St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Tag Archives: Craft Beer

The Fermentation of David MacEwan

(Ed. Note: About once a year the family doggerel gene takes over. I try to fight it. Believe me. This is a cautionary tale in the style of Robert Service’s Songs of Sourdough. It is meant to be a warning about putting too much of yourself into your work. I hope it doesn’t offend.)

 

Odd deeds are committed in breweries fitted by men who don’t know what they’re doin’.

A rookie mistake is all it might take to bring a craft brewer to ruin.

Ontario’s shores have seen overpriced pours and cans that are not fit for SKUin’.

But none were so rank as we found in the tank of a brewer named David MacEwan.

 

Now David was placed in a job he thought wasted his talent (although he had little).

An accounting degree led to KPMG but he knew he was stuck in the middle.

He never wore jeans and he stared at a screen, it was pushing him over the deep end.

He discovered craft beer and for nearly a year he got drunker each subsequent weekend.

 

On a boxing day spree, he purchased with glee a bucket and carboy for home.

He scrounged swing top bottles and hoses and throttles and tubing to blow off the foam.

He waited two weeks to show off to beer geeks the ale that he’d made in his kitchen.

Anyone who had taste couldn’t look in his face when they said, “Uh, yeah, Dave… It’s bitchin'”

 

No one had the heart to say at the start that David should not have persisted.

His palate was bad, his skills less than mad and his talent had never existed.

He hated his job and they thought the poor slob would continue to brew as a hobby.

Their mildest of praise ignited a blaze. David became increasingly snobby.

 

It’s a familiar story of striving for glory when craft brewing becomes the fashion.

Now Dave had no skill, but developed a will: His only attribute was passion.

Passion is great, but it doesn’t equate to knowledge or skill or ability.

The passionate can, when absent a plan, become a severe liability.

 

The development board of a backwater ward was looking for brewers and pronto.

They’d pay half a mil if a brewer could fill in a spot just outside Deseronto.

David resigned, left accounting behind, said goodbye to a life of security

The poor ignoramus thought his ale would be famous and escape historic obscurity.

 

Now five hundred grand isn’t much for a man who knows nothing of buying equipment.

He purchased new steel that he thought was a deal and waited a year for the shipment.

The shipping container did a half gainer and sank somewhere in the pacific.

With each perceived failure he’d sit in his trailer using beer as a mild soporific.

 

The concrete was poured and drainage was bored and the brewhouse was finally ready,

But the money was gone and the bank overdrawn; his hands and his actions unsteady.

Circumstances were dire with no money to hire a receptionist or an assistant

Some men would give up, but Dave, in his cups, found the passion that made him persistent.

 

He worked, at his prime, three shifts at a time. His back ached from mashing and raking.

He’d facebook and tweet (while soaking his feet) to promote this, his new undertaking.

He’d jump in his jeep on two hours of sleep, delivering coasters and glasses.

He thought that his ale was unlikely to fail to bring kudos and coin from the masses.

 

It must have been hell when the beer didn’t sell. The public reception was dodgy.

They’d sip at his beer and say with a sneer “it’s boring and terribly stodgy.”

He increased the BU’s and cranked up the booze and added in brettanomyces.

The brewing defects made his projects rejects even under six layers of spices.

 

The bankrupted dope, at the end of his rope, still believed in his talent for brewing

Although if you asked any customers past, they’d have questioned just what he was doing

Then one fateful night, in the depth of his plight, defeated and visibly ashen

He climbed in the hatch and brewed up a batch with his secret ingredient: passion.

 

I arrived the next day, quite unsure what to say when no one was present to greet me

I’d come to review his penultimate brew and I thought that he’d be happy to meet me.

With no one around, the prevalent sound was the hum from the largest fermenter

As I drew near, I trembled with fear as a voice seemed to come from its center.

 

“I’ve found my home, down amongst the foam. I find carbonation just tickles.

It’s comfortable here, in these barrels of beer, if nobody opens the zwickels.”

For David McEwan, No talent for brewing, but some for transubstantiation.

He died for the sins of your firkins and pins in a beery transmogrification.

 

Odd deeds are committed in breweries fitted by men who don’t know what they’re doin’.

A rookie mistake is all it might take to bring a craft brewer to ruin.

Ontario’s shores have seen overpriced pours and cans that are not fit for SKUin’.

But none were so rank as we found in the tank of a brewer named David MacEwan.

