St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Cask Days @ Hart House

In Ralph Morana’s ever expanding quest to take over the beer world, Cask Days 2011 has to be seen as a massive success. That being said, it wasn’t without gambles. Any time you move a beer festival to an outdoor location, you face a number of variables that are beyond your control. The truth is that it all came together perfectly this year.

One of the things I use to gauge the success of a cask festival is how the English ex-pats think of it. These are people, after all, who get back across the pond periodically to enjoy real ale festivals that are generally much larger than those we have in Canada. This year Cask Days actually managed to put blissful looks on their faces, and I talked to three or four ex-pats who lauded the thing as being a “proper festival.”

There were a number of things that helped to pull this off. The first is the setting. Hart House lends an air of sophistication to a beer festival. People tend to behave themselves when you put them in a massive university courtyard in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily do in other places. Perhaps it was the imposing nature of the structure or the nearly surreal carillon ringing from the bell tower that had this calming effect. At least during the first session, no one got out of hand.

The bells! The bells!

One of the key ingredients in this success was the massive variety of beer on offer. There were 82 separate casks, which is amazing when you consider the genesis of the event. When I started going to Cask Days four years ago, there might have been something like 40, and they would all have been from Ontario. The fact that this event has expanded to include BC, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and England is no small feat. Think about the amount of organization that it must take to get that many brewers on the phone, let alone to get them to ship casks of their beer out to coincide with the last week in October. Astounding.

Should have sent a poet.

The other thing that worked to everyone’s benefit was the fact that it was cold. It was, for me anyway, just about the right temperature to be serving cask ale at. I know that some folks seem to like it at eight or nine degrees Celsius, but I prefer it at around six, chill haze be damned. It’s going to warm up in your hands anyway, so I feel like having the flavours open up in front of you is a good thing.

George Eagleson: Urban Cowboy

People dressed up for the weather, in windbreakers and parkas and a surprising number of cowboy hats. Many people fought to find a place on the north side of the quad so that they could stand in the sun and warm up. This is just enough adversity to create a shared experience. It’s not so much adversity that it becomes the focal point of the day. It would be hard, for example to properly enjoy cask ale in a lifeboat after listening to the band play Nearer My God To Thee while this ship goes down. It would, however, create a sense of community, at least until the cannibalism set in.

Local Hat Enthusiast Greg Earp

The branding on all of the material involved with the festival was excellent, and most of the credit for this goes to Tomas Morana, who has become something of a savant in terms of graphic design. At some point before the festival, he took the time to design tokens with the event logo on them. These are so vastly an improvement on having paper tickets in your pocket that I don’t know where to begin. In the old days, they used to issue strips of paper with little dotted lines on them so you knew where to tear the tickets. Try finding a single ticket in one of your many pockets after you’ve sampled 14 quarter pints of beer. The tokens are a stroke of genius.

I wasn't going to include this picture, but I did because of tokenism.

Perhaps most impressive was the fact that I didn’t end up drain pouring a single beer. In previous years there have always been one or two beers that I tried that I couldn’t get through despite the fact that the sample might have been five ounces. The leap in quality is tremendous. The brewers are now taking this seriously, and by trial and error over the course of the last seven years most of them have learned how to properly cask beers.

Somehow, both the Central City Red Racer Citra Pale Ale and the Storm Fresh Hop IPA survived the voyage from BC and were excellent. One would have thought that the Trois Mousquetaires Barrel Aged Baltic Porter would have stolen the show in the Quebec tent, but Dunham’s Oak Aged Cranberry Ale was magnificent; tart, with that hint of wood that aids the mouthfeel. I suspect that it may have been bolstered by a touch of wild yeast. All I know is that Dunham clearly bears watching.

Gordo thought he got out of frame. Gordo was wrong.

Niagara College put forth a good effort, and our booth was manned by Gord Slater, who is pictured here in a very dapper hat which was provided by Don Cherry’s Burlington Glamour line of couture (there is the distinct possibility I will be expelled for this joke). The Bultersberg Barley Wine was very good and I feel as though the other beers benefitted from dry hopping. Niagara students Austin Roach and Andrew Bartle collaborated with Volo’s House Ales to create Gold Dust, which was a solid attempt at an American style Porter.

Ontario actually measured up to the other provinces. Mike Lackey from Great Lakes created a 100% Brett IPA which I imagine will take the best name prize: Fangboner. Yes, it’s a silly name. Try saying it aloud in a high pitched voice, or singing it to the tune of goldfinger. It also created an awkward situation when you were being served by one of the girls manning the booth. “Excuse me young lady, could I trouble you for a Fangboner? What’s that? No, just a quarter pint Fangboner. This is the Fangboner? Great. Here’s your token. Fangboner.”

"Hey, what can we call this beer? It needs to be wholesome enough to play in Peoria....I've got it. Fangboner."

Cameron’s continues to do interesting things. Apparently their There Is No Dana, Only Zuur Sour is the result of months of barrel aging. It was tasty. The only legitimate criticism I have for it is that the beer is that it didn’t really peak at any point on the palate; one flavour all the way through. Good beer, though and it gets high marks on the Venkman Quotient.

Don't open the tap all the way. Important safety tip, Egon.

Best of all though was Sawdust City’s I Swear, Sugarpants, It Was Your Idea. I didn’t think much of Sawdust City’s first offering. I think the ingredient from every province thing they did with Great Weiss North was gimmicky and a little busy on the palate. I don’t think anyone knew enough of the ingredients to be able to pick them out. This, on the other hand, was marvelous. It’s a brown ale with coffee malt and lactose brewed with a sort of garam masala chai steep that was added as a flavour addition at the end of the boil. It tasted like a chai latte. I don’t actually like chai, and this was excellent. More than that, it was exciting. I don’t know exactly how he pulled it off and made the flavours work together, but he did.

Looking at this picture, I'm seriously considering taking bets on whether Sam Corbeil owns a waterbed and attends key parties.

This was the best Cask Days event ever. Make no mistake, it will probably be even better next year. I have only two regrets:

1)      We trampled the Hart House quad’s lawn pretty badly. Some landscaper is going to be pissed.

