St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Monthly Archives: April 2012

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Session 63: The Beer Moment

(ed. note: Pete Brown, that lovable rapscallion and author of such books as Hops and Glory and the upcoming Shakespeare’s Local is hosting this month’s edition of Session. Apparently Stan Hieronymous started this five years ago. Bloggers are given a subject to write on once a month. I figure I may as well throw my hat in the ring, being as how I should be packing for San Diego and my natural inclination is to procrastinate. Probably I will find myself tomorrow night realizing that I don’t know where my passport is. So it goes.)

I feel as though I’ve told this story before.  Do I repeat myself? Very well, I repeat myself. I am vast and contain Xeroxes.

For me the beer moment is usually not something that comes about in a group of people. Most of the people that I hang out with while drinking beer are beer people. While I know them to talk to them, I don’t really know a lot about them. I couldn’t tell you about the families of brewers that I know. The conversation is typically not more profound than the provenance of the glass of beer in front of us. What variety of hops. This yeast. That barrel. Fermentation time. An unspoken understanding of the fact that time and effort has gone into this thing. It can be informative or interesting or tiresome. It depends on the day. Most of the camaraderie is based on the fact that we have previously been in the same place while drinking beer.

For me, the beer moment is also the answer to a question I get asked a great deal: “What is your favorite beer?”

The people who ask this are typically good enough to ask it with good humoured sheepishness. They know that I must get this question a lot.

The answer is Hook Norton Old Hooky.

I have heard people say that if you claim to have a favorite beer, you are probably not a beer lover. I think that’s nonsense. I can see the assertion might be valid if you have chosen a favorite beer based on advertising.

I always tell people that it’s my favorite beer because of the situation in which I had it.

I had been in England for about a week, and had split my time between walking along the South Bank and visiting various museums. You can work up a pretty decent thirst navigating the Tate Modern and the Victoria and Albert and Apsley House. Typically, I would go out and walk around London and absorb the culture and then go and drink a couple of pints of beer. The museums and galleries seem attached to nearby pubs in my memory; The Tate Modern and the Royal Oak. The National Gallery and The Chandos.

I had Old Hooky for the first time in a pub in Dulwich (well, Peckham) called The Gowlett. It has won some CAMRA awards. I knew a little bit about cask beer. This was before I was writing about beer, and long before I had considered brewing anything. I liked it, but it had been a long day and I wasn’t really focusing on it.

The second week I was in England, I was in Cambridge. I was staying at St. Catharine’s College because a friend of mine was taking a degree there, and was good enough to explain my presence to the porter.

Nowadays, I know that the pub to go to is Cambridge Blue. In those days, though, I settled on the nearest pub: The Eagle.

I walked in and looked at the taps and thought, “Oh. This is a Greene King pub,” and I practically walked out, but they had Old Hooky on cask and I thought I’d have that. I sat outside in the late February sun with my book: Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy.

It was lovely. I mean, I assume it was lovely. It was in good condition. That much I remember. Five years ago, I wasn’t taking notes. I decided that since I really had nothing else to do that afternoon that I might as well settle in. I walked inside to get another pint and saw the plaque that declared this to be the place where Watson and Crick announced the discovery of DNA.

I turned the wrong way going through the pub and walked into the RAF bar. The ceiling is covered with graffiti from World War II airmen. They must have climbed on tables and burnt their initials into the cork ceiling. Squadron numbers as well.

The pub, as it turns out, has been there since 1667. There’s a lot to be said for historical verisimilitude.

Eventually I located the bar and got a pint of Old Hooky and went back to my table in the little courtyard and continued reading. It was about halfway through that pint that everything clicked. People had been drinking ale in this pub for 340 years. I was actually reading about the kind of people that burned their initials into the ceiling thirty feet away. This pub had been a constant through centuries of Cambridge students, distinguished and not.

It was the first time I thought of beer as more than a beverage. It’s part of a long cultural tradition of community and hospitality.

As a beer writer, I have these little epiphanies from time to time. That was a perfect beer moment, though. Everything suddenly fell into place. It even gave me a better understanding of the English.

Consider this: you’ve just made the most important scientific discovery of the century. What’s your first move? Off down the pub for a pint.