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.

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.

Craft Brewing in Alberta – An Outsider’s Perspective

I don’t pretend to understand the Alberta beer scene completely. After all, I was only there for about five days, and there’s only so much information you can process. Fortunately, brewers like to talk.

While the column this week is about the unique beer hall scene that Alberta has developed over the last two or three years, one of the things that you have to understand is the conditions that have made that possible. Ontario, because of its thoroughly unique set of laws, has just reached the point where there are 100 microbreweries (although, some of those are in planning.) British Columbia is going through a similar spurt of growth. Both Ontario and British Columbia have long and storied histories with craft brewing, dating back essentially to the advent of the craft beer movement. Alberta’s history is less storied.

The beer hall scene in Alberta exists mostly because of privatization in the early 1990’s, which means that there are any number of beers available on tap that would be impossible to get in Ontario. You might be tempted to leap to the conclusion that the demand for local beer doesn’t exist because of this available variety. Over the course of 48 hours, I got to sample things from Brooklyn, Deschutes, Ducato, Mikkeller, Evil Twin and Tamarack (which I had never tried before and which was a pleasant surprise.)

It seems to me that any scene that can support 60 or 72 or 120 taps is always going to be hungry for more variety, and that will play into the hands of anyone that can set up local breweries. The question is therefore “where are the local breweries?” Near as I can tell there are approximately 11 for the entire province, with three more in the offing.

The problem is that the barrier to entry is simply too high for there to be a rush to very small micro breweries or nano breweries. The way that licensing works in Alberta is that a Class E license (the one that lets you make beer) has a certain number of requirements, which I’ll quote here from the Licensee Handbook:

A Class E licence may be issued to a qualified applicant to manufacturer liquor in Alberta. The manufacturer must meet the following production requirements, with production capacity minimums met within 18 months of start-up:

a) Brewery

i) 5,000 hectolitres (1 hectolitre = 100 litres) minimum annual production capacity;

ii) all beer manufactured on site;

iii) fermentation, maturation and storage tanks with a minimum capacity of 10 hectolitres each; and

iv) 50 hectolitres minimum weekly capacity for fermentation, maturation and storage, with space available for additional tanks to achieve minimum annual production capacity

Now, this is truly interesting and goes a long way to explaining why you only have eleven breweries.

5,000 hl of beer doesn’t seem like a huge amount of beer, until you realize that it’s 500,000 litres.
That is to say that you have to be able to make a million pints of beer a year within 18 months of starting up. Additionally, all of your fermenters have to contain at least a thousand litres and you need at least enough of them to make five thousand litres a week. Even given those conditions, five thousand litres a week puts you at about half of your minimum annual production capacity, so you’re really talking about much larger scale equipment.

There are breweries in Ontario that have been around for more than a decade that have never reached the theoretical minimum amount of beer you’d need in Alberta for the AGLC to consider you above board. In point of fact, I’d guess that some of our more interesting new breweries may never see 5000hl.

Consider being someone looking to start up a brewery in Alberta. Can you imagine the relative cost of meeting those standards? You probably need at least a 10hl brewhouse, five 20hl fermenters, storage vessels to keep the product moving and possibly multiple bright tanks for packaging. Not to mention the packaging lines, the packaging materials, labour, renovations to whatever structure you’re going to end up in and you’ll need a sales force to move all of the beer that you’re producing. Simply, the barrier to entry is Capital.

You’d need a significant amount of investment just to open your doors, and you’d better be damned sure that you’re brewing something the public wants. You’d need to be turning a profit fairly quickly in order to keep the doors open. As I toured around the breweries, there were some significant indications that this doesn’t always happen.

The Hog's Head Logo: Tastefully shaded, but slightly evil lookin'.

The Hog’s Head Logo: Tastefully shaded, but slightly evil lookin’.

Hog’s Head Brewing in St.Albert is Edmonton’s newest brewery, and I can tell you that they do not suffer from lack of expertise or talent or ambition. Their first beer was a year round spiced pumpkin beer, which should tell you all you need to know about their faith in their product. The Hopslayer IPA is probably their most objectively impressive brew, containing five hop varieties at somewhere near 80 IBU. Their beers are as hop forward and as assertive as anything being brewed in Canada, and they’ve only been at it for six months. Plus, their labeling is entertaining.

Hog's Head Baby Back IPA : "That'll do, beer. That'll do."