2)      Instead of sampling more beers, at some point I decided to use four tokens to buy a pint of Dieu Du Ciel Aphrodisiaque on cask.

Actually, that second one probably isn’t a regret.


The Stella Artois Draught Master Competition

On Friday, I was one of the judges for the Stella Artois Draught Masters National Championship at One King West in Toronto. Never having really taken part in an event of that scope before, I didn’t know exactly what to expect going in. In terms of writing about beer and, indeed, drinking beer, I’m more or less a craft guy, and I think that’s fairly common knowledge. It would be hard to come to any other conclusion reading the Sun Media column or for the blog. Stella Artois is, despite its relatively modest origins as a Christmas beer at the beginning of the 18th century, a huge international brand. Were I one of their representatives, I might have easily chosen someone who is more supportive generally of huge international brands to judge the thing.

Not that I’m complaining. It’s a nice activity to switch to after commuting back and forth all week to Niagara-On-The-Lake. It’s good to have variety.

Let me explain how the Draught Masters competition works. Basically, there’s an official nine step process for pouring Stella Artois that involves making sure the glass is clean, making sure the beer has the right amount of head in the glass and, finally, making sure that you serve the beer in the middle of the coaster with the logo facing out. These are all important things to consider and they contribute to the customer’s experience. You don’t want someone else’s lip crud on the rim of your glass. That’s just nasty. Also, you don’t want a poorly poured pint that’s half foam.

The logo thing… well, branding is important. You want people in the bar to see that someone has just ordered a Stella Artois, I guess. Probably they will then think to order one themselves. It also serves an ergonomic purpose in that there’s an indent on the same side of the stem of the chalice that the logo is on. No matter which hand you reach for the glass with, your thumb will find the indent. I’m sure that’s part of the reasoning, but it’s mostly branding.

I showed up about an hour early for the event to undergo training on the pouring ritual. Clearly, it has stuck sufficiently that I am able, two days later, to recount that there are certainly some steps involved. I may not recall the precise order. It seems like the kind of thing that you would eventually become really good at if you were behind a bar repeating them several dozen times a week.

The competition worked in eight head to head brackets, leading several confused people to attempt to place a large wager on Gonzaga.  There were competitors from all over the country, and those competitors had gone through the regional finals in order to get to that point. It’s not like the X Factor, exactly, although the production budget was certainly similar. I mean, you don’t get the competitor’s life stories. If you were a journalist covering the actual event, it would be hard to make head or tails of it.

That lighting rig cost six times more than my education

All you really have to go with is that these are obviously very talented bartenders who have spent a lot of time getting their timing down in order to pour a Stella Artois properly. I mean, you can’t really ask “why are you here?” They’re there because they can pour a pint of Stella better than everyone else who attempted to pour a pint of Stella. It’s not the world championships, so you can’t very well ask how it feels to be champion of the world and whether they’re going to go to Disneyland. I think I ended up one substantive question over the course of the evening and it was “So… why did you go with the Steampunk Top Hat as part of your ensemble?” The answer was, as you probably already suspect, that it looked cool.

Sometimes you wish in retrospect that you had time to change into a tux. Or that you owned a tux. Or that you had done some laundry.

In terms of the vibe of the evening, it was very interesting. They had gone with a 60’s Hollywood theme, which I was massively underdressed for.  There were attractive young women in costume as hostesses. At the bar, there was branded glassware as far as the eye could see. Shelves and shelves and shelves. There was a DJ booth set up in the center of the room and an elaborate system of projected images matched to the architecture behind the stage. The voting was done on touchscreen systems which were explained to us at great length by a very patient man in what looked to be a very uncomfortable earpiece and black suit.

When the main event actually started, it put me in mind of the beginning of Rocky IV; the match between Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago. There were flashing lights, there was a roaring crowd. I don’t know what capacity for the room was, but given the tightly run ship they were working with, I can pretty largely guarantee that they never went over. Instead of James Brown doing “Living in America” we had a very talented vocalist doing a note for note perfect Jackson 5 tribute. Instead of Apollo Creed wearing a comically oversized red, white and blue top hat, we had the Steampunk guy from Waterloo. In fairness, Carl Weathers could not have pulled off a hat with goggles.

Joke all you want. You know you want that hat.

The contestants, since they’re pretty skilled bartenders, move with some considerable speed. It’s hard to keep absolute track of everything they’re doing when they’re going at speed. I think the judges did a pretty good job, considering. The winner, passing on to the next round in Buenos Aires, was Clement Beauchesnes (one wonders whether he bears any relation to the Vankleek Hill mob).

I’ll be entirely honest with you: I think he took it because he didn’t incorporate any kind of flair into the act. He just poured a beer to the best of his ability. Also, despite the fact that all of the competitors had clearly been doing this for a while, it’s a different thing to get up in front of a room with a couple of thousand excitable people in it and pour a beer while the PA system blasts House of Pain. I think that in that setting, keeping it simple is a winning recipe. Just do the thing and forget about the fact that The Scorpions are now Rocking You Like A Hurricane while you’re trying to line up the logo and the bass is rattling your vertebrae. He had concentration. Well done, Clement.

Clement Beauchesnes: Canadian Draught Idol

As evenings go, I think it was a success. I know that a lot of people had a lot of fun. I know that a number of talented bartenders got a trip to Toronto and that one gets to go to Buenos Aires. I know that it’s predicated on beer being served properly, which I can get behind.

It is also, if I’m being honest, a little bit difficult not to feel silly judging people pouring beer when you’ve logged about six hours lifetime behind a bar.

Let’s Kill The Cat And See What Happens

Mostly, brewing school tends to deal with biology and chemistry, but one of the major things that I’ve discovered is that there’s a significant amount of quantum physics involved. At least, for me that’s the case.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the concept of Schrodinger’s cat. Essentially, it’s a thought experiment. The idea is that you’ve got this closed box which has a cat, a decaying radioactive element and a vial of poison in it. Because of the half life of the decaying radioactive element, the element has a 50-50 chance of having decayed during the process of the experiment, which causes the vial of poison to open and the cat to be sacrificed on the altar of science.

