Posted tagged ‘MBAC’

Iron Brewer 2015 – The results

October 8, 2015

The Iron Brewer competition has come and gone and alas, the trophy which so proudly adorned my family room mantel for twelve months has gone to a new home. Here’s how it went down.

After examining the bag of ingredients, I decided to make two beers, which would give me a choice of which one to bring to the competition. The batches I wanted to make were too small for the Teaching Bewery’s pilot systems, so Nate Ferguson, the college’s Brewmaster Program Coordinator, again offered to let me use his home system.

Mashing in

Mashing in the Vienna lager

First off, I decided to make a Vienna lager — a basic amber lager style noted for its bready, full-bodied flavour. There was only enough Vienna malt to make up about 65% of the grain bill, so I used pilsner malt and a bit of the double roasted crystal to supplement. Alas, while mashing in (and posing for photos), I knocked the lauter plate out of position. The plate is essentially a false bottom in the mash tun — it has holes or slits that allow the wort to drain away while holding the grain back. Of course I didn’t realize that I had knocked the plate out of position until I tried to drain the wort — and nothing came out. It was the dreaded “stuck mash”. Sometimes this occurs if the grains form a mushy impenetrable layer — this often happens with wheat or with barley that has a high protein content. Or it happens if the lauter plate is not in position, allowing the mash to block the discharge tube. When I realized what had happened, Nate helped me to reach in (with protective gloves — that mash is HOT) and reposition the plate. Then we cleared the discharge tube by pushing water into it from the outside. The rest of the brew and fermentation went without a hitch.

My second beer was a sarsaparilla mild. Mild was very popular in Britain between the wars but is now difficult to find. It is a low gravity style (often only 3.0%-3.5% abv) but with a round body and full flavour profile usually associated with bigger beers. The colour is dark brown to black, and it tends to the sweet side, with notes of chocolate. In my previous two Iron Brewer competitions, I stayed away from the specialty flavourings — I was concerned that if everyone else used the same flavouring, my beer wouldn’t stand out from the crowd. However, the aroma of the sarsaparilla seduced me, and besides, my main beer and probable entry was going to be the Vienna lager.

This time the brewing process went without incident. Rather than adding the sarsaprilla root during the boil — I felt that would extract astringent tannins — I hung a bag of it in the fermentor once fermentation was complete.

Two days before the competition, I bottled both beers, and it turns out that the Vienna lager was rather meh. Whether that was due to the mash problems or my recipe, I’m not sure, but it wasn’t a stand-out. I decided to go with the sarsaparilla mild, even though my chances would hinge on not too many other of the brewers choosing that same flavouring. It was a very good beer, with a nose of dark cherries and vanilla, and flavours of cherry, vanilla, chocolate and caramel. I felt fairly confident in my chances… until I arrived at the competition. Of the fifteen brewers, seven of us had used sarsaparilla. Dang.

In the past, the Iron Brewer trophy was awarded to the most popular beer as voted on by attendees. This year the trophy was awarded by a panel of three judges. (Attendees still voted on a “People’s Choice”). In the end, the winner and new Iron Brewer was Ian Johnston, an avid homebrewer and last year’s third-place brewer, who made an excellent smoked porter. The People’s Choice was Mick Muzzin’s Imperial Pilsner.

And the seven sarsaparilla beers? It seems sarsaparilla was not anyone’s favourite flavour — none of us were in the top three either as a judges’ choice or people’s choice.

(The judging scoresheets, which were returned to us at the end of the competition, were a bit of a headscratcher for me — none of the judges mentioned sarsaparilla, cherry, vanilla or chocolate, but they did comment on “smoky flavours”, as well as “raisins” and “cloves”. Hmm.)

Next year I hope to be back in the competition, but since I didn’t place in the top three, my name goes back in the hat for the random draw next May. Got my fingers crossed already.


Iron Brewer: The planning begins

July 23, 2015

Yes, it’s that time again. The Master Brewers’ Association of Canada (MBAC) has just released the list of ingredients for the 2015 edition of the Iron Brewer competition.

