settled on inviting me. It’s a common anxiety that I face in situations like this. I have a movie star physique, but unfortunately that movie star is Ernest Borgnine. I need not have worried. They’re a pleasant bunch of well spoken, erudite people, and since it was putatively a beer dinner, I was very much on my home turf. There are few situations in which being barrel shaped is a blessing; at a beer dinner, it’s practically de rigeur.

The dinner was held at Jamie Kennedy’s Gilead Café, and the element that had not quite sunk in when I received the invitation was that it involved an interactive seminar on canning and pickling. In the past, if you had asked my opinion on canning and pickling, I would probably have fled the room. This is owed to the fact that somewhere in the basement of my Mom’s house in Kingston is a relatively large number of jars of damson plum jam which date from the 1980’s. The debate rages periodically about whether or not they are fit for human consumption. They are likely just fine. They may possibly be delicious. It is my hope to retain a sense of mystery on the subject.

The North American Jamie Kennedy in his natural habitat senses that he has been spotted by bloggers. Soon, he will appease them with their dietary staple: beignets

Jamie Kennedy views the subject rather differently. He would, having been recently awarded the Order of Canada for advancing the cause of local food. After announcing to the room that he was trying an experiment in socializing while working, he made a fairly compelling argument:

A hundred years ago, prior to refrigeration, people needed to know how to preserve food. Without the long supply chains which we take for granted in the 21st century, this was a common practice. Moreover, one of the things that determines a sense of place in cuisine is the ability to live off of what is locally available. In a place like Toronto, which has some of the most fertile farmland on the planet just outside its borders, it’s practically inexcusable not to take advantage of the bounty of the farms that toil during our hot summers. In short, the preservation of fruits and vegetables would have been a culinary staple 100 years ago and is one that we currently overlook.

I suspect that you’re not going to find a Caesar salad on his winter menu, and with good reason. The clapboard shingles that make up the décor of the bar area suggest a sort of uber-rusticity that belie the gentle nature of the chef himself. The opposite wall is adorned with jars of pickled vegetables and preserved fruits that are seemingly intended to be used by the kitchen during the coming winter season. In terms of commitment to the practice of locavorism, Jamie Kennedy wears his heart on the wall of his dining room.

Sure, it's beautiful, but what happens when Shemp or Curly come to dinner?

After a few Heinekens (Did I mention this was an event sponsored by Heineken? Well done, Heineken. Dennis Hopper may not have liked you, but you’re ok by me. I begin to wonder how many times I will mention Heineken. That was four. That oughta do.) and a beer battered cheddar beignet topped with mustard pickles from Kennedy’s great aunt’s recipe, we milled into the kitchen to our workstations.

Shortly before the great pickling imbroglio

I was given an apron, two jars and the explanation that I would be pickling peppers. Like a latter day Peter Piper, I was ready to pick a peck. My tablemates were similarly enthusiastic, although they seemed somewhat astounded by the minimalism of a working kitchen. I was pleased to note that they had hidden all of the knives before letting slightly inebriated members of the general public in. After all, there’s only so much damage you can do with a spatula.

We pickled to the utmost, but we eventually ran short of peppers and team members were recruited to stand outside over a grill in a supervisory capacity as additional peppers were charred. As happens in these situations we looked for something to do, ending up in a discussion over how many peppercorns to put in a pint of pickled peppers. All of this while standing more or less directly in the way of the exceedingly patient kitchen staff. After a suitable amount of standing around awkwardly, we found our way to the dining room.

The menu, as one might expect from the reputation of the chef was local and seasonal.

I really must remember not to disturb the soup. That's a sentence I've never heard anyone say.

It has to be said that I am not much of a fan of soup. I never have been, and as such I feel as though it’s unfair to comment on the Squash soup, except to say that it was a delightful autumnal colour. As happens in situations like this, I forgot to take a picture of it until I had thoughtlessly disturbed the presentation.

Galantine of delicious, delicious Chicken.

