St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Category Archives: The North American Tour

In Which We Visit Ommegang

It was the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend and we were barrelling down on Cooperstown, New York through the rolling hills of the Leatherstocking region. When I say “we”, I mean Dad and my younger brother Andy. We were there mostly to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, but, knowing that Cooperstown was just down the highway from Ommegang, we thought that it would make sense to pay that a visit as well.

The car provides an indication of scale that would not be immediately obvious otherwise.

The car provides an indication of scale that would not be immediately obvious otherwise.

The winding country roads that follow the contours of the hills and lakes to the brewery at Ommegang lend the place a sense of isolation. Truth be told, Cooperstown is not a very large town and is fairly remote itself. The countryside is idyllic in early October and the sheer number of leafers up from the cities was obvious by the crowding in the parking lot and the Nikon branded camera straps hanging around L.L. Bean collars. The red and gold leaves on the hill in back of the brewery frame the brewery, which looks as though it was airlifted in from another century.

The brewery at Ommegang is deceptive. It was built in the mid 1990’s after a clearly Belgian inspired design. This means that it is really two wings of a building separated by what amounts to a gatehouse. The mirrored chevron pattern on the roof may hold some meaning that I’m unaware of, but it mostly presents a pleasing symmetry. It is a great deal larger than you would assume, looking at the outside and the brewhouse is laid out in a way that makes perfect sense.

The brewhouse, if you can picture it, is a the far end of one of the wings of the brewery in a large, circular room.

The brewhouse, if you can picture it, is a the far end of one of the wings of the brewery in a large, circular room.

I had sent an email to the brewery, asking what would be the best time to show up on a Sunday and when the tours ran. They very kindly offered to fit us in on a private tour before they started doing the official ones for the day.

Pete, who was good enough to shepherd us around the brewery (and to make sure we had adequate ocular protection) told us some very interesting things that I hadn’t realized. Ommegang is owned by Duvel Moortgat, but I didn’t realize that they had been purchased by them in 2003. This ends up being massively beneficial for Ommegang in a lot of ways. First of all, Duvel possesses a range of properties. There’s Achouffe and Liefman’s, both of which produce some stellar beers. I hadn’t realized that Ommegang’s Three Philosophers actually uses Liefman’s Kriek in order to add the cherry flavour to the beer. When you think about the logistics of that, it’s fairly daunting. That Kriek would be barrel aged and then kegged and shipped across the Atlantic before you could blend it with the Belgian Quad. (It’s much to Pete’s credit, incidentally, that he referred to Belgian Quadruple as “that made up style.”) They also have the benefit of using equipment that other breweries in the family have outgrown. They had a state of the art centrifugal filter on loan from Achouffe.

Liefman's ready to be blended into a batch of Three Philosophers.

Liefman’s ready to be blended into a batch of Three Philosophers.

The other thing that I didn’t realize is how much in demand their product is. I believe I’m quoting the tour correctly when I say that last year they brewed 40,000 BBL of beer and this year they’re aiming for 56,000 BBL. They may not make it to that level, but in order to even attempt it, they now have nine brewers working around the clock five days a week. We can only hope the Leatherstocking aquifer can support that.

It's hard to imagine getting 56,000 BBL through this brewery, but the fact that the beers are bottle conditioned would help with ferment time.

It’s hard to imagine getting 56,000 BBL through this brewery, but the fact that the beers are bottle conditioned would help with ferment time.

I found myself wondering about the difficulties of expanding production while keeping to the traditional methods currently in use. Ommegang uses open fermenters for the initial period of fermentation, taking krausen from the top of the previous batch and inserting it into the next one. The yeast is the dominant aroma in the brewery; the result of the Belgian strain that they’re using for all of their beers.

My visit was just a week before the announcement that Duvel Moortgat had taken over Boulevard in Kansas City, so I have some perspective on that takeover given what I’ve seen. I cannot imagine that this news is anything but positive. The strength of having a number of high quality brands under the same roof is clear in terms of resources available. If anything, Boulevard will probably improve slightly because they’ll have access to more materials. It’s not going to result in a dumbed down product. The thing that impressed me most is that a brewery like Ommegang should have a pilot system. Apparently those nine brewers I mentioned schedule time on the weekend to come in and brew pilot batches. If anything, the number of talented people working on the core lineup will result in research and development for interesting projects later on.

It’s the kind of thing that makes Stone Brewery’s pathetic barbs on twitter about the buyout make them look like angst ridden tweens.

It was a perfect day for a tour, with the temperature sitting somewhere around August.

It was a perfect day for a tour, with the temperature sitting somewhere around August.

Interestingly, out back of the building by the treeline, there’s a hop garden that is apparently part of an ongoing study by Cornell University to acquire information about hop growing in New York State. We all know that at one point it was a significant industry. Until the blight. I would imagine that the study will help determine whether hop yards should be moved back into the North East on a volume basis. If the number of breweries continues to expand, you’re going to need more hops. They’ve got 25 varieties planted, so it will be interesting to see what thrives. The research Alan and I have been doing on Ontario suggests that the varieties planted in the early 19th century were likely indigenous humulus lupulus varieties and not bred to resist blight. I shall have to get on the phone to Cornell and see what they can point me to in terms of resources.

Though the cones had long since been harvested, they kept the ends out for the bines that twined.

Though the cones had long since been harvested, they kept the ends out for the bines that twined.

Dad was skeptical, pointing out that it may not have been necessary to have the hops right next to a brewery and that the decision to have the site at all may have had something to do with the students’ desire to drink beer. I do not doubt it informed their decision.

I was impressed by the tasting portion of the tour and the café. Apparently the Ommegang Witte makes a fantastic mimosa, something that was mentioned by no fewer than three staff members (one of whom mentioned it while attempting to pour some from a draught tap into a half full Tropicana bottle with results that can only be described as risible.) I was most impressed by the Harvest beer, Scythe and Sickle. Rather than attempt to use wet hops or pumpkin spice, the brewers went with four varieties of grain: Barley, Oats, Rye and Wheat. The result with the Ommegang yeast is a beer with lively carbonation and a full body and rye spice in the mid palate that dries out nearly completely on the finish. I found myself wishing that more people would make beer that tastes like grain. It paired nicely with a croque madame from their café.

