What is “Buck a Beer”? I’m glad you asked

Posted August 8, 2018 by Alan Brown
Categories: Beer, Brewing

Tags: , , , ,

Although I now live in BC (the western-most province of Canada), until a year ago I lived in Ontario. So I was very interested by the news that the new premier of Ontario, Doug Ford (brother of the late mayor of Toronto Rob Ford — yes, THAT Rob Ford) has just announced he is re-instituting “buck-a-beer” in Ontario. “Wuzzat?” you might ask.

Take yourself back to the early ’00s. Ontario, under the banner of “social responsibility”, had mandated a “floor price” for beer — the lowest possible price at which beer could be sold. In 2002, that minimum price was $1 for a 341-mL bottle. However, this was not the price at which brewers HAD to sell their beer, it was the MINIMUM at which they COULD sell their beer if they wanted. It was notable that no brewer, not even Molson or Labatt, chose to actually sell their beer at the floor price.

Along came Lakeport Brewing of Hamilton, Ontario. Lakeport had been founded in 1992 as a purveyor of premium beers, but in the blue collar city of Hamilton, they were unable to find an audience, and went bankrupt. The brewery was rescued by an investment firm that brought in a new manager to turn things around. And turning things around literally meant doing a 180 on the type of beer Lakeport would make. Instead of premium, they would focus on super-cheap discount beer.

Someone also came up with the brilliant idea of actually selling the beer at the floor price of $1 per bottle, and this struck a chord with Hamilton drinkers. However, Lakeport only made a few cents profit on each bottle, so they needed to sell way more beer to make the same profits as other breweries. In order to do that, they needed to expand beyond Hamilton and become a player at the provincial level. Luckily someone dreamed up the memorable advertising slogans “twenty-four for twenty-four” and “buck-a-beer”. Ontario drinkers of industrial yellow quickly abandoned Molson and InBev for Lakeport’s “buck-a-beer”. In less than five years, Lakeport increased their Ontario market share from less than 1% to more than 11%. By 2006, it was the largest discount beer producer in Ontario.

This annoyed the brewing giant InBev, which, to remain competitive, had to drop its Ontario prices (and reduce profits) on its beers. To solve this problem, InBev bought out Lakeport, then closed the brewery and laid off all the workers. Blue and Bud returned to their normal price. End of “buck-a-beer” in Ontario.

But even though the market was now wide open for someone else to take Lakeport’s place, no one did. At $1 per bottle, you just couldn’t make enough money.

In 2008, the provincial government raised the floor price of beer to $1.06, again in the name of social responsibility. Even with the increase, no brewers opted to sell beer for the minimum floor price. Over the past decade, the provincial government regularly continued to nudge the floor price up; it currently stands at $1.25 per bottle.

So why would Doug Ford reduce the floor price of beer back down to $1? It’s certainly not because brewers were clamouring for a lower floor price. There is no brewer in Ontario that can possibly make beer for $1. Given that inflation has risen by 18% since Lakeport last brewed their buck-a-beer, even Lakeport could not make money today at $1 per can.

Case in point: the cheapest beer available in Ontario today is a case of 24 bottles of Molson Canadian 67, at a special sale price of $36.95. Subtracting $2.40 for bottle deposit gives you $34.55, which works out to $1.44 per bottle. Ya gotta believe that if MolsonCoors is selling their cheapest beer for $1.44 per bottle, that’s probably as low as they’re going to go. [Edit: Someone has pointed out that a case of Lucky Lager in Ontario is currently on sale for $35.50, which after deposit is subtracted, works out to $1.38 per bottle.] Indie craft brewers, of course, do not have the ecomonies of scale that the big guys enjoy — their price per can is going to be a lot more.

If you still doubt me, consider this:

  • With the recent aluminum tariffs laid on us by our American friends, the cost of one aluminum can is 20 cents.
  • The cost of designing and producing shrink-wrap labels, then adding them to the cans is about 40 cents per can
  • The provincial and federal taxes and environmental fee on each can add up to about 40 cents.
  • Can (20 cents) + label (40 cents) + taxes (40 cents) = $1.00

You’ve already spent $1 on each can — and you HAVEN’T MADE THE BEER YET.  Or paid your workers, or the electricity and water bills, or the mortgage, or the loan interest on your brewery equipment.

So why did Doug Ford lower the floor to $1 when it is obvious that no brewer can make money at that price? The answer is that Ford, not an astute businessman, made a spur-of-the-moment nostalgia-driven election promise to bring back “buck-a-beer”.

