Friday, April 30, 2010

Cheers! Plus: Moylans Moylander Double IPA

The secret to a serving a good beer is to have a two-year-old cast spells over it prior to drinking. Admittedly, I draw that conclusion from a sample of one, but the Moylans Double IPA was very good indeed. Not quite the ordeal of its mammoth-hopped big brother — Hopsickle — but still bitter as a bag of divorced lemons, and richly malty to boot. It took me a while to identify it, but there's a definite black tea flavour playing the bassnotes.

I don't know why I was so reluctant to try Moylans. It might be the pseudo-Celtic bottle designs; they remind me somehow of a ghastly Irish-themed pub. You know, the ones that purchase all their furnishings from "" — which is just a guy knocking up cheap Guinness signs and staining them with coffee to make them look old.

My prejudices (like most) were totally unfounded. Moylans haven't put a foot wrong in the four beers I've tried, and I will go back to the double and the Hopsickle again.

Bit of a mish-mash post; wanted to cheers a few people. First, my brother-in-law who came back from Seattle with a slew of beers I can't get in BC (see left). He's not technically my brother-in-law until the wedding in June, but I've promoted him early based on this gift. I've wanted the Avery Maharaja for ages now. Cheers brother-in-law!

To my mate Brayden, who is as stupid about beer as I am, and whom I am pinning my hopes on starting a brewery with if our respective careers go down the toilet. Cheers Brayden!

And to my few readers who leave interesting and kind comments. Now I've got your attention, I need something. $1000 to be precise. No, I'm kidding. I want to know what BC-related writing you'd be interested in. I've done reviews with the two most prominent (and interesting, in my opinion) local breweries (3rd part of Phillips interview coming this weekend.) I can carry on chasing down the rest, or I could do some brewpub interviews, or I could find out about the local homebrew scene, or anything you can think of. I'd appreciate suggestions, and like a dog after a stick, I'll retrieve the beer truth you desire. Cheers readers!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Phillips Interview #2: Bodybuilders with Bad Backs

In this second part of three in the Phillips Brewery interview series, Matt Phillips talks about his taste in beers, and the challenges of producing and drinking a good India Pale Ale. Also, I get to drink three new Phillips brews — one of which is still in the testing phase.
Phillips tells me that his best sellers are the Blue Buck ale and the IPA — which surprised me, as I thought the Phoenix Gold lager would outsell the IPA. Obviously you'd never mess with your best-sellers, right? Wrong. "Hop Circle," Phillips' new IPA, is actually an unfiltered reworking of the original recipe, and the impression I got is that Phillips sees it as a permanent replacement.

I'm a big fan of the original IPA, so my first instinct was to grab Phillips by the lapels and slap him around a bit. But before I could act he handed me the freshest-possible glass of Hop Circle, and I got over it pretty quick. This beer is simply better. It pours a lemony-gold colour, with a substantial haze (although my glass was the result of a near-explosive pour, which may have contributed to the suspension). The aroma is a blast of resiny hops — it actually smells very much like marijuana. The taste is rounder, a touch sweeter, but at least as bitter as the old IPA. I can't comment on the carbonation (my one problem with the old IPA was that it was always a bit too fizzy) — because the pour on this one left it kind-of flat, but the taste is spot-on. It *might* even be what at least one giddy blogger has called it — "the current IPA champion of BC" — but I'd have to drink some store-bought Hop Circle before I kicked Central City's Red Racer IPA off its throne.

Naturally, talk turned to IPA at this point, a beer that Phillips himself "drinks every day." The "raunchy and coarse" northwestern hops are clearly fundamental to his enjoyment of beer, and Phillips states bluntly that his own tastes govern what he brews (have you noticed that Phillips wide array of seasonals contains no sours? He's not particularly into them.) So, while I fail to draw Phillips on his favourite BC IPAs, he does offer a poetic angle on his go-to style:
MP: I've had some so-called "great" IPAs that have been sensational, and I've had them other times when they've been so-so. It all depends. You have to get them fresh. IPAs are so delicate. They're kind of like the bodybuilder with a bad back: they look really tough, but if you kick them in the knee they fall down. All the things that make an IPA really exciting are fleeting. You have to get them close to a brewery, you have to get them kept right, and without — say — a good bottle-filler? It's all wasted. 
During this speech something awakens in Phillips. He drops his measured, friendly demeanor, and excitement takes over. He calls out to a nearby worker and gestures at me to follow:
"Where's the Double Barrelled at?"
"Wherever that hose is going!"
Ten seconds later we're both drinking the Phillips Double Barrel — a Scotch Ale aged in fresh bourbon casks — poured from a tap set in the side of one of the thirty-foot tanks. It's a classy scotch ale, and I preferred it to the pretty decent Swans Brewpub version I had last week. "It's not so bourbony: less heat than last year," Phillips tells me. But I still get a powerful slug of bourbon, woody-vanilla, and figs from it. The booze is up-front, but not unpleasant.
- As a craft-brewer, are you comfortable with interesting inconsistencies between batches?
MP: Yes and no. With our regular beers, consistency is very important, and it's something we're always striving to perfect here. We're excited by the year-to-year variations in our seasonals. Some years we do the raspberry and it's blood-red, other times it might be a mild pink — but it could taste more powerful than the redder batch. It's really interesting. But our IPA should taste like an IPA every time, and our major aim is to deliver that.
I'm still finishing the scotch ale when Phillips makes another quick move and takes me to a tap poking out of a refrigerator. He pours me a pale-looking ale with a musky aroma I can't quite place. It tastes kind of sweet, like a malty brown-ale, but I also get a melony kick from it.
MP: This is a stone beer. It's fired with hot stones, so you get some caramelization when the hot stones hit the wort. It gives a lot of body and roundness and a real smokey flavour. It's a scottish style, light on the hops. Right now it's just a pilot beer but it could go forward.