Hog’s Head Baby Back IPA : “That’ll do, beer. That’ll do.”

The brewery itself, if I may be forgiven for saying so, is held together by engineering skill and sheer force of will. It seemed to me that they were running flat out in an attempt to reach the amount of production the provincial government stipulates. I have no doubt that they’ll succeed, but as their brewer, Bruce, was showing me around the brewery, he would periodically point out which breweries their equipment had come from. The equipment was certainly well loved, with the occasional ding or scratch that years of vigorous use still don’t quite account for.

Sometimes I think to myself that a brewery logo doesn't really need a caption. This should probably have been one of those times.

Sometimes I think to myself that a brewery logo doesn’t really need a caption. This should probably have been one of those times.

Another example is the Yellowhead Brewery in Edmonton. It’s housed in a building that was specially designed for a brewery. In fact, it previously held Maverick Brewing. It’s a delightful space, and their brewer, Bryce, is clearly extremely able and talented. They currently brew Yellowhead Lager, which I would consider a Northern German Pilsner. It has that light grain and slight hint of grape, with a small hoppy bite. Eventually, they’re looking to expand to a second variety. For the time being, they would be content with becoming Edmonton’s beer in much the same way that you might claim Steam Whistle was Toronto’s beer. I would not claim that they are copying the model, but they are doing one thing well.

The brewhouse at Yellowhead is visible from the street, which is an excellent reason to break out your brewhouse polish and chamois.

The brewhouse at Yellowhead is visible from the street, which is an excellent reason to break out your brewhouse polish and chamois.

The space the brewery occupies at Yellowhead might be one of the nicest I've ever seen. There's such an airy feeling.

The space the brewery occupies at Yellowhead might be one of the nicest I’ve ever seen. There’s such an airy feeling.

The thing that struck me is that the space is full of the spectre of Maverick Brewing. From their white horizontal tanks which now sit disused in a corner of the brewery to the unused promotional materials housed elsewhere in the rambling warehouse, there are reminders that the previous tenants did not quite make it. Bryce was quick to point out how ludicrous some of those promos were. “Who gives out a knife in a case of beer?”

Sometimes, even with aggressive marketing, breweries don't make it out of their first few years in Alberta.

Sometimes, even with aggressive marketing, breweries don’t make it out of their first few years in Alberta.

I don’t know whether I would find the reminder that Maverick Brewing didn’t make it a source of motivation or a big dark cloud over the proceedings, but looking at the almost impossibly polished new stainless steel fermentors, I got the sense that it is ignored as much as possible while people get on with business. When you’ve got to brew 5,000hl in your second year, it is hard to afford time for reflection.

In some cases, because of the scale and capital needed, you end up with what is a beautifully engineered almost entirely new brewery. Village Brewery in Calgary fits the bill completely on this front and is probably one of the best looking breweries I’ve ever seen. I’m a bit of a duffer on the process front when it comes to brewing, but looking out from the tasting room balcony I think that even a layman could probably tell you how the entire process would flow from brewhouse to kegging at Village. It’s almost terrifyingly well appointed.

Village's entire brewery is just pristine. Great use of the space in terms of layout.

Village’s entire brewery is just pristine. Great use of the space in terms of layout.

They make three varieties at the moment and work in a seasonal periodically. There was a Chai Winter Porter earlier this year. During my visit they were refining a special project for the spring and debating the amount and type of spicing like brewers everywhere do. Of their regular lineup, I believe that the Witbier is probably their strongest offering, with the Black IPA running a close second.

The truly interesting thing about Village is the model that they’re using for promotion. The business card reads “It Takes A Village,” a sentiment that Jim Button has borrowed from Hillary Clinton. You could be forgiven for forgetting that Village is in the beer business. The concern seems to be with bringing people together within Calgary, whether through culture or music. 10% of the bottom line goes to promoting a sense of community. There are podcasts available through the website. They even have a radio truck. They support visual arts. Their t-shirts and other paraphernalia are designed by local artists who keep the profits from their sales.

Jim Button: Next Mayor of Calgary or Steve Beauchesne's Doppelganger?

Jim Button: Next Mayor of Calgary or Steve Beauchesne’s Doppelganger?