For those of you who have joined this channel since last summer, the MBAC provides 15 brewers with identical bags of ingredients. Each competitor must make at least 10L of beer using only the ingredients provided plus brewing water. (Just like Iron Chef competitors don’t have to use every ingredient on the pantry table, Iron Brewers don’t have to use every ingredient in the bag.) The beers are judged, the scores are toted up, and one brewer is crowned the Iron Brewer.

Since there are always more than 15 brewers interested, names are drawn from a hat, with the exception of last year’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd place finishers, who are given a bye into the next competition.

Here are the ingredients in the bag this year:

Base Malts:
Czech Pils, OIO 2-row, Weyermann Vienna, Simpsons Pale Ale Golden Promise

Specialty malts:
Briess Smoked Cherry Wood Malt, Bairds Carastan 30/37, Chocolate, Simpsons Light Crystal, Simpsons Double Roasted Crystal, OIO Toasted barley, Weyermann Carabelge, Crisp Clear Choice, Harvest Malt & Hops

Admiral (13.6% AA), Celeia (4.3), Pilgram (9.0), Jarrylo (14.8), Pekko (15.4) + whole leaf from Harvest Malt & Hops & possibly Winterbrook Farms

Belle Saison, Munich Classic wheat, Abbaye belgian, S23 Lager, US05 Ale, Fermentis Abbaye

Special Ingredients:
Oak Chips, Sarsaparilla, Whirlfloc

There may be some additional ingredients added by the end of next week. I have until the end of September to brew at least 10L of beer with only the above ingredients + brewing water.

Does anyone have suggestions on what type of beer I should make?

Iron Brewer Throw-down

December 2, 2014

Yes, it’s been over two months since I last blogged. Here’s what happened: a BIG project. Back in the summer, I was given responsibility for creating an on-line version of our History of Brewing course. So that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. It started off as a normal project. But, like Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors, the project began to grow and take on a life of its own. By the end of the summer, I was working on it seven days a week. By October I was working on it seven days a week, often from 8 am until 1 or 2 in the morning. It’s done and dusted now, doubtless a real achievement in the annals of on-line education. I’ll blog about the whole thing later, once the nightmares and flashbacks have calmed down.

However, now that I have a life again, let’s return to the matter at hand — the Iron Brewer competition some eight weeks ago.

In case you need a reminder, the Iron Brewer is an annual competition held by the Master Brewers Association of Canada (MBAC), where all the entrants get an identical bag of ingredients, and have to make at least 10 litres of beer using only what’s in the bag plus brewing water. I had chosen to make a strong Scotch ale.

View from my table. Nice place.

View from my table. Nice place.

This year, competition judging happened at Amsterdam Brewhouse,  a brewpub down on Queen’s Quay at the Toronto waterfront. It’s a very nice location, right beside a marina, if you can get there — for the past two or three years, Queen’s Quay has been a construction zone, raising the challenge of Toronto traffic from impossible to nigh impassable. But finally I and my cooler of Scotch ale arrived.

My wife’s coworkers had suggested possible names for my beer, and I was particularly taken with “Highland Gale Highland Ale”. (I came soooo close to using “Big Jimmy”.) I didn’t print labels this year, but I did have a graphic on the table of a highland warrior laying about with a claymore.

Last year, my table was pretty Spartan compared to some of the other displays of grain and hops brought forth by competitors. I had every intention of creating a better display this year, but… well… anyways.


My table, as Spartan as last year

So my table was a bit barren again.

This year, Elaine wasn’t able to make it, so I didn’t have anyone bringing me beer samples from the other competitors. I did manage to slip away a couple of times, and man, the other beers I was able to taste were fantastic this year! Andy Preston, who came in second last year, was at the table next to me, and had concocted a delicious brown ale. (That’s actually a pun, because he had used a double decoction method to make the beer. “Concocted”. “Double decoction”. Get it?)


Never mind then.

