St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

I ACTUALLY BOUGHT BEER: SAWDUST CITY LONG DARK VOYAGE TO URANUS

The Background:

Listen: Sam Corbeil has come unstuck in time.

Rugged typography. Basic black cap. Nothing is cooler than basic black.

Rugged typography. Basic black cap. Nothing is cooler than basic black.

He’s living backwards. At some point in the next few months he’ll have a brewery in a refurbished Canadian Tire in Gravenhurst. In April, he hired staff in the form of Aaron Spinney. At about the same time, he got Lone Pine IPA into the LCBO. As we go further back in time, we find him making more and more ambitious one off beers for special events. If we go all the way back to the 1970’s, his moustache was in style.

Any sane person would have done this the other way around. Start with a brewery. Get staff and an LCBO listing. Maybe make a Niambic beer. Come out swinging at Cask Days with a Chai spiced brown ale. Sam Corbeil didn’t let little things like convention stop him.

Out of all the beers I’ve tried from Sawdust City, I’ve never had a bad one. There are few breweries I can say that about. There have been Sawdust City beers that were not to my taste, but none of them have been objectively poor. The Red Rocket Stout with Cayenne burnt the hell out of my uvula.

I am massively appreciative of the fact that Sam cares about the quality of his beer. Sawdust City just yanked a batch of Lone Pine IPA from the LCBO warehouse. I think they were trying an unfiltered version of it out, going by the social media record. It didn’t work and they pulled it and destroyed it. All that beer down the drain.

So it goes.

P1020962

Peculiar Travel Suggestions are Dancing Lessons From God

Long Dark Voyage to Uranus is a little special to me for a couple of reasons. One of these is that I’ve gotten to try every iteration of it. The first time it was brewed, it was for the 2011 edition of the Master Brewer’s Iron Brewer awards. I don’t believe it won, but it was highly regarded. I’ve tried every version of this beer since then.

I mostly like it for the detail on the label that is borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. I reproduce it here from my copy of the book.P1020977

I like it when people engage with the audience. It does not take much to assume that your audience is literate. To be a beer nerd, you have to memorize details from a huge number of beer styles. It stands to reason that people who can do that are inquisitive. That can be dangerous. They might even have read a book. Then again, they might just enjoy a dirty joke about the human posterior.

They were good enough for Chaucer.

The Beer:P1020969

The beer is strong. At 9% alcohol, it’s the kind of thing you’re best taking your time with. I like that the ingredients are listed on the label right down to the yeast strain. There are apparently 10 kinds of barley and some Demerara. Demerara is a fancy name for brown sugar. The hops are Magnum and Centennial, and you can pick out the Centennial’s pine barren waft on the aroma. The new version is hoppier than it has been in the past.

I don’t have written data to back that up. I am a man who drinks for a living and relies on his memory. Isn’t that silly?

The malt variety lends a nice breadth of flavours that expand continually as Uranus warms up. There’s the obligatory 70% or better dark cocoa. There’s the deeply roasted, frankly burnt espresso. The Centennial pine plays up the rye spice into a robust pumpernickel. There is some deeply scorched rum barrel in there as well. It is dry and it is a little astringent. I appreciate that. Last night I had the Goose Island Bourbon County Stout and it was as good as it is touted to be, but stickier than I like. I enjoy the brittle snap this provides.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteria:

The people at the LCBO would not let you use this Vonnegut reference. Alcohol labels are not supposed to claim that they will make you feel any particular way. They are depressants from a long line of depressants. That's how come we like them so much.

The people at the LCBO would not let you use this Vonnegut reference. Alcohol labels are not supposed to claim that they will make you feel any particular way. They are depressants from a long line of depressants. That’s how come we like them so much.

On a scale from “Goodbye Blue Monday” to “Ting-A-Ling, You Son Of A Bitch,” I’m going to give this a rating of “If this isn’t nice, what is?” Sometimes it’s important to stop and look around and appreciate a nice moment and this is a beer that caters to that reflection. I liked it enough that I bought it.

THEY SEND ME BEER: LAKE OF BAYS 10 POINT IPA

The Background:

I don’t really have a working relationship with Lake of Bays. I think this is partially because they’re tucked away up in Baysville in Lake Of Bays Township. It’s an apt if not particularly creative name for the brewery when you base it on that criteria. In honour of their northern heritage, I have chosen Neil Young’s Decade as the soundtrack for tasting this beer.

Sometimes you buy a record when you're 16 and discover that you own it when you're 33.

Sometimes you buy a record when you’re 16 and discover that you own it when you’re 33.

I’ve met their brewmaster, Dan, a couple of times. He has a moustache that makes him look like Scruffy from Futurama. He is certainly in charge of the boilers at the brewery. I don’t know if he’s in charge of the toilets. He’s a personable fellow.