But no brewer interested in staying in business is going to be able to sell “twenty-four for twenty-four”. So “buck-a-beer” is not going to reappear anytime soon. In fact the only way Ontario is going to see cheaper beer is if Doug Ford reduces provincial beer taxes. And I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that.

 

 

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Wild about wild yeast

Posted December 23, 2017 by Alan Brown
Categories: Beer, Brewing

Tags: , , , , ,

I retired from Niagara College exactly one year ago today, and other than two short posts last winter, there has been radio silence on this channel ever since. There were some compelling reasons: The first three months of 2017 were spent fixing up our house so we could sell it. The next three months were spent selling the house, packing up our stuff and moving out to Vancouver Island on the West Coast of Canada. Since then, we have been unpacking and getting used to our new surroundings.

Well, the vacation’s over, it’s time to do some writing!

First up, I’d like to address the subject of “wild yeast”, specifically the yeast known as Brettanomyces (pronounced bret-TAN-oh-MY-sees, and often shortened to “Brett”, much to the eternal chagrin of brewers actually named Brett).

I was recently at a beer tasting at a local liquor store where we were served a beer fermented with Brett. The store employee leading the tasting assured us that Brettanomyces was a wild yeast existing in the air that brewers used to spontaneously ferment their beer in order to make it sour. There were so many errors in that single statement that I decided I needed to spend some time clearing up a few misconceptions about Brett.

Firs, let’s talk about ordinary domestic brewers’ yeast: The role of yeast in fermentation was actually a big mystery until relatively recently. As late as the 1830s, respected scientists insisted that yeast was an inorganic substance that was somehow spontaneously created during fermentation — in other words, fermentation created yeast. It wasn’t until the 1860s that Louis Pasteur studied the issue and irrefutably established that yeast was a single-celled critter that ate sugar and produced CO2 and alcohol as a result.

Eight years later, Emile Christian Hansen, the head of Carlsberg’s laboratories, successfully isolated the two main types of domestic brewers yeast.

The first one, which could ferment at room temperatures, he named Saccharomyces cerevisiae (“sugar-eating fungus of beer”). This is the “top-fermenting” ale yeast that has been making beer for humanity for thousands of years.

He was also able to isolate a different strain of yeast from his own Carlsberg lager, a “bottom-fermenting” strain that could ferment at much lower temperatures. This yeast strain, which produced lagers, had actually been donated to Carlsberg by Spaten Brewery of Munich forty years previously, and had already been named Saccharomyces pastorianus (“sugar-eating fungus of Pasteur”) in 1870 by German scientist Max Reess. However, Hansen insisted that his Carlsberg yeast was a new strain, which he emphasized by calling it Saccharomyces Carlbergensis. Hansen’s name persisted for almost a century until genetic testing proved that S. pastorianus and S. Carlbergensis were in fact the same yeast. Since Reess had named the yeast first, “pastorianus” had precedence and replaced “Carlsbergensis” as the name we use today for bottom fermenting lager yeasts.

Both S. cerevisiae and S. pastorianus are very domesticated. After centuries of eating only very simple sugars, that’s pretty much all they can digest: single molecules of glucose, or maltose (a pairing of two glucose molecules), or maltotriose (a short strong of three molecules of glucose). Once all these simple sugars have been digested, any sugars more complex than this are left in the beer, giving it body and some sweetness.

Hansen declared these two strains of domesticated yeasts to be the only “true” brewers’ yeasts. Every other type of yeast found in beer was an undesirable accident that Hansen branded “wild yeast”.

In 1904, another Carlsberg scientist, Hjelte Claussen, isolated a strain of “wild yeast” that was spoiling British beers, and named it Brettanomyces (“British fungus”). Claussen noted several characteristics about this strain: it produced acetic acid (vinegar) and other “off flavours”; and it was able to digest very large and complex sugar molecules. As a matter of fact, it was able to live inside the cells of wood, digesting the large sugar molecules found there. This meant that once Brett had infested a wooden vessel at the cellular level, there was no practical way to disinfect the wood — the vessel had to be thrown out, lest the infection spread throughout the brewery. For this reason, 20th-century brewers regarded Brettanomyces the same way that doctors regarded measles: a communicable disease that was difficult to eradicate.

However, Brett has likely been in our beer just as long as S. cerevisiae and S. pastorianus. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when British brewers aged their porter in giant vats for up to a year, it was undoubtedly Brett that helped to give aged porter a complex, viniferous character (likely similar to Rodenbach’s red Flanders ale).