The special ingredient in the bag this year was heather tips, and many took advantage of this. Victor North, who with his wife Sonja has started up Garden Brewers in Hamilton, had made something incredible with the heather tips, although the exact style escapes me right now. (It WAS eight weeks and a lot of beers ago.) Siobhan McPherson also used the heather tips — again, I can’t remember what the style was, but it was good. A fellow Brewmaster graduate, Chris Freeman, now brewmaster at Collingwood Brewery, brought a delicate heather-spiced English mild. Current third-semester Brewmaster student Caleb Gilgan eschewed the heather tips in favour of the oak-smoked wheat malt, brewing up a crisp and lip-smacking smoked Oktoberfestbier.


This was early on. It got way more crowded.

While the judging was going on, I tried to describe my beer to each drinker: a nose of wild honey, a full rounded palate, with soft notes of caramel leading to a lushly sweet finish. Or words to that effect. However, it got quite crowded, and noisy, making erudite and witty commentary impossible By the end of the afternoon, I was pretty much reduced to pushing beer into people’s hands and screaming, “Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaar!”


Organizer Paul Dickey hands me the trophy. No, I don’t know what the object on top of the trophy is.

After a couple of hours of judging, it was time for the winners to be announced. Third place went to Ian Johnston — unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to sample his beer. Second place went to Victor North for a beer I hope Garden Brewers produces commercially. And for first place: me.

“Gobsmacked” is not a word I commonly use, but for the first time, it was perfect: I felt gobsmacked. There was some fantastic beer there, far more complex than my simple Scotch ale, but apparently Highland Gale Highland Ale had achieved some sort of zeitgeist. Huh.

Of course, I am never at a loss for words, so when I was handed the mic, I held forth: “Errr.. Ummm… Uhhh… Thanks.”

Since that time, my fame has known no bounds. People stop me on the street.

Okay, I’m lying about that part.

However, Jon Downing, the brewmaster at the Teaching Brewery, borrowed my recipe, and last week, I helped mash in what will become about 400 litres of the Highland Gale Highland Ale. It should be available later in December — perhaps in time for Christmas!


MBAC 100th Anniversary Conference: Part 3

February 24, 2014

Still at the 100th Anniversary Technical Conference of the MBAC. With fermentation and history finished, it was time to move on to filtration.

Beer Haze & Colloidal Stability (Karl Sibert, Professor of Biochemistry, Cornell University)

If you’ve left beer in your fridge a long time, you know that eventually the beer will start to get hazy. First the haze only appears when the beer is cold but then disappears when the beer warms up — the classic “chill haze”. Leave that beer for a while and the haze becomes permanent, regardless of temperature. There is no way to prevent this increasing haziness other than by reducing the amount of haze-causing (or “haze-active”) particles in the beer before you bottle it.

As Professor Sibert explained — this was actually a reiteration of material we had covered in several classes of the Brewmaster program — hazes are caused by protein-polyphenol complexes that start as tiny particles but gradually clump together into larger and larger particles. Protein particles are hordein, which is found in barley (and for wheat beers, from a protein called gliadin.)

Dr. Siebert’s research shows that since haze-active proteins and haze-active polyphenols combine to create haze, it follows that reducing haze-active proteins by 50% should reduce haze by the same amount.

He also suggested that silica gel, a filtration aid now gaining favour with brewers, works by attaching itself to haze-active proteins, thus not allowing competing polyphenols to attach. If a significant number of the polyphenols are unable to bind with the haze-active proteins, beer haze will be reduced significantly.

Beer Filtration: The Current situation and Future Outlook (Ernst Meier, M & L Consulting)

We started with a look back at the past 70 years of beer filtration.

The 1940s saw the development of mass filtration or deep-bed filtration, where beer was passed through a very long box filled with cotton or sometimes even asbestos. In the 1960s, the excellent filtration properties of diatomaceous earth (the microscopic fossilized silica skeletons of a prehistoric hard-shelled algae, better known as kieselguhr in Germany) were discovered. The first DE filters were “plate and frame” style — cotton “plates” stretched on frames and covered with DE were clamped together and beer forced through the apparatus. In the 1980s and 1990s, DE filters using circular steel plates, either horizontal or vertical, were developed. These were soon followed by “candle” filters.

The interesting thing was not the development of this technology, but the relative cost of the filter: In the 1960s, 90% of your filtration cost was tied up in the filter itself. Today, the cost of the filter is only about 28% of your filtration cost — the other 72% is being spent on a complx web of tanks, pipes and peripherals, including in-line syrup dosing, flash pasteurization and in-line CIP (clean in place).

