Bar Volo has acquired quite a reputation for itself. Between the annual Cask Days festival, the rotating tap selection and continued importation of rare and interesting bottles, it has managed to rank 61st in Beer Traveler Magazine’s 150 Perfect Places to Have A Beer. I can tell you right now that they’re going to rank higher next time around. Today, at about 10:30AM, Bar Volo started on the road to becoming a functioning brew pub.
Over the last year or so there has been a lot of speculation amongst visitors about the timeline that this process was on. After all, the pilot brewing system has been sitting idle for what seems like a tantalizingly long time. Ralph Morana, the owner and now head brewer, had to make sure to conform to licensing requirements before it was possible to brew on premises. Perhaps more importantly, he wanted to make sure that he had the expertise to do justice to his vision of creating quality cask ales. Ralph has recently returned from three months of intensive training at Brewlab in Sunderland, UK. While he certainly possesses the technical expertise to be able to create his own products, he has wisely enlisted consultants in the form of the Biergotter Home Brew club in order to take advantage of their experience and manpower. You don’t want to try moving a 100 litre brew kettle by yourself. We’ve all seen that public service announcement.
Biergotter consists of Russ Burdick and Eric Ecclestone. For the last six years, they’ve been creating high quality beers with a DIY ethos. Their Hopocalypse and Hopocalypse Redux are legendary amongst Toronto cask ale fans. These beers topped out at over 100 IBU three years before American style IPAs caught on in Ontario. The boys haven’t been resting on their laurels, either. This year they submitted five beers to homebrewing competitions and four of them won
medals. They won the American Ale category at the Great Canadian Homebrew Comptetition. Last year they produced 195 gallons of beer. This is not some fly by night operation. These are journeymen. When asked why Ralph had chosen them, Eric responded, “Because we’re the best. Put that in your blag, St.John.” This collaboration has been a long time coming and Eric went on to explain that they’d been looking for a project to work on together for three years.
I’m mostly familiar with Russ and Eric from time spent with them at beer festivals and nights at the pub, meaning that this was one of the first times I’ve seen either of them without a pint glass in their hand. Imagine my surprise upon walking into Volo this morning to find sober people with wrenches, sealing tape, clipboards and yeast slurry laid out in an organized manner. At the time I arrived, Ralph and Russ were hunched over their laptops planning out the brew day and making recipe adjustments. Ralph was decked out in his Brewlab shirt and reading glasses. Russ stared fervently at his Promash software. It was clearly business time.
Today was a first attempt at using the equipment that Ralph purchased last year. While there was a certain amount of time spent on trying to figure out exactly how all the pieces fit together, the most impressive thing about the collaboration is the adjustment of styles that took place during the brew run. Biergotter’s setup is almost entirely manual. If things need to be moved, there’s going to be some heavy labour involved. The pilot system at Volo is a three tiered system designed to allow for a certain amount of stability and automation. A typical brew day for Biergotter takes between six and seven hours, but the technological advances of the pilot system allowed for a significant reduction in the amount of time expended. In terms of the experience he gained at Brewlab which dealt mostly with British Ales, Ralph benefited from Biergotter’s technical expertise with other styles; skimming excess proteins from the brew kettle and adjustments to hopping levels based on Original Gravity, for instance.
This is a move that makes a great deal of sense for Bar Volo when you stop to think about it objectively. Because of their reputation for having high quality cask ales available the majority of the time, this will allow them to ensure that there is a constant supply of fresh and interesting products available. The ability to customize recipes and experiment with various styles of cask beer will also ensure continuing innovation and promote discourse about the possibilities of nanobrewing as a viable enterprise in Ontario. The cost of materials for nanobrewing is a great deal lower than the cost of bringing in a cask or keg from another brewery. The system is capable of producing nearly 100 liters of beer which, if you take the inevitable spillage during production into account, should result in four 20 liter pins. It gives Ralph and his consultants from Biergotter carte blanche to experiment, given that if a batch doesn’t work out the financial loss is manageable. It also means that the same quality control measures can be performed from batch to batch and there’s no chance of damage to the beer in transit. When the plans for the system are complete, it will include a fermentation room in the basement regulated to 20 degrees Celsius which will allow for optimal conditioning.
While it remains to be seen exactly what will result from today’s experimentation, it’s clear to me that there are great things in the works. Tomas Morana let it slip that future plans involve scheduling a lineup of consultants to provide Ralph with their expertise and provide Toronto beer nerds with delightful collaborative brews. There’s even the possibility that they might let Julian near the thing (sometime before he turns thirty).
It’s early days to claim that this is going to be a gamechanger in Ontario. It does provide a framework for people trying to experiment with nanobrewing, and that is useful information to have as the industry continues to expand. This is going to be a success for Bar Volo and for Biergotter. While this brew run may be more about working out the kinks in the system than anything else, there’s always the possibility that you could be enjoying the Saison they brewed today on the patio in a couple of weeks.