St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Molson M

If you’re new to being a nationally syndicated beer writer, like myself, it’s easy to dramatize things unnecessarily inside your head. Deadlines tend to loom larger in your mind than they have any right to, possibly due to the ominousness of the term. The Sun column is 600 words, after all, and I’ve been churning out something like 3000 words a week for about six months. Taken objectively, it’s not really that big a deal and it’s surprising how quickly you get used to the concept of working on a schedule.

Another thing that I had sort of mentally over prepared for was a meeting I had Tuesday with some Molson representatives. Initially, I was fairly surprised that they were interested in talking to me. After all, I have been pretty scathing when it comes to their marketing strategies and I would think that my bias in favour of craft beer is pretty clear.

It’s easy to cast large breweries as the bad guys; The “evil empire,” if you will. It is, after all a period in history when large corporations are essentially able to lobby governments for whatever they want. Recently, there was a rumour of merger between AB InBev and SABMiller, which would have combined the largest and second largest brewers in the world into some kind of giant, bland beer-Voltron.

You see, the problem is that the narrative structure of the situation doesn’t really favour them. All I know for sure is that in the movies, the good guys tend not to start out with all of the resources and huge amounts of money and publicity and the ability to influence politics. The good guys are the underdogs and people are conditioned to think about anyone who’s an underdog as a good guy. It could be Luke Skywalker or Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles or pretty much any main character in a Pixar or Disney movie.

Of course, that’s not the reality of the situation. It’s just the way that it’s portrayed.

I went and sat down with the Molson guys and was not exactly shocked to learn that they don’t dress in black or have red lightsabers and that there was no immediate evidence that they were in the thrall of some unspeakable ancient evil that lies dreaming in R’lyeh.

They’re just some guys. Pretty nice guys as a matter of fact. Obviously driven by an agenda, but I suspect that’s more of a contextual thing than an intrinsic quality. These are people you could hang out with.

The thing that struck me most about the meeting was the brief lamentation that brand loyalty seemed to be a thing of the past. Gone, apparently, are the days when people would choose a beer and then drink it for the next fifty or so years. It’s all this darn choice that exists.

Which is a bit of a weird statement to espouse considering that the beer that they wanted me to try was Molson M, which adds another variety of pale lager to the Molson family of products

Molson M already exists outside of Ontario. I’m relatively sure that it launched in late 2009 in Quebec. I say this because I remember seeing a booth for it at Mondial in Montreal in June. I also remember that that booth was relatively sparsely populated. It’s not really their fault that that was the case in Montreal. If the choice is between a two dollar sample of a new Molson lager and a two dollar sample of something from overseas that you can’t get at any other time of year, I’d say the choice is pretty obvious.

The claim to fame is that M is microcarbonated. I don’t know what that means. The technique is patent pending, so they were unable to elucidate on the off chance that I was planning to distribute their secrets via twitter.

I can only speculate that their method is either:

a) using carbonating stones with smaller than usual openings that impart a very fine amount of CO2 over a longer period of time possibly ending with a higher than usual pressure? I dunno.

Or

b) Tiny magical French-Canadian pixies with incredibly small straws blow continuously into the tank, creating exceptionally wee, elfin bubbles. (Not a union you want to anger.)

I’m not sure that it really matters, though. The problem is this: No one that they’re going to be marketing this beer to is really going to care a whole lot about the science behind its carbonation, and people who might have some interest are going to be skeptical since it’s still patent pending and it can’t be discussed publicly.

In truth, as mass produced pale lagers go, it’s just fine. There’s a little bit of spice and green apple in the aroma. I think I prefer it to Canadian. It’s certainly drinkable. It is, however, markedly similar to some of their other products. The packaging is supposed to set it apart as more urbane and sophisticated than its counterparts. I’m not sure it matters whether it is “premium” or not. I suspect the problem is that it’s another pale lager in a market dominated by pale lagers. In the same way that everything looks like a nail to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a pale lager to a man with a focus group.

I think that in a best case scenario it causes a slight uptick in sales and establishes itself as a brand. Probably what will happen is that it will slightly dilute sales of the other products offered by Molson resulting in a slight net loss in sales of their other brands resulting in the overall sales figures staying about where they are.

I guess we’ll find out when it launches next week.

 

Seasonal Releases and Brewery Features at the LCBO

One of the hardest things to deal with in life and in beer writing are those moments when you’re legitimately surprised. Surprise seems to be the LCBO’s stock in trade these days. Gone are the underwhelming release schedules of yesterday. For the last four months or so, they’ve been actually impressive in terms of the selection of beers that they’ve been bringing into the province. There was the Dieu Du Ciel feature, the winter release replete with the full Ola Dubh lineup, the Utopias lottery and now a brewery feature for Norrebro. Add to this the fact that you can now purchase the Sam Adams/Weihenstephan collaboration Infinium, and you end up with a pretty impressive portfolio of beverages.

Whoever it is that’s in charge over there is now seemingly trying to expand the selection of craft beer in Ontario. Good on you, nameless faceless government employees! We appreciate the effort!

I like to think about things from a logistical point of view whenever possible, so I’ve been thinking about this development. It’s almost like the idea that there’s no market for beer like this is being challenged from within the LCBO. It seems to me like it would be difficult to figure out exactly what the market will bear without actively pursuing that information. If you stand in the beer section at your LCBO, you can see that there’s a limited amount of shelf space to work with. That means that past a certain point, there’s not a lot of ability to stock a huge number of products. In order for the process to be profitable and for the beers being sold to remain fresh, a certain amount of volume has to move.

As long as there’s no outlet that exists specifically for the sale of Ontario Craft Beer, the LCBO basically has to stock local craft beer year round. And it sells! According to this nifty press release I was sent earlier in the week, Ontario Craft Beer sales are up 52% at the LCBO in 2010. That’s not peanuts, and it means that there’s definitely demand for these beers. Their market share will almost certainly expand, and that means that the LCBO will probably attempt to expand their supply. I would, if I were them.

