St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Monthly Archives: February 2012

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So You Want To Be A Brewer: House Ales/St.John’s Wort Gin and Juice IPA

Before I started writing about beer, I worked a job at a publishing company. It was not a particularly fulfilling job, but one of the perks that it had was location. It was located right down the street from Bar Volo. I suppose that at this point, I’ve probably been going to Volo off and on for about five years, and it’s amazing to see how much the place has changed in that time. They’ve started an import agency with Keep6imports. Their annual Cask Days event has become large enough that it now has to be held at an alternate site. They’ve even branded their on-site nanobrewery as House Ales.

Consider for a moment that this is a pub that has evolved to the point where it requires four websites to keep everyone up to date with their activities. When I started going there, they barely had one.

If you're waiting outside of a bar at 7:00 AM, and you're sober, people look at you funny.

I don’t know if it’s because I was a regular there for a long time, but every beer that I’ve brewed as a collaboration has somehow ended up on tap at Volo. There were the Lazarus Breakfast Stout and Imperial Element, which were collaborations with Mike Lackey at Great Lakes. There was the Manitou Sumac Saison, which was a collaboration with Paul Dickey.

It’s kind of a kick having your beer served at the best beer bar in the country. That’s what Volo is, according to ratebeer. For some brewers, I suspect that being on tap at Volo is just another day at the office. After all, when you’re producing thousands of hectoliters a year, it must be pretty hard to get excited about where it’s going to be served. At that point, the main priority has to be moving a lot of whatever that beer is. In my case, since the biggest batch I’ve managed so far is something like a hundred litres, it’s exciting.

I still can't believe anyone's crazy enough to entrust me with electrical equipment.

I was at Volo on the first brew day with the Blichmann system, and I’ve watched them develop as a brewery. Some of the beers have been really good and some of them have been less good. It’s like that when you’re experimenting with small batch recipes, especially during the first year. They’ve now gotten to the point where they’ve got a couple of brewers in Jason Tremblay and Jon Hodd.

The thing that I like most about House Ales is that there’s some conceptual continuity. I suspect that the Hip-Hop series of beers that they’ve done is mostly there because of Tomas and Giulian Morana’s tastes in music. It doesn’t seem like Ralph would have come up with RUN E.S.B. or NOTORIOUS I.P.A.

I’m very lucky because I don’t currently have any constraints to my creative process in terms of brewing. For that reason, I get to come up with an idea for a beer and then make it work. It doesn’t have to be marketable, since there’s not going to be a lot of it. It just has to be tasty.

First wort hopping. For that extra.. uh.. thing.

In this case, I knew that I wanted to design something that related to the Hip-Hop series that House Ales does. I figure that if you’re going to play on someone else’s turf, you ought at least to follow their rules. I also knew that rather than just giving the beer a Hip-Hop pun as a name, I wanted to come up with something that was conceptually valid and would carry through into the flavour. As it turns out there aren’t a whole lot of ways you can go conceptually.

I suppose that you could probably make a beer with just a whole lot of a really resin-y Simcoe hops for that authentic bong rip flavour and call it The Chronic. I don’t know. My lack of fluency in the genre really limited my ability to play. Eventually I settled on Gin and Juice for two reasons

1)      Because I like G-funk.

2)      It was pretty much the only thing I could think of that would translate.

I figured that if you’re going to make a beer called Gin and Juice, both of those elements need to be right up front. You’re going to need a lot of citrus and tropical fruit flavours out of the hops, which more or less means  that you have to use a lot of late additions for aroma. The most fruit flavour I’d seen out of a hop recently was from Nelson Sauvin and Galaxy, so the recipe initially called for those, with some cascade for citrus specifically. While we had to alter the ingredients on the brew day, Jason Tremblay had some really good ideas for substitutions.

See that slick of oil? Yeah, that might have some hops in there.