- Do you brew a lot of experimental stuff?
MP: Oh sure. We could have three batches a week of experimental stuff. The stone beer is shaping up pretty well. Hey, let me show you the bottling line.
With that, I'm whisked to another part of the brewery, where we talk about the future of Phillips Brewery. I also manage to get Phillips to comment on a subject that has touched his own brewery — legal wrangles over copyright between craft-breweries.

But that's enough typing tonight. Catch it in part three.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Canadian Craft-Brew Stats: Not Sophisticated

The CBC recently commented on the decline of the beer market share in Canada as evidence that "Canadian palates — at least when it comes to alcohol — are becoming somewhat more sophisticated." The inference that wine drinkers are more sophisticated is pilsner off a mallard's back to most craft-brew drinkers. My problem with the report is that the stats are too vague to draw these types of conclusions.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the root of the word "sophisticated" is "sophistry" — meaning deceitful or misleading.

I used my university library account to get the raw Statistics Canada data (which they'd charge you $3 a pop for otherwise). Turns out no analysis is done on the types of beer or wine that are bought. The changing sales data could be explained by falls in macro-brew sales, coupled with an explosion in the market for Yellow Tail and cheap Euro-zone Vodka imports. Craft beer purchases might be rocketing. We just don't know.

I suppose the real point is that we don't have readily-available data on the craft-brew industry in Canada. The US Brewers Association does a good job of publicizing craft beer sales south-of-the-border — and they posted a 7% year-on-year volume increase in 2009. It's possible Canadian craft beer is doing just as well, but I can't find a single reference on the equivalent Brewers Association of Canada website. Their fancy brochure just breaks down provincial beer sales by can, draft and bottle.

It could be I just don't know where to look, in which case I'd appreciate a pointer. But otherwise, how about some craft-brew industry stats, Canada?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Imperial Stout Chocolate Cake

This is the best chocolate cake I've ever had.

My wife has been making the excellent Nigella Lawson Guinness Chocolate Cake for years now. It recently occurred to us that Nigella only uses Guinness because of its popularity, and maybe other stouts or porters would be even better. As usual, my wife is way ahead of me, and I came home the other day to find a bottle of Howe Sound Pothole Filler Imperial Stout in the fridge.
"Do NOT drink this one," she said, as I lifted the heavy, litre-bottle of tar out of the fridge to inspect it. "It's for a cake."

After three days of my ceaseless pestering, she finally baked it. I could have done it myself, but she's a cake-master, and I didn't want to risk ruining it. The recipe calls for a quarter of a litre of stout, which isn't a bad thing, as drinking a litre of imperial stout in one sitting can be a bit much (all Howe Sound beers come in litre bottles only.)

The Guinness version of the cake has a subtle bitterness that complements the sweet chocolate. The Pothole Filler model blows it out of the water. It certainly adds a heavily bitter twang, but also a complex sweetness. As you'd expect, it brings aniseed, coffee, and molasses to the party, which is perfect for this cake. But because it is an imperial stout, not all the alcohol is lost in the bake, and you still get a bit of heat and boozy-aromatics. As for texture, the cake is as thick and rich as you could ever want, which is typical for this recipe, and the imperial stout certainly doesn't dry it out any.

Of course, I got a chance to drink the stout too. It's a very accomplished RIS, and the texture is thick and hearty. The flavours can become a bit of a muddle, though. I already mentioned the aniseed, which works in the cake, but gets a bit much in the beer, jostling with vanilla, coffee and other warm flavours. I suppose I wish it had just one or two dominant flavours coming through the mix, but some people will enjoy disentangling the complex soup. Any BC stout lover should try it, but perhaps not by the 750ml glassful like I did. Too rich for a session for me,

I strongly recommend you bake the cake, though. I'm already thinking up other stouts that could work (I think barley wines could be good too). Maybe that Stone Smoked Porter would be good, or, if I could bear to sacrifice a bottle, the Peche Mortel from Brasserie Dieu du Ciel would probably be sumptuous, as would be pretty much anything on this page.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Phillips Interview #1: Obligation to the Beer

Matt Phillips met me for an interview last week at the impressive Phillips Brewery in Victoria. Waiting for the interview to start, I hung around the reception area, which is reminiscent of a minimalist art bar: abstract portraits hang on brightly spot-lit walls, an engaging receptionist fills growlers from a row of Phillips taps, and video monitors set into the walls show live feeds of the brewers at work behind the scenes.

Phillips himself greets me with the relaxed charm of a seasoned host. He's about forty, I'd guess, but youthful-looking, animated, and definitely the likeable side of self-confident. He doesn't know exactly what I'm there for other than that I have a blog, but before I can completely explain, we're already peering into an enormous mash tun — with Phillips telling me how he shaped its domed top  by driving his car repeatedly over a slab of sheet metal.