It does, I would think, create an interesting problem for craft beers from other countries. It suggests that with Ontario Craft Beer taking up more shelf space, the LCBO will be hard pressed to include products from elsewhere as general listings (viz. stuff that’s available year round.) The seasonal releases and brewery features are incredibly useful for this reason.

Not only does it mean that there’s only a set amount of beer to be sold, it creates its own interest and demand. If you know, for instance, that Panil Barriquee Sour is only going to be available for a couple of months as part of the spring release, a couple of interesting things will happen. Beer writers will write about it, probably pointing out the recent trend towards sour beers in North America (“Sour is the new Hop.” “Pucker up, Ontario.” That sort of thing.) and we’ll eventually get more lambics and brett fermented beers.

The fact that you can only get Panil for a couple of months creates a body of hype around it and it will sell out. Beer nerds will sock away a couple of bottles to be enjoyed at a later date and novice beer drinkers will probably give the beer a try because they heard about it somewhere or because it’s something they’ve never seen before. The LCBO will run through its stock relatively quickly and the cycle will begin again with some other beer.

Look at the Norrebro feature as an example. I’ve been tracking it on drinkvine.com and it’s just flying off the shelves. It’s aided by a couple of things. The nice folks over at Roland and Russell sent Norrebro a consignment of Ontario Maple Syrup and the Ontario version of the La Granja Espresso Stout is brewed with it. It gives the release a good local interest story. (I, personally, think that the maple syrup may interfere slightly with the coffee aroma, but what do I know? It’s still pretty nice.) Even the Little Korkny Ale is moving pretty quickly and you would think that the price point ($21.95) would be prohibitive.

The Sam Adams/Weihenstephan Infinium ($14.95) arrived on shelves this week and there seems to be genuine interest despite some lackluster online reviews. It will be interesting to see what happens with this one, since beer nerds are wary of it. It’s certainly not the first beer to use the same techniques as Champagne. There’s Deus. Charlevoix also has quite a nice one. Ithaca in New York has a real humdinger in this style (albeit with some Brettanomyces). I suspect that this will sell primarily to beer novices who will be impressed by the bottle and the idea behind it. After all, it’s about the same price as a Freixenet or Henkell Trocken, so if you look at it that way, it’s not much of a risk. Potentially not a bad choice for Valentine’s Day, actually.

Essentially, what I think is happening is that the LCBO is testing the waters and trying to figure out exactly how much interest there is in releases like this and they’re slowly discovering that there’s a good deal more than they imagined. It’s a really good thing because it develops relationships with importers and means that there’s likely to be more of these releases in the future.

I suppose that what will happen is that releases like this will continue increasing in variety and frequency, until a point is reached where sales reach equilibrium with demand and there’s a backlog of inventory in storage or profitability is called into question. It’s a fine logistical problem and it’ll be interesting to see how the LCBO handles it. It’s not as though there’s a shortage of products people would be happy to see on the shelves. The question seems to be at what rate the public’s enthusiasm for craft beer both local and imported continues to grow.

Recent Developments

You may well have noticed that it has been a while since my last update here. That’s mostly due to the fact that last week I was writing sample pieces for Sun Media. You can imagine my surprise when I actually got the gig yesterday. That’s right: I’m now officially a quasi-legitimate beer writing guy.

I suspect that I should probably take this opportunity to explain why I ended up writing about beer, since there’ll probably be some increased traffic to the blog in the wake of the publication of the first couple of articles, and whenever possible I like to create context.

For a while there, I was a database administrator. I was not particularly good at it, but I had sort of ended up with the job after my supervisor became very ill. I didn’t have a lot of training, and I was basically holding things together with bailing wire, duct tape and the sweat of my brow. It made me incredibly miserable. When you wake up in the morning and your first thought as you’re making coffee is something like “Hey. I wonder if there are cheap flights to South America? Maybe I could disappear into the Andes and herd llamas.” you know that you’ve chosen the wrong career.

The office was down the street from Bar Volo, which is currently ridiculously highly rated in terms of excellent places to drink a beer. It’s certainly a really good place to go after working a job that you don’t particularly like.

I had heard that there was going to be a Brewmaster program available at Niagara College, so I looked very hard at the requirements for that and decided that it was probably a good idea to apply and see what happened. It looked like a career choice that I could really get in to. The only problem was that the program required more high school science courses than I had actually taken. For some reason, at 17, I had decided that physics was the way to go. While I was briefly able to mentally calculate the likely trajectory of Wile E. Coyote being fired out of an Acme catapult, it turned out that this was not a good long term choice.

There I was, last year about this time, sitting in an examination room holding forth on adaptive genetics in the populations of moths. Not having actually written anything with a pen in several years, I can only sympathize with whichever poor person ended up marking my paper. I did pretty well, but the marks didn’t come back in time to get me into the Niagara College program. It was a lack of planning on my part. I was waitlisted for the program.

So were a lot of other people. Last year, in its inaugural year, nearly 200 people applied for the Niagara College Brewmaster program.

I thought to myself the program would probably become competitive since that’s an awfully large number of applicants. “What can I do,” I thought, “to set myself apart from these other applicants?” I decided to start a blog. I was going to the Mondial festival in Montreal anyway, and I had a camera. Why not give it a shot?

That was about eight months ago.

Things sort of, uh… snowballed.