The Gin part is a bit trickier. Since gin gets most of its flavour from juniper berries, that’s pretty much what you’re going to have to use in order to get that flavour. I suppose that you could probably throw them in as an aroma component around five minutes from the end of the boil, and that would definitely give you some flavour. The problem is knowing how much flavour it might give you. In a batch of about 85 liters, how much juniper do you want to use? Also, how are the juniper berries going to interact with the hops? Once it’s in there, you can’t take it out. In the end, we decided that it would be better to go with putting the berries in the secondary fermenter.

I don’t know exactly what it’s going to taste like, but it’s sure as heck going to be interesting. Probably it will be on tap at Volo towards the end of March. Thanks go to Ralph Morana for letting me use his equipment and Jason Tremblay for making sure I didn’t set anything on fire.

So You Want To Be An Author: On Writing About Beer

If you grow up in a house with a pretty decent library, it’s almost a given that you’re going to end up as a reader. My parents are readers, and as they get older, we end up having pretty good discussions about books. Their tastes have diverged wildly over the last twenty years or so. Mom now reads and enjoys Neal Stephenson and Jasper Fforde. If we’re wondering whether she’s gotten to a book yet, we just ask “how’s the stack going” since she has about twenty books on her bedside table at any one time. It’s like literary Jenga.

Dad and I have pretty good conversations about historical books. He’s usually in the middle of some kind of biography. I think the most recent one was Teddy Roosevelt. We’ll talk about C.S. Forester and Bernard Cornwell and George MacDonald Fraser and Charles Portis, and how the fictional chronologies for these characters work. How can Flashman possibly be in Strackenz at that point in history and how come no one notices his duelling scars when he returns?

I think that it’s probably because of this familial sense of literacy that when I was asked whether I wanted to write a book, I jumped at the opportunity. It’s a book about beer! “How hard could that possibly be?” I thought. I write about beer. Surely, this is going to be a piece of cake. Easy money. Candy from a baby.

Writing about beer in a short format is something I tend to do extemporaneously. I’m not planning this sentence, for instance. Sure, there are long term strategies involved if you want to have any kind of impact or readership, but by and large it’s a bit of a dawdle. Go to a place, do a thing, drink a beer, write about it. Even if you’re writing for a newspaper column, there are only so many things you can write about if you want to be relevant. What’s happening this week? Is there a new thing? Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, people will send you beer to review. If you need to fill space, you can always rant about the beer store.

That’s almost entirely unlike a book.

What I’ve learned is that if I’m writing for the blog, I can contradict myself. Like Whitman says in his sampler: “I am vast; I contain multitudes.” If I don’t like something, I can say so. If I change my mind later, I can say that I changed my mind.

You can’t do that in a book. A book has to be internally consistent. It requires a certain amount of coherence in order to be understood. You can get away with plot holes big enough to drive a truck through if you’re writing fiction. All that matters is that the mood of the piece is encompassing. I’ll give you an example.

Q: Who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler?

A: It never gets resolved and has bothered people for decades. It doesn’t matter because there are about six truly wonderful sentences in the book and he has a gift for simile and you can feel Cahuenga boulevard under your feet.

If you’re writing non-fiction, a primer on all grain home brewing, for instance, you can’t do that. You can attempt to be mildly whimsical and you can work jokes in when possible, but by and large, you’ve got to get as much useful information across as possible in the shortest amount of language possible. Especially because there’s technical jargon and you don’t want people who paid 15 bucks to sit there scratching their heads about exactly what the hell you mean when you say “lauter” or “refractometer with ATC” or “oh for the love of god, don’t open the fermenter, ‘just to have a peek,’ you idiot.”

If you have no idea what the hell you’re doing, you’re in trouble. You can’t google “how do I write a book” without getting the websites of deluded self-obsessed whackadoos who think that they’re going to self publish the next great American novel during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, which one assumes was started by very bored people, possibly in Portland). I imagine you could probably buy several books on writing non-fiction, read them over the course of a lengthy period, amalgamate the salient points into a strategy that you think will work for you, research your topic and begin to write.

