Archive for September 2013

Iron Brewer: The Results

September 29, 2013

As long foretold by email scribes, the day of the Iron Brewer competition, heralded by a blood-red dawn, arrived.

Okay, I don’t actually know what the dawn looked like — I had stayed up late thinking up a name for my Iron Brewer beer and then designing some labels, so dawn was long gone by the time I rolled out of bed.

labelThe name I had thought of … or that someone had suggested but I can’t remember exactly who … was A Winter’s Tale Winter Ale. And this is the label I stayed up late designing … and printing … and putting on the bottles.

(There’s something Tolkienesque or Game of Thrones about the label, but I’m not sure what.)

At mid-afternoon, we met on the field of battle — Cool Brewing in west Toronto — armed with only our beer. And now, we revealed to each other what wonders we had wrought:

  • Andy Preston: “Paddywack Black”
  • Dan Unkerskov: “Pencil Scratch Pilsner”
  • Jeff Broeders (a Brewmaster grad): “Rye Knot Sour Ale”
  • Erica Graholm: “Cinnamon Vienna Lager”
  • Michael Hancock: “Para-dice Rye-der”
  • Mary-Beth Keefe: “Rye Another Day”
  • Helen Knowles: “Mild Dark Horse Ale”
  • Andrew Lamore: Underdog Brown Ale
  • Mark Murphy (another Brewmaster grad): “Rye’n Express” (on cask!)
  • Nick Muzzin: “Ryedemption Amber Ale”
  • Victor North: Mild Iron
  • Adrian Popowycz: Red Light Ryes
  • Jamie Mistry: unnamed
  • Siobhan McPherson: unnamed rye ale
  • Me: A Winter’s Tale

A bag of toasted rye flakes had been included in our ingredients, and as you can see, seven of the brewers chose to make the rye a central part of their beer. And no wonder — rye gives a distinctive spicy, dry taste to your beer. However, it can be a notoriously hard grain to use because its kernels are small, narrow and slippery. If you try to crack open the kernels with your barley mill, they just slide right on through the rollers untouched. So, using trial and error, you have to adjust the distance between the mill rollers in order to catch the rye between them. Once you are finished with the rye, you have to try to reset your mill to its original settings for barley. Good luck with that. Pre-processed rye avoids this entire problem — the rye has been steamed and rolled into flakes and does not have to be milled. You can just add it straight into the mash. Hence everyone’s excitement at the inclusion of easy-to-use rye flakes in our ingredients.

I had been tempted by the rye — my second choice was going to be a dry Vienna rye lager. But I have to say that my very first thought when I looked at the list of ingredients was a spiced winter ale. I thought it was such an obvious choice that I believed I would be duking it out with several other winter ales.

Nope. Seven rye beers, and an assortment of other styles, but no other cinnamon-spiced winter beers. Huh. As a matter of fact, the only other beer that used the cinnamon was Erica Graholm’s sunny and sassy “Cinnamon Vienna Lager”. Whereas the cinnamon in my beer was dark, muted and woody around the edges, Erica’s beer had the bright peppery taste of cinnamon hearts.

Mark Murphy's table display: samples of grain.

Mark Murphy’s table display: samples of grain.

Everyone was clearly in it to win it. Some of the contestants even had special desk displays. In addition to his casked Rye Mild Ale, Mark Murphy (Left Field Brewing) also brought samples of the grains he had used, in the proprtion he had used them, complete with little cards that described the grain type and extract value.

Nick Muzzin was right next to Mark, but he did not suffer by comparison:

Nick Muzzin's desk display: samples of grains and hops, palate-cleansing crackers and a custom logo.

Nick Muzzin’s desk display: samples of grains and hops, palate-cleansing crackers and a nice graphic.

Nick not only displayed samples of the types of grains he had used, but also samples of the types of hops. He also brought some crackers so contestants could cleanse their palates before trying his “Ryedemption Amber Ale”. And he had borrowed a great publicity graphic from Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare for his display.

My desk display: Spartan.

My desk display: a bit Spartan.

By comparison, my desk display was … uh … Spartan. I had a small sign describing “A Winter’s Tale”, a bottle opener and, underneath the desk, a cooler with twenty 650-mL (22-oz) bottles of my beer.