In Which I Refrain From Making Any Puns About WVRST

You know how sometimes, you acquire a bottle of beer that’s going to be really, really good? The temptation is to chill it and serve it immediately, but that’s not always the best course of action. You will have read about the beer on some rating site and it’s got a 98. It’s a world class beverage. You’re probably not going to be able to get it again unless you go across the border and pay a ludicrous amount of money. You put it at the back of the fridge and shift it to the back of your mind. Maybe you read about other people drinking it, but you think “I’m saving that one for a special occasion.”

Delayed gratification tends to make things sweeter. At least it cuts down on the immediate buyer’s remorse.

It’s the same way with events and locations in Toronto. Sometimes you want to save them up so that you can just go in with the selfish intention of enjoying them. I know that a lot of times a blogger is a publicity tool, but I’ve become relatively comfortable with the idea that there are enough beer bloggers in Toronto that I don’t have to go to every event. Actually, with the way the market is taking off there is frequently more than one event on the same day. It’s becoming impossible to cover everything.

It’s for this reason that I feel no shame in admitting that I hadn’t been to WVRST until Tuesday.

I know. It’s a huge part of the Toronto beer scene, and everybody has been there. There are beer school events where people learn about beer and it seems to have become a hip spot with lineups frequently stretching down King Street even in winter. I can’t even realistically claim that I’ve been too busy to go. I was sort of saving it up because I knew it was going to be good.

I hadn’t ever really gotten a full picture of the thing. I was astonished by how spare the décor is.  The tile wall proclaiming the name of the place is immediately recognizable by anyone who has taken the subway (as Chris Grimley pointed out to me). The walls are dark, except for the giant whiteboard. The lighting might as well have been stolen directly from an outdoor beer garden. There’s none of the brewery ephemera that you might find on a patio, but it still somehow maintains the semblance of being an outdoor space, possibly because of the dark ceilings.

I was invited to a tasting of Schneider products. I had tried all of them before, because they’ve done very well in the LCBO in recent years. They make some excellent beer, but for me the focus of the evening was trying to understand what it was about WVRST that makes people gravitate there.

The tap lineup is quite impressive. Local craft offerings interspersed with some Dieu Du Ciel and a lineup of German favorites. It’s a very balanced selection and from what I’ve heard, they actively pursue local breweries in an attempt to get their beers on tap. Also, the serving sizes are well considered and the prices are reasonable.  I believe on Tuesday it was possible to get a stein of Sawdust City’s Lone Pine IPA for eleven bucks, which is a steal.

We were drinking Schneider beers; in the presence of Susanne Hecht, no less. She’s a joy to listen to because she’s so knowledgeable about beer. Also, she’s a pretty formidable presence in the beer world, so Chris Grimley and I were on our best behaviour, choosing to forego the steins.

I have another admission: I have frequently been disappointed by beer and sausage as a combo. I realize that it is a classic pairing and that it is a no brainer and that everyone in the entire world from tailgaters to the Pope likes a beer and a sausage. Usually it’s taken for granted and there’s not a lot of thought that goes into it.

Not so at WVRST.

The sausages contain exactly the right amount of fat. Throughout the pairings the sausages were never greasy. The flavours that were intended came across precisely. The bun is of exactly the right texture and dimension to house the sausage. It contains any juice that runs from the sausage without becoming spongy. Somebody has clearly put a lot of thought into this.

We had the Pheasant Sausage with Schneider’s Original Weisse and the pairing worked incredibly well. The apple and shallots in the sausage complemented the underlying sweetness of the wheat beer nicely. We had the Venison Sausage with the Aventinus and the red wine and Dijon in the sausage worked with the spiciness of the wheat dopplebock. Finally we had the Lamb Merguez Currywurst with the Schneider Hopfenweisse, which managed to stand up to the heat of the harissa and curry. The duck fat fries came close to starting a fist fight.

The thing that I noticed, as we were going along, is that this is not a place that people stay and hang out at. People walk in. They walk to the counter and order food. They walk to the bar and order a beer. They sit down, they eat and then they walk out. This is not exactly a pub, and although you could hang around if you wanted to, it’s not really what it’s there for. The turnover is high and I would guess eighty to a hundred people came through in the two hours I was there.

