Archive for June 2013

Iron Brewer: twiddling my thumbs

June 29, 2013

Addendum to yesterday’s post: Elaine pointed out that I gave the impression I am only working at Niagara College over the summer. I’ll actually be there for a year.

In addition to finding a job (yay!), I also took the time to enter the Iron Brewer competition. This is a fun annual event for members of the Master Brewers of Canada, if your idea of fun is to make a beer and then watch while it is publicly judged and scored by your peers.

I’m sure you’ve seeen or heard of TV’s Iron Chef — two top chefs go head-to-head preparing a four-course dinner in a limited time using only provided ingredients. The Iron Brewer competition works roughly the same way: 15 brewers are each given an identical bag of brewing ingredients — various grains, hops, yeast, etc. — and must make a batch of beer using only some or all of those ingredients in the bag.

Which ingredients, how much of each and what sort of brewing regimen each brewer uses is, of course, the big question.

Each brewer then has to bring at least 10 litres of the finished beer to a judging night hosted by a local brewery. Other MBAC members then taste and score all 15 beers, and the brewer with the high score is crowned Iron Brewer.

Of course there are usually way more that 15 applications, so names are drawn out of a hat for the chance to compete. (This year there are actually only 11 spots open. The organizers decided that last year’s top three brewers get an automatic berth this year; likewise, the host brewery also gets a spot, just like the nation hosting the World Cup soccer tournament gains an automatic berth.)

I decided to enter the competition this year. Why? Well, like I said previously, it sounds like fun. It’s a chance to use some of the recipe formulation calculations we learned in school. And it’s also a chance to show the new students entering the Brewmaster program, or those who are about to enter second year that they have been (or will be) taught the skills necessary to compete at this level.

If I am one of the lucky ones, the bag of ingredients will be delivered at the end of July, I’ll brew up a beer in August, and the judging night will be near the end of September.

But until the names of competitors are announced, I’ll just sit here, twiddling my thumbs… And I might as well have a beer while I’m waiting, right?

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No classes? Now what?

June 28, 2013

And so, our sojourn to the West Coast finished, Elaine and I returned to southern Ontario. The next morning I awoke to face the puzzling phenomenon that eventually happens to every student: no classes.

Being an analytical kind of guy, I decided to analyze this.

  1. Observation: No classes.
  2. Probable causes:
    • It’s Christmas vacation
    • It’s Reading Week
    • It’s Summer vacation
    • I’m finished school
  3. Examine the evidence:
    • No Christmas carols playing in stores
    • No assignments to finish
    • No new courses to choose
    • Diploma hanging on bedroom wall
  4. Conclusion: I’ve finished school.
  5. Problem: No money in bank
  6. Analysis: Lack of income while attending college meant outgo was higher than income.
  7. Observation: Income comes from inheritance, investment or work
  8. Hypothesis: I need to get a job in order to earn income
  9. Experiment #1: Open front door. No lawyers standing there holding inheritance cheques.
  10. Experiment #2: Multiply bank balance by expected interest to arrive at expected income. $0 x n% = $0
  11. Conclusion: Hypothesis is correct. Get a job.

Having solved the problem of what to do, I immediately sprang into action: I drove to the college to clean out my locker and buy some beer.

While I was there, I had a conversation with the dean of the department about the Brewmaster course and some of the problems with curriculum that my fellow students had identified.

When I left the college, I had my safety boots that had been stored in my locker, I had a growler of Butler’s Bitter — a beer that had just won a gold medal at the Canadian Brewing Awards — and I had a job.

Yes, over the summer, I will be working at Niagara College  trying to identify duplication in the Brewmaster curriculum — stuff that is being taught twice or even three times — as well as needed curriculum that is not being covered at all.

Excuse me while I put my analytical hat back on…

West Coast Journey: Spinnaker’s Brewpub

June 24, 2013

After spending several hours walking from my Victoria hotel to four breweries and back again, I thought my day as a pedestrian was finished. However, as I arrived back at the hotel, I got a message from Elaine that shopping was taking longer than expected and she would be another hour.

Sign

Bakery in downtown Victoria has the craft brew vibe.

