Pretty Good Year

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I’m currently at my family’s cottage in beautiful Muskoka, sipping on some coffee, watching the beautiful day out there, and starting to come to terms with the fact that I’m no longer in that beautiful state between Christmas and New Year’s Eve where time doesn’t matter and all that exists is sleep, media, and chocolate.

So. 2017, then.

Firstly I’m going to get it out of the way. In a lot of ways 2017 was a garbage fire of a year. It was like the shitty, more gory sequel to 2016 and I’m glad that this milestone is done. Politically, if there’s something that can be taken from the year, it’s that we no longer should be HOPING for a better year, but picking up our axes and actively working to make it better.

Personally it was a hell of a mixed bag for me. I moved out of Scarborough and into a wonderful house in Cabbagetown with my new roommate Candace Shaw (who has done some amazing work in creating a report card for female representation in Canadian music festivals) and have been thriving pretty well, making new friends with the folks in my excellent building and community. Unfortunately, my neighbour and super, Andrew Kinsman, went missing in June 26th and still hasn’t been found. I’ll spare you all the details on it, suffice to say it’s been a messed up experience. But also, I started getting out of a pretty bad depression and have been feeling more able to breathe creatively and able to make friends. Huzaah for that!

RIGHT, 2017 IN BEER

IMG_20171007_171659_1-01.jpegBeer-wise things have been a hell of a ride. At this time last year I had about four entries left to do on the Second Edition of the Ontario Craft Beer Guide, released in May. Jordan and I remain incredibly proud of this book, and still feel that it’s the best representation of what we wanted for the first book. We figured out a formula for working, raised the number of suggested pubs to over 100, and included colour photos mostly taken by me throughout the book. The book launch, and its resulting tour of speaking gigs and media interviews, made for a busy and wonderful time. I’m so glad that so many people have been realizing how wonderful Ontario is by exploring the province through its beer.

1201.jpegI also finally got to make some collaboration beers with brewers! I’ll talk more about them in a more detailed post later on, but the first was made with Sawdust City Brewing for the book launch and called 12:01 Northland, a Vermont-style IPA named after the first Ontario Northland bus out of Toronto that I took often while writing the book (and that makes stops in the brewery’s home of Gravenhurst). I’m really pleased with how it turned out! Was bright and cloudy as hell, but proved to be a very accessible beer, with lovely citrus notes in smooth body. I actually miss the hell out of this beer. The second collaboration was a hell of a fun one and made at Sawdust City with brewer Duncan Crone and former brewer-turned-ingredient wizard Dan Beaudoin from David Carriere & Associates. Basically, the three of us got together for our mutual love of the McElroy Brothers, who put together a well-known podcast called My Brother, My Brother & Me among MANY other things. So we decided to go a bit goofy with it and make a Black Milkshake IPA with Haskap Berries, all while listening to the podcast and making ihateyouron.jpegconstant jokes about it. The results of our efforts, poured at the Sawdust City Saloon, were a huge hit and the beer, called I Hate You, Ron (Made in reference to a MBMBaM bit) turned out super nice, with very little roasted notes and the blueberry-like haskap berry balancing things out beautifully. Like I said, I’ll write more on my experiences collabing later on, but I’ll say that I learned a lot in terms of figuring out what flavours would work, had a ball brewing at one of my favourite breweries, and made some awesome friends in Dan and Duncan, who I now play Stafinder with.

Besides from that, there’s been some great work developments. I left working as Torontoist’s beer columnist, but am now writing columns for Quench Magazine and contributing to the newly created MASH Magazine along with my regular On Tap column at Muskoka Life/Metroland North Media, which…cripes, it’ll be two years I’ve had that column soon. Wow.

I’ve also been very fortunate to be a returning Judge for the Canadian contribution of the World Beer Awards, as well as a new judge for the World Cider Awards and the new New York State Craft Beer Competition & Governor’s Excelsior Cup. As always, I’m honoured to be considered a colleague among a prestigious many people judging these competitions.

