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.