Tag Archives: hoptical illusion

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


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.


1 Comment

Filed under Local

CURRENTLY DRINKING: Flying Monkeys SuperCollider Double IPA

This is a beer that I’ve been looking forward to try out for a while.  Flying Monkeys Brewery up in Barrie, ON announced this beer over the summer and while it was supposed to be released with the Autumn seasonals in September…the LCBO, I guess, just didn’t feel like it and sent it out early this week.

I really have to say that the label design is just beautiful on this.  I love that it’s a beer that is Science-themed, I love that there are some horrible but snigger-worthy science/beer puns on it and I adore that there’s a quote by Oliver W. Holmes on it.

It also packs an INCREDIBLY strong punch at 12.4%ABV.  At risk of sounding unprofessional, by the end of a single bottle I was feeling alright with the world and giggled a lot.

But really, this was a beer I was excited about.  I’ve always been a fan of Flying Monkey’s beers and well, I love Double IPAs so this seemed a match in heaven.  Here’s the notes I wrote down while I was tasting it.

COLOUR – A BEAUTIFUL dark Cherry Oak colour with a very strong thin white head to it.  Really is a thing of beauty to see dark bubbles rise up in that gorgeous dark colour.

AROMA – The malt hits me first.  Hints of toffee and/or caramel with of course the hops.  Nice citrus tone to it.

TASTE – Sweet lord, is that hoppy.  Though like the aroma, the malts hit first very quickly. Quite sweet.  Really like the aroma hint of toffee/caramel flavours similar to that of the aroma, but it feels like the malts only came to this party to say hello to a few people and leave.  The hops and alcohol content, however are clearly here for the night (and even brought their party mixtape).  This is a very, very hoppy drink.  The hops bring the nice citrusy tones to it, but boy does it pack a punch.

VERDICT – A really wonderful effort from one Ontario’s great craft breweries, but in the end I was disappointed that there didn’t seem to be much of a balance between hops and malts.  One gets the impression of hoppiness for the sake of hoppiness which…to be honest is something I really admire about Flying Monkeys, but when compared to their other brews, Hoptical Illusion, Netherworld Dark Cascadian Ale and Smashbomb Atomic IPA (all beers that have a great balance between the malts and hops) I just feel this one comes off a little short.  If nothing else, buy it for the bottle design and the interesting flavour.

1 Comment

Filed under Currently Drinking

FIELD TRIP: Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery (Barrie, ON)

A couple of weeks ago the family and I were on our way to a wedding in Barrie, ON.  There had been talk of either before or after the bride and groom kissed that we’d get to visit and perhaps go on the tour of one of my favorite Ontario breweries the Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery.  Due to time constraints it looked like we weren’t going to be able to even visit, but upon looking at the map and noticing that the brewery was EXACTLY one block away from where the happy couple were tying the knot, we made an exception and took a visit.

Formally known as the Robert Simpson Brewery (According to the official announcement of the name change the reason they gave was “Because being named for a dead white guy just isn’t very exciting. Where’s the fun in that? Beer is supposed to be way more fun than a history class.”), this Ontario brewery is known for it’s wonderful design sense, twisted humour and, most importantly, it’s love of just screwing around with beer and coming up with some wonderful brews.  With five year-long brews in constant production along with a long list of specialty brews, these guys keep busy and they love to mess around.

Before visiting the brewery, I was already a fan of the two brews that made them famous. Hoptical Illusion Almost Pale Ale,a beer hoppier than most Ontario brews with hints of citrus, and Netherworld Cascadian Dark Ale, which was originally Netherworld Imperial India Porter, but due to a batch that ended up having coffee tones that smothered any other flavours, was dry-hopped to hell with Cascade hops and…well, that was the result.

Flying Monkeys has also been the source of some recent controversy when the application to put their latest IPA, Smashomb Atomic IPA, on shelves in the LCBO was rejected due to its name and the picture of an explosion on the label.  This reopened the conversation over the social responsibility that the LCBO should or shouldn’t have, whether or not breweries should be censored in their works and the (I’ll admit getting better) short stick that smaller breweries get in a board where companies like Molson and Coors have a tight grip.

Right, there’s the background.  Let’s get to the brewery itself.

I don’t know why, maybe it’s because every week for most of my childhood the LeBlanc Family Car would zoom past the giant Molson Brewery, or maybe that I took a tour of the temple-like Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam, but my mind always assumes that a brewery that provides beer to outside the town’s borders should be freakin’ huge.  I KNOW this isn’t true, as I visited the Brooklyn Brewery which was pretty damn small, but I still seem to fall in to that trap and end up being surprised.

Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery is no exception in this surprise.  Where I expected to see a giant factory by the lake, I instead saw what looked like a quaint store in between two others.  I could easily pass by this place thinking they just sold some beer products and that was it. Inside there’s a few tables, a fridge for their beers, a sampling bar, and a wall devoted to merchandise, which is primarily shirts, glasses and bottle openers.

Sadly, we didn’t have time to go on the one hour tour, but we did have time to sample some of the beers there and talk to the lovely lady tending the bar.  It was also there where I was able to try out the notorious Atomic Smashbomb IPA and talk about it a bit.  And…wow.  An explosion of flavours such as grapefruit, pineapple, melon and citrus with a HUGE punch of hops.  Well…you’d have to have that punch of hops.  Afterall, it was hopped NINE times to get it.  Damned fine beer.  So wonderful that I had two pints of it.  And guess what? Flying Monkeys has been working closely with the LCBO since the media attention Smashbomb got and it has been agreed that, with a change in packaging, LCBOs will be carrying this wonderful brew within the next month or so. And just in time for summer!

I couldn’t leave without getting some merch.  I left with a t-shirt and a pint glass.  My father picked up two shirts and later wished he got more.

My mother and coworker Brian both loved the Anti-Gravity Light Ale and Flying Monkeys Amber Ale, my father loved Hoptical Illusion and ADORED the Smashbomb Atomic IPA, and I was strongly considering buying a keg of Smashbomb (that being the only way it can be bought at the moment).

Before we left I went in to the brewing area with my coworker Brian and excitedly pointed out the kettles, fermentors and other devices and what their purpose was for.  It was an exciting moment for me.  But, like all fun moments, it had to come to an end and we had to save our alcohol-consuming glands for the wedding reception.  We parted with our merch, a six pack of Hoptical Illusion, a bottle of Amber Ale and Anti Gravity Light Ale and a promise to return.

(Should be noted that just down the corner from the brewery was a Chip Truck called Jerry’s Fries, which has the biggest portions ever (I ordered a small and it was about the size of a large) and has the best chips in Ontario.  I’ll testify to that. The man who runs that truck really loves his work.)


Note: Do you like what I’m doing here?  Would you like to buy me a beer?  Would you like to throw in a few pennies that can lead towards buying me a beer?  Or do you want to make sure that I can go to a craft beer event? If so, head on over to the newly created TIP JAR. I’d certainly appreciate it!

1 Comment

Filed under Field Trips