Tag Archives: homebrewing

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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Will It Grow? Part 1: In To The Ground, My Sweet

So one of the advantages of no longer being in the office (and there aren’t TOO many, but that’s for my non-existent therapist, not you) is that I have time for some personal projects in between errands and freelance work. One personal project is my garden.

I have a raised bed in the backyard which currently has some beet, onion and radish seeds in it. Later to come will be cucumbers (that I intend to pickle) and Hungarian Black Hot Peppers, which I intend to put in dishes and watch loved ones scream in despair when I feed it to them. But those need a little more time yet.

I’m also growing some Cascade Hops, which is the point of this post.

I missed out on purchasing the rhizomes (an underground stem that shoots out roots, basically) last year, but this year I managed to preorder them from Toronto Brewing a few months ago and my little darling arrived yesterday.

I always knew I’d plant it in the front yard, where the hop vines could grow and wrap themselves around my porch frame, which I think will look beautiful and smell wonderful. For those that know me well in regards to beery stuff, it’ll come as no surprise that I chose Cascade Hops, which have a beautiful light citrusy character to them that drives me wild.

My yard is one of those “Weeds everywhere no matter what” places, so this required some digging in my selected place followed by a method of mulching that’s worked for me in the past. Basically getting some newspaper, layering it on the bottom of the hole, soaking it with water and putting a good layer of soil over it. This prevents any weeds from growing and what weeds do get through can easily be picked out. I used basic gardening soil along with a nutrient mix from Urban Harvest that slowly releases all the good things that make for healthy growing.

Apparently there is some debate on exactly how to plant the rhizome. Hops Direct’s youtube series says to plant it vertically, while the book “The Homebrewer’s Garden” by Joe and Dennis Fisher and several other forums and guides say to plant it horizontally, roots down and white “nibs” up, about 2 inches in the soil. I chose the latter method.

In the end it KIND OF looks like I buried an animal in the front yard, but it’s done and the key is to keep the soil moist but not soaking wet and make sure it gets at least six hours of sunlight, apparently. After it sprouts and the vine reaches to about a foot I’ll need to set up a small trellis leading up to my porch frame. Then I’ll have to regularly make sure the little guys get some water.

I’ll be letting you folks know the progress of it, of course. But for now…we wait.

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Homebrewing, Winter Beer Fest, and BlogTO

Okay, so the day job and a slight case of the Cambodian Swamp Virus put a damper on any writing time I had the past week or so. So let’s play a bit of catch-up because quite a bit has been going on.

1. I’ve been homebrewing! Although I have dabbled with varying levels of success, I admitted my weak points (primarily recipe formulation) and the wonderful people from Brauhaus, a Toronto homebrewing club made up of some of Toronto’s most talented and creative homebrewers, hooked me up with Richard Sigesmund (whose brew “Boom Gose the Dynamite” was a hit at their last event) as a way to pilot a mentorship program that pairs off experienced homebrewers with noobs like me. After countless e-mails with me asking questions and Richard patiently answering, a recipe that was in my head was formed and a few weeks ago I brewed it. It’s an American Brown Ale with Chamomile and Lemongrass. Hops used were Warrior, Amarillo and Centennial (dry-hopping with Amarillo and Chinook ). I just bottled it over the weekend and it will now be left for a couple of weeks to condition in the bottle. So far though, the colour turned out perfectly and the chamomile flavours came out pretty well. It also seems to be at 5.9% ABV. With a little luck this will be a good beer to have chilled and at room temperature.

I learned so much with this one, so it will get a proper post on it’s own once I try the beer. But I wanted to tell you folks that I’m keeping it up and seriously check out Brauhaus and, if you’re a Toronto homebrewer new or experienced, to consider joining up.

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2. The winter (and indeed the dreaded month of February) was made a little less grey a couple of weeks ago at The Rhino’s First Annual Winter Beer Festival, put on by the good folks at The Rhino Bar & Grill and Mr. Greg Clow of Canadian Beer News. The festival was split in to three different times (A VIP breakfast and first shot of beers to a limited 40 people, a standard version of about 100 people and finally a free event where as many people as possible could come in) and featured special beers by some of Ontario’s most respected breweries.

I had been kindly invited to attend the VIP breakfast and to stay for a few hours and I must say I had an incredible time. The Rhino was a perfect venue to have such a festival at as, unlike many beer events I’ve attended at other places, it wasn’t the size of a closet and in no way was I struggling to move from one area to another. It was a spacous, warm, relaxed environment. A wonderful mix of the beer-loving public and industry players mingled and discussed their favourite drink.

Highlights for me were the Rye Pale Ale by Cameron’s Brewing (my only notes for this were “…Sweet Jesus”), Skinny Dipping With Friends by Sawdust City Brewing (beautifully spiced Stout), Alan Never Left by Black Oak Brewing (wonderfully balanced beer with Jalapeno peppers) and, most unforgettably, Martian Mango Pale Ale, a homebrew by Chris Burek of Mom ‘n Hops.

The event, while not without it’s small issues that normally arise with any event (even a first one such as this) was a total success. It was a relaxed and enjoyable day and I look forward to next year’s!

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3. Myself and several others in Toronto’s beer scene were asked where we go to drink by Ben Johnson from BlogTO for the article “10 bars & pubs where Toronto beer experts go to drink”. If you’re in Toronto check it out! There are some great places listed there!

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4. The wonderful and awesome Fabian Skidmore from The Only Cafe taught me the ways of the cellar a couple of weeks ago. I learned how to clean the taps, how the draft system works, how to tap a cask and how to pour the perfect pint. I learned lots about this and can’t thank Fabian enough.

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And that’s all for now! When I get better expect a couple of reviews and other fun bits of news.

Here’s a teaser pic of what’s to come, the Long, Dark Voyage to Uranus by Sawdust City. Photo by me.

…Yes, it’s the alien from Independence Day. Yes, I do own on. And yes, I do enjoy the hell out of that film. Don’t you dare judge me.

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