Ontario Beer History: An Afternoon’s Chat With John

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Still being on holiday, I took a drive an hour and a half to my west to talk with John Graham, owner and brewer at Church Key Brewing in Northumberland County, Ontario. It’s grown a bit since my first visit in early 2005 but only a bit. I was after some knowledge. I am working on the Ontario brewing history book Jordan and I are writing. I wanted a sense of where John thought things were in the 1990s. Near history. The days of maltier beers. The days when breweries closed as well as opened. It was a good chat as John is not only one of the more independent brewers in the country but one who has, as I learned today, not much of a work history outside of brewing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Depth.

A great talk. I learned a lot. But it was the day as much as anything. He had cut down picked his own hop bines – Goldings and Zeus – and was working on a brew. I took more time that he likely had but as we sat in the shade out back it seemed like five minutes. I asked him if he considered ever making a corn brew and, looking at the field beyond the fence at the fields around the brewery of GMO macro gak grain-like substance, he said he would if he could ever find some corn that wasn’t compromised. Heritage corn for quality good corn ale. I can buy that. And I would.

Vermont: The Farmhouse Tap & Grill, Burlington

Back from the road. There is still time ahead away from work but my banker and I agree that we would do well to pull back from the Atlantic shore and pull into the driveway. Not that I am grumbling. It was the attack on marine life that I had been hoping for. Good restaurants are a training ground for both manners and inquiry. Or at least that’s what I tell the bankers. I picked Farmhouse Tap & Grill for Sunday brunch, however, for one thing – line avoidance. See, it is a place that you have half a chance of getting a beer from Vermont’s celebrated brewery Hill Farmstead without driving off the road, up the hill and apparently waiting in line. Not a training ground for manners or inquiry. My own, that is.

 

 

 

 

First, this was brunch and it was a good one. By chance, we hit the place in a lull that turned into a blur of plates, eggs and coffee cups. And In that blur a mistake was made. A blessed mistake. We were served the wrong thing. When I pointed out that the Farmhouse sandwich was not mushroom and kale laced Eggs Benedict, we were told not to worry, to nibble on that and the proper order would be out soon. I scoffed the lot. I did offer to pay for both but there was none of that. So I upped the tip. Tipping well on the right occasion is a proper lesson for the young as well. Shun those who calculate closely after sharing a meal or a few pints. Shun them.

The beer from Hill Farmstead was named Edward. I thought we were past the inside baseball naming of beer but I guess not. Edward was the brewers’ grandfather. I will think of this as Gramp’s Pale Ale from herein out. It’s a bitter pale ale with weedy and black tea hop over, my companions agreed, apricot fruity malt. Not really the citrus and pine as advertised but that’s par for the course, right? Its creamy texture was cut by bite of the hopping. Minerally without being drying and dour. A fitting companion for drippy egg and kale. A lovely appetizing beer which cost $6.5 for a 12 oz snifter. Fine for one at a brunch but a bit steep for the session which its weight at just over 5% might invite.

 

 

 

 

An excellent place. The sort of place in the sort of city you can build a weekend trip around. I took photos of the drinks menu which I thought might be good fodder for discussion. I will post them in a bit when I figure out a handy way to display them. Quebec beers seem to earn a premium while some US craft were quite modest. It struck me as uneven. But the marketplace is a good educator in relative value. Or so I told the kids. School is coming up, I said. Back to math class.

New York: Wolff’s Biergarten, Broadway, Albany

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The big bald tattooed guy working for the valet parking at the hotel backed up Craig‘s decision that our families’ breakfasts would be had at Wolff’s Biergarten. Fact: big men with bald heads and tattoos often have a strong sense of what makes for a good breakfast.

The scene was decidedly un-Ontarian where alcohol may not be served until 11 am. At 9:15 in the morning, the crowd was well into the early games from Germany and England. The five kids in our group caused no one concern as the hefes and dunkels were passed across the bar side by side with coffee. Stacks of pancakes kept them quiet as the former fire station turned into a garage of picnic tables and beer watched the games. Goals caused eruptions of belly deep roars of approval while kids played tag in bright summer sunlight.

When Did I Last Shop At The Beer Store?

I won’t have to worry about this for a while:

To get a sense of how much the lack of competition affects beer prices, Sen compared pre-tax beer prices in Ontario and Quebec. The price of a 24-pack (the average of several brands such as Molson Canadian or Bud Light) came to about $26 in Quebec grocery stores, and about $36 at the Ontario Beer Store. Sen estimated that the extra money, about $700 million, “is going directly from consumer pockets to a consortium with majority ownership by foreign-based firms.” (The Beer Store disputes those numbers, saying Sen compared pre-tax to post-tax prices, ignored commodity tax differences and used a small sample.)

