Monday, July 20, 2009

A Craft Beer Getaway

Summer. When the weather is off or on any day if local craft brewed beer is your thing, drop by one of the small breweries in cottage country. Tours and tastings are free and you can buy a case or two of British-style ale or a great lager to enjoy back at your cottage or resort. It's a good way to meet the locals and get some tips on what to see and do in your neighborhood. You'll also pick up the basics of brewing you might try out at home.

For a long time the old regional breweries were being bought up by the big labels to churn out more industrial lagers while eliminating the competition. Since the 1980's there's been a renewed interest in what was almost a lost tradition. New craft breweries have sprung up all over southern Ontario and the Great Lakes.

If you'd like the easy tour all in one place, go to Bracebridge August 29, 2009 for the First Annual Muskoka Beer Festival. Hosted by The Griffin Gastro Pub downtown, about 24 craft breweries from Ontario will be participating at nearby Annie Williams Park with non-stop beer and bands. Check out The Griffin anytime for a memorable pint, a good chat with friendly locals and the great food. It's a bit of old Bracebridge down Chancery Lane, cozy, intimate and casual. Live music Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons. The outdoor deck out back has a touch of grunge, but you can smoke at least.

For a map to most of Ontario's cottage brewers and some essential beer lore see OntarioCraftBrewers. If you're driving out from Toronto, try stopping by one en route. Once in Muskoka, the nearest craft brewery is Lakes of Muskoka Cottage Brewery in Bracebridge, with tours and tastings on select Saturdays all summer through September 15th. Their Muskoka Honey Brown is no more expensive and way better than the big commercial lagers. In Ontario some of The Beer Store(s) carry it and their full line including their excellent Muskoka Cream Ale.

My beer adventure started recently while out west on a trip to Grey County near Durham. Charlie MacLean of MacLean's Ales in Normanby showed me around his new micro brewery you can visit at his hobby farm. Built last year and only open since January, The Battleaxe Brewery is producing a half-dozen traditional British beers. Local demand is so strong just on word of mouth that Charlie's already planning to expand. It's a testimonial to his many years as a brewmaster, not beginner's luck in case you'd like to try your hand at commercial brewing. He got his start in craft brewing in England back in 1979 with the Real Ale Movement. Brits even in Britain were grumbling over their beer, most of it mass produced not only off the shelf in bottles and cans, but even the keg beers at the pubs. An insipid pint of bitter had invaded the colourful local pubs as more and more and more of them were bought up by the big brewers as well as their smaller suppliers. The industry wanted economies of scale and big profits, more bland lager everywhere for the younger less discriminating crowd of Euro imbibers.

The subtle satisfying flavour of bitter from an unrefrigerated keg, pumped up by hand from the cool cellar below, with its modest but sticky head, was transformed into a lifeless flat and warm poor thing in a glass better suited for washing the mud off your boots. Or gassed to death with carbon dioxide for a pump and miles of foam like some ne'er do well Guinness bastard. Dreadful to see grown men weeping. But progress and profits did spawn a generation of Punks, Punk Rock and Wine Bars.

Back in Canada Charlie continued brewing. British-style pubs were making a comeback, now imported lock, stock and barrel with pressed tin ceilings, Pig and Whistles and all, into big Canadian towns. New breweries for British beers were starting to make inroads. Charlie wrote a beginner's guide to home brewing he couldn't get published. Publishers/Agents apply to charles.maclean(at)sympatico(dot)ca

Perseverance paid off, and after 12 years as Brewmaster of the F&M Brewery in Guelph, another craft brewery you can visit, Charlie started his own MacLean's Ales in Grey County. Talking to Charlie it all sounds simple enough. For ale you cook your local select barley and 90% of your hops in a copper kettle, then cool that down and filter, before you transfer it to the stainless steel fermenter and add brewer's yeast and the rest of your hops for more flavour. Keeping the temperature rather warm at 22 C you watch the fermenting for 3 or 4 days and then filter again before cold conditioning and then the bottling. About 2 weeks work for a batch. The result: about the best beer you can remember. Try MacLean's Farmhouse Ale for a country smile. If you want a lager, it's a slower cool fermentation that makes it happen, but not at MacLean's Ales.