Offbeat stories like that are commonplace in the Phillips folklore, which is pretty well-known, and there's no need to go into much detail here. Suffice to say, the brewery was a one-man show begun in 2001, with only a collection of maxed-out credit cards as startup capital. Nowadays, ask most people and they'd say Phillips is the most popular craft-brewery on the island, has a strong reputation throughout BC, and continues to make excellent beer year after year. Personally, a bottle of Phillips IPA turned me on to the Canadian craft-brew scene back in 2005, and I still buy them five years later.

The brewery itself is a hive of noise and activity, as you would expect from an outfit with nine beers in constant rotation (a number that swells to fifteen depending on seasonal brews). Rows of thirty-foot-high tanks line the main warehouse area, but the brewery snakes off in other directions, revealing nooks stuffed with ancient-looking equipment right next to work-spaces full of very fancy looking brewing kit. An annex houses a vast bottling line, with a pallet of "Hop Circle" (Phillip's revamped IPA) sixer boxes in the middle, waiting to be filled.

Busy it may be, but the workers all seem pretty content: lots of beards, T-shirts and grins. Phillips pours beers from a spluttering tap, pitches a glass of foam over his shoulder, then hands me an IPA so zingingly-fresh, I almost forget to ask my questions. We cover the usual craft-brew stuff: yes the passion comes before the business; no he doesn't feel tempted to "go macro"; yes Victoria is a great place to make good beer — but how so?

MP: Well for several reasons. First, the water is really good here. And the public, they have an interest and appreciation of beer here that you don't find in many places in Canada, apart from a few pockets. That pushes us and allows us to be free in what we do here. I've worked in conservative places where brewing has been all about just keeping the doors open. I didn't want to work in a place like that.

- But Phillips has grown so much. Do you ever feel pressured by your market to take fewer risks, seeing as things are going so well?
MP: Quite the opposite. One of the great things about having expanded is that we have the space and ability to do more things, we can afford to be adventurous, and the beers don't have to be commercial success. They're such small batches that if they don't sell through (which happens very occasionally) we're happy to bring them back and drink them ourselves.

- What did you have come back?
MP: The Double Surly came back. Now and again something's too much, or not quite the right fit. It can happen when you're constantly experimenting. But we loved it and were more than happy to drink what was left!

I ask about the artistic direction at the brewery. Phillips is at the helm in that regard, but ideas are generated at regular group meetings — which isn't surprising, when known innovative brewers like Benjamin Schottle are on the team. Schottle was the brewmaster at the — sadly now closed — Hugo's brewpub in Victoria, where he built a reputation brewing beers such as his "Super G Ginseng Ale."

Phillips regrets that they get so many ideas, they can't possibly pursue them all. I ask for an example of a wackier beer that they had to turn down, but not for the last time during the interview, Phillips steers away from a direct answer. I get the same non-committal response when I later ask him to name his favourite BC beer makers. Although he's clearly all about the craft first and foremost, Phillips' entrepreneurial instincts aren't about to let him reveal a possible future recipe, or risk offending an industry colleague, just so an amateur blogger can have something juicy to write about. I can't say I blame him...

- Speaking of new ideas, I notice Black Toque [Phillips' great India Dark Ale] has recently been rebranded as "Skookum Cascadian Dark Ale". How come?
MP: Thing about Black Toque is this. It's one of the first cascadian India dark ales out there. Now it's an official style. There's probably 30-40 brewed in the states. We really, really like it...[he gives me a wry grin]...problem is, nobody else seems to! So we're re-branding it, hoping it'll help it along a bit.

On that note, Phillips gives a little insight into the "necessary evil of marketing" that faces craft-brewers. Mostly about the detrimental cycle facing beers that don't get an audience right away: they get stuck on shelves longer, so when they get bought they don't taste so good, so they don't tend to get repeat buyers. With justification, Phillips illustrates his point with the example of Slipstream Ale — their cream ale that began life as "Draft-Dodger" — that only found its market after a re-branding and some perseverance. Nowadays, Slipstream does well, and sells plenty in BC. You have to take Phillips' point that sometimes, new ideas need a bit of a push. The popularity of craft-brewing probably owes a lot to preaching of the impassioned. Or as Phillips puts it, "Our obligation to the beer goes beyond bringing it into the world, we want to find a home for it too."

Part two of this interview is on its way.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Brew School's In Session

I just got off the phone after an exhausting 15 minute chat with Steve Gill — the highly enthusiastic beer program coordinator for Niagara College's brand-new brewing course. Gill is best known as a wine expert who has run over 50 independent wine stores in Ontario. He also co-ordinates courses at Niagara College's teaching winery — the success of which paved the way for their new Brewmasters and Brewery Operations Management course.

- This is the first course of its kind in Canada, how did it come about?
SG: We've had the wine program since 2000. It's won awards, the students have won awards, it's been immensely successful. About three or four years ago we started getting calls from the Ontario Craft Brewers' association, and Jon Downing [of Downing International Brewing Consulting], and the Ontario brewing industry in general. The idea was to try and do the same with brewing: train people in all aspects of brewing from production, to appreciation, to running a brewing business.

- We've never had a course like this, so why do we need one now?
SG: There's a huge shortage of skilled people, the industry is crying out for them. Whether its with bigger beer companies or craft-breweries, this course will contribute to the brewing industry in a lot of ways. We've been working on the curriculum with people like Downing [great name for a beer-drinker...] and Bill White, and it's ready to go this fall.