In terms of beers consumed and new breweries opened…man, that’s a bit of a big answer. I will say that it’s been amazing seeing the ever-rapid growth of new breweries opening up this year. Hamilton in particular has come up with some good ones with Fairweather Brewing and  MERIT Brewing both opening up and creating some fantastic beers. It’s also done my heart good to see some kind of organization starting up between Northern Ontario breweries to the point where they made a mix pack for LCBO distribution. Here’s hoping more breweries up there get in on that and more people south of them try some of the amazing talent coming out of that region.

Miracle_BrewAnd finally, I’ve been reading a lot, but two beer books released this year (aside from my own haha) have stood out for me. The first is Pete Brown’s Miracle Brew, which goes into detail of the fascinating stories behind the four main ingredients that make countless different beers: malted barley, hops, yeast, and water. What makes this book stand out to me is Brown’s iconic and influential writing style, which dances between casual, funny, and informative with an ease that only he knows how to pull off and has no doubt honed with his many books and columns over the years. Miracle Brew stands out as perfect book for hardcore beer lovers and beer newbs alike.

bestbeersThe other has been Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb’s Best Beers, a guide to the world’s…well…best beers. Good gods, it’s right there in the title. After writing my own, I’ve found a deep appreciation in the amount of work and information that goes into beer guides and Beaumont and Webb really went all out for this one, helping the reader solve the constant problem that arises in travel regarding beer selection. Best Beers cuts through the chaff and highlights beers and breweries all over the world that simply can’t be missed. Wherever I’ve gone in the world I’ve always had my copy of Beaumont and Webb’s Pocket Beer Guide handy, and Best Beers will definitely be a book that I pack in my travel bag from now on.  

Well, now we’re on to what I hope for 2018.

This year the craft beer community did a lot of naval-gazing, but what set it apart from the normal one was that we’ve been having a lot more productive discussions on where craft beer fits in the ever changing landscape and what it could be doing to grow in a healthy way.

For one, folks have been slowly waking up to the fact that the amount of people who demand bold, adventurous beers are no longer calling the shots and demand feels like it’s been shifting more and more to simple done well, with styles like dry-hopped pilsners being a kind of compromise that both like. Either way, there feels like a demographic shift, but I’m happy to say that breweries are realizing they don’t have to choose one or the other and can cater to both. I’m interested to see where that will go. Hopefully for the better.

Along with that, we’re seeing a lot more breweries in small towns pop up and no longer seeing any need to market to big cities for validation. Where a city like Toronto that burns through trends on anything at an alarming rate may go through a flagship beer in a month or two, there’s a better chance of making a flagship a bar staple two towns over. More and more folks in the towns are being turned towards well made local beer and by gods, I say let them have it.

Holy crap, we’re finally talking about racism and sexism in the scene in a way that isn’t totally cringeworthy. Let’s keep that going, and let’s keep shutting up the dudes who don’t see what the big deal is.

And this is all leading up to what my hope is every year, that as customers we take a look in our glass and, like we’ve done with our food, wine, spirits, clothes etc, we really appreciate how important it is to not skimp on the quality of our experience. In 2018 I hope you settle for nothing less than perfect in choosing the right beer for the right occasion.

And with that, I think it’s time to close my chromebook, blink for a bit in quiet contemplation, join my family for New Year’s Eve festivities, and pour myself a damn fine beer.

Have a wonderful 2018, friends.

 

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Beer for Ears: The World of Craft Beer ASMR

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***PLEASE READ WITH EARPHONES ON AND VOLUME TURNED UP***

Well, of course there’s ASMR of it.

That’s something I never thought I would say on this site, even though I should have expected it. But here we are.

So, a bit of context before we continue with what turned out to be a pretty fascinating way to celebrate and explore beer. ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and it’s a method to essentially trigger a static-like tingling in the brain that brings forth a good response. Essentially it’s a brain orgasm, but I recognize that it’s a pretty simplified explanation. You know the good feeling you get when you hear a sound you really really like? Something that makes you relax or feel happy? That’s ASMR, baby.