This is clearly a lesson: too often we get caught up on making sure the beer list is great at the expense of other elements. WVRST looks like it ought to have been a no brainer. I kept thinking “why hasn’t someone done this before?” Those might be the best sausages I’ve ever had. The beer list would tend to be one of the best in the city. Either element could draw a crowd from all over. The prices are reasonable. It’s located fairly centrally. They’ve managed to strip the entire beer and food thing down to its barest elements without complicated menus and without pretense while maintaining quality.

Well, like I said: I knew it was going to be good. I just didn’t know how good.

In Which I Eat A Very Large Amount Of Chocolate

Some time ago, I was asked whether I’d be interested in judging a competition. As I haven’t actually received formal BJCP training yet, it wasn’t a beer competition. It was something of a departure from my regular activities as this was for the Barry Callebaut Intercollegiate Chocolate Competition. I’m sure that old Slugworth would have given his eye teeth for the opportunity, but I went in somewhat concerned that I was going to screw up somehow. The only thing I’ve ever judged is the Stella Artois pouring competition, and that was a great deal less work on my part. It involved a touchscreen and split second decisions and, having passed the qualifying rounds, the participants were really only required to work for about a minute.

The thing you have to understand about the Barry Callebaut Intercollegiate Chocolate Competition is that it is far more involved than that. This year the theme was The Circus. The entirety of the event was split into two days of work and many more weeks of planning on the parts of the competitors. It involved creating recipes and plate designs and sourcing ingredients and mis en place and not a small  amount of architecture.

Dag, yo. That's a whole bunch of Chocolate.

The first day of the contest was Saturday and that was given over entirely to creating circus themed sculptures out of chocolate. I know that some of you are thinking that this is not a productive use of chocolate, but I’m going to let the pictures stand on their own, to demonstrate the sort of level of skill that we’re talking about. These were on display in the hallway outside the kitchen in which our participants were toiling.

Moments later, the recoil would knock Jumbo to the ground.

This is appropriate, because when I think of the circus, I think of the time that clown got decapitated. Ah, memories.

It's an elephant on a pear.

I don't have a joke here. This was about four feet tall. I'm just as impressed as all hell.

I was there mostly to judge the bonbons and plated desserts. I assume that people look at me and think that surely a man who applies himself to desserts with gusto. I almost never seem to eat dessert. I mean, everyone loves cake, but I rarely order any. Bonbons? I like a salted caramel periodically, but I do not typically find myself in front of a display case at Soma or MoRoCo or Leonidas.

Fortunately, we media judges were paired off with judges who actually had deep chocolate backgrounds. There were three rounds in total that I was judging, including hand dipped bonbons, moulded bonbons and plated desserts.

I do not know anything about tempering chocolate. On the rare occasions that I bake, I have two specialties: Blackberry White Chocolate Cheesecake and a Chocolate Cake. When I would sometimes bring them into the office, they would disappear quickly enough and I was very popular for several hours before the Xerox machine jammed and people were once again cursing my name.

Fortunately, I did not actually need to know how to temper chocolate or about the processes that go into making the bonbons. All that mattered was that I was able to recognize the signs of it being done well. For instance, you want the chocolate coating on a hand dipped bonbon to shine. You want the surface of the outside of it to be uniform. You want, should you cut the bonbon in half, it to be completely symmetrical. The layer of chocolate on top should not be greatly different than the layer on the bottom. The edges must not be ragged; if the chocolate has been tempered incorrectly, there will be bubbling. They must weigh between 10 and 15 grams and God help you if you are over or under. They must be 50% chocolate.

Hand dipped bonbons part 1

Hand dipped bonbons part 2

Unlike a beer competition, like the IPA Challenge I had been at the previous day, it is not enough to simply make something delicious. The bonbons must adhere to the theme of the competition. They must dazzle and delight. They must satisfy the eye as well as the palate.

I was very pleased with myself when I actually said something intelligent about stabilizing a gelee with agar instead of pectin. The proper judge that I was paired with actually looked thoughtful for a moment and nodded. I was probably not going to make a complete ass of myself, I discovered.

Look at the artistry on display in these pictures. These bonbons were turned out during the first two hours of the day, before I am usually out of bed on a Sunday. I want you to pay special attention to the following two pictures.

