Four Days at Big Rig

When I first saw that there was a 4 week holiday break from school, I did a Snoopy happy dance. Four weeks to catch up on sleep and reacquaint myself with my beloved, my family and my friends! Then reality hit, and I ended up spending much of the break working when I could. I decided to take the last week and do something more educational than money-earning, and emailed Lon Ladell, the brewmaster at Big Rig, to see if I could come down and be a minion …. errr … intern for part of the week. He said sure, my friend Karen made room for me in her busy household, and so I found myself in Ottawa the day after an ice storm, during a cold snap.

Let me say first of all, that the folks at Big Rig are about the nicest people I have ever met. Even though he was busy with operations of the brewery, paperwork and the opening of another location, Lon was always available to talk with and answer my questions, no matter how small or silly. I never saw Chris, the brewer, without a smile on his face, and Steve and Brandon were cheerful and patient as I learned to bottle and can on their systems.

Day 1: Brewing

Monday was a single batch brew day, so I helped Chris with cleaning, brewing, and cleaning. And by helped, I mean followed him around and asked a zillion questions. The space is really new, they’ve only been up and running here since October; everything is shiny and there’s a tonne of room for expansion.

Best part of the day: talking to Chris about yeast, and chatting with the elk farmer.
Worst part: falling in the same place twice, and not being able to tell my right from left. Sigh.

Specific  Mechanical 30 barrel brewhouse
Cleaning out the spent grain, feed for a local elk farm
Nice arty shot during the CIP

 Day 2: Filtration

Tuesday was spent transferring beer from the fermenter to the brite tank. I got to find out what it feels like to stick one’s head too far into a CO2 saturated vessel (not good), what a carbonating stone actually looks like, how to run a 2-head automated bottle filler, and what is under the bell cover of a DE filter.

Lon took me down to the original brew pub location on Iris Street, and introduced me to Cody, who looks after the 10 barrel system there. We stayed for lunch, talking about the program and the state of craft beer in Ontario; easily the best part of the day. Cleaning out the DE filter is up there too, as I got incredibly dirty. As me dad would say, I don’t have fun unless I get dirty. And I had fun.

Beer going through the DE filter to brite tank

Days 3 & 4: Canning

It takes about a day and a half to transfer 70 hecs into 473 ml cans. And my job was to take each of the cold and wet filled cans off the conveyor and transfer them to flats to be shrink-wrapped. It didn’t take long for my hands to be chilled, and then to be near frozen. I happily wrecked my Dr. Who fingerless mitts by putting them over the rubber gloves and proved that even when wet, wool is the best for warmth.

I was uncomfortable for pretty much most of both days. It says a lot about my personality that I can be wet, cold, tired, sore and stiff, and still smile at the end of the day and say it was fun. And mean it. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t happy to see the last can come down the conveyor on Thursday afternoon. I am sure it would be even more fun when it’s not -24 outside.

The canning line was pretty fascinating. The automation seems a bit hit-or-miss with the occasional can getting jammed or the plastic separators not lifting properly, but it is fairly new and they are still fine-tuning it. I sent a shot of my view to my social media networks resulting my friends wanting to know if I was Laverne or Shirley, and requesting a glove shot.

My view of the canning line
The requested Laverne & Shirley shot. It’s blurry because I was laughing so hard.

Huge thanks again to Lon, Chris and the guys for letting me hang out! I had a great time, and hope to do it again!

Day 44

Today was the Ontario Craft Brewer’s Conference. My class is scheduled to go gratis to the next one, in 2015, but I decided to go to this year’s anyway. I did waffle for a bit about going (I am after all a broke student, and have other uses for the $165 registration fee), but Thursdays are a light day, and more education with a side of networking never goes amiss.

I talked to so many people; it was wonderful! I had a great chat with a lovely Scottish gentleman named Paul who is the brewmaster for Eden Brewery in Scotland, who told me that the craft beer market there seems quite similar to here. I wonder if I could convince Keith to retire there?