When Lake of Bays launched in 2010, they launched with beer styles as the names of their products. They had a Pale Ale. They had a Red Ale. I don’t want to be a jerk about this, but I should point out that I forgot Lake of Bays existed between about May 2011 and whenever they rebranded the products in their core lineup. This is a good object lesson for you if you are launching a brewery: Find a memorable way to brand your product. “Crosswind Pale Ale” is a better choice than “Pale Ale.”

The Pitch:

The rebrand really helped Lake Of Bays a lot. When they started they were making solid, dependable beer. That's not enough anymore.

The rebrand really helped Lake Of Bays a lot. When they started they were making solid, dependable beer. That’s not enough anymore.

Lake of Bays 10 Point IPA is ostensibly their fall seasonal beer and in this instance the reason that it has been sent to me is that the Ontario Craft Brewers would like me to review it as part of their Brewmaster’s Choice Discovery Pack. Let’s talk branding again for a second: OCB Discover Pack wasn’t doing them any favours as a name. Brewmaster’s Choice conveys a greater sense of authority to some average tippler scratching their elbow in the LCBO and staring at an interminable wall of product. It’s a good change. I’ll probably talk about a couple of beers from the series over the next little while because the other really positive change is that there is a wider range of flavours in there than usual.

A caveat: 10 point is usually in 750ml bottles and this is a smaller 341ml bottle with a twist off cap.

The Beer:P1020953

10 point pours an amber brown colour that just about matches the Industry Standard Bottle with a small and rapidly diminishing head that is probably the result of the unusual packaging. The carbonation is not particularly assertive. The beer is 6% alcohol although it feels like it might be slightly higher. If pressed I would claim that this is in the range of Ontario Pale Ale rather than IPA. Ontario Pale Ale was bandied around as a style a few years ago when people were making malt heavy hopped beers that didn’t comfortably fit into any other category. You’ve had Mill Street Tankhouse? Then you know what I mean.

In the case of 10 Point, it’s an amped up version of that evolutionary offshoot. 10 Point’s aroma is deep down in the Ontario vault with MacKintosh Toffee and mouldering hay. The hop character comes through as candied grapefruit on the palate and a slight note of chocolate from the roasted malt. The finish is quite dry and the lingering bitterness waddles slowly away. They don’t list the IBUs, but I’d be tempted to say it’s as high as 65.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based On Various Criteria:

To be fair, the Lake of Bays logo is massively aesthetically pleasing, so it's got that going for it.

To be fair, the Lake of Bays logo is massively aesthetically pleasing, so it’s got that going for it.

On a scale from Out On The Weekend to Cortez The Killer, I’m going to give this a rating of Helpless. It’s ultimately representative of the artist, but might not make sense unless you’ve been to Ontario.

They Send Me Beer: Big Rock Anthea Wet Hop Ale 2013

 

It should probably be obvious by now that people send me beer. I made up a fictional character to explain the phenomenon for God’s sake. The concept of The Beer Fairy has even caught on to some extent. I see people using it online periodically.

What probably isn’t obvious is that a lot of the time I just don’t have anything to do with these beers. The purview of the column is national, which means that of London, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg, I need the beer to exist in at least three of those markets to write about it. This creates some pretty serious problems in terms of audience reach. I don’t always, for instance, want to promote imports. I’d rather put the spotlight on Canadian breweries when possible. Fact is that imports are more widespread and therefore more accessible to all the nice people out there who have either paid for a newspaper subscription or clicked some kind of link. Relevance is not optional.

This means that I end up with a lot of beer that I can’t really use in the national column. I know people from around Toronto send beer thinking I’ll be able to help them out with a newspaper article. I’d like to, but I can’t and since that’s the deadline and the blog posts tend to deal with larger issues than beer reviews I eventually drink the beer but tend not to do much of anything with it except throw it into Untappd which might as well be Minecraft for beer nerds. Big whoop. So it makes it to twitter. That’s not a great use of everyone’s time.

Now I know deep down that people are basically sending beer because they expect some kind of utility out of the action. I don’t know exactly what the return on reviewing beer is but there’s probably some kind of indirect monetary recompense that happens as a result of promotion on blogs and whatnot. Otherwise, why would people send beer? Cause I’m the prettiest princess?

At any rate, there’s an implied contract here. They send beer and they think I should write about their beer. I basically never ask for beer, so sometimes I don’t feel bad about not doing a review. I realize though that I probably should.

The problem is that they send a lot of beer and that my blog posts are legendarily long and convoluted. There’s a minotaur at the centre of some of them is how labyrinthine they get. For this reason, I’m going to be trying out a new feature on the ol’ bliggity blog in which I actually review a beer instead of talking about the industry.