- How many students?
SG: It's full. Two hundred applied, but we took twenty-four — which is kind of a nice number in beer terms. We may add a few more if we can.

- Always room for another sixer?
SG: Right, haha. There were applicants from all over the world. Twenty of the twenty-four are Canadian. They'll be brewing beer from day one. We're even constructing a custom-made [1,500 square foot] brewing facility for the program. The graduates will walk out of here with provincial diplomas, and great job prospects. It's a very exciting project.

I take the opportunity to grill Gill about his interest in the brew industry — what with him being a wine-expert by trade. He professes a growing passion for the craft-brew scene over the last few years, and even admits recently ducking out of a "boring" wine-evaluation meeting to attend a craft-brew event instead. Gill's just returned from New York with cases of craft brews, and he's looking forward to working through them. "Which ones?" I ask. "Ah...I knew you were going to ask me that!" He can't remember, but he listens keenly to some of my suggestions of great NY beer.

As a craft-brew-loving convert, Gill excitedly informs me that the course will be integrated with a working, commercial brewery, and their beers will be sold throughout the province. Any chance of getting them in BC? Not likely. Canadian provincial laws and regulations can make beer distribution tricky for smaller producers.

Ontario alcohol laws have perplexed Gill on occasion before. He recounts a tale about a private wine store he ran on Bloor St. in Toronto that had the misfortune to be situated on the border of a "wet" zone and a "dry" zone. After a visit from the police, Gill was forced to divide the store in half, with alcohol only permitted to be sold in one half of the building. "It was totally crazy," he says, but with good-humour rather than irritation. You get the impression talking to Gill that he enjoys the challenges and variety his work throws up. Perhaps that's part of the reason his course is on the frontier of Canadian brewing education.

I will keep informed about the course, perhaps even try and talk to a student or two, and report back. My thanks to Steve Gill for an informative and fun interview.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Canada: Zero Degree Brewing?

Are you a Canadian craft-brew drinker with romantic ideas about brewing your own beer? Do you think taking an accredited course (even getting a degree) might be a good way to get a foundation in brewing?

Yes? Well you'd better scrape together your savings and book a plane ticket (Icelandic volcanic eruptions permitting), because you aren't going to find a course like that anywhere in Canada.

I've toyed with the idea of home-brewing for a while, read a few books, even looked into the plastic versus glass carboy debate. This afternoon, on a whim, I decided to look for a local brewing course. Finding nothing in Victoria, I decided to call Rick Green of the Craft Brewers Association of British Columbia to see what my options are.

Me: Hi. I'm a beer blogger. I'm looking for brewing courses in BC. Victoria would be nice, maybe somewhere close to my house?
Rick: How close do you live to California?

Rick was happy to chat — he also finds it baffling that the world's second biggest producer of barley isn't too interested in learning what to do with the stuff (FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANIZATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS 2007.) So what? You might say. So long as someone's putting that barley to good use. Well, according to the Canadian Wheat Board, 90% of Canadian malting barley is exported to China — where it ends up as Tsingtao, Yanjing, and other macro-lagers. That's perfectly fine if you like that sort of thing, but it's not exactly a vibrant craft-brew industry (although some Chinese brewers use bitter melons instead of hops, which is at least interesting.)

Is it a problem that there are no college or university courses on brewing in Canada? Most brewers will tell you that home-brewing and experimentation are the best ways to learn the art. And besides, says Rick, there are lots of craft-brew associations that are generally happy to teach newbies to mash and sparge with the best of them. The standard of Canadian craft-beer suggests that the know-how is passed along quite efficiently without the help of tuition fees. I admit there's something earthy and good about the fact that brewing has retained a somewhat folksy character in Canada. After all, it is one of the world's finest "oral" traditions...

Footnote: after literally minutes of ceaseless googling, I managed to identify a brand new college course in brewing in Canada. Starting this year, Niagara College Canada, Ontario, offers a two-year course titled "Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management." They claim that their course, which is run in association with the Ontario Craft Brewers Association, is "a one of a kind program not available anywhere else in Canada." I will try to get hold of a representative and find out more about the course and brewing education in Canada, and then report back.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

On Beer #1: Beaten-Up for being Scottish

If you drink beer, chances are you've found yourself stuck listening to a drunk telling a story at least once. You will also know that, usually, your sense of politeness holds you captive more than the tale. You are about to discover the only sense in which blogs are better than pubs: if a blogger launches into an uncomfortable confession of his despicable deeds, you can ignore him — safe in the knowledge he isn't likely to turn aggressive or start crying in your vicinity.

"On Beer" are stories about things that would not have happened if it weren't for beer. It's not big, and it isn't clever, but the undeniable side-effects of beer (for some: the main effect) are the altered thoughts, behaviour and circumstances it leads to. I'm not talking purely about inebriation. Just getting a beer will often take you somewhere, whether it's the shops, a pub, or Belgium. On these journeys, we encounter people and ideas. We get lucky, and we make mistakes. Sometimes something so stupid, funny, dangerous or unique happens, that it makes for a story worth repeating. If any of mine remind me of any of yours: share.