That's not the final step.

So.... tiny... I cringe even now.

The second picture is shaky because the amount of delicacy involved in deftly inserting this stick of white chocolate made me cringe. I could literally not watch the contestant (Amanda Liang from Vancouver Community College) put this together without a squint and a grimace. I imagine that if I were watching someone defuse a bomb, it would be a similar reaction.

Some of the judging was based on taste structure. Through all rounds, this essentially meant how well the disparate elements went together. I found that texture was a particular bugbear for me. I also learned that my preference in beer carries over to bonbons. I like it when a thing has a distinct progression of flavours. Take this bonbon by Sean Tremblay from Red River College, for instance. The explanation is that he imagined clowns in a pie fight and wondered what flavours would be in a pie fight (Pineapple, Lime and Coconut). The acidity progressed through to the nutty coconut flavour. Clever as all get out.

The moulded bonbons were next. Apparently the way you make a moulded bonbon is to take a mould, fill it with chocolate and then quickly empty the mould, hoping that the chocolate will solidify around the outsides of the mould. There were some impressive techniques happening here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone wield a pastry scraper faster or with more surgical precision than Kevin Francisco from Humber College. I would not want to be a sheet of phyllo dough around that dude.

Some of the technique is astounding, with people airbrushing colour into cocoa butter on the insides of the mould. They were frighteningly precise.

Moulded Bonbons.

Finally, we reached the stage with the plated desserts at about 3PM. The desserts were staggered in ten minute windows to give the students time to prepare. I have relatively little constructive to offer by way of criticism, except for this. If you are going to be in a competition and the competition hinges on a central thematic construct, it’s very important to be able to explain your thought process. I’m all about conceptual continuity, and while I cannot state emphatically that it influences my tastebuds, I think that the mental process of judging is affected by it. I was certainly more pleased to see plate designs that were obviously a design that worked in conjunction with the total concept.

In my haste to take the picture I cut out the tiny gold leaf flag at the top of the cone that represents the big top. A lovely touch.

Hoops! Apples! Caramel!

Also, I notice that with some plated desserts, less can be more. Frequently, there are elements plated for the purpose of visual design that simply do not belong. Maybe a sort of chocolate and nut soil is added as a bed to extend height. Maybe there is one large element of the dessert that throws the plate slightly off balance visually. That said, I would have been happy to receive the vast majority of them in a restaurant setting.

See all the visual balance? Neat!

By the end I was pointing things out that the other judges agreed with and managing to follow a great deal more of the technical criticism than I would have expected. I guess all that time watching Scott Conant and Alex Guarnaschelli yell at people on Chopped paid off.

Having done my best Augustus Gloop imitation, I managed to waddle home, but not before receiving a very large amount of chocolate to take away with me as a thanks for my efforts. I’m assuming that the chocolate will eventually be consumed, but probably not until I find something creative to do with it.

My thanks to the people of Barry Callebaut for having me along, and to all the students for their monumental efforts.

(ed. Note: I swear, I’ll get back to writing about beer at some point.)

A Brief Interlude From Beer Writing: The Three Stooges

(ed. note: Sometimes I get tired of writing about beer and allow myself to indulge in trying something else. I assure you, we’ll be back to beer at some point in the very near future.)

When I saw the commercial during the superbowl for a Three Stooges movie, I was skeptical. Of all the comedy styles that were generated on the vaudeville circuit, slapstick has probably aged the worst. The sort of snappy patter and absurdity that the Marx Brothers cultivated have always transferred relatively well from their act. Even the song and dance comedy of the Ritz Brothers still has a place in popular culture, usually as a third act of a sitcom. Slapstick has long since been relegated to cartoons, wrestling matches and America’s Funniest Home Videos.

I think that this is partially because it provokes a binary response in people. You either love or hate slapstick comedy. I’m sure there are people who hate it when pie fights appear in a movie. The pie fight doesn’t really accomplish much of anything. It’s a bit of comedy business, regardless of whether it’s Larry Fine in a Stooges short getting a pie in his face or Harvey Korman faking his way out of one in Blazing Saddles. I guess the ultimate possible payoff of a pie fight is that some stuffed shirt gets taken down a peg momentarily.