It’s called a quantum superposition. Essentially, because what happens in the box is unobservable until you open the box and either feed a slightly annoyed cat or dig a tiny grave, it’s impossible to know which reality exists. The answer must be that both realities exist, layered on top of one another. It’s important to stress that no animals were harmed in the process of the experiment. It’s not like Erich Schrodinger was sitting there in the lab with a plate of tuna trying to coax little fluffy into a box. I mean, if I were him, I would probably have used someone else’s cat for a start.

Let me put it another way:  A cat, a decaying radioactive element and a vial of poison walk into a bar. The bartender does or does not ask whether this is some kind of joke, the waveform of probability collapses and reality continues more or less as normal.

Because of the idea that observation is the crux of the experiment, simply the fact that the experiment is observed changes the outcome.

The same thing happens with journalism. I think the earliest example of this conceit in action is in Don Quixote. Essentially, the book has two sections which were published independently. The conceit is that Don Quixote is an actual person inhabiting the real world and that Cervantes is simply recording his exploits based on stories he’s heard. By the time Cervantes writes the second half, he has to take into account that people have read the first half of it, and since Don Quixote really definitely exists in the real world, the second half has to take into account that all of the people who have read the first half of the book are therefore screwing with him for their own entertainment.

Essentially, what I’m getting at here is that observation alters reality.

So, let’s say that you’ve got a closed system, like a brewing school. It has students, teachers, administrators and things more or less go on as normal. Beer gets made, people go to their math classes, people go to the merchant alehouse on a Thursday night and get loopy on oatmeal stout. It’s a fine existence.

But if you airlift a journalist into the situation, it changes the situation. I’ll give you a for instance. Crystal Luxmore from The Grid popped in to write an article on the school and sat in during part of a lecture Gord Slater was giving on flocculation in yeast. Suddenly, everyone in the class sat up a little straighter and tried to look as though they were paying a considerable amount of attention, despite the fact that there had been oatmeal stout the night before and it’s a 9:30 class.

Same thing happened the next week when The Grid sent their photographers to get some action shots of brewing students taking notes. Everyone was on their best behavior.

That’s fine. It’s good press for the brewing school. Gets the message out there, might drum up enrollment for next year and it’s more or less over in a couple of hours. Useful for all concerned parties; Minimal alteration of reality. On the other hand, if you throw a journalist into the mix on a full time basis, the possibility of that person really screwing with the status quo is rendered increasingly likely, even if he doesn’t do anything.

I’ve become relatively concerned about this and I’m growing a little self conscious about it.

I’ve got profs that I interact with on a professional basis. I’ve known Kevin Somerville, who’s teaching us about brewing ingredients since before there was a brewing program. I may have consulted with him on buying no-iron oxford cloth shirts as professorial wear. Our sensory evaluation prof, Roger Mittag, has a beer tasting certification program called Prud’homme, which I reviewed positively in the Sun before he got the gig at the college.

Here’s the issue: Niagara College, in addition to being a teaching brewery, is also a going concern, selling growlers and cases of beer out of their brewery store. What happens if I review their products, raise awareness of them and increse sales? What happens if I review on negatively and make it harder for one of my profs to sell the product?  Kevin Somerville is heavily involved with the Indie Alehouse in Toronto, which will be opening in the coming months. Sam Corbeil is with Sawdust City brewing.

Eventually, there’s going to come a point where I need to write about the Indie Alehouse or Sawdust City. They’re new, and one of the hallmarks of beer blogging is novelty. It would limit my scope as a beer writer not to write about new things that are happening in the Toronto scene.  There are a number of possibilities here:

1)      Not writing about Indie Alehouse or Sawdust City at all. Which is, let’s face it, a cop-out.

2)      Writing a piece about the Indie Alehouse or Sawdust City on an informational basis only. Boring.

3)      Writing opinion pieces on these breweries, which, while honest , might end up being positive or negative depending on what they do.

All three of the actions have consequences. This is one of the reasons that there haven’t been many blog posts about the educational experience. Reporting on it would alter the experience in ways that are potentially unforeseeable.

Well, I’ve done that for a month and I’ve got to tell you that it’s dull. It’s deadly, deadly dull. It’s mentally constipating as well, because you can’t do anything with the ideas you get from the program. For that reason I’m going to do something interesting and choose option three, confining myself to honest, if comical, reporting on the entire situation.

In other words, let’s kill the cat and see if the waveform collapses.

The Social Ramble Ain’t Restful

When you receive an email from an organization called The Society, inviting you to a private dinner, there are a number of possible responses. They range from bafflement (which I experienced fairly significantly) to a sense of impending dread that you might be on the radar of the illuminati or freemasons. I don’t think I’m cut out for massive planetary economic conspiracy, so that was just a fleeting thought.

It turns out that The Society are a group of likeminded culture vultures, fashionistas and social commentators. They have branches in Toronto, New York and Miami; they seem to be expanding as well into Los Angeles. In the cursory research that I did on them before accepting the invitation to dinner, I noted that they tended towards being thin, fashionable, mannered people with pronounced bone structure. They are the sort of people that would generally not look out of place in an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue; Size twos in an increasingly XL world.

Communal place setting. Pretty swank.

Mostly I wondered how in the world they had settled on inviting me. It’s a common anxiety that I face in situations like this. I have a movie star physique, but unfortunately that movie star is Ernest Borgnine. I need not have worried. They’re a pleasant bunch of well spoken, erudite people, and since it was putatively a beer dinner, I was very much on my home turf. There are few situations in which being barrel shaped is a blessing; at a beer dinner, it’s practically de rigeur.

The dinner was held at Jamie Kennedy’s Gilead Café, and the element that had not quite sunk in when I received the invitation was that it involved an interactive seminar on canning and pickling. In the past, if you had asked my opinion on canning and pickling, I would probably have fled the room. This is owed to the fact that somewhere in the basement of my Mom’s house in Kingston is a relatively large number of jars of damson plum jam which date from the 1980’s. The debate rages periodically about whether or not they are fit for human consumption. They are likely just fine. They may possibly be delicious. It is my hope to retain a sense of mystery on the subject.