What can you say when your face numbers like that. Anything I have to say is framed by the fact that it really doesn’t affect me. I buy good beer at the LCBO, in a pub, from the brewery or on jaunts into nearby northern NY or Quebec. The Beer Store, even with its generalist’s name, has found itself in the position where its stock is specialized, limited to those beers that don’t really qualify as craft or for the most part all that interesting. When you think about it, the good beer buyer in Ontario is really well served by this physical retail reality, the separation of macro beer from the better stuff.

And I will really not be able to concern myself as it’s time to drive the family from brewpub to micro brewery to good beer store in a random selection of US states for a while. What should I get that’s new in Maine? What’s the best place to eat with the family near Fenway? Do any brewpubs offer mini putt? These are the questions for the next wee while. Ontario’s macro retail off shore monopolists? What are they to me?

So… Were There Loyalist Brewer A-Holes, Too?

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I have been putting my mind to the question of who was the first Loyalist brewer in what is now Ontario. Not the first brewer but the first Loyalist brewer. Which means there is a starting line that is fairly identifiable, the end of the American Revolution. The image above is by James Peachey, a war artist, of some of the first Loyalists settling in at Kingston next to the ruins of a French outpost last populated from 1673 to 1758 or so. The image is from June 1783 as the first Royalist Americans trickle in from the south, from places like Albany, NY. Their tents in the back by the ruins are just about where this place sits now.

The usual story is that the first brewer in Ontario was Forsythe at Kingston in 1793 or Finkle at Bath around 1786 or so at his tavern, the first between Kingston and what is now Toronto. Based on the records. Which is what is great about records and what sucks about them. See, in that picture above I see he beginnings of a wave, the fist few of a lot of displaced farmers and successful towns folk. Not a lot of them are going to be very much against having an ale. And not very many of them are going to have much to do at the moment, being displaced refugees given three years of supplies. It does not make much sense to me that such capable folk are going to wait years for investment in a fixed brewery or the opening of a tavern to get their beer. I have been looking for something that will back up my suspicions. Like this bit about Joel Stone, a Loyalist from Connecticut who in about 1787…

made the journey together up the St. Lawrence to the ramshackle refugee camp of New Johnstown (now Cornwall, Ontario). Ever reliant on his family, his half-brother Stephen came up to assist Joel. Along with him came eleven other men from Litchfield, all eager to take up lands in the new province. Stone once had high hopes in this new land, even petitioning Sir Guy Carleton to make him “Deputy Surveyor General.” Stone would receive no such government office upon arriving in Canada. Instead he wrote to his father, “I have begun making malt brewing beer and distilling spirituous liquors from wheat, barley, rye etc…”

See, one thing I see over and over is how easy beer is to make with the basic ingredients and a basic sense of the technique. And if I can do it what in God’s name would keep someone in the 1780s from doing it, too? Nothing. We see this today all around us. A surge of new and in progress breweries popping up, of many degrees of quality from any sort of brewer. A bucket or two of malt, heat, water and some herbs from the bushes and – voila – you’ve got your beer.

It’s the resilience of beer and the will to make it and drink it that impresses. Whether setting aside a portion of your supply of seed in the 1780s or, today, scraping enough to get the first growler out the door, there is a will to brew. Doesn’t mean you’ll last, be remembered or even be any good. Beer doesn’t really care. It just wants to be made, that’s all.

Not Beer: Dr. Konstantin Frank, Pinot Noir 2010

flwine1I don’t always drink wine but when I do I like the good local stuff… or maybe something from the Mosel. Or maybe a nice grenache. I was thinking yesterday when I was looking at the fantastic selection of Finger Lakes wines at Triphammer Wines at the north end of Ithaca, NY that if you are going to say stuff like beer is more versatile, complex or varied than wine, well, you had better have downed a good lot of both to justify your argument. I don’t believe any of it myself. Both are wonderful and awful and everything in between.

Dr. Frank is the old hand, a pioneer in growing European grapes in northeastern North America. The Finger Lakes wines are comparable to those of Ontario’s Prince Edward County near where I live. They are a couple hundred km due south but the local climate is not so affected by their smaller lakes. On price point, this Pinot is just over half the retail of a Norman Hardie from PEC. It would be good to do a side by side. No need for a tasting note for this wine other than to mention balance, age worth tannin and a strong berry core.

Like the hotel decor? I am showing you the nicest bit. Unlike the wine, low cost and grinder charm is the best you might suggest. The Utica Club of places to stay.