St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Win Free Tickets To Mill Street Oktoberfest!

Howdy, St.John’s Wort Junior Rangers!

Are you like me? Do you wake up to Jazz 91.1 on your clock radio? Is one of the first things you hear in the morning, aside from the contemplative cool jazz guitaristry of Pat Metheny the dulcet tones of brewmaster Joel Manning explaining why the Cascade hops somehow make Mill Street Tankhouse different than another style of beer which also uses Cascade hops? Has it affected your subconscious mind to the point where you periodically wonder what Joel Manning is doing during the idle moments of your day?


Well, fine. Do you like free stuff?

There we go. That’s better.

St. John’s Wort is giving away two tickets for Mill Street’s Oktoberfest party on Thursday October 17th! It is taking place at the Mill Street Beer Hall, which is a really appropriate place to have such a party! There will be dancing! There will be souvenir beer steins for you to take home! You will drink bierschnaps, which is, to be honest, something of an acquired taste due to the hoppy bitterness in some versions of it! You will eat a Schnitzel Teaser! I don’t know what a Schnitzel Teaser is or what part of the schnitzel it comes from, but man oh man is it good eating!

This is a great opportunity to go and see the Mill Street Beer Hall if you haven’t already! Not only will there be Mill Street Beer, there will be beer from nine other Ontario Craft Breweries! You and a friend (or heck even an enemy) can attend this year’s Mill Street Oktoberfest for free and all you have to do is take part in the following contest!

Tweet to me @saints_gambit your favourite thing about Mill Street using the hashtag #MillStreetOktoberfest! It could be about their Organic Lager! It could be about their ESB and be followed up by a bitter nine tweet screed about how that’s only available at the pub and should be available on a wider distribution! It could be about Joel Manning! I bet he’s checking a hydrometer at the moment!

Entries will be judged by a panel of me! A winner will be announced on Tuesday, October 15th at high noon! The winner will be initially overjoyed and then subsequently stuffed full of beer and sausages!

Devil’s Advocate: Brewer’s Association

Periodically, the Brewer’s Association releases statements that I find a little bit suspect. This is mostly because they’re a lobbying group and their purpose is being optimistic about craft beer. I’m all for defending your own interest. After all, does it not say in the Talmud, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?” Good advice.

The thing is this: You should always be skeptical of an overwhelmingly positive statement released by a lobbying group’s staff economist. This should be self-evident, especially when it’s released as a PR move. I don’t mean to be an Agnew style nattering nabob of negativism, but I’d like to comb through some of the points that are being made in today’s BA press release, titled The Craft Beer (Non) Bubble.

The first thing that should be pointed out is that the graph representing the non-bubble argument is entirely misleading. For the obvious reason that it dwarfs the scale of the growth of craft breweries in the United States, the economist has chosen to compare the current situation of craft breweries in the United States with the NASDAQ dot com boom of the late 1990’s. This is nonsensical because the NASDAQ chart represents a monetary increment rather than a number of companies. Additionally, the Dotcom bubble may have subsequently depressed the NASDAQ, but it’s relatively clear from the graph that the market had stabilized by month 31 or so. Given that the chart runs from October 1998 to June 2004, and that the market seems to have stabilized from that bubble by approximately June of 2001, I think we have to attribute the subsequent drop in the market to an alternate cause. Probably it has something to do with the events of September 11, 2001. At any rate, the graph is bogus. If you listed the number of NASDAQ member companies, it would make more sense as a comparison but it wouldn’t prove anything.

So, the BA staff economist is representing the number of breweries in terms of monetary value on a non realistic timeline. The graph is irrelevant.

Secondly, “Everyone should stop talking and/or worrying about the number of breweries.” This is apparently because that number includes Brewpubs. This is a pointless obfuscation of the problem which conflicts data the BA has issued previously. According to the BA’s own stats, the number of brewpubs operating in 2011 was 1068. In 2012, 1132. By June, it was 1165. Those are increases of approximately 6%, year over year. That’s not really the massive expansion that he makes it out to be. Comparatively, 315 microbreweries opened between 2011 and 2012. As of June 2013, there were another 107, bringing the total to 1221. According to the BA itself, there are 1250 American breweries in planning. You’re realistically looking at an approximate 100% increase in breweries between 2011 and 2016. Isn’t that worrying? Think about how many additional brands that will create.

The answer provided to this issue? Don’t think about it. The numbers don’t matter. Until we know how much beer they’re making, it’s irrelevant. Never mind that this interpretation doesn’t jibe with the widely touted information on expansion that is frequently used to point out the segment’s expansion.

Thirdly, “It is much more relevant to talk about capacity and/or market share.” His points on capacity are essentially unassailable because they contain no concrete numerical information about volume being produced.  Market share on the other hand:

“That leads us to market share.  How long can craft keep gobbling up share points at the rate of 1 or 2 points a year?  The answer: as long as the consumer demand for full-flavored beer continues, and it shows no signs of slowing.  The craft revolution isn’t just built on innovative businesses, it stems primarily from a changing set of consumer preferences away from light adjunct lagers and toward full-flavored beers for more occasions.  Some of this demand is being met by new brands from large brewers, but market statistics continue to show that the vast majority is being met by local craft brewers.”

Essentially, everything will be fine as long as the consumer keeps wanting what they’re selling. They will continue to expand in market share as long as consumers want fuller flavoured beers. The fact that large brewers are now producing fuller flavored beers to compete seems rather less reassuring than it is intended to be. That seems like it could be a growth limiting factor and it is hand waved away.

What if, he goes on to say, everyone who drinks craft beer drank an extra craft beer a month? Well, that’d be a 2.7% market share bump right there. If they drank an extra beer a week, it’d be 11.7% market share to the good. Well, brother, that’s a whole lot of if in a country whose per capita consumption has been declining steadily for years.

All of this, he continues, is based on the quality of beers made by new breweries. If everything remains of high quality, everything will be fine. Define what the hell you mean by high quality, and maybe you’d have a cogent argument. As it stands, we get this:

Brewers that enter a more crowded market without high quality beers that differentiate them from the field will soon discover the harsh realities of the sector: increasingly crowded shelf-space, existing competitors with greater access to capital and/or technical knowledge, and global players that are increasingly carrying full-flavored, locally-targeted brands of their own.

Just for my own edification, would you please point out how brewers that enter a crowded market WITH high quality beers will not suffer from exactly the same problems of overcrowding and competition from all of the other companies in the market that are doing more or less the same thing? How is it any different, especially when you’re not defining what you mean by high quality? This is what you call developing a narrative structure. If you find in a few years that we are in a bubble and that things are not going well, we’re set up to blame the “low quality” of new entrants to the market. Suddenly, there’s a scapegoat, just in case. The staggeringly obvious thing is that there are 1250 new breweries in planning and they will begin to exist in short order. There is already in place a mechanism to blame them should things go bad.

He finishes by comparing breweries to restaurants. Again with the apples and oranges NASDAQ strategy.

Think again about restaurants, how many close every year – does that mean we are in a restaurant bubble?

Total logical fallacy. A moderately sized restaurant might do 300 covers a day. It feeds people in a local catchment area. A restaurant does not attempt to ship its steak au poivre to another state. Even in the case of chain restaurants like McDonald’s, they have to produce the food on site. That is in no way similar to a brewery.

Finally, it is worth noting that as craft develops further, a more mature market means that volume growth will inevitably slow and some entrants will fail.  But, slowing growth or a rising rate of closings doesn’t mean a bubble has burst.  At a certain point, a growing base means that 10 or 15% volume growth becomes more and more difficult, as the same percentage rate requires a greater growth in barrels produced every year.

This is not wrong, but notice how it expertly manages to cushion expectations. He acknowledges that a contraction is coming, but downplays the term bubble. This release is more or less an exercise in semantics. It’s an attempt to control the message by shrinking the expectation of growth that the Brewers Association’s numbers bear out. It is at best a caveat.