I was the only one to bring my beer in bottles, which is understandable. The Teaching Brewery at the college is set up to bottle small runs of beer, but most of the contestants work in larger breweries, which usually don’t have bottling systems capable of handling tiny 20-litre batches. Other contestants were homebrewers, and bottling at home is a pain, as well as expensive. In contrast, a keg is cheap and easy. Other than Mark Murphy, who casked his beer, it was very understandable that everyone else brought kegs.

[Correction: Apparently at least two of the brewers, Andy Preston and Nick Muzzin, bottle-conditioned their beer, brought the bottles to the competition and then decanted the beer into a pitcher to serve it. See comment below from another attendee.]

Victor North hooks up his keg.

Victor North hooks up his keg.

Yes, I could have kegged my beer, but there are few drawbacks to bringing a keg to an event like this. In addition to the keg, you also need a cylinder of carbon dioxide in order to push the beer out of the keg. Then you need a hose and tap through which the beer will move from keg to glass. You also need an ice-filled “jockey box” — the hose from the keg runs into the cold box, chilling the beer and convincing it to hold onto its CO2 so you don’t end up with a glass full of foam. Add a wrench to attach all the fittings and a screwdriver to adjust the gas regulator, and that’s a lot of hardware to be moved.

Me, I had to pack a bottle opener. However, I think a nice table display might be in the cards for next year. And maybe a large screen TV behind me. And perhaps some food — nothing much, but maybe I can convince one of the culinary students at the college to cook something while I pour beer.

Set-up complete, the competition started. Members of the MBAC spent the next three hours tasting each of the beers and then marking a ballot with their choice for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place. It was good to see during the voting that the 1st-year students from the college had arrived and were participating — they had started with a tour of Sleeman in Guelph that morning, had arrived in time for a tour of Cool in the afternoon, and now were getting a chance to see some serious brewing creativity at work.

I was busy pouring beer, so I didn’t have time to go around and taste, but luckily Elaine had come to watch, and was able to bring me samples. And here’s what I though of the competition:

Wow! The beers were REALLY GOOD! Tasty, interesting styles, and creative use of the ingredients. Even just a couple of years ago, the quality of some Iron Brewer beers was uneven. But this year everyone was really bringing it.

Finally, the ballots were handed in, the results tabulated and the winners announced.

First place was awarded to Andy Preston of Molson for his delicious “Paddywack Black”. This is Andy’s second consecutive win, so clearly we need to step up our game in order to unseat him from his throne. Second place went to the nicely balanced “Ryedemption Amber Ale” by Nick Muzzin. Third place went to “A Winter’s Tale”. Hey, wait a sec, that’s me!


Yes, it felt great to have my name called, but what is even better: as the 3rd-place brewer, I’ll have a reserved spot in next year’s competition.

Obviously I need to keep in practice between now and then. Hmmm… since I used the entire batch of “Winter’s Tale” at Iron Brewer, maybe I should make another batch in time for Christmas. Hmmmm…


  • A quick shout out to Black Oak Brewing for letting me use their small pilot system to brew “A Winter’s Tale”, and then for letting my fermenter sit in a corner undisturbed for a few weeks.
  • Props to Jamie Daust of the Teaching Brewery, for setting up the bottling line for me.
  • And a big thank you to the various maltsters who contributed their grains to the competition, to Bob Latimer of Beer & Wine Filter for contributing the yeast and British and American hops, and to Mike Driscoll of Harvest Hop & Malt for contributing the Canadian hops.



Brewing up an Iron Brew

September 22, 2013

As you may have noticed, I took my own sweet time describing our beer geek summer road trip — the trip itself ended on the last day of July, but I only managed to finish writing about it as the autumnal equinox arrived.

But now we move to other matters. Let’s travel back in time to just after Elaine and I arrived home from New England.

As constant readers might recall, I entered the Iron Brewer competition this year — a beer-making competition sponsored by the Master Brewers’ Association of Canada in which each contestant is given an identical bag of ingredients, and must make at least 10 litres of beer using only the ingredients from the bag. There are only 15 spots open in the contest — I was lucky enough to have my name drawn from the hat.

