Archive for July 2012

Day 328

July 30, 2012

Working at a major beer show like this weekend’s Toronto Beer Fest is a bit different than working at a small craft-beer-oriented show. The small shows are usually a collection of the local craft brewers, who mainly attract between a few dozen to a few hundred men and women in their thirties and forties.

The Toronto Beer Fest, on the other hand, drew over 20,000 people, and also featured the Big Three Canadian Branch Plants of Multinational Brewing: Molson (owned by the American Molson Coors), Labatt (owned by the Belgian giant Anheuser-Busch InBev), and Sleeman (owned by Japan’s Sapporo).

It was a great opportunity to observe what was really two festivals in one.

Steamwhistle hats

Hats made from Steam Whistle beer cartons.

The craft brewer typically rents a small booth manned by the brewery owner, the brewery owner’s sister-in-law and a couple of the sister-in-law’s good friends. (Although Lake of Bays Brewery had a very large and impressive area, with enough room for a dozen shaded tables and a “Birds of Prey” demonstration. Likewise Steam Whistle had a very large area, and amused everyone  by constructing silly hats out of beer cartons.)

The main consumers in the craft beer area were  the usual suspects, mainly middle-aged couples trying different beers and asking questions about them–although neither their questions nor our answers could be heard over the typical loud beer festival music. (However, unlike small beer shows, the music was provided by live bands rather than the show organizer’s iPod.)

The province of Quebec was also well-represented by six small breweries, who brought with them the best and most creative beers of the festival.

Over on the other side of the park, the big boys had rented large swathes of land, erected very nice hospitality areas, and employed large numbers of healthy young women dressed in attractive (but minimal) clothing. In Ontario, the legal drinking age is 19, and hundreds and hundreds of young single men aged 19-21 showed up to consume beer and ogle the healthy young women.

Over the past 18 years, the Toronto Beer Festival has gained a reputation as a drunken frat-boy party, and certainly the evidence would seem to still support this view, including the young gentleman who sat down on the grass not 10 metres from our booth and then passed out.

(In Ontario, if you want to serve alcohol to the general public, you have to pass a short provincially-mandated education course in order to get a “Smart Serve” license. One of the points hammered home during the course is that it is illegal to serve alcohol to someone who is inebriated–but that law seemed to have beeen more honoured in the breach than in the observance in certain areas of the festival.)

However, such displays of excess were the exception rather than the rule in our neighbourhbood, and mainly resulted from young men who had staggered off to the washroom and then, on the way back to their friends, had wandered off course into the craft beer area. Saisons, wheat beers, pale ales, IPAs, cask ales, stouts and porters–bewildered, the young men found themselves strangers in a strange land.

Day 325

July 28, 2012

As I have mentioned, when you work at a small brewery, you have to be able to change hats several times a day as circumstances dictate–brewing, maintenance, kegging, cleaning, answering the phone, selling beer to walk-in customers… and giving tours.

Tour groups can be as small as one or two customers–usually beer geeks–who have dropped in to buy beer and ask to see the brewhouse, or it can be a busload of people who have pre-booked a tour. Until today, I hadn’t actually given any tours at the brewery. However, the owner and the administrator were down at the Toronto Festival of Beer, and the brewmaster and assistant brewmaster were right in the middle of a brew, so it fell to me to give the tour. The group turned out to be a half-dozen very senior citizens accompanied by two young women.

Once everyone was seated in our tasting room, and had been provided with a sample of one of our beers, I introduced myself, gave a brief history of the brewery, then went into a short but humourous story of the development of beer vis a vis the cultivation of barley, a comparison of beer culture in northern Europe compared to wine culture in southern Europe, and a quick summary of beer at the dinner table from mediaeval times to the present. I then asked if there were any questions. It took me a moment to realize that blank incomprehesion was written on every face. One of the young women said, “Hold on a minute while I translate.” She started speaking in Italian. Ah, these were Italian-speaking very senior citizens. To my chagrin, the translator managed to condense everything I had said to that point into one sentence, the gist of which was: “This gentleman says good morning.”

I kept it short from that point on. My planned five-minute explanation of mashing and lautering became “We give the grain a hot bath and then rinse it.”

Explanation of the kettle boil, addition of hops, and bittering versus aroma hops: “We boil the water.”

The process of fermentation, the role of yeast, its dependence on a variety of co-factors and enzymes, and the development of green beer to mature beer: “We add yeast, which turns the water into beer.”

Filtration, carbonation and bottling: “We remove the yeast and put the beer in bottles.”

As the tour bus poulled out of the brewery parking lot, I reflected that the tour had been a lot shorter than I expected.

Day 317

July 21, 2012

In 1952, the Master Brewers Association of Canada (MBAC), in conjunction with the agricultural college of the University of Guelph, held a “Barley Field Day” for Ontario brewers at the university’s research farm. The purpose was to review the previous year’s barley harvest and the expectations for the present crop, and also to present some on-going research.

Today, the MBAC held its “60th Barley Field Day” at the university’s Elora Research Station, about ten kilometres north of Guelph. Thankfully, the extreme heat and humidity that has blanketed us for the past week had moved out, making for a pleasant summer day more typical of July in southern Ontario.

First up was the barley report from Matthew Letke of Canada Malting. The long and short is that the 2011 crop was very good for the most part except in certain parts of Manitoba. At the moment, the portents look good for the 2012 Prairies crop, although the crop in Ontario looks to be disastrous due to the on-going drought this summer. However, the amount of barley being grown in Ontario compared to the Prairies is very small, so it may have little effect on the total amount of grain harvested.