I’ve met a lot of really exceptional people both in the media and in the brewing industry. I have written a couple of articles for TAPS magazine, which is always a pleasure. I was the returning officer for the Canadian Brewing Awards, which was sort of neat (For about an hour, I was the only person in the country who knew the results). I have written satirical songs about brewery explosions. I have helped to organize Toronto Beer Week. I have brewed a bunch of beer both at home and at Great Lakes Brewery as part of their Project X series (Seriously: Try the Lazarus Breakfast Stout next time it’s available.) I was recently nominated for four Canadian Food Blog Awards and I hosted a tasting of the Ola Dubh range of products as part of the Robbie Burns celebration at The Monk’s Table. Now I’m the beer columnist for Sun Media.

You may be thinking that this is a hell of a roundabout way of getting into what is essentially an undergrad program; and you’d be totally justified in holding that viewpoint, especially since the program may not actually end up being competitive after all.  But if the experience thus far has taught me anything, it’s that there’s nothing like overkill. Also, that overkill will frequently result in a hangover.

At this point, I don’t really know whether I’ll get into Niagara College’s program this year. I applied. I somehow managed to pass high school biology (learning more about Eukaryotes than ever I wanted to know in the process). All I know is that if I don’t get in, it won’t be for lack of trying. And I’ll have somehow managed to get an actual job in print media as a result of the attempt.

The best part is that I don’t have to do database administration anymore unless I feel like it. Which is nice.

(I guess I should take the opportunity to plug some of the blogs over on the right side of the page. Without those guys, I would have a lot less context. Troy Burtch, for instance, runs what is maybe the best source for Canadian beer news. Andrew Bartle has been doing some really well thought out reviews of beers lately; I can’t quite explain why but they make more sense to me than most of the ones I’ve seen. Alan McLeod won Best Beer Blog in Canada last week, which is well deserved. The others are worth your attention as well.)

Great Lakes/St.John’s Wort Collaboration #2 – Adequacy Prevails!

If you’re an amateur brewer, you’re probably familiar with the phrase, “Relax! Have a homebrew.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t find this to be the comforting mantra that it is no doubt intended to be. In the back of my head when I’m brewing beer I’m mostly thinking, “Don’t screw up. Don’t screw up. Is everything sanitized? Oh crap! I’ve got to sanitize the airlock. The stuff is already in the bucket! It’ll all end in tears. Probably already has. Where the hell did I put the Star San?”

Wall of infamy

Mike Lackey and Me on the Great Lakes Wall of Infamy

This is why it’s gratifying to work with Mike Lackey at Great Lakes. He’s the chillest of dudes; Even his goatee is laid back. Mike knows exactly what needs to happen at every step of the process. Instead of screwing around measuring star san into gallons of water, he’s just got a hose and what I have to assume is premeasured sanitizing solution.

At home, if I’m brewing a beer and I get to the step where I need to mash some specialty grains into it, there’s always that moment of trepidation when I look at the packages of malt and wonder whether the grain has been crushed yet. Several minutes of beating a towel full of malt with a 1.5 litre grolsch bottle or transferring grain in and out of the burr grinder ensue, and always with unsatisfactory results. Too big. Too small. I find myself either worrying about starch conversion or wondering why everything smells like the inside of Ideal Coffee.

Great Lakes has one of these, which gets everything the same size even if it does look like it would be more at home in a Saw film.

That's what she said

This thing gives your forearm a pretty good workout.

After the moderate success of the Breakfast Stout that I did with Great Lakes a couple of months ago, I was invited back to try again with a different recipe. Deciding what you’re going to brew in Ontario is easy; All you have to do is look at what there isn’t. We’ve sort of reached a point in Ontario where I don’t feel bad about taking US craft beers as inspiration since they’re so far ahead of us in so many different categories. This time around, I thought it would be fun to try an Old Ale. I know that’s a typically English style, but I figured that by throwing some American hops at it and keeping the malt slightly lighter than would usually be called for in terms of roast, we might be able to create something interesting. The inspiration for it was Great Divide Hibernation Ale.

BEHOLD! St.John’s Wort Old Drawing Board

Let me tell you, the name was more appropriate than I had initially anticipated. If you’re like me, you’ve got just enough knowledge about what is possible to end up with a recipe that pretty much ignores the probable. This is especially true when you’re working with the ingredients that are on hand at someone else’s brewery. (What? I’m going to complain about getting to use stuff for free when the alternative is buying everything myself and sanitizing bottles?) We didn’t have two varieties of Crystal, so we had to use American 70-80 Crystal Malt for both Crystal additions. We didn’t have Carastan, so we decided to use Melanoidin. We switched the Biscuit malt out for Cara. We did have all of the hop varieties that we needed. Nugget, Columbus and Styrian Goldings.

Brewing this way reminds me of a criticism I once got from my university music theory professor, who claimed that I tended to view the process of theory exercises not so much as an aesthetic pursuit, but as a crossword puzzle. I have a tendency to take a top-down view in recipe creation, choosing a style that I want rather than a flavour profile in order to create a beer. For that reason it’s great to work with the materials that are on hand in order to create something. It forces me to think about what the likely outcome is going to be and it forces me to make real choices instead of using ideal ingredients. The other fun part is that since I’m partially colorblind, SRM measurements mean relatively little to me. I don’t know what colour something is going to be even when my software displays a little coloured box.

I'm not sure that colour exists outside of October

Going into the fermenter, to wreak havoc on yeast

In this case we ended up with a colour that I’m not sure I’ve seen before. As you can see, it’s sort of an opaque rust orange. Also, the Great Lakes pilot system has a conversion rate that’s slightly lower than the idealized 75% rate that my brewing software assumes.

What do you do when your dark brown, 8.7%, 93 IBU Old Ale ends up being rust orange, 8.0%, and about 107 IBU? Well, you realize pretty quickly that it’s not going to be an Old Ale. It’s not quite high enough in alcohol or dark enough in colour to be an American Barleywine. Imperial IPA? Maybe. All I can say is that I’m pretty sure it isn’t a Gruit or a Lambic. Add to this the fact that we might decide to age it in an Oak Barrel and the entire prospect becomes pretty frightening.  We’re probably also going to have to come up with a new name. Agent Orange might dissuade people. Mr. Orange might narc on us. Orange Julius would be nice because of the colour and the Imperial nature of the beer, but I think there’s some copyright infringement to consider.