The Croque Madame is really about the bechamel sauce and the mustard. The Scythe and Sickle really cut through the creamy sauce.

The Croque Madame is really about the bechamel sauce and the mustard. The Scythe and Sickle really cut through the creamy sauce.

Andy had the frites (I think they’re triple cooked) and a pizza crepe. I am told it was good. It disappeared quickly enough. It’s interesting to have lunch with a very morally proper fifteen year old at the end of a brewery tour. Indeed, justifying the beer writing career to a fifteen year old who believes that even trying a sip of beer might warp his spine, corrupt his soul and lose the country the war is a struggle. Especially if the fifteen year old in question is 6’5″. Then again, he took pictures on the tour and updated facebook with a giant bottle of Duvel, so he may be coming around. He’s a good kid.

The impression that I came away with is that Ommegang is going to do some really interesting things in the next couple of years. They have talented people working on new ideas. The beer that they make is extremely consistent. In a number of ways they’re pretty far removed from the average North American craft brewery in terms of their attitude. They’re not about extremity. They’re not wild and crazy. The sense I get is that they will never turn out a bad beer. The R&D that the brewers are doing on the pilot system might help them turn out something really special in the near future, especially given the existing situation at the brewery of cautious optimism.

Big Rock – Changes in Direction

One of the things that always interests me in craft beer is how larger regional breweries deal with the market. Of course, there are independently owned regional breweries like Great Western who are pretty much devoted to doing one thing and doing it well. Then there are large breweries like Big Rock that make a number of different beers which would have been considered relatively adventurous at one point in their history.

It's Alberta. Each brewery is mandated by law to own a cow.

It’s Alberta. Each brewery is mandated by law to own a cow.

I’ve been compiling notes on beers from Big Rock for a while now, but it wasn’t until February that I got out there to see the brewery. One of the things that’s amazing to me is the amount of hushed respect that everyone I talked to had for the first brewmaster at Big Rock: Bernd Pieper. The brewery produces something like 330,000 HL and I was given to understand that most of it was laid out under his watchful eye. It can always be a little daunting to have a shadow like that around a brewery, especially if you’re trying to change direction.

Now, this is the size that they're making most of their beer on. It's huge. This is the third story.

Now, this is the size that they’re making most of their beer on. It’s huge. This is the third story.

The size is a significant factor in changing the direction of a brewery. If you’re making 200,000 HL of beer and another 130,000 HL of your capacity is tied up in brewing for contracts, then you’ve already got a relatively sure thing going. The beers all have an internal logical consistency for better or for worse. You’ve got a series named after animals which sells pretty well. You’ve got a series named after the brewery’s founder which is, I guess, more highly regarded. You can’t simply change a brand after nearly 25 years. Well, you could, but you’d always wonder whether the market would follow you before you rolled out the new brands.

It's the obligatory malt room shot. Only interesting because of the scale.

It’s the obligatory malt room shot. Only interesting because of the scale.

If you’re someone like Paul Gautreau, who’s brewing there now, I suppose the question is “what do you do to maintain the reputation of the brewery while attempting to keep up with emerging craft brewers who are free to create brands from scratch that feel contemporary?”

You have to stand out from the crowd, but in order to be considered by the crowd you probably need one offs. You could jump on the bandwagon and make a big hoppy west coast IPA, but that puts you square in the middle of intense competition from imports in a style you’re not known for. You could do that, but it would be an uphill climb. Instead, this year, they published a road map545957_10151547253490660_950734235_n

The decision to make a bunch of fairly esoteric beer reminds me a lot of Great Lakes in Ontario. In point of fact, one of the beers in the alchemist is a Stein beer, which is one of the things Great Lakes was doing when I first started paying attention. Superheating a lump of granite seems like a bad idea to me, but I have long since been rendered cautious by those PSA’s with the robot from Saturday morning cartoons.

Big Rock, possibly because they noticed that my column runs in Calgary, started sending me beer about a year ago. Now, some of them have been a touch underwhelming. I think that the Helles Bock was brewed very much to the dead center of the style and as a result wasn’t really a standout. I think the Saaz Pilz could probably have had a touch more Saaz in retrospect. I also question whether I simply don’t like their lager yeast strain. I usually get a slightly sour finish of Big Rock lagers.

I love it when people refer to systems of this size as their pilot system. It makes me wonder whether they homebrew in a small glacial lake.

I love it when people refer to systems of this size as their pilot system. It makes me wonder whether they homebrew in a small glacial lake.

But some of the Big Rock stuff has been pretty good. In point of fact, some of it has been really good.

Some of them I never wrote about in the newspaper. I think they understand that not all of them are going to make it to print. Take, for instance, Barghest Barleywine. Well, first of all, there are only 3000 bottles. Secondly, it’s not for sale in four of the markets in which the column appears.

It was as though I had asked them to send me the beer with the largest amount of Bargh possible.

It was as though I had asked them to send me the beer with the largest amount of Bargh possible.

That said, it was a pretty astonishing little number. It had already been aged in barrels for a year prior to bottling. I think that it was made in the image of the Thomas Hardy, and while I had to drink the bottle that was sent for notes, I had the sneaking suspicion that it would probably have aged and improved for five years. There was a slight character of sherry-like oxidation that I think would have merged eventually with the dried fruit and caramel that was in there. I could see what he was trying to do, which was a good sign. Trying to emulate something that respected while most people are going for big hoppy American Barleywine is laudable. (Next time, larger volume and more bottles so you can do vertical events in years to come.)

Seriously, 3000 bottles is just not a big enough run for something like this.

Seriously, 3000 bottles is just not a big enough run for something like this.

The Purple Gas didn’t really do it for me. I mean, who puts together a wheat based beer with an indigenous fruit variety and blue agave nectar… I mean, other than that time I did it.

The Paradox Light Dark Ale, on the other hand, was pretty darn good. I don’t know why they named it the way that they did. It was essentially a mild bitter. It was nicely balanced and at 3.75% it would have been a great summer barbeque beer. Probably, they should have made more of that one as well. (In my notes I gave it a 3.5/5. The spider tasting chart looks a little like a dyspeptic seagull, which is neither here nor there.)

