Category Archives: Local

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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Louis Cifer Brew Works (House Beer Review Edition)

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I didn’t mean to do a review on Louis Cifer Brew Works, but my small notes turned into something a bit more solid and, well, here we are.

So a bit about the place. Louis Cifer (yes, yes, fans of Angel Heart, it’s a play on De Niro’s devil character. Lou-Cifer) is a brewpub in the Danforth area put together by Erin Gamelin, the owner of the well-known Stouts Irish Pub. It features 26 taps pouring a selection of guest beers along with a proposed ever increasing selection of Louis Cifer’s house beers, brewed by Brewmaster Christine Nagy, a recent grad from Niagara College Teaching Brewery with experience interning at Big Rock Brewery in Calgary, Alberta and working with the folks at Silversmith Brewing in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario. There are additional plans to have a barrel room in the basement. Aside from that, food promised to be pub fare, with the overall concept of the place being geared mainly towards people who are unfamiliar with the world of craft beer.

Unavoidable to notice, however, were the reviews that were coming out shortly after it’s soft launch earlier this week. Not just in local news sources, but hearing personally from people about it. In regards to the beer, the things I heard ranged from the simple “not up to snuff” to the, frankly, dramatic. Even more worrying was finding out that the brewpub…didn’t actually have the “brew” part down. The in-house brewing facility has not been installed yet, with the house beers brewed at Railway City Brewing in St. Thomas, Ontario.

So today I found myself finished with errands in the Danforth area and caught in the rain. I noticed the place and, remembering the things I heard from it already, decided to check it out and reach my own opinions. It should be noted that I didn’t order any food, so I can’t comment on any of that.

Before I head on to reviewing the house beers, a couple of points:

  • The lack of brewing facility is due to two factors. Firstly, they’re having a bit of trouble retrofitting their current gear for use and the second is that the red tape to get everything okayed took longer than expected. I have been told that now it’s just a matter of installing it and getting the certification. ETA for a fully workable and ready-to-brew facility is 1-2 months.
  • And this is a big one for me. It was recently reported that the house beers were being brewed at Railway City in St. Thomas. I discovered that the beers are actually being brewed in multiple breweries, each with different brewing facilities. I suspect that one of the problems people have with the house beers is because of this, as different facilities and making the translation work would be a pain in the ass.
  • One of my annoyances is the lack of originality with the names of the beers considering the devil theme. So far there are only two with names, the Louis Cifer IPA and the Dirty Blonde. The rest are just given the names of their styles. “lager”, “Bock” and so on. Apparently they have plans on actually naming their beers later on.

On to the beers:

Lager:  Unfiltered. Nice creamy note with a whole whack of biscuit and a really nice dry finish. Incredibly solid and enjoyable. This one has proved to be the beer that staff suggest when someone asks for a Molson or Stella.

Louis Cifer IPA:  I kind of get the feeling that this doesn’t know whether it’s an English or American style IPA. The malt is pretty over the top and kind of ruins the bitter finish, which I felt started too late. I definitely feel like it needs more balance. Additionally, they have plans to dry hop this beer for future versions.

Bock:  Not carbonated and a whole whack of molasses but finishes with a nice twist of bitterness. Needs to warm up to be fully appreciated. Frankly, this one has a lot of great potential. This is part of their ongoing experiments, which is limited to two kegs. Get it carbonated a little more and age that sucker in bourbon barrels and it’ll be very worthwhile.

Stout:  Also part of the experiment series and limited to two kegs. More bitter than the IPA. Too much coffee notes and the flavours just start and end with bitter, which is not great. Lower the coffee notes, bring up the cocoa notes and (a thing they were going to do anyways) make it a nitro stout to add a bit of creaminess, and it could very well be a nice winter warmer.

Dirty Blonde Blonde-Brown Ale Hybrid:  This baffles me because despite the light colour of the beer, if I close my eyes I swear I’m drinking a pretty thin tasting English brown that has a touch too much carbonation. With that confusion out of the way, there’s a good bit of balance there and provides a bit of an interesting mix. Call me crazy, but I wouldn’t mind trying a one-off nitro version of this just to see how it is.

