Sometimes, your relationship with a brewer starts out in a mildly contentious manner. That was certainly the case with Bell City and their Eureka Cream Ale. When they made their debut on the patio at the Rhino Summer Beer Fest in 2013, I remember having the following conversation with the owner (I had not even had beer yet):
“It’s, uh, not a Cream Ale.”
“I think you’ll find it is”
“It’s good, but it’s not a Cream Ale.”
Then I wandered off to find additional liquids as one does at a beer festival. There were other new things to try. Flying Monkeys had their Dallas Green Collaboration; a maple wheat wine just slightly out of place on a muggy 40 degree day. Also, West Avenue Cider was making their first appearance anywhere. Chris Haworth stole the show that day, the cleanly tart Heritage Dry aided by the oppressive swelter.
It wasn’t a Cream Ale. In fact, it still isn’t a Cream Ale. It may be cold conditioned, but the number of different malts and hops render the question of conditioning moot. It might be closer to a Common.
I imagine that it must be hard for contract brewers who are getting into the business. They have a vision they want to carve out for themselves and frequently the first product is only one facet of that vision. The contract players who are resilient enough to survive and eventually purchase their own space and equipment may have the pieces come together. For OCBG 2 one of the pleasant surprises is how frequently that has happened.
In Newmarket, Arch’s plaza storefront doesn’t make a huge amount of sense based on what you might have expected from O’Red IPA. I doubt anyone could have foreseen that within the period between their advent and their physical space opening Kensington would be best represented by a Pilsner. I don’t think that the Cowbell beers (Doc Purdue’s Bobcat and Absent Landlord) really express who they are going to be once they amalgamate the town of Blyth into their cellar. Spearhead, possibly the only exception here, is going to continue being Spearhead.
In Bell City’s case, though, the transformation is really significant. I visited them the same day I toured Norfolk County’s breweries. I had a sense of all of those. If a brewery is a character in a larger narrative, it is hard to be more self possessed than Ramblin’ Road, Blue Elephant and New Limburg. They are concretely who they are, possibly without consideration toward attempting to become that. Respectively: A peanut farmer making accessible beer to go with his snacks, A Thai restaurant that became a brewpub, and a family of Belgian people making Belgian beer.
For Bell City, the sense of identity was a little more confusing. Before this year if you’d asked me, I would have said they’re from Brantford and that they’re referencing inventors in their beer names. I would have said that their Cream Ale isn’t a Cream Ale and that Lenoir has been variable in quality.
That would have been about it.
Mash Paddle in Brantford is open only on weekends (a fact I didn’t appreciate when I was planning the day) and therefore I had rather more time to spend at Bell City than I had anticipated. They had been open in a physical space for nine months and that had made the difference. They had a small taproom which was relatively well populated for a Thursday afternoon in an industrial park. The number of available beers had expanded greatly and now included Edison’s Peepshow IPA and Elijah’s Real McCoy. There were even beers not named after inventors. The audience seemed to be made up of Brantford’s beer people. Most amazingly to me, the small menu was attempting to bring the Cornish Pasty back as a beer snack in Ontario. I had not had one since Euston Station (steak and stilton). I sat and chatted and watched the Blue Jays until it was time to walk to the train station.
It was heartening. There was character developing. They had a following and brand new equipment with more on the way and a plan to build in an office on an as yet to be framed in second floor.
What I am surprised by is how quickly the individuation has continued. Bell City sent beer for me to try the other day. When you keep in mind that they have only been on site at their new location for a year, it becomes more impressive.
BREAKFAST WITH TIFFANY 2 FRENCH TOAST PORTER is not the sort of thing I would have expected from this brewery in 2013. The aroma is that of vanilla and cinnamon, but the fact is that it’s better than French Toast which I find to be the most underwhelming of specialty breakfast orders. It’s more sensorily assertive, leaning practically into yankee candle territory. It is actually more sophisticated than it needs to be. When you hear cinnamon in reference to beer, usually people go for the bright heat of the Valentine’s Day candies. In this case it is all bark and wood and there’s a canopy burst of woody cinnamon spice bolstered by hops on the soft palate at the head of the swallow that overbalances the hint of chocolate and dark roast. As a novelty, quite clever.
BREWED AWAKENING BLACK COFFEE IPA is also made up of sophisticated choices. Where some brewers load in the coffee and depend on that for the aromatic elements of a coffee IPA, the aroma here is straight down the middle between Americano and barky, spicy hops. The website says Chinook, which makes sense if it’s mostly bittering and flavour additions. The only real qualm here is that it’s ever so slightly thin bodied (nothing say 2% oats in the grist couldn’t flesh out), but otherwise a solid Cascadian Dark.
Finally, BLACK TIE AFFAIR which purports to be a Winter Ale but is probably stylistically closer to a Belgian Strong Ale. Pouring a very dark brown with ruby highlights, the aroma is plum and white peach with some mild boozy warmth. The mouthfeel is round and robust and the beer produces notes of prune, raisin, banana chips with a small bitter presence poking through on the latter half of the sip before it lightly coats the throat with sweetness. The complexity here would rival Belgian styles coming out of Quebec but possibly not Belgium. I feel as though bottle conditioning would eat away more of the Candi Sugar and burn it off as carbonation, at which point you might legitimately confuse this for a Unibroue product.
I don’t think you could have foreseen any of these products coming out of Bell City if you’d been stood on the Rhino patio in 2013. I’m not sure they could have either.
A brewery isn’t a fixed point in time. Whether they are on an upswing or a downswing, there’s a narrative arc to their existence. I know that with as much choice as exists currently it’s hard to justify revisiting things you didn’t like earlier, but in the case of a number of contractors turned physical brewers change has frequently occurred in unexpected ways and drives complexity you wouldn’t have anticipated. That’s as it should be. It’s just people, after all, and we are notoriously changeable.
I was walking along at the Ontario Craft Brewers Conference last fall and ran into the Bell City guys. I remember having the following conversation with the owner:
“Eureka’s tasting better than it has.”
“It won an award as an Amber Ale.”
And I wandered off to find additional liquids as one does at a conference.