In Which I Tour The Molson Plant or How Blue Were My Coveralls 11

(Disclaimer: This is essentially twice as long as most of my blog posts. Go make a sandwich or something and then come back and read it.)

Do you know, as I was walking along Renforth drive over the 427 on my way to the Molson plant this week, I was looking at it and thinking to myself “how can I fit a death star joke in here? Is there an exhaust port slightly smaller than a womp rat?” The plant is huge. You know this already. You’ve passed it on the highway. I turned on to Carlingview drive, where the brewery is situated and huge semis with Coors Light logos emblazoned on their sides buzzed past me as I trudged along.

This is the degree to which the prevailing wisdom of the craft beer movement has poisoned us against large brewers: I was instantaneously looking for comparisons to a fictional evil empire that blows up a planet to make a point. The kind of Zoroastrian binary dualism between good and evil is so inculcate in craft brewing and in beer reviews that I wound up reflexively leaping to that defensive position.

I didn’t know exactly why I was being called out there. Forest Kenney was good enough to set up a tour for me. I suspect he did this probably just because he thought I would think it was neat. I’ve pulled some shifts in small craft breweries on bottling and packaging lines as a sort of work-experience thing. I’m going to Niagara College in the fall, so any experience I can get is useful. Just walking around looking at stuff and seeing how it’s done is educational to me at this point. Backbreaking bottle packing is similarly educational.

Now, I thought, going in, that I’d maybe get trailed around and given the regular tour. This was not to be the case. I was given a reflective safety vest (that it took me the better part of thirty minutes to figure out had adjustable Velcro straps) and ushered into the brewery manager’s office. I was a little bit astounded to find out that it was going to be a tour of the entire brewery, led by the Brewmaster, Brewery Manager, and Director of Packaging Development. I don’t want to guess at the hourly salaries of the folks involved, but I’m guessing that’s probably the most expensive brewery tour I’ve ever been on.

The interesting thing to me was that they weren’t exactly sure why I was there either. I’ve written some fairly scathing things about MolsonCoors. They had actually read them and laughed at some of it. I didn’t know quite what to make of that, but I went gamely along and joked with them. Eventually Jim Pomeroy, the Brewery Manager, asked what I hoped to get out of the tour.

Now, I’ve been sort of working on a theory for the last little while. Spearhead, whose beer you may have tried employs an Ex-Labatt brewer. Hogtown, who have yet to launch (but whose IPA is going to compete with the best in the province when it does), also employs an Ex-Labatt brewer. Cameron’s is run by an ex-Molson fellow. My hypothesis therefore, was that brewing is basically brewing on any scale and that most of the guys who do it are probably pretty much the same guys, doing it for the same reasons.

So that’s what I said.

Everyone seemed to perk up a bit.

I had showed up insuitably attired for the tour. Apparently shorts in a brewery of that size are a no-no. Jim found me some beer journalist sized coveralls and off I went, steel toed slip-ons making me feel only slightly ridiculous.

There’s not a whole lot that I can tell you about the brewery tour itself that you don’t already know if you’re interested in beer. The processes are the same everywhere. Mash Tun, Lauter Tun, Kettle, Fermenter. The thing that I want to impress upon you is the sheer size of the brewery. That’s really the only difference. They produce four million hectoliters of beer annually. Their kettles have a 667 hectoliter capacity. For reference, some of the smaller members of the Ontario Craft Breweries would only have to do three brews a year on a system that size.

Dave Sands, the Brewmaster, took me on the brewery portion of the tour. He’s the youngest member of the team by years.

The first stop was the grain loft, but there’s not actually very much to see outside of the size of the grain hoppers, especially when they’ve already done that section of the brew. At that point it’s sort of like a giant empty metal funnel; like a Kinder Egg without a toy inside.

Yes, this is a picture of a giant, empty metal cylinder. Who says blogging isn't glamorous?

You could smell the next stop coming from down the hall through a thick wooden door. If you like hop aromas, do yourself a favour and see if you can get out to the Molson plant. Pallets of boxes of just about everything you can imagine. We stood there, talking about the things beer nerds talk about, holding handfuls of Citra and Goldings, crushing the hops and appreciating their aromas. I asked about hop extract, which they have on hand and Dave started explaining to me about aroma fractions and bittering fractions of the hops.