Shortly after we returned, I picked up my bag full of ingredients that were donated to this competition by the various manufacturers. It contained:

Enough of three base malts to produce about 40-50 litres of finished beer:

  • Canada Malting Ontario Select
  • Munton’s Pale Ale
  • Weyermann Vienna

Six specialty malts:

  • Great Western Dextra Pils
  • Briess Victory
  • Franco-Belge Kiln Coffee
  • Weyermann Special W
  • OiO Toasted Rye Flakes
  • Munton’s Roast Barley

Seven types of hops:

  • U.K.: Goldings, First Gold, Target
  • U.S.: Chinook, Columbus, Golding,  Willamette
  • Canada: Bertwell

Three types of dry yeast: Mauribrew Ale, Lager and Weiss yeast

Four other items:

  • 12 cinnamon sticks
  • about 50 grams of Grains of Paradise
  • a 5-inch stick of toasted white ash wood (used to simulate barrel aging)
  • a tablet of Whirlfloc Irish moss (to help coagulate proteins at the end of the boil)

So all you brewers out there, take a moment, look over this list again and decide what type of beer YOU would make.

For my part, I was of two minds. Given the cinnamon, kiln coffee malt, roast barley, Special W and Victory, my first option was a spiced winter ale — strong, dark, a touch sweet, and full-bodied. However, I could also see using Vienna malt, rye flakes and the Weissbier yeast to make a dry rye ale.

In the end, I decided to try to make the winter ale, envisioning a malt-driven barrel-aged full-bodied cinnamon-spiced beer, with hints of coffee, chocolate, some roastiness and a strength of about 6.5%.

I started to work on a recipe and discovered that although the Iron Brewer organizers had been extremely generous with the quantities of ingredients, they had neglected to give us any information about the malt analysis of each grain. (Usually a brewer likes to know how much sugar can be extracted from the grain, what the water content of the grain is and to what degree of colour the grain has been kilned, toasted or roasted.)

Luckily my ingredients had been given to me in the grain bag for the Canada Mailting Ontario Select. With the batch number from the grain bag in hand, I was able to contact Allison Nimik at Canada Malting and at least get the malt analysis of the Ontario Select. (For the record: 79.9% extract, 4.2% moisture, colour = 2.9 degrees Lovibond.)

For the other grains, I had to look on-line for average values and cross my fingers that they were representative.

In the end, since I had the most confidence about the values of the Ontario Select, I used it for 50% of the final grist bill. The other grains I used and their proportions were:

  • Munton’s Pale Ale (35%)
  • Briess Victory (5%)
  • Flaked roast barley (3%)
  • Kiln Coffee (3%)
  • Weyermann Special W (2%)
  • Dextra Pils (2%)

Since I wanted the cinnamon and barrel-aged characteristics to be the main drivers of flavour and aroma, I was very restrained with the hop additions, planning on a bitterness of only 25 IBUs. My plan was to add 4 grams of Target at the start of a 60-minute boil, then 15 grams of First Gold at 30 minutes, and finally 15 grams of U.K. Goldings with 10 minutes left, when I would also add half of the cinnamon (freshly ground) and the Whirlfloc.

Next up was where to brew it? I had been planning on using the pilot system at the Teaching Brewery, but the brewery was undergoing an expansion to triple its size. Luckily my friends at Black Oak agreed to let me use their small pilot system.


Vorlauffing the mash: Is that not a deeply sensual colour?

So, on August 12, I packed up my ingredients and headed over to Black Oak. And here’s what happened when I brewed the wort:

I brewed the wort.

No mistakes, no problems, no technical issues, no stuck lauter, no missing ingredients, no lack of hot water…

No, seriously, that’s a first. It was like building a piece of IKEA furniture and not having to go to IKEA to get one tiny little part that was missing in order to finish the project — it almost never happens, right?

After vorlauffing, sparging and boiling, I ended up with 20 litres of deep chestnut-coloured wort with an original gravity of 1.063 (15.8° Plato).

I transferred it to a 50-litre cornelius keg borrowed from fellow Brewmaster graduate Chris Marconi (now working at Trafalgar Brewing in Oakville), added the ale yeast and waited for the magic to happen.

Here’s where some problems started — and why brewmasters lie awake at night. I hoped the ale yeast would eat enough sugar to bring the gravity down to about 1.012 (3° Plato). The reality was that the ale yeast only took the gravity down to 1.020 (5° Plato) — and then stopped working.


