Archive for May 2013

West Coast Journey: Powell Street Brewing

May 30, 2013

So far in East Vancouver, we had visited a 32-hL brewery with a staff of one (Storm Brewing), and a 25-hL brewery with a staff of two dozen (Parallel 49).

Powell Street Brewery

Powell Street Brewery: small but mighty

Our next stop was Powell Street Brewing, the first nano-brewery in Vancouver proper. (Technically, Bridge Brewing is across Burrard Inlet in the city of North Vancouver.) It proved to be very different from our previous two stops.

Situated next to several commercial buildings on, yes, Powell Street, Powell Street Brewery is in what appears to be a small house. Entering, we found ourself in a small, bright lounge/sampling bar. Pieces of local art lined the walls and the ubiquitous growler filler stood on a corner of the bar.

The young woman behind the bar introduced herself as Nicole Stefanopoulos. It turns out she is half of the Powell Street team — her husband, David Bowkett, is the brewmaster.

Lounge and sampling bar.

Lounge and sampling bar.

Nicole poured me some samples (yay!) as we chatted. The Old Jalopy Pale Ale was excellent (more about that later) and I was very charmed by the ginger & cardamom wit — enough spice to be lively, dry enough to make a pleasant patio thirst-quencher. Clearly David knows his stuff.

“Small batch” is a phrase often thrown around by craft breweries, but Powell Street brings a new meaning to the phrase — each batch is a minuscule 3.5 hL (350 litres). However, demand for their beer has been crazy since the moment they opened their doors: when we visited in early May, they had been open less than 20 weeks and they were already producing and selling as much beer as their business plan had envisioned in the third year of business.

Mashing in

David mashes into direct-fired 3.5-hL system. (Photo by Nicole Stefanopoulos, used with permission)

In addition to ever-changing seasonals such as the ginger & cardamom witbier, Powell Street produces three beers year round: the pale ale, an IPA (of course) and a porter.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to tour the brewhouse — Nicole was taking care of the shop (several customers arrived and left while we were chatting), and David wasn’t there, since he still has a full-time job as an architectural technologist. (Yes, he works full-time, brews and bottles on weekends, and he and Nicole spend their evenings delivering beer to licensees and liquor stores.)

Nicole mentioned that she gets calls all the time from restaurants and bars seeking their products, but she has to turn them down — Powell Street is already selling everything that David brews. However, help is on the way in the form of another fermenter that should be arriving soon.

In addition to kegs for licensees and 650 mL bottles for liquor stores, a lot of their beer is dispensed via growler refills for locals; Nicole has seen growlers get strapped to bikes and even a baby stroller.

Local art

Local art is for sale — the artist receives 100% of the money

I have mentioned before that I particularly like nano-breweries because of their bonds with the local community. In the case of Powell Street, the brewery also serves as a kind of local art gallery — the artwork we had admired as we entered was created by local artists and is actually for sale. When a piece sells, the brewery doesn’t take any commission; all of the money goes to the artist. It’s Powell Street’s way of being a part of the local arts community.

Powell Street expects to produce 200 hectolitres in their first year of operation — that is the equivalent of only ten batches at most of the other breweries in town. (Parallel 49 Brewery, with their high speed rotary filler, could bottle that much beer in less than a day.) Can nano-breweries, with their limited capacity, compete with their larger craft-brewing cousins? Perhaps not in volume sold, or number of licensees. But Powell Street makes it clear that even the small brewery can be mighty. Ten days after our visit, Powell Street won a gold medal at the Canadian Brewing Awards for their Old Jalopy Pale Ale — and then a few minutes later, Old Jalopy was also named Beer of the Year.

Amazing.

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West Coast Journey: Parallel 49 Brewing

May 26, 2013

Time to visit the second of four breweries in East Vancouver. It was just a hop and a skip from Storm Brewing to our next destination, but one glance at Parallel 49 Brewing told us that the two breweries could not be more different.

Condo

Corrugated steel-panelled condo marks gentrification of area while still paying tribute to gritty industrial history.

This is still a very industrial part of town, but the corrugated metal “faux industrial”- style condo developments here and there and banners proclaiming “East Village” indicate that some gentrification of the area has started.

