Archive for April 2013

Day 581

April 9, 2013

Third-last day of lectures.

In Human Resources, the process of union certification, and other things you need to know if you work in or will be a manager at a union shop.

In Beer Industry, Jason Fisher reviewed the semester. Key metrics. The AGCO. How to get a beer on the LCBO shelves. Compare and contrast the LCBO and TBS. Key trends in craft brewing. What type of beers I should be making (or not making) if I’m a brewpub, a contract brewery or a bricks & mortar brewery.

And like so many courses before this, another entire class spent thinking “Wha…? Did we really talk about that?”

Day 577

April 8, 2013

I try to keep my competitive instinct under control, but it tends to surface for things like trivia contests and Rock Band... and chocolate. Our Creative Writing teacher had no idea what she was unleashing when she announced the prize for a quick in-class competition would be chocolate bars.

My vision turned red. MUST EAT CHOCOLATE!

The contest really was quite simple: working in groups of five, we had ten minutes to write the opening lines to a piece of bad genre fiction.

Here’s the thing: I am a grandmaster of bad genre fiction.

Western: The hard sun blazed from the big sky as Dusty rode his deep-chested dun into the small, nameless town in the Sierra Madres, his namesake trail of dust settling on the listless men lounging on benches in front of the saloon as he dismounted. The sheriff stepped out of his office and looked Dusty over with hard eyes, but the cowboy, dog-tired from days on the trail, didn’t stop to talk. Pushing back his white ten-gallon and settling his six-shot hawgs more firmly in their holsters, he strode through the batwing doors of the saloon into the dim interior. Seconds later, shots rang out…

Detective: I looked at the clock on the stained office wall. Although it only read nine a.m., it was probably eleven o’clock somewhere, so I poured myself an eyeopener, then settled back to either read the pile of bills on my desk or contemplate life as a lousy joke. I had just settled on the latter when my next client walked in, a tall cool blonde poured into a tight red dress. “Are you Jimmy Drake the private eye?” she purred, not batting an eye at the open bottle of whiskey. “That’s what the sign on the door says, sister. Drag up a seat and I’ll pour you some breakfast…”

Fantasy: Argalain the Pirate paused as he crested the mountain pass, bewonderment crossing his face at the terrible sight before him. A giant serpent, fangs glistening with black venom, hissed in anger at the unwanted intrusion, the fainting maiden caught within its coils forgotten for the moment. With a cry, Argalain loosed his magical sword Madralin, honed by elvish smiths in the fires of Nithond, and swung it about his head as he charged into battle…

Science Fiction: Argalain the Space Pirate paused as he teleported into the mountain pass, bewonderment crossing his face at the terrible sight before him. A giant serpent, fangs glistening with black venom, hissed in anger at the unwanted intrusion, the fainting fembot caught within its coils forgotten for the moment. With a cry, Argalain activated his laser sword, honed by elvish technicians on the planet Nithond, and swung it about his head as he charged into battle…

You see what I mean. When it comes to bad writing, I can write with the worst of them. The contest was pretty well over before it had begun. Mmmmm, chocolate.

On to Human Resources, where we are finishing up the last few classes with some consideration of union labour laws in Canada.

In Sensory, the various groups presented beers as if the class represented a tasting panel, and gathered information about the various beers tasted. We have a week to collate the results and make a presentation to the class as well as a written report.

Unfortunately the tastings took so long that I had to discard my plan for the evening. Mark Murphy, who graduated from the first Brewmaster class a year ago, has become the very first graduate of the course to start his own brewery. He recently joined forces with his wife to form Left Field Brewing, a contract brewery with cleverly baseball-themed beers like 6-4-3 IPA. Alas, the launch party was in Toronto, and by the time we got out of our final class, it was far too late to make the 150-km trek around Lake Ontario during rush hour.

I’ll just have to wait for another Left Field event and buy two of Mark’s beers.

Day 575

April 7, 2013

I am happy to report that 50 years after entering primary school, I still feel a frisson of glee upon hearing “field trip”. And today was no ordinary field trip, being “The Day of Three Breweries”–a visit to three breweries in three hours. (Or at least that was the original plan. As Field Marshall Moltke the Elder is reported to have said, “No plan for battle survives contact with the enemy.”)


Steam Whistle, showcase brewery in downtown Toironto

First up was Steam Whistle. As previously mentioned in this blog, Steam Whistle was formed in 2000 by three guys who had been working for Upper Canada Brewing and were subsequently fired (along with everyone else in the company) when it was taken over by Sleeman.

(Full disclosure: When I tasted a bottle of Upper Canada Dark in 1985, the heavens parted, the glory shone down and the Choir Celestial sang. Every beer before that day had been bland and lifeless. It was like seeing in colour for the first time. O, how I wept bitter tears when Upper Canada was taken over by Sleeman. But I digress…)

We had the pleasure of talking to Greg & Sybil Taylor–Greg is one of the original “3 Fired Guys”; his wife Sybil actually worked at Upper Canada longer than Greg, and is now the Director of Communications at Steam Whistle.