Conclusion:

Surprise surprise, it’s too early to tell. I feel in regards of the house beers they tripped on the starting shot. There are a couple of problems I have with the beers that are easy to fix and, to be honest, I feel that the brewmaster should have nipped those in the bud months ago. That said, there’s definitely a lack of harmony in how these are and I feel a big portion of that is due to making beer in multiple brewing facilities with different setups. I get a lot of “lost in translation” in these beers more than anything and can’t help but think it may have been less of a headache and less a chance of inconsistency for Brewmaster Nagy if they just…waited until their own brewing facility was installed and good to go. They could have easily glided with their impressive guest tap selection and a mea culpa, I feel.

When there’s more harmony and they have their facility up and running, I’ll be coming back. I want to see how the Bock is after a few more batches and I hope that stout gets worked out.

As a beer geek there’s an acceptable amount of guest taps with an experimental streak to Brewmaster Nagy that, at the moment, is at least worth keeping an eye on. But the vibe I’ve been getting is that this a place for people to take their first steps with beer. In the area it’s placed at, with more and more families moving in, it’s a spacious area with inoffensive food and beer that could perhaps ignite a spark of adventure in those curious enough to go with the staff’s suggestions.

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Queer Beers: On LGBT Representation in Craft Beer

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Alright, so at the time of writing this I just finished up a kinda-sorta twitter conversation that I want to elaborate on in this site. LGBT representation. I do know that there are a handful of LGBT folks in the craft beer community, but as a bisexual fan of beer I’d like to see something a little more open within the industry itself.

The first question most folks ask is…why? Why should someone’s non-beer preferences be anywhere near the beer world? And I get that, it’s just that the craft beer community is a very large group of people. We talk about beer, but on other subjects as well. Most commonly the topic of relationships will pop up in conversation, and if someone in a same sex relationship is talking with a group of strangers who are all talking about their heterosexual relationships, it would be understandable if that person decided to omit out of the fear of getting an odd reaction. To me it’s not about whether or not someone would act poorly in response (in my experience they definitely wouldn’t), it’s more that a hesitation like that shouldn’t even be considered before talking about a loved one. The beer community is a very comfortable and welcoming community, but without a visible LGBT figurehead it risks unintentionally closing the door in some people’s face. Just saying “there’s no problem” isn’t cutting it for a group of people who have historically learned that no visible representation = not welcome. Not just for someone attending an event but even someone looking to get in to the industry. Make sense? I hope so.

But what to do? Well, there are two ways to deal with things.

The first is the grand gestures that breweries can do to show they acknowledge LGBT folks as a valid demographic and support them. Sam Adams boycotted the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade when the parade announced the exclusion of LGBT marchers. BrewDog made a Double IPA called Hello My Name Is Vladimir to protest Russia’s anti-gay legislation with 50% of sales going to pro-LGBT organizations. Half Pints Brewing in Manitoba made a beer exclusively for Winnipeg Pride…these are all bold, loud gestures that most likely have swayed over a lot of customers based on the inclusion and rabid defense of that demographic. It feels good to be stood up for on such a grand scale in that way.

The second one is something that is more direct to the culture and requires a bit more thought and a lot of personal risk, but I would like to see someone within the industry openly out as LGBT and comfortable enough to talk about it. Now, I’m not talking about breaking out the pink shirts and rainbow capes (unless they want to), but more of pulling an Ellen Page. Coming out, talking about it, and then going back to work doing what they do best. I think a move like that from someone (and hey, it only takes one or two people) would be wonderful for LGBT people looking to enter the craft beer world, as it would give them someone to look to as a more overt example of representation, which I feel is needed. Something that will have them say “hey, I guess people like me are less alienated than I thought”.

Many know how vocal I am for my love of the craft beer community. It is a welcoming, supportive, smart, funny, awesome group of people who are from all walks of life. All I’m suggesting is that maybe, just maybe, making the welcome sign a little bigger would go a long way for people who aren’t sure just how well they’d fit in to our group. If we could make such a move that will just let people know more clearly how welcoming we are, well…that’d be something to take pride in.