Beer and Food: Linda Modern Thai

As a beer writer, I only get invited to events at restaurants infrequently. When I get an email suggesting that I should go to a dinner hosted by Thailand’s ambassador to Canada, it’s something of a rarity. This is an important governmental figure from another country. It would be downright gauche to refuse.

Brewed by appointment. It's nice to know there's a schedule.

Brewed by appointment. It’s nice to know there’s a schedule.

The reason for the event is due to a new program called Thai Select. The idea here is that the program certifies the authenticity of the food being served and allows the customer a degree of certainty when choosing a restaurant. Essentially, better than 60 percent of the items on the menu are meant to be authentic Thai dishes using cooking methods like you’d find in Thailand. There are two groups: Select and Select Premium. This is more or less delineated upon the quality of the food, décor and experience.

Linda Modern Thai in The Shops at Don Mills was the first restaurant in Canada to receive the Select Premium designation, so it’s fitting that the dinner expanding awareness of the program should be held there.

A rather nicely arranged collection of ingredients on the red carpet. Did I mention the red carpet? Yeah, there was a red carpet. I feel all special.

A rather nicely arranged collection of ingredients on the red carpet. Did I mention the red carpet? Yeah, there was a red carpet. I feel all special.

That said, I’m not really a restaurant critic. I’m a beer writer. Fortunately, a representative from Singha was on hand to provide me some explanation of the brand and, y’know, a method of appearing legitimately involved in the proceedings. I’m all for turning up and eating a lot of really high quality Thai food and not contributing anything, but I always feel like I should pull my weight.

It turns out that Singha is more interesting than I would have originally thought. We’re spoilt in North America by the beer cultures that we’ve inherited from Europe. In other parts of the world, one of the things that tended to happen was that European colonial powers in the 19th century would plant a flag and set up services to their benefit. Sometimes, these were breweries. Look at Mexico and Dos Equis. Why in the world, you should probably ask, is a Vienna Lager a widespread quantity? The brief Hapsburg experiment. That’s why. Look at Japan, whose brewing industry is more or less directly influenced by Dutch sailors setting up a beer hall in the 17th century.

Usually what happens when you’ve got cultures that don’t have the depth of brewing tradition you find in Europe is that they set up beers based loosely on whatever beer the colonial power that landed on their shores was brewing. It’s sort of a question of cultural imperialism. These beers are transplants that don’t really have anything to do with the local food culture. They’re usually light and refreshing and people enjoy them. Folks like a cold beer no matter where you are.

In the case of Singha, there’s not really any such causation. In point of fact, Thailand didn’t have much in the way of beer until Singha opened in 1933. That’s a late entry to the game, incidentally. That’s the same year they repealed the Volstead Act in the States, for those of you trying to place it. The really interesting thing is that they chose to brew this style of beer. The founder of the brewery was a friend of the King and the brewery was endorsed by the monarch. The founder went to Germany and learned how to brew beer and came back and set up a brewery. That’s a fairly unique circumstance.

Say you had a country. You don’t have any breweries, but you’re starting to think “you know, I could go for a tall, cold… something.” You get to choose from any beer in the world, and at this point you might look to the United States for your model. You’d maybe make something like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. There’s a lot of choice. In 1933, though, there weren’t breweries in the US. If you wanted to learn to brew, you went to Germany. As a result, Singha is an all barley German lager. As lagers that I’ve had from that part of the world go, it’s really pretty good. You’ve got some light grain on the nose and there’s a slightly sour finish. It’s a Euro-style Lager.

That said, as a beer for pairing with Thai food, it has one trick. People will tell you that you’ve got three options with food pairing: Complement, Cut and Contrast. What Singha manages to do is cut and it does it well. It resets the palate for the next mouthful.IMAG0037 IMAG0039

If you look at the first course, the dish that stood out for me was the Chicken and Shrimp Larb. It’s essentially a lettuce wrap with cashews, vermicelli, water chestnuts and nam prik pao. The point of the dish is that it’s customizable. You’ve got a tray of condiments with shallots, lime, peanuts, dried shrimp, toasted coconut and some pretty diabolical little chilies. Think for a moment about the amount of thought that you’d need to put in in order to complement or contrast those. It’s rendered more or less impossible by the number of ingredients and the fact that each mouthful is going to be rendered slightly different by the taste of each diner. Cutting those flavours for reset is really all you can hope for from any beer in this situation.

Lobster Bisque.

Lobster Bisque.

I’m going to step away from that train of thought for a moment for the next course, which in my case was the Thai Lobster Bisque. Now, I’m given to understand that this is something of a house speciality, and because of that I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the depth of flavour here. The description says “made with lots and lots and lots of lobsters, a bit of butter and Thai herbs.” They are not kidding around about the lobsters. One of the aromas you get from the bisque is actually chitinous lobster shell, which you might think would be off-putting, but the depth of the flavour is marvelous; the mellow roundness of it. The elegant richness. The bisque is so densely packed with flavour that the cilantro garnish doesn’t make any impact until you get a mouthful. On a scale of one to ten, it put a David Gilmour song in my head.

The main course was served family style and comprised five dishes. It occurs to me that you could probably have paired a beer with any one of these single dishes. The Crispy Beef Panang could possibly do with an Ommegang Hennepin. The Stewed Duck with Chestnuts could possibly have done with a fruity Belgian Dubbel (Black Oak’s version of this would work well here). The issue, really, is that family style service makes that more or less impossible since you’re trying a small amount of each dish. Again, Singha works nicely here by simply reframing each new bite. To be fair, it’s probably more fun that way since everyone at the table is experiencing it in the same way.

Fantastically rich, really.

Fantastically rich, really.

A really pleasant piece of attention to detail on the Pineapple Yellow Curry.

A really pleasant piece of attention to detail on the Pineapple Yellow Curry.

Pineapple tureen. More fragrant than a regular tureen.

Pineapple tureen. More fragrant than a regular tureen.

I like to think about cuisines that don’t have traditional beer cultures. I like to break down the ingredients and figure out which terpenes they’re like to contain and then cross reference that with hops varieties and theorize about which styles might work with the dish. I’m sure that I’ll continue to do that since it’s fascinating and I’m relatively sure that I’ll see some of the theory borne out as craft beer makes its way to different countries over the next dozen or so years. This experience with Singha is a solid reminder that like the Chicken and Shrimp Larb, it all depends on individual taste.

So You Want To Be A Brewer: Lazarus Breakfast Stout

The nice thing about planning an event like the Feast Of St.John for Toronto Beer Week is that I’ve managed to create a certain amount of context for myself over three years or so that I’ve been writing about beer. I’ve collaborated on beers with a number of breweries, frequently with pretty good results. I have never really understood whether that is because I have some idea of what I’m doing or possibly just because I pick really talented people to work with.

If you don't make it a Great Lakes day, you will make Troy Burtch sad. That would be monstrous.

If you don’t make it a Great Lakes day, you will make Troy Burtch sad. That would be monstrous.

It’s hard to believe that the first of these collaborations was almost three years ago now. The original batch of Lazarus Breakfast Stout was brewed in Mid-November 2010. It was before I was working for Sun Media, if that gives you any indication of the time span. In that time period Project X at Great Lakes for which the beer was originally brewed has ceased to happen on a routine basis. The experimental brews that developed out of it have become the “Tank Ten” series. The fruits of Project X resulted in Great Lakes becoming the best brewery in Canada this year at the Canadian Brewing Awards. Mike Lackey has not yet been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace through Zymurgy, but I’m sure that as soon as they found one, he’ll be considered.

A few facts, gentle reader, about Mike Lackey:

Mike Lackey’s brewing prowess is not actually attributable to his beard, as I may previously have indicated. The truth is that Mike Lackey was actually barrel aged for the first six years of his life, receiving his meals through a specially drilled bunghole. His first language was not English, but rather the nearly imperceptible hum of cerevesiae. It is the great tragedy of his life that he has never been able to reproduce by mitosis. The beard is only window dressing.

It’s no wonder he’s done so well.