Another hour? Hmmm. A quick visit to the internet told me that I was a 20-minute walk from Spinnaker’s Gastro Brewpub. Twenty minutes there, twenty minutes to drink a pint, twenty minutes back, would be…. hey, exactly an hour.  The universe was displaying a synchronicity that I dared ignore only at my peril.

Back outside into the sun and down the street towards Victoria’s beautiful Inner Harbour. As I walked, I came across an amusing sidewalk sign outside a bakery that said much about how craft beer has entered B.C.’s culinary landscape: “White cheddar & beer muffins!”

I was so amused, I went inside and bought one. Who can resist the power of advertising?

Inner Harbour

Victoria’s Inner Harbour framed by the distant Olympic Mountains.

I reached the Inner Harbour and walked across the Johnson Street Bridge, a lift bridge built way back in 1924 that allows small boats access to the inner reaches of Victoria’s waterways. The view of the provincial legislature framed the white-capped peaks of Washington state’s distant Olympic Mountains tempted me to stop and gaze. However, the sun was hot and cold beer was calling so on I strolled.

Spinnaker's Gastro Brewpub, Victoria

Spinnaker’s Gastro Brewpub, Victoria

The internet proved to be right again — after twenty minutes, I was indeed standing outside the oldest brewpub in Canada,a friendly-looking place in a very pleasant upscale neighbourhood. When the hostess found out I was there for a pint, she suggested I head upstairs to the second-floor lounge, since they were just about to tap a special one-off cask of something called Choco-holic Porter to which Bailey’s Irish Cream had been added. Who could say no to that? I asked if I could speak, brewer to brewer, with someone regarding the brewhouse and she assured me she would try to find someone.

Lounge

The upstairs lounge at Spinnaker’s: cool, dim, play-off hockey on the TV. Very civilized.

The upstairs lounge proved to be a wonderfully dim and cool refuge, its only nod to the modern world a flat screen TV. That was actually okay by me, since it was showing play-off hockey, and this is Canada, eh? (And I must say, I have come to appreciate the 3-hour time difference between here and central Canada — it means that evening games in the east are only late afternoon games here , a very civilized reason to take off from work early and head to the pub.)

Within minutes a cool pint of cask-conditioned Choco-holic Porter was sitting in front of me. Wow: chocolate, followed by more chocolate, with a chocolate finish. Well worth the walk.

A few sips in, Tommie Grant appeared at my elbow. Tommie is one of the brewers here — he started as a cellarman, and worked his way into the brewhouse. I offered to buy him a pint, but Tommie was a busy man. With B.C.’s recent surge in craft beer, the brewers at Spinnaker’s don’t have a lot of spare time. As  busy as he was, Tommie did have time to fill me in on the system.

Back in 1984, you couldn’t get a small brewing system manufactured in these parts, so the 8-hectolitre brewhouse was actually shipped all the way from Jolly Olde England. Over the years, of course, there have been upgrades and additions — especially more fermenters — but the basic layout remains the same. The system is electrically heated, with four open fermentation tanks, seven conditioning tanks and a legion of secondary conditioning and serving tanks. True to the British tradition, the secondary tanks are in a serving cellar underneath the bar, from whence the beer is hand-pumped up to daylight via “beer engines” (the long-handled bar pumps you see in old episodes of All Creatures Great and Small). Because Spinnaker’s doesn’t filter their beers, they use über-flocculating varieties of yeast that quickly fall to the bottom of the fermenter when they are finished their appointed rounds.

For many years, you had to come to Spinnaker’s to drink their beer — and from my vantage point in the second-floor lounge, looking across the Inner Habour, why wouldn’t you want to come for a pint? My beer was so good, I was seriously considering heading outside and looking around the neighbourhood for a house to buy. However, for those who might not live close enough to drink there all there time, Spinnaker’s added a 650 mL bottling line several years ago, a growler filler, and even a canning line. Amazing.