 

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Simple Done Well

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I was at the first Because Beer Festival at the beautiful Pier 4 Park in Hamilton, Ontario a couple of weeks ago. Summer is a wonderful time because, well, there are less beer events that take place in cramped spaces and the noble Beer Geek can roam free in the glory of the outdoors. This was especially true for the Because Beer Festival because we had a gorgeous parkland and a hell of a view of the lake to go with out tasty beverages. It was definitely a beer event put on by people who have handled these before and it seemed to go off without so much as a whiff of a hitch. But it was there that I noticed a switch in myself. The biggest hit for me at the festival was, like a Hobbit’s involvment in a quest involving a ring, rather surprising. It was a simple, well-crafted English Blonde Ale by Maclean’s Ale, out of Hanover, Ontario. A simple English Blonde Ale made very, very well by a man, Charles MacLean, who has been making beers like this since the 80s.

In Toronto Star columnist Corey Mintz‘s book  “How to Host a Dinner Party” he talks about early on when he interviewed accomplished food writer and then editor of Gourmet Magazine Ruth Reichl. After trying to figure out where to take her for the interview, he decided to invite her to his place where he would make her lunch. He was terrified about what to make her, but then, very simply, put himself in his guest’s shoes. As a restaurant critic, you go out all the time and eat expensive, rich food. While delicious, it can get tiring. “So I made us GLT (guanciale, lettuce, and tomato) sandwiches.” he says. “This was a valuable lesson for later. When you really need to impress someone, choose the simplest thing and make it well.”

To be clear, I’m not saying anything bad about all of the incredible, wonderful, and innovative beers that have been coming out lately. We’re at a wonderful time right now where there is so much variety coming out at such a fast pace. It’s getting harder and harder to keep track of them all and I for one think that’s a very good problem to have. I love beers that enflame the senses, make me think, and prove to be a combination of flavours that I would never have thought to combine. I’m just saying that along with that, I have a high appreciation for a well-made beer with a simple concept that I can look to as an “old reliable” for years to come.

So here are just a couple of local and non-local beers that I’m enjoying that fit that bill.

sidelaunch-wheatSide Launch Wheat – Brewery originally known as Denison’s, but has undergone a merger and rebranding, Side Launch Brewing Head Brewer Michael Hancock has been making this exact beer since it first appeared in the Denison’s brewpub in 1989. It’s a damn fine Bavarian style unfiltered wheat beer that pours a hazy yellow and has such beautiful taste notes as banana and a hint of lemon. Absolutely perfect for the summer season.

Schneider Weisse Original Tap 7 – For about 300 years the Bavarian Royal Family held exclusive rights to brew wheat beers. In 1872, due to declining sales, King Ludwig II discontinued the production of the style and later sold the right to brew wheat beer to brewer Georg Schneider. My usual advice to international folks on picking their first Weiss is to maybe make it the ACTUAL first one. Schneider Weisse Original Tap 7 is one of my go-tos for the style. With the brewery owned and operated by the Schneider family for 142 years, it’s safe to say that you can’t go wrong with this beer.

beer_7702Black Oak Nut Brown – One of the original flagships of Black Oak Brewing when their doors first opened in late 1999, any change that has been made to this beer has been an improvement. Very traditional and solid Brown Ale with notes of caramel and malt that don’t assault the senses, but provide a really nice balance on the tongue.

Muskoka Detour – The youngest beer of the group featured here. I wrote about Detour in the Session Beers post a while back and my opinion of it hasn’t changed. 4.3% ABV with gorgeous, subtle, citrus aromas, a hint of mandarin oranges in the taste and a quick dry finish. Absolutely perfect Summertime porch-sipping beer that has proven to be a good gateway beer for a lot of newcomers.

whitesWorthington White Shield – A lot of my English Beer Geek friends roll their eyes at this one, but to me it’s a solid English IPA that we just don’t get enough of this side of the pond. Originally marketed by Worthington’s Ale as East India Pale Ale in 1829 and then started going by White Shield when the logo of a (prepare for a shock now) white shield appeared on the bottles in around 1870, The Burton-Upon-Trent based beer is now owned by MolsonCoors and sees a pretty regular international distribution. That said, it’s the first time I’ve seen a CAMRA label on a bottle in Ontario and the beer is incredibly balanced. Nice amount of sweetness, nice amount of dryness, and best when consumed at cellar temperature (10-12C/50-55F). Of course it’s probably not going to be the same beer that was let out in the 1800s, but it’s still damn fine.