In the 20th century, these flavours fell out of style in Europe and North America, and were seen as highly undesirable.

But more recently, with the rise of the craft beer revolution and the search for new flavours, our attitudes about Brettanomyces have begun to change. It is true that Brett produces some acetic acid, but not terribly efficiently. If a craft brewer wants to produce a sour-tasting beer, he or she would be better off using either lactobacillus, the lactic-acid producing bacterium responsible for spoiled milk, or pediococcus, a bacterium that produces acetic acid in far greater quantities than Brett. Brewers using Brett are mainly interested in the other flavours produced: phenolic, funky, musty, spicy, barnyard, horse blanket and cloves are just a few of the flavour compounds that Brett can produce. As Nate Ferguson, co-founder of Escarpment Labs, told me, “I wouldn’t use Brett primarily for souring a beer, I would use pediococcus or lactobacillus. But those bacteria also produce diacetyl [gives beer a buttered popcorn taste], which Brett can clean up. So for a sour beer, I would use Brett for diacetyl clean-up. But that’s really using Brett as a janitor. I would primarily use Brett for the wide range of flavours it is capable of producing.”

Brett‘s insatiable appetite for complex molecules can also have another effect on beer. Since Brett will convert ALL the sugar molecules in the wort into alcohol and CO2 — even those “non-fermentable” sugars left behind by traditional brewers’ yeast — Brett will produce a stronger, drier beer with a thinner mouthfeel. As Nate pointed out to me, “Brett dries out the beer, which helps to emphasize sourness.”

This search for new beer flavours has led to something of a “yeast revolution”. Far from being considered “wild”, hundreds of strains of Brett with various flavour profiles have been isolated by yeast labs, and can be ordered by a brewer and pitched into beer in exactly the same way as S. cerevisiae and S. pastorianus.

Brett can be used in one of two ways:

  1. Once standard fermentation has ended using a traditional yeast, Brett can then be added to start a seconday fermentation, where it will go to work on the residual sugars left behind by traditoional yeasts.
  2. More rarely, Brett is used in the primary fermentation — this is called an “all-Brett beer”.

For brewers that use Brett, opinion varies as to which method produces a more “Brett-y” beer.

One thing is clear, though: even in the age of stainless steel vessels, if the brewer does not practice the strictest protocols in isolating vessels, valves pipes and hoses used in making a Brett beer and then sanitizing and testing for residual yeast, Brett still has the ability to survive and cross-contaminate. This recently happened at one BC brewery — Brett had been used in a seasonal one-off, a hose was not sanitized properly, and a batch of one of their regular beers was subsequently contaminated with Brett.

So, in conclusion:

  • Brettanomyces isn’t a wild yeast that spontaneously ferments beer by falling into it from the air — it is pitched into a beer exactly the same way as traditional yeasts. It was given the label “wild” by an uptight Danish scientist.
  • Although Brett can have a slight souring effect on beer due to the acetic acid it produces, brewers are much more excited by the other flavours that it produces, and its ability to dry out a beer by reducing residual sweetness.
  • However, unless a brewer wants all his or her beers to taste like Brett, extreme care has to be used in cleaning and sanitation.

Ben Johnson asks the question we all should have: Why does sexist marketing still exist?

Posted February 2, 2017 by Alan Brown
Categories: Beer, Brewing

Tags: , , ,

Ben Johnson is a beer writer who twice (2014 and 2015) was voted “Best Beer Writer in Ontario” at the Golden Tap Awards. His blog, the aptly named Ben’s Beer Blog, should be required reading for anyone who makes or drinks Ontario craft beer.

Ben has posted a significant piece about the ever-present sexism in our craft beer industry, Let’s Talk About Sexist Beer Marketing in which he beards the lion in its den by contacting offending brewers and asking them why they have taken the low road.

Read his blog. Contact the breweries mentioned and tell them they are creatively sterile and lazy. Drink someone else’s beer.

The Game is Afoot (again): Another BC brewery

Posted January 21, 2017 by Alan Brown
Categories: Brewery

Tags: , , , , ,

Well, here we are back together after a short absence of… … 14 or 15 months. When last I posted, I was working for the Brewmaster program at Niagara College. However, much has changed in the past month: Elaine and I recently decided it was time for both of us to hang up the gloves and retire, so three weeks ago, I officially entered my “golden years” — which mainly seems to mean finally getting a lot of chores done around the house. Then yesterday I visited a new brewery, and suddenly I realized that I now have time to post some new blog entries. So onward…!