My co-author, Mark Murphy, and I didn’t really have time for that. Try writing a book in 37 days some time. It’s an experience.

I more or less used the P.G. Wodehouse method, which is where you write the elements that need to be included on index cards and then arrange the index cards in an order that makes everything work. P.G. Wodehouse did this on a pool table. I used blu-tack and a picture window, so that I could draw on the window with dry erase markers.

When you’re writing, and I think this is probably true of any kind of writing, it’s a superb feeling when you’re powering through and everything is going to plan. You’re getting a lot accomplished. You’ve had maybe a pot of coffee and the neurons are firing and the fingers are flying at 70 words a minute and you are a rock star. You’re just crushing it.

When you’re writing, and I’m sure this is true of any kind of writing, it’s a special kind of hell when nothing is working. You’re staring at a blank word processor and your eyes hurt and you’ve reworked the same paragraph nine times and the chapter is the wrong shape and nothing makes sense and you are an insignificant speck on the belly of the universe. You’re just miserable.

You get to the point, eventually, when you’re more or less done with research and writing and because you’ve got a flatplan that dictates the number of pages and the length of those pages, you have to edit the work of both authors so that there’s a cohesive style. That’s been the last six days and nights. It has been educational. I am out of coffee and I haven’t shaved in a week.

I wanted to do a good enough job that it will require a minimum amount of effort on the part of the publisher. I don’t know if they talk to each other, but it can’t hurt to have a reputation for being easy to work with.

The good news is that it’s finally more or less done. We have submitted a manuscript, and we’ve got a publisher lined up. The book will be out next autumn. It’s apparently called “How to Make Your Own Brewskis: The Go-to Guide for Craft Brew Enthusiasts.”

Less than two years to go from first blog post to national beer columnist to brewing student to published author. Great Googily Moogily.

After my mid terms are over, I’m going to sleep for a week.

Hogtown and Double Trouble OR Let’s Do Launch.

Brewers will tell you that the summer is their busy season. You’d never know it based on the amount of activity happening this month; So far we’ve had a festival at The Only Café and a couple of beer launches.

I don’t really talk about the Only Café very much, and I’ve never been able to work out why that is. It might be that I like the place so much, and that it’s generally so cramped that I don’t want to see it get even more crowded. Sure, they’ve got a lot of craft beer on tap and in bottles. Sure, the prices are amongst the lowest in the city. I think the reason I like it is that it looks kind of like what might happen if you gave a bunch of high school kids of the Pink Floyd listening stoner variety free reign to design a bar. Also, there are board games and cards, which is ideal if you just want to hang out and play cribbage.

The festival they had there on the weekend had a number of interesting offerings. Railway City were trying out a couple of test batches of summery beers, which is something of a departure for them. I think the Pomegranate one they’re working on has legs, but this first attempt might be a little overly sweet. Sam Corbeil’s Sawdust City booth was pouring his Imperial Stout “Long Dark Voyage To Uranus,” whose label is inspired by Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. I’ve enjoyed that beer on previous occasions, but I think that it’s hard to appreciate it when it’s really cold out. Tasty, but the environment hamstrung it a little. So it goes.

The best thing about the Only Café’s festivals is that Fabian seems to have managed to convince the guys at King Brewery to show up with an unfiltered, dry hopped version of King Pilsner. Now, King Pilsner is a solid, dependable, offering. It’s well made and it never changes. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad one, and I’ve been drinking it on and off since 2003. The unfiltered, dry hopped version is marvellous; pretty much perfect for the environment on the patio in February as well. Given my druthers, I would have walked out with the keg. I like variety as much as the next fickle blogger, but if you told me I could only drink one beer for the next year, it’s that one.