You would think it would be obvious, but many brewers run into problems by installing new filtration systems without regard to their existing systems. Apparently a recurring problem is installing new equipment in the old space, depsite the fact that it requires more space than the old system. What usually occurs is a lack of space for proper maintenance and access to the new systems.

As we heard earlier with regard to fermentation tank design, pre-planning a new filtration system is paramount.

Best line of the presentation: “Employees always make the same mistakes. Engineers always make new mistakes.”

Centrifuge Optimization and Maintenance (Marco Garcia, MillerCoors)

Large centrifuges are becoming popular with brewers as a means of quickly and efficiently removing yeast and other “large” particles from the beer before fine filtration. This reduces the load on the fine filters, and also speeds up filtration times. A modern centrifuge has a stack of metal cones inside it, with a clearance of a few microns between each cone. Yeasty beer fresh from the fermenter is forced in between the cones while they are being spun at 30,000 rpm. The yeast and other “heavy” particles are forced to the outside wall of the centrifuge and are drained away, while the now-clear beer is forced to the centre of the centrifuge, where it is drained to the next step of finer filtration or to a holding tank.

This can remove yeast from a very large volume of beer in a short time, but there some caveats. This is not a machine you want to run if you have the slightest doubt about maintenance issues. It is a big heavy machine with parts that are spinning incredibly fast — if anything were to happen, I would not want to be in the same building, let alone standing beside it.

At MillerCoors, they have discovered that measuring the discharge is essntial to optimizing performance. If the discharge starts to drop off, there could be a problem. They have also installed sensors that can detect if a shaft bearing is starting to fail. In addition, MillerCoors has instituted a schedule of cleaning and preventative maintenance that include semi-annual major overhauls, timed to avoid the busy summer brewing season. All of their American operations now use standardized maintenance practices, and maintenance personnel are trained to follow a Standard Operational Procedure (SOP).

Next up: Barrel Dwellers

MBAC 100th Anniversary Conference: Part 2

February 20, 2014

The first two parts of the conference had been about cellaring and fermentation. The next part of the conference was brewery history.

Sleeman Brewery (John Sleeman)

Sleeman started as a small brewery on the outskirts of Guelph, Ontario, but through clever marketing of clear glass bottles (bad for beer but nice to look at) it rapidly outpaced the other small breweries in the area and became a national player. The founder, John Sleeman, is a very personable guy, very able to sell himself — and that has probably been one of his strengths during the long and sometimes difficult road he has followed while building Sleeman to the size it is today.

He related some of the stories behind the advertising we see on TV — the references to “pirates” and “smugglers”, and how his father was forced to close the family brewery in Guelph when the Sleemans were caught providing beer to American smugglers during Prohibition. How John started a brewery armed with nothing more than his grandfather’s recipe book and the promise of technical expertise from Stroh’s, was a fascinating story.

He had several pieces of advice:

  • Be brutally honest about your own skills, and find people to fill in the gaps you have.
  • Don’t hire friends and family. First, it’s too hard to fire them when they mess up. Secondly, other employees will always believe that friends and family, no matter how skilled, get promoted due to nepotism.
  • Don’t underfund your start-up. More companies die due to lack of cash flow rather than bad product or poor sales.

Mill St. Brewery (Joel Manning)

Mill St. was a “3rd wave” craft brewery that started as a tiny operation in the touristy Distillery District of downtown Toronto  in 2002. Smart marketing to women of a rather bland low alcohol organic beer in a smaller-than-normal 200 mL “pony” bottle caused sensational sales and growth. (During an informal tour of their brewery last summer, one of the brewer showed me their fermenter schedule — “Organic Ale” still makes up over 60% of their production.)

Joel was brought on in 2005 to oversee construction of a brewhouse out in the dreary eastern suburbs of Toronto — an area called Scarborough on the map, but better know as “Scarberia” to locals.