Tommie looked busy, so I thanked him for his time, and asked the server for my bill — I could just make it back to the hotel by my 60-minute deadline if I walked at a brisk clip. While I was waiting for my bill, someone else appeared at my elbow and introduced himself — it was the owner, Paul Hadfield, who got this whole thing going back in 1984. We chatted about the upcoming Canadian Brewing Awards, which were happening right there in Victoria in a few days. It sounded like Spinnaker’s was going to be the centre of the beer universe for a couple of days. Paul departed for a moment, and quickly returned bearing a few samples of various ales that were currently on tap.  Although unfiltered British-style ales are what Spinnaker’s has specialized in for the past 28 years, they have added a Belgian tripel and a kölsch to their regular line-up, as well as a lower strength sessionable IPA, several American-style northwest ales, a couple of stouts (including the Choco-holic I had just finished), and a Cascadian dark ale.

About this time, someone else showed up at my elbow — Paul’s daughter Kara, who is a brewer at the pub. They both confirmed the impression I’d gotten from Tommie — with the boom in craft beer sales, Spinnaker’s small brewery was going pretty well all day and night, and was probably closing in on its theoretical full annual production. (In 2012, they brewed 2500 hL — that’s six batches per week every week of the year.)  As well as upgrading the packaging line, Paul is also planning to open a larger brewery somewhere on the Island in the next year or so.

As I chatted to Kara for a few minutes, Paul returned with a sample of their dry-hopped IPA — ambrosia of the gods, really.  I wept silent tears of joy. (I had long ago given up on the whole 60-minute deadline thing.)

Kara had to get back to work, but she had only just left when Paul introduced me to John Rowling, a regular contributor to Celebrator Beer News. We chatted for a few minutes about the explosion of craft beer in B.C., and how the focus had changed from Victoria to Vancouver in the past few years.

When I finally did head back to my hotel it was perhaps not at the brisk pace I had envisioned, nor with the steadiest of gaits.Although I was late for dinner, my only regret was that I hadn’t spent more time at Spinnaker’s during my visit to Victoria. Vancouver might be the engine driving the craft beer boom now, but I sense that this particular brewpub is still the heart and soul of the B.C. beer scene.

West Coast Journey: Vancouver Island Brewing

June 16, 2013
Vancouver Island Brewing

Vancouver Island Brewing: Modern building surrounded by nice gardens. Not your typical craft brewery.

Fortified and refreshed by a pint of Moon Under Water‘s Creepy Uncle Dunkel, I was ready for the official tour of nearby Vancouver Island Brewing. While the other breweries I had visited today had been shoehorned into generic warehouses or commercial buildings, it was immediately evident from the bright modern blue-tinted glass-clad building surrounded by tidy gardens that VIB existed on a higher economic plane.

(Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Vancouver Island Brewing started out almost 30 years ago as Island Pacific Brewery, a small draught-beer-only operation with six employees in a small suburban warehouse. They changed their name in 1992, moved to their present location in 1995, and now employ about 40 people.)

I was a couple of minutes late — the Creepy Uncle Dunkel really had been very good —  but luckily the tour hadn’t departed yet. In fact there was just one other visitor waiting as I entered the large gift shop and sampling lounge.

A small part of my logo beer glass collection. They just keep multiplying.

A portion of my beer glass collection.  I really didn’t need another one.

This was the only brewery I visited on the West Coast that had a tour fee, and it was a hefty $10. (Okay, I wasn’t listening very closely, and I found out after the fact that I could paid $7 for the tour. The $10 fee got me the tour and a souvenir logo pint glass. I really need to pay more attention to these things, since, as you can see, the last thing I need is another beer glass. )

For the start of the tour, we climbed to the second floor, where we entered the brewhouse. Sort of.

Brewhouse

The upper level of the brewhouse — bright, clean and safe. Doubtless goblins and trolls toil in the dark dungeons that lie below.

What you see up there is the showcase level. The mash tun, kettle and other vessels are housed one floor below, but stick up through the floor, looking very spiffy and shiny. Meanwhile, one level down in the brewery dungeon, goblins and trolls toil away in the dark shadows. (Okay, I didn’t actually see any goblins or trolls, but since we didn’t go down to the working level, I can’t definitively say that there weren’t any.)

I have seen photos of other showcase breweries that use this design — the upper level kept clean (and safe) for visitors, the real work happening beneath our feet — but this was the first time I had visited one.