In case you think stainless steel is cheating, fermenting in wood barrels was a tricky thing to do, often marring flavours and adding nasty bacteria. Even in the old days brewers used pitch to line their barrels, says Charlie. Did it taste pitchy? No says Charlie, the barrels left to cure a bit before use. So a modern craft beer is near to what your English ancestors were drinking if you have any, though their beer was cloudy with all the yeast still in the beer. Charlie does brew some keg conditioned beer without filtering, if you like your beer cloudy. No one thought of filtering beer in England until cheaper industrial glass replaced ceramic mugs, he told me. Seeing how cloudy it was in a clear glass changed our habits. Now we admire its translucent beauty, though the stouts are as dark as ever.

Today you need to insure your craft beer is not only good, but free of contaminants, meeting government standards during brewing and lab tests. Craft brewing means first class sterile equipment and bottling, and a lot of care, not what you can get away with in home brewing. That way too unlike the commercial beers, you avoid Pasteurization and wrecking a lively beer. To make it work you need some passion for the art as well as methodical patience. Of course the real secrets are the ingredients and the formulas, how to tweak them to get the kind of beer you want. Charlie has the experience and is very particular about his ingredients, preferring local barley and even growing some of his own hops.

But it's also fun and satisfying to be your own brewmaster. Having a perfect pint is a close second. If you're thinking this could be your new hobby, it's easy enough to start with all the brew your own beer stores that supply the equipment, their premises, and the know-how.

Going for your own brewery as Charlie found out, is a bigger deal than you might think, even if you're a brewmaster. Before starting to build make sure you can build. It's not only zoning laws that could stop you, it's also the quirks of old laws on the books that can make it illegal to build a brewery near a school or church. In Grey County your brewery has to be at least 2 kilometers away from either. If you're stuck with a church close by you might be able to get their permission to go ahead. Other permissions might apply too. If you have commercial zoning, are you sure that includes retail so you can sell your beer on site? Behind every pint there's a story.

If you're in the Durham area, Charlie MacLean will be glad to show you around or sell you some of his brews by appointment via his email above, or in a pinch if you're nearby you can call him at 519-369-5061. He still does consulting for F&M in Guelph and the new Highlander Brew Co in South River, Ontario, so you could sample some of his beers that way too.

If you're not close enough to get in on the Ontario brewing action, try Quebec or around the Great Lakes in this free guide by Great Lakes Brewing News.

Still too far away? Brewing News regional guides cover most of the beer frontier in the U.S. and Canada.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Dragon Boats And A Great Steel Band

Summer. Summer's back again in Muskoka. A bit late getting here and on the heels of the most dismal Spring we've had since oldtimers can remember. The good news: cold days and frosty nights knocked the blackflies and noseeums from a 6 week vacation down to about a week about 2 weeks ago when we had a warm spell.

Cottagers still came early, but it didn't help their humor much. Too blasted cold to do anything but complain. A disaster too for gardeners who planted early and found their flower beds burned by regular and nasty cold snaps.

Now you'd never know. People are smiling, flowers replanted, kids out of school and the cottagers back in action on their seadoos and power boats. A close shave though for the Annual Parry Sound Dragon Boat Festival which looked like it would have been a bust just the day before with thunderstorms brewing that never showed.

Turned out to be a great weekend, well better say an okiedokie Friday for the first day of the Festival and a really great Saturday for the races. Beach weather and ice cream, plus hundreds of folks showed up from the town and as many from out of town, and a few Dragon Boat Diehards from Toronto.

Up until this year it seemed it would have been just a local thing. Suddenly it's the big thing with more boats, more teams and more races. Can't say there was a lot of excitement because you had to be rowing for that, knowing whose time you had to beat. Not a conventional race, but boats going out and circling and coming back and teams changing at the dock and the new teams heading out in the same boats. Best time wins. And various races for various classes, from high school kids racing each other to corporate races for the big box stores and local larger stores and businesses, the newspaper, the radio station, the big drug store. But you couldn't tell who was going out and who was leading, unless you were at the dock asking questions or following the action with binoculars and some guy at your elbow telling you what's happening. Though there were was a big network of pro equipment PA boxes barking out the action, that didn't seem to help. A printed program would have been an idea and maybe somebody had one but you couldn't find anything except the big board for the races that looked Mesopotamian.