I’m normally as skeptical as hell when I see things like this. At the same time, having talked to Jim at some length, I know that he’s genuinely interested in expanding Calgary’s cultural scene. Clearly, one of the side effects is that the brewery appears to be hip and with it and sells an awful lot of beer into the bargain. Not only does it ensure sales for a startup brewery, the entire culture of the city benefits and Village Brewing becomes inseparable from the artistic scene as it develops over the next decade. Jim would make a good mayor.

The commonality in all of these approaches is that they are finding ways to deal with AGLC License E. This has resulted in a situation where Yellowhead and Hog’s Head simply want to be the beer of choice for Edmonton and Village wants to be Calgary’s craft beer. This, more or less, means that neither of these cities currently have a representative brew.  Given the state of craft brewing in the rest of North America in 2013, where many major cities have as many breweries as Alberta does in total, this is baffling to an outsider.

It strikes me as odd that Alberta, which is rather more American than the majority of provinces, should have strictures in place that effectively limit the amount of local competition in brewing. It’s especially confusing when you consider the drinking culture that has sprung up in Edmonton and Calgary over the course of the last few years. Clearly, this is a market that can support an almost endless amount of variety. Sherbrooke Liquor has 1400 beers on offer from day to day. Craft Beer Market is absolutely thrumming along with over a hundred taps. The demand is there, but the supply seems to come almost exclusively from outside the province of Alberta. It’s not without reason that breweries from British Columbia and Ontario view Alberta as an additional market for their products.

If ever there was a time to revisit the reasoning behind the laws as they exist, it is now. Craft brewing provides employment. It provides a source of revenue through taxation. It provides a sense of local pride. Limiting the expansion of the industry with an artificial minimum volume seems vaguely anti-capitalist.

Changing the laws would also display some significant forethought for the brewing program that’s going in at Olds College in Alberta. In Ontario, we’re starting to see graduates of the Niagara College brewing program opening their own breweries, albeit on a relatively small scale. Imagine going into the Olds College program under the misapprehension that you’ll be able to start your own brewery fresh out of school. Unless you’ve got an extremely wealthy silent partner, that’s a pipe dream in Alberta. As it stands, I imagine this would probably result in brain drain to British Columbia or the United States.

The truth is that with some minor changes to the laws as they exist, you could have a craft beer explosion in Alberta within the next five years. The demand is there, and from what I’ve seen, there’s certainly no lack of talent or ambition.

 

 

Craft Vs. Crafty

For a long time now, I’ve been thinking about the craft beer vs. crafty beer problem. While it has really only sprung up as a discourse over the last week, you would have to have been blind not to see the issue coming.

The problem here is that large breweries are putting together craft brands like Ten and Blake and Six Pints and they’re making beer that falls pretty solidly in the craft category. It puts people in an odd position where they have to ask questions about authenticity and it makes everyone involved in the discussion look like ridiculous scenesters quibbling over detail.

The problem is that this debate about whether something is a craft beer is more or less inevitable. Look at something like Goose Island or Granville Island. The people who founded the breweries wanted to go and do other things and they sold their companies. On some level it must have been heartbreaking to do. You put your entire career into building something and then at the end you have all of this capital and time sunk into something that has been helped along by a community that enjoys your product. You have to sell it in order to retire.

The odd part is semantic. Say it was a potato chip factory instead of a brewery. You’d never blame a potato chip magnate for selling out. Beer has taken on some kind of emotional significance to a portion of the population and this kind of thing feels enough like betrayal to promote angry messages on internet forums.

I find myself wondering whether the problem is essentially economic. Until the 1980’s there weren’t many small breweries. Since prohibition, large breweries had simply consolidated breweries that they purchased and reduced the number of brands available in order to become more profitable. Brewing is a business, never forget, and that model is a really good model. Not for beer drinkers, necessarily, but if you’re a huge corporation and you want to maximize profit, being the only game in town is a good way to go about it.

The craft breweries are a response as much to a global business model as they are a response to bland macro beer. In the face of huge multinational brands like Budweiser, which represent a global trend towards a single monolithic product, craft beers made locally are a response to unsated demand. Not only do they promote local business, provide employment and a sense of place, they reinforce the idea that manufacture is not dead within North America. If you look at the 2000 microbreweries in the US and the 150-200 in Canada, there is a lot of tertiary economic activity that surrounds them. You need equipment and chemicals and packaging and design and social media and advertising and…. Well, you get the idea.