This time around, it seriously occurred to me as we stood there talking about his various projects (He’s creating a beer concept called SMASHASS) and my various theories (food and beer pairing should be derived from scientific first principles) that we’re getting old. We talked about some of the new breweries that are popping up and what we thought their chances were.  We talked about how much more stuff there is now. In November 2010, when we first worked together, there were about 50 Ontario breweries, many of whom were doing very little. According to Mom and Hops today? 137 active and in planning.

The smell that comes off a wort with this percentage of dark malt is pretty hypnotic.

The smell that comes off a wort with this percentage of dark malt is pretty hypnotic.

This batch of Lazarus sort of reflects the changes. Originally, I brought the idea with me because I really liked Founder’s Breakfast Stout and I really liked Oaxacan Mole sauce. I continue to like both of those things, so the ingredients have not changed. It’s still an oatmeal breakfast stout with a really significant amount of roast and dark malt. It still has cinnamon, chocolate, and ancho chili. It still gets a half pound of coffee in the whirlpool (you avoid the leeching tannins that way.) The main difference this time around is that the alcohol content is a little lower. Originally, we think Lazarus was supposed to be 7.0% alcohol and near 50 BU’s. We lost the sheet after the first batch, so we were going from the second version, which we had already tweaked.

Here’s an important tip to all you well meaning lugs out there starting your own brewery: Don’t lose the freakin’ sheet. It’s black box crash test time. Without the sheet, if people criticize you for inconsistency, you deserve the rich, velvety, lambasting you get. Don’t be a chump: keep the sheet. Laminate it. Put it in a safety deposit box.

We decided that we’d rather have more beer at slightly lower alcohol. The flavour isn’t really dependent on the alcohol in this beer, but rather on the vast number of elements that contribute flavour. I don’t really think anyone is going to feel cheated if the beer drops to 5.5% alcohol. The novelty is the Oaxacan Mole thing.

Mike and I discussed briefly whether the nice folks at Aztec in Vista, California borrowed the idea for the beer for their Noche De Los Muertos. We figure that they probably arrived at theirs independently and that it doesn’t matter since the label is so cool. I actually got to try their version at the San Diego Zoo while holding a python. I like ours better, but I’m biased.

Once you add the coffee in the whirlpool, the rolling foam gets darker and darker. I love that part.

Once you add the coffee in the whirlpool, the rolling foam gets darker and darker. I love that part.

In terms of the Feast Of St. John, one of the great things is that Lester Garcia at the Wallace Gastropub has actually inserted mole sauce into the menu. I’m not sure exactly what the food pairing is going to be for the Lazarus Breakfast Stout, but I do know that I’m finally going to get to put it together with the thing that inspired it. Actually, the awesome part is that Lester’s version of the mole sauce is lighter in colour than a Mole Negro, so we’re going to get a fantastic range of flavours. His version incorporates a lot of fennel seeds, so it’ll be really interesting to see how that interacts.

I’m told that Lazarus will also be available as part of the tap takeover at Bar Hop on the 19th of September. That’s going to be a fun day. See the Michael Jackson movie and then go try your own beer on tap at a takeover hosted by Great Lakes and Bellwoods. Sometimes you’re given a reminder that you really don’t have the right to complain about your job.

How much more black could it possibly be? None. None more black.

How much more black could it possibly be? None. None more black.

On Marston’s and Legacy

P1020722Arriving in Burton-On-Trent by train, you get a real sense of what William Blake must have meant by “dark satanic mills.” The landscape is one of rolling hills interspersed with small lakes and marshes until you’re suddenly confronted by the expansive brick warehouses and towering breweries that were the pride of the town’s industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. That they should spring suddenly upon you is surprising, as Burton-On-Trent is not as large as its reputation. At one time they would have expelled great quantities of smoke and steam into the sky, and on a cloudy day it would have seemed like they would choke the world.

Having spent several days in London, walking a great deal more than I am used to, I had developed a habit of taking in detail. The two story row houses that make up the side streets stretched into the distance on the way to Marston’s. This was a company town with housing designed for workers, with facilities to meet their needs. The breweries sometimes provided cottages for their workers’ physical needs and churches to provide for their spiritual redemption. Red brick pubs like the Wellington Arms seem to have been stood there forever, waiting for the factory whistle or for the church to let out.

On the way down Shobnall Road from the train station, you cross over the Trent and Mersey canal. Now full of holidaymakers with damp socks, the canals would have once served as the main artery for distribution of beer throughout England. There was a period when Burton produced nearly a quarter of the country’s ale. In 1880, there were 30 breweries at work, although that number has since shrunk significantly.P1020724

Currently, Burton houses eight breweries. Of these, six are micros. Bass has been taken over by Molson Coors. This means that of all of the breweries that at one time made Burton On Trent the brewing capital of England, only one remains under its original name at its original facitilies: Marston’s. This is not to say that Marston’s survived independently since its advent in 1834. It became part of Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries in 1999, losing its name in the shuffle. After an eight year period, that group became Marston’s PLC, possibly out of a sense that heritage of that length is not something you want to obscure.P1020729

Crossing the yard to the visitor’s centre, you’re struck by the cumulative effect that such long history visually creates. Buildings and equipment of various eras and vintages dot the brewery compound. There stand Victorian row houses. There waits a delivery truck from an era before container shipping, now rejuvenated for display at beer festivals. To one side of the towering brewery are sheds sided with corrugated metal that would not be out of place in any industrial park. The air outside the brewery is filled with the sweet cereal aroma that only a really large brewery can produce in sufficient quantity to be suffusive. It escapes from the roof in wisps of steam.P1020730

The sense of continuity that is on display is all of the legacy that can be expected, as Marston’s is not some museum showpiece. It would be folly to expect to see what it would have been like in the 1830’s. Over the years, the upgrades that have taken place to modernize the brewery and render it continually workable have stripped out much of what would have been there originally. It imparts the sense that a brewer’s day to day life as it was then might now be unknowable. However, if you pay attention, you can see how that routine must have changed as improvements were made.

It helps that the tour guide, Meryl, has been with the company for a considerable period. In a context like brewing, written documentation may well be less useful than institutional memory.

The tour progresses along catwalks and gangways, covering the topics that such tours always cover. Grain and hops, boilers and mash tuns. If you’re like I am and you have an understanding of how beer is made, that part of the tour is something that you would inevitably tune out. The building is the fascinating part; the scale of it is unlike a modern brewery. It’s a space on a human scale.P1020742 P1020743

Meryl mentioned in passing that the trapdoors in the floor and ceiling were the method by which, when she started at the brewery, a man named Morris worked to hoist grain to the top of the mills by a system of pulleys. At this point in history, we might use augurs in lengthy PVC tubes to do that work. We might automate it completely. Not so very long ago, this would have been work done by a man with a system of pulleys and a set of trapdoors. If James Watt suggested that a pony could lift 220 pounds a hundred feet per minute on his way to a definition of horsepower, you can only imagine how many thousands of units of horsepower Morris expended over the course of his career.

You get the sense that Morris was a big lad who would have brooked little nonsense. He would have been glad of his pint at the end of a shift.

I was interested, over the course of the tour, to learn that Marston’s now brews with Reverse Osmosis water. That is water from which all the minerals have been stripped. It’s something of an irony that the process of adding gypsum to water for brewing, eponymously Burtonization, should be practiced in Marston’s. This is necessary, though, as the Marston’s brewery now produces a number of other brands which would have had their genesis in other parts of the country. Marston’s PLC produces Hobgoblin, which is one of their most popular beers and which is made primarily at the Burton brewery. There is a very real chance that the batch of Hobgoblin I saw made could end up at my local pub in Toronto at some point in early October.P1020733

The original equipment was made of copper. Indeed, when Michael Jackson wrote about Marston’s in 1992, many of the fittings in use were still copper. The brewhouse is now gleaming stainless steel and glass. I took a moment away from the tour to speak with the brewer and asked what he thought about working in such a distinguished building. “It’s a listed building,” he said. “Can’t do a thing about insulation. It gets pretty cold in the winter.” It’s always pleasing to be reminded that brewers the world over are the same; getting on with a job that consumes both time and attention while still being niggled at by the limitations of their space.