The Erratic Stone Fired Ale (see, cause it’s a hunk of granite and they’re named after a glacial erratic.) was probably one of the best packaging jobs I’ve seen on a Canadian beer this year. The aroma was a massive caramel and sweet malt hit, but on the palate it dissipates away through some minerally tones. The first sip is luscious malt, but maybe so much of it that it seems to recede on subsequent ones. I have written in my notes “interesting style, good experiment” which I think is all anyone can expect of a Stein Beer.

This is a legitimately attractive packaging solution. If you told me it was from Big Rock without showing me the press release, I would have been shocked.

This is a legitimately attractive packaging solution. If you told me it was from Big Rock without showing me the press release, I would have been shocked.

Last week, they sent a beer called Rosmarinus Aromatic Ale, which is pretty much a Pale Ale with some rosemary infused. The rosemary exists in it as a faint aroma and as an accent on the palate. I don’t know why, but the hop schedule seems to have worked with it. Of the new school, this is probably the best result. Really quite tasty, plus I bet you could marinate a Pork Tenderloin in it.

Here’s the thing: Big Rock and Paul Gautreau are getting better at creation, which is a hard thing to do when you’re brewing a really large amount of only a few kinds of beer. The quality of the one offs has been steadily ticking up since they started them. Some of the ones on the list I’m actually excited about trying. The thing is this: being a creative brewer is different than brewing a brand on a large scale, but Big Rock is managing the transition better than I would have expected. At some point in the near future they’re going to really nail something and shock the hell out of everyone that hasn’t been paying attention.






Craft Brewing in Alberta – An Outsider’s Perspective

I don’t pretend to understand the Alberta beer scene completely. After all, I was only there for about five days, and there’s only so much information you can process. Fortunately, brewers like to talk.

While the column this week is about the unique beer hall scene that Alberta has developed over the last two or three years, one of the things that you have to understand is the conditions that have made that possible. Ontario, because of its thoroughly unique set of laws, has just reached the point where there are 100 microbreweries (although, some of those are in planning.) British Columbia is going through a similar spurt of growth. Both Ontario and British Columbia have long and storied histories with craft brewing, dating back essentially to the advent of the craft beer movement. Alberta’s history is less storied.

The beer hall scene in Alberta exists mostly because of privatization in the early 1990’s, which means that there are any number of beers available on tap that would be impossible to get in Ontario. You might be tempted to leap to the conclusion that the demand for local beer doesn’t exist because of this available variety. Over the course of 48 hours, I got to sample things from Brooklyn, Deschutes, Ducato, Mikkeller, Evil Twin and Tamarack (which I had never tried before and which was a pleasant surprise.)

It seems to me that any scene that can support 60 or 72 or 120 taps is always going to be hungry for more variety, and that will play into the hands of anyone that can set up local breweries. The question is therefore “where are the local breweries?” Near as I can tell there are approximately 11 for the entire province, with three more in the offing.

The problem is that the barrier to entry is simply too high for there to be a rush to very small micro breweries or nano breweries. The way that licensing works in Alberta is that a Class E license (the one that lets you make beer) has a certain number of requirements, which I’ll quote here from the Licensee Handbook:

A Class E licence may be issued to a qualified applicant to manufacturer liquor in Alberta. The manufacturer must meet the following production requirements, with production capacity minimums met within 18 months of start-up:

a) Brewery

i) 5,000 hectolitres (1 hectolitre = 100 litres) minimum annual production capacity;

ii) all beer manufactured on site;

iii) fermentation, maturation and storage tanks with a minimum capacity of 10 hectolitres each; and

iv) 50 hectolitres minimum weekly capacity for fermentation, maturation and storage, with space available for additional tanks to achieve minimum annual production capacity

Now, this is truly interesting and goes a long way to explaining why you only have eleven breweries.

5,000 hl of beer doesn’t seem like a huge amount of beer, until you realize that it’s 500,000 litres.
That is to say that you have to be able to make a million pints of beer a year within 18 months of starting up. Additionally, all of your fermenters have to contain at least a thousand litres and you need at least enough of them to make five thousand litres a week. Even given those conditions, five thousand litres a week puts you at about half of your minimum annual production capacity, so you’re really talking about much larger scale equipment.

There are breweries in Ontario that have been around for more than a decade that have never reached the theoretical minimum amount of beer you’d need in Alberta for the AGLC to consider you above board. In point of fact, I’d guess that some of our more interesting new breweries may never see 5000hl.

Consider being someone looking to start up a brewery in Alberta. Can you imagine the relative cost of meeting those standards? You probably need at least a 10hl brewhouse, five 20hl fermenters, storage vessels to keep the product moving and possibly multiple bright tanks for packaging. Not to mention the packaging lines, the packaging materials, labour, renovations to whatever structure you’re going to end up in and you’ll need a sales force to move all of the beer that you’re producing. Simply, the barrier to entry is Capital.

You’d need a significant amount of investment just to open your doors, and you’d better be damned sure that you’re brewing something the public wants. You’d need to be turning a profit fairly quickly in order to keep the doors open. As I toured around the breweries, there were some significant indications that this doesn’t always happen.

The Hog's Head Logo: Tastefully shaded, but slightly evil lookin'.

The Hog’s Head Logo: Tastefully shaded, but slightly evil lookin’.

Hog’s Head Brewing in St.Albert is Edmonton’s newest brewery, and I can tell you that they do not suffer from lack of expertise or talent or ambition. Their first beer was a year round spiced pumpkin beer, which should tell you all you need to know about their faith in their product. The Hopslayer IPA is probably their most objectively impressive brew, containing five hop varieties at somewhere near 80 IBU. Their beers are as hop forward and as assertive as anything being brewed in Canada, and they’ve only been at it for six months. Plus, their labeling is entertaining.

Hog's Head Baby Back IPA : "That'll do, beer. That'll do."

Hog’s Head Baby Back IPA : “That’ll do, beer. That’ll do.”

The brewery itself, if I may be forgiven for saying so, is held together by engineering skill and sheer force of will. It seemed to me that they were running flat out in an attempt to reach the amount of production the provincial government stipulates. I have no doubt that they’ll succeed, but as their brewer, Bruce, was showing me around the brewery, he would periodically point out which breweries their equipment had come from. The equipment was certainly well loved, with the occasional ding or scratch that years of vigorous use still don’t quite account for.