This was also the largest brewery I visited on my West Coast journey — the brewhouse is capable of knocking out an impressive 135 hL of wort at a time. (To put that into a craft beer perspective, one of their batches is larger than five of Driftwood‘s batches; Vancouver Island brews up more wort in a single day than tiny Powell Street brews in a year. )

Touch screen control system.

Touch screen control system showing control screen for the kettle/whirlpool. Images of men in white lab coats carrying clipboards come to mind for some reason.

My fellow visitor knew nothing about brewing, so while he peered down into the lauter tun and got a brief explanation of brewing, I looked around the floor. Not only was the upper level clean and shiny, but a computer monitor displayed their touch screen control system. Want to open a valve, raise or lower the mash temperature, or start a transfer to the kettle without getting your hands dirty? Just touch the screen. Amazing.

As we moved out of the brewhouse, we happened to run into Brent Pottage, the Plant Operations Manager, and he generously took a few minutes to answer some of my questions.

Packaging area

Packaging area: canning line in the background, conveyor belt keg cleaner right below us.

When I rejoined the tour, they were standing beside some large windows overlooking the packaging area. The canning line was going full blast, but as the guy who cleaned a lot of kegs last summer one keg at a time, I was more interested to see an conveyor belt keg cleaner in operation. The technician simply put kegs upside down on the belt, the kegs were then drawn into a large machine and emerged a few minutes later, sparkling clean inside and out. Neat.

It’s obvious that Vancouver Island has achieved the next level to which many craft breweries aspire but few have achieved. The showcase brewery is a jewel, and their annual volume probably tops 20,000 hL, making them a serious player in the B.C. craft beer market.

Back at the gift shop, it was time to sample their beers, and I partook of several. Oh yes, and I also received my souvenir pint glass. Now how would I pack this up and get it back to Ontario safely? More importantly, how would I reveal to Elaine that I now owned another beer glass? Hmmm.

West Coast Journey: Moon Under Water Brewpub

June 11, 2013

Early May in southern Ontario usually means warm breezy sunny days, while Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland of B.C. typically get pelted with cold winds and rain. However, the weather patterns of these two regions somehow got swapped this year — Ontario endured its coldest spring in many years, with snow and garden-killing frosts and what seemed to be endless weeks of rain, while southern B.C. basked in record-breaking summer-like weather.

I only mention this because I had spent most of the morning walking under the unexpectedly hot sun, travelling by Shank’s mare from my hotel in downtown Victoria to the industrial area where the Driftwood and Hoyne breweries are located. I had worked up a powerful thirst, and the official tour at Vancouver Island Brewery didn’t start for another hour or so; serendipitously, Jason Meyer of Driftwood had recommended that I stop in at a nearby brewpub.

Moon Under Water Brewpub

Moon Under Water Brewpub

So just as the sun rose over the yard arm (nautical parlance for “the bar is open”), I found myself outside the Moon Under Water Brewpub. (It takes its curious name from a 1946 essay, “The Moon Under Water” by George Orwell, in which he described ten attributes that defined the perfect pub. He himself admitted that even his own favourite local only met eight of the criteria.)

The pub shares a small commercial property with a beauty supply store, and is surrounded by similar-looking buildings that house various light industries; its view across the road is a gravel depot. All in all, perhaps not the ideal location for a craftbrew pub. However, the view inside is considerably more pleasant — cool and dim, with a lot of wood and copper. I tried to resist the siren song of cold beer, but step by step, against my will, I found myself drawn to the bar.

That last sentence is a complete and utter fiction. In fact I hustled across the room so fast, a breeze whistled in my wake.