There’s an economic theory that states that the health of an economy can be determined by the flow of capital through the marketplace. Given the pressures of the 2008 recession and peoples’ fondness for a refreshing beverage during hard times, this probably explains why the craft brewing industry has done relatively well during the last few years.  It’s very difficult to know where your money would end up if you bought a case of Budweiser. When you buy a craft beer, you know that you’re supporting a locally owned business. Craft beer supports local economies.

(It would be disingenuous to say that macro beer doesn’t support local economies. Imagine what would happen if the plant in Golden, Colorado shut down. If the Molson Downsview plant shut down there would be a lot of people out of work. What I’m suggesting is that not ALL of the purchase price of a macro brew goes to support local economies. There are huge parent companies to be considered.)

“Crafty” beer is the price that Craft Beer inevitably pays for its success. It is, however, at a significant disadvantage. It frequently does not have a sense of place associated with it. It almost never has a face associated with the brand.

The thing that I am continually baffled by is that people are drawing a line in the sand based on some aesthetic or intangible principle as to what craft beer is. This is an inefficient and, to be honest, downright silly way of going about the problem. Consider THIS letter from the August Schell brewery to the Brewers Association. I can certainly appreciate that the BA guidelines are fairly stringent when it comes to the use of adjunct in brewing. However, given the larger atmosphere at the moment, a situation in which “crafty” beers are going to continue coming down the pipe inexorably, there are other angles to be considered.

The problem here is that with multinationally owned brewers attempting to produce “crafty” beers that consumers may not be educated enough to differentiate from their Brewer’s Association approved “craft” counterparts, the delineation between the two products based on flavour ceases to be a reliable indicator of authenticity.

If you look at Yuengling or August Schell or say, Moosehead, these are all independently owned breweries that contribute massively to their local economies. They have a sense of place. They have representative faces and visibility and every single one of them is branching out into more interesting products. Aside from the adjunct issue, they fulfill basically every requirement for craft breweries. Perhaps most importantly, they contribute to the local or national economy in a nearly identical way to a craft brewery.

I would venture that the real battle here is not flavour based, but rather a struggle between economic forces and corporations that are globally relevant and locally relevant respectively. People like the idea that their beer is identifiably brewed by someone; that it supports the local economy in a demonstrable and tangible way.

The simple fact of the matter is that eventually, large multinational breweries and their subsidiaries will be able to produce beer that tastes like craft beer. They cannot, however, reproduce independent ownership. If this is the battle line that is currently being drawn, would the Brewer’s Association not re-examine their guidelines and allow large regional brewers like Yuengling a place within their ranks?

It seems to me that an alliance of independent brewers rather than craft brewers within a single nation has one very definite strength: We can discuss for hours the various nuances of what makes something craft. Ownership resides indelibly on a balance sheet.

Craft Beer Evangelism or St. John’s Wort Unfolds The Mystery

I’d like to expound upon an idea that’s been kicking around at the back of my head for a while now. I suspect that it’s a touch inflammatory, so I want to point out to you that it’s not meant as an attack on anyone in particular, but as more of an exploration of concept.

While I’ve been at brewing school, I’ve learned a very important lesson. Brewing is a business. Regardless of whether you’re A-B Inbev or MolsonCoors or a small batch craft brewery, your end goal is exactly the same. You want to sell beer; preferably, a lot of beer. You want to sell everything you can produce and then you want to expand. Whether your beer contains corn grits or not is completely irrelevant to this precept. You might be a monk, selling beer in order to provide funds for the monastery. You might be a craft brewer, selling beer that you have put your unique fingerprint on. You might even work for a huge multinational company selling beer that is the same the world over.

The brewer’s job doesn’t change. If the quality is insufficient, the beer won’t sell. There are other factors, of course, but it boils down to the fact that a massive, overwhelming percentage of the beer brewed worldwide is not brewed as an experiment or to delight craft beer nerds or as an indulgence of the brewer’s ego or as a fun collaboration between brewers. Even should it be the case that these things happen, and beer is brewed for these reasons the beer is typically not just given away. It remains a product.

I’m sorry to tell you that simply placing something in a barrel or using wild yeast does not make it any less a product. Yes, there is artistry involved, but that does not preclude the commoditization of the product. You are selling a mildly alcoholic liquid at a price point that is determined by a number of factors which may depend on governmental regulations in your area. There are no exceptions to this.

The method by which very large breweries sell their beer is determined by the amount of resources available to them. They have virtual omnipresence through billboards and radio and TV and magazine ads. It has ever been thus and it’s not very interesting.