I know that’s a novel concept, but damn it, I hear it works for other bloggers.IMAG0199[1]

THEY SEND ME BEER: BIG ROCK ANTHEA WET HOP ALE 2013

The Background:

Big Rock basically sends me one of everything at this point. They know that I will gladly write about their stuff because it’s relevant to the newspaper audience. I try to keep the limited releases to a minimum because if there are only 4000 bottles of something in the world, people will be disappointed that they couldn’t find it. Still, though, I like Big Rock. Their new series of beers under Paul Gautreau are pretty good for the most part. Some of them I can sense that Paul is finding his feet creatively after a long time brewing the core range of products. I’d like to see him edge toward the upper limits of styles instead of brewing to the centre of them. I’d like to see more hops. I’d like to see the Paradox Dark Ale again.

The Pitch:

The Wet Hop ale was the first thing that Paul brewed as part of the Big Rock Alchemist series in 2012. It was pretty exciting because it involves flying hops in from the Yakima Valley and brewing with them within 24 hours of picking them. That’s a neat concept, although I question why they don’t just grow some hops outside of Calgary. I imagine Big Rock has the budget for that, but hasn’t cottoned on to the possibility yet.

Anywho, these are fresh Cascade hop cones in the beer.IMAG0200[1]

The Beer:

When you consider the beer it’s a little difficult to classify. I suppose that it’s probably some variety of American Pale Ale given the Cascade Hop and the rest of the specs. It comes in at 6% and 39 IBU and while you’d think that that is a decent size for a harvest beer, it’s not huge. It has all of the things that you’d associate with cascade hops down to the spicy pine at the back of the palate and the Seville orange pith on the nose. As something of a departure from previous beers in the experimental range that Gautreau has brewed, this is using caramel malt in the American style which is a welcome departure when you consider that Alberta is a good deal closer to British Columbia than British Citizens. The giveaway on that is the colour and the way it blends with the hops into marmalade. It showcases a single hop variety in the way that the Keith’s beers do. I mean that in the best way because this is not a hop bomb. It is a dignified, restrained beer that is easy to drink. I’d love to see it on cask. In fact, if it were not reliant on the harvest, it would be a good beer to tweak slightly and keep in the repertoire. Any brewery would be pleased to have made this.

I keep saying that one day real soon Paul Gautreau is going to break through and make a really fine series of beers. It seems like each of these releases edges closer to that. This is the best yet. He has narrative strength going for him in much the same way that Mike Lackey did in Ontario.IMAG0202[1]

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based On Various Criteria: I’m going to give this seven and a half hop cones out of ten. Solid. Completely worth drinking. Someone buy the man a hopback and tell him to tweak this into a permanent fixture replacing the Big Rock IPA. If you’re going to give the man enough faith to let him develop things, you’ve gotta use what he develops. In the words of Joe Strummer, “it’s wrong to cheat a trying man.”

 

Additional Craft Beer Cookbooks and Delicious Nuts For Your Mouth

When I said that the best of the current crop of Craft Beer Cookbooks was the Canadian one, I should point out that it’s not out of bias. I mean, for one thing, I’m Canadian and it’s always nice when we win something. I also know the author, David Ort, so you might be inclined to see me as favouring the book for that reason. I can assure you that this is not the case, nice man though he may be.

The other two books are The American Craft Beer Cookbook: 155 Recipes from your Favorite Brewpubs and Breweries and The Craft Beer Cookbook: From IPAs and Bocks to Pilsners and Porters, 100 Artisanal Recipes for Cooking with Beer by John Holl and Jacquelyn Dodd respectively. Both of these books have their strengths as well.

In the case of John Holl’s book, he’s curating recipes from other sources and picking the best ones for you. I did notice that there are a number of recipes where the beers might be quite hard to find locally depending on what part of the country you’re in. This is, of course, something that provides some of the attraction for the set of recipes he has chosen. You would likely be able to make the food with a different beer and still have it feel like it was from a brewpub in San Diego or Kenosha or Butte. I don’t know that there is a cuisine specific to Butte, but it seems like ranching country.

There are a few recipes, though, where (I seem to remember) they talk about using a very specific product in the recipe that’s available at the brewpub or brewery’s website (it might have been a root beer bbq sauce.) I read it a couple of months ago, so I hope that I’m not misrepresenting it. I feel that if you can’t replicate the entire recipe given a couple hours of shopping, it’s probably not cricket. There’s no need to involve Fedex in a delicious meal.

Still, the ideas are good and the book is attractively presented and my quibbles as listed are relatively minor. It’s a good job of work.