Brewery Launches

The fact that I was talking about equilibrium in Ontario and the launch of new craft breweries in my last post was not a fluke exactly. What I wanted to do was explain the way that I’m now looking at new breweries in Ontario. It may not seem like the best way to develop a taxonomy for new microbreweries is to look at evolutionary modeling, but I’m fairly confident that it’s as good as any other thinking on the subject. I put it to you this way: I would rather think in moderately abstract terms than learn the specific obfuscatory language attributed to marketing. At some point in the last month, I saw Bud Light referred to as a ‘velocity brand.’ Doubleplusgood.

Hops and Robbers

Saturday saw the release of Double Trouble Brewing’s Hops and Robbers at the Burger Bar.

The beer is an India Pale Ale; a hybrid somewhere between the English and American styles with a crystal malt backbone. Claude Lefebvre and Nathan Dunsmoor are the brains behind Double Trouble, but the brewer is Paul Dickey. Paul is much in demand these days, possibly due to the fact that just about everything he brews is balanced and drinkable. He’s got Cheshire Valley. And Kensington Brewing Company’s Augusta Ale.

The beer itself is pleasingly floral and piney, with some biscuit notes. It doesn’t grab you by the throat with its alcohol content. It’s completely drinkable, which is by design. There’s some subtlety of flavour here, which is nice to see in a market where you could easily sell a 90 IBU IPA just by naming it Faceblaster. It’s basically rock solid.

I think that Hops and Robbers would probably do pretty well if it were confined to Toronto. Although it might not ever be a breakout hit if left to establish a reputation on its own, it will succeed based mostly on the fact that it’s got Claude and Nathan behind it. Claude is like a bottle of five hour energy without the niacin flush. He’s behind North American Craft, which essentially outsources sales for breweries looking to tap into markets they don’t have representation in. Creating their own beer makes perfect sense, because NAC and Double Trouble already have a top flight sales and distribution team in place.

Hops and Robbers would do well without that advantage. With the advantage, they might go interprovincial. Hell, with Claude behind it, it’ll beat NASA to Mars.

Hogtown

I'm sure that when they were settling Muddy York, people said to themselves, "ayup, this is good pig country."

I was invited to a Hogtown event over the summer, but I didn’t write about it. It was a test situation and they had a Blonde Ale and an IPA. The IPA was great (maybe even top five in Ontario), but the Blonde Ale was pretty average. It was drinkable, but it wasn’t going to set the world on fire.

I was surprised, then, that at their launch yesterday at the Duke of Devon, that I was drinking an entirely different beer. They decided to launch with a Kolsch style beer. You have to call it “Kolsch Style” because if you don’t, the citizens of Cologne will rise up as a man and beat you insensible for violating their EU protected designation.

I’m not a huge fan of the style, but I found myself really liking Hogtown’s beer. It’s got a delicate floral noble hop nose and a significant amount of carbonation. The pleasing, slightly metallic finish lingers on the palate. I was impressed that it cut through the bar snacks that were floating around, although I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that. German style beer and sausage rolls; no brainer. It is helped by the fact it’s crystal clear and looks pretty in their chosen glassware. That’s a good job by their brewmaster, Jay Cooke.

Here’s the thing. The Hogtown folks are corporate, Bay Street types. That’s a departure from the norm in Ontario, where the people behind breweries tend to fit into the “rag-tag band of misfits” kind of mold. This is actually a strength for Hogtown, because they seem effortlessly able to market to their own demographic. The Duke of Devon, for instance, is an odd place to have a beer launch if you’re an Ontario microbrewery. Near as I could figure it, half the people coming through the door were in post-work, post-gym mode, about 34 years old and climbing the ladder at Deloitte.

Hogtown has apparently been outselling everything down there this week. I suppose word travels fast through the underground PATH.  They will likely continue to do well based on the fact that this is more or less an untapped market for craft beer. You should have seen the place. It was jammed.

Also, they’re to be commended on their patience. I think they knew that the Blonde Ale wasn’t going to do it and the IPA would have a lot of competition. They waited six months and found something that would work. Restraint: Who would have thought?