Constant readers will recall that I spend a fair amount of time out in British Columbia, and lo! here we are again on the left coast of Canada. We are once more staying in the small village of Comox, about half-way up the eastern (mainland) side of the Island. Comox is right next door to the slightly larger town of Courtenay, which has a fair selection of big box stores; generally you can find what you need. Occasionally though, you may find that neither Comox or Courtenay has the little widget you are looking for, in which case you will need to travel. (Yes, you can order on-line, but where’s the fun in that?)

Your best bet is probably the city of Nanaimo, about 115 km (70 mi) to the south. However, if you feel lucky, you might instead head north to Campbell River, which is much smaller than Nanaimo, but only about half the distance.

Campbell River is the self-styled “Salmon Capital of the World”. Apparently if you’re the sort of person who goes out on the ocean in a small boat looking for tyee salmon armed only with a rod and reel, Campbell River is the place to be.

Beach Fire Brewing

Beach Fire Brewing

Elaine and I, not in urgent need of fresh salmon, but searching for a small widget unavailable in Comox/Courtenay, had decided to try our luck in Campbell River, and arrived around lunch time. As I drove down the main thoroughfare, Elaine trolled Google for places to eat. Google undoubtedly has a pretty good read on where I like to eat, because what it offered up to us was Beach Fire Brewing & Nosh House, a brand-new brewpub. It looked very modern and inviting from the outside, so in we went to order a flight of beer and some food.

dining area

Large-ish dining area done in West Coast Modern. (Check out hanging hop cone lamps.)

The interior is large-ish, high-ceilinged and open, with a couple of communal harvest tables that seat 6-8, and several smaller tables for 2-4. With another half dozen chairs at the bar, there is probably seating for about 30 people. Elaine has seen the inside of a lot of brewpubs and usually finds the decor to be very uninspiring — kind of a masculine “shut up and drink your beer”. However she was very impressed with Beach Fire’s look, which she found very modern and pleasant. She felt a lot of thought had gone into the aesthetic of the place, from the blown glass art on the walls, tables made from slices of tree trunks, and hanging lamps that look like hop cones.

Beach Fire is the brainchild of three Campbell Riverites who bemoaned the lack of craft beer in the area. Knowing that some of their friends were driving 55 km (35 mi) from Campbell River to Cumberland Brewing just to get their growlers refilled, the three partners decided a brewery would thrive here. The local town council, which has been trying to get some new business into the area, were on board with the idea, and without too many misadventures, the brewery opened in October 2016.

Flight

A flight of the blonde, red, pale and stout.

There are four regular beers on tap: a blonde, a red, a pale ale and a stout. (No IPA? Whaaa…? I thought there was some sort of provincial regulation stating that all BC breweries had to produce an IPA.) All four beers are competently made — no surprises, no issues, not a lot of complexity, just basic good beer.

I was able to have a chat with the brewer (and one of the three founding partners), Darrin Finnerty. He is a former homebrewer who has travelled the very difficult “homebrewer goes pro” road while putting together a nice-looking 12 hL 2-vessel Specific Mechanical system. The brewhouse does have some production limitations: he only has four single-batch fermenters, one for each style of beer, and only four serving tanks in the cooler (again, one for each style of beer). This only allows him to make the four basic beers currently on tap; if he and his partners decide to produce a new style of beer, they will have to drop one of the four. Darrin did point out a couple of glass carboys on the floor — he’s thinking about bringing in his homebrew system and whipping up a few casks of creative content from time to time, just to give the customers something new from time to time. Still, this is another brewery where the start-up team were very conservative in their estimate of how much beer they would sell. Now with things really flowing, I’m sure they wish they had more fermenters to increase their brewing capacity.

brewhouse

Beach Fire’s tidy 12 hL brewhouse. No HLT yet, and the single-batch FVs don’t leave much room for future expansion.

The other very evident issue with the brewhouse is the lack of a hot liquor tank (HLT). Just as your home’s hot water tank ensures you have enough hot water for your shower, the dishes and your other daily needs, so a brewhouse’s HLT provides enough hot water for the day’s brewing. (One of the questions my Brewing Calculations students had to answer last year while designing a brewery was what volume of HLT was needed.) Unfortunately for Darrin and his partners, their budget came a little unglued during the construction phase, and what got dropped from the brewhouse plan was an HLT. Without one, Darrin has to get a little creative. Before he starts brewing he obviously has an empty fermenter waiting to receive a batch of wort. So Darrin uses the empty FV as a temporary HLT: he heats water in his kettle, and transfers it to the empty fermenter. When he needs hot water during the brewing process, he transfers it from the fermenter to the mash tun. By the time he’s finished brewing, all the hot water has been used up, the fermenter is empty again, and Darrin can transfer the new wort to the empty fermenter. Of course, lack of an HLT is going to be a limiting factor if Beach Fire wants to ramp up production, so hopefully an HLT is high on Beach Fire’s shopping list.