Parallel 49

Parallel 49: sleek professional exterior

Parallel 49 Brewing (named after the nearby 49th parallel, which acts as the Canada-U.S. border in these parts) was started by three home brewers who were ready to step up to the big leagues. The brewery’s location in a sleek two-storey commercial building makes it obvious that a lot of professional planning —  and a whackdoodle of cash — went into realizing their dream. Clearly the owners are gambling that this area will continue to attract more well-to-do people and their money.

Parallel 49

Live TV: Brewhouse operations on the flat screen TV.

The brewery’s open front door invited us into a bright and airy lounge and sampling bar. A large flat screen tv hung above the bar, but rather than sports or news, it was permanently tuned to the brewhouse, focussed on the mash-lauter tun and kettle. Yes, you can have a sample of beer and watch the next batch being made. (I wonder if the brewmaster gets paid for his TV appearances?)

Parallel 49 Beer

L to R: Ruby ale, IPA, Watermelon wit, saison, brown ale, India pale lager

Behind the bar, four growler fillers lined the wall — like several other West Coast breweries we had already visited, growlers are obviously big business here too. In addition to a cooler with bottles, there was also a plethora of brewery-related swag, including beer jelly, beer soap, beer glasses and (of course) beer logo t-shirts.

A young woman behind the bar gave us a friendly greeting and introduced herself as Angie. And an angel she was too, since she immediately poured some samples of their beer. (Hallelujah!)

Lord of the Hops

Lord of the Hops IPA: “One Beer to Rule Them All”, apparently. What would Frodo think?

The beer samples covered a wide gamut, from a tasty ruby ale to a very hoppy India pale lager. Several really stood out. The Old Boy Brown Ale was nutty and smooth. The Seedspitter Watermelon Wit — yes, it tasted like fresh watermelon — was very light, dry and thirst-quenching. I can see of lot of it being consumed on Vancouver patios this summer. And it goes without saying that I enjoyed the Lord of the Hops IPA — with Ahtunam, Citra, and Amarillo hops, a very enjoyable example of the Northwest style.

As I sampled, Angie filled us in on the brewery’s short history. On the day we visited, the brewery had been open almost exactly a year. The three homebrewers had originally been chemical engineers — perhaps their engineering degrees explained the high degree of attention to detail that we saw. They in turn had brought five other investors on board. Their business plan clearly calls for Parallel 49 to be sleek, modern, and well-marketed.

Seedspitter

Custom embossed bottle with 1940s-style artwork.

In addition to growler and keg sales, the brewery also bottles their product in custom 650 mL bottles with the company logo embossed above the label. In addition, most of the labels feature distinctive art in a 1940s cartoon style. The result is a very professional-looking and very recognizable product.

More than good marketing and good looks, the brewery has in its short life proven to be a purveyor of fine beer as well. The week after my visit, Parallel 49 picked up a whack of trophies at the Canadian Brewing Awards:

  • Old Boy Brown Ale: Silver, Brown Ales
  • Vow of Silence: Gold, Belgian-Style Abbey Ales
  • Lord of the Hops: Silver, American-style IPAs
  • From East Vancouver With Love: Silver, Wood- or Barrel-Aged Strong Beers

Pretty impressive for a brewery just celebrating its first birthday.

Parallel 49 fermenters

Fermenter farm. Not sure I have seen FVs scrunched so close together before. The upper catwalk is a nice touch.

Unfortunately I didn’t arrive on the proper day for an official tour, but when Angie was unable to answer some of my more technical questions, she resourcefully snagged John, one of the brewer dudes, as he walked through the lounge. Fortunately John had just enough time in his schedule to take me on a behind-the-scenes look at the brewhouse and packaging area.

The brewhouse is a 25-hL example of stainless steel art. They had started with some 50-hL fermenters, but when demand outstripped supply, they quickly installed several 100-hL fermenters, each capable of holding a quad-batch. Perhaps the rapid pace of expansion explains why the fermenters were scrunched so close together. Glad I’m not the guy who cleans them — that would be a tight work space.

John was an excellent host, and as we passed by a couple of fermenters holding special brews, he stopped to draw samples for me. Like I said, an excellent host.

Bottler

Bottle filler capable of filling and bottling 1800 bottles/minute–when it is working.

We also took a look at the packaging line. The brewery uses a rotary filler capable of filling 1800 bottles per hour. (This is very impressive for a Canadian craft brewer.) However, the bottling machine had been purchased off-shore, and apparently it had taken considerable time and effort to get it working properly.  I have heard similar stories at several other breweries — off-shore equipment purchased for a very good price that takes a significant amount of time to get up and running or causes a significant amount of down-time.