The door to the hop room, where they keep the snozzberries.

He said something exceedingly intelligent which I have not heard put forward elsewhere. If you can separate just the properties of the hops that you want, doesn’t it make sense to do that? Essentially it’s a deconstruction of the ingredient, not unlike molecular gastronomy. You’re taking the essence of the thing and using it in the way that you want it used. How is that different than Heston Blumenthal or Wylie Dufresne? I’m not sure I buy the analogy completely, but I’m sure that given some time and thought it could be a very convincing argument from a purely intellectual standpoint. Heck, I may rip it off and do it myself.

I finally got my Death Star/Evil Empire moment when we got to the brew house. Amongst the four 667 hectoliter kettles is a small room that actually looks like something out of a supervillain’s lair. It’s a squat control room built out of gunmetal struts and black tinted glass. “Ah-HA!” I said to myself.

We went inside and we found two French-Canadian brewers, Mike and Jean-Luc, who have been working for Molson for something like 60 years between them. They sat in front of three monitor computer setups, with a lot of data on them. Mike sipped at a ten year old travel mug that might have been filled with something like coffee. Jean-Luc sat in a chair that was mostly held together by duct tape and willpower.  They had a downbeat samba version of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five playing on the stereo. “Oh-HO!” I said to myself. The Death Star doesn’t have muzak.

667 Hectolitres. That's only 666 Hectolitres more than my last batch. Unintentionally metal.

I was becoming increasingly confused about the whole good/evil thing.

The next stop didn’t help. One of the things that I had noticed about the brewery is that nothing really matched. I mean, sure there are a number of vessels in the fermentation area, but the style differs by room. In room one, huge horizontal numbers with more head space and welds that looked like something out of a picture of a wartime shipyard. In room two, there were more modern cylindrical fermenters. In the newest sections, the huge jobbies that came down the highway last year.

I like that the fermentation plant looks like something out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil

The thing I didn’t appreciate was that originally it had been a Carling O’Keefe plant (Molson took it over in 1989). Nowhere is this more evident than in the fire doors between sections of the brewery. The oldest doors are easily four inch thick oak slabs that are probably original, but there are also heavy metal doors with mesh glass windows that I remember from high school corridors. The very newest sections have brand new state of the art fire doors. From a historical perspective, it’s fascinating. The brewery is a mesh of various kinds of industrial architecture from the last sixty years. It also points out that all across the industry people suffer from the same limitations: All of the equipment is cobbled together into a system that you make work. You figure out how to make the pieces go together and you tweak them to get the best results.

The next part of the tour was packaging. For this part Jim Pomeroy and Jeff Nancekivell showed me around.

Jeff is the kind of guy that you want running a warehouse that size. I’d bet he knows every inch of his department. The thing that surprised me a little about him was the exuberance about the various parts. He’s got two bottling lines that do a thousand bottles a minute. He’s got a canning line that automates an ungodly number of seals a second. He knows down to a less than a tenth of a percent what the failure rate is on it. He knows what percentage of recycled bottles fail standards and get crushed (it looked like just over 1% to me, which is reasonable even by Six Sigma standards.)

He also knows exactly how cool all of this machinery is. My head would whip around when I’d see some new automated process that I didn’t know existed, and he would explain to me what it did and how it impacted other parts of the line.

1000 BPM, which is impressive even for house music.

Jim was interested in showing me the day to day decision making process. In the packaging wing, they have a room with day to day statistical information for the entire brewery. The entire process is analyzed on charts spread across an entire room of cork boards. It’s set up for internal transparency. Everyone can see how the entire system works from nose to tail. This is because they want people to take ownership of their position in the system, make decisions and suggest improvements. That’s just good business sense. The way he put it was that it allowed people to walk around with their chests puffed out because they knew exactly how good a job they were doing.

To me the highlight of the tour was the palletizer. I have loaded cases of beer onto pallets. It’s tiring. They have a machine that does that. My envy was palpable. From the palletizer platform, you could see the warehouse. I did a double take. It’s like Raiders of the Lost Ark. They’ve got something like 1.2 million bottles and cans of beer moving through there a week. You’d need a map to find your way through the warehouse. It’s large enough that they have a traffic system in place for forklifts.

They've got top men working on it... Top men.