No one cared anyway. It was the local color that counted. Being out on a great day at a big event with a lot of people where you could get something to eat for a change at Waubuno Beach, wow, even get a $5 beer at the beer tent and listen to some free live music.

That was the other big thing going on, a gigantic steel band from Sprucedale, the Northern Lights Steel Orchestra. Boggling after seeing little enough live music anywhere. Fiddlers at the Canadian Legion Hall or a rock band at a pub for under 25ers. Suddenly there's 60 guys playing on fancy chromed steel drums from batteries of giant bass drums to small snare steel drums with congas and a drum kit for the beat.

A tinkling and rather mellow Sunday Concert In The Park experience. None of the hi jinks and whistles from the steel bands you might have seen in Jamaica or Trinidad. More like Broadway Show music and old faves translated for a giant steel band. La Bamba was about as far south as we got, but it was still mesmerizing.

With so many drums and so many musicians it cut across expectations and the people at the adjoining beer tent were having fun. Those in the band were concentrating eyes closed, playing without sheet music, so they had to be in on the vibe or they'd get lost, especially when there wasn't a band leader with a baton to wake you up. Yet they put out a professional sound and nobody got lost and nobody wandered from the melody. Kind of inspirational, with a wide cross-section of people from a few youngsters to old folks and everybody in between, few of them with any steel band experience except for the few black guys playing, and most with no musical background either.

So how did they do it? Well they learned on the job. About 10 years ago Mervyn Jordan in Sprucedale started up the Northern Lights Steel Orchestra. With a place to play, some steel drums and free classes on how to play, it grew from there. Not commercial, not subsidized by government, not a charity either as it's a real charity where everyone kicks in their own time and money to make it work. A few private sponsors do the rest. The Northern Lights Steel Orchestra plays for free too. If you want to have them over for a public or private event in Ontario they'll come if you cover their travel expenses and renting a truck. The Orchestra supplies their own tent and equipment.

I should have told Larry Shepard who runs the show that they ought to record and sell CDs. They're that good. I did say though I thought they should expand their repertoire towards the calypso and reggae scene,

but then he shrugged saying it would be a big departure from what they've been doing and it seems that most of their musicians aren't into that sort of rhythm being from white Anglo easy listening backgrounds where you don't build up a sweat if you can help it.

They've been invited every year to play Toronto's Caribbean carnival, Caribana. So far they've declined. Not what you would call a strictly family event, with the music loud and raw, and the crowds at a hot million partygoers, sometimes raunchy and rough. A flashy and electric spectacle, to catch every summer if you don't stick out like whitey's sore thumb and make a habit of treading on toes.

What makes the Northern Lights a formidable experience is you can join. Members come from across Canada and the U.S with some from the Carribean. If you showed up at your local symphony without a horn and no musical experience, how far would you get? You can check out their website on how to join and drop Larry an email at Sponsors, private and corporate are welcome. Check the NLSO website for a bit of 'steel pan' history and scheduled concerts happening about every week throughout Ontario during the summer and into fall.

What you need to join the Northern Lights is just the time you want to invest in taking free classes at Sprucedale, Ontario which run year 'round and when you're good enough you can play with the Northern Lights as they travel around Ontario during the summer through October. All you do is cover your own expenses, meals and accommodations. It's
like a music camp that goes on tour.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Tall Ship Playfair