Maybe the best news to come out of the brew day is that the collaboration Lazarus Breakfast Stout is going to show up again over the course of the next couple of months. If you’ve tried it before, I’m hoping this hits you as good news. If you didn’t get to try it last time, it should be making its way to an establishment chock full of beer nerds near you. I was pleased to see some positive feedback on ratebeer for the Breakfast Stout. It’s not every day you’re judged to be overwhelmingly adequate by a jury of your peers.

The Molsons, The Labatts and The St.Johns

Recently, I had an email from the nice folks over at Media Profile, who have sent me a release saying that public documents from the histories of the Molson and Labatt families are now available online as part of a promotion for Ancestry.ca. This is no time to pause and consider whether what is clearly a PR grab for a typically non-beer related site is actually newsworthy, especially when I’ve been taken up by enthusiasm for researching my own family tree and comparing the historic arcs of the Molsons, Labatts and St.Johns.

While some of the documents released are not particularly interesting in and of themselves (John S. Labatt once managed to travel to Buffalo, which is a revelation on par with the fact that he once got a newspaper delivered) some of the documents are downright fascinating.

Just for reference, I should point out that the St.Johns have a long and storied past. You name a European country, and I can guarantee you that we were on our way out of it just steps ahead of the tax collectors. Over the years we were French (fled because we were Huguenots), Swiss (left after a particularly nasty confrontation with a clockmaker), German (persecuted because we never mastered the umlaut) and Irish. The earliest record of the St.Johns in Canada is from Uxbridge, Ontario before the Irish Potato Famine. It never even made the hit parade.

That early ancestor managed to personally clear 100 acres of virgin forest during his lifetime, stopping only to sharpen his axe, darn his socks and calculate his carbon footprint. It was a hard life. There were wolves everywhere; At the drop of a hat there were wolves in the hat. My great great great great Uncle “King” Philip St.John was called that because he had the largest wagon in the county (that’s what she said). During the rebellion in Upper Canada, he raised a troop of about a hundred militia to put down the rebels. I don’t know if they ever saw action, but you can bet that they got blisters walking from Uxbridge.

The Labatt family has similarly interesting history. Sophie Labatt perished tragically at the age of 55 from an accidental poisoning. This leaves us with a great deal of speculation as to the exact nature of the tragedy and a reminder not to confuse the sugar and arsenic canisters in your pantry.

John S. Labatt, grandson of the founder of the brewery was kidnapped in 1934 by an employee of his own brewery. It seems that the kidnapping was originally meant to be a hoax for a publicity stunt in order to call attention to the brewery. Unfortunately, the Labatt family wasn’t in on it and the kidnapper, Russell Knowles, subsequently received a fifteen year sentence for his troubles. Apparently it’s only a joke until you ask for five million dollars.

My great uncle Rufus T. St.John was kidnapped as a seven year old. They sent one of his fingers in the mail to prove that they were serious, but it was returned postage due. His father paid the kidnappers twenty dollars to keep him, but was disappointed when little Rufus showed up on his doorstep the next day without so much as a scratch.

Harry Markland Molson perished in the tragic sinking of the Titanic in 1912. According to legend, he was last seen removing his shoes to swim towards a boat he saw off in the distance. I’m sure there’s a joke in here somewhere about Molson’s being cold and watery, but I don’t have a lawyer on retainer. Ironically, my great aunt Floe once had a summer internship as an iceberg (which is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard).

Lastly, the documents published by Ancestry.ca list Percival Talbot Molson’s attestation papers and military record. There are a number of things that we can learn from this, not the least of which is that if you have enough money on hand no one will laugh at you if your name is Percival. Seeing as he perished in the first world war, I’m not sure that I feel comfortable taking too many cheap shots at him. After all, anyone who’s willing to risk death and trench foot in order to fight the Kaiser is OK with me. We owe him one for that business with the umlaut.

Interesting Facts About The Beer Convoy

One of the problems that I encountered when reading about the convoy of beer fermentation tanks that have received so much publicity lately is that they don’t come across on a human scale. It’s hard to imagine a kilometer long convoy of vehicles necessitating the combined efforts of police services, public utility companies and a fleet of trucks from Challenger Motor Freight. For this reason St.John’s Wort is pleased to provide you with a loose guide to help you picture the exact dimensions and potential importance of such an influx of brewing volume.

According to the Toronto Star, the tanks can hold 5.86 million bottles of beer. According to City TV’s website, they can hold 1.4 million bottles a piece (for a total of 8.4 million bottles). Such a discrepancy is worrying. I mean, 2.54 million bottles of beer are missing. I think we should be on the lookout for a moustachioed man in a black Trans-Am and a trucker with a dog named Fred.

Let’s assume, though, that the Toronto Star has the figure right. 5.86 million bottles of beer (assuming that the bottles are 355 ml) translates to roughly 2,080,300,000 mililitres of beer, which is 2,080,300 litres of beer or 4,160,600 pints. That translates to roughly 346,717 litres or 693,434 pints of beer per fermenter.

Assuming, for legal reasons, that you don’t actually drink anything prior to your nineteenth birthday and that you lived until 70, you would have 18,615 nights where it would be possible for you to drink beer. Given that a reasonable night down at the pub might see you drink four pints of beer, you would within that time consume 74,460 pints of beer. In order to finish the volume of beer within the fermenter there would either need to be 9.31 of you (out of the question with current cloning technology and besides, what would you talk about?) or you would need to live 494 years. I suppose you could just find 8.31 friends to help you, but what if Verne Troyer is unavailable? Regardless, you’re going to want to lay in plenty of pedialyte and advil.