The fun thing is that there’s a massive ASMR community out there, many of its residents living on YouTube and using binaural microphones meant to be played with earphones on (I suggest Bose noise cancelling headphones for a particularly real experience). And the variation of it is…staggering, catering to folks who use ASMR for various reasons, from trying to get to sleep, and even to feel less lonely. To give an example, there are videos of tea drinking/money sounds, positive affirmations, and haircut sounds, and fantastically odd stuff like Nightmare-themed sounds, Psionic Initiation Roleplay, Linda from Bob’s Burgers roleplay, and Funky Kong consoling you after a messy divorce.

I haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s out there and that wasn’t a particularly deep search for some truly weird stuff. Suffice to say that one of my new rules of the internet is “If it exists, there is ASMR of it” and so far I’ve not been let down.

Which brings us to beer. And, well, of course there’s ASMR of it.

And it makes sense that beer-related sounds would trigger good feelings for our brains. The sounds of a bottle or can opening, a beer pouring into a glass, and even the sound we make drinking the beer itself, are all key components that are part of our enjoyment of beer. So it should come as no shock whatsoever that a community that celebrates sounds that make us feel good would have a whole genre dedicated to the sound of and discussion of beer.

Even better, one brewery last year even twigged onto ASMR being a new and intriguing way to celebrate beer. Sweden’s Norrland Guld Ljus created a video ad promoting “Ear Beer” and created playlists on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube that make full use of the audio experience of enjoying a beer.

But for good beer listening and discussion, there’s no better place to go to than YouTube! Scottish YouTube user ASMR Muzz features a Mill Street beer in one video. Cosmic Tingles talks about her exploration of craft beer while reviewing Elysian Space Dust IPA, Sierra Nevada Ovila Sage Saison, and Great Divide Nadia Kali Hibiscus Saison. And Ephemerel Rift has a playlist of 66 beer reviews which are fascinating to listen through.

So I think it goes to say that I’m kind of hooked on ASMR, both in general and, thanks to searching for this post, about beer as well. Beer is such a wonderful drink that takes on many forms, both in its application and its appreciation. With that in mind I’m excited to find out about this additional way of celebrating it.

*clink*

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Aurosa & Why The Idea of “Beer Made For Women” Needs to Die

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Alright, guys, I don’t know why this has to be repeated over and over again, but it’s becoming clear that it bears repeating, so here we freakin’ go.

I, along with every other woman in the beer world, has heard about Aurosa, a “premium lifestyle” beer that describes itself as the “first beer for her” and, according to the web site, “is a representation of a woman’s strength and a girl’s tenderness. The two contrasting tempers, present in the female essence, are depicted through the elegant design yet the strong, unfiltered taste”.

It is a beer that describes itself as being made by women, for women, and “was born to prove that women can succeed anywhere without having to adapt and sacrifice their natural femininity. Women have been disregarded in the beer industry but owing to determination and faith in herself, Aurosa is set to redefine the perception of beer”.

“I created Aurosa #FORHER as a reminder that women shouldn’t forget that they can succeed in all aspects of life without having to adapt or sacrifice their natural tenderness and femininity.” founder Martina Smirova says in a press release.

So before we get into this, I’d like to touch on the emerging trend of “lifestyle brands” in the beer world that we’ve seen with brands like Ace Hill here in Canada and Barrels & Sons Brewing in America, that work pretty hard to cater towards the hip young beautiful people crowd by being heavy on marketing and instagram and putting their beers out in clubs and high dining places in cities all over. To be honest, I don’t find myself terribly offended by that idea because in the long game of independent beer versus big beer, that’s bringing a market that a lot of breweries don’t bother with over to the former. The promo might be a little cringeworthy, and the beer will definitely vary in quality (Ace Hill, I can attest, is pretty awful), but the fun thing is that we’re at a point where there is more than one demographic and that’s okay. And in a lot of ways that’s what Aurosa is.