My tour with John over, I returned to Angie (and my wife Elaine) in the lounge. Angie poured me another sample, this time of their winter seasonal, a salted caramel Scotch ale. Oh, my! A nose of brown sugar, a thick, rich mouthfeel, and the salty smooth taste of Mackintosh toffee. Angie apologized that this was the last of the batch — four or five bottles in the cooler was all that remained.

Yes, I bought one of those bottles. No, I didn’t have room in my suitcase for it — I would just have to jettison some socks.

West Coast Journey: Storm Brewing

May 23, 2013

Following our visit to tiny Bridge Brewery in North Vancouver, we decided to quit the suburbs and head right into Vancouver itself. We only had a few hours, and traffic in Vancouver varies between bad and impossible, so we were happy to discover four breweries clustered within a three-block radius. As it turns out, they may be close geographically, but location is all that they have in common.

Storm Brewing

Brewery or motorbike repairs?

We started with Storm Brewing. In stark contrast to the shiny new suburban nano-brewery Bridge, Storm is an 18-year-old inner city brewery located in a gritty industrial area. The small single story brick building looked like it might house a tool & die shop, or perhaps a Harley-Davidson repair shop.

As I walked from the bright sunlight into the shadowy interior and wended my way around piles of spare parts, racks of tools and large machinery that seemed to have been bodged together, I realized that I was right — this was a Harley-Davidson repair shop. And the biker dude with bleached spiked hair in a purple t-shirt and leather pants, chains hanging around his neck was obviously the owner. Then my eyes adjusted to the dim light — no, wait, my mistake, the place was a brewery, and the biker dude was actually a brewery dude.

Tap handles

Semi-skeletal tap handles would look good in a Mad Max movie.

I am not kidding about the ambience. It sort of looked like a cross between a welding shop and a set for the latest zombie apocalypse movie, heightened by the presence many post-apocalyptic tap handles, as well as the steam rising from the mash tun. (I was lucky enough to visit on a Wednesday, which is brew day at Storm.)

I introduced myself and discovered that I was talking to James Walton, founder, owner, chief mechanic, brewmaster and sole employee of Storm. (At various times, James has had an assistant; however, at the moment, it’s just James.)

He had at one time been involved in the pharmaceutical industry, but soon realized that he was much more interested in his homebrewing, and decided to start up his own brewery. Instead of buying brewery equipment, James taught himself to weld and constructed his own. (I sensed a bit of the rebel in James —  okay, a lot of the rebel.) As a result, some of his equipment is, well… unique.

Grain hydrator

Lower part of grain hydrator, featuring a series of cascading steps

His brewhouse features the first ground level mash/lauter tun I have ever seen — yes, it sits right on the floor like a giant hot tub. The grain hydrator, which wets the grain with warm water before it falls into the mash tun, is also an interesting design, featuring a series of “steps” or “rungs” through which the grain cascades on the way to the mash tun.

Over the years, James has rebuilt, upgraded and redesigned the brewhouse. Its current capacity is 32 hectolitres, which has to make it one of the larger craft breweries in Vancouver, and a very substantial size for a one-man operation.

He offered me a sample of his unfiltered Hurricane IPA, and I have to confess that, given the hand-manufactured equipment, I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, I lifted the cup to my lips and — WHAM! Flavour exploded in my mouth. Wow. I love northwest IPAs, and have tasted and savoured a lot of them, but Hurricane instantly stormed its way into my Top 10.

Storm Brewing mash tun

James Walton, powerful warlock, casting spells over his 32-hL ground-level mash/lauter tun

Then I realized it. I had mistaken James for a biker dude, but he was actually a powerful warlock, standing in the dim light of his cavern, casting his mighty arcane spells over the steam rising from the mash tun. This explained everything. (Or perhaps it was simply the IPA casting its potent 7% spell over me.)

When James first started, there were not very many breweries in Vancouver, and he believed they were brewing a lot of uninteresting beer. He also strongly felt that filtering beer significantly reduced and changed the flavour of the beer. He set out to change both the uninteresting part as well as attitudes towards unfiltered beer. In 1995, his first beer, an unfiltered alt named Red Sky, thundered on to the scene and opened a lot of eyes to the possibilities of both unfiltered beer and brewing that pushed the envelope.