If you had ever wondered what Isinglass looks like, this is it. Before it is powdered.

If you had ever wondered what Isinglass looks like, this is it. Before it is powdered.

Marston’s is now the only brewery left that produces beer on a large scale using the Burton Union system. The warehouses that hold their fermentation tanks are arranged around this endeavor, with large rectangular vessels taking up the outside walls that ring the Burton Union barrels on the production floor. The idea behind the Burton Union system is that fermentation takes place in a barrel and as the yeast vigorously propagates, the krausen (in this specific instance known as barm) pushes up through a pipe and into a long stainless steel trough that collects it. This is an idiosyncratic process and it’s easy to see why other breweries have shied away from it over the years. It would be time consuming. It would be difficult to maintain such a large amount of equipment. Anyone working the brewery would require time to adjust to the process and develop that specialized feel that comes with manipulating such a finicky set of variables. P1020759P1020764P1020765P1020766

As we made our way along the catwalks and observed the pipes disgorging their barm into the trough, I was pleased to see that there was one such employee hurriedly making adjustments to the barrels below us. He would rap upon the top of each barrel with a wrench in order to determine the rate at which they were emptying. The batch that was fermenting at the time was ready for the next part of the process and without a visual cue, this percussive method would demonstrate whether the barrels were emptying. Being nominally a brewer myself and used to stainless steel and standard methods of fermenting beer, this seemed like a hell of a lot of effort. When I was younger, I would have opined that there’s something characteristically British about accomplishing a simple thing through what seems like an intentionally overcomplicated system. That may well be the case, but I know that this is also a characteristic of brewers.

The result is Marston’s Pedigree, which doesn’t taste quite like anything else. There is that slight sulphurous note that I’m told is the Burton Snatch. It’s a little like that tang from a match that has just been struck. There’s also the dried apple body. There’s tannin and caramel and something not quite but almost entirely unlike tea. There’s something a little like the papery internal structure of a freshly cracked walnut.  You might be able to reach the same destination some other way, but some things shouldn’t be modernized.P1020772

As I returned to London, I realized that one of the things that a brewery like Marston’s represents is that good beer is always about the people that produced it. There are some jobs that should not, can not be automated. It may seem a triviality to replace Morris with an augur or to replace a wrench wielding cellarman with a volume gauge, but I’m almost certain that the results would be different. That they would be worse.

It was heartening, emerging at London Bridge Station, to observe that even in 2013 with glass and steel monstrosities popping up over the City, even in an era where architectural futurism is practically the norm, there are some jobs that cannot be satisfactorily automated. P1020852P1020850P1020851

London Craft Beer

Here’s an interesting thought:

Craft beer in North America went through a lot of growing pains on the way to being where they are at the moment. There were years of struggling to make English styles of beer as authentically as possible (hard to do in San Francisco) and the advent and proliferation of C-Hops. By the time you get to about 2010, the fruits of those labours have more or less paid off as the craft beer trend went global. Suddenly there are hops from New Zealand and the C-Hops have blossomed into widespread Double IPAs. You’ve got hop varieties that are great at not just citrus and pine, but all manner of tropical fruit and mineral elements.

The thing is that this kind of innovation, if perpetuated on a long enough timeline, brings old ideas with it as well as new tools and equipment. If you introduced your flagship pale ale in 1994 and it was considered to be pretty hoppy at that point, you’re unlikely to be able to change the recipe without compromising your market share or really pissing off your earliest customers. There’s such a thing as 90’s beer. It still exists in Toronto. If you have The Beer Academy’s IPA, it’s more or less exactly what I’m talking about. It’s quite good, mind you, but it is so old school that it wears a striped tie.

Nice glassware is key to a decent beer festival. Subtle branding is best.

Nice glassware is key to a decent beer festival. Subtle branding is best.

In London, there was no craft beer scene until about 2007. I’m not choosing that date arbitrarily. That was the year that The Rake in Borough Market opened for business. Before 2007 there were a couple of what might be considered small breweries dotted around the country. Dark Star is a good example of this. They opened in 1994 and you really get that sense from their Hophead on cask. Again, really a very good beer, but the Cascade hops are unmistakeable. It’s of an era.

See? There's a DJ booth.It's a proper modern beer festival. Apparently Craig Charles was going to be DJing at some point. It's just as well I didn't meet him because I would have been forced to offer a hearty "boys from the dwarf" in greeting.

See? There’s a DJ booth.It’s a proper modern beer festival. Apparently Craig Charles was going to be DJing at some point. It’s just as well I didn’t meet him because I would have been forced to offer a hearty “boys from the dwarf” in greeting.

The number that I heard bandied about at the inaugural London Craft Beer Festival at the Oval Space in Hackney on Friday was 50. Over the last five years or so, there have been 50 brewery startups in London. They’ve all come into existence during the height of the international craft beer trend, many of them within the last six months. This means two things:

1)      They don’t have as much of the conceptual baggage that you might have in an older scene.

2)       Because of point one, they’re now doing really interesting cutting edge stuff.

A really neat thing about starting a brewery from scratch is that you get to come up with all new branding and a cohesive concept upon which to base your products. You have a template from which to work which seems completely contemporary. You also don’t have the baggage of existing brands that you have to continue making. Because of that, you can introduce a flagship brand or choose not to. Rather than being beholden to older hop varieties, you can choose to use the new stuff whenever possible. Beer styles? Out the window. Screw ‘em.

I’m at least putatively on vacation, so I’m going to hit the highlights of what I saw on Friday at the London Craft Beer Festival. Incidentally, I’m extraordinarily lucky to have been able to fit all of this into one week. You have to imagine that scheduling the London Craft Beer Festival during the Great British Beer Festival is not so much happenstance as a direct assault. This is a vastly different crowd and I think it can be summed up by the t-shirts from the Weird Beard Brewing Co. This is more representative of a younger demographic in London, brewing in rail arches and warehouses.

A very nice contrast to the GBBF policy of mandatory sandals.

A very nice contrast to the GBBF policy of mandatory sandals.

One of the points that cropped up repeatedly is that you can’t have a scene emerge this quickly out of thin air. I had never really understood, prior to Friday, the sort of influence that Gypsy brewers were having. For one thing, they’ve only made it to Toronto in the last couple of years. We’ve got Anders Kissmeyer working with Beau’s and Evil Twin popping up at Bellwoods periodically. In the case of the London scene I feel like the gypsy brewers have been instrumental in making progress happen this quickly. Mikkeller had a booth as did To Ol.

Clever conceptual branding here from Siren, working the mythology to advantage. I'd eventually like to see a beer called Odyssey.

Clever conceptual branding here from Siren, working the mythology to advantage. I’d eventually like to see a beer called Odyssey, or possibly Screaming Argonaut.

One of the most impressive breweries on site was Siren Craft Brew. I’m given to understand that their head brewer, Ryan, did a lot of brewing for Evil Twin and Mikkeller prior to his current gig at Siren. This shows through in a number of ways. First of all, there’s the willingness to experiment. Broken Dream is a 6.5% Breakfast Stout with coffee and lactose and I’d have been happy to get that anywhere in the world. Second of all, there’s the obvious potential for collaborative effort with contacts you’d make as a gypsy brewer. Not only was there a very interesting beer called Limoncello (lemon zest, lemon juice, sour mash, lactose) that was brewed in collaboration with Hill Farmstead and Mikkeller, but apparently there’s a version of Broken Dream out there aged in Pappy Van Winkle barrels. You don’t get your hands on those if you’re just some guy.

So, now I understand what gypsy brewers do: They are conceptual cross-pollinators. They have a top down view and manage to get bits of information (and sometimes rare bourbon barrels) from over here to over there. Groovy.

No Hops. No Herbs. Just a lactic sourness that'll make you beg for mercy.

No Hops. No Herbs. Just a lactic sourness that’ll make you beg for mercy.