Sometimes I think to myself that a brewery logo doesn't really need a caption. This should probably have been one of those times.

Sometimes I think to myself that a brewery logo doesn’t really need a caption. This should probably have been one of those times.

Another example is the Yellowhead Brewery in Edmonton. It’s housed in a building that was specially designed for a brewery. In fact, it previously held Maverick Brewing. It’s a delightful space, and their brewer, Bryce, is clearly extremely able and talented. They currently brew Yellowhead Lager, which I would consider a Northern German Pilsner. It has that light grain and slight hint of grape, with a small hoppy bite. Eventually, they’re looking to expand to a second variety. For the time being, they would be content with becoming Edmonton’s beer in much the same way that you might claim Steam Whistle was Toronto’s beer. I would not claim that they are copying the model, but they are doing one thing well.

The brewhouse at Yellowhead is visible from the street, which is an excellent reason to break out your brewhouse polish and chamois.

The brewhouse at Yellowhead is visible from the street, which is an excellent reason to break out your brewhouse polish and chamois.

The space the brewery occupies at Yellowhead might be one of the nicest I've ever seen. There's such an airy feeling.

The space the brewery occupies at Yellowhead might be one of the nicest I’ve ever seen. There’s such an airy feeling.

The thing that struck me is that the space is full of the spectre of Maverick Brewing. From their white horizontal tanks which now sit disused in a corner of the brewery to the unused promotional materials housed elsewhere in the rambling warehouse, there are reminders that the previous tenants did not quite make it. Bryce was quick to point out how ludicrous some of those promos were. “Who gives out a knife in a case of beer?”

Sometimes, even with aggressive marketing, breweries don't make it out of their first few years in Alberta.

Sometimes, even with aggressive marketing, breweries don’t make it out of their first few years in Alberta.

I don’t know whether I would find the reminder that Maverick Brewing didn’t make it a source of motivation or a big dark cloud over the proceedings, but looking at the almost impossibly polished new stainless steel fermentors, I got the sense that it is ignored as much as possible while people get on with business. When you’ve got to brew 5,000hl in your second year, it is hard to afford time for reflection.

In some cases, because of the scale and capital needed, you end up with what is a beautifully engineered almost entirely new brewery. Village Brewery in Calgary fits the bill completely on this front and is probably one of the best looking breweries I’ve ever seen. I’m a bit of a duffer on the process front when it comes to brewing, but looking out from the tasting room balcony I think that even a layman could probably tell you how the entire process would flow from brewhouse to kegging at Village. It’s almost terrifyingly well appointed.

Village's entire brewery is just pristine. Great use of the space in terms of layout.

Village’s entire brewery is just pristine. Great use of the space in terms of layout.

They make three varieties at the moment and work in a seasonal periodically. There was a Chai Winter Porter earlier this year. During my visit they were refining a special project for the spring and debating the amount and type of spicing like brewers everywhere do. Of their regular lineup, I believe that the Witbier is probably their strongest offering, with the Black IPA running a close second.

The truly interesting thing about Village is the model that they’re using for promotion. The business card reads “It Takes A Village,” a sentiment that Jim Button has borrowed from Hillary Clinton. You could be forgiven for forgetting that Village is in the beer business. The concern seems to be with bringing people together within Calgary, whether through culture or music. 10% of the bottom line goes to promoting a sense of community. There are podcasts available through the website. They even have a radio truck. They support visual arts. Their t-shirts and other paraphernalia are designed by local artists who keep the profits from their sales.

Jim Button: Next Mayor of Calgary or Steve Beauchesne's Doppelganger?

Jim Button: Next Mayor of Calgary or Steve Beauchesne’s Doppelganger?

I’m normally as skeptical as hell when I see things like this. At the same time, having talked to Jim at some length, I know that he’s genuinely interested in expanding Calgary’s cultural scene. Clearly, one of the side effects is that the brewery appears to be hip and with it and sells an awful lot of beer into the bargain. Not only does it ensure sales for a startup brewery, the entire culture of the city benefits and Village Brewing becomes inseparable from the artistic scene as it develops over the next decade. Jim would make a good mayor.

The commonality in all of these approaches is that they are finding ways to deal with AGLC License E. This has resulted in a situation where Yellowhead and Hog’s Head simply want to be the beer of choice for Edmonton and Village wants to be Calgary’s craft beer. This, more or less, means that neither of these cities currently have a representative brew.  Given the state of craft brewing in the rest of North America in 2013, where many major cities have as many breweries as Alberta does in total, this is baffling to an outsider.

It strikes me as odd that Alberta, which is rather more American than the majority of provinces, should have strictures in place that effectively limit the amount of local competition in brewing. It’s especially confusing when you consider the drinking culture that has sprung up in Edmonton and Calgary over the course of the last few years. Clearly, this is a market that can support an almost endless amount of variety. Sherbrooke Liquor has 1400 beers on offer from day to day. Craft Beer Market is absolutely thrumming along with over a hundred taps. The demand is there, but the supply seems to come almost exclusively from outside the province of Alberta. It’s not without reason that breweries from British Columbia and Ontario view Alberta as an additional market for their products.

If ever there was a time to revisit the reasoning behind the laws as they exist, it is now. Craft brewing provides employment. It provides a source of revenue through taxation. It provides a sense of local pride. Limiting the expansion of the industry with an artificial minimum volume seems vaguely anti-capitalist.

Changing the laws would also display some significant forethought for the brewing program that’s going in at Olds College in Alberta. In Ontario, we’re starting to see graduates of the Niagara College brewing program opening their own breweries, albeit on a relatively small scale. Imagine going into the Olds College program under the misapprehension that you’ll be able to start your own brewery fresh out of school. Unless you’ve got an extremely wealthy silent partner, that’s a pipe dream in Alberta. As it stands, I imagine this would probably result in brain drain to British Columbia or the United States.

The truth is that with some minor changes to the laws as they exist, you could have a craft beer explosion in Alberta within the next five years. The demand is there, and from what I’ve seen, there’s certainly no lack of talent or ambition.