This is not a challenge that I recommend undertaking. After all, a pint of 5% beer typically contains about 250 calories. A fermenter therefore holds 173,358,500 calories of beer. No registered dietitian would take you on as a client. Also, it’s probably going to be filled with Molson Canadian… so, y’know.

In terms of sheer volume 346,717 litres of beer is 346.717 cubic meters of volume. My apartment in midtown Toronto is 450 square feet and has ceilings which are 7.75 feet high. The volume of space within my apartment is 98.75 cubic meters. This means that you could fit 3.5 of my apartment into one of these fermenters with enough space left over for a brand new chaise longue.

Interestingly (if you want to take wikipedia’s word for it) Canada consumes 2,183,000,000 litres of beer annually. You would need to fill these tanks 1049 times in order to reach that amount.

According to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in the United States, if you wanted to keep two Killer Whales in captivity you would need to provide a tank capable of holding 615 cubic meters. Theoretically, you would need 1.77 fermenters worth of beer in order to do that. I think it would probably be a bad idea to fill the Killer Whale tanks with beer, though. After several hours they would get maudlin and try to start fistfights with each other, which would be unsatisfying given that you can’t really make a fist with a pectoral fin. Additionally, given that their diet consists of 227 kilograms of fish daily, they might think that an average serving of bar peanuts is a little skimpy. Eventually, their whale song would start to sound like “Louie, Louie.”

According to the St.John’s Wort Expensive Liquids Equivalence Chart Molson Canadian costs approximately 0.0056 cents per milliliter. This means that the total street value of the beer that these fermenters would hold would be $11,649,680.00, which is approximately enough money to get David Beckham out of bed. If, on the other hand, you were to fill just one of the fermenters with Sam Adams Utopias, it would cost you $53,047,701.00

Interestingly, the entirety of the transport operation for the convoy was slated to cost $24,000,000. This means that the tanks will pay for their own transport from Burgstadt, Germany within two brew runs.

Brew Masters – Sam Runs The Voodoo Down

There’s been quite a bit of enthusiasm recently for a new program that has been airing on the Discovery Channel in the states. Brew Masters is hosted by Sam Calagione, who is the man behind Dogfish Head in Delaware. It begins broadcasting on the 17th on Discovery Canada and will probably be bookended by Kari Byron blowing things up and Mike Rowe cleaning out a stable. (While it would be disingenuous to suggest that you absolutely have to wait until next Monday to watch it on Discovery Canada, it would be irresponsible and morally suspect to mention that you can probably just punch “free tv brew masters” into Google and watch it whenever you feel like it. I suspect many of you will have done this already and I am therefore forced to denounce you as filthy internet pirates just in case any regulatory boards are paying attention.)

The show essentially revolves around two arcs in every episode. The main arc usually has to do with Sam Calagione and his thoroughly capable brewmasters being tasked with creating a beer with a specific theme. The secondary and significantly less featured arc has to do with the day to day running of the brewery. Usually these have to do with mishaps that have taken place during production.

Glue spills all over the floor, or a batch doesn’t ferment properly, or a piece of the bottling machine is found to be missing. It turns out that it’s relatively difficult to create a dramatic situation in a properly run brewery, so these problems get a lot of focus in order to create tension in the B story. The choice to focus less on these issues is essentially a tacit admission that even the loss of a half million dollars worth of product is not really interesting visually. There’s a shot of a hose pouring beer into a drain; No one is tearing their hair or committing seppuku.

The main arc may as well be titled “The Continuing Adventures of Sam Calagione.” I feel like I should talk about Sam a little. He’s thoroughly likeable, personable, enthusiastic and, I suspect, has a gift for promotion that rivals P.T. Barnum. I don’t mean that derogatorily; it’s just that Sam is everywhere. If you’ve seen a documentary on beer in the last three or four years, you have seen Sam. The glimpses of the backstory of Dogfish Head that we’re given show him to be a sort of Horatio Alger myth for the craft beer set. He’s managed to grow Dogfish Head into the 16th largest craft brewery in the US in just under 14 years, has written a number of books and has been featured in the New Yorker and on The Huffington Post. For all that, he drives around in a beat up pickup and somewhat inexplicably speaks in the manner of Keanu Reeves in Point Break. I think that it’s a carefully cultivated media persona adopted by a very savvy man, but the anachronism is delightful whether or not it is achieved by design.

The purpose of the main arc of the show is designing a beer. Whether they’re going on an ingredient run to Egypt or searching the Andes for authentic brewing methods, there’s going to be an extreme beer at the end of it. Whether that beer is period authentic or an expression of the influences observed is up for debate. One of the benefits of brewing a theoretical ancient style of beer is that there’s nothing available for comparison. It does result in a unique product that promotes the idea of Dogfish Head being a leader in experimentation.

The episode that stuck out for me is the one in which Sam is tasked with creating a beer commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Miles Davis album Bitches Brew. He decides on a blend of an Imperial Stout and an Ethiopian inspired honey beer bittered with gesho root. The reason I find that compelling is that the Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Dogfish Head’s extreme beers work so closely conceptually.

With Bitches Brew, Miles Davis basically galvanized Jazz Fusion as a concept. The album was recorded over the period of three days and much of what you hear listening to it is the result of the self-indulgence of the musicians involved. It’s improvisational to the extent that Davis actually issued cues to the other musicians instead of scores and it stands as a landmark album for the reason that it is unrepeatable and influential in terms of the soundscape that it creates. If you listen to a jazz radio station, you’re not going to hear a lot of covers of Miles Runs The Voodoo Down or Pharoah’s Dance.