Things were not easy for Joel — the industrial building for which Mill St. had signed a lease proved to have inadequate water, electricity and sewage capacity. However, problems got solved with the application of more money. (As the experts say, “Set a budget and schedule, then double the money and triple the time.”) Mill St. definitely did not build a showcase brewery — it is located in an anonymous industrial building in an anonymous industrial district. Mill St. has never publicized the new brewery location, and many people probably believe their beer is still brewed in the Distillery District.

Once the new brewery was in operation, the original brewery back in the Distillery District was converted into a brewpub.


MBAC 100th Anniversary Conference: Part 1

February 19, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Master Brewers’ Association of Canada (MBAC) Annual Technical Conference. What made this one a bit special was that the MBAC was founded a century ago. Unlike the Ontario Crafter Brewers (OCB) Conference last October, which included seminars about marketing and event planning, the MBAC conference had a strictly technical focus — how to make beer, and how to make it better. Here is a summary of the various seminars.

Design of Fermentation and Maturation Tanks (Michael Kurtzweil, Ziemann International)

Ziemann is a German firm that manufactures fermentation tanks of all sizes. I remember them most for the tanks they made in 2010 for Molson — six massive 4500 hL tanks. (Each could hold about 1.4 million bottles of beer.) The tanks were shipped across the Atlantic to Hamilton (right next door to my town of Burlington), then put on trucks and then slowly and gingerly moved along back roads to Molson’s Toronto brewery. One of those back roads was about 2 km from my house. The move took ten nights, and required approval from the province of Ontario and six different municipalities since it involved lifting up hundreds of telephone, cable and hydro wires at intersections, as well as temporarily moving stoplights.

Michael Krutzweil’s first remark about buying fermentation tanks was that master planning is essential right from the beginning. Rather than thinking small and then scrambling for more fermentation volume, he advised brewers to “Think big, and start small”. Rather than ordering a tank when you need it, he advised us to plan ahead to when we think we’re going to need it, and order it well in advance to lower costs. This past summer I had personally seen several small breweries out in B.C. that had just opened their doors and were already trying to shoehorn more fermenters into a limited space because of unexpectedly robust sales, so this seemed like good advice.

When planning your tank farm, think about tank location. Are they going inside or outside? If outdoors, are they shiny showcase tanks, designed to be admired by the general public? Or are they going to quietly sit in a back lot, unseen?

Whatever the case, Michael suggested that you spend the money to ensure they are held high enough off the ground so that there is lots of working room underneath. Later on, as your brewery grows, this will allow you to install a pipe fence underneath them. (A pipe fence is a permanent grid of pipes and valves that allows you to move wort and beer hither and yon without stopping to attach and detach rubber hoses and pumps.)

What else should you plan on for the future? Flexibility seems to be the key:

  • If you increase the pressure capacity of your fermenters to 1.5 to 2.0 bars, the tanks can also be used as bright tanks to carbonate the beer.
  • Many tanks have pipes for water, cleaning solution, CO2, etc. welded directly to the top of the tank. However, Michael suggested having a removable dome plate bolted to the top of your tank instead. That way your pipes aren’t welded directly to the tank. Later on, if you want to change the arrangement of pipes or even the number of pipes, you simply replace the dome plate rather than replace the entire tank.
  • Speaking of a dome plate, what if you made the dome plate out of polyurethane rather than stainless steel? Some of New Belgium’s brewers found stainless steel dome plates too heavy to lift, but polyurethane plates were considerably lighter, and apparently have not affected performance.

Other things to consider for the future include insulation, glycol jacketing, access to the top of the tanks (ladders or catwalks?), security against earthquakes and high winds, and how new tanks are going to be moved to the brewery, especially the very large ones.

Yeast Management (Christopher White, White Labs)

White Labs is one of two major yeast suppliers in North America, so getting Chris White at the conference was impressive. The first point he addressed was the question of reusing yeast. Because yeast reproduces, it is theoretically possible to use the same batch over and over again forever. However, a batch of yeast can lose its efficacy over time due to mutations, lower viability and a loss of vitality; most breweries opt to replace the entire batch of yeast after a set number of uses (often ten batches). Chris says it all depends on how the brewery handles the yeast during

  1. Storage,
  2. Propagation and
  3. Pitching

1. Storage

When storing yeast, apparently the key to keeping maximum flavour and stability is to avoid changes in the environment and or environmental stresses — these will force the yeast to rapidly adapt to the new environment, causing mutations. Keeping the yeast in an anaerobic environment at -80°C will avoid both growth and mutation.