The methods by which craft breweries sell their beer are far more interesting.

They are more interesting because they are smaller and more interpersonal and more directly applicable to the consumer.

Consider social media for a moment. If you’re a fan of craft beer, you’re probably following a number of breweries on your twitter feed or on facebook. Of course you do. You like that one beer they make. If you do that, you will be enjoined by facebook or twitter to follow more and similar accounts. You may know a number of people who work for the craft breweries that you’re following. You can put a face to the business, essentially humanizing it.

It’s important to remember that the social media accounts for breweries do not exist as a public good. They are a marketing tool, allowing you to know where things are on tap and when new releases are scheduled. In the case of facebook, you’re able to schedule events and get a general idea of the interest people have in that event. Be sure that facebook will remind you of the event if you have not yet responded to the invitation.

As a business model, this is pretty good, because it doesn’t cost anything to get a twitter or facebook account. It allows for the ability to bombard people with your message on a constant basis. It also allows for a controlled narrative in terms of the story of your brand and product. You need only post the positive reviews on your feed. You control public perception of your product and can portray your brewery as going from strength to strength without setbacks or failures, for ever and ever amen.

This is neither good nor bad. It simply exists this way. It’s a tool. It’s a method. It’s a weapon.

It’s a good one.

The astounding thing to me is that there’s so much content provided for these narratives, essentially for free. This is the role of the Craft Beer Evangelist. Consider this: There are something like 1400 non-brewery affiliated beer bloggers around the world, about 957 of which are in North America. I am taking these numbers from beerbloggersconference.org. I assume that the majority of them are unpaid. I am lucky to work for a newspaper syndicate.

Above all, the thing that constitutes success for the bloggers and beer writers is readership. In order to be relevant, you have to be read. One of the best ways to do that is to write glowing reviews of products made by craft breweries who will then likely link to your review. Other bloggers will also spread your observations.

This becomes a self-fulfilling echo chamber of feel-goodery. Eventually, bloggers write fewer negative reviews overall because no one will end up reading them unless they are particularly entertaining in their bitchiness. I mean, why would you bother writing something no one is going to read? What would be the use of expending your energy on an intellectually honest negative review of anything if the consequence is that it will potentially narrow your future readership?

This is one of the ways that the success and importance of craft beer becomes memetic. It becomes a culturally transmitted idea, which spreads as the market for craft beer spreads. It is generally dogmatic and proselytic. There is the underlying message that craft beer, any craft beer, is good. It is a concept that is reinforced continuously by the positivity of social media accounts of hundreds of craft breweries across North America. It is practically a catechism, inculcated every time you check a twitter feed. Onward, craft beer soldiers.

At this point, we even have feast days. I have never heard an adequate explanation as to why any of these exist, but I bet they sell a lot of beer.

What is the purpose of this, in the end? Your soul does not hang in the balance. Beerzebub will not be poking you with a flaming pitchfork if you drink a macro beer. The purpose is to sell beer. It may be really good beer, but it’s still beer. It’s a business first and an ideology second, if at all. Either way, it’s incredibly successful marketing which plays off the idea of an abstract and ill-defined evil against which we are meant to be fighting, when realistically all brewers are in exactly the same business.

Admire this: The self-reinforcing nature of it. The feeling of inclusion it engenders in its followers. The fact that it is only by design on a small scale at the level of the individual breweries and that the critical memetic mass that drives craft beer’s continued rise is the result of the conceptual gestalt.

CHEAP PLUG INCOMING!

Incidentally, I really like Cameron’s new Rye Pale Ale. It’s very tasty and you should buy some as soon as you have the opportunity. You can follow them on facebook by clicking here.

There. Maybe that’ll get me some retweets.

In Which I Attempt To Be Polite To Bureaucrats

I was walking through the LCBO at Summerhill last night on the way back from Niagara College looking for something to drink. Not review, but drink. Sometimes you just want a beer with dinner. If I wanted to review something, I would have picked up a bottle of Trafalgar’s new India Ink Black Pale Ale, or maybe Muskoka’s Winter Beard Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout, or even Unibroue’s 17. Any of those would have been interesting beers to review; not all of them in a positive way, necessarily.

I just wanted a beer to drink with dinner, so I got a Crazy Canuck.