The North American Jamie Kennedy in his natural habitat senses that he has been spotted by bloggers. Soon, he will appease them with their dietary staple: beignets

Jamie Kennedy views the subject rather differently. He would, having been recently awarded the Order of Canada for advancing the cause of local food. After announcing to the room that he was trying an experiment in socializing while working, he made a fairly compelling argument:

A hundred years ago, prior to refrigeration, people needed to know how to preserve food. Without the long supply chains which we take for granted in the 21st century, this was a common practice. Moreover, one of the things that determines a sense of place in cuisine is the ability to live off of what is locally available. In a place like Toronto, which has some of the most fertile farmland on the planet just outside its borders, it’s practically inexcusable not to take advantage of the bounty of the farms that toil during our hot summers. In short, the preservation of fruits and vegetables would have been a culinary staple 100 years ago and is one that we currently overlook.

I suspect that you’re not going to find a Caesar salad on his winter menu, and with good reason. The clapboard shingles that make up the décor of the bar area suggest a sort of uber-rusticity that belie the gentle nature of the chef himself. The opposite wall is adorned with jars of pickled vegetables and preserved fruits that are seemingly intended to be used by the kitchen during the coming winter season. In terms of commitment to the practice of locavorism, Jamie Kennedy wears his heart on the wall of his dining room.

Sure, it's beautiful, but what happens when Shemp or Curly come to dinner?

After a few Heinekens (Did I mention this was an event sponsored by Heineken? Well done, Heineken. Dennis Hopper may not have liked you, but you’re ok by me. I begin to wonder how many times I will mention Heineken. That was four. That oughta do.) and a beer battered cheddar beignet topped with mustard pickles from Kennedy’s great aunt’s recipe, we milled into the kitchen to our workstations.

Shortly before the great pickling imbroglio

I was given an apron, two jars and the explanation that I would be pickling peppers. Like a latter day Peter Piper, I was ready to pick a peck. My tablemates were similarly enthusiastic, although they seemed somewhat astounded by the minimalism of a working kitchen. I was pleased to note that they had hidden all of the knives before letting slightly inebriated members of the general public in. After all, there’s only so much damage you can do with a spatula.

We pickled to the utmost, but we eventually ran short of peppers and team members were recruited to stand outside over a grill in a supervisory capacity as additional peppers were charred. As happens in these situations we looked for something to do, ending up in a discussion over how many peppercorns to put in a pint of pickled peppers. All of this while standing more or less directly in the way of the exceedingly patient kitchen staff. After a suitable amount of standing around awkwardly, we found our way to the dining room.

The menu, as one might expect from the reputation of the chef was local and seasonal.

I really must remember not to disturb the soup. That's a sentence I've never heard anyone say.

It has to be said that I am not much of a fan of soup. I never have been, and as such I feel as though it’s unfair to comment on the Squash soup, except to say that it was a delightful autumnal colour. As happens in situations like this, I forgot to take a picture of it until I had thoughtlessly disturbed the presentation.

Galantine of delicious, delicious Chicken.

The main course was a galantine of chicken with what I suspect was a sage and rosemary stuffing served with a trio of onions and a Heineken onion sauce. The flavour of the sage and rosemary was just sharp enough to cut the sauce, creating a very pleasant combined mouthful with the caramelisation from the roasted onions. It put everyone in the Thanksgiving mood, and inspired me to commit the somewhat déclassé act of mopping up the sauce with bread. This is the kind of dish which you, had you been served it at a family dinner, would volunteer to wash dishes so that you could sneak into the kitchen and pick at the leftovers. The only minor quibble I had was that I think the green onions were included essentially as a plating element and didn’t really add anything. My enjoyment of the dish made it extremely hard to view critically.

Chocolate Mousse, Vanilla Cone, Raspberry Puree. They can't all have punchlines.

For Dessert there was chocolate mousse served with a vanilla cone and a raspberry puree. It was rich enough that my colleague from the Post was unable to finish his. The vanilla cone provided a nice textural counterpoint once crumbled over top of the mousse and the tartness of the puree provided some respite from the sweetness of the dish. It was a playful plating and interesting to see how people approached disassembling it. There’s a certain amount of joy in seeing people overcome the apprehension that they might be risking unsightly stains on their clothes in order to indulge in chocolate.

It was a beer dinner in the sense that it was sponsored by a beer. Heineken, being a lager, doesn’t really go with squash soup. For something that creamy, you’d want something in a pale ale with enough hop acidity to cut the texture and refresh the palate with carbonation. You might even run to an India Pale Ale. It had no chance of standing up to a chocolate dessert.

I spoke with Kennedy afterwards and it was clear that he knew that this was more or less the case. It’s for this reason that I find him all the more impressive. Rather than attempting to shoehorn the beer into dishes that would have blown it away, he used it where it would be effective: In the batter for the beignets, where it provided a textural advantage and in the sauce for the chicken, where it aided in creating sweetness and flavour. I’d like to see what he could do with a full menu of pairings.

After collecting a jar of Rhubarb jelly, I was off into the night. My brief flirtation with the lifestyle of the extremely well dressed intelligentsia of the city was over, and I was able to stagger home to collapse into a mousse induced coma.

Fun With Numbers – The BMO Nesbitt Burns Edition

As you may have noticed, if you read the blog frequently: I like to crunch numbers, me. Recently, because I’ve had a business math class at Niagara College, there has been less of this kind of thing, but I’m here to tell you that I was spurred into action whilst looking at a report on the North American beer industry that was released last week by BMO Nesbitt Burns. It suggests that there are two things that large brewers in the North American theatre can do to improve their situations:

  1. Try to enter the craft beer market by creating niche and premium products and also, “hey, women aren’t drinking enough beer.”
  2. Focus on emerging markets. 

Let us break this down, shall we?