But the problem with Aurosa is that they’re marketing towards women, which is a HUGE demographic made up of half the world. When you’re aiming for that large a target with a very specific arrow, you end up doing more harm than good. So here are a few points about making a beer specifically for women:

  1. Just like men don’t need their own brand of toilet paper or house cleaner, women don’t need a brand of beer specifically for them.
  2. aurosaWhen some jackass sees point one and decides to power on through anyways, in pretty much all cases the type of women they have in mind are a very specific subset. Usually white, thin, rich, and the type that identify deeply with Kendall Jenner’s instagram account. There is nothing wrong with this type of woman, but if you’re going to market to all women you have to acknowledge that we’re not all one type and that is why women don’t need a brand of beer specifically for them.
  3. Aurosa is not the first beer made for females and they won’t be the last, but the marketing and accompanying lifestyle articles always seems to have a rather patronising feminist bent as if to say “at long last! Women can now drink beer!”, which erases the experiences of all the fantastic women in the beer world who are brewing, talking about, and enjoying beer. And unfortunately, it’s the “finally we can enjoy this!” message that makes us all focus on the tired-ass discussion of “do women actually enjoy beer?” instead of taking a look at the more serious problems of sexist dynamics within the industry and the community and the dealings of horribly shitty and lazy sexist beer labels. In order to actually progress in that discussion, we need more solid inclusion, and that is why women don’t need a brand of beer specifically for them.
  4. What the hell is the female essence and why are you trying to bottle it? The dude who ran the failed Order of Yoni seemed to think it could be found in a model’s vaginal yeast, some think it’s an innate sensuality born into us, and Aurosa seems to go with a mix of tender, elegant, and strong. Ignoring the complete dumbness of the vaginal yeast one, the female essence is an intangible, flavourless idea that is largely defined by a patriarchal society. I know women whose “essence” is to binge watch Naruto and wear pizza-stained sweatpants. There is no one true definition for the female essence and trying to assign a gender to a sole idea is dumb and trying to assign one to the flavour profile of a beer is stupid as hell.

So in summary: Women don’t need a brand of beer specifically for them.

Oi, what a dumb thing.

Aurosa is using the hashtag #beerforher on twitter which has been taken over by women such as award-winning UK beer writer Melissa Cole (whose book The Little Book of Craft Beer is being released soon) telling folks just what kind of beer women actually like.

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CURRENTLY DRINKING: Two Beers, One Province

As the travel, along with the huge amounts of stress and panic brought on by the ultimately rewarding privilege of working on a second book (MAY 20TH, FOLKS!) has officially died down, I’m finding myself looking towards my own fridge for inspiration, and finding that over the years I really haven’t been short of that. Here are two reviews of a couple of rather unique Ontario beers.

TYRANNOSAURUS GRUIT
Beau’s All Natural Brewing Co, Vankleek Hill, ON
5.8 % ABV

Those who are aware of Beau’s All Natural Brewing Co. out of Vankleek Hill tend to know at-rex gruit few things about them. There is of course the fact that they have one of the best corporate cultures among their staff and that their eye-catching branding really makes you want to seek them out. They have an almost cult-like following, which is in part due to the fact that they come out with a new one-off or seasonal beer roughly every week or two. Going at that rate, it’s not unsurprising that Beau’s is one of the first breweries Canadians tend to think of when it comes to going a little wild, good or bad, with ingredients. A beer made with rosemary, thyme, and lavender? They’ve done it. A beer made with beetroot powder, spruce tips, juniper berries, and hibiscus flowers?

Well, as it turns out, that’s the beer I’m drinking right now. Tyrannosaurus Gruit was a beer that capped off their annual FeBREWary, a solid month of beer releases and events. It’s made with the ingredients listed above and is part of the brewery’s obsession with gruits (that is, beer brewed without the use of hops, not a terrible misspelling of our favourite tree-like character).

LOOK: Red. Red red red. Very red. Damned red. There’s beetroot powder and hibiscus in this. I would be concerned and a little frightened if it wasn’t red.

