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


  1. I think the beer has brought out the Tourette's syndrome in Jason. Although I do not mind swearing, I think it was inappropriately used in this interview, and not very professional.
    That being said, I enjoy most of the Driftwood products, and I wish them all the best in their endeavors.

  2. Beer measured in ounces is a shock to my English system... are you sure you weren't drinking hashish?

  3. Noted, dear reader. I'm interested in portraying the culture as I experience it, and language paints a picture that it might be disingenuous of me to sanitize. In the context of this interview, I felt it helped to portray Jason's enthusiasm, I hadn't intended to portray him as crass!

    Your response suggests I failed, so I will exercise a little editorial caution in future around the swearies. Also, I'm flattered that you think this blog aspires to be "professional"!

    Thanks for the comment.

  4. @Swineshead:

    It has taken me five years to suppress my inbred snobbery about measures in North America. I've given in to it now. They just don't take the pint thing so seriously. The reason measures were traditionally such a sticking point in England was because of the harsh levies put on brewing supplies and beer throughout history.

    Explaining the "ounces":
    An English pint (568ml) is the equivalent of 20 fluid ounces, whereas an American pint is 16 fluid ounces, which equates to 473ml. In England a pint is an unambiguous measure. But over here, because so much of the brewing culture is influenced by British beer culture, it is not always clear what people mean by a "pint", so pubs often label their serving sizes in ounces to be clearer.

    I was in a pub — the Village Taphouse — in West Vancouver, and their beer menu included at least six different measures (12oz 14oz 16oz 18oz 20oz) which were beer-specific. A "pint" of Rogue Yellow Snow IPA comes as 16oz, whereas a "pint" of Guinness comes as 20oz.

    Can you ask for a 20oz pint of Yellow Snow at the Taphouse? Nope. And don't get me started on "sleeves" of beer...

  5. I love the swearing and I love the beer! Great article, I think it captures the Driftwood philosophy and makes me like their beer even more.

  6. A sleeve of beer, eh?

    I'd cuff anyone who used that kind of wordplay around me.

    Ha ha ha!


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