Here’s the thing: Looking around the LCBO Summerhill these days, you would never know that we had a lack of beer selection in the province. I understand completely that this is a flagship store and that it’s not like this everywhere. There are stores that don’t get the really interesting stuff. In fact, this accounts for the majority of stores. I just want to point something out to you.

This is a list of the beers that have made it into the LCBO between September and December. It is an incomplete list because they are now bringing in so many beers as part of the general list that they do not always get my attention. I have grabbed the lists from bartowel, which explains the formatting.

263988 / Fuller’s Past Masters Double Stout / 500 / 7.5 / $3.75
263954 / Fuller’s Golden Pride / 500 / 8.5 / $3.75
263962 / Fuller’s India Pale Ale / 500 / 5.3 / $3.75
266841 / Fuller’s Old Winter Ale / 500 / 5.3 / $3.75
263970 / Fuller’s Past Masters XX Strong Ale / 500 / 7.5 / $3.75

237693 / Cannery Maple Stout / 5.5 / 650 / $5.80
254656 / Ayinger Celebrator / 7.2 / 330 / $3.45
173658 / Garrison Imperial I.P.A. / 7 / 500 / $4.25
234047 / Bacchus Flemish Old Brown / 4.5 / 375 / $4.50
236091 / Celt Bronze Crafted Ale / 4.5 / 500 / $3.65
233486 / Marston’s Pedgree V.S.O.P. / 6.7 / 500 / $3.50
233494 / Wychwood Goliath / 4.2 / 500 / $3.50
236992 / Renaissance Stonecutter Scotch Ale / 7 / 500 / $4.60
173534 / Southern Tier Choklat / 11 / 650 / $9.85
504670 / Fuller’s 1845 Bottle Conditioned Ale / 6.3 / 500 / $3.50
125153 / Affligem Dubbel / 6.8 / 330 / $2.75
239475 / Charlevoix Dominus Vobiscum Triple / 9 / 500 / $5.95
244376 / Les Trois Mousquetaires Porter Baltique 2011 / 10 / 750 / $9.95
237875 / Box Steam Funnel Blower / 4.5 / 500 / $3.55

254896 / Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin Ale / 9.0 / 650 / $8.95
248179 / Brasseurs de Montreal La Stout Ghosttown / 6.6 / 341 / $2.85
247635 / Wychwood King Goblin / 6.6 / 500 / $3.50
67710 / Great Lakes Pumpkin Ale / 5.5 / 650 / $4.95
90738 / St Ambroise Pumpkin Ale / 5.0 / 4×341 / $9.95
182287 / Southern Tier Pumking / 9.0 / 650 / $9.00
132761 / Dieu du Ciel! Corne du Diable IPA / 6.5 / 4×341 / $11.60

LCBO 187005 LAVA, Smoked Imperial Stout – 500 ml – Iceland
LCBO 171413 St Ambroise Russian Imperial Stout – 341 ml – Quebec
LCBO 264341 Nogne 0 Imperial Stout – 500 ml – Norway
LCBO 188870 Box Steam Dark & Handsome (Old Ale) – England
LCBO 090845 Great Lakes Winter Ale – 750 ml – Ontario
LCBO 186999 Traquair Jacobite Ale – 330 ml – Scotland
LCBO 135194 Southern Tier Creme Brulee Stout – 650 ml – New York
LCBO 250944 Brooklyn Monster Ale – 355 ml – New York
LCBO 264358 Dominus Vobiscum Double – 500 ml – Quebec
LCBO 250472 Affligem Tripel – 330 ml – Belgium
LCBO 270405 Solstice D’Hiver – 4 x 341 – Quebec
LCBO 222236 Lake of Bays Mocha Porter – 750 ml – Ontario
LCBO 054106 Trafalgar Smoked Oatmeal Stout – 650 ml – Ontario

Fullers Vintage Ale
Samuel Smith Winter Welcome Ale
Christoffel Winter Bier Jug
Jenlain Or Biere Blonde
La Chouffe
Bah Humbug Christmas Cheer Ale
Unibroue 17 Grand Reserve
Samuel Adams New World Triple
Mill St. Barley Wine
St.Peters Winter Ale

Sam Adams Utopias 2011

Note that this list doesn’t include things like the Grand River Highballer Pumpkin, which was released without being on a list. It doesn’t include a bunch of small batch Ontario releases. It doesn’t include the upcoming Garrison brewery feature. Not including the gift packs that come out at Christmas, the specialty releases include something like 50 beers in four months. Granted, they’re not all winners, but the effort counts for something.

