Beer geek country drive

It was Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, and the weather was beautiful, so Elaine and I decided to head out on a country drive into Norfolk County, a rural area that lies south of Hamilton and north of Lake Erie. Our ultimate goal was the Norfolk County Fair, an “old-timey” county fair complete with midway rides, games of chance, cotton candy, unhealthy deep fried you-name-it, and competitions for everything agricultural and rural — horse & carriage teams, flower arranging, potatoes, chickens, rabbits, pumpkins, chocolate cakes, butter tarts, quilts… If it’s made or produced locally, there’s a category for it.

Blue Elephant Brewpub, Simcoe, Ontario

Blue Elephant Brewpub, Simcoe, Ontario

The fair happens in the small town of Simcoe, and before we entered the fair grounds, we decided to stop for lunch at the Blue Elephant Brewpub, housed in a Victorian house on the town’s main street.

Unfortunately there was nobody there to talk to me about the brewery operation — apparently all the brewers were at the fair — and our server had no idea of the size of the brewhouse or operation. However, it can’t be all that large. Although half a dozen beers were listed on the menu, only two were on tap — apparently all the rest of the beer had been taken to the fair!

My choices were the “Fair Lager”, apparently made especially for the week of the county fair, and “Not Too Shabby” Jalapeño Lager. Was there really any choice? I ordered the Jalapeño Lager, which, according to a white board by the front door, was made with local grown and roasted chipotles.

“Locally grown” was a hallmark of several dishes on the menu — Elaine’s grilled cheese and apple sandwich featured both local apples and Jensen Cheese, produced right there in Simcoe. (I, of course, was the eco-boor, ordering the daily special, mussels from PEI. Perhaps the tomatoes and onions in the marinara sauce were locally grown).

Eco-unfriendly PEI mussels and jalapeno lager. Note the absence of any head.

Eco-unfriendly PEI mussels and jalapeno lager. Note the absence of any head on the beer.

My beer had a complete lack of foam, probably due to the oils from the jalapeños. The nose was smoky, and the taste was indeed of smoky chipotle. Interestingly, there was a noticeable absence of heat — I suspect the seeds, which are tiny reservoirs of capsaicin (the hot stuff), were scraped from the peppers and discarded. All in all, a good pint that went well with the robust marinara sauce of the mussels.

While we were munching, we glanced through a brochure about the area, and discovered that  the new Ramblin’ Road Brewery Farm  was only 20 minutes from the brewpub. We arbitrarily decided to head to the brewery first, before returning to town for the county fair.

Ramblin’ Road is located just to the north of Delhi, another small village in Norfolk County. The countryside around here is flat and fertile, its rich layer of topsoil kindly left here by glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. For years tobacco was king from here across the north shore of Lake Erie to Sarnia. However, as the number of smokers started to decline in the past 30 years, many farmers turned to other crops. Local farmer Robert Picard grows peanuts and potatoes, which he turns into snack foods via his company, Picard Nuts. He also recently decided to start up a brewery on his property, hence Ramblin’ Road Brewery Farm, which claims to be the first and only brewery farm in Ontario. (It is not — Charles McLean’s tiny Battleaxe Brewery in Grey County, operated on his farm and using local ingredients, many from his own crops, has been in operation for several years.)

Ramblin' Road Brewery, part of the Picard farm operation.

Ramblin’ Road Brewery, part of the Picard farm operation that includes snack food made from peanuts and potatoes.

The immediate thing that struck me as we arrived was the size of the building. Here we were, out in the middle of nowhere, and there was this industrial-sized warehouse in the middle of a field. Amazing.

Although the clerk in the retail store was not a brewer, she took us on a tour of the facilities. Wow, check out the size of the rooms! Although our tour guide had no idea of the technical specifications of the brewhouse, the label on the kettle indicated it had been manufactured by Criveller in 1995 and was a fairly impressive 28 hL. The equipment, undoubtedly from some defunct brewery in Ontario or New York, was like new, extremely clean and unmarred by the usual collection of dents and scratches one would expect to see from almost 20 years of use.