Four beers

L to R: weizenbock, IPA, dunkel, pilsner

In short order, the bartender had set me up with samples of their four regular beers: a hazy hefeweizen, a rich nutty dunkel, a nice IPA and a crisp pilsner, all unfiltered. When I say “regular” beers, I mean “always on tap”, not “bland and mainstream” — there was nothing bland about these. The IPA was a get down and git ‘er done northwest IPA pulling about 60-70 IBUs. The other three were German styles, but each had a unique Pacific twist. The pilsner was more bitter than most and the citrus notes definitely came from some northwest hops such as Amarillo or Cascade. The hefeweizen had a typical spicy clove and banana nose, but there was also a hint of passionfruit, perhaps from some New Zealand Nelson Sauvin hops. And the dunkel had a big rich sweet nuttiness that made it a meal in a glass. In fact I wasn’t going to have time for lunch before I skedaddled over to Vancouver Island Brewing for their 1 p.m. tour, so I chose a pint of the Creepy Uncle Dunkel, a proper barley sandwich to sustain me.

Gate

Gate to brewhouse, handcrafted by brewmaster’s step-father.

As the bartender poured my pint, I mentioned that it was curious to see a pub in Victoria, last bastion of the British Empire and heartland of the British ale style, serving so many German-style beers. It turns out that the brewmaster,  Clay Potter,  is a local boy who was yet another university student led astray by brewing. Despite earning a degree in genetics, Clay became as an assistant at a Victoria brewery. Eventually he headed off to earn an MSc in brewing at Heriot Watt University in Scotland, and while there, he and his new wife spent a lot of time visiting European bars and breweries. Back in B.C., he got a job at a local brewery but harboured a dream of opening his own place and putting a distinctive B.C. twist to the old German styles he had tasted in Europe. When a small Victoria brewpub with a German brewhouse came up for sale, Clay’s entire family joined the venture. (His mother is now the bookeeper, his wife is the hospitality manager, and his stepfather, owner of a metal shop, helped renovate the interior — the gate to the brewhouse is his work.)

Copper kettle

Kettle and whirlpool. I can see myself in the polished copper.

Unfortunately for me, Clay was not on the premises, but the bartender opened the gate to the brewing area and let me take a quick walk around to look at the very sweet copper-clad 10-hL system. Like Tofino Brewing, which also makes unfiltered beers, Moon Under Water has a dedicated whirlpool to remove as much trub as possible after the boil.

And I have to say, not trying to put a knock on other breweries, but this had to be the cleanest brewery I have ever seen. The floors were spotless. The equipment gleamed —  even the copper exterior of the kettle, which tarnishes notoriously fast. Amazing.

The quick tour over, it seemed like it was time for another pint. Alas, if I was going to get to my official tour at Vancouver Island Brewing on time, I would have to leave now. But I promise to return some day for another pint of Creepy Uncle.

West Coast Journey: Hoyne Brewing

June 9, 2013

Having just completed a visit to Driftwood Brewery in Victoria, I was standing outside their front door contemplating where to go next when I happened to glance across the parking lot into an open delivery door. Surely those couldn’t be fermenters. I mean, how could you have two breweries looking at each other across the same parking lot?

Hoyne Brewing

View from the delivery door.

I ambled over, took a peek inside and sure enough, it was a very small but clean and efficient looking brewery. Three or four employees were busy at various tasks around what looked to be ten fermenters. A polite inquiry gave me the word that I was looking at Hoyne Brewing, and a few minutes later, Sean Hoyne came out to chat.

I actually knew Sean’s name before I met him — when I had been working on a college project a few months ago, I had sent an email to various brewers asking for some advice on the added cost of ingredients in remote places like Vancouver Island; Sean was one of the brewers who had taken the time to reply.

Sean has been a major force in Victoria brewing for many years. In 1989, in the early years of the craft beer movement, he helped open the brewery at Swan’s Hotel, eventually becoming the brewmaster there. In 1998, he set up the Canoe brewpub and was brewmaster for 13 years. At both of those locations he not only raised the bar for craft beer quality and diversity, but he also trained a new generation of brewers, many of whom have gone on to great things. Two years ago, Sean left Canoe to open his very own brewery. He found what he thought was the perfect location for a 10-hL brewhouse — right across the parking lot from Driftwood Brewery. I’m sure you can imagine the conversation if Labatt came to Molson and asked to set up a brewery right next door. However, this is the world of craft beer, where there is not only an air of collaboration, but also the recognition that having more breweries and more products actually strengthens everyone by creating more consumer awareness. So Driftwood gave Sean the thumbs up.