There are several technical strategies I considered using, but in the end, I tried to rouse the somnolent yeast through the simple expedient of shaking the fermentor vigorously while yelling “WAKE UP, YOU LAZY FACULTATIVE ANAEROBIC GOOD FOR NOTHING LOSERS!” (This is a strategy you can use on a 50-litre keg, but is probably not a good plan for a 10-hectolitre fermentor. Well, I suppose you can still yell at the yeast.) I then moved the keg to a warmer room for a few days. It seems to have worked — after another week, the gravity was down to 1.016 (4° Plato), which I could live with. The difference between the original gravity of 1.063 and the final gravity of 1.016 represents an alcoholic strength of 6.1% abv.

I had been planning to add the other six sticks of cinnamon during maturation and aging, but frankly the cinnamon was already very well represented in aroma and taste, so I decided to hold off. I did hang that stick of toasted white ash in the fermentor for four days. (You can add it for up to four weeks, but I just wanted hints of caramel and vanilla from the wood, not the impression it had been sitting in a barrel for a year.)

Last week I packaged the finished beer in 650-mL (22-oz) bottles.

The tasting/judging is this Friday afternoon. My winter ale (currently without a name — suggestions welcome) will be up against creations by 14 of the best brewers in Ontario.

Fingers crossed…


Beer Geek Road Trip: Heading home

September 16, 2013

Following the end of the Beer Bloggers Conference, Elaine and I stayed in Boston for a couple of days to explore a bit of the city. The New England Aquarium, Freedom Trail, the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition — I won’t bore you with all the touristy details except to say that it’s a very nice place to walk about in the summer.

Somewhat beered out from the conference, I only drank four more beers:

  1. An Allagash White at lunch with a plate of seafood. The beer had the slightest touch of lemon citrus, and was dry and slightly spicy — a perfect match for the seafood.
  2. Peroni and the Sox -- a restaurant bar in Little Italy.

    In Little Italy with a Peroni and the Red Sox .

    When we ended up at a restaurant in Little Italy with no craft beer on tap, I went with the flow and ordered Peroni. Euro-lager? Sure, but at the end of a long hot day, something light and thirst-quenching was a perfect match for white pizza on a thin crust.

  3. In the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, I ordered a bottle of the excellent Berkshire Brewing Steel Rail Extra Pale Ale with dinner. OM NOM NOM! A warm nose of wild clover honey, smooth caramel and biscuit flavours and just a hint of dryness in the finish. I fell to the ground and cried tears of joy.
  4. A sampler of Saranac Pale Ale, another nice British style pale ale, during a tour of Utica Brewing Company.

And so, without further ado (or beer purchases), we arrived back home a week after we had left, having completely circumnavigated Lake Ontario.


This is just my swag. Elaine’s stuff would fill the rest of the table.

Early the next morning, I spread out my swag on the dining room table. My goodness.

  • an insulated growler
  • a box of cereal
  • a DVD
  • a beer bucket
  • 2 koozies
  • 6 stickers
  • 1 label
  • 4 small bottle openers
  • 1 large bottle opener
  • 2 buttons
  • 3 beer mats
  • 1 stick cider-flavoured lip balm
  • 2 chocolate bars
  • 1 eyepatch
  • 3 pens
  • 2 fridge magnets
  • 1 screen cleaner
  • 1 large poster
  • many brochures, menus and booklets
  • 28 bottles and 2 cans of beer and cider

(And Elaine’s pile o’ swag was almost as big.)

In conclusion:

The Beer Bloggers’ Conference was a lot of fun, and needless to say, there was a lot of beer. (Should I even say possibly too much beer? Perhaps not — I guess I didn’t have to drink every beer that was given to me.)  The food was good, the accommodations were great, and it was well-organized. The speakers were all very good. Drinking Utopias with my new BFF Jim Koch was outstanding. And New England? We’re planning on a return visit.

Is there anything I would change? Sure. The conference room had large pillars that interfered with our view of the speakers. The noise at some events was deafening. Massachusetts liquor laws were almost as silly as Ontario’s.

But overall, I will have a hard time thinking up a beer geek road trip to top this one.


Beer Bloggers’ Conference: closing address

September 6, 2013
Ray Daniels

Ray Daniels closes the conference. Some trophies sit on our table in the foreground.

Ray Daniels was the final speaker of the conference. Ray is best known for being the founder and marketer extraordinaire of Certified Cicerone, a program that trains servers and waiters in the ways of craft beer (beer flavours, styles, how it should be stored, etc.).