In the case of Jacquelyn Dodd’s book, there are some quite good recipes. I quite like the look of the Porter, Goat Cheese and Portobello Mushroom Stuffed Pork Loin and I confess I’ll be trying the White Bean and Beer Chicken Chili just as soon as it gets to be slow cooker weather. IPA watermelon ceviche seems like a winner. Dodd has sidestepped the regionality issue in a craft beer cookbook by not suggesting specific brands of beer for each recipe, deciding rather to chip in periodically with “try this with a woody IPA” or “a malty stout with notes of chocolate and espresso.” That’s fine, although it can be hard to picture what a recipe would taste like without substituting in a beer of your choice mentally while reading. It’s preferable to the alternative where it specifies a beer you’ve never tasted and can’t lay hands on.

The only real problem I have is that a number of the recipes seem to involve straight volume substitutions of beer for another liquid. There’s a scratch made Cavatelli pasta that more or less substitutes beer for water or egg yolk. There are Corn Tortillas with regular Masa Harina, but instead of another liquid: beer. That’s fine as far as it goes, but why it’s happening isn’t really sufficiently explained. I feel like a number of the recipes would have benefitted from a little more conversation with the reader. I’d have gladly given up 20 of the 100 recipes for a better sense of purpose.

If you're like me and you have forgotten adequately to seal your brown sugar after last time you had oatmeal for breakfast, it is probably lumpy.

If you’re like me and you have forgotten adequately to seal your brown sugar after last time you had oatmeal for breakfast, it is probably lumpy.

Besides, I don’t really like straight volume replacement as a tool. I like it when there’s a flavourful beer getting used as a balanced ingredient in the equation. For that reason, I got the nice people over at Whitecap books to send over a .doc file that contains the recipe for the Smoky Maple Beer Nuts from the Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook. Google Chrome should let you open it in a separate tab. Let’s have a look at this and see how it works.

Although, it's only as lumpy as pictured after taking this fellow to the giant rock of brown sugar.

Although, it’s only as lumpy as pictured after taking this fellow to the giant rock of brown sugar.

This is about a two hour cooking process, but it’s probably only 15 minutes of actual work. A word on assembling ingredients for the recipe. If you’re going to go to the trouble of making your own beer nuts, you’re probably in for a pound. You can buy beer nuts for basically the price of whatever nut you purchase for this recipe. They probably won’t be as good and they certainly will not give you a sense of pride or the ability to make silly double entendre jokes. I chose to go with almonds because I like almonds, although there was a period where I stared questioningly at a bag of walnuts.

I'm relatively sure that good maple syrup is more expensive per ounce than whiskey at the LCBO.

I’m relatively sure that good maple syrup is more expensive per ounce than whiskey at the LCBO.

If you’re going to make this, you need real maple syrup. Don’t throw maple flavoured syrup on there. You might fool your guests, but deep down you’ll know. You’ll know and it will haunt you.

You've got to love the label.

You’ve got to love the label.

Actually, considering the size of the containers that maple syrup, cayenne pepper and Church Key Holy Smoke come in and the small amounts used in the recipe, the best thing to do is triple the recipe and buy about three pounds of almonds and spend an afternoon making a snack that you can put out when you’re entertaining throughout the holiday season.

It's not really adequately explained in the recipe, but toss the almonds in the wet ingredients then, once coated, add the dry ingredients and toss again. Pause briefly to marvel at the fact you own a whisk despite being unable to remember the purchase.

It’s not really adequately explained in the recipe, but toss the almonds in the wet ingredients then, once coated, add the dry ingredients and toss again. Pause briefly to marvel at the fact you own a whisk despite being unable to remember the purchase.

The reason I like this recipe is because Church Key Holy Smoke really does contain enough peat character to add to the final flavour of the beer nuts, but not quite enough to be recognizable as itself. You could probably bolster the smoke by adding a little paprika to the cayenne in the blended dry ingredients. As it stands, there’s just a hint of smoke and maple in the mixture. It’s clever because for he’s actually using the 20ml of beer as an additional spice that blends in with the cayenne.

Line a cookie sheet or baking tray with parchment paper. I was also shocked that I owned parchement paper. No measuring spoons, but parchment paper.

Line a cookie sheet or baking tray with parchment paper. I was also shocked that I owned parchment paper. No measuring spoons, but parchment paper.

A lot of the Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook recipes use beer in that fashion, and since that’s very much the way I think about beer and food, I’m excited about trying more of the recipes out. I don’t think I’ve been this excited about getting a cookbook since I got Rick Bayless’ comprehensive Mexican one.

When the nuts are done, you want to put them on a plate to cool. For the love of god, don't go putting the hot salty nuts directly into your mouth. You will burn the dickens out of the roof of your mouth. Also, probably don't go grabbing them barehanded for the first twenty minutes after they come out of the oven.

When the nuts are done, you want to put them on a plate to cool. For the love of god, don’t go putting the hot salty nuts directly into your mouth. You will burn the dickens out of the roof of your mouth. Also, probably don’t go grabbing them barehanded for the first twenty minutes after they come out of the oven.

In Which We Visit Ommegang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

No?

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