Cooler -- lots of room for more tanks

Cooler — lots of room for more tanks

The cooler was very large — perhaps, given the lack of floor space out in the brewhouse, the cooler is a bit too large at the moment. Hopefully as an HLT and larger FVs come on-line, there will be more beer in the cooler too.

In addition to beer by the glass, Beach Fire also does growler refills, albeit from the tap rather than using a proper counter-pressure growler filler — something else for the future shopping list too.

It’s also obvious that the kitchen side of Beach Fire has received equal attention: the food menu, which changes daily, is creative, with an emphasis on small “sharing plates” (aka “tapas”) to go with the communal feel of the tables. Looking for a lighter lunch, we ordered ale-braised sausages with bacon sauerkraut, and chips with salsa. There’s also an extensive dessert menu (yay!) with items like “Cape Mudge Foggie” and and Apple-berry Walnut Crisp. Looking for another sharing experience, Elaine & I settled on the Lemon Cheesecake with Blueberries, which turns out to be delicious.

Great food, a very convivial atmosphere and well-made beer — I assume Beach Fire is well on its way to being a local focal point for both craft beer lovers and foodies. If that happens, the only issue for Beach Fire will be how to keep up with demand for their beer, and possibly how to offer more types of beer than their current stable of four styles. It will be exciting to see how they respond to the challenge. We must visit again… often.

Iron Brewer 2015 – The results

Posted October 8, 2015 by Alan Brown
Categories: Beer

Tags: , , ,

The Iron Brewer competition has come and gone and alas, the trophy which so proudly adorned my family room mantel for twelve months has gone to a new home. Here’s how it went down.

After examining the bag of ingredients, I decided to make two beers, which would give me a choice of which one to bring to the competition. The batches I wanted to make were too small for the Teaching Bewery’s pilot systems, so Nate Ferguson, the college’s Brewmaster Program Coordinator, again offered to let me use his home system.

Mashing in

Mashing in the Vienna lager

First off, I decided to make a Vienna lager — a basic amber lager style noted for its bready, full-bodied flavour. There was only enough Vienna malt to make up about 65% of the grain bill, so I used pilsner malt and a bit of the double roasted crystal to supplement. Alas, while mashing in (and posing for photos), I knocked the lauter plate out of position. The plate is essentially a false bottom in the mash tun — it has holes or slits that allow the wort to drain away while holding the grain back. Of course I didn’t realize that I had knocked the plate out of position until I tried to drain the wort — and nothing came out. It was the dreaded “stuck mash”. Sometimes this occurs if the grains form a mushy impenetrable layer — this often happens with wheat or with barley that has a high protein content. Or it happens if the lauter plate is not in position, allowing the mash to block the discharge tube. When I realized what had happened, Nate helped me to reach in (with protective gloves — that mash is HOT) and reposition the plate. Then we cleared the discharge tube by pushing water into it from the outside. The rest of the brew and fermentation went without a hitch.

My second beer was a sarsaparilla mild. Mild was very popular in Britain between the wars but is now difficult to find. It is a low gravity style (often only 3.0%-3.5% abv) but with a round body and full flavour profile usually associated with bigger beers. The colour is dark brown to black, and it tends to the sweet side, with notes of chocolate. In my previous two Iron Brewer competitions, I stayed away from the specialty flavourings — I was concerned that if everyone else used the same flavouring, my beer wouldn’t stand out from the crowd. However, the aroma of the sarsaparilla seduced me, and besides, my main beer and probable entry was going to be the Vienna lager.

This time the brewing process went without incident. Rather than adding the sarsaprilla root during the boil — I felt that would extract astringent tannins — I hung a bag of it in the fermentor once fermentation was complete.

Two days before the competition, I bottled both beers, and it turns out that the Vienna lager was rather meh. Whether that was due to the mash problems or my recipe, I’m not sure, but it wasn’t a stand-out. I decided to go with the sarsaparilla mild, even though my chances would hinge on not too many other of the brewers choosing that same flavouring. It was a very good beer, with a nose of dark cherries and vanilla, and flavours of cherry, vanilla, chocolate and caramel. I felt fairly confident in my chances… until I arrived at the competition. Of the fifteen brewers, seven of us had used sarsaparilla. Dang.

