Tag Archives: ontario craft beer guide

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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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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At Year’s End: So Long, 2015

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I’m up at the family cottage for the holidays. Currently I’m sipping on some decent coffee, have Big Trouble in Little China playing in the background, and looking through my notes from the book reflecting on the past year.

And what a freakin’ year it’s been. One that truly has underlined the blessing and curse of the saying “may you live in interesting times”.

Professionally, this was probably one of the best years for The Thirsty Wench and me as a beer writer. Some notable highlights included finally getting my own column in Torontoist. The punny Inherent Weisse has been chugging along every two weeks and it’s…actually been pretty nice. For the first time in a good long while I’ve been forced to look at my local beer scene and it’s been an interesting and often frustrating dance making my focus go smaller.

And oh yeah, the book haha.

IMG_20151210_113643Since the announcement of the Ontario Craft Beer Guide, Jordan St. John and I have sampled beers from all of the province’s breweries (with a cutoff of two weeks before the manuscript was due) and we’ve learned a few things from it. Firstly, despite how it may sound, drinking every beer in the province is not fun. Mainly because you’re not drinking for pleasure, you’re drinking for work, and have to maintain a strong focus and sharp senses from your first few beer samples all the way to your 50th. Because of this, you really start to develop a deep appreciation for small samples. That said, the both of us found a LOT of surprises in the unlikeliest of breweries and found that a lot of much-hyped breweries were, surprise surprise, not as great as many would believe.

Secondly, it was great to see the changing landscape of beer in Ontario. I’ve been happy to see that “simple done well” has been on the rise in terms of beers, with some wonderfully complex and understated offerings. Additionally, I’m really fond of how breweries, mostly outside of the cities, have really gone out of their way to be active members of their local communities and it turns out that said communities have always wanted a good quality local beer available to them and that the fierce loyalty to Molson or Coors is a bit more bullshit than I would have originally thought.

And finally, I learned about the whole book writing process, which was a tough and stress-filled lesson. For this edition I found myself awake at 3am, knocking back energy drinks like they were water, writing frantically, and listening to Death in Vegas. So basically it was like I was in college again and at my ancient age of 31, that wore me the hell out. By the time we submitted the manuscript I was practically feral, with plates, glasses, and cans scattered around my desk like monuments, and a foul smell that comes from forgetting to abide by the basic rules of personal hygiene. Ah, the glamour of writing!

Anyways, the year is over now. Well, almost.

Because I write about beer, I often get asked on what to drink for New Year’s, but I often disappoint when I answer because they’re really asking what to drink at a New Year’s party and hahahaha I don’t party. Most times I either go to a Buddhist temple to reflect on the lessons of the year or I spend it quietly with my family doing very much the same. All I can really say is…drink whatever makes you happy and make sure you’re where you want to be. It could be out with friends or alone at home. As long as you’re comfortable, that’s all the matters.

Me, I’m going to probably open up a bottle of Rochefort 8 from my cellar. Originally brewed in 1955 as a beer specially for New Year’s Eve before becoming year-round in 1960 and containing beautiful notes of caramel and dried fruit, I’m looking forward to cracking it open. After that…we’ll see where it goes.

2016 is going to be fun. Have some travel planned, the book will be launching, and I’m planning some really interesting posts for the site. Way more than there was in 2015 for sure! So stay tuned.

Happy New Year, friends. May 2016 bring joy and wonder to you and yours.

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So I’ve been busy (Ontario Craft Beer Guide Announcement)

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Hey folks, a lot of you might have noticed that I haven’t posted much on here this summer. My deepest apologies. Work has been absolutely crazy, with things just getting incredibly busy leading up to a string of business trips last month. Rest assured that posts are on the way. I have at least three posts in my drafts folder waiting to be tweaked on.

But before we get to that, I wanted to let you all in on some news. This will excite many people, but in particular long time readers and loved ones, who have seen this site grow since 2011.

As of today, fellow beer writer Jordan St. John and myself have signed a book contract with Dundurn Press to write The Ontario Craft Beer Guide, a comprehensive guide of Ontario’s breweries, brewpubs, and contract breweries.

Details will come soon. We’ve only just signed the thing and put it in the publisher’s hands. But I can say that we’re looking at a 2016 release, it will feature pictures, and that it’s the first book of it’s kind since 1993’s “Ontario Beer Guide” by Jamie Mackinnon. Safe to say that a lot has freakin’ changed since that time.

Right, I should get back to work. I just wanted to let you folks know. While this has been a Thing In The Works for a little while, now that it’s out there in the big world, it’s…it’s emotional, to be honest. Just going through this whole journey from blogger to contributor to columnist, to author. Freakin’ author.

Man.

Anyways, for some more official news, check out Canadian Beer News and Ontario Beer Network’s articles. Stay tuned for more details.

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