At its more extreme end, Slapstick is obviously unrealistic. If Bugs Bunny does a high dive off a tower into a glass of water, you can suspend your disbelief because it’s cartoon. If you see Moe Howard poke someone in the eye several times over the course of a sixteen minute short, it’s hard not to wince and wonder about detached retinas. The total lack of realism puts people off. No one is going to survive a sledgehammer blow to the head.

It’s more or less impossible to consider the Three Stooges as art. You can’t claim, like you might be able to with the Marx Brothers, that the characters are some kind of representation of Freud’s Id, Ego and Super-Ego. The Three Stooges are pure Id. They run amok in pursuit of their goals, intellectually unequipped to deal with the world around them. Their appeal is their indestructible nature and their persistence, whether they’re trying to win a brewery’s golf tournament or fix someone’s plumbing. The punchline is never more elaborate than someone experiencing some kind of pain or humiliation or embarrassment.

As punchlines go, it’s a classic. Man falls down, goes boom is a perennial schtick that transcends cultures. You may be the most compassionate person in the world, but a man stepping on a rake or getting a football in the groin is probably still going to provoke a visceral reaction.

Imagine how hard it must have been to be a Stooge.

Picture being in a performing troupe in the dying days of Vaudeville. They were on the Vaudeville circuit for nine years before they started making short films for Columbia. They were on a dying entertainment circuit during the first five years of the Great Depression, while film was really coming into its own as an inexpensive night out.

By the time they started making shorts, the lineup was Larry, Curly and Moe. They signed to make 8 pictures a year for Columbia, and they did this in 40 weeks a year. They got 600 bucks a week to do that. I can practically guarantee you that they were working injured. Props don’t always give way and for a lot of the stunts they went through, there were no crash mats. Even trained stuntmen suffer bruises and concussions and broken bones with protective equipment. Larry developed a callus on his face from years of being slapped. Curly had a number of strokes and people speculate whether they were caused by brain damage.

Moe was born in 1897. By the time they started making shorts in 1934, he was in his late 30’s. He continued making appearances in various Three Stooges lineups until 1970. At one point he was a 73 year old man making a living by slapping people and calling them lamebrains! This is what happens if you’re in a specialized career path.

By the time Curly Joe was a stooge, everyone had aged visibly and you got the sense that they were doing this because they had to; because they hadn’t saved any of their money. Those shorts are painful to watch because they feel like gratuitous if understandable cash-ins.

Actually, a lot of the shorts are painful to watch. Much of the writing was bad, and it’s not necessarily the fault of the writers. You try coming up with 196 plots where three people who are inexplicably bound together are hired to perform some function. The plots are really only there are as pretext for the schtick. There’s a reason they did shorts. The writing would never have stood up to a longer format. Try watching 1961’s The Three Stooges Meet Hercules if you want to be angry with yourself for having wasted an afternoon.

The things that are memorable are the mannerisms and the schtick: Shots to the gut paired with a timpani beat. Insults and hair pulls and eye gouges and running in circles on the floor. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk. Woo, woo, woo, woo, woo.

The Farrelly Brothers used a light touch on the new film, and the number of new ideas it presents total none. They had over a hundred hours of source material to borrow from. They stole the best bits from the entire career of The Three Stooges. The casting is great. The writing and editing are better than anything the original stooges had to work with. Working with any kind of budget at all helped tremendously.

It’s about as respectful of the source material as it could possibly be. It even takes its visual cues from it. There’s a scene early in the movie where the stooges are being dragged along behind a truck. In a modern comedy, we would get the shot for two seconds and move on. In this movie, the shot remains static and the timing of the stooges being dragged along is closer to where it would have been in the 1930’s. There are moments during particularly violent bits where the stooges are clearly dummies, which is a nice visual homage. There are even stop motion frames in the same kind of situations where they would have existed in the original shorts.

It’s an homage, but I think it’s better than any of the original material. The essence of the characters is completely retained, but it’s helped by the fact that in this incarnation they’re young. It was no fun watching three fifty year old men knock each other around with a two by four for a paycheck. Here, that’s not an issue. The movie is an amalgamation of all the good things you remember about the Three Stooges, without any of the baggage.