1)The report suggests that North America is currently classified as a mature market. A mature market is a market that has entered into a state of equilibrium. You might remember a while back that I wrote about seeming detente between the large brewers. They each basically have a brand to compete with an equivalent brand that the other one has. The market shares held by AB InBev and MolsonCoors don’t actually fluctuate very much on a year over year basis. According to the Euromonitor International report that I’m looking at from 2010, AB InBev has about 42% of the Canadian market by volume and MolsonCoors has something like 37%. Between them, they account for about 80% of the total market. When you discount, Sapporo and imports, the craft beer segment might make up 10% of the total Canadian market, although I suspect that to be generous.

I feel like the large brewers could break into the craft market if they really wanted to. MolsonCoors has Creemore and Granville Island, but aside from wider distribution, those seem to be being pretty much left alone to do their thing. This is probably a good call. I have little doubt that each of AB InBev and MolsonCoors will pick up some additional craft labels at some point in the next couple of years. Personally, I’d go for ones that are already of sufficient volume to be distributed consistently on a national basis. There aren’t that many.

It’s not a good long term game. I suspect that the thing that keeps them out of the craft market is that the profit margins are not equal. It’s good to remember that these are huge multinational companies and that they’re beholden to their shareholders.

One of the reasons that we’re in this situation is that the economic precept of the last half century has been the assumption of consistent and inevitable growth. Corporations are expected to grow annually in order to be seen as a good investment. What this means is essentially this: If your name is Bob Johnson and you own Johnson’s Wiener Factory and everybody eats your hot dogs already and you’re the only game in the town, you have the significant likelihood of being downgraded as an investment because you’ve got no ability to grow the market. Stability isn’t enough. You need to find a way to cram more Johnson’s Wieners into the overcrowded gullets of your consumers. Just, y’know, jam them in there. Or maybe come up with a line of mustards. Or a new marketing campaign: “Johnson’s Wieners: What a Mouthful!”

The model only works if guaranteed growth of the economy is possible. Unfortunately, North America is a mature market. Basically, everyone has the share of the pie that they’re going to get. The overall size of the market will grow slowly on its own, but essentially, barring a global financial apocalypse, the ability to manufacture further growth is not very cost effective on a large scale.

Canadians drink something like 2.384 billion litres of beer a year, or about 69.5 litres per capita. Launching a new craft brand would take R&D, marketing research, resources, labour, materials, and you’d be clawing for maybe 0.25% of the market if you were a total success at it. About 6 million litres. Not chump change, exactly, but potentially not worth it. It’s hard to predict reception to a product like that, as well. It might be worth it if you bought an established brand whose performance you could predict, but it’s not going to result in the year over year gains you need to keep shareholders happy. It’s neat for the portfolio and results in some pretty darn good beer being made in the case of something like Creemore Kellerbier.

2)Before I go on, I should point out that I’m culling data from the internet, which is always a little dicey. It should be basically accurate if not completely so. Also, I’m working from litres per capita figures that do not reflect the current year, as there’s no data for 2011 yet.

When you talk about emerging markets, that essentially means markets in which there is the possibility of establishing yourself and experiencing a lot of growth. I’ve seen Russia thrown around, but it’s a market about half the size of the states and shrinking demographically. Plus, they consume about 70 litres of beer per capita already. Not a huge amount of room for growth.

Make no mistake. The prize is China.

China currently has a population of about 1.34 billion people. As of 2010, they drink 32.1 liters of beer per capita. That means approximately 41,730,000,00 litres of beer annually. That is a market that is 17.5 times larger than Canada’s and about 1.75 times larger than the U.S.

Canada has a population growth of about 1% annually. It’s been that way since about 1995. At that rate, over the next 20 years, you’re looking at a growth from 34 million people to approximately 42.3 million people. The amount of beer that we drink per capita doesn’t change all that much, so let’s keep it at the figure I had of 69.5 litres per person. If that holds steady, you’re looking at growth at a factor of 1.246. We’ll be drinking nearly 3 billion litres of beer annually.

Interestingly, the U.S. Expands in that time by a factor of about 1.244, with an extrapolated population growth of 0.87% reported during the summer of 2011. Over the next twenty years, their market should expand to 31,171,200,000 litres from current consumption, assuming per capita consumption stays constant at 81.6 litres.

China is not like that. Beer consumption in China has increased every year for the last ten years. In 2000, it was 17.5 litres per capita. It is currently something like 32.1 litres per capita. They have a population growth of 0.47%, but because it’s a much larger population, you’re looking at something like 1.48 billion people by 2032. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that their consumption will eventually top out somewhere around 70 litres per capita, since that’s a respectable global average. 1.48 billion people drinking 70 litres of beer per capita is about 103 billion litres of beer a year. Growth factor: 2.468

At that time that would be just under half of the beer consumed in the world, and that’s without even considering beer for export.

AB InBev already has 11.1% of the market share and are brewing 5 billion litres annually in China. Just their stake in the Chinese beer market is more than twice the size of the entire Canadian market. MolsonCoors are expanding there as well, and although AB InBev has a big head start, Coors Light seems to be pretty popular.

Think of the possibilities. They don’t need to create brands. They can import ones that already exist. The demand will be such that marketing can be kept to a minimum. Imagine the position you’d be in as a large multinational company if you controlled 33% of this market by the time it reached maturity. You would have grown with it, dictating the direction of the market. It would be three times bigger than Canada and the U.S. combined by the year 2032.

I feel like maybe the BMO Nesbitt Burns report should have highlighted that more. In the long run,1% of the North American market is chump change, so a long, entrenched fight for the craft market doesn’t actually make any sense. This is especially true when you realize that a pint of Carlsberg sells for $12.50 Canadian in parts of Shanghai.

The Adventures of Johnny Barleycorn

“Despotic the new regime was undoubtedly from the start.”

This is a sentence that I have carried with me since grade 10, and it illustrates a point that I had quite forgotten until I got into brewing school. Textbooks are frequently poorly written. In the case of my grade 10 history textbook, it may actually have been edited by Yoda. One of the main difficulties I’ve had in learning about beer is that outside of some genuinely entertaining authors (Pete Brown, Randy Mosher, Charlie Papazian, Charles Bamforth) is that there’s a disconnect between the amount of information on offer and the manner in which it is conveyed to the reader.