Another significant strength of the craft beer scene here is that they don’t seem overmuch worried by stylistic definitions. Buxton, for instance, had come up with something that I haven’t seen before for the festival. Called Wolfescoate, it’s a 3.3% beer, black as night with a whole lot of lactic sourness. I believe the rep told me that it had been soured in copper for four days. In order to highlight the sourness, they’ve decided to omit any hops. “So it’s a gruit?” I can hear you say. No. They haven’t replaced the hops with herbs. Instead of using bitterness to balance their beer, they’ve chosen to balance it with the roast from the malt. The result is pretty amazing.

Thornbridge employees alternately mugging for and ignoring the camera.

Thornbridge employees alternately mugging for and ignoring the camera.

Additionally, there seems to be a trend toward something like a very small version of an India Pale Ale. Magic Rock (from Huddersfield in Yorkshire) and The Kernel (from near Bermondsey Tube Station) have both gone in the direction of brewing very small beer indeed. Magic Rock’s is called Simpleton and sat at around 2.5% alcohol. The significant Citra hop nose is something you wouldn’t see at that strength very frequently. Somehow it retains a full body. There’s not much room for error here and Magic Rock manages it very nicely. The Kernel has a Table Beer (which, to be fair, I had at The Rake) which claimed 2.7% alcohol and was packed full of Nelson Sauvin.

Some of the London brewers have really done extraordinarily well in terms of branding. Partizan is at the forefront with their whimsical lettering.

Some of the London brewers have really done extraordinarily well in terms of branding. Partizan is at the forefront with their whimsical lettering.

This is a really pleasant range. You get all the hop character without malt or alcohol getting in the way. The bitterness is quite mild because it has to be. It would overwhelm very quickly beyond a certain point. It is pronounced in terms of balance within the beer, but not in terms of comparison to a 5% Pale Ale. I suspect you could spend the entire afternoon drinking beer of this style, appreciate them as a connoisseur and walk away from the experience stone cold sober. I like the idea so much I’m going to thieve it.

Among the other highlights here were Redemption’s Rock The Kazbek (lemon, lime, slight hint of drying paint), Weird Beard’s Mariana Trench (it’s a solid, tropical fruity pale ale), Partizan’s Saison (Quite dry, very refreshing) and Brodie’s Hoxton. Thornbridge’s Kolsch TZARA is pretty excellent, especially since my context for that brewery is Kipling and Jaipur.  Also worth mentioning is Crate, who have produced a stout that inexplicably uses a hefeweizen yeast. Neat idea. It results in Chocolate/Banana. The brewer was quite forthright about having come to it by accident, but I’m still going to give him credit for sticking with the thing.

Redemption were one of the few booths offering cask. Nice to see tradition alongside innovation.

Redemption were one of the few booths offering cask. Nice to see tradition alongside innovation.

The only difficulty I foresee for the London scene is that because so many of them are using the same hop varieties in the same types of beers (there are a lot of galaxy/citra/nelson sauvin pale ale type beers) that there will eventually be a lot of overlap between different breweries on some styles. If I were them I’d be planning accordingly to differentiate myself a little.

As with any relaxed craft beer festival, you get the opportunity to talk to the brewers at some length.

As with any relaxed craft beer festival, you get the opportunity to talk to the brewers at some length.

The good news is that London’s scene is going to be coming to Canada in relatively short order. This year Cask Days is having a number of English brewers over for a special part of the annual Cask Days event. I suppose it had been announced, but it was interesting to talk to Andy from Redemption and hear that he was sending cask to Canada. The brewers who mentioned it all seemed a little confused that their beer should be in such demand, especially from Toronto. If what I saw this week is any indication, Ralph and the boys should probably double the order.


Real Ale and Craft Beer – Live from the GBBF

Ed Note: Inevitably, marching into another country and talking about a situation I don’t have a complete feel for has the potential to rustle feathers. As such, I have changed the subtitle of my blog for the week to reflect that possibility. 


One of the things that has interested me about England recently is the speed with which craft beer has taken off. I was here last in 2008, before I had started paying proper attention to things beery. At the time, I think that I was mildly aware that Meantime existed, but I certainly didn’t go out of my way to visit them. There was a very nice pub with cask beer in good condition nearby where I was staying which was good enough for me. What did I know?

I’m not sure how many of the English beer writers I now know were active at the beginning of 2008. I suspect that the answer is not all that many. At some point while planning for this trip, I emailed Mark Dredge and Pete Brown for suggestions about where I needed to go and what I needed to see. The list very quickly became elaborate and almost completely untenable. Brodies and Camden Town, Magic Rock and Kernel and Partizan and Brew Wharf. That was just the first email. The number of craft beers on offer has continued to expand.

The scale of the GBBF is pretty staggering.

The scale of the GBBF is pretty staggering.

Within about five years there has been this massive explosion of non-traditional, North American influenced breweries. I’m given to understand that this is happening all over Europe. Just the other day, I had a couple of Czech craft beers from Pivovar Matuska that were using Apollo and Galaxy hops. I can only imagine the stir that’s causing in Prague.

To me, the most interesting part of this phenomenon is that England is one of the only countries other than the United States that has a definitive sensibility for the marketing of their product. They’ve got REAL ALE.

CAMRA’s definition of REAL ALE is, even according to their materials, something that they’ve made up.  According to my handy CAMRA membership guide fact sheets, Real Ale is “a term devised solely by CAMRA” as “a name for draught (or bottled) beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed and served without the use of extraneous gas.”

Ok. That makes a great deal of sense since there was a real danger of traditional English ale being supplanted by incredibly bad lager and terrible ale in the 1970’s. All you have to do for context is listen to the utter disdain in Eric Idle’s voice when he talks about Watney’s Red Barrel in the travel agent sketch.

If you can control the perception of what entails a quality beer, you’d be a fool not to do it. From a marketing standpoint it’s brilliant. It plays to a sense of patriotism. It plays to the sense that it has always been thus. Most importantly, those trappings are not actually part of the definition. Real Ale is a technical term. It just has all these connotations associated with it.

Look at the definition of craft beer. If the last year worth of debate on North American blogs has taught us anything, it’s that the definition doesn’t really work properly. It is not a technical, product oriented definition. It’s a trade designation at best and a vague catchall at worst.

The Brewer’s Association basically has three conditions as far as I’m aware. I’m writing this on a train to Birmingham New Street, so I’m listing these from memory. The fact that I do not care enough to ingrain them perfectly in my memory is probably a sign of how poor they are.

1)      The brewer must produce less than 6 million barrels of beer a year.

2)      The brewer must not use adjunct (at least as a money saving ingredient, I guess)

3)      The brewer must be mostly independently owned. (No more than 25% owned by a larger company)

Perhaps you begin to see the problem with the definition when you try to apply it on an international scale. Craft beer is no longer a purely North American phenomenon. Those rules are nonsensical even across the border in Canada. Our economy is on an entirely different scale and we actually like some of the brands Molson has purchased.

When you’re talking about England, those conditions are even less useful. Because “Craft Beer” as a nomenclature exists to describe a purely American phenomenon, it neglects to include anything about heritage.

Take just about any large, regional English brewery. Anything smaller than Greene King will do as an example. They are small, traditional and independent. Some of them are so traditional that they predate the concept of trademarks. More than two hundred years and suddenly there’s a new definition of what you do, thanks to a trade description that has become a catchall term for a global phenomenon.

CAMRA, perhaps unfortunately, has gone the route of attempting to define craft beer as anything that’s served out of a keg. That’s an attempt to lump the craft brewers in with the lagers that have been their bane since the early 1970’s. That’s a terrible idea for two reasons: First of all, lager is not going away. Whatever inroads CAMRA has made into preserving real ale is great and entirely worthwhile. It’s not all support for their side, of course. The number of British Ex-pats I’ve heard refer to anything out of a keg as weasel piss is pretty staggering. Any time people attempt to generalize about an entire category of beer, I’m leery. Some lagers are good, some lagers are bad. Some Real Ales are shockingly poor on their best day with a good cellarman.

Hey, it's still better than a Steam Whistle hat.

Hey, it’s still better than a Steam Whistle hat.