What they did 13 years ago now seems like a simple recipe for success–form a company that only makes one beer, then market the heck out of it. This year, Steam Whistle will likely produce about 70,000 hL of their single label, Steam Whistle Pilsner. However, it wasn’t a straight line from then to now. It took two years just to develop a business plan for the new brewery. Once opened, there were a series of problems, crises and emergencies that threatened the very existence of the brewery. Equipment that was supposed to last a decade gave out after two years. The rise of craft breweries in Ontario also coincided with the rising popularity of good quality but cheap imported pilsners from Germany and Eastern Europe. And the large national breweries were no friends of the craft industry either. In Greg’s words, the macros have attempted to drive new breweries out of business with the philosophy of “drown them while they’re young.”

However, Steam Whistle has survived and prospered, likely due to their positive attitude towards employees–the company has won several awards for positive management practices such as flexible work hours, profit sharing, employee share purchase plans and trips for long service employees. With over 160 employees today, Steam Whistle’s biggest day-to-day challenge is human resources management–exactly what we have been hearing in our Human Resources classes. Sybil also mentioned the importance of excellent accounting software to keep track of inventory and taxes. And Greg talked about the camaraderie in the craft industry right now, the feeling of esprit de corps and cooperation among the various small breweries.

During Q & A, I asked about the reasoning behind the apparent move from their iconic green glass bottle to cans. Don’t worry, the bottles will still be around (in Ontario at least). It turns out that apparently cans sell better than bottles out in Alberta and B.C., where Steam Whistle is starting to gain a foothold, hence the move to package some of their product in cans.

Time for a tour. We were given a beer–yay!–and headed out on a tour led by a guide who was used to answering questions from the general public. Alas, she was somewhat flustered by questions about external calandria, hopping systems, and decoction mashes. Luckily a member of the on-shift brew team happened by to help her out.


Ken & Sonja await us (with beer!) at Black Oak

On to our next brewery. No wait, I’m lying. During our Steam Whistle tour, the bus developed a mechanical issue, and we had to wait nearly an hour for a replacement bus to take us to our second stop, Black Oak Brewing.

I have a confession to make: Black Oak is the brewery that employed me during the summer time. (The reason I didn’t name Black Oak is that when I was writing about my summer job, I didn’t want to focus on where I was working, but rather what I was doing. But I digress…)

There are several similarities between Black Oak and Steam Whistle–both were opened in 2000, and both have a small number of labels–Steam Whistle, of course, only has one beer, while Black Oak for many years only had two–a  Pale Ale and a Nut Brown Ale. But where Steam Whistle set out to become a “showcase” brewery, moving into an old Canadian National Rail locomotive roundhouse beside the Skydome, where they now welcome thousands of visitors a year and employ 160 people, Black Oak set up shop  in an industrial mall in Oakville, later moved to another industrial mall in southwest Toronto, and stayed relatively small, with only 5 people on staff. Several years ago, Black Oak jumped on the seasonal wagon, and now produce several each year in addition to their two flagship brands. They have also recently started packaging a portion of their beer in 650 mL bottles, again a trend in craft brewing. In addition, Black Oak is also the place where a number of contract brewers make their product, including Cheshire Valley, Radical Road, Snowman and Sawdust City.


The Bouncing Bomb, Trafalgar’s brewpub

Back on the bus for our final destination, Trafalgar Brewing. Like Black Oak, Trafalgar started in an industrial mall on the west side of Oakville, then picked up and moved a few years later… to the east side of Oakville. Then they reversed course and came back to the west side of town. Like Black Oak, Trafalgar has a very small staff, and a similar-sized brewhouse, but whereas Black Oak’s equipment is in a very large warehouse, Trafalgar’s building is small, and feels a bit cramped. Unlike Black Oak and Steam Whistle, Trafalgar has always made a lot of different beers, and also moved into mead production a few years ago.

Trafalgar also has a brewpub , the Bouncing Bomb. Needless to say, that is where we gathered at the end of the day.

Day 574

April 3, 2013

In Human Resources, we covered discipline. Yes, when an employee has broken the rules, you, the manager, have to decide what discipline to invoke–anything from a verbal reprimand to dismissal.

It was pretty straightforward stuff.

Last week in Brewing Industry, we had a visit from the president of The Beer Store (TBS), who told us what a warm and fuzzy place TBS is for craft brewers.

Today, we had a visit from two representatives of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, Leanne Rhee, Category Manager (Beer & Cider), and James Hume, Product Manager (Beer & Cider). Not surprisingly, they were there to tell us what a warmer and fuzzier place the LCBO is for craft brewers.

Like TBS, the LCBO is big business in Ontario, the largest purchaser of alcoholic beverages in the world, doing $4.3 billion in sales last year via 617 stores and 5 distribution centres. Beer actually only makes up about 20% of their total sales, or about $914 million last year.