(He stopped brewing the alt many years ago, but has just undertaken a collaboration with nearby Parallel 49 Brewing to recreate the recipe as part of Vancouver’s annual Craft Beer Week in June.)

Over the years, James has brewed everything from a porter to a cherry lambic, always unfiltered. Besides Hurricane IPA, his current lineup includes a Scotch ale, a north-German style pilsner, a strong (8%) stout, and a huge (11%) Flanders sour red. Don’t bother looking in liquor stores for Storm beers — you are going to have to travel to Vancouver and search for the beers on tap at about 30 establishments. Trust me, the trip will be worth it.

Handmade equipment, unfiltered beer on tap only, huge 32-hL system manned by a single brewing magician — Storm is perhaps the most unique brewery I have visited.

(Addendum: After I published my blog about Bridge Brewing of North Vancouver, a reader pointed out that there is another Bridge Brewing on the East Coast of Canada, in Halifax. By coincidence, I discovered that there is also another Storm Brewing on the East Coast, in Newfoundland.)

West Coast Journey: Bridge Brewing

May 21, 2013

As I mentioned in my previous post, the Vancouver craft beer scene is exploding.

This just demands some personal exploration, so a few days after driving westward across Vancouver Island to visit Tofino Brewing, Elaine and I travelled in the other direction, taking the eastbound ferry from the Island to Vancouver and booking a room at a B&B in the city of North Vancouver.

Vancouver

View of Vancouver from North Van

(The city of Vancouver proper is separated from North Vancouver — “North Van” to locals — by a piece of the ocean, Burrard Inlet. To reach Vancouver from the North Shore, you must cross the inlet via one of two long bridges. Try to avoid doing this during rush hour unless you enjoy sitting in a motionless car. But I digress…)

I am by nature drawn to nano-breweries. Beer doesn’t have a long shelf-life at the best of times; centuries ago, before refrigeration and railways made transportation of beer possible, you drank beer that was made within a few miles of your home. For household consumption, wives were responsible for brewing the ale served with every meal. For a social evening out, you went down to your local tavern and drank the beer made right there. Beer was local, unfiltered and meant to be drunk fresh. Every brewery was a nano-brewery.

Of course there are advantages to refrigeration and modern transportation, and I would never dream of giving up the ability to head down to my local liquor store and buy German, British and Australian beer. However, to me, nano-breweries and their strong connection to the local population are a pleasant reminder of simpler times.

Since we were staying in North Van, it made sense to visit a nearby nano-brewery on the North Shore, the brand-spankin’ new Bridge Brewing.

Bridge Brewing

Bridge Brewing: small, bright, modern, a little hard to find.

It’s pretty obvious where the name came from–the brewery is just down the road from the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Bridge (one of those two aforementioned bridges from traffic hell). That doesn’t automatically make the brewery easy to find, however: although it’s in a nice, new modern commercial building, that structure is tucked behind another nice, new modern commercial building. It took a few minutes of exploration and head-scratching before we finally discovered it.

Although we arrived outside of the brewery’s normal hours, the door was open and we were lucky enough to catch Director of Consumption Leigh Stratton, who was busy loading kegs into her car for delivery to a local bar. Leigh and her husband Jason started up Bridge Brewing only nine months ago as Vancouver’s first nano-brewery.

Many (most?) craft breweries are started by home brewers aspiring to join the big leagues. In contrast, although both Jason and Leigh enjoyed craft beer, neither had any background in home brewing. Instead, they took the unusual step of bringing in a consultant to teach them how to make beer. Leigh and Jason then took on a partner with no brewing experience and trained him to be the brewer.

Bridge Brewing.

Everything in one room. (Two older fermenters are hidden behind the two new FVs.)

Like Tofino Brewing, Bridge fits everything into one room — their brewhouse,  fermenters, and a small sampling bar are all shoehorned into just 930 square feet of space.

The sampling bar features a dedicated growler filler. (When you fill a growler by simply pouring beer into it, you add air as the beer swirls and splashes around in the bottle. This is bad bad bad —  oxygen is a beer killer and reduces the effective life of the growler to a day or two at the most. A growler filler evacuates the air inside the growler and replaces it with beer-friendly CO2, then gently adds the beer, forcing the CO2 out as the growler fills. With much less oxygen in the beer, the shelf life of the growler is greatly extended.)