The other problem is that it creates a fairly significant demographic gap. From the perspective of an outsider with no real stake in what happens, I can freely point out that I keep hearing Real Ale being referred to as Old Man’s Beer. The comment crops up again and again on blogs and discussion boards, on untappd and on facebook statuses detailing which beer won at the Great British Beer Festival. Given the crowd at the trade session and the sheer number of sock/sandal combinations on view, I can see how people might be justified in the opinion. (I’m given to understand that the trade session is not representative of the demographic. Part of me wants to believe that. Part of me thinks “sure it isn’t.”)

The question becomes: how does a brewery stay relevant in the face of this divide?

The truth is that many of the Real Ales are excellent beers. These are breweries that have honed their craft for a very long time and they produce some excellent tipples. Since craft beer isn’t going away any time soon and the younger generation of beer drinkers seems to be hoving round in that direction, these breweries are entering a landscape fraught with pitfalls. Do you sacrifice some of your hard earned, long standing credibility in order to maintain or increase sales by capitulating to a trend? Do you put your head in the sand and hope it goes away despite all evidence to the contrary?

There were, I noticed, two large regional breweries attempting to do something about it and their wares were displayed at the GBBF.

Brains is based out of Cardiff. Their foray into craft brewing is based out of a separate 15BBL brewhouse in the same facility as their regular brewery if I understand it correctly. Rather than the properly stylized BRAINS logo, they’ve gone with a sort of riveted font that playfully suggests an industrial heritage, harkening back to the era in which they were founded (1882). This means that they’re playing both sides of the aisle, retaining their popular main portfolio in addition to the new brands. Even the websites are divided between the original and the extra crispy.

Brains brought a bacon beer. I imagine it's only a matter of time before they try making a beer with brains. Zombibrau.

Brains brought a bacon beer. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before they try making a beer with brains. Zombibrau.

The main portfolio has things like Dark, Gold and The Rev. James.  These are pretty highly regarded beers and rightly so. I’d be pleased to find any of them on tap. They may not be the most exciting beers in the world, but they’re solid and dependable. If you ignore the substance of my argument thus far and don’t bother attempting to categorize them, you’d come away with the feeling that they’re good, solid beer.

See the rivets and the vaguely industrial font? Neat!

See the rivets and the vaguely industrial font? Neat!

The new stuff… well, let me put it this way. I tried three of the casks that were on offer at the GBBF and the sense I get is that they’re trying way to hard. They’ve enlisted beer writers like Adrian Tierney-Jones and Pete Brown to collaborate with them on various products. They’ve got single hop variations and the odd wacky ingredient. I tried the Aporkalypse (which was, as far as I’m concerned, the final straw on bacon flavoured beer. The next person who sends one of those for review is going to get a stern staring at and a slow, disapproving head shake), Dissolution and Atlantic White. Certainly, they’re different than anything else that was on offer at the festival, but the real problem is that they don’t stack up to “craft beer.” If I got these in Ontario, which is a little behind the times, they wouldn’t stand out.

If Brains can reign in the experimentation a tad, they’re onto a winning concept. The experimentation is unnecessarily probing. I’m sure they’ve got talented people who would do better to focus on a core range.

St. Austell is making some truly excellent beer, regardless of marketing definitions.

St. Austell is making some truly excellent beer, regardless of marketing definitions.

The brewery I was far and away the most impressed with is Cornwall’s St. Austell. Rather than putting together a second brand, they seem to have decided to simply play to their strengths. This is a brewery that has been around since 1851, but the sense I get is that they’ve taken a longer view of the craft beer problem. Their Tribute Ale was first brewed in 1999 and it feels somehow contemporary nearly 15 years later.

Good enough that I mean to find more of it before I leave the country.

Good enough that I mean to find more of it before I leave the country.

St. Austell has simply expanded on the success of Tribute by keeping the ingredients contemporary rather than attempting to do anything outlandish. Their Trelawny is a combination of old and new, blending English Golding with Australian Galaxy hops. You get peach, apricot, and the strange slightly ineffable tropical fruit note you get with Galaxy. At 3.8%, this is session beer at its best.

Their Proper Job incorporates Willamette, Chinook and Cascade at 4.5% and is a really nicely balanced low alcohol (by craft standards)IPA. The top of their range is Big Job, which I enjoyed so much that I didn’t bother to ask for the ingredients. I will say this for it: It would be acceptable as ‘craft beer’ anywhere in the world and hasn’t compromised  the ‘real ale’ definition at all.

St. Austell is doing all of the things I like. They’re taking advantage of history. They’re using a blend of traditional ingredients and exciting new ingredients. There is a sense of evolution if you look at the timeline on which these products have been introduced. They are clever enough to be just ahead of the market.

That’s how you navigate the Real Ale/Craft Beer minefield: You ignore the definitions completely and you focus on making good beer. Not everyone will be able to toe that line with the level of success that St. Austell displays, but it’s apparent to me that you can accomplish both definitions at the same time.

In Which I Review Two Books About Beer

One of the really nice things about having a column with a big circulation is that people send you things to review. Sometimes, it’s not even beer.

At one point about a month ago, three books cropped up. One of those was Pete Brown’s Shakespeare’s Local, referred to here by its proper name as the transatlantic marketing efforts take away from the character of the thing. “I know,” said some crackerjack in the marketing department on a Friday just after a lengthy lunch, “we’ll call it Shakespeare’s Pub. That’s what people in America call pubs right? They have pubs there, surely? What’s that Bob? Bars? That’s not quite as homey.” This neglects the fact that Pete Brown is a deeply British man and that reading his prose you wouldn’t mistake him for anything else. There’s a lengthy digression on authenticity and the Sugababes, for God’s sake.

They have those in America, right?

Anyway, that’s a very good book (BUY THE BOOK!), but I’m here today to review two other books which I have been sent.


This is a book by Emily Baime and Darin Michaels who run Community Tap and Table in Sacramento, California. The idea here is a good one, and it focuses on providing recipes that fit into the four seasons of the year and take advantage of the beer traditions those seasons represent while managing to fit in seasonal ingredients where obligatory.

There are some very good ideas in A Year In Food And Beer including a very clever treatment of crabs in the spring section (I agree with them here that you want the pairing to take the sauces into account and for that reason they’ve provided three sauces and three beer pairings.) I quite like the look of the Mango Caprese in the Summer section and may try that at home at some point. Fall has a tempting Pork Loin with Celery Leaf and Green Peppercorn Cream recipe that I think is a very good idea. There are also sections on Cheese and Chocolate that present cogent explanations of the information that you need in order to pair them properly.

It’s a very good attempt, but it has to be said, if you approach it with a critical eye rather than from the traditional blogger as cheerleader role, that there are some problems inherent here that have mostly to do with regionalism.

One of the reasons I couldn’t have reviewed this book for Sun Media is that it is specific to the experiences of Emily and Darin. From the small amount of interaction that I’ve had with them, I can tell you that they’re competent and enthusiastic. However, they are from Sacramento.

One of the things Garrett Oliver gets exactly right in The Brewmaster’s Table is to focus on classic examples of styles. He waxes rhapsodic about Saison Dupont. This may have been because that book is nearly a decade old at this point and there simply wasn’t the selection of American Craft Beer at the time that there is now. Some of the selections in this book would be pretty hard to find outside of California. In much of Canada, they simply don’t exist: Lost Coast, Russian River, Ballast Point, The Bruery. World class beers all, but not available for purchase.

Also, I think that the difference in climate results in an odd conceptual translation of a winter menu to something comprising comfort foods. I imagine there’s always fresh produce in California. In Ontario, if it’s February, we got turnips.

It’s a good book to purchase if you’re really into the beer and food pairing idea and you’re able to lay hands on some interesting American beer. If you’re in Alberta, this might work out better than it does in Ontario. It is also a good book to purchase if you enjoy chapter spanning metaphors featuring an orchestral jazz saxophonist. On the whole, it’s a good effort even if it sacrifices some authoritativeness for regional applicability. 