It does one other important thing. It acts as a sort of nature preserve for slapstick comedy. I don’t know that slapstick will ever again be a major staple of movie comedy, but this attempt is a reminder that at one point it existed contemporaneously with other forms.

The Brewer’s Plate 2012: A Shameless Plug

While I have a moment here this afternoon prior to attending a launch for Alexander Keith’s original cider, I’d like to bring something to your attention. We have a relatively unique beer event coming up on the Toronto calendar, and it’s one that you’re definitely going to want to attend. The Brewer’s Plate is coming up on Wednesday the 18th of April, and it’s just a corker of an event. I attended last year, and it was one of the highlights of 2011 for me.

This year should be a particularly interesting edition of The Brewer’s Plate because the venue has been moved from  the Wychwood Artscape Barns to Roy Thomson Hall. The venue is larger and has a few more amenities, and as such should result in a less crowded event that is more thoroughly enjoyable.

General admission is $125.00, but if you feel like blowing the bank on it, you can upgrade that ticket with an optional master class in beer tasting. The tasting is in September 2012 and costs $100.00 by itself, but you get $25.00 off if you buy now. Clearly, that’s the kind of thing that you’ll want to do if you have that kind of money lying around and love beer.

You may think that’s expensive, but a lot of the proceeds go to Green Thumbs Growing Kids. This is a program that teaches kids all about sustainable gardening. Initially, the name confused me and I was worried about pod people, but I have been assured that this is in fact about local seasonal food.

Jamie Kennedy has been named as Patron of the event this year. According to my post from last year, he had the best individual dish, but did not pair most successfully. There are about twenty brewers taking part. There are a number of talented chefs including Brad Long, Lora Kirk, and Mark Cutrara who squared off last year. There’s new blood as well. There are about six chefs that weren’t there last year.

This year I’m looking forward to watching two veritable titans of the beer industry square off as Stephen Beaumont attempts to get Alan McLeod to admit that he likes a beer pairing. I plan on observing them and amusing myself by providing a running commentary in a hushed, breathless imitation of David Attenborough.

Go! Buy a ticket! Do it! Do it now! You know you want to! Go to their website and hope they’re not already sold out! Woe betide you if they are! They’ll sell you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!

Craft Beer Evangelism or St. John’s Wort Unfolds The Mystery

I’d like to expound upon an idea that’s been kicking around at the back of my head for a while now. I suspect that it’s a touch inflammatory, so I want to point out to you that it’s not meant as an attack on anyone in particular, but as more of an exploration of concept.

While I’ve been at brewing school, I’ve learned a very important lesson. Brewing is a business. Regardless of whether you’re A-B Inbev or MolsonCoors or a small batch craft brewery, your end goal is exactly the same. You want to sell beer; preferably, a lot of beer. You want to sell everything you can produce and then you want to expand. Whether your beer contains corn grits or not is completely irrelevant to this precept. You might be a monk, selling beer in order to provide funds for the monastery. You might be a craft brewer, selling beer that you have put your unique fingerprint on. You might even work for a huge multinational company selling beer that is the same the world over.

The brewer’s job doesn’t change. If the quality is insufficient, the beer won’t sell. There are other factors, of course, but it boils down to the fact that a massive, overwhelming percentage of the beer brewed worldwide is not brewed as an experiment or to delight craft beer nerds or as an indulgence of the brewer’s ego or as a fun collaboration between brewers. Even should it be the case that these things happen, and beer is brewed for these reasons the beer is typically not just given away. It remains a product.

I’m sorry to tell you that simply placing something in a barrel or using wild yeast does not make it any less a product. Yes, there is artistry involved, but that does not preclude the commoditization of the product. You are selling a mildly alcoholic liquid at a price point that is determined by a number of factors which may depend on governmental regulations in your area. There are no exceptions to this.

The method by which very large breweries sell their beer is determined by the amount of resources available to them. They have virtual omnipresence through billboards and radio and TV and magazine ads. It has ever been thus and it’s not very interesting.

The methods by which craft breweries sell their beer are far more interesting.

They are more interesting because they are smaller and more interpersonal and more directly applicable to the consumer.