It being a sampling bar, Leigh poured me a sample of Bridge’s North Shore Pale Ale, which I enjoyed as she took me on a tour. That basically involved standing in the middle of the room and turning around as she described their operation.

Bridge brewhouse

Nano-brewhouse: two 2-hL mash/lauter tuns (smaller vessels), two kettles, all sitting on a propane-fired stove.

Each of their 4-hectolitre (400-litre) batches is made by mashing into two 200-litre mash/lauter tuns sitting on direct-fire propane burners. The wort is then transferred to two kettles, also direct-fired, then transferred to one of their four fermenters. (They started with two 8-hL fermenters, each capable of holding a double batch; however, high demand immediately called for an expansion of volume, and they quickly added a 16-hL and a 24-hL FV, capable of holding a quadruple- and sextuple-batch respectively.)

With the increase in fermentation space, Bridge expects to produce 800 hL by the end of their first 12 months. That may sound minuscule, but actually represents 200 batches of beer in their first year, a respectable number for any start-up brewery.

Since this is the Pacific Northwest, it’s not surprising that Bridge’s main beer, North Shore, is a 5.5% abv northwest-style pale ale. The nose is nicely citrussy, with floral hints, the body medium, with a pleasant malt & caramel taste. Although it possesses only 27 IBUs–fairly moderate for this part of the world–that’s enough to impart a pleasingly crisp and dry finish. All in all, a very good beer to have in the fridge. Bridge packages some of this in 650 mL bottles for sale in a few liquor stores, and some in kegs for a few bars, but a lot of it is sold to locals who bring in growlers to be refilled.

They are also about to add Hopilano IPA to their year-round label stable — again, almost a required product for this part of the world. (The word “Hopilano” is wordplay on the nearby Capilano River.) Bridge also makes a rotating series of seasonal beers — this summer will feature a kölsch.

Like several other West Coast breweries we toured, Bridge does not filter their beers. While this probably shortens the beer’s shelf-life a bit, the upside is the retention of more flavour, aroma and protein.

Bridge also prides itself on its eco-friendly processes. The brewery does not have a hot liquor tank that constantly keeps water hot for brewing and cleaning; instead they rely on a tankless water heater to flash-heat cold water, instantly producing hot water on an as-needed basis. Almost all waste products and packaging are recycled, composted or reused, even to the point of washing and reusing growler caps. About the only items that end up in the garbage are foil hop bags.

Bridge is obviously putting a lot of work into connecting with the local community. They have a modern website, and their Twitter feed (@bridgebrewcrew) reads more like a conversation with the neighbours than a promotional tool. A couple of days after we visited, they sponsored their first annual North Shore 10K Growler, a 10,000-metre run that started and finished at the brewery. However, it was not your ordinary 10K: each participant who ran the entire distance carrying two growlers of water — that’s almost 5 kilos (10 lbs) of extra weight hanging at the end of your arms — won two free growlers of pale ale each week for a month.

(That is a very generous offer by a tiny brewery. Twenty-four runners successfully took up this challenge — at just over 15 L of free beer per person, that is a community freebie of 360 L of beer, almost an entire batch. On top of this, I’m sure there were a few free pints consumed at the brewery following the race as well.)

With the strong demand for their product, a small eco-footprint and a good local presence, Bridge Brewing seems to be another well-thought-out business plan. I will be very interested in watching their growth over the next couple of years.

West Coast Journey: Tofino Brewing

May 11, 2013

As I mentioned in my previous post, just a couple of days after finishing my Brewmaster exams, family business took me to British Columbia for a couple of weeks. In retrospect, the timing was not perfect–I flew out of Toronto just a few days before the Ontario Brewing Awards, and left B.C. just a few days before the Canadian Brewing Awards in Victoria. However, on the plus side, once my family commitments were completed, I had some time to explore some of the craft breweries on the West Coast.

Nurtured in the Northwest craft beer movement of the 1980s, B.C. craft brewers have always been about five years ahead of Ontario in terms of consumer attitude and marketplace penetration. So if you think the craft beer scene is burgeoning in Ontario, you need to visit B.C., where the craft beer scene is exploding. This year alone, nine new breweries and brewpubs are scheduled to open in Metropolitan Vancouver, bringing the city’s total to 20. And new breweries are popping up around the province as well.