I ran into Erica from Black Oak, who informed me that there was some of their elusive Anniversary Series Epiphany 1 being sampled at one of the bars (of course there would be beer with lunch at a beer conference). I hustled over and got my glass filled with this lovely Belgian Quad aged on cherry wood – just as delicious as I’d suspected it would be.

I also got a chance to talk with brewmasters I had met at other events; Lon from Big Rig, Paul from Flying Monkeys and Tina from Junction Craft. There were many other people I spoke beer with, and explored the vendor area asking a tonne of questions.

The sessions I attended were pretty informative, if somewhat general. First up was a session on packaging with representatives from a company that does the bottle and can wraps (interesting because of low minimums) and from two different glass agents.

Next was one entitled Real World Sustainability with Steve from Beau’s and Cher from Provision Coalition. This was less about how Beau’s is meeting their sustainability mandate and more about the Provision Coalition’s free online tools for tracking and monitoring sustainability goals.

I wasn’t sure what to go to for the third session as none of them really grabbed my attention, and eventually decided to to hear Andy Gould talk about how to set up a micro lab on the cheap. So glad I went! He had all kinds of cost saving work-arounds.

Last was a session on the risks and rewards of contract brewing. This was more from the legal side of things, which was hard to focus on after having a few beers with lunch.

The good, the bad and the ugly of the OBA Gala

As I had helped out with the judging nights and sorting the BJCP sheets, I was offered a ticket to the Ontario Brewing Awards Gala on April 5th. I wasn’t sure if I had anything in my closet suitable for a gala (I’m a jeans and tshirt kind of girl), but a quick look at past pictures on the website reminded me that brewers are pretty much a jeans-and-tshirt kind of crowd. Phew. Off I went to my first beer award event, not sure what to expect.

The Good

Kudos to Roger of Thirst for Knowledge and Jen from Beerlicious for putting on a good event! Everything seemed to run well from my perspective, which really just means the beer was plentiful and delicious, the food was plentiful and delicious, and no one stepped on my toes.

Even though I went solo, I had some great conversations. Roger introduced me to Jon Downing, the brewmaster professor at Niagara and soon to be one of my teachers. I may have gotten a little gushy with my enthusiasm.

I saw someone in a Big Rig sweatshirt, and started the conversation with, “hey, do you work at Big Rig?”. Turns out I was speaking to Lon, the brewmaster. I told him about my experience at the Toronto Beer Festival Spring Session, and how much I really liked his Black Peppercorn Saison. Yeah, I might have gotten a little gushy there too. I was pleased but not all that surprised at how many awards Big Rig received. He was very sweet and gracious when I congratulated him later on his wins, and nicely said that the awards were great but that his best takeaway from the night was my feedback from the festival on his staff and my friends’ reactions to his beer. See – sweet guy.

I got to meet the guys from Stack Brewing in Sudbury. I have family there, and we have drunk much of their product while sitting on the dock or the deck. Congrats to them for winning gold for their Les Portes de L’Enfers.

I also introduced myself to Paul, the head brewer at Flying Monkeys, and had a great chat with him about their markets outside of Ontario. I talked with Robin of Thirsty Wench fame in the bar where we reminisced about the bad old days at the Gladstone before it became gentrified. And I finally got to meet Caroline the Hoppy Beer Witch, who I have been following on Twitter and Instagram for months.

The Bad

I don’t know if I really call something bad when I can’t think of a way to make it good.

In case you don’t know me, I am a fierce advocate of feminism and multiculturalism, and I find it hard to relax in homogeneous gatherings because my brain begins asking why, why is this <insert gathering here> like this? 

My takeaway from the OBA’s is that brewers are not a very diverse crowd. There weren’t very many women there, and it’s hard to say how many of those in attendance were in media as opposed to in brewing. And I don’t think I’m out of line by saying that it was a very white crowd.

I do wonder what are the barriers to entry for people who aren’t Caucasian and male; I don’t get the feeling that it’s top down, that it comes from within the industry itself. I don’t know. It’s definitely something I’m interested in finding out more about, and contrasting that to my experiences in IT.