It has to do with the amount of detailed factual information you need to understand if you’re going to be a brewer. If you wanted to know everything to do with the barley plant, you’d need a certain amount of fine detail regarding the parts of the plant, reproductive methods, germination, steeping, kilning and storage. Now, it’s great to have all of the facts at your fingertips, but unless you’re able to impose some kind of narrative structure on them, it’s unlikely to help you in any significant way. I know myself well enough to know that rote memorization certainly didn’t help me in university Latin. The puella may well be in the tabernae, but I’m not much for declension. I need a gimmick to remember that stuff.

I remember doing some research on Robbie Burns for an Ola Dubh tasting at the Monk’s Table, and I remember coming across his poem, John Barleycorn. Now, it’s a fine poem. If you want to go ahead and read it out loud, I suggest trying to do it as Billy Connolly. It sort of anthropomorphizes barley and makes it a bit of a rebel hero, imposing a narrative structure on the entire process of brewing. It’s not all that helpful with details for a number of reasons:

1)      They didn’t know a huge number of details when Burns was staggering about writing poems and getting barmaids in trouble. People knew how to make beer out of Barley, but they didn’t know how exactly the chemical processes worked.

2)      The chemical processes are not conducive to rhyming. In fact, the only rhyme I can think of for Gibberellic Acid is Liberal Antacid, and I’m not entirely sure how you’d shoehorn that in to an anthropomorphized barley bildungsroman. Go ahead and try to think of a rhyme for Scutellar Epithelium that is in any way relevant to that context. If you come up with one, you may want to put a velvet rope around your house and charge admission. If you can figure out a way to make it fit into iambic pentameter, we’ll be saving your brain in a jar.

So, how do you explain the process without being tedious and boring and have people avoid you at parties? I don’t know, but it’s worth a shot.


Johnny Barleycorn was from a very small town in Saskatchewan. All of his friends were as well.

There was not a great deal to do in town. The only identifying landmark was the old grain silo. The barleycorns didn’t go to school, since there was not a great deal that they had to know about the world. Even if they had gone to school, they would not have been able to compete against other schools at intramural sports. The barleycorns, as a people, were quite tiny. They don’t make sports equipment in that size. Also, they didn’t have legs.

Even if they had had a school, they wouldn’t even have had a prom. The barleycorns were pretty largely gender neutral, which made crowning a Prom Queen a very confusing process. Eventually they decided not to bother.

Upon reaching the age of maturity, Johnny looked like this:

Deep down in his heart, Johnny only wanted one thing. He wanted to have a nice little family of his own, in the same row that he had grown up in. Imagine only wanting to reproduce (for some of you, that should not be too hard).

Little did Johnny know that that wasn’t going to happen. Mean Mr. Maltster had other plans for Johnny. He was an extraordinarily nasty and foul smelling person, who carried a very large rake around with him. Mr. Maltster had a number of friends who really enjoyed beer, and he had found that one of the best ways to make beer was to use barley.

Mr. Malster abducted Johnny one day and put him to work in what he claimed was a Spa. Johnny didn’t know about slave labour, so he assumed that Mr. Maltster was acting in good faith. “Do I get benefits? When’s lunch? What about my work/life balance? I’d really like to have a nice family of my own some day.” said Johnny.

“Sure, kid. That’ll all happen.” Said Mr. Maltster, puffing away on his cigar. “This is a great place to work. We’ve even got this Jacuzzi. Why don’t you hop in and relax, while we find you a desk.”

Johnny hopped in the Jacuzzi. The water was just the right temperature for Johnny; somewhere between 16 and 20 degrees Celsius. What he didn’t know was that it was laced with Gibberellic Acid.

Can you say Gibberellic Acid, children? I knew that you could.

It wasn’t like other kinds of Acid. It didn’t make Johnny all strung out or make him see music and hear colours like LSD would have. It didn’t really burn him, like sulphuric acid would have. This acid changed Johnny’s insides. It was a miracle acid that was discovered by the Japanese in the 1930’s.

It made Johnny produce enzymes and changed his insides, so that he was ready to reproduce. He suddenly had expanding rootlets growing out of his proximal end. You might know what that’s like, if you’ve seen the magazines your daddy hides in the garage.

See the Rootlets, children? This is HAPPY Barley.

“This is great,” thought Johnny. “Hey, Mr. Maltster! I’m reproducing! I’m going to go back to Saskatchewan and find a nice field to bury myself in!”

Mr. Maltster cackled maniacally. “Not so fast, kid. I guess you didn’t read your contract. You’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re going to transfer you to another department. In the mean time, why don’t you go have a seat in the sauna. Take a schvitz.”

Johnny didn’t really like the look of the sauna. It had a weird smell to it, and reminded him a little of that time he had burned some toast. The sauna seemed to be getting closer. Johnny couldn’t read, because he never went to school. If he had been able to read, he would have wondered why sauna was spelled K-I-L-N.

The next thing Johnny knew, he was getting uncomfortably hot. It was so hot in the sauna that Johnny was drying out. It was so hot that he was changing colour. It got to be nearly 100 degrees Celsius in the sauna. Johnny was really starting to have suspicions about Mr. Maltster. He didn’t know that Mr. Maltster was trying to remove his ability to reproduce while retaining all of the sugars that the germination process produced. Johnny generally believed that people were good.

That’s when the sauna started shaking. It shook so hard that Johnny’s rootlets fell off. “Oh no! Now I’ll never be able to reproduce!” Johnny cursed the day he met Mr. Maltster.

Mr. Maltster showed a certain amount of concern. “Hey, kid. I tell you what. That’s a terrible deculming accident that happened there. I feel bad. Why don’t you hop in this sack. It’s specially designed for grains like you. I’ll ship you back to Saskatchewan and you can live out your days on disability.”

Johnny was relieved. The sack was loaded on to a truck and he was on his way. It was very dark  and Johnny couldn’t see out of the sack, but if he could he might have wondered why Saskatchewan was spelled “Very Large Brewing Company INC” on the sign at the destination.