Written by Joe Wiebe, who writes under the pseudonym of the Thirsty Writer for various publications, this is an attempt to chronicle a specific period in the development of British Columbia’s craft beer scene. Typically, when you get a book like this that catalogues all of the breweries in a geographical region, you get a pretty bare bones sort of approach to the subject as a result of the temporal constraint. You want to get everybody in the book, and that means even the newest members of the scene. If a brewery opens a month before your comprehensive guide is released, that sucker had better be in there.

Having written a book and having some understanding of deadlines, this would be pretty hard to do. In fact, writing a guide of this sort is becoming more or less impossible due to the scale of the industry and how quickly it is growing. There was a week in Ontario this summer where three breweries opened. Imagine submitting your book the week before that happened. Immediate obsolescence is a bummer.

Joe has gotten around this by listing five breweries that are slated to open, guaranteeing that this book will not be out of date until 2014. Clever boy.

That said, this is not merely a guide to the breweries as they stand. It doesn’t rank them; it appreciates their better qualities. More importantly, perhaps, is the reason that this approach has been taken. Wiebsy has been around the craft beer industry in B.C. for quite a while and has known the majority of these people for a while. His writing conveys a sense of not only why each brewery is important, but why they’re important to him. I suspect that he more or less effortlessly has a sense of everything that’s going on in the B.C. scene.  This is a fine quality to have in a tour guide.

He’s also managed to surreptitiously work a nuanced history of craft beer in B.C. into the brewery listings. You get a really good picture of the scene and how it evolved from John Mitchell to Gary Lohin and of all of the interceding steps. He charts the migration of brewers around the scene and the fall of once popular breweries. He treats the entirety of the subject with respect, which is nice to see.

Whether you’re looking for a simple guide to the best place to get a pint in Vancouver or Victoria or an in depth history (without really realizing that you’re getting one), you’re going to want a copy of Craft Beer Revolution. Joe has managed to do as well as one could possibly do with the format while maintaining a personal, peripatetic kind of feel.

They sent me coasters with the book. That was a nice touch.

They sent me coasters with the book. That was a nice touch.

So You Want To Be A Brewer: St. John Marzen

When I started writing about beer, it was because I was trying to establish some credentials in order to get into brewing school. I did manage, subsequently, to get into brewing school, but then there was a book deal. I found that commuting 5 hours a day to Niagara College and writing a book didn’t mix particularly well. I don’t believe that you can get a book written on a Coach Canada bus, especially when you factor in the 5:30 am start to the day and the slight nausea that comes with that kind of travel.

From inside the brewhouse looking out at the bar. ca. Beer O'Clock

From inside the brewhouse looking out at the bar. ca. Beer O’Clock

Eventually, the book about brewing (You can buy a copy by clicking the link to the right!) won out. It’s a difficult thing. Having now written the book, I’m convinced that I could do it in a shorter amount of time. At the time, the sense of deadline related panic rendered it a full time occupation. After all, the only way to learn how to write a book is to write a book.

I continue to enjoy brewing. There are the wonderful aromas that you only get in a brewhouse. After eight months away from it, even the sharp vinegar whiff of the paracetic acid used for sterilizing equipment conjures up a temporal sense of place. You get the aroma off the kettle five minutes after the first hop addition, and that’s a marvelous smell. There’s the edifying sense in that aroma that you’re accomplishing something. You’re making something that will, if everything goes right, give a number of people a small pleasure at the end of their day.

Freshly milled grain is one of those healthy smells that I think we're all sort of programmed to recognize.

Freshly milled grain is one of those healthy smells that I think we’re all sort of programmed to recognize.

It was for this reason that I put up a notice on facebook a short while ago that I missed brewing, and would any generous Ontario breweries like to host a one-off collaboration. It got slightly more response than I suspected that it would. No fewer than four breweries came forward to suggest that I could work with them on a project.

Faced with that potential, the seemingly ideal thing to do would be to thank your lucky stars that anyone is interested and then maybe choose one of those four breweries to work with. I gave the calendar a glance and realized that Toronto Beer Week is coming up, meaning that the beer writer’s Barrel Bragging Rights event was right around the corner.

Last year, Josh Rubin from the Toronto Star won with a pretty nifty Dopplebock that reminded me of nothing so much as Schloss Eggenberg’s version. It was an absolute corker. This year, I wanted to beat Josh Rubin if only to maintain the completely fictional inter-newspaper rivalry that we enjoy as banter. I decided that the thing to do was to create four one off beers so that I could choose the one that was most likely to be successful served out of an oak barrel. After all, Rubin must be crushed!

The only problem is that I haven’t heard anything about the Barrel Bragging Rights competition this year, and I believe it may be taking a short hiatus until 2014. Perhaps you’re beginning to see the problem: Four beers and no event at which to serve them.

It was at that point that I decided to create my own event for Toronto Beer Week: The Feast of St.John.

You know you've got quality when you've got Weyermann.

You know you’ve got quality when you’ve got Weyermann.

The intent here is to host a four course beer dinner in which all of the beer and food is designed from the ground up to fit into a cohesive menu with a progression from start to finish. I’ve been to beer dinners where the chef has to fit the menu to the beer. I’ve also talked with Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn a little bit about how he created a beer specifically to go with a roast chicken at NoMad in New York.

I don’t know that anyone has tried to pull off an event like this before. I figure I’m qualified, what with a certain amount of training as a brewer, a Certified Cicerone designation and a pretty decent depth of food knowledge. I’ve got a great cook to work with and a venue to host it in. Plus, why the heck wouldn’t you do it? I mean, it’s not exactly like you’re going to take a credibility hit for trying something really difficult. The details are still coming together, but brewing began on Friday.

The marzen will eventually be approximately this colour. I love that bright orange melanoidin burst.

The marzen will eventually be approximately this colour. I love that bright orange melanoidin burst.

The first beer is a collaboration with The Beer Academy, which now occupies the downtown brewpub location that housed Duggan’s and, once upon a time, Growler’s. It’s going to be a Marzen, which should be just the thing for mid to late September with Oktoberfests popping up all over the place. I was a little surprised that they’d let me try my hand at a lager, what with the longer aging time and the fact that lagers just aren’t very trendy at the moment.

Sometimes it seems that if you want to sell a beer these days, you’ve got to get a gimmick. With the prevalence of IPAs and the number of sub-varieties that the style has spawned (white, black, double, imperial) the big bitter kick is pretty popular. I confess to a certain amount of fatigue on that front. There are only so many times you review vastly similar things without wearing out your vocabulary and attention span.

During the planning meeting, we were looking for a style of beer. One of the things that you need to know about The Beer Academy is that rather than working with brand new state of the art equipment as you’d expect at a Molson owned property, they’re using the equipment that came with the building when they took over.

One of the things that struck me about brewing at the Beer Academy is the care being taken of the equipment. They're very respectful of it.

One of the things that struck me about brewing at the Beer Academy is the care being taken of the equipment. They’re very respectful of it.

I believe that Growlers was started in 1989, so some of that stuff is probably nearly a quarter century old at this point. The fermenters are what I guess you’d call round bottomed grundy tanks, which are pretty much what there was at the time. Round bottoms mean that dry hopping is going to be messy, so they tend not to make beers that would require it. Additionally, the boil kettle is electric, meaning that you do get a small amount of smoky flavour as a house character because of hotspots.

Given that information about the system, you want to work with it instead of trying to force it to do something it’s not suited to. If you look at the lineup that was featured at Growlers, it heavily featured German styles. Marzen was a great choice, even if it’s slightly intimidating to be doing that on Michael Hancock’s old equipment.

This is really clever. They have produced a grant for the mash tun that operates on a float arm and empties once it reaches a certain fill level. It's the same principle as a toilet tank and it means that you can safely ignore the exact rate of flow. Very clever.

This is really clever. They have produced a grant for the mash tun that operates on a float arm and empties once it reaches a certain fill level. It’s the same principle as a toilet tank and it means that you can safely ignore the exact rate of flow. Very clever.