Further to the south, drought grips most of the American midwest and southwest, so all cereal grains are in danger.

Matt also pointed out a growing trend away from barley to other more profitable crops in most parts of the world, with the notable exception of Argentina and Australia. That sobering news brought the realization that malt prices may climb even higher in the foreseeable future as fewer farmers grow barley.

We also heard a fascinating presentation by University of Guelph researcher Dr. Duane Faulk. It turns out that if a seedling of barley or wheat emerges from the soil and senses reflections of light from other plants (usually weeds) within 10 cm, it immediately switches to a “race for the sun” survival mode, shunting resources from grain production to stalk growth in order to beat the rival plant upwards to sunlight. Even if the weeds are removed afterwards, the plant will not switch back to grain production, resulting in a tall spindly plant with fewer grains. The inference is that it’s vital for farmers to curb weed growth right at seeding time–apparently the switch to survival mode can happen almost as soon as the seedling sticks a shoot up into the air and senses a nearby weed.

Test plots of barley varieties

Test plots of barley. The golden-coloured plots indicate less drought-resistant varieties that have stopped growing due to lack of rain and are ready for harvest 4-5 weeks earlier than usual.

Then it was time for a wagon ride back into the fields to look at some of the research currently being done, as well as to see the test plots of various varieties of barley. It was sobering news to hear that the University of Guelph is cutting back on funding for cereal grain research, apparently because cereal grains are no longer an important cash crop in Ontario, and research on them is therefore less of a profitable exercise for the university. There will be a 61st Barley Field Day next July. There may not be a 62nd.

Day 316

July 18, 2012

The mother of all heat waves has settled over southern Ontario, the record high temperatures exacerbating the current seven-week drought. The thermometer says 37°C (99°F), and the humidity makes it feel like 45°C (113°F). That’s outside, of course. Inside the brewery, as we lean over the hot lauter tun to shovel out the heavy wet grain that was soaking in 67°C (153°F) water only minutes before, the heat feels much more intense.

To take our minds off the heat as we work, the brewmaster and I try to think of occupations that would be worse during a heat wave:

  • a roofer
  • the dude who shovels asphalt from a truck and then rakes it
  • a fire fighter in full gear
  • an air conditioner repairman fixing a rooftop unit

When we step into the air conditioned office, it feels like a refrigerator. Time to chug another bottle of Gatorade.


Day 312

July 13, 2012

In any brewery, problem-solving skills and a familiarity with basic tools are paramount, but perhaps even more so at a small brewery. Rather than purchasing something to solve a one-time problem, one usually tries to put something together from parts that are lying around the brewery.

Several times this week, we used a variety of tools to scavenge pieces from various bits of unused apparatus, then bodged them into a new configuration in order to facilitate some odd “we’ve never done that before” cleaning/transferring/carbonation needs that crop up from time to time.

If you plan to work at a brewery but don’t know your Phillips from your Robertson, find some way to get up to speed on using tools. Hobbies are a good start. Home ownership is the master class.



Day 306

July 7, 2012

Last night, The Only Cafe, a gritty yet cool bar in Toronto, held a cask night featuring five cask-conditioned beers from the brewery at which I work. This wasn’t especially different from any other cask night, except that for the first time, one of the casks  contained Aztec Mochaccino, a beer I had designed using as inspiration both Cocoa Inferno, a beer brewed by fellow first-year students Jen Nadwodny and Kellye Robertson, and Crazy Ed’s Cave Creek Chili Beer, a now defunct light American lager from Arizona that had few redeeming features other than each bottle contained a hot Serrano chili pepper. Using fresh unfiltered nut brown ale as a base, I had added cocoa nibs, dark-roasted espresso beans and raw jalapeño pepper to the cask and allowed it to mature for a week. My vision was that the the coffee and chocolate notes would compliment the sweet ale, while the jalapeño would add just a bit of warmth without being blisteringly hot. However, not having tried this before, I was unsure about quantities–too much coffee or cocoa would overwhelm the ale, too much jalapeño would make it undrinkable, and too little of all three would not be tasted at all.

A modern stainless steel cask.

Unlike kegged or bottled beer, which you can sample before it leaves the brewery, you really don’t know how your new cask-conditioned ale recipe is going to turn out until the consumer tries it in the bar.

A modern stainless steel cask has two holes–a small hole in the end, where the tap will eventually go, and a large one into which you pour the beer and any other ingredients. The first step in making a cask ale is to hammer a wooden plug into the small hole. You then add the beer and other ingredients through the large hole, then seal up the cask by hammering another wooden plug into the large hole. There is no way to remove those plugs without allowing oxygen into the cask, thereby spoiling the beer.

So once you have added beer to the cask and sealed it, the only way to find out how your new cask-conditioning recipe turned out is to find out which bar bought your cask, go to the bar, watch your cask being tapped, and order a pint.

Which is what I did last night. There is something very satisfactory about discovering your beer is very drinkable. And there is something radically satisfactory about getting compliments on your beer from other bar patrons.

Day 300

July 1, 2012

For college students in a two-year program, July 1 marks not only the midway point of the summer, but also the midway point between the first and last day of the program: 300 days completed, 300 days to go.

My Post-Apocalyptic Life

The world has ended, but movies and games live on.

Married to Beer

Seeing the humour in a spouse who loves suds!

Ruminations of a Canadian Geek

The thoughts and ruminations of a university chemistry and roleplaying geek

Madly Off In All Directions

A blog about whatever strikes my fancy...

It's what's on tap...

Brewing, mostly.