Brewhouse, fermenters and bottling line. Note the complete lack of clutter. Yes, beer is brewed here.

Brewhouse, fermenters and Meheen bottler. Despite the complete absence of clutter, we were assured that beer is actually brewed here.

Something else notable was the complete lack of clutter. Nothing lying around. No hoses, bottles of sanitizer, tools, gloves, safety goggles, empty glasses, bottles, kegs. Nothing. It was almost surreal.

There were six 58-hL fermenters, each capable of holding a double batch. I didn’t check all of them, but at least the two on the end held fermenting beer.

We asked our guide how many people worked in the brewery, and were startled by the answer: one. Apparently, like James Walton, owner/operator/brewmaster of Vancouver’s 25-hL Storm Brewery, the Ramblin’ Road brewmaster handled the 28-hL operation all by himself. (Except on bottling days — apparently two or three people from other parts of the farm operation helped on the six-head Meheen on packaging days.)

The story we got was that the brewmaster had no formal or previous experience in brewing — a brewer from Montreal had been brought in to teach him how to brew, and still occasionally dropped in if a problem cropped up.

At the moment, Ramblin’ Road cleaves to the middle of the road, producing mainstream lager, pilsner, ale, and a Dakota Perle “potato ale”.

The potato ale apparently happens this way: the company wants to make a beer-washed potato chip, so they use some of their beer to wash Dakota Perle potatoes. The potatoes move on to become potato chips; the beer, now filled with starch from the potatoes, is refermented, the starch presumably converted to sugar by some means. Again, lack of a technical person prevented a more complete understanding of this process.

(Edit: Jen Nadwodny, a fellow graduate of the Niagara College Brewmaster program, currently brewing at Brasseurs du Monde in Montreal, added a comment to this post that she talked to John Picard about the potato beer process: A simple, unhopped beer is used to wash the Dakota Perle potatoes. Enzymes are added to the beer to convert the potato starch to sugar, and the result is [boiled and hopped, I assume] then refermented and sold as potato beer. See Jen’s comment below.)

Also not clear is how much of the ingredients are actually grown on the farm. There is a large hop yard here, but no evidence of a malting operation that would turn the raw barley into malt. Perhaps it is shipped to a small maltster for processing — again, having someone with tecnical knowledge would have been great.

The beers produced are not complex or complicated, but Ramblin’ Road knows its rural audience — everyone here is pushing the “eat local” movement, since it is essential to the survival and growth of farms in this area that are competing with huge year-round commercial operations in the southern States. If someone can make a local beer that tastes roughly the same as mainstream Canadian lagers, local people are going to drink it with gusto. As we stood chatting with our guide, a stream of visitors quickly emptied out the beer fridge that we had watched being filled not 15 minutes before.

Tiny urban Bridge Brewing in North Vancouver, with its minuscule 4 hL brewhouse crammed into an industrial unit and its tasty northwest-style ales, does not seem to have much in common with large Ramblin’ Road and its mainstream lagers — but both breweries know their audience, brew for their audience, and have successfully connected on a deeper level with the locals.

Ramblin’ Road clearly has the means to produce a whack of beer. Whether they can connect with mainstream lager drinkers outside Norfolk County and environs or remain just a local brewery remains to be seen.

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2 Comments on “Beer geek country drive”

  1. Jen Nad Says:

    Nice lil profile of the home county, Alan! I met John Picard at the brewery’s booth at the fair this past Friday and he gave me a quick run-down of the Dakota Pearl Ale process. From my understanding, they make a simple, unhopped base beer that they then use it to wash the potatoes of their starch. The extra starchy beer is then hopped and refermented using this sugar source (and enzymes). I didn’t know what to expect, but the beer was pretty darn drinkable and a nice departure from the decent but same-y same-y Pilsner and Lager brands they produce, and the beer-washed chips are pure food porn deliciousness. I’m looking forward to see how the food tourism/local movement plays out there in the coming years.

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