Ray’s closing address about how to improve our blogging was titled “Blogging, Braggarts & Brands”. The first part of his remarks talked about how we needed to get closer to our subject and think about our writing:

  • Get involved: organize events, volunteer, go on beer discovery tours
  • Practice your writing and persevere
  • Take risks
  • Recognize realities I: If you don’t know the subject well, don’t be afraid to collaborate with an expert.
  • Recognize realities II: Writing doesn’t pay much.
  • Extend yourself
  • Package yourself: consider self-publishing
  • Collect interesting items: they can be the foci of interesting articles
  • Research is never wasted: Ray is still using information he gleaned from a trip to Europe in the 1990s
  • Keep it clean
  • Get it right I: There is no excuse for unresearched facts — Google is your friend.
  • Get it right II: Spelling mistakes are unnecessary and a sign of a lack of care

From there, Ray branched into some “deep thoughts”. He pointed out that twenty years ago, it was easy to get a big readership via a national magazine, but layers of editors ensured that any “personality” in your writing was polished out of your article long before publication. Today, there’s been a 180-degree shift: It’s easy to get your authentic voice published but it’s tough to find an audience. This blog might be a sterling example.

Ray talked about the descriptive powers of the late Michael Jackson (the beer writer, not the singer). As Ray pointed out, Jackson preferred to describe to the reader rather than decide for the reader. In other words, he tried to relate his total experiences about tasting a beer so that his readers could decide whether to try it, rather than pronouncing an omnipotent “Yea” or “Nay” on each beer he tasted.

So when Jackson wrote about brewers, he talked about their physical appearance, ethnicity, dialect, prior careers, and training that informed their brewing. When he wrote about a brewery, he talked about the geography, architecture, neighbourhood, and agronomy. He began the process of describing and grouping styles of beer, but he eschewed technical terms, preferring to relate tastes to food, and colours to common items. (He got quite frustrated with historical accounts of beer, which often didn’t describe the taste of the beer.) He also tried never to be negative about any beer, using neutral rather than pejorative terms to describe something he didn’t like.

Back in the present, Ray Daniels challenged us to ask ourselves, “What do I stand for? What are my interests? How do I approach my subjects? What will my blog be known for?” Once you’ve got that figured out, start by giving people a reason to come to your blog for a specific subject. If you got a local blog, write about local events.

He likened small blogs that try to carry regional or national news to the restaurants that have a hundred or more taps. Incidentally, he believes those are on the way out — they don’t have enough of a focus on local beer, and most of the beer doesn’t get poured fast enough to preserve its flavour.

Ray’s Rule: “You should never have more taps than you have customers at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday.”

Ray concluded by telling us how to research and interview for our blog articles:

  1. Beware the old press release. Throw old ones away and contact the brewery for more current info.
  2. Do NOT make up quotes. Always attribute quotes in your blog to a specific person, not “a brewery employee.”
  3. There are so many direct ways like email and Twitter for contacting your sources for instant information.
  4. Do some background prep work before the interview. Know something about the brewery and the person you are going to be talking to.
  5. Bring some focus to the interview: Ask fewer questions, but have better focus on what you need for your article.

Ray is encouraged by the future of localized craft beer: “I can see us having 3,500 breweries in the U.S., perhaps quite soon. But in that environment, most will only be known to locals. The number of brands known nationally and even regionally as we have seen in the past will probably be small.”

That’s got to mean good things for your local beer blog.

And with those words of encouragement, the conference came to a close.


Beer Bloggers’ Conference: Sunday morning

September 5, 2013

Sunday morning dawned.

Noooo, the evil day star… IT BURNS!!

Actually, I didn’t feel bad — perhaps Fred Eckhardt is right about drinking all that water at the same time as the beer.

The final morning of the conference was devoted to two seminars and a final keynote address. Attendance at 9 a.m. was a perhaps bit lower that previous seminars, but slowly improved as the morning progressed. Perhaps it had something to do with the all-night gatherings in various hotel rooms that had only broken up a couple of hours ago.


The real beer pros show us how it’s done at 9 am. Don’t try this at home, kids.

There was no beer officially being served, but that didn’t stop some people from snapping the tops off a few rare beers they had traded for at the 4 a.m. parties.

Me? After the overindulgences of the previous day, I stuck to coffee.