With Bitches Brew, or really any of the extreme beers that Dogfish Head produces, you end up with similar genre defiance and stylistic melding. Peruvian Chicha? Egyptian… something? Does that fall into a category or is it a new and experimental thing? Can it be replicated? Would anyone want to?

There are a couple of issues that both Miles Davis and Dogfish Head engender:

First of all, they are both very high profile. If you become interested in jazz, you’re going to end up with a copy of Bitches Brew within a few months. Similarly, if you become interested in craft beer you’re going to try Dogfish Head fairly early on. In the same way that it might be difficult to have much interest in the Glenn Miller Orchestra after hearing Bitches Brew, it can be difficult to be interested in a Pale Ale after drinking a Dogfish Head World Wide Stout. They may neither of them be the first point of contact for a budding enthusiast, but their iconic statuses ensure that there will be exposure and the amount of hype that exists around them can inform an opinion.

It requires context. Are they both interesting? Definitely. Are they both important? Certainly. Could you listen to or drink Bitches Brew all the time? No. Definitely not. Both the Miles Davis album and the Dogfish Head beer exist because of an underlying conceptual framework which is being expanded upon. Look at how many jazz musicians cover How High The Moon or Mack The Knife. Look how many breweries make a standard English Pale Ale.

Secondly, they both spawn imitators. Once you create Jazz Fusion, you have the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report. Once you create Extreme Brewing, you have people aging 15% beers on spruce shavings and creating Galactic Imperial IPAs with theoretical IBUs of over a thousand, incorporating a heretofore unrecognized variety of turnip.

Eventually, because of the imitators, the popularity of the thing dies off somewhat. Once the initial work has been done to show what is possible, the importance of subsequent attempts within the genre tends to lessen. On the other hand, Tony Bennett and a hoppy Pilsner never go out of style.

Tortured analogies aside, Brew Masters is an interesting show that we can all learn a lot from. If you’re an Ontario brewer, it’s a good chance to see what Sam can do with a gift for self promotion and a willingness to experiment. If you’re an Ontario beer drinker, it’s a good chance to make a wish list for a trip to Buffalo.

The Kingston Brewing Company

Typically, one of the best things about Christmas in Kingston is that I get to revisit, if briefly, an old haunt. The Kingston Brewing Company is the oldest brewpub in Ontario and Canada’s oldest wine producing pub.

Back when I lived in Kingston for a short period of time after university, it was a place that my brother and I would hang out. We were both working in a call centre and as relative newcomers we had been put on the night shift. It was a call centre for an American cell phone company’s activations line and we were dropped into the queue at a time when it suddenly became possible to port a number from other service providers.

I think this is actually a pretty good representation of the concept of "festooned."

Of course, the technology wasn’t perfect when it was introduced. People were promised that their numbers would be ported within 48 hours and in some cases it took several months. More often than not the port would fail, the number would drop back into circulation and people would be entirely without phone service.

What I’m getting at here is that there was a lot of yelling which we had to sit good naturedly by and accept as per the provisions of the script. If you can picture yourself being paid to sit quietly at a half cubicle desk getting yelled at by Foghorn Leghorn, it was sort of like that: a dunk tank, but instead of water there was verbal abuse.

Typically, by the end of the week, you’d need a trip to the pub. There was a pleasing alignment in that our paycheques were usually deposited by midnight on the last day of our weekly shifts and that the KBC was close to our house and took interac. We would sit and drink Dragon’s Breath and mercilessly take the piss out of people from Alabama who wanted their cell phones “cut back on.”

I have a lot of good memories of the place, but until this year I was never a beer blogger and never thought about it from a professional standpoint, so it was interesting to visit this year and see how my perception of it changed based on the amount of context I have.

If you’re used to brewpubs in Toronto, there are a certain number of expectations that have cropped up in the last few years. First of all, the place is going to look corporate. Think about Mill Street or Three Brewers or The Granite. They all have relatively clean looks to them and they all have pretty elaborate layouts capable of seating a hundred people simultaneously. Duggan’s sort of resembled a sensory deprivation tank for the first months of its existence; I don’t know whether plain white walls can be classified as “decor.”

That polar bear has been looking at those towels for the better part of a decade.

The Kingston Brewing Company, on the other hand has been amassing memorabilia from all over the world since 1986 and has a collection of bartowels that I have never seen matched. During the regular course of business, the sheer number of framed towels is pretty daunting. During the Christmas season, they really go to town. Lights and garlands everywhere. Camels festooned with ornaments. A Santa hat on the papier mache polar bear that lives over the entranceway. It’s enough to throw an interior designer into an apoplectic rage. That said, it does give the place character and a certain joie de vivre.

Another marked difference is the fact that Toronto brewpubs are likely to have several of their beers on at any one time and that they will have only their own beers on offer. Additionally, they’re caught up in the current atmosphere of development and brewer’s whimsey. Mill Street and Duggan’s keep coming up with new beers in order to stay at the cutting edge of the Ontario Craft Beer scene. Even The Granite will periodically come up with a new release, the most recent being their smoked porter.

The Kingston Brewing Company, on the other hand, is one of the only venues for Ontario Craft Beer between Toronto and Ottawa and it seems like they’re completely willing to share the stage with any number of Ontario Brewers. It’s not something that you can really fault them for when you see the size of their brewing setup. I think that the brewing facility (located just behind the bar) would be hard pressed to accommodate more than two people at a time and I’m sure that given the customer volume I’ve observed over the years there’s no way that they could possibly keep up with demand. Brewing of their two most popular beers is outsourced. Their Whitetail Cream Ale is brewed by Brick and the Dragon’s Breath Pale Ale is brewed out of province by McAuslan.

So I guess the question is “What do they brew?”

Well, they still brew their Real Ale on site and they also brewed a winter seasonal called Figgy Puddin’.

Figgy Puddin', just hanging out in its natural habitat.