Finally, when the sack was opened, Johnny was put into a grain hopper with a lot of other barleycorns. He remembered some of them from Saskatchewan. “Hi Susie,” said Johnny. Susie was apparently dealing badly with the trauma induced by the sauna and was not responsive.

“What’s that noise?” said Johnny. He couldn’t see because of all of the other barleycorns. The mechanical sound was getting louder and closer. There was a terrible moment of panic when Johnny realized he was going to be ground up in to little tiny bits.

Oh, NO!

Look out, Johnny!

Can you fall to your knees and scream "Noooooooooooooo!" children? I knew that you could.

Oh, no. Poor Johnny.

Johnny’s shattered corpse was submerged in hot liquid and all of his starch was extracted. Eventually, Mr. Brewer would use liquid to make beer. Before that happened, though, all that remained of Johnny was raked out of the Mash Tun and dumped unceremoniously into a huge bucket. Eventually, he was fed to a smelly cow.

This is a cow. Just consider yourselves lucky this isn't a story about milk.

Isn’t that terrible, children? This all happens because your mommy and daddy like beer! This would never have happened to Johnny if they liked club soda.

Aren’t you glad you’re not a barleycorn?

Toronto Beer Week 2011 – Day One – Drinking Sumac, Eating Crow

Competition tends to bring out the worst in people and for all that brewers exist in a sort of brotherhood (siblinghood, so as not to exclude the brewsters) most of the time, there is a significant amount of smacktalk that surrounds events where there’s going to be a significant amount of friendly rivalry. One such event was Barrel Bragging Rights at the Monk’s Table last night.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, Mike Warner from A Year of Beer organized an event whereby a number of local bloggers and beer writers were tasked with teaming up with a brewer in order to design and brew a beer to be served on cask at the Monk’s Table. It’s a departure for the midtown pub in that they mostly serve European imports. I wouldn’t want to say that this was the first time that they’d had Ontario beers on offer, but if it isn’t it’s a near run thing.

The thing is that objectively, I’m not sure that the event should have worked. Not a lot of beer writers and bloggers have experience brewing anything for public consumption. Oh sure, we’re pretty in touch with the brewing scene in Ontario and a lot of us have pretty good ideas, but the realization of those ideas is usually beyond us. Essentially, most of the success can be attributed to the brewers we teamed up with, who patiently listened to our ideas and then explained why they wouldn’t work. Originally, I had suggested attempting to define a new style of beer by attempting a White IPA. I think the only people that had tried that before were Deschutes and Boulevard, who had collaborated.

Between us, we had managed to come up with some beers that should probably have been untenable. Chris Grimley and Mike Lackey had a sort of peppered Saison. Matt Caldwell and Andrew Bartle ended up brewing something between a brown ale and a porter that involved date sugar and a lot of brown malt. Josh Rubin from The Star made an Imperial Milk Stout and used the two gallon wooden barrel to his advantage by soaking the insides with brandy (I think he’s the only one of us with an expense account).

In the days leading up to the event, there was a lot of infighting on twitter. I, for one, went into full on WWE promo mode, stealing heavily from The Rock. I may have even used the phrase “roody-poo candy-ass” when describing Chris Grimley. I even went so far as to troll Josh Rubin by sampling his beer at the brewery before it was casked. I took a picture of his beer and tweeted “This is your beer.” I took a picture of me drinking his beer and tweeted “This is me drinking your beer.”

By the time we arrived at the Monk’s Table, we had all pretty much given up on that line of spirited japery. There was a lot of nervous energy, mostly because some of us hadn’t tasted the beers that we designed yet. We didn’t know how they would be received. Around 4:30, the terrible thought occurred to us “what if no one shows up?” Ideally, the upside of having all of the beer writers in the city involved in an event is that there will, at the very least, be a lot of publicity for the event. If no one showed up, it would mean that our efforts were really some sort of recursive loop and we were the only audience for our writing. We can be a little backslappy and self congratulatory, but that would actually confirm our worst fears.

It turns out we needn’t have worried. By 5:00, there was a lineup of about 40 and people just kept coming. I’ve never seen the Monk’s Table that busy. If pressed, I’d be forced to admit that I’ve never seen ANY pub that busy. Judging by the looks on the faces of the staff, I would bet that they hadn’t either. I don’t know what the capacity is for the location, but we were pushing the limit. This reinforces my opinion that Adam Grant is an extraordinarily shrewd pub owner.

Here’s the thing: I was prepared for all of the beer to be at least drinkable. We were working with talented brewers and they weren’t going to let us down. Using oak barrels added a bit of difficulty, but realistically, wasn’t that big a problem even if people hadn’t used them before. After all, we’ve got google.

I wasn’t prepared for the majority of the beers to be excellent, though. It was genuinely surprising. Aside from one entry that was a little wine-y, I would have ordered all of them again. For me the standout was the Black Creek/Dick Snyder collaboration IPA, which was as good as any IPA I’ve tried in Ontario. It was balanced, nuanced, delicious. I’m not sure I’ve ever met Dick Snyder, but congratulations are due; also to Ed, the brewer. I got the dregs of the cask on that one, and felt absolutely no regret in preventing other people from trying it.

The winner was Pantalon Saison brewed by Chris Grimley and Mike Lackey, and it probably should have been, given that it was a public judging. Not only was it of really high quality, but it had a small advantage in that there was enough of it that more people got to try it and probably derived more votes because of that. It likely would have won even without that advantage. I must therefore retract my assertion that Chris Grimley is a “roody-poo candy-ass.” His status is hereby upgraded to “Jabroni.”

The competition does make me wonder. Since beer writers tend to have some pretty good ideas, and local brewers are clearly able to run with them, I don’t see why this kind of thing shouldn’t happen more often. This time we ended up with Sumac, date sugar, and brandy as ingredients. I’m not sure that would have happened organically without the competition. It seems like it could be a good ongoing resource.

I tied for third place with Josh Rubin, whose beer was great, if heavy for the season. This means that the eternal battle between The Toronto Star and The Toronto Sun continues.

Next time, Rubin. Next time.