Beer and Food – Charcut

Probably the highlight of Alberta so far was dinner at Charcut Roast House, which has garnered a reputation as one of the best new restaurants in Canada. I didn’t realize, when I saw it on the itinerary exactly why I knew what it was. It turns out that the chef is Connie DeSousa, who was a solid competitor on Top Chef Canada Season One. When I started looking into it a little more, I found out that this is a place that has developed a practically cultish following as a result of its cuisine and because of their Alley Burgers. The idea was that the restaurant would periodically inform the public through social media that  there was going to be a set number of burgers offered through the alley door of the restaurant. I’d say that if you can get people to line up in -35 degree weather, it’s got to be a pretty exceptional burger.

I was mostly interested in Charcut because they are one of the only restaurants in Canada with a beer sommelier on staff. This makes complete sense since the menu deals with shared platters of hugely beer friendly food. Kirk Bodnar prefers the moniker of Beer Steward. We have a lot in common. We’re both Cicerone Certified Beer Servers and we’re both waiting to hear back about the results of the Cicerone exams that we’ve recently taken.

When you’re faced with a menu like that at Charcut, there’s a wheelhouse of flavours that anyone pairing beer is going to be extremely confident working with. Connie picked the menu, resulting in a situation in which Kirk was forced to pair beer with each course on the fly.

Now, it has to be said that after four days of hobbling gently about Alberta with a broken arm and a mildly sprained ankle, that my appetite was not completely suited to the vast outpouring of dishes from the kitchen. I gave it my best shot.

The head really is the most delicious part of the pig.

The head really is the most delicious part of the pig.

You know that you’re in for a treat when the amuse bouche from the kitchen is house made mortadella with bubbling raclette and fresh made brioche. The mortadella is apparently formed in a pig’s head. I hear that Connie has the ability to debone a pig’s head in less than half a minute, which may well fall into Bill Brasky urban legend territory. The pairing here was tree hophead, which certainly had enough bitterness and carbonation to cut through all of the elements of the dish, and enough of a malt backbone to play nicely with the sweetness of the raclette and brioche.

Subsequently, dishes simply started arriving. Bone Marrow with Escargot Gratin. House made pretzels with a cheese dip and pickled vegetables. Tuna Conserva with a salad of arugula.

Bone Marrow and Escargot Gratin

Bone Marrow and Escargot Gratin


Tuna Conserva and Arugula

Tuna Conserva and Arugula

Kirk chose two beers for the appetizer course. A Munich Helles and an Schneider Weisse Aventinus. While the Aventinus tended to compromise the subtlety of the Bone Marrow and the Tuna, it was a dead certainty for the house made pretzels and cheese dip. The highlight of the course was the Tuna Conserva, with its lightly pickled (either new or fingerling) potatoes and its nuanced kick of citrus. The Munich Helles complimented the citrus perfectly and never interfered with the delicate mouthfeel of the tuna.

The realization that my eyes were bigger than my stomach arrived at approximately the same time as the plethora of entrees. There was the Share Burger, with its garlic sausage patty, cheese curd and fried egg (which explains completely why you’d stand in an alley late at night freezing your area off.) There was the Duck Fat Poutine with a truffle gravy. A Double Cut Pork Chop with Smoked Baked Beans and Aged Cheddar Cornbread. Although I didn’t realize it for several minutes, a butcher’s steak with chimichurri and matchstick potatoes nestled gently under a nonchalant bunch of arugula. Also, there was a salad, which was delicious but almost entirely disregarded by the table as the meat fever gripped us.

Pork and beans and cornbread. Deceptively complex and definitely worth the trip by itself.

Pork and beans and cornbread. Deceptively complex and definitely worth the trip by itself.

Everything, all at once.

Everything, all at once.

A truly excellent salad, which we, heathens that we are, mostly ignored.

A truly excellent salad, which we, heathens that we are, mostly ignored.

Kirk decided on three beers to pair with this course. A Naramata Nut Brown Ale, an Affligem Dubbel and the Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock. Now, to be fair, it should be pointed out that any of these in combination with any of the dishes would probably have been an excellent pairing if only because of the character of the dark malts. I have a theory that the maillard reaction that takes place in the malting process and during the boil helps pairings with meat that has been prepared through a dry cooking method. Grilling, roasting, frying, even a braise will probably produce complimentary flavour compounds because of maillard browning.

That said, the subtleties of pairing are really about the minor elements of a dish. Kirk mentioned at this point that he is in favour of pairing with underlying flavours of a dish, and I agree. The Affligem Dubbel really does a number on the truffle in the Duck Fat Poutine’s gravy. The Celebrator pairs wonderfully with the smoke in the baked beans and compliments as well the smoked paprika that was in the rub for the pork. It even makes sense culturally. If ever a cuisine was Pork-centric, it was Germany’s. That southern fixin’s would slot in alongside makes perfect sense. The earthy qualities of the Naramata Nut Brown even picked up herbal elements of the Chimichurri sauce (possibly oregano if I understand the milieu.)

There was dessert, which I’ll mention only briefly since I had reached the point where I was begging for slightly more mercy than Uncle Jesse.

For me, the highlight here is the Apple Pie Gelato, and I am a pie hating man.

For me, the highlight here is the Apple Pie Gelato, and I am a pie hating man.

The dessert beer was a 2008 Brooklyn Chocolate Stout, which had picked up some sherry like notes as a result of the slight oxidizing that takes place through age. That it would work with the chocolate dessert was a given. More surprising was the support it lent the preserved cherry cheesecake and the apple pie gelato. (An apple pie gelato could easily be a one note experience, but this remained tart despite significant sweetness and pronounced cinnamon.)

Proper glassware is important, as any good beer steward knows.

Proper glassware is important, as any good beer steward knows.

People praise Charcut for its food, and that praise is clearly well deserved. There are, however two things you should know about Charcut:

1)      It should be one of the prime beer destinations in Calgary. There are nine carefully chosen draught lines and approximately twenty five bottled beers. Thanks to Kirk’s expertise, not a single one of these is a dud. The staff has been educated on the subject and this is an excellent place to experiment with the potential of pairing beer and food if you’re unfamiliar with the concept or uncomfortable trying it at home.