The Ugly

Warning: I might get a little ranty here, and this is just my personal take. I have to write this so it’s out of my head. I’m not sure if it’s my upbringing or my age, but cliquishness and bad manners irk me. Feel free to stop reading now if you are ok with these things. Me, I think courtesy and inclusion should be modeled no matter where you are.

The schmoozing had been going on for about an hour when Roger went to the mic and started his intro the awards. Now, in just about every other event I’ve been to, that’s the cue for people to dial back their conversations and pay attention. If anything, this crowd got louder. I had to bite my tongue to stop the former teacher in me from shushing everyone.

I could be totally reading too much into this, but when Magnotta Brewing won a gold for their True North Copper and the brew went to pick up the award, the applause was just this side of crickets. The applause for other craft brewers was significantly louder. I know I’m fairly new to this industry and will freely admit there could either be more (or less) to this than I am seeing, but can’t shake the feeling that there are some biased opinions in terms of who makes “craft” beer, what brands are the “cool kids”. I hope I’m wrong, because that’s bullshit. Good beer is good beer, regardless of who makes it. I will admit to having certain perceptions about Magnotta, but that didn’t stop me from trying and enjoying their beer, or from congratulating someone who made a beer that won gold in its category.

This is the one that has really bugged me, and made me think less of someone. I was standing in a group near the end of the night, when one person made a comment about how the competition was “totally fixed before hand”  because awards were won by the craft beer divisions of big corporate names like Molson-Coors and Labatts, and then proceeded to imply that money had changed hands.

Listen. If you hold a position in an industry where your opinion is listened to, you really shouldn’t say shit like this when you are at an industry event. It’s highly unprofessional, and unless you have even the slightest shred of proof to back you up, it’s unethical. As someone who helped the nights of the judging and later sorted forms, I don’t believe there is any possible truth behind that individual’s claim. Yes, that person is still entitled to their opinion, but as Douglas Adams said, “All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.”

Rant over.

Toronto Beer Fest

Honestly, how am I even mobile after yesterday? It’s a mystery. I wonder at my constitution when I think of how much beer I drank (16 tokens worth), how little water I drank (um, none), and how I forgot the time-tested preemptive 1-2-4 remedy before bed (1 big glass of water, 2 pieces of buttered toast, 4 Advils). Perhaps this is one of the side benefits of middle age that they don’t tell you about.

I had a wonderful time at the Toronto Festival of Beer Spring session. I got there around three, and luckily caught the last of Tennessee Voodoo Coupe’s set. I had read that a reggae band was playing (shudder, not my genre at all), so to walk in to good rockabilly was a very pleasant surprise.

I started with a Beau’s Kissmeyer Nordic Pale Ale, and loved the crisp freshness of citrus and hops. The next sample was a Black Pepper Saison from Big Rig. Holy smokin’ moley, this hit my taste buds just right – great balance, smooth, subtle, highly drinkable. So drinkable in fact that I had it three more times during the course of the evening. The guys at Big Rig were great to talk to and were super sweet, cheerfully dumping what tasted like ginger-spiced bandaids from another brewery that shall remain nameless, and re-filling with their amber goodness.

Other beers of note were

There were a few missteps too, like the overly sweet berry beer from Flying Monkeys, and the aforementioned ginger-spiced bandaid beer. We shall not speak of them again.

The best part of the day was hanging out with Jen who I had met in the Prud’homme Level One class. We get along like a house on fire (what an odd analogy, now that I think of it), and she brought some of her friends who I hope to see again.

There was much laughter as we talked about beer, motorcycles, knitting, cottages, men, how you know you’re a grown up when you buy your first couch and/or real bed, and the weird things that happen to you as you get older. The time flew.

Fun to hang out with!
You can't take your beer into the smoking area.
You can’t take your beer into the smoking area.
Backlit black pepper saison from Big Rig
Backlit black pepper saison from Big Rig