In the past, the Iron Brewer trophy was awarded to the most popular beer as voted on by attendees. This year the trophy was awarded by a panel of three judges. (Attendees still voted on a “People’s Choice”). In the end, the winner and new Iron Brewer was Ian Johnston, an avid homebrewer and last year’s third-place brewer, who made an excellent smoked porter. The People’s Choice was Mick Muzzin’s Imperial Pilsner.

And the seven sarsaparilla beers? It seems sarsaparilla was not anyone’s favourite flavour — none of us were in the top three either as a judges’ choice or people’s choice.

(The judging scoresheets, which were returned to us at the end of the competition, were a bit of a headscratcher for me — none of the judges mentioned sarsaparilla, cherry, vanilla or chocolate, but they did comment on “smoky flavours”, as well as “raisins” and “cloves”. Hmm.)

Next year I hope to be back in the competition, but since I didn’t place in the top three, my name goes back in the hat for the random draw next May. Got my fingers crossed already.

Comox Valley Breweries: Forbidden Brewing

Posted August 6, 2015 by Alan Brown
Categories: Brewery

Tags: , , , , ,

I’m still on Vancouver Island, and today it was time to visit the third small brewery to open in the Comox Valley in the past six months. The first two, Cumberland Brewing and Gladstone Brewing, turned out to be very similar in size and in their approach to sales.

Forbidden

Forbidden Brewing

Forbidden Brewing, which just opened a few weeks ago, is different — that much was apparent as soon as I drove into the parking lot: While both Cumberland and Gladstone enjoy a relatively high visibility and profile, Forbidden is somewhat out of sight, in commercial space leased from a Best Western hotel in Courtenay. It’s too bad it doesn’t have a bit more visibility from the street, since it is on a well-travelled city artery in Courtenay, and within spitting distance of the 17th Street bridge, a major nexus for Island traffic.

forbidden

T-shirt designed by Ian Adams

It’s obvious that Forbidden — or actually “Førbidden”, since they put a slash through the “o” to make it “Ø”, the international symbol for “forbidden” — has spent some time thinking about their marketing, going so far as to hire local graphic designer Ian Adams to create both their iconography as well as design a t-shirt for them.

Similarly, some thought was put into the name: In an effort to establish a connection with the Valley, the name “Førbidden” echoes Forbidden Plateau, a nearby area so named because it was taboo to the local K’ómoks people who believed that evil spirits dwelt there.

bar

Brewery co-founder Michael Vincent handles front of house

The tasting room, featuring a beautiful bar of local red cedar that contrasts with dove grey walls, is easily the most tasteful and stylishly modern of the three Valley breweries, again displaying a lot of forethought and planning.

Michael Vincent, one of the co-founders of Førbidden, had just opened the bar as I arrived. Michael was the person who originally came up with the idea of the brewery when he had the opportunity to buy a used brewing system. However, the equipment had to go into storage for several years until Michael found other people who shared his vision for a Valley brewery. That included Nicholas Williams, a homebrewer, who became the Førbidden brewmaster.

Usually when you write a business plan to attract potential investors or apply for a bank loan, you outline possible obstacles to future growth, including potential competition. Given that there were no breweries in the Valley when the business plans of all three of these breweries were written, I’m sure each one of them touted the fact that there would be no competitors. It must have come as shock to all three when they each realized that there would not be just one but three breweries opening almost simultaneously.

Michael was a bit busy when I dropped in — the regularly scheduled bartender had not shown up, leaving Michael to boot the point of sale system, ready the bar for the day’s business, pour beer and make change for the first customers of the day, while also trying to answer my questions at the same time. Luckily his assistant brewer, Nathan, was able to take me on a tour of the brewhouse while Michael held down the front of the house.

brewhouse

Very steam punk brewhouse

Of all the brewhouses I have visited — and they are legion — this was certainly the most unique set-up I have seen: six 50-litre vats lined up against the wall. It had a vaguely steam punk motif, reminding me of etchings of Victorian porter breweries with their Burton Union systems all hooked up in parallel. As Nathan explained it, although each of the six vats was only 50 litres, working together they formed a 300-litre brewhouse.

To make a batch, each of the vats is filled with hot water, then a bag of malt is lowered into each vat. To mash out, the bags of grain are lifted out of the water. Each vat then becomes a small kettle, where the wort is boiled. At the end of the boil, the wort that is left — about 250 litres in total after evaporation losses — is transferred from the six vats to a fermentor. Each batch of 250 litres takes about six hours. Because their fermentor has a three-batch capacity, this brewing process is done three times over two days to fill the fermentor with about 750 litres. That is a lot of time and effort for a minimal amount of beer.