AROMA: The beetroot dominates this one. Slight hint of spruce tips and just a touch of juniper near the end of the aroma, but this smells like it’s going to be pretty beet-forward.

TASTE: …And I was right. Up front is nothing but beets, but it’s followed up quickly by a peppery character and a lightly sweetened tang, before moving in for a dry finish. Oddly, and I don’t mean this in a bad way at all, it’s kind of like biting into a pickled beet. You get the choice ingredient, followed by the pepper, and a somewhat bittersweet note in the end. At the finish, like with having a piece of beet, you kind of want to go in for another. Chilled it has a really nice crisp note making an appearance.

AFTERTASTE: The dry note lasts throughout, and of course the overpowering beets still linger, but I feel the aftertaste is where the hibiscus tends to shine a bit brighter. Light cranberry flavour comes in nicely, making the experience quite pleasant.

OVERALL: Personally I think the beetroot notes, while wonderful to taste, was a little too overpowering on this one and I would have liked to have seen the hibiscus celebrated a bit more, or at the very least something that could dance with the beet a little better. Something sweet and tart, like raspberries, probably would have brought this out a little better. That said, I really enjoy the flavour profile of this beer and I’m glad that there’s a beet beer made on a fairly larger scale. It’s an ingredient that I’d like to see more of.

* SESSION SAISON
The Exchange Brewery, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON
5% ABV

exbI was recently in Niagara Falls with some time on my hands and, accompanied by the incredible Jill Currie and YouTube beer reviewer the Albino Rhino (whose festival, The Albino Rhino Beer Fest, which has proceeds going to the Ronald McDonald House, is coming up on May 27th), I took my first visit to the Exchange Brewery, and it was way past due. Head Brewer Sam Maxbauer, formally of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Michigan has been bringing his experience into the inventive beers this brewery produces and while only a year old, have established a barrel-aging program and a yeast cultivation effort (no doubt headed up by former Louis Cifer brew master Christine Nagy, who is a master with yeast), that is producing some wonderful results. They’ve also been getting some recognition on a non-local scale, taking home the title of Canadian Brewery of the Year at this year’s New York International Beer Competition. The space itself takes its name from the telephone exchange that the building once housed and the brewery has obviously kept with the theme, with many of their beers being numbers and symbols usually found on an old phone.

The * Session Saison runs at 5% ABV and comes in a beautiful 750ml bottle.

LOOK: Before getting to the appearance, a word of caution: open this over the sink. It may not gush out, but the carbonation is very aggressive when first opened. The upshot of this is remarkable head retention [post-writing note, it’s been over a half an hour since I poured and the large, foamy head is still there. Damn.]. Now, as for the look, you have what looks to be a medium to dark gold colour that glows remarkably when put up to even a minimal amount of light. It’s quite a hazy beer, making it damn near impossible to see what’s behind the glass.

AROMA: It’s a very light aroma, with light hints of white pepper, belgian candi, and just a dash of cloves.

TASTE: In mouthfeel it’s pretty light, but that shouldn’t lead one to believe that it’s a simple beer. There’s quite a journey here, starting with that white pepper note addressed in the aroma and leading towards something more, a kind of earthy, herbal note with a hint of cloves that makes way for its slow finish, that has a nice, cedar-like dryness.

AFTERTASTE: The cedar-like dryness stays with you in the finish, but as that fades over time, I find that I’m still getting the odd bit of clove in there. It’s not overpowering, just a murmur. Quite nice!

OVERALL: I can’t question the quality of this beer, as it’s very well-made. I feel like this would make for a good drink to introduce folks to the concept of highly complex flavours in beer without having to give them an imperial sour whatever. Its light body and wonderful flavour profile makes me wish I had more of this beer.

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Three Notable Breweries of the Wasteland

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This post is sort of my way to put to use one of my favourite writing exercises. At the start of each creative writing class in school, our teacher would put some music on and allow us to do some freeform writing for 15 minutes or so. This would allow us to get the worries, thoughts, and memorization techniques of our other classes out of our systems and shake up the creative juices in our heads, which would better prepare us for thinking outside the box.