Time Spent in Reconnaissance

As regular readers will be aware, I have somehow managed to get into the Niagara College Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program. It’s my intention to write about the experience whenever the mood takes me. I doubt that I will be talking frequently about the content of the courses, as some of the material is fairly dry. I will not be committing sentences like “What you want is a friable barley corn so that the starch of the endosperm can be easily extracted after the deculming process” to paper with any kind of regularity outside of exams. That’s the kind of thing that makes for relatively dull reading, unless you’re actually in the course. Also, I would probably have to explain a lot of the specific jargon pertaining to various brewing processes.

I won’t lie. There will be some of that, mostly because it’s fascinating stuff in its own way.

Mostly, I’ll be talking about my experiences.

I’m starting from a relatively humble place from an intellectual standpoint. After the huge number of applications for the program in the first year, I decided that I would start writing about beer in order to create some credentials for myself should the program end up being competitive. I didn’t realize it would work out this well. I landed a gig with Quebecor, writing the beer column for the major regional newspaper markets and for, and thanks to the support and feedback of my editor, I’ve been improving at writing for that format.

The problem is that up to this point, whatever information I’ve had about beer has been self taught or picked up from conversations with brewers and industry professionals. If you’ve ever picked up books about brewing, you know that it’s almost impossible to come up with a complete system of knowledge pertaining to the processes involved. I have a relatively decent understanding of the process generally, even having designed a few recipes and seen them through to service. The problem is that many of the technical details have thus far eluded me. It’s a sort of Rumsfeldian “known unknown.”

My experience in talking to people in the industry is that there are relatively few people who understand everything about brewing. That’s as it should be. Everyone has their areas of expertise, and the reality is that people end up in a certain job and it helps to define their ongoing knowledge base. There are things that they need to know on a daily basis. If you ask a brewer who makes ales for help designing or brewing a lager, there will be trepidation. It’s a lot of information to have floating around inside your skull.

What I’m hoping to be able to do is learn as much as possible about brewing in order to be able to talk about every step of the process with some degree of authority. I freely acknowledge that my own understanding is currently incomplete, and I’m sure that at some point in the middle of this program there will be times when I look back on blog posts from previous years and cringe when I notice that I got details wrong.

There are a couple of questions that I’ve gotten from people about the program, so I’m going to do my best to answer them:

The first question is sort of universal. I’ve gotten it from profs and brewing students and brewers when I explain that I’m going to Brewing School. It’s frequently charitably worded, but it boils down to “You don’t actually picture yourself becoming a brewer, do you?”

The answer is: Possibly!

I really don’t know as yet whether I’ve got any facility for it. People seem to like the beers that I have made, but I think that in order to decide whether this is going to be a career, I’ll need to scrub in and work in a brewery. Fortunately, the school has one of those and luckily I have some access to a pilot system outside of the school which people will let me work with if I ask really nicely. I think it’s about finding a working rhythm and understanding the process. I know that the appeal for me is the creative process: At the end of the day in a brewhouse you have something to show for your work and if you have done it right, it will be something that people actually want to buy. It’s a lot more fulfilling than shuffling numbers in Excel, at least for me. I suspect that I will talk about that in greater detail later.

Usually, when answering that question, I’m quick to point out that even if I don’t end up as a brewer, wouldn’t you rather have someone writing about beer with a really in depth understanding of what goes into it? Instead of some schmuck who is piecing together an imperfect understanding from fragments of information gleaned off the internet and from whatever books are to hand? That would also be a fairly valuable use of everybody’s time.

The second question has more to do with logistics: “Isn’t that a long commute from Toronto?”

Yes indeed. It is a very long commute. Over three hours a day. This semester I’m waking up at 5:00 at least two days a week in order to make this thing happen. The problem is that I write for a major newspaper chain, so in order to remain relevant in a quickly expanding industry, I have to be where the action is. If you want to interview reps from import companies or attend events, you pretty much need to be where the reps and events are.

That said, it’s not without some advantage. I don’t drive, so what I’ve really got is about three hours a day where I am forced to sit quietly on a bus without access to the internet. I plan on making my way through the school’s brewing library during the commute over the course of the next six months. I figure that there can’t be more than about 40,000 pages of information there, so that should work out tolerably. I mentioned this to some fellow students yesterday and they thought I was joking, as you might. I refer you to the Duke of Wellington: “Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.”

It’s going to be a long slog, but I can tell from the outset that it’s also going to be worthwhile.

For a day to day look at the curriculum, you may want to look at Alan Brown’s blog: Student of Beer

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

(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.









Calling all Brewing Students

I’m going to do something a little odd here and use the blog briefly as a platform for a public service announcement.

I got into the Niagara College Brewmaster program this year, and that’ll be starting up on the 7th of September. Apparently there are going to be 36 students this year. So far, I’ve only met one of them. Sebastian something or other from Flying Monkeys. I don’t recall the last name because at the time I met the fellow, he was serving me a 3300 IBU beer with a very high alcohol content and it was the end of Ontario Craft Beer Week. That means that somewhere out there are 34 slightly inebriated miscreants with nothing better to do with their lives than brew some beer.

Anyway, if it’s anything like last year, there are going to be people commuting from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-lake. That probably means that carpools are a good idea. Not only is it cheaper in terms of mileage, but also better for the environment. Unfortunately, due to the college’s stringent privacy policies, there’s no way of getting a list of who’s going to be in the class of 2013. They’re noted for their almost legendary stringency. My god, are they ever stringent. I talked to a couple of profs about it and they looked as though I had suggested some incredibly devious and unconscionable act. It was almost as though they had misheard “is there a list of students going into the program this fall?” as “I’m just going to go over there, put a puppy in a blender and hit liquefy.”

For that reason, I’m posting this in order to see if we can’t get some kind of organization going. It would be fun to meet up prior to the start of school in Toronto for a late summer afternoon meet and greet style event. Possibly at the Only Café, since it’s inexpensive and has a pretty good selection.

If you’re going into Niagara College’s brewing program this fall, go ahead and contact me by email at or on twitter (@saints_gambit). You might also want to try and get into the facebook group that the school has organized.