I decided to start my journey of exploration by driving out to Tofino Brewing on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Tofino is one of a handful of small villages that cling to the harsh mountainous western coast of Vancouver Island. With nothing between it and Japan except several thousand kilometres of Pacific Ocean, Tofino is lashed by fierce storms in the winter; even summer days are usually accompanied by a daily blanket of morning mist, rain and cool winds. Fifty or sixty years ago, there was only a tiny fishing village here, connected to the populated east coast of the Island by a bone-shaking, white-knuckled, 6-hour drive over a tortuous gravel road clinging to sheer cliff faces.

Long Beach

Long Beach: 20 km of hard sand and big waves

Then in the 1960s, hippie surfers discovered the big ocean waves endlessly rolling onto Long Beach, a 20-km stretch of hard tidal sand just outside Tofino. The Clayquot Sound old-growth forest controversy of the 1980s, pitting loggers against the nascent eco-movement, brought attention–and even more visitors–to this part of the world. The gravel road was paved and improved, cutting the 6-hour drive to about 90 minutes. Now Tofino is a busy tourist town offering eco-adventures via kayaks, floatplanes, and whale-watching boats. A new generation of surfers has arrived, and like their snowboarding ilk at Whistler and Banff, they eke out a living waiting tables and doing odd-jobs between surfing sessions.

Tofino Brewing

The big door is open: C’mon in!

Tofino Brewery is located in a section of an industrial building just outside of town. Like several other small breweries we visited in B.C., if the big delivery door was shut, the brewery was closed. If it was open, come on in! As luck would have it, the brewery was open, and when I introduced myself, I was given a quick tour–not quick in the sense that they were eager to get rid of me, but quick because it is a pretty compact set-up.

I confess that, given the young average age of the locals, and the laid-back lifestyle of a population more interested in rippin’ the primo rollers around nearby Incendiary Rock than in getting a science degree, I half-expected to see the brewing dudes at Tofino Brewing standing around a 50-litre pot, stirring the mash with a piece of driftwood.

Grain tower

The mill tower (and motorcycle stand). Bags of grain are carried upstairs and poured into the two-roller mill. Milled grain slides into large funnel where it is pre-hydrated as it falls into mash tun.

However, what I saw instead was a clean, professional state-of-the-art brewhouse. The single room contains the sampling bar/retail operation, the grain tower holding a two-roller mill (whimsically topped by an ancient motorbike frame), the brewhouse, and fermenters.

(A confession: As my fellow Brewmaster students know, I am usually an avid note-taker. I distinctly remember taking notes during my visit to Tofino Brewing. And yet, perhaps a legacy of the several samples of beer I tasted, those notes–which included the size of the brewhouse, the name of my guide and various other pertinent details–cannot be found. On the plus side, my wife Elaine volunteered from this point forward to be my note-taker and blog co-author during brewery visits.)

The brewery was founded a couple of years ago by three friends who were tired of financing their surfing habit with arduous odd jobs around town. Having between them various business degrees (but no brewing experience), they put together a business plan for a local brewery, and convinced brewmaster David Woodward of Whistler Brew House to move to Tofino.

The brewhouse has a mash/lauter tun of perhaps 10 hectolitres (due to my lack of notes, I’m guessing at capacity based on my photos), and I seem to remember my guide mentioning that they could push capacity to a typical knock-out of 13 hectolitres of wort.

mash/lauter tun, kettle, whirlpool

(L to R): Electrically heated mash/lauter tun, kettle, whirlpool

Tofino has a shortage of fresh water–although a lot of melted snow comes off nearby mountains, most of it ends up in the ocean well before it has a chance to reach the town. Even in this wet climate, the large number of tourists puts a huge strain on the water system each summer. For that reason, the brewery vessls are electrically heated rather than steam-fired. (My guide did allow that this added a certain flavour of caramelization to their Tuff Session Pale Ale, and that cleaning the elements after every batch was a pain.) Water is also saved by recycling warm heat exchanger water into the hot liquor tank to be used in the next batch of beer. (Niagara College’s Teaching Brewery also uses the same water-saving method.)

Tofino Brewery does not filter their beer; for that reason, rather than having a combined kettle/whirpool, they have a separate kettle, and a dedicated whirlpool to remove as much trub as possible. (Many small breweries combine the kettle and whirlpool in order to save money on capital expenses–however, the inevitable design compromises means the kettle doesn’t heat as efficiently, and the whirlpool doesn’t remove trub as efficiently.)