First up were Blogger Reports: ten attendees got five minutes each to talk about anything they wanted. Several of them were very memorable:

David Ackley aka The Local Beer Blog, the young man from Asheville, North Carolina with whom we had shared a dinner table in Portland,  gave a humourous talk about his attempts to make a profit from blogging via micro-sponsors:

  • Google AdSense averaged 90 cents per month
  • Over three years, Amazon Affiliates made David $3
  • CentUp, which splits readers’ contributions 45-45-10 between the blogger, a charity and CentUp, made David $11.21 over three months.

However, David did point out that he had been offered free press passes, and he did get to meet brewers, bloggers, and people from around the world. So perhaps some of the more valuable benefits were of a more intangible nature than mundane dollars.

Amy Penrose (The Craft Beer Girl), talked about “Creating Your Personal Brand”: Look at yourself and your blog. What is your purpose: Internet fame? Or just to hang out and drink beer? Amy urged us to create a brand: a visual identity and a unique tone of voice that shows your values, vision, and how you want to present yourself. Your brand should show why you are blogging. Get visual identity across all platforms with a logo and consistent domain name. Once you have that, be consistent in look and tone across all platforms. And she repeated the advice we heard in yesterday’s seminar with Jeff Wharton and Tamre Mullins: Go claim your “brand name” on every social media platform.

Renee DeLuca (The Brewer’s Daughter) had enjoyed craft beer all of her life. She told us the touching story of how she, an adoptee, had searched for and finally found her her birth father. Unlikely as it seems, her father turned out to be Jack McAuliffe, founder of New Albion Brewery of Sonoma, California, the first microbrewery built in the United States since Prohibition. Although New Albion closed its doors after only six years after its 1976 inauguration, it has become legendary for its part in kick-starting the craft beer revolution. Renee hopes to reopen New Albion by 2014.

Jay Ducote (Bite & Booze) is an active beer blogger from Louisiana, despite the fact that there are only seven breweries in his state. (Compare that to San Diego County, which has more than 70.) Jay suggested that if we are simply writing about beer, we need to find a better hook for our blog. Celebrate food and beer, for instance, or perhaps write about finding beer while travelling.

Lots if interesting content in this seminar, and surprisingly, none of the speakers went seriously over their five-minute deadline.

Next up was “Standing Out in a Crowd”, with John Holl (blogger of Beer Briefing and editor of All About Beer magazine) and Norman Miller (Beer Nut). There are now over a thousand beer blogs, so how do you make your blog stand head and shoulders above the crowd? John  and Norman gave us twenty essential elements:

  1. Everything is about the Content. Lots of bloggers post pictures but don’t necessarily care about the quality of their writing.
  2. Let your reader feel what you felt. Describe what you tasted, what you saw, what you heard. Was it a hot day? Was there a basket of sweet-smelling fruit on the table? Did the brewery owner tell the story of how he founded the brewery after he fell off a bike and broke his leg? Tell your reader!
  3. Keep it local. Readers will go to the huge national blogs to read about about huge national stories, not your little blog. Don’t try to compete — make the focus of your stories local. That doesn’t mean you can’t write about national brewers — but make the subject a local event such a tap takeover. Ask yourself, “What is the impact of this event on my local readers?”
  4. Do more food and beer pairing reviews. Pairings are big news with foodies.
  5. Go talk to the brewer or brewery owner. You will get fresh news, a unique insight, an exclusive perspective and create your own content not just based on a press release.
  6. When interviewing brewers, offer your services. Ask them if they would like you to do future reviews of their products and updates on their events.
  7. Don’t write a first-person account about your walk through a beer festival — it’s boring. Provide a fresh perspective of what the beers actually tasted like, where people can get it, what the packaging looked like.
  8. If you don’t like something, say why. If you think a beer sucks, don’t just say it sucks — describe the problems you had with it. Be negative in the right way — an in-depth honest negative review based on facts is often well-received.
  9. Learn how to write well. If you have little or no experience with writing, there are writing classes on-line.
  10. Get a second set of eyes. Have someone read your blog for errors and typos.
  11. Never request free beer. Buy your beer. When you get a good reputation, brewers will send you beer to review.
  12. Read a lot. Learn to recognize good writing, and why it is good.
  13. To make money from writing, go beyond your blog. Start writing for local newspapers and national beer magazines.
  14. Don’t take on too much. Own what you do, but don’t try to own everything — have a clear direction and scope for your blog.
  15. Have fun, but be professional.
  16. Don’t brag about personally knowing brewers.
  17. Familiarize yourself with new beer styles and be knowledgeable about them.
  18. Use food descriptors for beer. Don’t say “hoppy” or “malty”; try “red grapefruit”, “molasses”, etc. Note that “bitter” is a turn-off to many people.
  19. Use the contact info in a press release. Press releases aren’t meant to be published as is. They are simply an announcement with enough detail to tell you what is happening, and who to contact for more information so you can get better content.
  20. Check your facts! As the old newspaper adage goes, “If your mother says she loves you, look into it.”