We came up with a malt bill that is a pretty standard blend of floor malted bohemian pilsner and some slighty more melanoidin heavy malt for colour and flavour. In addition to doing the typical beer collaboration photo op activities like hoisting grain into the mill and raking out the mash tun, I got to choose the hop bill on the day. I went with three varieties of hallertauer and some saaz. The neat thing about the hallertauer varieties are that they’re pretty humulene heavy noble hops and provide some woody, spicy notes on the palate. We used Hersbrucker and Tradition for the boil, but found a lovely variety of New Zealand hallertauer in the hop room that has that signature mineral and tropical fruit kick that you get out of New Zealand hops. The saaz is there because I like that peppery aroma and I’m hoping that it’ll provide some depth of flavour without confusing the issue.

At some point during the brew day, the previous day's Belgian Tripel kicked into overdrive. Krausen cascades all the way to the floor.

At some point during the brew day, the previous day’s Belgian Tripel kicked into overdrive. Krausen cascades all the way to the floor.

From the point of view of pairing with food, Marzen comes with a cultural heritage you can’t ignore. The hope is that the aroma from the New Zealand hallertauer will open up some options to expand on German tradition.

Thanks go to the nice folks at The Beer Academy. Stephen, for displaying the depth of his beer nerdery during planning by whipping out the smartphone BJCP app. Quentin, for walking me through what is basically a refresher course after a year away from brewing. Todd, for handling the calculations and for letting me in the building in the first place.


Beer and History: Mesopotamia at the ROM OR Sumer Lovin’

A couple of weekends ago, I signed a contract to write a new book with m’colleague Alan McLeod of A Good Beer Blog. The book will be called Ontario Beer: A Heady History of Brewing from the Great Lakes to the Hudson Bay. We’re just kids in a candy store over the possibility of leafing through dusty archives and creating indexes and bibliographical footnotes. What can I say? We’re nerds.

As I was on my way to the subway, I noticed that we’re not the only ones working on beer from a historical perspective. The Royal Ontario Museum currently has a Mesopotamian exhibit that highlights some of the innovations that sprung from the fertile crescent. As an early agrarian society, Mesopotamia certainly had beer; a fact which is highlighted on the large advertisements for the exhibit encased in bus shelters around the city.

Since I was already in a vaguely historical frame of mind, I decided to get in touch with the ROM and see whether they could offer some guidance towards the exhibit. They actually provided an expert in the form of Dr. Clemens Reichel, an Associate Curator at the ROM, who took some time out of his schedule to show us around.

I say “us” because I was joined by Robin LeBlanc who writes about beer over here, and who was featured in a nice article today.

I suspect it’s fair to say that there’s not a great deal of planning that you can do for an exhibit like this if your intention is to write about it from a beer writer’s perspective. I have read beer books from the period between about 1880 and 2013 and the ancient world really only ever gets a couple of fundamentally similar paragraphs.

Sort of “development into Agrarian society… blah blah… Hymn to Ninkasi… blah blah… Does civilization exist because people wanted a drink?… and in conclusion, we owe a lot to these proto brewers whom we have included because we’re pretty sure we might have seen an article about it at some point, maybe in the Atlantic Monthly.”

The base of knowledge may well have expanded in the last 133 years or so, but since additional information would require vast amounts of research and records are typically fairly sketchy, these are the highlights that crop up. I mean, take the amount of research someone like Martyn Cornell does on a regular basis and understand how difficult it is to put together brewing history on London before tabloids. That’s nothing compared to 6500 years ago.

As a thought experiment, consider this: You want to know everything there is to know about a now closed Ontario brewery. Let’s use Conners as an example. We have the ability to track down and interview people who worked for them, which would take some research but is not impossible.  We also have the ability to read contemporary articles or books about brewing in Ontario and infer from those sources about Conners as it existed. The most accurate source of information, however, is going to be financial. I can guarantee you the tax information is kicking around in a government archive somewhere.

Oddly enough, the same goes for Mesopotamia. Of course no one who made beer in Mesopotamia is still alive and they didn’t have print journalism. The financial records, though, are more or less intact.

As a spreadsheet, the real downside here is that you can't copy and paste with hotkeys

As a spreadsheet, the real downside here is that you can’t copy and paste with hotkeys

As it turns out, the development of writing was largely due to accountancy. Part of the development of civilization has to do with accountability to each other. Without some manner of allaying mutual suspicion, we’re pretty hopeless as a species. If you were to deposit a number of bushels of grain at your local granary, you’d want there to be a record of how many bushels you had deposited. In part, Cuneiform was developed in order to do just that.

This tablet, from some period between 3300 and 3000 B.C.E., displays cuneiform symbols for various types of grain including Emmer Wheat and Barley. As you can see, there’s a heading and a column with a representative number of marks meant to represent quantity. It’s your basic inventory spreadsheet. The clay tablet technology has preserved this information. Clay had a number of comparative strengths, as Dr. Reichel pointed out. The papyrus based Great Library at Alexandria simply burnt down one day. If you expose clay to fire, it just gets harder. In some ways, clay is preferable to modern spreadsheet technology. Clay doesn’t upgrade its menu options every few years forcing you to learn how to use a styles menu or suddenly crash in the middle of an export.

This likely means that writing developed as a tool to allow us to feed ourselves. I can only imagine that in a culture where they had already developed irrigation and had likely managed to discover fermentation by dint of the fact that there was a lot of damp grain around, this means that writing probably developed in part due to beer. In a very small part. It’s practically not even worth mentioning when you consider all the other things you’d want to use grain for as well. Let’s call it about 10%.

The other illustrative artifact from the exhibit is a golden drinking cup discovered in the tomb of Puabi at the royal cemetery in Ur, dated to approximately 2500 B.C.E.

From this angle, you might think "Alright, I can drink out of that."

From this angle, you might think “Alright, I can drink out of that.”

The cup presents some interesting problems. First of all, as Dr. Reichel was good enough to point out, Southern Iraq is hot. Tomorrow (July 12th) the forecast for Baghdad is 46 degrees Celsius. To convert to farenheit, that’s about 113. What kind of idiot drinks out of a golden cup when it’s 46 degrees in the shade? Think about the heat transfer. No one is actually drinking out of a cup like that. Probably you want something that is thick and made of pottery so that your beverage remains at least nominally refreshing.

The other difficulties with the cup have to do with the dimensions. First of all, it’s not really round. It is shaped a little bit like half of a pita. When you view it from the front, it’s completely normal. When you view it from a slightly elevated angle, it’s obvious that no one looking to actually drink something would have used it. There’s even a completely non-functional straw built into the side that would make it dribble on your shirt.

But from this angle, it's clear that you're better off just drinking out of the bottle.

But from this angle, it’s clear that you’re better off just drinking out of the bottle.

As a cup, it sucks. It’s a terrible cup.

As a simulacrum of a cup, it makes complete sense. It is a representational imagining of a cup. Many of the tombs in Ur had ornamental pieces like this made of gold and carnelian and lapis lazuli: Necklaces that would snap a vertebrae; earrings that would tear a lobe. The tombs were appointed with these things, as well as a number of apparently unwilling servants (as evinced by the skull trauma). You can take it with you, but eventually someone will dig it up.

These simulacra are great for pointing out how important feasting was to the culture of Sumer. To have developed to the point where you’re creating ornamental representations of tableware for an elaborate burial like that of Puabi, you can safely assume that the feasting culture was pervasive and established. It gives you a sense of what was thought of as important in terms of the details of everyday life.

I suppose if you really felt the need for an additional beer artifact, you could tell yourself that this lion is really hungover.

I suppose if you really felt the need for an additional beer artifact, you could tell yourself that this lion is really hungover.

I should point out that these two are the main beer related artifacts in the exhibit. I can’t help but feel that the ROM overstated their case a little on the promotional posters. That said, the rest of the exhibit contains some truly amazing pieces from the British Museum. Tablet VI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance. A stele with the code of Hammurabi inscribed upon it. Perhaps most impressively, a bas relief lion from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon with much of its glaze still intact. You should go and see these things. It’s good for you. And you can pop across the street to the Museum Tavern afterwards for beer if you feel your appetite hasn’t been sated.