2)      You’re going to either want to skip lunch before going to Charcut or bring a small army of confreres with you. To say that the portions are generous would be to do them a disservice. They are practically Brobdingnagian.

Water Music and Continental Treat

One of the benefits of getting out of Toronto is the contrast that it necessarily provides. Recently, I went to a bar called Thirsty and Miserable in Toronto. I like Thirsty and Miserable. It seats about twenty five and as many as can stand around nodding to the punk rock and indie soundtrack that comes with a small, niche craft beer place of a certain variety. It’s pretty awesome and it has a lot of things going for it, including a carefully selected draught list and a truly excellent selection of bottles, especially when you consider the scale and the amount of thought that must have gone into it.

I want to talk to you about the other end of the spectrum. I want to talk to you about an Edmonton restaurant called Continental Treat.

Old School.

Old School.

Now, I never managed to connect with Sylvester, who has the beer stick at Continental Treat, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. I’m scheduled pretty tightly in Alberta, and running a restaurant is not exactly a light gig. I did manage to get to Continental Treat for lunch.

The first thing that you notice on walking in is that it is prodigiously old school. It’s old world as well. I’ve been to Vienna and Budapest, and this reminded me of nothing so much as the Amadeus Café. It’s the kind of place that you walk into and expect to hear the theme from The Third Man. Zithers ahoy!

Amadeus Cafe looks out on St. Stephen's Cathedral, which is not unlike this.

Amadeus Cafe looks out on St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which is not unlike this.

The thing is this, and we forget it from time to time: Beer is an old world thing. Munich. Vienna. Prague. Without those places, I wouldn’t want to think where we might be. I didn’t have a craft beer. I had a Hacker-Pschorr Munich Helles, and because Alan McLeod and I had been discussing it recently, borscht. It’s a world beating borscht for sure. Alan’s helpful addendum was that I should attempt to get into a debate about the spelling on “borscht.”

I believe he’s trying to get my other arm broke.

The bottle list is extensive. They have some representation of all of the Trappist breweries. They have maybe two hundred bottles. That’s by no means an amateur move. There are posters suggesting that they’ve got Westvleteren XII and that there will be a tasting of Affligem coming up shortly.

Remember old school?

Remember old school?

But that’s not all. They have Anderson Valley. Big IPAs. The entire range of Samuel Smith products. All manner of groovy things are happening on that beer list, as you can see from the list of products available on their website.

As you can see in the photos, the décor is pretty old world as well. It’s the kind of joint that has seen a cross section of the rich and famous, right down to Robert Goulet. You probably think of Goulet as a comic figure as a result of the Will Ferrell parody. I saw Goulet as King Arthur in Camelot in the mid 90’s at the O’Keefe center. He owned it.

How can you not love Goulet?

How can you not love Goulet?

If ever I would leave you. Classic Goulet.

This brings me to the point that I have been considering since I had the excellent borscht and a Reuben sandwich that could not be beat.

The music in the background while I was there was not punk rock or indie. It was Tomasini and Vivaldi and Handel. Precision driven Western Art Music. As I sat there, in front of the fireplace, having finished my lunch, I perused the beer list, thinking about having a second lunch beer (research is important). While there were any number of craft beers from California that I hadn’t tried, I couldn’t bring myself to order one. I went with an Achel Bruin, which seemed to suit the mood.

I have noticed that a number of the people involved in craft beer are frustrated musicians. I would like at some point to take a survey of craft brewers to find out how many instruments each of them play. I would bet that it is a ratio of about 2:1 on average. It might be higher. Some of these people have played punk rock or sort of garage or indie music. There is a DIY ethos that carries over to craft beer. Much of the time, craft beer seems to be about creating a mood or a certain amount of impact, which might also be the goal of a young musician trying to make an impact.

There’s a dichotomy between the precision that you find on the soundtrack at a place like Continental Treat and the organized chaos you might find at Thirsty and Miserable. This is neither good nor bad, but a question of appropriateness for the venue.

You know. Old school.

You know. Old school.

Is there, then, a reason that I felt totally comfortable ordering a Great Lakes Karma Citra at Thirsty and Miserable, but couldn’t bring myself to order even an excellent pacific northwest IPA at Continental Treat? Karma Citra and Handel’s Water Music would feel wrong. There’s a tonal quality that is incompatible.

There might be a reason that seasoned beer people seem to enjoy a pub without a soundtrack; without televisions. There’s a kind of sensory neutrality that goes with beer appreciation. Would Gregorian Chant turn a Black IPA to ashes in your mouth? I’m willing to bet that it might if you approached it without a certain amount of ironic detachment.

This realization doesn’t make me like either of these places less. Thirsty and Miserable has the rough charm of Shane McGowan. Continental Treat is all Harry Lime. How can you compare them honestly? One is no better than the other.

The difference, essentially, is that the Goulash is better at Continental Treat. Robert Goulet thought so anyway.


In Which I Tour The Sam Adams Brewery

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about over the course of the last week is exactly what to say about the tour of the Sam Adams Brewery I went on last Friday. It’s hard to know what to make of Sam Adams. They are so large in comparison to craft brewing generally that if they had not existed, you have to imagine that much of the rest of the craft brewing industry wouldn’t exist either.

There’s the fact people point to that the Brewer’s Association changed their upper limit for the volume a craft brewer could produce so that Sam Adams would remain a craft beer. They are currently the fifth largest brewer in North America. I don’t know what the precise annual volume is, but it’s something like a fifth of the craft beer brewed in the states. (They pretty much had to revise the limit upwards. Losing 20% of your overall volume is a narrative ruining media nightmare. Narrative is important to craft beer.)

That’s all well and good, but the cultural impact Sam Adams has had on us is impressive as well.

The Simpsons, which I think we can all agree on as a cultural touchstone, gave Homer Duff Beer to drink. This was in 1989, and the writers use Duff to parody huge, generic breweries. You’ve got the Duff Blimp and Duff Man and Duff Gardens. On the tour of the Duff brewery it’s made clear that the product is so generic that we see one pipe supplying the same beer to three different brands.

Family Guy, on the other hand, features Pawtucket Patriot Ale as Peter Griffin’s drink of choice. It’s pretty obviously a Sam Adams ripoff, right down to the label. Family Guy first aired in early 1999. Sam Adams normalized craft beer so completely to North American audiences between 1989 and 1999 that no viewers questioned that Peter Griffin would be drinking a regional craft beer.