Like a lot of English kids, my parents took me to a European resort every couple of years for summer holidays. Sometimes it was Greece or France, but usually Spain. My last of such family holidays was to Mallorca when I was sixteen or seventeen. It was the usual deal: two weeks at a massive half-board hotel with a large pool, several bars, and enough football on TV to ensure your Dad didn't force you to leave the resort to go sight-seeing.

On this trip, I quickly settled down with a group of like-minded youngsters to take advantage of Europe's least scrupulous bar-tenders. Each night we'd order progressively more pints of lager during the 5-6pm "happy hour", quickly get pissed, then wander around outside smoking horrible Spanish cigarettes.

It just so happened the oldest group of us were all Scots except me. A core of about five of us would be the last to sneak into our hotel rooms in the early hours. Once the hotel bars closed at 2am, you had two options: go to a local club, or find a Cruzcampo machine.

Now, I've only ever seen this in Spain and Japan, but these countries have a gift for the underage drinker: beer vending machines. All the ones in Mallorca seemed to sell Cruzcampo, which is a pseudo-pilsner that only tastes great during puberty. Sometimes, our regular machines would be exhausted of beer, and we'd launch a 3am search for one that was still "paying out". By the end of the two weeks I had a detailed mental map of every Cruzcampo machine on the island.

Toward the end of the holiday, after emptying our local machine of frosted, double-D-cell batteries of fun, the four Scots and I decided to hit a club for a change. We walked a mile or so along the beach road — past foam-parties we couldn't afford to get into — hitting up 'campos where we found them. Eventually we came to the club we had in mind — an open air venue surrounded by waist-high hedges that would probably serve alcohol to ten-year-olds.

The problem was we misjudged the time. It was 4am, and they wouldn't let us in. We hung around and smoked, leaning against the hedge perimeter, glumly watching the other drunk teenagers. I was about ready to quit, but three of the Scots had struck up a conversation over the hedge with a table full of lads. Me and Stuart smoked Bisonte ciggies and speculated whether a nearby 'campo would be empty or not. Next thing we know, the "conversation" degraded into a slanging match. Our mates were making "wanker" signs at the table of lads, who were gesturing at nearby tables of lads who looked a fair bit older and tougher.

I heard my one of my comrades shouting "English twats!" momentarily before I noticed a mob of ten-to-fifteen men running down the club steps towards us, most of whom were shouting "sweaty-socks!" (which is apparently a term of abuse for "jocks" — another name for Scottish people — although I have never heard it since).  I was immediately faced with a decision: take a beating, or cry out "I'm English, I'm one of YOU! I'll even help you!" But I'd drank 'campo with these boys for ten days. I couldn't betray them. The mob jumped into us like Jackie Chan impersonators and most of us were punched to the ground and kicked around in the sand.

As is often the case, the cheekiest one of us ran away and didn't get a scratch on him. I had a fat lip for the rest of the holiday, and my favourite Diesel T-Shirt got shredded, but at least I could walk into that happy-hour with pride for the rest of the holiday.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Driftwood Interview Part 3: New Brews

In this final part of my Driftwood interview, we talk about future plans for Driftwood beers, sneaking more hops into the mix, and advice for would-be brewers. But first, some quickfire questions:

- What's your favourite Driftwood Beer?
JM: The Sartori was a fun beer. Just that whole time: driving out and meeting Christian Sartori, [owner of the Sartori Cedar Ranch, a fledgling hop farm south of Chilliwack, BC] picking up the fresh hops. It felt like something unique and exciting. I loved the whole experience, and I love the big beers.
K: Sartori and the Hildegaard, definitely.

- Hop lovers eh? Favourite IPAs?

JM: Locally speaking, I think the Phillips IPA is great, and they're doing incredible things at Central City Brewing with the Red Racer IPA. Other than that, the Boonville Anderson Hop Ottin', Green Flash from San Diego do great IPAs, and [Jason's eyes glaze over] Pliny the Elder is fucking awesome.

- What about your least favourite beer?
JM: Least favourite? Bud Light Lime makes me want to stake myself.

- Best pub in BC?
JM: Alibi room, no question. Nigel the owner is awesome. He'd drive down here if we had a new beer and pick it up in person, he's so keen to get the good stuff on tap.

- Best beer producing regions of Canada?
JM: Vancouver, Victoria and Montreal.

- No love for Saskatchewan? Paddock Wood is doing some good stuff right now...
JM: True! You know how Paddock Wood started out? They used to be the best homebrew supplies in the country by far. We'd take trips to Saskatoon from Edmonton just to pick up brewing supplies. They'd have stuff you couldn't get in the states even, people would drive from all over. They began putting out kits and I guess they just decided they might as well go all out and sell the beer.
Jason shows me the small office where the business side of things takes place. As we open the door, Jason's dog Suzie jumps at me from behind piles of brewing books, invoices and beer-bottle labels. Jason spends time out here working out new recipes and ideas for Driftwood while Kevin oversees the day-to-day management of the brewing. "For me the excitement of the physical process of brewing is kinda lost now. What I get a kick out of is dreaming up new stuff. It's so gratifying to have an idea form and end up out there in a tank, and then on to whoever drinks it."

- Speaking of which, are more beers on the way?
JM: As a matter of fact... There's an exciting new seasonal on the way, and the labels are already printed. We're calling it "Belle Royale." It's a triple golden ale with a restrained hop profile, and brewed with sour cherries. Belle Royale is a brew of whimsy, but we're confident it's going to work out great.