And like TBS, the LCBO has also evolved over the years. Up until the 1980s, LCBOs were horrible places. You walked into a harshly lit room with a counter at the back and a single table in the middle of the room. There were no bottles on shelves, just a list of available products on the table, each with a product code. You wrote the product code on a slip of paper and took it to the cashier behind the counter, a man in a short-sleeved white shirt and fake bow tie. He looked at you suspiciously. If you passed muster, he went into the back, emerged with a bottle of something, quickly slipped it into a brown paper bag, took your money and handed you your ill-gotten goods. You emerged from the store and slunk home to have a shower in a vain attempt to wash away the sin of alcohol.

Needless to say, LCBOs are now much friendlier places with a distinct “boutique” feel–much nicer that The Beer Store. However, whether you decide to place your product in TBS or LCBO (or both) requires some number-crunching on your part. As we heard last week, TBS has a rather stiff placement fee and volume fee that adds up to tens of thousands of dollars for each SKU you want on their shelves. However, once you’ve paid your fees, you get to keep the entire sales price of the beer. (So if you sell a six-pack for $12.95, you keep $12.95.) You also tell TBS which stores will carry your product.

The LCBO, on the other hand, has no placement fee, but they keep part of the purchase price–they decide how much they will keep–and they decide which stores will carry your product.

TBS versus LCBO–which one will be more profitable for you depends on the number of products you want to sell, where in Ontario you want to sell them, and how much volume you plan to sell.

Leanne and James were good enough to share some of the thinking that goes into their purchases of beer each year. First of all, beer is treated a little differently than wine and spirits. For instance, if you’ve been in an LCBO, you know that spirits are subdivided by type (vodka, gin, rum, etc.) with the premium brands placed at eye level, while less profitable discount brands are placed on lower shelves. Wine is grouped by country and region. In contrast, beer is all grouped together at the back of the store, subdivided by packaging rather than by place of origin or type.

Why the back of the store? Partly for the same reason that dairy products are placed at the back of the grocery store–so you are forced to walk by all the other groceries to get to them. Yes, beer is the eggs and milk of the grocery store. While spirits provide the best profit margin, beer is what drives traffic to the store. Get people to walk by the wine and spirits on the way to pick up a 6-pack, and you have an opportunity to up-sell them the latest spiced rum or birthday-cake-flavoured vodka.

(I’m not kidding about the birthday-cake-flavoured vodka–I saw it at a recent party. But I digress…)

In addition, the beer at the back of the store is closer to the warehouse, meaning workers don’t have to carry those heavy cartons of 6-packs as far.

What are the latest trends in beers, as seen by the LCBO? Single serve cans, especially 500 mL cans, have been hot sellers over the past five years, and now make up 36% of all beer sales at the LCBO. Craft beer itself is the fastest growing segment at the LCBO. Strangely, another hot seller has been discount brands of fizzy yellow industrial beers. (Sigh.)

Leanne and James also outlined the submission and acceptance process for new products–something we have covered in other classes–but it was interesting to hear the process from their perspective. For instance, each year they receive over 700 submissions for new products, end up tasting about 300 of them, and approve 150-200. (Last year saw a bit of an up-tick, with 277 approvals.)

Now think about that–tasting 300 new products each year–that’s almost one for every day of the year. I suppose that wouldn’t be bad if the products were tasty. However, I question how the birthday-cake-flavoured vodka slipped through.

Day 573

April 1, 2013

I started the third-last week of the semester by heading back to my summer brewery, where a mere ten days ago some classmates and I brewed up a pale ale for a Sensory class assignment. The beer was giving off a lot of sulphury notes, an indication that the yeast wasn’t quite finished its work yet. However, the class tasting is this Friday, so ready or not, it was time to package the beer. First decision: keg it or cask it?

Kegging involves transferring the beer from fermenter to keg via a filter. Since we hadn’t had time to crash the fermenter (that is, lower the temperature of the fermenter so as to induce the yeast to fall asleep and drift down to the bottom of the fermenter), there would still be a lot of yeast swimming around, which would require a lot of filtration. In addition, I would also have to carbonate the beer. Once in class, we would have to use CO2 or a pump to get it out of the keg.

Casking involves transferring the beer from the fermenter to the cask, adding some sugar, and hammering a shive into the bung hole to seal the entire thing up. Having yeast swimming around is actually a good thing, since they will be able to chow down on the sugar and carbonate the cask all on their own. Once in class, we would simply hammer a tap into the cask, then open the tap.

Hmm. Let’s review.

Kegging: Filter (and filter and filter and filter) and then carbonate. Lots of work. Arrange for CO2 or find a pump to get the beer out of the keg. More work.

Casking: Hammer home a shive to seal it. Easy. Hammer in a tap to unseal it. Dead easy.

Really no contest, was it?

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