I thought this was an excellent lesson for bloggers — and a free tutorial in basic journalism given by a couple of pros.

Before the closing address, the organizers alerted us to a serious problem. As usual, the conference sponsors had brought way too much of their beer and cider, and had left behind the excess. At past beer bloggers’ conferences, this excess product had been given to the hotel staff. Well, apparently it was illegal to do so in Massachusetts. So the organizers somehow had to get rid of the left-over beer and cider, and they were turning to us for our help.

However, a lot of attendees had flown to Boston, and most already had several bottles of beer packed into their suitcases. They simply had no room for extras.

On the other hand, Elaine and I and a few others had driven to Boston.

Yes, my friends, in the name of human decency, we who had cars took it upon ourselves to aid those poor conference organizers in their time of need. Sometimes when you hear the call, you just have to step up.



Beer Bloggers’ Conference: Harpoon Brewing

September 2, 2013
Harpoon Brewery, Boston

Harpoon Brewery, Boston

After speed-dating ten beers, we were approached by some of the brewers asking if we wanted to sample some other beers that hadn’t been on the “official” speed-dating list. We were not churlish enough to say no. The line for the single washroom grew perilously long.

Eventually we made our way back to the Bus of Beer for the drive through rush hour traffic to our dinner destination, Harpoon Brewery.

Follow the yellow brick road!

Follow the yellow brick road!

Harpoon Brewery is big. By “big”, I mean, “wow, this place is huge”. Unlike Boston Beer Co., which started in Boston but quickly farmed out production and packaging of most of their beers to large breweries in other cities, Harpoon started brewing in Boston and gradually ramped up production until they were going full-tilt, 24/7. In 2000, having reached production capacity in Boston, Harpoon purchased the defunct Catamount Brewery in Windsor, Vermont, and put it to good use as well. Despite the new capacity, by 2002, they once again hit their production ceiling, and demand for Harpoon beer was still increasing. More about the solution in a bit.


Pretzels in a hot, grainy beer mustard.

There were speeches and a tour on the agenda, so to tide us over until dinner, we were greeted at the door with pretzels in a hot beer mustard accompanied by yes, a glass of beer.

The starting point of our tour was the warehouse, which is quite impressive — aisle upon aisle of product that, apparently, gets moved out on a daily basis.

Rich Doyle

Brewery founder Rich Doyle greets us enthusiastically.

We were greeted by one of the original founders of Harpoon, Rich Doyle, who proceeded to describe some of the history of Harpoon and where it was headed. I was standing near the back of the crowd, and since Rich was unamplified, I had a hard time making out much of what he was saying. Luckily Elaine was near the front and filled me in later.

With that, Rich invited us to take the Harpoon tour, and we were led on a path through the warehouse, packaging area, fermenter valley, upstairs to the brewhouse and from there to the bar, where supper (and beer) awaited. It wasn’t so much a tour as a walk, since there were no formal stops to look at equipment and listen to some background on it.

As Elaine has already pointed out, the blogger attendees fell into three main groups: the people who were there to drink beer, the people who liked to ask questions and take pictures, and the people with a foot in both camps — happy to look at the equipment for a few minutes before finding out where the beer was. I am in the second group — the guys taking photos and asking questions, so Elaine and I rapidly fell to the back of the pack.

Fermentor Valley. Note the fellow attendee on the catwalk, way ahead of the crowd.

Fermentor Valley. The dude on the catwalk is way ahead of the crowd in case Harpoon runs out of beer before he gets to the bar.

The packaging area was an impressively clean and well-organized collection of canning, kegging and bottling lines. None of the lines was operating, but when all of them are going at the same time, it must look like something out of that old Looney Toons cartoon, I Gopher You: two polite chipmunks visit a canning factory to recover their “stolen” vegetables and are confronted with endless lines of automated equipment.