So I stood there, looking out over the warehouse and I looked at Jim and Jeff for some kind of explanation, some kind of handle to grasp the thing by. They just stood there looking at it and beaming with what I have to suggest is entirely warranted pride. If you’re in charge of a system that large and it runs like clockwork, you should be proud. If your day job is supplying something upwards of 40% of the beer to Ontario and Saskatchewan, and you do that unfailingly week in and week out, you get to be proud.

After that, we went for a beer. Rickard’s Blonde, as it turns out. They’re really pushing that one.

Here are the conclusions that I’m taking away from this experience. They are not going to be all that popular:

People talk about macro beers and craft brewing. I do. It’s a useful rhetorical device for driving sections of the industry and promoting public interest in small breweries and certain types of beer. Near as I can figure it, it’s all just brewing. Brewing is the craft. Whether you’re using adjuncts or you’re brewing with all organic malt, it’s just brewing. The goals are different, and the end products are different, but the actual art of the thing is identical.

More importantly, the guys working in the brewery at Molson could pretty much be working in any brewery. Dave Sands, for instance, is kind of a nerd. So much so, in fact, that he was worried about pointing out that he has a Ralph Steadman bumper sticker on his truck just in case it didn’t jibe with his image. Jim Pomeroy reminds me of most of the other people I know running a brewery, with that sort of fatherly, proprietary air about him. It’s unsurprising that he should demonstrate that sense of pride. He’s been there 35 years, which is long enough to grow a pretty kickass moustache.

What I have essentially learned is that there’s only one reason why you do the job. It’s not a good way to make money. If you wanted to make money, you would do something else. You pretty much have to love brewing. You have to love beer and you have to love making it. It’s a craft that requires patience and objectivity and consistency across the board, from 50 litres to 4 million hectoliters. I’ve seen the same expression of pride on the faces at each of those levels and it’s identical.

The other thing, that strikes me as more than a little unfair, is that you probably won’t ever hear about these guys in the press. They’re pretty much unsung and will largely remain so, doing relatively thankless work with a level of attention to detail and consistency that is truly impressive.

I can’t hate these guys. I respect them too much. They do what I’m learning to do, and they do it well. I wouldn’t order most of the beers they make. I find adjunct beers give me headaches and I really like flavours that their brewery isn’t about. I can’t argue with the skill and dedication that goes into making their beers, though. I can’t praise the beers, but I can praise the brewers.

It doesn’t really change how I feel about the marketing, which I find semiotically offensive from time to time. And it doesn’t change how I feel about The Beer Store’s situation. These aren’t things that get a pass. What it does mean is that if I encounter a macrobrewery product out in the world, I’m going to try not to dismiss it out of prejudice. I know now that somewhere out by the airport, someone is really proud of that beer and I don’t see why I shouldn’t afford that brewer the same amount of respect as any other.









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11 thoughts on “In Which I Tour The Molson Plant or How Blue Were My Coveralls

  • Bruce Ticknor

    Well done Jordan. You gave me a lot to think about. I’m guilty of lumping the brewers in with their beer and you are quite right. The brewers of both mainstream and craft beer take a lot of pride in what they do. I may not like the end product of the mainstream but then I don’t like ALL craft beer either.
    My taste is personal and apparently an awful lot of personal tastes run toward the mainstream. That doesn’t make it bad, just not my taste.

  • Brewer Sands (not quite like Brewmeister Smith)

    Point of technical correction:
    Complete nerd and it’s actually a Gonzo sticker, though Steadman has done well lending his art to both Thompson’s work and craft brewing.

    Thanks for the objective, insightful and entertaining piece. I think it captured how the production folks like us toil in the shadows every day.

    Cheers and good luck at school.

  • Forest Kenney

    Hey Jordan,

    I did hope you’d find the tour ‘neat’, and glad that we didn’t seemingly disappoint on that. I’m also really glad that you were able to spend time with Dave, Jim, Jeff, Mike, Jean-Luc and Paul, to see the passion first hand plus check out their processes.

    Thanks again for taking the time to come out and visit, plus for the detailed post. Best of luck on the new adventure this week.


  • Eric Ross

    Great article! I always thought it was a shame that brewers who brew at a macro level seem to get left out of all the “good” hype. They are no less dedicated or skilled. I enjoy Rickard’s Red, it was my favorite beer when I was younger and I still enjoy it now. Good luck at Niagara!