- Great news! But what about the hop-heads? You have to give us a little something?
KH: Oh, we're dying for a big hop beer.
JM: It's on the way. The Hildegaard did stupendously well, so we're probably going to introduce a fifth beer in continuous rotation: a 6–6.5%ABV IPA with 60-70 IBUs, malty and tons of northwest hops.
KH: In the meantime we've been satiating our desire for more hops by increasing the finishing hops in the Driftwood Ale, slowly but surely.
JM: The challenge right now is tank-space. We're going to wait until after the Sartori in the fall. We're brewing twice as much this year, a full forty-seven hectoliters.
We head back out into the warehouse. Suzie follows me around as I take a few final photos of the brewery. It's an impressive operation, especially as it was nothing more than a few home-brew recipes as little as two years ago. I ask Jason what advice he'd give a brew-newbie with aspirations of starting up an operation. "Start homebrewing, some of the best beer I've tasted anywhere is homebrew beer. You get other guys who start an operation after taking a course of study, and maybe spying a 'market opportunity', but somehow their beer always ends up tasting not-so-good." Jason advocates Dave Miller's homebrewing book as a "sensible system based on sound science." He tells me that once the recipes are good, brewing basically comes down to effective multitasking and attention to detail. "Plus you don't have to spend half-a-million. Some guys set up on $20,000 or less and grow from there." I presume these are meant as words of encouragement, but he clearly hasn't seen my bank account.

Driftwood already distributes beer across southern Vancouver Island, Vancouver, and parts of the Okanagan — which is almost as far as Jason "reasonably expects" they'll ever reach. And that's fine with him. "But there must be something more you dream about doing?' I say. He admits a pipe-dream involving moving to a small ranch with a few acres, growing their own hops, raising livestock, perhaps even a micro-fromagerie and a small bistro... I wouldn't be surprised if it all happens sooner rather than later, I say. "Oh, we haven't blown our wad yet," he replies, "we haven't even come close to it."

Many thanks to Jason and Kevin for such a rich interview. Watch this space for an interview with another of Victoria's prestigious craft-breweries — Phillips Brewing Company — coming in a few days.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Review: Pretty Things Jack D'Or

I picked this out for review because a reader (Swineshead) asked for pretty pictures, and this beer is pretty on multiple levels. It is a "Saison Americain": an American take on the classic Belgian saison, which is a bit of an oxymoron as the five sources I consulted for a definition are contradictory and/or vague. In fact, if you dig into the history of practically any beer-style hoping for a concrete definition, you'll be disappointed. "Saison" means "season", and the beer was traditionally brewed at harvest time as a refreshment for the farmhands, which explains why saisons are also called "farmhouse ales." Anyways, these days it is brewed for 31-year-old dads who drive Honda Civics.

What I expect from saison is a very fresh-tasting, spicy, lively beer with tremendous powers of refreshment that come from the sourish tang these beers usually have. Randy Mosher says the tang is likely due to the use of strains of yeast usually reserved for red wine-making, or even brettanomyces — wild yeast found in oak and on fruit skin. In most beers, the presence of "brett" denotes an undesirable yeast infection which ruins both the flavour, and any romantic plans the beer had that weekend (sorry). But some beers are encouraged to be promiscuous because wilder strains of yeast can — if controlled — produce a funky and mysterious allure.

The Pretty Things website admits to "three strains of yeast", but doesn't name them, despite going into extensive detail about all the other ingredients (oats feature, interestingly.) Whatever the secret ingredients are, Jack D'Or is one tasty beer. It's funkier and spicier than many farmhouse ales I've had: like cajun champagne, but still lemony-fresh and addictive.

The Jack D'Or is one of seven beers brewed by the Pretty Things "Project". That's right, it's not a brewery, but a "gypsy brewery without a permanent brewing home". Dann Paquette and wife Martha — a brewer and a scientist-cum-tea-brewer, respectively — are behind the Massachusetts-based project. Dann used to live in Harrogate, Yorkshire, where he developed his passions for brewing, Lewis Carroll, and the summoning of ethereal beings (I'm serious). Naturally, that spurred him to move to Cambridge, MA, and begin brewing beers to traditional recipes dating back to 1832.

Jack D'Or is great. You could drink a few of these if they weren't $10 a pop. From what I've heard/tasted, the entire range is exceptional also. But I suspect they won't all be available forever in BC, so, to quote one of Swineshead's favourite bands — Belle and Sebastian — "Do something pretty while you can."

Monday, April 12, 2010

Driftwood Interview Part 2: North American Brewing and Beer for Breakfast

In this second installation of my recent interview with Jason Meyer and Kevin Hearsum at the Driftwood Brewery in Victoria, BC, we discuss the North American brewing scene, CAMRA activities in Victoria, and the wild drinking habits of a brewer.

Our pints finished, Driftwood's Jason gives me a mini-tour of the brewery. There's a grist mill, grist hydrater, mash tun, jacketed kettle, and several other machines with supernatural qualities I do not understand. At the heart of the brewery are two fermenters — one for clean-yeast beer and one for Belgian. Jason and Kevin tell me that the Belgian beers (White Bark and Farmhand) take a lot more work, not least because they tend to yield a lot more sulphur which requires additional time to ferment out.