The main course was a galantine of chicken with what I suspect was a sage and rosemary stuffing served with a trio of onions and a Heineken onion sauce. The flavour of the sage and rosemary was just sharp enough to cut the sauce, creating a very pleasant combined mouthful with the caramelisation from the roasted onions. It put everyone in the Thanksgiving mood, and inspired me to commit the somewhat déclassé act of mopping up the sauce with bread. This is the kind of dish which you, had you been served it at a family dinner, would volunteer to wash dishes so that you could sneak into the kitchen and pick at the leftovers. The only minor quibble I had was that I think the green onions were included essentially as a plating element and didn’t really add anything. My enjoyment of the dish made it extremely hard to view critically.

Chocolate Mousse, Vanilla Cone, Raspberry Puree. They can't all have punchlines.

For Dessert there was chocolate mousse served with a vanilla cone and a raspberry puree. It was rich enough that my colleague from the Post was unable to finish his. The vanilla cone provided a nice textural counterpoint once crumbled over top of the mousse and the tartness of the puree provided some respite from the sweetness of the dish. It was a playful plating and interesting to see how people approached disassembling it. There’s a certain amount of joy in seeing people overcome the apprehension that they might be risking unsightly stains on their clothes in order to indulge in chocolate.

It was a beer dinner in the sense that it was sponsored by a beer. Heineken, being a lager, doesn’t really go with squash soup. For something that creamy, you’d want something in a pale ale with enough hop acidity to cut the texture and refresh the palate with carbonation. You might even run to an India Pale Ale. It had no chance of standing up to a chocolate dessert.

I spoke with Kennedy afterwards and it was clear that he knew that this was more or less the case. It’s for this reason that I find him all the more impressive. Rather than attempting to shoehorn the beer into dishes that would have blown it away, he used it where it would be effective: In the batter for the beignets, where it provided a textural advantage and in the sauce for the chicken, where it aided in creating sweetness and flavour. I’d like to see what he could do with a full menu of pairings.

After collecting a jar of Rhubarb jelly, I was off into the night. My brief flirtation with the lifestyle of the extremely well dressed intelligentsia of the city was over, and I was able to stagger home to collapse into a mousse induced coma.

Fun With Numbers – The BMO Nesbitt Burns Edition

As you may have noticed, if you read the blog frequently: I like to crunch numbers, me. Recently, because I’ve had a business math class at Niagara College, there has been less of this kind of thing, but I’m here to tell you that I was spurred into action whilst looking at a report on the North American beer industry that was released last week by BMO Nesbitt Burns. It suggests that there are two things that large brewers in the North American theatre can do to improve their situations:

  1. Try to enter the craft beer market by creating niche and premium products and also, “hey, women aren’t drinking enough beer.”
  2. Focus on emerging markets. 

Let us break this down, shall we?

1)The report suggests that North America is currently classified as a mature market. A mature market is a market that has entered into a state of equilibrium. You might remember a while back that I wrote about seeming detente between the large brewers. They each basically have a brand to compete with an equivalent brand that the other one has. The market shares held by AB InBev and MolsonCoors don’t actually fluctuate very much on a year over year basis. According to the Euromonitor International report that I’m looking at from 2010, AB InBev has about 42% of the Canadian market by volume and MolsonCoors has something like 37%. Between them, they account for about 80% of the total market. When you discount, Sapporo and imports, the craft beer segment might make up 10% of the total Canadian market, although I suspect that to be generous.

I feel like the large brewers could break into the craft market if they really wanted to. MolsonCoors has Creemore and Granville Island, but aside from wider distribution, those seem to be being pretty much left alone to do their thing. This is probably a good call. I have little doubt that each of AB InBev and MolsonCoors will pick up some additional craft labels at some point in the next couple of years. Personally, I’d go for ones that are already of sufficient volume to be distributed consistently on a national basis. There aren’t that many.

It’s not a good long term game. I suspect that the thing that keeps them out of the craft market is that the profit margins are not equal. It’s good to remember that these are huge multinational companies and that they’re beholden to their shareholders.

One of the reasons that we’re in this situation is that the economic precept of the last half century has been the assumption of consistent and inevitable growth. Corporations are expected to grow annually in order to be seen as a good investment. What this means is essentially this: If your name is Bob Johnson and you own Johnson’s Wiener Factory and everybody eats your hot dogs already and you’re the only game in the town, you have the significant likelihood of being downgraded as an investment because you’ve got no ability to grow the market. Stability isn’t enough. You need to find a way to cram more Johnson’s Wieners into the overcrowded gullets of your consumers. Just, y’know, jam them in there. Or maybe come up with a line of mustards. Or a new marketing campaign: “Johnson’s Wieners: What a Mouthful!”