After a couple of years of writing beer columns and, now, two beer guides, I’ve kind of been feeling a little creatively stagnant. I’m still enjoying a lot of what I’ve been writing, but everything has been too steeped in the serious, and I like to think this blog is a mix of both serious and fun. So with that in mind, and in an effort to shake up my brain a bit, here is a fictional article for a fictional newspaper that features a few of my favourite breweries in the far distant post-apocalyptic future, where civilization has been destroyed and is currently in the process of being rebuilt.

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Originally printed in Wasteland Adventurer Magazine, Issue 35, 2242

It’s not a secret that the world is a dangerous place to travel. From the human threats of bandits, pirates, and cannibals, to the non-human ones of super storms, large insects, and of course creepers, one has to tread carefully when seeking out adventure or even simply visiting friends and family. But as readers of this magazine are no doubt aware, the ancient saying “travel broadens the mind” quite often rings true and makes such threats a reasonable price to pay. The world is out there and with it a wealth of experiences. Different people, different customs, different food…

And of course, different beer.

With the seemingly infinite number of settlements, towns, and cities out there it’s almost impossible to keep track of all the breweries contained within them, making small batches of beer using local ingredients and techniques, and brewing exclusively for their local communities. While a complete record of the world’s breweries hasn’t been created yet, word does travel fast on a few individual ones that have captured the imagination and excitement of travellers. So with that, here are three breweries that are worth seeking out in the wastes.

Nepho Brewing
Barker Square, Tuskin Cloud City
If you happen to be a sky sailor, on the hunt for Glow Mist or *cough* less legal rewards, sky-citystop by the Tuskin Cloud City at 56.156259, -40.517578 to refuel your ship, exchange your goods, have a nice rest, and most recently, try some new beer. Nepho Brewing, located in Barker Square of the city, is the result of two former pirates who became better known for their brews than their bounty acquisition. Of the cloud cities out there, the duo decided that Tuskin was the best, as they’re more known there and the city’s placement above the near constant flow of Superstorm Clouds make it perfect for harvesting cloud water with minimal tax from the city. The brewery’s flagship offering, Perfect Storm Mild, is dark in colour with sweet toffee notes and an earthy, roasted character that adds balance before moving towards a dry finish. It’s also fairly low in alcohol, which is better suited to the clientele of sailors looking to lighten their wallets and ease their worries while on a week’s shore leave.

Bushwick Base Brewing
Jefferson Street Station (L Line), Brooklyn, New York
While the majority of the once great city of New York is in ruins and infested with Creepers and a varied number of mutated monsters, the city is still bustling, although primarily underground in the former MTA tunnels. If you’re looking for a great place to rest easy for a beer, walk down the L line to Jefferson Street Station, where Bushwick Base Brewing’s taproom is serving up some quality beverages that are sure to keep you warm at night. Working off-site out of the former Kings County Brewers Collective building, the 20-person team of former (and current) mercenaries risk their lives to go above ground, power up the generators, harvest from their rooftop farms, and brew for the masses. Because of the risk involved and infrequency of the releases, the price on a pint is pretty high, but the creativity and wide selection found in the candlelit taproom makes the cost worthwhile. As for the beers themselves, they’re all named after military slang terms, reflecting the brewer’s backgrounds. Expectant IPA is the most often consumed of the beers, and for good reason. It features a fairly light mouthfeel with an explosion of tropical fruits so bright, you could swear it could light up the MTA tunnels. However, if you have some coin and you’re lucky enough to be in the city when it’s released, the seasonal imperial stout 40 Mike-Mike is worth getting. Sold in handmade canteens, a few sips of this 18% beer will warm you right through while providing, if you’re lucky enough to have them, fond memories of chocolate and coffee.