Consider social media for a moment. If you’re a fan of craft beer, you’re probably following a number of breweries on your twitter feed or on facebook. Of course you do. You like that one beer they make. If you do that, you will be enjoined by facebook or twitter to follow more and similar accounts. You may know a number of people who work for the craft breweries that you’re following. You can put a face to the business, essentially humanizing it.

It’s important to remember that the social media accounts for breweries do not exist as a public good. They are a marketing tool, allowing you to know where things are on tap and when new releases are scheduled. In the case of facebook, you’re able to schedule events and get a general idea of the interest people have in that event. Be sure that facebook will remind you of the event if you have not yet responded to the invitation.

As a business model, this is pretty good, because it doesn’t cost anything to get a twitter or facebook account. It allows for the ability to bombard people with your message on a constant basis. It also allows for a controlled narrative in terms of the story of your brand and product. You need only post the positive reviews on your feed. You control public perception of your product and can portray your brewery as going from strength to strength without setbacks or failures, for ever and ever amen.

This is neither good nor bad. It simply exists this way. It’s a tool. It’s a method. It’s a weapon.

It’s a good one.

The astounding thing to me is that there’s so much content provided for these narratives, essentially for free. This is the role of the Craft Beer Evangelist. Consider this: There are something like 1400 non-brewery affiliated beer bloggers around the world, about 957 of which are in North America. I am taking these numbers from I assume that the majority of them are unpaid. I am lucky to work for a newspaper syndicate.

Above all, the thing that constitutes success for the bloggers and beer writers is readership. In order to be relevant, you have to be read. One of the best ways to do that is to write glowing reviews of products made by craft breweries who will then likely link to your review. Other bloggers will also spread your observations.

This becomes a self-fulfilling echo chamber of feel-goodery. Eventually, bloggers write fewer negative reviews overall because no one will end up reading them unless they are particularly entertaining in their bitchiness. I mean, why would you bother writing something no one is going to read? What would be the use of expending your energy on an intellectually honest negative review of anything if the consequence is that it will potentially narrow your future readership?

This is one of the ways that the success and importance of craft beer becomes memetic. It becomes a culturally transmitted idea, which spreads as the market for craft beer spreads. It is generally dogmatic and proselytic. There is the underlying message that craft beer, any craft beer, is good. It is a concept that is reinforced continuously by the positivity of social media accounts of hundreds of craft breweries across North America. It is practically a catechism, inculcated every time you check a twitter feed. Onward, craft beer soldiers.

At this point, we even have feast days. I have never heard an adequate explanation as to why any of these exist, but I bet they sell a lot of beer.

What is the purpose of this, in the end? Your soul does not hang in the balance. Beerzebub will not be poking you with a flaming pitchfork if you drink a macro beer. The purpose is to sell beer. It may be really good beer, but it’s still beer. It’s a business first and an ideology second, if at all. Either way, it’s incredibly successful marketing which plays off the idea of an abstract and ill-defined evil against which we are meant to be fighting, when realistically all brewers are in exactly the same business.

Admire this: The self-reinforcing nature of it. The feeling of inclusion it engenders in its followers. The fact that it is only by design on a small scale at the level of the individual breweries and that the critical memetic mass that drives craft beer’s continued rise is the result of the conceptual gestalt.


Incidentally, I really like Cameron’s new Rye Pale Ale. It’s very tasty and you should buy some as soon as you have the opportunity. You can follow them on facebook by clicking here.

There. Maybe that’ll get me some retweets.

So You Want To Be A Brewer: The Inevitability of Crushing Defeat At The Hands Of Mike Lackey

At some point in the middle of the last month, probably during a week when there were midterm exams, I was surprised by an email about the Ontario IPA Challenge. I knew it was coming up, but usually Volo sort of organizes their events independently and it seemed a little too early in the process for them to be sending an email to me, even as a save the date sort of thing for the judging. I was part of the panel of judges last year for the event, so I figured that’s probably what it was and assumed that I didn’t need to look at it immediately and went back to pretending to learn more about centrifugal pumps and turbulent flow than I was actually managing to do.