Summer. The Brigantine Playfair at Parry Sound. Cap'n Weed, if you please, har harr. If'n the Black Pearl be lost at sea, there's a berth or twenty down below, for the likes of your wee teens, wantin' adventure on Georgian Bay. It's the real deal. Toronto Brigantine runs two training ships for high school kids, who'd rather pass on the video arcades and shopping malls for a week or two. For about a $100 a day, all inclusive, you might talk your kids into a working vacation, where they can learn to rig and sail a Brigantine, cook in the cubbyhole galley, and barbecue on a deserted island beach. And meet some other kids. It's character building says our Captain Weed, seconded by his First Mate, Jojo, and it works. It's turned around bored and troubled kids, and polished the rest with a sense of accomplishment, fostering in some a life long passion for sailing. The professional crew of nine, are all alumni of the program, regulars that kept coming back for years, and now training a new batch of kids, 16 on this 11 day leg out from Parry Sound to Midland. The Playfair is a happy ship. Rare for any kid to go home unhappy, even if he or she (it's co-ed) didn't really want to go in the first place. As a registered charity, Toronto Brigantine is doing this for love, not money. Costs are further kept down by sponsors, alumni and volunteers who donate equipment, supplies, and time for maintenance, when their ships winter over in Toronto. Bursaries for some students, are available too. And what's it like? I wandered around on deck and below, talking to the kids and crew. No complaints. But it is so cramped below deck, sardines might be more
comfortable in a can. The mess is really on deck. The galley would fit into your hall closet, berths stacked 3 high, upholstered but hard and narrow. The Playfair was built in 1972, In Kingston, Ontario. It's a Brigantine, a pirate ship in miniature, designed to be maneuvered by a young crew, with a sleek hull, sleeker than than her older cousins, and steel, for easier maintenance and without the timbers creaking and leaking. There's a diesel engine, not much used, but available for dead calms and tricky navigation through narrow or shallow channels and locks. Georgian Bay is mostly where she sails. It's the 30,000 Islands and the rugged coastline that makes her feel at home. Though she sails to and from Georgian Bay, via Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, occasionally venturing to join other tall ships at the festival in Halifax. She might go out more on the high seas, but there are maintenance issues with salt water. Strolling on the big dock to stretch his legs, the Captain pauses by one of the big yachts berthed nearby, wondering what all the fuss is all about. A quarter million dollars for a car on water, with baby buggy plastic canopies. "Usually poorly constructed. You wonder why
they're doing this? The Playfair is overbuilt, so we can push her hard." Of course if you're retired and you've got the dough, you can't push yourself that hard either, though there are plenty of small sailboats that would give you the feel of sailing without the hard work, and the need for deckhands, say your grown-up kids who probably wouldn't show up unless the destination was some Club Med in the Caribbean. But if you feel the urge for more than an adventure out of a DVD box, sailing is still one of the things you can do, even on a budget. It's making a comeback if you read the yachting magazines.
There's skill, of course, even with all the modern navigational aids. And any trip can have an unpredictable factor, usually the weather, that can catch you off guard, like in Lake Erie, a hassle for weekend boaters who have to be at work Monday. Last year Labour Day, says Captain Weed, she was going through the west channel of Lake Erie, very shallow, only 12 feet deep. With shallow water, waves can get whipped up high, and there was a whopping storm. We were stranded for 3 or 4 days. When the coast guard came to check on us, you know these fully enclosed rescue craft, they radioed back, they were turning back. Not going out in that gale, since we didn't really need them. Of course they would have risked it, if we were in trouble. Otherwise the sailing is great,
the best there is in inland waters right around here, all through Georgian Bay. Might be a half million islands. Depends what you call an island. We get a chance to explore some with our students. We've got two big dories for that, plus inflatable lifeboats packed in big drums, if we have to abandon ship. Overcapacity too, it's safety first. Though we let the kids do just about anything you can do onboard, including handling the wheel. Mind you the crew supervises everything closely, so they don't make mistakes or get into trouble. Most of the time we're on the water, only going into port for supplies. So the kids share in the watches 24 hours a day. We hug the shore or sail right across the bay. On this leg we'll be going up to Manitoulin Island, before heading south for Midland. It's a great experience for everyone, the crew and the kids. If you're not a kid anymore, Brigantine does allow for charters and alumni sailings, so you could join them. See

2010 Update

For more great pictures of the Playfair sailing, see Yvonne Berg's Tall Ship Adventure.

Climb aboard the Playfair and the Pathfinder in Toronto for the Toronto Waterfront Festival, June 30-July 4, 2010. Sail training 4 hour cruises for groups up to 20 will be available for charter during the Festival from Toronto Brigantine, a not for profit registered charity.

Playfair and Pathfinder 2010 Summer Schedule. Book your kids (13-18) a berth on one to two week sailings through the Great Lakes, part of the Great Lakes United Tall Ships Challenge.

Follow Toronto Brigantine's Playfair and Pathfinder Tall Ship Adventures on Facebook.

Become a Member of Toronto Brigantine and help support 48 years of service to kids.