I tried both of those and I don’t really know what to think. The seasonal brew actually contains Rum as an ingredient, so I have no idea what to make of that. I’m not advanced enough as a brewer to know how that would even work. I suspect it’s dark rum added after fermentation to create depth, but I don’t know for sure. The Real Ale is just sort of alright, which is about fair when you consider that they’re trying to do cask conditioned real ale on an extract brewing system.

Truth be told I think I’m judging the Kingston Brewing Company harshly based on the fact that I want it to be better. I certainly seem to remember it being better. For a period in the late 90’s Dragon’s Breath was contract brewed by Hart and was fairly widely available. At the time it was one of the hoppiest beers in Ontario and was certainly different than just about everything else on the market. I don’t know how it would stand up today, since it was an English style IPA and those have fallen out of favour.

I think that the issue is probably complicated by the fact that it’s a very popular brewpub in a town dominated by tourists during the summer and university students during the rest of the year. I suspect that since much of their business is based on volume of sales, they probably don’t have to try very hard to make a great deal of money. That’s the sort of thing that might engender a certain amount of complacency.

I tell you what: The place doesn’t lack for character. They once reprinted their menus in order to fit in “decriminalized pot-pie.”

Anyone who’s willing to stretch that far for a joke is OK in my book. I just wish they had a little more pride and experimentation in their brewing. It occurs to me that in the wake of the first crop of Niagara College graduates, they’d do well to pick up an apprentice brewer and switch to an all grain system.

When there's no more room on the walls, the memorabilia will walk the earth.

It’s one thing to rest on your laurels as the first brewpub in Ontario. It’s quite another to remain relevant. My hope for the Kingston Brewing Company is that they can manufacture some type of resurgence in the next few years and not only reclaim some of their former glory but surpass peoples’ expectations.

Sam Adams Utopias: A Public Service Announcement

As you’re all aware by now, Sam Adams Utopias is on its way to Toronto. It’s going to be $115 per bottle. In order to get a bottle, you have to enter a lottery held by the vintages section of the LCBO! That’s some fancy stuff. There are only 70 bottles, and you’re probably not going to get one.The truth is that I’m probably not going to get one either, but I’m ok with that since I’ve tried it before. At Mondial this year in Montreal, it was something like seven dollars an ounce.

It’s a little like bungee jumping: preposterous, expensive and the kind of thing you need to try once in order to be able to say that you did.

That said, you’re probably not going to get try it. I have come up with a way to help you feel better about that. I present to you the St.John’s Wort Expensive Liquids Equivalence Chart. The SJWELEC is the absolute cutting edge in liquid value comparison and will present you with interesting alternatives to investing $115 in a bottle Sam Adams Utopia.

Kind of Liquid Cost /ml Difficulty to Procure
Green Tea Free with sushi Sometimes difficult to get a refill if the restaurant is busy.
Krusty Partially Gelatinated Non-Dairy Gum-Based Beverages n/a Only available in Springfield. 

Suggested Pairing: Krusty Burger with cheese.

Gasoline $0.001124 More difficult for cliched movie teenagers.
2% Milk $0.002595 Are you kidding? It’s freakin’ milk!
Nitrogen $0.003000 You’ll also have to buy a Thermos.
Fiji Natural Water $0.003000 Harder than just turning on the faucet, Mr. fancypants.
Starbucks Christmas Blend $0.004000 Only available November through January
Briess Malt Extract $0.009000 Aside from finding a brewer`s supply store, not so bad.
Brass Monkey (That Funky Monkey) $0.010000 Only available in Connecticut, apparently.
MacAllan Cask Strength $0.133000 Not hard to get. Just expensive.
Sam Adams Utopias $0.153330 1.Wait until January 6th 

2. Enter a lottery officiated by LCBO employees,

3. Win golden ticket like Charlie Bucket

4. Pay $115.00 for a bottle.

Love Potion No.9 $0.510000 Only available down at 34th and Vine.
Chanel No. 5 $0.890000 Pretty easy to find, but you’re going to smell 

like you should be wearing a pantsuit.

Chateau Lafitte 1787 $213.330000 Extraordinarily difficult. Don’t even bother.

According to my calculations, for the price of a Sam Adams Utopia you can:

1. Buy 44 litres of milk and just enough liquid nitrogen to make an attempt at the Guinness record for world’s largest, blandest popsicle.

2. Buy a single half milliliter of Chateau Lafitte 1787 and party with Madame Guillotine.

3. Afford enough gas to be able to drive a 2010 Toyota Camry to Cooperstown, New York (533 km, approx ~$46), Tour the Baseball Hall of Fame ($19.50), Visit the Ommegang brewery for some free samples of beers that are probably better than the Sam Adams Utopias at no charge and then drive back to Toronto (another 46 bucks.)

4. Buy a bunch of bottles of Fiji water for people who like that stuff and then sit around lecturing them on how they are suckers for not just buying a Brita filter while getting progressively more incoherent because you are swigging from a bottle of excellent MacAllan single malt.

5. Get your mom a bottle of her favorite perfume for Christmas and use the rest of the money to buy some sushi so that you can drink a lot of green tea.

6. Pay Matt Groening to sketch you enjoying a Krusty Partially Gelatinated Non-Dairy Gum-Based Beverage.

7. Buy 49 Venti Starbucks Christmas Blend Coffees, use the approximate 20000mg of caffeine to vibrate through the walls of the LCBO warehouse and just steal a bottle of Utopias.

8. Buy 21.5 litres of Aunt Jemima’s Butter Flavoured Syrup and have a very, very strange bath.

Feel free to comment with any suggestions that you may come up with to help the SJWELEC educate the population at large about opportunity cost.