I ask if other, wilder yeast-based beers could be on the cards? Jason nervously suggests that he could use the regular fermenters, or he could always use the home-brew setup. Jason indicates his home-brew kit — 30 feet off the ground on a pallet. "Most of the Driftwood beers were worked out on that thing. If we were to do anything experimental we'd fire up the home-brew again".
- Speaking of experimental...the North American brew-scene is often renowned for its innovation, is this justified?
JM: my opinion, the North American craft-brew scene was started by the New Albion Brewery in North California in the 1980s. They were inspired by a trip to England, and they brought all their equipment over from England and brewed English beer. But some time in the 1990s they found their own voice — and I include us in that, as we're all part of the same culture. We started using more citrusy north-western hops, mixing ingredients, brewing unique stuff. It's not that it's "better", but we do stuff in North America that a German brewery would just never do.

- Aside from being daring, what else sets NA brewers apart from Europeans?
JM: "Daring" is a nice way to put it. Let me see...there's a celebratory culture about the NA scene. You could generalize Europe in terms of well-established approaches, it's steeped in brewing history. They are fiercely proud of it, the Belgians, English and Germans. But it's like an old comfortable pair of jeans. It's good, but it just "is". They don't have the equivalent of the Great American Beer Festival over there, where everyone's like "woo-hoo check US". That self-celebration is unique.

- It seems to me that folklore and mystique play a great part in the NA beer-scene. Certain beers develop an almost cult-like status, and people expend a lot of effort and money to acquire them.
JM: You always want what you can't have. A lot of these beers that seem unobtainable are not. Word of mouth, the zeitgeist, shrewd marketing, quality of the beer — where the smokiness of those ideas come together produces the cult status. There is that element, but truth is if you do not have a modicum of good distribution you're done. Unless you're super small.
KH: Recently a few artisan foody places came specifically looking for our product, and we are proud of it. But we're also aware that some places want to be able to say "we've got the Driftwood!"

The Driftwood guys' comments make me reflect on the English beer scene. As a Brit, I am aware of the ongoing fight to rescue the image of craft beer from the arena of the "old fart". In contrast — from my experience working at the liquor store — BC craft beer drinkers seem to enjoy the aura of the young and informed: beers like Driftwood and Phillips are very much hipster-hooch. So as craft beer continues its recession-defying growth in popularity in North America, I wonder what challenges beer industry advocates in Canada and the US are facing:

- The BC craft beer industry is thriving, so what does the Victoria chapter of CAMRA actually do?
JM: Well...we're paid-up members of CAMRA Victoria and BC. They've disassociated themselves from the stodgy, "old dude" issues brewers face in Britain. They're more a set of general beer advocates, looking out for the industry. But they're still concerned with measures and prices. When we're putting together a CAMRA meeting, the biggest questions are always "Where do we meet? How much does a pint cost there? Is it a real pint?" For the record (Jason indicates his empty Driftwood-branded pint glass) we do twenty ounces!

- Drinking must be part of your job, how much do you drink?
JM: We make a point of having a pint or two after a shift. Sometimes we have a bit of "sensory" first thing in the morning, believe it or not...

- Does it ruin social drinking for you?
JM: Oh, not at all. Social drinking is very much detached from the kind of appraisal drinking we do here.

- So you still go out and drink a lot of other people's beers?
JM: Oh fuck yeah. And that's why we do so many seasonals. We assume our customers are drinkers like us and they want new stuff. I sure as shit don't drink the same thing every day. Kevin went down to Portland recently and came back with a couple of boxes of great new stuff, I'd have been mad if he hadn't!
The final part of this interview will be published soon

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Driftwood Interview Part 1: Philosophy, Craft Beer, and Chicken Cordon Bleu

Victoria's own Driftwood Beer kindly granted me an interview at their brewery on Monday night. Driftwood is a relatively new brewery in Victoria, but it already has an enviable reputation as a serious craft brewery who deliver traditional styles to high standards, and seasonal brews that sell-out immediately.

It was either my excitement, or the bottle of Brookyln Brewery Local One I had beforehand, but I kept brewers Jason Meyer (CEO of Driftwood) and Kevin Hearsum (president) talking for over an hour. Loathe to leave much on the editor's floor, I will publish the interview in three parts. Today I'll cover the Driftwood way™ as well as Jason's and Kevin's ideas about the beer industry on Vancouver island and beyond.

The exterior of Driftwood is about as anonymous as it gets, tucked into the corner of an industrial complex with only a small sign distinguishing it from a cluster of warehouses. Jason welcomes me in to the 3,500 square-foot space that has housed Driftwood since it was launched in 2008. Kevin is busy hosing something down between two enormous tanks. I feel aware I know next-to-nothing about the brewing process, and am bewildered by the array of tanks, machines, and sheer noise I am witnessing. "Can I get you a beer?" asks Jason. Ah. Familiar ground. I receive a lively pint of Farmhand Ale from a tap mounted in the side of their on-site chiller, and the interview begins.

I ask about the Driftwood philosophy. Jason pours himself a pint and tells me that he and Kevin recognized an opportunity to establish the only producer of traditional Belgian-style beers in BC. In addition to the Southern-Belgian Farmhouse Ale I am happily drinking as we talk, Driftwood's permanent four-strong line-up comprises a Belgian wheat beer (White Bark), an Alt-style amber ale (Crooked Coast), and a "quintessential" Northwest ale with dry malts and bold hops (Driftwood Ale).