From there we walked into the Valley of Fermentation, an impressive collection of small pilot-sized fermentors and large 150-hL tanks. (By this time, as my photo shows, the first group of attendees — the “I’m here for the beer” people — had already scampered ahead to the second-floor bar.)

Harpoon brewhouse

Harpoon 150-hL brewhouse. (Conical tops are brewhouse vesseles, rounded tops are fermentors.)

The climb to the second floor revealed the shiny brewhouse. Back in 2002, when Harpoon ran out of brewing capacity — despite the additional output of their second brewery in Vermont — they decided to replace their old brewhouse in Boston with a massive 150-hL four-vessel system, built by Huppmann of Germany and shipped fully assembled. The lauter tun, fully 5 metres (16 feet) in diameter, apparently barely made it through the brewery doors. The new system doubled their brewing capacity, allowing Harpoon to pass the 100,000-barrel (115,000 hL) in annual production in 2006. By 2012, according to the Brewers’ Association, they were the 9th largest craft brewer in the U.S.

Elaine, peering through manway window of ___, provides scale of its size.

Elaine peering through the manway window of one of the brewhouse vessels.

In terms of batch size, I believe this is the largest craft brewhouse I have visited. (Vancouver Island Brewing, at 125-hL, had been the largest to this point, if memory serves.)

After chatting with one of the brewing assistants about operations, Elaine and I were the last to step into the bar for dinner.

Oh my! The wall of noise made us wince.

Harpoon Brewery dining area.

Harpoon Brewery dining area. The bar is just to the right.

The bar at Harpoon is a long double-sided affair, with dining tables on one side, and room for standing at the bar on the other side. Harpoon had reserved the dining tables on the one side of the bar for us, but had left the other side open for other visitors. The other side of the bar was packed. And they were facing us. Enthusiastic visitors. Loud enthusiastic visitors. Between the noise made by visitors and noise made by beer bloggers — who had already started dinner and were several beers ahead of me — Elaine and I couldn’t hear each other. This would have been a handy time to know American Sign Language.

That excessive cacaphony was a shame, because it took away from the excellent meal Harpoon laid on for us. First up were three cheeses from Vermont Farmstead — a cheddar, a soft Brie, and a blend of an aged hard cheese and a gorgonzola, paired with Harpoon Dark, Harpoon Black IPA and Dan’s Rye IPA respectively. They were all good pairings, and I was hard-pressed to decide which was my favourite.

(Cultural note: Again, water was nowhere in sight. However, we did get some when we asked.)

The staff then brought out food to be shared: barbecued chicken with an ancho chili sauce, grilled corn on the cob, potato salad with an IPA dressing, an Italian vinaigrette salad, and grilled flatbread (i.e. pizza). At this point we were supposed to try five more samples of Harpoon beer to match to each of these foods, but after a dozen different beers at the speed-dating event, a welcome glass of beer when we arrived here, and another three beers with the cheese course — and here I hang my head in shame —  I was beered out.

The food was excellent, though.

At the end of the meal, there was a long (and noisy) pause in the action. Elaine and I wandered down to the parking lot before we suffered permanent hearing loss.

Back on the Bus of Beer, we returned to the Park Plaza so we could trundle off to bed.

Hahaha, just kidding. Bedtime. Right.

It turned out that sleep was still hours away, since it was time for the “Beer Social” back in the conference room. Sponsors poured rare and wonderful beers from across the States. Attendees chatted, tasted, imaged, blogged, tweeted, pinned, and posted.  A large screen TV projected a never-ending roll of #BBC13 tweets from attendees.

I tasted several excellent beers, including the latest “Chateau Rogue” offering — made only with ingredients grown on Rogue’s Oregon property — as well as Sierra Nevada’s “Ovila”, the latest in a series of collaborations with the Cistercian Abbey of New Clairvaux meant to raise funds for the monastery’s new chapterhouse. (That at least, is the gist of what I remember. My notes by this point in the day are a series of single words accompanied by a lot of exclamation marks and some mysterious doodles: “Cistercian! Ovila!! S. Nevada! ZOMG!!! Trappist!”, etc. )

Eventually Elaine and I drifted off to bed, but I understand that the tastings went on well past midnight. When the Beer Social finally shut down, attendees apparently gathered in each others’ hotel rooms to swap interesting beers they had brought with them until the rosy fingers of dawn lit the sky.







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