To give that a bit of local perspective, Cumberland produces 1200 litres and Gladstone produces 1500 litres in about 4 to 6 hours — a lot more beer in about a third of the time.

FV

Assistant brewer Nathan shows me the plastic FVs

The fermentor turned out to be a large plastic cube. That again was a bit of a surprise — up until now, I have only seen homebrewers use plastic containers for fermenting. It’s not that there is a problem fermenting beer in plastic — for all intents and purposes it works just as well as stainless steel, does not cause off-flavours, and is impervious to both acid and caustic cleansers. But even a soft brush will cause microscopic scratches and abrasions during cleaning. Beer-spoiling bacteria can then hide in those abrasions, safe from caustic cleansers. And the number of these abrasions will increase with each cleaning.

The good news is that the brewing room is actually quite spacious, and should Førbidden decide to upgrade their equipment — either by installing a professional 2-vessel brewhouse or by switching to stainless steel fermentors (or both) — there would seem to be plenty of room for the new equipment.

beer

Forbidden Pale Ale

Given the effort they have to put into each batch of beer, it’s not surprising that Førbidden makes only two types of beer — a west coast-style IPA, and a west coast-style pale ale. I had a glass of the pale ale, single-hopped with Cascade, and my gosh, despite the “homebrewer” look of the brewhouse, it was very good — aromatic, juicy and with a good bite at the end.

At the moment, Førbidden only sells beer by the glass, and does not fill growlers. (Apparently growler fills will start in due course.) And in a step up from the other two Valley breweries, who offer pizza with their beer, Førbidden is able to offer a short menu of food that goes a step beyond pizza to nachos, fish tacos and burgers.

However, the tasting room at the moment is only open afternoons and evenings three days a week (Fridays thru Sundays). I haven’t seen or heard of Førbidden beer available at local bars or restaurants, and I forgot to ask Michael if they have any outside sales accounts.

That, in a nutshell, is Førbidden, the smallest of the Valley’s three breweries. In terms of marketing and style, they are easily far ahead of the other two. The beer on tap is certainly of good quality. However, the amount of time and effort it is taking them to make a small amount of beer is troubling. Can they make enough beer with their present equipment to turn a profit? Since they are open only three days a week, can they attract enough drinkers to their fairly low-key location to sell the beer they make?

Tasty beer, great bar, I have the t-shirt — now I look forward to following their efforts over the next few months.

Comox Valley Breweries: Gladstone Brewing

Posted August 4, 2015 by Alan Brown
Categories: Brewery

Tags: , , , , , ,

I’m still in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, checking out the three new breweries that opened in the past few months. The second of these was Gladstone Brewing, located in Courtenay, a small city of 24,000.

brewery

Former auto garage becomes a brewery

Courtenay is only a few kilometres from Cumberland but is a very different place — if Cumberland is a quiet town of outdoor enthusiasts and coffee shops, Courtenay is the bustling heart of the Valley, with modern malls, big box stores, transit buses and a lot of tourist traffic.

It’s not all modern urban landscape, though. Several buildings in the downtown core date back to the 1930s, part of a major rebuild after a devastating fire. One of those buildings to rise from the ashes was an art deco-ish gas station and auto garage, which now houses Gladstone Brewing.

Gladstone is the brain child of Daniel Sharratt and Alexandra Stephanson. The name is a bit of an anomaly: although the brewery is clearly dedicated to connecting with the local community, there is nothing in Courtenay called “Gladstone” — the name actually refers to a street in far-away Victoria where Sharratt was living when he came up with the idea of opening a brewery.

lamps

Lamps made from old license plates

In keeping with the previous history of the building as a garage, the tasting room of the brewery has an auto mechanic theme from the 1940s, featuring hanging lamps fabricated from license plates, and old tools turned into tap handles. Shelves are filled with garage-themed artifacts, and a vintage 55-gallon oil drum sits by the tasting bar.

tap handles

Old tools turned into tap handles

I like breweries that completely take on a theme — Left Field in Toronto, for instance, has taken baseball and related everything to it: the name of the brewery, the names of the beers (I particularly like Maris* Pale Ale — you have to be a baseball history fan to understand the inclusion of the asterisk in the name), the fact that they chose the exact time of the first pitch of the opening day of the 2014 baseball season for their official launch. Even Left Field’s tap handles are shaped like baseball bats.