Respect for tradition hasn't prevented Driftwood producing some interesting seasonal beers (the Sartori Harvest Wet-hopped IPA being a standout). But Jason is quick to distinguish innovation from gimmickry, something that clearly irks him about current production trends.
JM: This bullshit of honey beers. You gotta use so much honey to make it taste like beer. It's uber-fermentable, it's fructose, it's gonna ferment out. It's just marketing, to me it's kind of crass. It's not sincere or authentic. Our whole MO is authenticity. We don't filter our beers. Yet we don't run around saying "we don't filter our beers," we just don't filter it.

– So you're opposed to trends?
JM: I'm in favour of a trend toward double IPAs and imperial pilsners!

– Driftwood's beers contain special ingredients, don't they?
JM: We brew to traditional Belgian recipes, which include Curacao orange peel and pepper. That's not to say that if an intriguing ingredient presented itself to us we wouldn't be prepared to use it. But there's a line between finding an interesting new botanical or a spice, and choosing an ingredient so you can overtly fly a flag about the fact this shit is in your beer.

Driftwood was established on the principles of providing fresh, quality beer for local people. Jason's enthusiasm is palpable as he recounts how he began brewing at age 19, was influenced by a creative brewing scene in Edmonton ("they were doing stuff like triple decoction mashes, stuff that no commercial brewery can do, it was just incredible"), and gained experience working in several breweries, including Victoria's Lighthouse Brewing where he and Kevin hatched the plan for Driftwood.

It was their experiences working in commercial brewing operations that inspired Jason and Kevin to build a brewery with the needs of workers very much in mind.
JM: We wanted to produce a space, a nice place to be, we wanted the people who work here to be proud of what they do, to promote this because they believe they are doing something meaningful. [At Lighthouse] Kevin spent three years hunched over a plate and frame filter inside a giant walk-in cooler, filtering beer, in the dark.
KH: It sucked.
JM: So when we built this place we designed it with lined walls, to create a decent, open, warm space for everyone. We don't have people working at weekends. We don't want people working graveyard shifts. That puts a limit on how big you can get. But it's a moral and good and fun place to be in.

"Getting big" is not the aim, but commercial success is clearly important when an operation on Driftwood's scale will cost upward of half a million Canadian dollars to get going. I ask whether well-publicized hikes in the cost of hops and other brewing-related crops are a challenge to the sustainability of craft beer outfits, but Jason and Kevin dismiss raw material prices as a lesser issue. Craft brewers might not generally get rich, but a good living is still there to be made with hard work, passion, and most importantly a receptive market.
– So what is the Vancouver Island beer market like?
KH: It's a more sophisticated drinking culture here these days. There are so many taps in this city and pubs are putting new ones in all the time. They're more than happy to put out every new product we make.
JM: In Victoria 20 years ago chicken cordon-bleu was the most exotic food item you could get! But it's all changed now. The internet age has made us more sophisticated, more suspicious of manufactured messages, of commercialism. Now there's a really active support for local producers and we're lucky we fit right into that.

Part two of this interview will be published soon

Southern Tier Wallpapers

Southern Tier have made high-resolution copies of their attractive beer bottle labels available for download. Just click the thumbnail next to each beer description for a 3563*3038 image — big enough for any monitor.

I have a smaller neck label image on my laptop. The Oat and Oak-aged Unearthly are pretty to look at. If any readers have links to hi-def beer artwork, post them in the comments.

Splash beer on your computer without shrieking.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

My Second Marriage

Easter Weekend at the in-laws' in Vancouver is a wonderful occasion.

Sure, we spent three hours on a ferry in a 45 knot gale, during which my sea-sick wife Gravol-ed herself unconscious while I failed to placate our "spirited" daughter with cookies and 5-Alive. And on Sunday I woke up on the couch (wife and kid get the big bed) at 7am to watch my doomed football team, on a crappy internet stream, failing to win a match for the twelfth time this season.

But I got to go to my two favourite beer stores in BC. The Brewery Creek and the West Vancouver Liquor Store (no website?) have orgasmic beer collections, and I'll review them in depth in an upcoming blog on my favourite places to buy beer in BC (please post suggestions for me to check out in the comments!)

So I could be sat here reviewing any one of the worthy ales I picked up this weekend, including Paddock Wood Double Double, Southern Tier Unearthly Imperial IPA, and Pelican Brewpub's Tsunami Stout. But they will all have to wait, because the best beer experience of the weekend was the can of Red Racer Pale Ale I gulped with Joyce's home-made Mac'n'Cheese, after another knackering five hour drive-ferry-drive to get home to Victoria.

I'm such a fan of Central City's legendary Red Racer IPA that I tend to forget how good their other beers are. The Pale Ale is very similar to the IPA: same biting grapefruit front end, sweet malty warmth and explosive aroma. But the hop dial is cranked down several notches, allowing the substantial malts to shine.

The hops are lively enough to cut through the dull, creamy nirvana of the Mac', and the sweetness of the malt emphasizes the sharpness of the matured cheddar. The pairing was far more satisfying than the Lamb/Dunkel matchup from the other day, even though the partnership choice was totally restricted by a near-empty fridge. Perhaps there's something in these arranged marriages after all...

*Watch this space for an interview with Driftwood Brewery, reviews of Saskatchewan-based Paddock Wood's noteworthy new beers, and a roundup of BC beer stores — all coming later in the week.