Fermenters

Fermenter farm. Smallest FV at far end was one of originals. Largest on the right is the newest.

From the whirlpool, the wort flows through the heat exchanger to one of eight fermenters. The brewery started with three FVs–one horizontal and two cylindrical-conicals–each capable of handling a single batch. They have since invested in several double batch cylindrical conicals, as well as one capable of handling a triple batch (or perhaps it was a quad batch). The horizontal fermenter has been converted into their hot liquor tank.

The brewery initially didn’t have enough room (or the money) for a bottling line, so the original business plan envisioned direct sales at the brewery via refillable growlers–consumers would buy a growler, then bring it back to the brewery to be refilled. Apparently the recycling aspect of that plan struck a strong resonant chord in this eco-friendly community: the brewery originally bought 300 growlers, thinking that would last them a month–those sold out in less than a week. They ordered another 600–those were gone in another week. Local demand for Tofino beer was–and continues to be–overwhelming. In the 30 minutes I was there on a Saturday mid-afternoon, an endless stream of casually-dressed locals arrived to have a growler (or two) filled.

Demand being strong, when another unit of their industrial building became available, the brewery quickly moved in, turning part of the space into a cooler capable of holding dozens of kegs for delivery to local restaurants. The remainder of the new space gave them the room they needed for a 6-head Meheen bottle filler. Although this is probably capable of filling more than thirty 650-mL bottles a minute, the small table-top bottle labeller really slows the process down, since each bottle has to be individually hand-inserted and removed.

Lounge

The open-air lounge. Casual dress encouraged.

The tour finished, samples were quickly offered at the in-house bar, and gratefully accepted by this thirsty traveller. (Hence the lost notes.) Tofino’s flagship beers are a fairly mainstream blonde, a nice English-style pale ale (with the aforementioned caramel notes), and a snappy northwest-style IPA–de rigeur for this part of the world. They also had a coffee porter bottled–another clever addition to the lineup, since good strong coffee is a huge part of the West Coast lifestyle–but alas, none was on tap. Curiously, you can’t buy a single 650 mL bottle at the brewery–the minimum purchase is four bottles, which is more than my poor suitcase would hold for the flight home (unless I discarded all my clothes, a concept with which I briefly toyed). In any case, I left without a bottle of the coffee porter, but I did buy a logo t-shirt, since I do not have enough t-shirts with brewery logos.

The last phrase of the previous sentence is a complete lie.

Locals love the growlers

Locals love the growlers

In a nutshell, despite the added expense of having ingredients shipped from mainland to the Island, and then shipped to the far side of the Island, Tofino Brewery seems to be a rollicking success, buoyed by the strong support–and thirst–of the local population. At a glance, the brewery seems to be brewing close to capacity, and it will be interesting to see if this results in a further expansion–perhaps a larger brewhouse or more fermenters.

Well-made local beer, made in tune with local sensibilities. Now that was a well-thought-out business plan!

Day 600: A look back… and a look forward

May 5, 2013

Well, there it is: Six hundred days since my first day of Brewmaster classes. Hopefully I learned how to make good beer, and more importantly, that I learned how to do it safely and consistently. I’ve definitely met a lot of great people in the local brewing scene, as well as several people in ancillary industries. And my fellow graduates should form the core of a stronger craft brewing industry over the next few years–many have already started work in breweries from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.

But let’s be realistic: As good as the program was, there’s still room for improvement.

If I were the Mayor of Beer, here’s what I would do:

  1. Enlarge the Teaching Brewery. The current space is too small by half. It’s hard to learn about the proper way to do one thing when you are dodging around five or six other people doing other things. (Apparently plans are being drawn up for a larger Teaching Brewery.)
  2. More teaching in the Teaching Brewery. Sometimes I felt that we were learning how to brew by a process of osmosis rather than by structured lessons in proper procedure.
  3. More lab work (and more lab work tied to the Teaching Brewery). We need more lab work in the formal chemistry and microbiology labs to reinforce lecture material. But we also need more lab work tied to the Teaching Brewery. Small teams of 1st- and 2nd-year students should be taking daily samples from the Teaching Brewery for analysis in the lab, testing for yeast viability, IBUs, water composition, microbiological content, etc. More lab work and attention to Quality Assurance is what will take craft brewing to the next level; Brewmaster students not only need to learn about it, but need to live it constantly during the course.
  4. Small business, not large corporation.  With courses like Human Resources and Business Ethics, the current focus of the Brewmaster program seems to be the large corporate workplace. These classes should be replaced by courses that will help us set up and run small businesses. An introductory accounting class would seem to be ideal. There is also an Operations Management class already offered  in other courses that includes “customer service, forecasting techniques, procurement, supply management and just-in-time strategies, aggregate planning, inventory management, materials requirements planning, scheduling techniques, quality management and control techniques, and productivity analysis and improvement.” 
  5. Better central coordination. There does not seem to be any hand on the tiller at the moment. None of the teachers knows what is being taught in other classes, so duplication of material is rife. For instance, we learn about gas laws in Packaging, then learn about gas laws again in Filtration, Carbonation & Finishing. Someone has to take charge, meet with the teachers–or even bring the teachers together–and negotiate some sort of coordinated approach to the program materials.
  6. (While we are mentioning Packaging and FCF, wouldn’t it be more more logical to have FCF first, followed by Packaging, since that is what happens in real life?)
  7. Real world applications. Given that Brewmaster students will be brewing professionally as soon as they graduate–actually many students were brewing professionally before they graduated–more of the Brewmaster program should be linked to the outside world.
    • As I have already suggested, our final project beers should have to be entered into a real brewing competition versus professional brewers.
    • Brewmaster students should be leaving the program as fully qualified beer _________s, whether that be BJCP judge, Ciccerone, Prud’homme or one of several other official designations.
    • Likewise, Brewmaster students should have to judge at several professional competitions as part of the program.
    • Every student should have to belong to the Master Brewers Association of Canada (MBAC), and every student should be required to go to each of the MBAC quarterly technical seminars.
  8. Yeast propagation and cropping. Right now, a fresh batch of yeast is used for each brew in the Teaching Brewery. However  out in the real world, yeast is cropped from one batch and used in the next batch. Part of the problem is the small size of the Teaching Brewery (see Point #1), but there has to be some way to incorporate proper yeast management.
  9. DE filtration. Likewise, filtration using diatomaceous earth (DE) is industry standard, but we do not have a DE filtration system at the college. Yes, DE presents a possible health hazard, so don’t have any DE on site–just have the filter there so we can at least learn to set it up (minus the DE) and clean it.
  10. Proper classrooms.  A Sensory course requiring a delicate sense of smell and taste being given in a science lab full of chemical smells? Again, it seems that a central coordinator should be able to stick-handle problems like this with the college administrators.
  11.  More field trips to breweries. Given the number of breweries within two hours of the college, it seems unrealistic that we only had one field trip in the last month of the two year program. Seeing how breweries are set up and talking to the brewers is important.
  12. Technical seminars. Bring in brewmasters to give 2-hour seminars on technical aspects of brewing: lautering issues with bigger mashes, or care and feeding of yeast in high gravity brews, for instance.
  13. Make student education more important than college profit. Sales of college-made beer (and wine and food, for that matter) produce money for the college. That helps the college, obviously, but sometimes it seems that education takes a back seat to business. For instance, the dates of the very profitable Caps, Corks & Forks dinners are set without any regard to the time needed to properly design and brew beers to match to the cuisine. Again, this may be an instance where a strong central voice for the program is needed.

I’m certain that several of these concerns are already being addressed, and I am actually looking forward to coming back to the college in five years to see the improvements that will have been made in both the facilities as well as the curriculum.

So, that’s my look back. Now what? As a child of the sixties, I was raised to believe that learning is a lifelong process. So I intend to keep learning about beer, and to keep you informed about that ongoing journey through this blog. A Student of Beer I have been, a Student of Beer I shall remain.

What’s coming up?

Well, to be truthful, I haven’t actually thought that far ahead yet. My primary concern was finishing all my exams, handing in my final assignments and passing all my classes. Normally you would think that I would immediately start looking for a job. However, just a couple of days after my last exam, I had to fly out to British Columbia on family business, and I have extended that visit into a two-week vacation and an opportunity to visit as many West Coast breweries and brewpubs as possible. I’ll be writing about those breweries over the next couple of weeks.

Once I get home, yes, I’ll start looking for a job, and I’ll let you know how that goes.

And looking a bit further into the future, I will be attending a beer bloggers’ conference in Boston in late July–I will definitely be blogging about that.

Cheers!


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