I want to point something out to you, and it will seem obvious in retrospect: Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewery is running a tap takeover at Bar Volo on February 2nd. It sold out completely in about 4 hours. The first rating on Boneshaker IPA on Ratebeer.com is May 2010. That was the first beer they produced that you could point to and say “Oh hey. That’s not Amsterdam Blonde at all.”
This means that in the span of about 33 months, Amsterdam brewery has gotten to the point where they feel comfortable releasing 32 beers to the public at the same time. That’s about a beer a month. Many of these beers are aged in wine or bourbon barrels and will have been sitting there for quite a while. This all happened at the same time that they were moving their brewery across the city.
It’s not exactly like the organization has done a 180. They still produce a whole lot of Amsterdam Blonde, which is… y’know… wet. That’s ok. People like liquids.
Possibly, it’s because of the changes that have been taking place over there that I tend to criticize one man more frequently than anyone else in the Ontario brewing scene. His name is Iain McOustra. He works for Amsterdam as Head Brewer and he has been experimenting with varying beer styles for a while now. One time, I suggested that he danced on the head of a pin, trying to satisfy the tastes of Toronto beer drinkers. I may have suggested that he did it in a tutu. I am still sorry for putting that image in your head, because even two years on, no one needs that.
His methods are a little odd. If you look at the way that pilot brews and the development of differing styles works in Ontario, it’s easy to see some examples of systematic progress. I mean, we didn’t get Great Lakes Karma Citra without Mike Lackey brewing literally dozens of batches of different IPAs in a sort of research capacity. I think that Iain’s approach is a little more scattershot, but this is probably because he gets excited about so many different ideas. I’m not saying there’s not progression, but it doesn’t always end up being in a consistent direction.
I haven’t ever really publicly criticized the stuff he’s done. I’ll mostly just give him feedback to his face. Now, to be fair, I’ve never intentionally downrated anything that he has done just to annoy him. When he has done well, I’ve told him so. When he has not done as well as he hoped, I have periodically embellished slightly after his first burst of profanity, because he’s just so easy to rile up.
It’ll sometimes go like this, as it did in 2011:
J: I really don’t like this Hulk Hogan thing. Is it a Kolsch? It’s a little catty.
IM: What? MotherF***er? That S**t is the bomb.
J: No, man. It tastes like an ocelot peed next to it and the pee seeped in there.
The point is this: I have, for the last… let’s say year or so, given Iain a batting average for his beers at any single event. At the 2011 Movember Bash, he hit about .400. This is not bad if you’re Ted Williams. It meant that about 2 of 5 brews that he made for the occasion were good. Good is maybe underselling it. The thing is that if you’re going to have your own event, if you know you’re going to be serving beer to people, you want to do the best you can. Experimental brews have the potential to bring your average down. Nature of the beast. You aren’t going to come out a hero the first time all the time.
Then there was a night at Volo when he had a few beers on. Night Train, I think the specialty was called. That was an .800 night. 4/5. The man did good. People liked this. It was a funkifized brown ale on a wine barrel tip. I liked it. Hell, I told him so.
At the Hart House festival, there was Sleeping Giant Barley Wine, which made really solid use of the barrel character. At Cask Days this year, everything the man touched turned to gold. Full City Tempest? A proper coffee Imperial Stout as good as anything in that style that has been brewed in this province?
Between all of this stuff, I was down at Amsterdam periodically, to fill up a ridiculous wooden keg or on a beer tour of Toronto when Iain was dodging the host and I didn’t really want to pretend I didn’t know about how lager was made. He showed me something in a Golden Ale in a Pinot barrel. I might have been the first to taste that one. It was, at that point, mellow and a skooch mango-y. I still gave him a going over for “what market is there for this and who’s going to drink it?”
So when the Amsterdam night at Volo sold completely out in about four hours, I wasn’t all that surprised that there was a market. The only problem is that there are 32 taps. That’s a lot of taps. There will be misses. No one bats a thousand. It just doesn’t happen. Name a brewery that does everything perfectly. Go on. Do it. You can’t. I’d say a .500 performance would be a good deal on 32 taps.
Either way, this is something of a landmark in terms of Amsterdam’s development, in the dichotomy between the easily approachable, slightly pedestrian fare in their core lineup and the new, exciting, more sophisticated stuff of the last three years. Will Iain McOustra be able to bring the recent standard of quality one-offs to bare on the new brewpub? Will they finally scrap the KLB zombie brands? Will Jamie Mistry show up wearing his Lederhosen?
The answer to all these questions is “probably.”
Edit: Some readers seem to be of the opinion that I am somehow anti-McOustra. This is not the case. I am very much pro-McOustra, even if I needle him periodically. He gives as good as he gets. The point of the article here is to showcase the fact that his development as a brewer has been interesting to watch and is more and more frequently resulting in excellent one-off beers. While I have made it clear that 16/32 really good beers would be a respectable outing for a tap takeover of this magnitude, I have little doubt that he’ll surpass that mark, especially when you take the collaborations into account. That said, I don’t think anyone is going to completely dominate on 32 taps. To ascribe that likelihood to any brewer would be to engender potential disappointment. If you try to do a difficult thing well, you will sometimes fail.