The model only works if guaranteed growth of the economy is possible. Unfortunately, North America is a mature market. Basically, everyone has the share of the pie that they’re going to get. The overall size of the market will grow slowly on its own, but essentially, barring a global financial apocalypse, the ability to manufacture further growth is not very cost effective on a large scale.

Canadians drink something like 2.384 billion litres of beer a year, or about 69.5 litres per capita. Launching a new craft brand would take R&D, marketing research, resources, labour, materials, and you’d be clawing for maybe 0.25% of the market if you were a total success at it. About 6 million litres. Not chump change, exactly, but potentially not worth it. It’s hard to predict reception to a product like that, as well. It might be worth it if you bought an established brand whose performance you could predict, but it’s not going to result in the year over year gains you need to keep shareholders happy. It’s neat for the portfolio and results in some pretty darn good beer being made in the case of something like Creemore Kellerbier.

2)Before I go on, I should point out that I’m culling data from the internet, which is always a little dicey. It should be basically accurate if not completely so. Also, I’m working from litres per capita figures that do not reflect the current year, as there’s no data for 2011 yet.

When you talk about emerging markets, that essentially means markets in which there is the possibility of establishing yourself and experiencing a lot of growth. I’ve seen Russia thrown around, but it’s a market about half the size of the states and shrinking demographically. Plus, they consume about 70 litres of beer per capita already. Not a huge amount of room for growth.

Make no mistake. The prize is China.

China currently has a population of about 1.34 billion people. As of 2010, they drink 32.1 liters of beer per capita. That means approximately 41,730,000,00 litres of beer annually. That is a market that is 17.5 times larger than Canada’s and about 1.75 times larger than the U.S.

Canada has a population growth of about 1% annually. It’s been that way since about 1995. At that rate, over the next 20 years, you’re looking at a growth from 34 million people to approximately 42.3 million people. The amount of beer that we drink per capita doesn’t change all that much, so let’s keep it at the figure I had of 69.5 litres per person. If that holds steady, you’re looking at growth at a factor of 1.246. We’ll be drinking nearly 3 billion litres of beer annually.

Interestingly, the U.S. Expands in that time by a factor of about 1.244, with an extrapolated population growth of 0.87% reported during the summer of 2011. Over the next twenty years, their market should expand to 31,171,200,000 litres from current consumption, assuming per capita consumption stays constant at 81.6 litres.

China is not like that. Beer consumption in China has increased every year for the last ten years. In 2000, it was 17.5 litres per capita. It is currently something like 32.1 litres per capita. They have a population growth of 0.47%, but because it’s a much larger population, you’re looking at something like 1.48 billion people by 2032. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that their consumption will eventually top out somewhere around 70 litres per capita, since that’s a respectable global average. 1.48 billion people drinking 70 litres of beer per capita is about 103 billion litres of beer a year. Growth factor: 2.468

At that time that would be just under half of the beer consumed in the world, and that’s without even considering beer for export.

AB InBev already has 11.1% of the market share and are brewing 5 billion litres annually in China. Just their stake in the Chinese beer market is more than twice the size of the entire Canadian market. MolsonCoors are expanding there as well, and although AB InBev has a big head start, Coors Light seems to be pretty popular.

Think of the possibilities. They don’t need to create brands. They can import ones that already exist. The demand will be such that marketing can be kept to a minimum. Imagine the position you’d be in as a large multinational company if you controlled 33% of this market by the time it reached maturity. You would have grown with it, dictating the direction of the market. It would be three times bigger than Canada and the U.S. combined by the year 2032.

I feel like maybe the BMO Nesbitt Burns report should have highlighted that more. In the long run,1% of the North American market is chump change, so a long, entrenched fight for the craft market doesn’t actually make any sense. This is especially true when you realize that a pint of Carlsberg sells for $12.50 Canadian in parts of Shanghai.