Gift Packs:
Biere Du Boucanier Mix Pack
Samuel Smith Selection
Erdinger Gift Pack
6 Exclusive Belgian Ales
Amsterdam Entertainer
Historic Ales Of Scotland
Rickard’s Taster Pack
Bavarian Alps 3 Collector Bottle Gift Pack
OCB Holiday Discovery Pack
St. Ambroise Gift Pack
Innis & Gunn Connoisseur Oak Collection
King Brewery 3 Kings
Taste Of Belgium
Alexander Keiths Barrel Gift Pack
Faxe Premium Gift Pack
Old Speckled Hen Bottle and Glass
Tiger Gift Pack
European Beer Mix Pack
Duvel Twinpack with Glass
Maredsous Chalice Gift Pack
De Koninck Belgian Gift Pack
Mill Street Organic Gift Pack
Mill Street Tankhouse Gift Pack
Mill Street Coffee Porter Gift Pack
Chimay Grand Reserve Canister
St. Bernardus Gift Pack
St. Peters Twinpack with Glass
Sapporo Holiday 2011 Gift Pack
Stella Artois Chalice Gift Pack
Steam Whistle Gift Pack

There are 30 gift packs. I concede that you may not like all of them. I don’t care, as long as there is a Samuel Smith’s gift pack somewhere with my name on it.

That’s 80 specialty products in four months. That doesn’t include Ontario seasonal and craft products that get listed without much fanfare. The total number is probably closer to 100. I just wanted you to see this all in one place, so that the amount of variety could sink in. When I was at Summerhill last night, I got a visual representation of this, and it’s impressive. They have maybe half of this stuff, since some of the earlier releases have sold out. It’s still enough beer to make you wander around the section for 15 minutes trying to figure out what to get.

In addition to this, they seem to have relaxed the “Won’t somebody think of the children” department to allow for the release of Smashbomb Atomic IPA during the summer. Dan Aykroyd’s vodka even made it into the store recently, despite the crystal skull bottle. We might even get Delirium Tremens back at some point.

There are still problems. The specialty releases are in a limited number of stores. The store to store transfer can be difficult to initiate, judging from all of the anecdotal information I’ve gathered. The release dates are sort of sporadic across the stores that do participate. The store by store inventory is not always reliable.

When talking about the LCBO, I have generally ceded the point that the LCBO is a huge bureaucratic endeavor and does not turn on a dime. If the above list suggests anything, it’s that the LCBO has been doing that over the course of the last year or so.

The selection may not be to your liking. You may think that the number of low alcohol British beers hurts the releases because they don’t travel all that well from England. You may want more of a certain style. IPAs, popular in the US, don’t seem to get the same play here, possibly due to the lack of warehouse refrigeration. Because of the sheer number of products showing up, some of them will not be in the quantity that allows for a certain beer to remain on shelves for more than a week. These are reasonable criticisms.

The LCBO has, though, shown that they are willing to expand the selection available. I don’t think it’s possible to argue that they haven’t. They’re clearly trying to provide quality beer. It would be disingenuous to suggest that they have not improved massively over the last year. I suggest that from this point on we should probably try positive reinforcement.

Next time you find yourself sitting down to blast them on an internet forum over not including something that you want, I want you to write them a polite email about your concern and send it off to them, while keeping in mind the following:

1)      These are actual people, so using phrases like “jerks who will be first against the wall when the revolution comes” or questioning the legitimacy of their parentage is probably counterproductive.

2)      They are actually trying.

3)      They have probably not received a whole big bunch of polite, congratulatory emails from the public on this subject before, so this may actually have an impact on future selection.

It’s never going to be perfect. They will never be able to satisfy everyone. You are not going to get incredibly rare beers from small brewers in the states because the lead time on acquisition for those is probably insurmountable and the quantity is very low. It is my suspicion, however, that since the LCBO is now demonstrably interested in providing a wide variety of high quality beer, they are probably now willing to listen to the people who actually drink the stuff.

It’s worth a shot, anyway.

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

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

Wall of infamy

Mike Lackey and Me on the Great Lakes Wall of Infamy

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

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

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

That's what she said

This thing gives your forearm a pretty good workout.

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

BEHOLD! St.John’s Wort Old Drawing Board

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

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

I'm not sure that colour exists outside of October

Going into the fermenter, to wreak havoc on yeast

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

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

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