That shift in consumer consciousness took slightly less than 15 years, given that Sam Adams was founded in 1984. Pretty good for a small group of people in an 800 square foot warehouse in Jamaica Plain.

The smokestack is shorter than it used to be. To be fair, it was cold out.

The current facility in Jamaica Plain is on the site of the Haffenreffer brewery, which was established in 1870. The smokestack is still there, bearing at least a portion of the original brewery’s branding.

It became pretty obvious that we weren’t going to get the regular tour. After a suitable amount of time standing amongst the display cases, viewing medals from various competitions, we were ushered into the private tasting room. After a certain amount of time trying samples of some beers in their lineup that I had never heard of (Black and Brew Coffee Stout, Whitewater IPA ) Jim Koch arrived and took us out for the deluxe tour.

I’m pretty sure that this was the least animated Jim Koch got during the tour.

I think that part of the success of Sam Adams has to do with the fact that it would be pretty hard to take a dislike to Jim Koch. He’s not a physically imposing man, but he’s quick on his feet and he’s wiry. If you had to guess his age, you almost certainly wouldn’t guess he was on the high side of 60. He’s been doing this for 28 years and he remains slight, which, having been to the Craft Brewers Conference, is not a quality that you see a whole heck of a lot in craft brewers generally. He’s animated when he talks about beer, and you can sense the mental quickness even before he opens his mouth. He reminds me a lot of Leo McGarry on The West Wing. As we toured, I’m pretty sure he was doing two things at once: Telling his story and doing QA on the IPA that had been on tap in the tasting room.

We had timed it so that there was a tour group ahead of us. Jim explained about the beginnings of the brewery, how he had managed to get started in 1984. He explained about the trouble that they had with gangs (and how you can buy gangs off with beer) and pointed out the order forms that they had used in the early days. He told the story about Boston Lager winning Best Beer in America at the 1985 GABF four months after starting up.

The couple who were waiting for the next tour to start were initially oblivious, playing the videos that explained the stories we were hearing first hand, clueing into the fact that something interesting was happening only when Jim was standing in front of a videoscreen that was playing his own image.

The brewhouse is decidedly old school

The Jamaica Plain brewery is more or less a showpiece at this point, the spiritual home of what can reasonably be called a small empire at this point. The majority of the brewing is done in Ohio. From what I gathered from the guy working the DE filter, the batch that he was working on was probably New World Tripel, a part of the barrel room series. Much of the production in this brewery seems to be one-offs or specialty batches, including a Colonial Ale for the Union Oyster House. An entire facility for R&D and special projects.

Clearly, there are parts of the tour that are there for the benefit of people who have never been on a brewery tour before. Standing in front of barrels of Boston Lager ingredients, Jim held forth on the virtues of the Hallertauer Mittelfruh hop variety.

See that barrel he’s standing in front of? You guessed it. Crystal 60.

The thing that I found most interesting, and tried to think about while rubbing a handful of hops and giggling quietly, was that a number of the Sam Adams beers that I tried contained Crystal 60 malt. I have a suspicion that the character of the Boston Lager and some of the main seasonal beers (Winter Lager, Octoberfest) share that as an ingredient, and that this is a rare case of a malt variety defining a brewer’s character (well, at least as much as the hops.) It’s that core grainy caramel sweetness that runs down the middle of those beers. It verges on molasses-y. I sort of have to be in the mood for that, but it suggests that when those beers were launched in 1989, it struck the brewer’s palate the right way. At the time, it would definitely have made those beers stand out from the competition.

Through a doorway, we skipped ahead 20 years to taste one of the main ingredients of the Barrel Room Series, which was launched in 2009.

There is still some Triple Bock. I’m pretty sure the last batch was 1997.

The barrel room is dominated by three huge vats of what they’re calling the Kosmic Mother Funk. It’s a mix of yeast and bacteria; sort of brettanomyces and pediococcus with an acetic kick. It’s a murky light reddish-brown and it’s not really the kind of thing that you’d want to drink by itself. It’s intended to be blended into other beers in the series.  By way of explaining the barrel aging process, Jim analogized sour beer to balsamic vinegar, explaining that if aged long enough the acetic pungency slowly transforms into a concentrated sweetness.

Jim explains the Kosmic Mother Funk. Mostly, I just like saying Kosmic Mother Funk.

“Don’t you find it worrisome having all that wild yeast kicking around with a production brewery on the other side of the wall?” I said.

“We manage a lot of different types of yeast strains in the brewery. We’ve gotten pretty good at it after 28 years,” he said. After a very brief pause, his arm snaked out and yanked the cord that closed the door to the rest of the facility. I suspect that he was humouring me.

The thing is that Jim Koch has gotten good at this after 28 years; extraordinarily so. Back in the tasting room, Crystal Luxmore asked him about beer and terroir. He gave a brilliant answer, which she had the foresight to catch on video.

Karmic Terroir. Karmic… Freaking… Terroir.

The answer is brilliant mainly for the reason that you can see the amount of thought that he has put into his profession over the years and for how eloquently he’s able to put the concept. Now, depending on your viewpoint, you might say that it was entirely justified; that a brewery occupies a position both in time, with all of the influences upon it of those things that have come before and have influenced both the trends of the moment and the tastes of the brewer that go into creating a beer, and in space, which is to say the ingredients and technology available. If you’re into the whole romance of brewing, the idea that, say, Boston Lager could only have been produced in Boston in 1984 is an earthquake of a concept. That Sam Adams could no more have produced Sierra Nevada Pale Ale than it could have produced a Zinfandel. That despite the fact that there is a tradition that all brewers share, each iteration of the process has so many extrinsic variables working upon it that the end result could not be other than a product of its place and time.

What can I say? The man gives good quote. Plus, it lent credence to my theory about the Crystal 60.

The thing that amazed me about Sam Adams generally was the drive to innovation. Currently they’re approximately the same size as Yuengling. Yuengling seems more or less content to rest on their laurels, sticking with a core lineup of brands. Sam Adams is currently working with something like 55 brands, some of which rely so heavily on concept as to beggar belief.