As it turns out, I was actually being invited to compete independently in the Ontario IPA Challenge as a brewer. This was not, as you may assume, a situation for that called for unalloyed joy.  There are a lot of things to take in to account in a situation like this one:

First of all, I’m not really a brewer. I’m a beer writer who’s a bit of a dilettante brewer on the side, sometimes, when I have a good idea and I’m pretty sure I can make a drinkable beer out of it. I’ve done two semesters of brewing school at Niagara College (initially pretty dashed well and then subsequently less well as I realized that taking on writing a book and 20 hours of commuting a week were mutually exclusive goals that only a madman would actually attempt. I mean, sometimes I require sleep.) and I’ve got about five collaborative brews under my belt.

Secondly, sometimes my beer actually turns out alright. Usually, when this happens I give credit to whomever I’m brewing with, whether it’s Paul Dickey or Mike Lackey or Jason Tremblay or Jon Hodd. The fact that not one of them has been a complete stinker is testament to the talent of these guys who are kind enough to let me borrow their brewing systems and make sure I don’t do anything really stupid. Probably, though, I can afford by now to take a little bit of credit for one thing: my beers have not actually killed anyone. Sometimes people even like them.

Thirdly, there is just no way that I was ever going to win the Ontario IPA Challenge. I was relatively sure that if I could get time on a system somewhere in Toronto and actually manage to brew a beer, it would probably end up being palatable. It might even make it to the second round, depending on the way the first leg of the contest was drawn up. Beyond that, probably not so much, especially since Mike Lackey continues in his seemingly endless path of IPA dominance.

Mike Lackey, as you’ll recall from previous years at the IPA challenge, has a reputation approximately the size of mechagodzilla. He had the top two beers in 2010. Karma Citra won last year, but I’m relatively sure that it crushed the competition by a wide margin and made grown people weep with its beauty. No one felt bad about losing to that beer. I’ve had that beer on tap since then, and honestly, I cannot envision a situation in which anyone will ever beat Mike Lackey in this challenge again unless he takes some ludicrous risks. Possibly, if someone shaves his beard, he will, like Samson, lose his powers.

It’s for that reason that I decided to just relax and have fun with the thing. Since I usually find a concept for a beer that I like and work backwards from that, I thought that it would be fun to work the other way, and I was obliged by my fellow Niagara College student Austin Roach. Austin is from an engineering background and a pretty analytical guy. I like working with him because we’re from more or less the same place geographically (East York) and we have a pretty similar sense of humour (huge nerds). When we talked about the recipe for the thing, he had just a bunch of ideas he wanted to try and I agreed with all of them.

For instance, you can’t win the Ontario IPA challenge by emulating the West Coast IPA style anymore. Great Lakes has that covered. What you could do is emulate the water in Chico, California. We like the hop presence of Sierra Nevada beers and suspect it has something to do with the water profile. He wanted to play with the myrcene and humulene that would come out during the boil in various different types of hops. Those are both hop oils. My favorite hop oil is Linalool because it sounds like something you’d name a Fairy Princess.

What? It does.

We have used a pretty odd assortment of hops in our entry for the Ontario IPA Challenge, including a couple that were completely off my radar for this kind of thing. I think the only one I’ve used before is Galaxy, which made an appearance in the Gin and Juice beer I did at Volo last month. We’ve got some Galena and First Gold and Bullion in there as well. We have not done a test batch. We are making it up as we go along, footloose and fancy free. This is really about playing with the way these hops express their character, rather than some esoteric conceit that I’ve come up with. (I know! Let’s make a welsh mild that utilizes Peruvian maca root espresso and then find some tenuous connection between Wales and the Andes. I’ve got it! Double “L”. Llama Milld. Brilliant!)

Paul Dickey receives our thanks for letting us brew on his system at Black Oak. He’s a most gracious host, and I’ve only had to write a Standard Operating Procedure for his pilot system in exchange for the time. That’s a pretty good deal, if you ask me.

We’re referring to the collaboration as St. Roach. It will be available at the 4th annual Ontario Cask IPA Challenge. All I can promise you is that we enjoyed making it and that it should be substantially different than the other entries while still falling within the BJCP American IPA definition.

Also, expect to see St.John’s Wort Llama Milld on tap somewhere just as soon as I can convince someone that a Peruvian maca root espresso Welsh Mild is a good idea.