Beer Launches and The Christmas Ramble

While there’s some question about whether this is the most wonderful time of the year (much as there is debate about April being the cruelest month; I’ll have you know August once stole my bike) it is certainly one of the busiest socially and it is for this reason that I haven’t been doing a great deal of blogging lately. Ix-nay on the og-blay. It’s like Satchel Paige says: The social ramble ain’t restful. I’ve been all over the place the last couple of weeks, attending beer events and launches and I think there may have been a jamboree in there somewhere. It could have been a hootenanny. My memory of it is slightly hazy.

It’s for this reason that I’m going to update on a whole bunch of topics at once, to try and get them out of the way so that we can all get off the internet and have a holly jolly Christmas and a great deal of Turkey. Unless you’re opening presents via skype, I’m told that taking your netbook with you to the tree is bad form exemplified. You might start a flamewar if you get socks from Great Aunt Gladys.

Let’s do this thing.

GREAT LAKES/ST.JOHN’S WORT LAZARUS BREAKFAST STOUT

This got launched at Project Xmas down at Great Lakes on December 10th. The cask version did extremely well and it ran out in what I think was just slightly over two hours. I have got to tell you that all of the whacking stuff with a mallet that my junior sergeant-general correspondent royale did really paid off. We were all worried about having used so much Ancho Chili in the recipe, but it just sort of lingers a little at the back of the palate. The coffee flavour really came through up front and in the bottled version there’s a nice cocoa note right in the middle.

There were some bottles for sale, but there weren’t many of them, so they were gone within 48 hours. Mike Lackey, Great Lakes beer guru and guy who’s crazy enough to let me try brewing stuff, says we’re going to take another run at it, so you can expect to see that back on the shelves in the next couple of months. It may even make it out of the brewery in cask form. Look out, beer nerds!

It used to be that when I’d see Mike out at the pub, he would be standing in the corner with a pint of whatever it was that he brewed and he wouldn’t be saying a whole lot. I used to think he was just taciturn, but now I realize that he was thinking about what had gone into the recipe and made that beer what it was. I experienced the same thing at the Great Lakes launch. There was about 20 minutes of relative silence and instropective blinking and stammering and pride. My recipe did better than it had any right to, and I’m going to credit that mostly to Mike Lackey. Thanks, man!

ST. JOHN’S WORT CHRISTMAS ALE

I finally got to try this beer on December 17th and we’re currently in the process of getting it to all of the people who helped brew it. As you may recall, Chris Schryer, Matt Caldwell and Andrew Bartle helped to actually brew the thing, although I came up with the recipe. While we were all extraordinarily manly and competent and not at all confused or worried looking, Andrew Bartle was pretty much the lynchpin that prevented us from scalding ourselves with boiling wort. Credit where it’s due: Because of Bartle none of us have third degree burns in unpleasant areas.

As you’ll recall, it’s sort of a Winter Warmer/IPA. Promash is telling me that it’s supposed to weigh in at about 77 IBU, but that bitterness really only comes through on the tail of the thing. Up front it’s mostly cinnamon and there’s a touch of molasses, which is just the sort of thing that you want at this time of year. I stopped in briefly at the Amsterdam brewery where it has been fermenting and we opened a couple of bottles for sampling purposes. Again, better than it has any right to be and you’ll be pleased to know that even after fermentation is seems to have retained its aroma and ability to waft female people along like a cartoon pie on a windowsill.

PUSHING MY LUCK

My last three beers have done great! The IPA was third best in the Toronto Beer Week Competition. The Christmas Ale is better than it has any right to be. The Lazarus Breakfast Stout is apparently not just going to be a one off; it’s actually going to be produced again with a few small tweaks.

Where do I go from here, you may ask? I’m still convinced of the worth of gambling big. Maybe the next one will be a hoppy American Style Old Ale. Maybe it’ll be a Biere de Garde or Saison with indigenous North American fruit. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll attempt to answer the question “Why the heck aren’t people doing any really big lagers with American style hops?” Only time will tell.

All I know is that there’s a heck of a lot of actual research going on and not a great deal of writing, which is slightly worrying since I know just enough about the subjects I’m researching to screw up incredibly badly when it comes to execution.

A  WORD ON LAUNCHES IN GENERAL

My Lazarus Breakfast Stout wasn’t the only one that launched last week. Fuller’s Bengal Lancer hit town in a relatively spectacular way at the Monk’s Table and Chris Schryer and I spent rather a lot of time at the launch. The Bengal Lancer is very tasty if you like an English style beer. It’s somewhere between a Bitter and an IPA. It’s got some earthy and coppery notes and a smooth mouthfeel and reminds me very much of beers that purported to be IPAs in Ontario just over a decade ago. It really is rather good.

You should go to the Monk’s Table, but I’m not sure the Bengal Lancer is the reason you should do that. Let me tell you about Lester. Lester is the Guatemalan ubermensch behind the kitchen over there. Everything is made from scratch, all the time. The Artichoke dip actually has bits in it that are recognizable as Artichoke. The Buffalo Shrimp have actually been freshly breaded. The Baked Wings manage to retain their texture and have just the right amount of heat. The Apple Cobbler is maybe the best Apple Cobbler I’ve ever tasted and I usually hate dessert.

Adam Grant, the owner, is doing some really good things with beer. He’s bringing in rare bottles and interesting things on tap, but the thing that convinced me that the Monk’s Table is a destination is that they do exactly what people claim to want to do: quality food. You’ll notice I leave out “pub” there. I think that’s a qualifying adjective that causes people to lower their expectations. In this case the menu fits the concept and it works spectacularly without any qualifiers.

FINALLY

The Canadian Food Blog Awards are up and still running their nominations today and tomorrow. Now far be it from me to attempt to wheedle nominations out of my readership, but I’ll just remind you that it’s Christmas and you haven’t gotten me anything.

Wink-wink. Nudge-nudge. Say no more.