It’s my impression that they probably don’t actually need to be doing that. They could probably narrow it down and stick with a core lineup. They’re doing it because they’re having fun doing it. Jim Koch actually believes in this stuff. He’s excited about it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone shift that quickly between talking eloquently about the basics of brewing and wild beers and overarching philosophic principle. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. He’s been giving the tour for 28 years, after all.

Lunch at Doyle’s Cafe after the tour. You can’t turn down Knockwurst in Oktoberfest season.

Southern Tier

While my editor at The Sun would probably be shocked to learn that I’m covering the international beat, it was my pleasure last Saturday to get up at oh-dark-thirty and accept an invitation on the behalf of Roland and Russell (Thanks, guys!) to visit Southern Tier in Lakewood, New York. Now, I’m not exactly a ball of fire at the breakfast table, so getting to the departure point involved great lashings of coffee.

Doug: Bon vivant, man about town and inventor of the 1970's dance craze The Hamilton Amble

I was lucky enough to get to sit next to my friend Doug on the bus on the way down. I mentioned Doug last year at about this time in reference to choosing which beers to try at Mondial. He’s developed something of a mental warehouse over the years on a number of subjects and isn’t shy about sharing his thoughts, which makes eight hours more or less fly past. I’ll skip the details of the journey except to remark that bus trips, if they are long enough, never really advance past the way that they were in grade six. There will be no bathroom. People will rediscover their inability to sleep sitting up and end up sprawled all over the aisle. Some hapless goon will have had the fiesta platter the night before to the chagrin of all passengers within six rows. It’s a very effective way of ensuring that enthusiasm builds for arrival at your destination; also a compelling argument for windows that roll down.

And so it was, with a small and slightly road weary cheer, that we pulled into the Southern Tier parking lot in time for lunch.

It’s hard to write about the Southern Tier operation without a certain amount of frustration if you’re an observer of the Ontario beer scene. I had done a little cursory research on the brewery and their offerings prior to the trip and it turns out that there’s a beer that they only make for the area that they’re in: Chautauqua Brew. It is, I think, an acknowledgement of the fact that breweries need to make things that people want to drink. It’s a lawnmower beer and is apparently only outsold by Busch Light in the area around the brewery.

Troy Burtch shares a tender moment with a brewery

I started with that sample, and as light bodied refreshing crowd pleasers go, it’s a fine beer. It’s just that it’s not the kind of thing they’re known for in Ontario. We’ve had the IPA, which is still listed in the LCBO, and the Pumking, Choklat and Crème Brulee beers. If you’re from Ontario, it’s easy to get the impression that they make large, full flavoured world beaters exclusively. Not so. They brew a full range of beers: Pale Ale, Porter and a handful of wheat beers in addition to the imperial series and a number of oaked beers.

All of the ones I tried, without exception, are standalone beers. One of the things I’ve noticed about the states is that a lot of the beers that came out of brewpubs in the states are sort of designed to go with food. They’re versatile in that respect, in that they can go with more than one dish. The flavours can become somewhat muddled because of this, or are intentionally blunted somewhat. Look at, say, UBU from Lake Placid. Good beer, but with versatility of function. The Southern Tier beers are seemingly designed with an exclusivity of purpose: To excel on their own.

I’ll say this for them. If you dislike one of their beers, it’s probably going to be because you dislike the style and not because of an intrinsic quality of the brew. I, for instance, didn’t like the Hopsun or 422 wheat beers. I can’t really hold that against them because they’re still well made.

I think this level of design and execution probably stems from the fact that these guys are nerds. Huge nerds. This is the window of the office that looks out onto the brewery. Yes. That’s a Boba Fett action figure.

I guess it might be Jango Fett, but still: Nerds.

Matt, the owner, was full of useful information. Southern Tier is 3rd in the US in terms of distribution within 300 miles of the brewery. Their production has expanded massively over the last three years, from 18000 barrels to 30000 to 60000. Their bottling line does 10000 bottles an hour. Consider, momentarily, that Creemore which is a big deal in Ontario produces 50000 hectolitres a year, or about 42,600 barrels (so says google, almighty conversion overlord.)

I'm not sure whether this adequately conveys the largeness.

What exactly am I meant to do mentally with this information besides go and have a bit of a sulk? I’ve never seen a brewery this size with this amount of diversity before. I’m used to thinking in terms of much smaller volumes. 50 litres, mostly. 5 hectolitres at a time tops. How the hell do you get to the point as a brewery where creating an established line of imperial beers and quality standards on your own terms is possible? I have no idea, but I’ve come away with some impressions.

The first among them is that Southern Tier relies almost entirely on the quality of their brews to spread their reputation. The labeling is more or less limited to a standard font on a colorful background. For the imperial series, they include a graphic that fits with that conveys not only the identity of the beer, but part of the thought process behind it: A red tractor, a smiling Jack O’Lantern, a horse with a feedbag or a hop with a crown. Minimal. Not much pretension. Just a quality product.

Secondly, the tour is completely transparent: Here’s what we’re doing. That’s where we store things. Ingredient storage is through there. I haven’t ever seen that many hops in one place. The artificial flavourings aren’t hidden out of sight somewhere at the back of cold storage. I was about to comment disparagingly about the fact that there was artificial chocolate flavouring, but as Doug pointed out to me, you can’t really argue with the results.

They've got top men working in their warehouse. Top men.

Mostly, the impression that I came away with was that Southern Tier has succeeded basically because of their virtuosity at brewing and their justified confidence in their products. Much of the time in Ontario, there’s concern about brewing beers that are too flavourful; that the market won’t accommodate the decision to be interesting. It’s nice to see a situation where a brewery can succeed by designing the best beer it’s possible for them to make and then selling it.

So, while it’s a lovely modern brewery with all sorts of shiny metal and moving parts, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with this information. If anything, the knowledge that it’s possible to succeed as a brewery based mostly on skill and competence is a good motivator.

That's a lot of spent grain.

It should also provide motivation for the Ontario brewers who will no doubt have to compete with them for draft lines come December. It looks as though there are plans afoot to bring them into the province. I don’t know which beer it will be. Maybe an imperial. Maybe part of their regular lineup. It doesn’t really matter, since they’re all good.