Gladstone, on the other hand, has not totally immersed itself in the mechanic motif — although the tasting room has the look, the name of the brewery does not refer to the auto mechanic theme, most of the beers are unnamed, and those that have been named — Stirling Single and Evil Spirit, for example — don’t have anything to do with either the 1940s or a garage. It’s a head scratcher: the car mechanic theme has been well done inside the tasting bar, and has been utilised to some extent on their website, but that’s as far as it goes. Huh.

I had arranged to speak with co-founder Daniel, but unfortunately the business of managing a brewery apparently intervened. However, I was able to chat with his wife and co-founder Alexandra Stephanson, as well as brewmaster John Adair.

According to local news reports in 2014, Gladstone had planned to open sometime that year. However, the usual new brewery issues intervened, and they finally opened the brewery doors in early 2015, a few weeks after Cumberland Brewing. (Given the timeline of planning necessary to open a brewery today, it is quite probable that the concepts for both Cumberland and Gladstone were created almost simultaneously without either party realizing that another brewery would open in the area at almost the same time.)

brewhouse

Two-vessel 15 hL brewhouse

John, who used to brew at Vancouver’s Parallel 49, took me on a tour of Gladstone’s brewing facilities. The two-vessel brewhouse, like Cumberland’s, was made by Specific Mechanical of Victoria. This one has a 15-hL capacity, a fairly large size given that the mash/lauter tun has no power rakes — during mash-in, the grain has to be hand-stirred the old-fashioned way, by two people wielding mash rakes, and the spent grain is also cleaned out by hand following mash-out.

fermentor

The big one: Gladstone’s 60-hL quad-batch fermentor

Gladstone started with two 15-hL (single batch) fermentors, and like every other new BC brewery I have visited, discovered that their original plan for fermentation volume — only two batches’ worth, in this case — was woefully inadequate. Immediately after opening, they quickly ran out of beer, and having nothing to sell, they had to close the brewery bar for several days until the next batch was ready, a cycle that would be repeated several times. Gladstone immediately invested in another two 30-hL (double-batch) fermentors, and then installed in a 60 hL fermentor capable of holding a quad batch. It must have been a tight squeeze getting it in place — apparently there was quite literally only a half inch of free space on either side of the FV as it was being moved into the brewery.

The end result is that within 6 months of opening, the brewery had quintupled its FV volume from 30 hL to 150 hL.

Despite all this volume, they only keg enough beer to supply four local licensee accounts; otherwise, Gladstone sells the rest of their beer to walk-ins, either by the glass, or via growler re-fill. Are they planing to bottle or can their beer? John told me that the original business plan called for a packaging line to be in place by now, but at the moment, they have their hands very full selling all the beer they are making, so the added expense of packaging has been put off for the moment.

They, like Cumberland, have also gone the pizza route in order to provide something of a brewpub ambiance. Where Cumberland is able to bring in pizza from the pizzeria right next door, Gladstone actually leases space inside the brewery to a pizza maker. Again like Cumberland, technically Gladstone is not a brewpub since they are not making or selling the food; but because people are able to eat (albeit from a fairly limited menu) at the same time as they can drink their beer, it at least feels like a brewpub.

As for the new rule that allows craft breweries to cross-sell other BC craft beers as well as BC wines and ciders, Gladstone is considering putting cider on the menu. Much like Cumberland, they see offering an alternative alcoholic beverage as a way to draw more local couples to their bar.

flight

Starting at left: pilsner, Belgian single, IPA, porter

Having brewery chores to do, John left me with Mikael at the bar, who promptly poured me a flight of Gladstone beers: their unnamed pilsner, the Belgian single (“Sterling”), an unnamed IPA (cleaving to the old unwritten rule that every BC brewery must produce an IPA), and an unnamed porter that won a bronze medal at the recent Canadian Brewing Awards. (But look at the colour of the porter — surely some name play on “engine oil” or “grease monkey” could have been made here?)

Although the wide mix of styles may seem a bit scattershot, all of them were competently made and tasty.

growlers

Growlers: Gladstone’s main revenue stream

Despite geographical differences in their settings, Gladstone and Cumberland have remarkably similar stories — similar-sized breweries created in high visibility locations at almost the same time, with a business model focussed on a connection to the local community and sales by the glass and growler, with pizza on the side. Cumberland, however, seems to have their marketing mojo firmly on track. It will be interesting to see if Gladstone can move the clever use of their mechanic’s theme from the tasting bar into all aspects of their operation.

 

 


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