2. Propagation

During propagation — growing the yeast from a single test tube to 100 litres or more —  it’s important to get started soon after thawing out the yeast — never leave it sitting in a Petri dish for months at a time. Fresh wort is often used as a growth medium — this adapts the yeast to the stuff it’s going to be swimming in for the rest of its life, and wort also has all the nutrients yeast requires for growth. However, add the yeast to as small a volume of wort as possible — this reduces the risk of microbial infection due to competition for scarce resources. And remember to constantly agitate the flask to improve circulation of nutrients and oxygen. (Yeast need oxygen in order to grow rapidly). Chris cautioned that your lab has to be completely aseptic: tiled walls and floor, foot baths, HEPA air filtration, UV lights, and positive air pressure. And he suggested when propagating that you avoid volume increments of more than 10:1 during each step or forcing growth too rapidly.

For instance, he suggested that if we started with 10 mL of yeast and kept to volume increments of just 10:1, we could get as much as 100 litres of yeast in just over a week:

  1. Add 10 mL of yeast to 8°P wort and aerate and agitate the wort at 25°C for 1 to 2 days
  2. Move 100 mL of this slurry to a larger container of fresh 8°P wort and aerate and agitate the wort at 25°C for another 1 to 2 days
  3. Move 1 L of this slurry to a larger container of stronger wort (12-16°P) with more aeration and agitation at 22°C for yet another 1-2 days
  4. Finally move 10L of this to a very large container of 12-16°P wort for 2-3 days at 22°C.

Follow these four steps and in 5-9 days, you should have 100 litres of yeast slurry ready for use.

Chris also threw in some other considerations:

  • Using pure oygen rather than air will produce healthier yeast with thicker cell walls.
  • Watch for sources of contamination — when you are plating yeast, for instance, air-borne microbes can infect the Petri dish.
  • The wort temperature during propagation is usually higher than wort temperature during actual fermentation. Chris advises that towards the end of propagation, wort temperature be decreased so that, again, the yeast has a chance to gradually adapt to actual working conditions without being forced to mutate.
  • During propagation, transfer yeast to larger containers during its active growth phase (after 1-2 days), not after active growth has stabilized.

3. Pitching

Yeast can usually be used 5-10 times without problem. The usual pitching concentration (which I remember from Microbiology classes) is about 107cells/mL/°P. That is, about 1 million cells per millilitre of wort for every degree Plato of sugar — the more sugar there is, the more food there is for yeast cells, so there can be more yeast cells per millilitre.

(How do you estimate the concentration of yeast cells if your brewery doesn’t own a microscope? Put some yeast slurry into the fridge and let it cool for a day. The yeast will fall to the bottom of the container and form a thick white goo, while the liquid floating on top will be clear. If the yeasty goo makes up about 1/3 of the container, your concentration of yeast cells is (very) approximately 10 million cells per mL.)

If not handled properly, yeast can become infected by other microbes such as pediococcus or lactobacillus. You can “wash” the yeast with dilute acid, killing the microbes, but this has two effects. One is that it will also kill off some yeast cells, lowering your yeast’s viability. The other problem is that once you have acid-washed your yeast, it seems to become more susceptible to infection — from that point on, you may have to acid wash that batch every time you want to reuse it.

Lastly, Chris took a question from the floor about using olive oil during fermentation rather than oxygenating the wort. (You add oxygen to wort in order for the yeast to use the oxygen to construct lipids that can then be used to build cell walls. This allows for rapid and healthy reproduction. By adding olive oil to the wort rather than oxygen, the theory is that the yeast cells will use lipids directly from the olive oil rather than having to build them; hence, no need for oxygen.) In answer to the question, Chris replied that New Belgium had done some experiments with olive oil and had subsequently measured increased ester levels (fruity aromas) in the resulting beer, but the esters did not reach levels detectable by the human nose. The answer seems to be that the idea requires further research.

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.


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