Loup Garou Labyè
Bayou Pigeon District, Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana
Located in a long-abandoned oil rig deep in the Bayou Pigeon district, Loup Garou Labyè has proven to be a popular brewing spot for settlers to the Atchafalaya Basin. The amazing thing about this brewery is that the entire community in the district are running it, enabling brewing operations to go on 24/7 and making it one of the most frequently consumed beers in the South Louisiana region. Making use of purified swamp water and local greenery, the beers are nothing if not unique. Of note, the Voler Porter, for instance, is made using locally harvested graine à voler (otherwise known as ‘Cajun Peanuts’ or American Lotus seeds), which are toasted and thrown in the boil, adding for a subtle peanut butter character.

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And I’m Back!

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Well, that’s the manuscript for the second edition of The Ontario Craft Beer Guide, done and dusted.

Between working on that for the past 5-6 months while also working on the promotion for the last book and juggling my columns and day job, and spending most of my waking hours doing some amazing things both  in the name of this book and for beer in general, this site seems to have been unintentionally put on the backburner.

So with that, I can promise you folks that in the coming weeks there will be a lot more on here. In particular, the long-planned “Book Diaries”, where I’ll be talking about some of the specific scenes in Ontario regions.

I’ll also be going back to some of the more fun posts. Because gods knows, having something of a living giving straight up concise bios and tasting notes can get a little samey. I miss the creativity found in short story reviews, label art appreciation, individual stories, and even a few conceptual pairings.

So all that to say “I’m not dead” and to stay tuned.

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The Brewer’s Path, Renoir, and the Craft Beer Narrative

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One of the things that I got a real sense of while co-writing the Ontario Craft Beer Guide and something that has really stuck out as we begin our research on a possible other one, is the narrative. The story each brewery has behind them.

The fascinating thing is that narratives in this more beer-focused sense are similar to a Renoir painting. If you step back enough you can see a beer narrative on the provincial, national, and even international scale. An LCBO online store that delivers via Canada Post, Canadians cleaning up in American brewing awards, the interesting goings of the biggest beer takeover, or even the growing demand for craft beer in China and South Korea. But you can also get right up close and see smaller but no less important narratives going on. A homebrewer’s path to going professional or a brewery’s journey in navigating the consumer landscape or growing as a company. It’s those stories that writers like me live for. It can be incredibly rewarding and educational just to track how far a brewery has come over the years and what experiences get carried by brewers who shift from job to job.

Here’s an example.

robertsimpson_logoFlying Monkeys Brewery in Barrie. Founded eleven years ago and originally named after the city’s first mayor, Robert Simpson Brewery had a fairly standard lineup of beers in its portfolio, which included Robert Simpson Pale Ale, Sugarbush Lager, Confederation Amber Ale and Antigravity Light Ale. Four years later the brewery underwent a rebranding because, as founder and head brewer Peter Chiodo said, “Being named for a dead white guy just isn’t very exciting”. The newly branded Flying Monkeys Brewery launched with a new beer along with their name, the Hoptical Illusion Almost Pale Ale, and soon after put a focus on esoteric and strong-flavoured beers with some of the craziest-looking art around. So crazy, in fact, that in 2011 the brewery saw themselves the topic of a province-wide discussion on the stronghold the LCBO has on many breweries when an application to stock the brewery’s latest beer, Smashbomb Atomic IPA, was declined because the depiction of an explosion on the label went against the government-run institution’s social responsibility policy.

smashbooombOver the years Flying Monkeys had been favouring brewing beers both extreme in flavour and high in alcohol content. Starting in 2011 with Alpha Fornication, “the world’s hoppiest beer” at 2,500 International Bittering Units, the brewery went on to make beers like Matador IIPA, Chocolate Manifesto, and the City & Colour Imperial Maple Wheat. Interesting concepts that were proudly over the top and, perplexingly, sold in large 750ml bottles despite the fact that for the most part the flavours were so extreme you couldn’t finish a pint of some of them. To add to their publicity for esoteric beers, they also regularly collaborated with musicians, notably Dallas Green and the Barenaked Ladies.

mythologyLately though, Flying Monkeys has been paying close attention to where people’s tastes are going and have started putting more of a focus on a few of their “simple done well” beers. Mythology, for instance. is a Czech Pilsner with a wonderful blend of biscuity malts and the floral, citrus character of Saaz hops. It’s incredibly well-made and has just recently won gold in the Canadian Brewing Awards. The brewery has also, finally, switched to cans, realizing that folks are more prone to buying one or two tallboys than they are for a six pack or giant bottle.