A 10-hL brewhouse is not very large — only twice the capacity of our small brewery at Niagara College — but that was probably a good thing, because when he started, he was the only employee. Today, less than two years later, it looks like he has lots of help.

Their website lists several regular offerings, including two types of pale ale, IPA, pilsner, red lager, espresso stout and bock, and one limited release, a strong (9% abv) winter warmer; alas, Hoyne Brewing has flown under my personal radar, and I have not tasted any of Sean’s beers yet. I will be sure to correct this deficiency on my next visit to B.C.

West Coast Journey: Driftwood Brewery

June 9, 2013

A few days after returning to Vancouver Island, we decided to visit the charming city of Victoria. Vancouver may be the powerful engine driving the current boom in craft beer, but Victoria is the historical and spiritual heart of brewing in B.C. The province’s oldest brewpub and the oldest independent brewery still operate here. In the city that has been called “more English than England”, British style ale has long been the craft beer of choice.

My wife having borrowed the car to go shopping for the day, I was on foot and determined to visit as many breweries as time and shoe leather would allow. Luckily Victoria is a very compact city, and several breweries were only a 20-minute walk from our hotel. So right after breakfast, I headed out.

Front door

The highly polished front door, made out of… what else… driftwood.

My first stop was Driftwood Brewery, creator of one of my favourite IPAs, Fat Tug. (I also like walking into a bar and seeing Driftwood’s tap handles: uncarved and untreated pieces of actual driftwood that look like they have just been picked up off the beach. But I digress…)

Located in a an industrial area, Driftwood’s low-key warehouse seemed to be definitely focussed on making beer, not on entertaining visitors. This impression was further reinforced when I stepped through the front door and found myself in a small lobby, talking to the administrator through one of those sliding glass windows you used to see in dentists’ offices. Uh-oh. No sampling bar in sight, and it turns out, they are usually only open to the public in the afternoon.

Fermenters

Some of Driftwood’s many 130 hL fermenters, and a steel truck filled with spent grain

However, craft brewers are usually fairly flexible when someone wants to talk shop, and in short order I was chatting with Jason Meyer, who had co-founded Driftwood five years ago.

It was a brew day, and Jason took me in to see their 30 hL brewhouse. One of his assistants was busy cleaning spent grain out of the lauter tun into a steel truck, using a rake system they had developed themselves; the container of grain would later be driven out outside with a forklift and transferred to a dumpster in the parking lot.

Most breweries today have to watch how much organic material such as yeast, wort and grain gets dumped down the drain, due to the extra biochemical oxygen demand (B.O.D.) placed on municipal water treatment systems. I was interested to find out that Victoria breweries don’t have to worry about this, since Victoria’s liquid waste gets dumped, untreated, into the Pacific Ocean. (Apparently the sewage treatment thing is a fairly controversial issue in Victoria.)

Driftwood started with two 25-hL fermenters, but those very rapidly proved inadequate to meet demand and have been replaced by a legion of 130-hL (quad batch) FVs. (One of the 25 hL FVs stands empty, the other has been re-purposed as a glycol reservoir for the FV cooling system.)

I was also interested to see that, despite their high production volume, Driftwood brewers were still mashing in using 20-kilo (50-lb) bags of grain (probably 12-13 per batch) rather than using bulk grain from a silo. As someone who has hefted my share of 20-kilo bags, I’m sure that a grain silo is high up on the Driftwood brewers’ Christmas wish list.

This is the Pacific northwest, so it comes as no surprise that Driftwood’s signature labels are a crisp northwest pale ale and the aforementioned Fat Tug IPA — winner of the Canadian Brewing Awards Beer of the Year in 2011. What is a surprise is that they are also enjoying great success with Belgian style ales, including a spicy farmhouse saison flavoured with black pepper, a light-bodied thirst-quenching wit, a dubbel and a tripel. (They also make an alt, a porter, and — I wish I had an opportunity to try this — a barrel-aged sour cherry ale conditioned with wild yeast.)

Driftwood is pushing the boundaries in quiet Victoria, and I look forward to seeing (and tasting) some of their future developments.


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