Do you have any reliables? Please feel free to leave a comment!

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Toronto Festival of Beer

A lot of times when I don’t like something, I tend to say “it’s not for me”. Although I do slip in to it now and then, I believe that as a writer I should inform, rather than set a standard. “What might be right for you might not be right for some”, as the song goes. We’re all individuals with individual tastes and I like to embrace that.

So with that in mind, the Toronto Festival of Beer is not for me.

I was invited to stop by for a “Home brewing 101” panel, put on by Toronto home brewing group Brauhaus and part of Niagara College’s Brewmaster Series, a series of tented events within the festival to educate people about beer.

The panel was wonderful. Led by Doug Appledoorn, co-founder of Brauhaus, my learned fellow panelists (Erin Broadfoot and Pietro Caira) and I talked about our good and bad experiences with home brewing, answered questions, and handed out samples of our own brews. I supplied my Manor House Intrigue Chamomile Brown Ale, which I made back in February with the help of the Brauhaus mentorship program. The whole thing went really well and we got a good amount of applause from the packed tent. Hopefully Brauhaus will get some members out of that!

The rest of the festival was…not too great. If it wasn’t for the marvelous company of my longtime friend Cheryl, I probably would have left soon after the panel. A few one-off beers stuck out, but everything else was stuff that was available at the LCBO. It wasn’t that unique and, well, I can’t say that I wasn’t warned.

But I do believe it has its place. It’s a chance for smaller breweries to win over the affections of the coveted Bro Market, the group of people for whom beer shots, competitive vomiting and dancing to dubstep is a way of life. And don’t get me wrong, it is a popular market. In an effort to get drunk these folks buy 24 packs like there’s some kind of shortage and they need to stock up. I recognize why a business would want that. It should be noted, however, that the smaller breweries are still competing with the bigger ones. Budweiser, Coors and Smirnoff Ice tents were present and huge, with their own dance floors and booth babes handing out stickers and various other bits of swag.

And while I don’t know how successful the festival is at converting the Bro Market to craft beer, I can’t deny it has an effect. “I normally drink Molson Canadian,” an attendee told us. “But then I go to a festival like this and drink a Molson and anything here after that tastes so much better.” And really folks…that’s all I hope for. I don’t really care if a person likes Bud Light Lime Mojito or beer that, to me, tastes like water. As long as they know that there’s something else out there.

My biggest problem with the festival was the way it was run. I really got the impression that the festival encouraged drunkenness, which didn’t appeal to me. Tokens were $20 minimum, which gets you 20 tokens. 5oz samples were around 1-2 tokens each, which doesn’t sound like much, but take a group of people who are used to 4% abv beer and put them in a festival of 6-9% abv beers, well…you see how it can get out of hand. Oh sure, you could use those tokens for food, but I didn’t get the impression that people were doing that. Visions of festival-goers nearly falling down getting more beer poured in to their glasses were pretty frequent and the security guards, god bless them, were kept very busy breaking up fights and carrying people to water stations.

And guys, maybe double up on security to lead people to the bus stop? There were waaaaay too many drunk people roaming in to oncoming traffic. Unacceptable.

So that’s my thoughts on Toronto Festival of Beer. It’s not for me. Aside from a few things that I can’t forgive, I can acknowledge it as a festival that works for some people. I’m just not one of them. Unless I’m invited to another panel, I don’t think I’ll be going again in the future.

But really though, thank you to Brauhaus, Niagara College and my kick-ass friend Cheryl for being the bright stars in this event.

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