From basic entry-level beers, to outrageous and extreme flavour bombs, to award-winning pilsners in cans. That’s a hell of a brewery narrative, and it’s not even close to being finished.

One more.

DSC_0650Eric Portelance and Callum Hay are self-taught homebrewers with no formal training. For over four years they had been reading every book they could find, scouring every wiki and forum they could, to learn how to brew and brew well. They were also active members in Toronto’s large homebrewing community. When they eventually decided to start a brewery, one of the elements they had always insisted on being part of their identity was to have every single recipe for their beer available on their web site so other brewers can replicate or even expand on it. While several breweries have done this, the standard designation of it was putting out a “clone recipe”. Portelance, a former digital product designer, and Hay, a former software engineer, coined the term “Open-source beer” as a kind of tribute to their past lives. Terms aside, it was important for them to give back to the homebrewing community that helped them so much by putting their recipes out there for free.

DSC_0672After going through the usual tumbles of opening a brewery in Toronto (licensing, installation of equipment, testing the recipes etc.) Halo Brewery officially opened in the spring of this year. Located across the street from Ubisoft Toronto (people in motion capture bodysuits can frequently be seen around the area), the brewery experienced what is almost now common in the Toronto beer scene…a tremendous wave of support and near-constant packed house, with a very quick sell-out of many of the beers available that no one would ever have anticipated. Their beers include such delightfully nerdy names as Ion Cannon Strawberry & Kiwi Gose, Magic Missile Dry-Hopped Pale Ale, and Tokyo Rose Saison with Rosehips.

Despite their initial success Portelance and Hay have brought their experience of homebrewing with them, which means they are always refining their recipes and their process to get it to their own constantly raising standard. It also means that they’re learning a lot of the little differences between a homebrewing setup and a full-on brewery, which is something that can only be learned by starting your own brewery. Luckily for the duo, they anticipated all of this so they’re rolling with the good and the bad.

Callum Hay and Eric Portelance’s individual stories are long, but Halo Brewery’s has just started. That’s exciting.

Now it should be said that not all of the narratives in the beer scene are happy ones. While we’re seeing more and more breweries open up lately there are still a bunch that are closing down, and I don’t feel the latter gets as much attention as it should. A lot of breweries, most contract (folks who hire a brewery to brew their beer for them), some not, get into brewing thinking that it’s a giant cash cow and that the money will just come rolling in. Others end up just not progressing as much as they’d like to and the dream becomes unfeasible. Just today brewer Victor North announced that his brewery, Garden Brewers, was winding down operations. In his own words, he says: “We began to really focus on growing into a bricks-and-mortar company, but we also began to really lose money. I genuinely thought that we would beat the clock -and the odds- but we now find ourselves in a position where we are unable to continue”. It’s moments like that which remind you that, regardless of the reason, it is still possible to fail in this business. However, not wanting to be a downer, I should point out that while that’s the end of Garden Brewers’ narrative for the time being it is by no means the end of Victor North’s. The dude is a bright talent and he’ll continue to do awesome things within the industry. He’s by no means down for the count and I couldn’t be happier about that.

These are just a few examples of the thousands of narratives that are currently going on right now as you’re reading this. From a beer industry viewpoint they’re great to hear and provide insight into the ethos of a particular brewer or brewery. For a customer, it does the same, only I kind of feel those stories don’t get told as often as they should, what with all the commercials about the fresh ingredients and so on. But even then, all it takes to learn the story of a brewer is to simply walk up to them at an event and ask.

Chances are, they’d like to tell it to you.

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