Let’s talk beer: specifically, four brewing mavericks who are fuelling the resurgence of the craft movement in their hometowns. Some, like Ellen Bounsall at Montreal’s McAuslan, were early pioneers of craft brewing, while others, like Steve Cavan of Paddock Wood in Saskatoon, have been at it for less than a decade. What each has in common (besides a gift for the art and science of making beer) is that they got into brewing by accident.
On track to becoming a public policy wonk, Franco Corno’s career path took a turn when his university buddy, Dave Fenn, called him to say he was starting a brewery in Squamish, and asked if the native British Columbian wanted to make the beer. Corno apprenticed under John Mitchell, a pioneer of modern-day microbrewing in Canada, before taking the reins at Howe Sound Inn and Brewing Company. Now, 11 years later, his brewery is making waves for its extreme beers — full flavour, high alcohol brews that come in one-litre bottles with a swing top for re-capping.
Where’s your favourite country (or place) in which to drink beer?
I’m a hophead, so Oregon, California and Portland. The West Coast is really big into the hops — the further east you go, the less hoppy, and the more malty, sour or Belgian beers you get.
You like to cook. What’s your signature dish?
I like keeping things simple — letting the main speak for itself, like a tomato salad with buffalo cheese.
What’s your secret to getting such big flavour from your beers?
We look around at what other people are doing and then we experiment. For our Megadestroyer Licorice Imperial Stout it was tricky to get its big liquorice bite — I thought of using a little bit of liquorice root and star anise in the secondary fermentation phase, but wasn’t sure if it would be strong enough. So I tried the mix in an ounce of vodka, waited a couple of hours, and the flavour was incredible so I knew it was alcohol soluble. The beer’s a hit — we can’t brew enough of the stuff.
What music do you play when you’re brewing?
The pub’s right beside me, so whatever they’re playing. But I like U2 and a lot of indie stuff.
What do you do when you’re not brewing?
I live 20 kilometres north of Squamish in the woods, so I go for lots of hikes and walks. I also play squash and golf. At least I try to — it rains a lot here.
If you weren’t a brewer what would you be?
I was doing a public administration program at the University of Victoria when I started brewing, so probably a bureaucrat.
Pumpkineater Imperial Pumpkin Ale: We wanted this beer to taste as though you’re drinking a pumpkin pie — so to our 8 per cent brew we added pumpkin and a special blend of spices including cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and star anise. It’s great over vanilla ice cream.
Pothole Filler Imperial Stout: This 9 per cent imperial stout is full of flavour and inky black in colour with a prominent roasted coffee aroma. It is one intense beer and can stand up to chocolate desserts, well-aged cheddar and oysters.
When her beer aficionado husband, Peter McAuslan, quit his job to start one of Montreal’s first microbreweries in 1988, Ellen Bounsall swore she wasn’t going to get involved. “But once the equipment arrived and Peter was busy doing things with banks and lawyers it became very obvious that he wasn’t going to have time to do the brewing,” says Bounsall. Plus, having graduated with a degree in microbiology, Bounsall found herself fascinated by the science of brewing. Now, 34 years later, the pair have built McAuslan from a 5,000 litre micro to an 80,000 hectolitre powerhouse.
What do you love about brewing?
I think I enjoy most when the product is going through fermentation, and all the incredibly dramatic changes [that are] going on from hour to hour, which are all the result of happy healthy yeast just working away digesting the things it needs to survive, and that it loves.
Is brewing more art, or more science?
Science. Clearly, brewing beer is not that difficult; what’s difficult is producing a consistent product, and that’s impossible without a strong appreciation of biochemistry and microbiology.
You’ve worked side-by-side with your husband every day for the last 34 years — how are you not divorced yet?
Actually, even longer than that! He was my boss at the community college before we both quit to start McAuslan. From the start our roles complemented each other’s: he’s an outgoing, personable guy who really loves being out there representing his product, and I’m a lot shyer and [happier] behind the scenes.
What’s your beer stash like?
We have a cellar that is a half wine, half beer. Plus a full-sized fridge dedicated to keeping beer cold. Our cellar beers are a mix ofour annual Vintage Ales, Scotch Ale and Russian Imperial Stout. Our Vintage Ale is a barley wine, and we have a few bottles from every vintage we’ve made since the mid ‘90s. The beers’ flavours become more complex over time, so we love to open a couple of different vintages in front of a warm fire on a Sunday afternoon.
And what about the vino?
I enjoy a good bottle of wine as well. We’re part of the Opimian Society, so all the wine is from there — it’s fun. And Peter’s a good Scot so we have a nice little whiskey collection we’ve acquired from our travels there.
Are you still enjoying the brewing?
Yes, for us it’s been a lifestyle. It hasn’t been work, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thinking back on the things we’ve achieved, the trips we’ve taken — everything we do surrounds beer. It is our whole life, beyond the dogs.
Yes, we have seven — they’re all rescue dogs of different shapes and sizes.
St Ambroise Pale Ale: A classic in the style of Pale ales, this rich amber beer with its dense creamy head remains my personal favourite. It is a wonderful balance of clean hop bitterness, sweet malt flavour and spicy citrus aroma, which linger on your palate long after the last sip. Given its boldness, it is a wonderful accompaniment to spicy Indian, Thai or Italian cuisine.
St Ambroise Oatmeal Stout: A delicious, aromatic and intensely black beer which is a delight to brew. St Ambroise Oatmeal Stout was the second in our family of products. Along with its creamy mocha head and silky texture one finds the bitterness of expresso balanced with the sweetness of chocolate. It is a treasure to sip in front of the fire or matched with a rich chocolate or raspberry dessert.
When Steve Cavan followed his wife from Peterborough to Saskatoon to begin a teaching career in classics and philosophy in 1992, he was heartbroken that his new province had zero microbreweries. So he started homebrewing, and soon he was importing and selling ingredients from his basement. Eleven years later, when he started selling beer-making kits, he found he had to apply for the same license that a microbrewery needs, so he started selling a few hundred bottles of his own small batch brews from the shop. Today, after breaking through a slew of bureaucratic barriers, Paddock Wood is bottling flats of 25 cases per hour, brewing about 26 inventive beers annually — and is still the only microbrewery in the province.
Has your background in ancient Greek poetry and philosophy influenced how you approach beer making?
Only in that I know how to research, so when I wanted to start brewing I just went into research mode and hit the library to teach myself about brewing, fermentation and science. I became an egghead.
How many styles do you brew a year?
It’s pretty ridiculous. At any given time we’ve got 12 different beers happening —four or five core brands plus three seasonals and a bunch of one-offs for special events like the Shakespeare Film Festival.
Is that a good business strategy?
For a craft brewery, yes. Diversity is our power. Because we only brew a 1000-litre batch we can do multiple styles of beer and not worry about selling 100,000 bottles of the stuff.
You’re the only microbrewery in Saskatchewan — are you expecting competition?
For a long time I was, but not anymore. Alberta has much more favourable tax rates on beer production, so you can save yourself a bundle by operating 100 kilometres further west.
Were you interested in making stuff or experimenting with food as a child?
No. In some ways it’s a complete surprise that I’m doing what I’m doing. But in high school, when I was underage, about 17, my mom said to me, “If you want beer, you’re going to have to make it — I’m not buying it for you.” So I got a beer kit and did it at home. Then I wrote a how-to article for the school paper. They were not impressed. That story got the paper shut down.
What’s the book that changed the way you look at your craft?
Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing — that whole approach is kind of what we do here. Our approach is to be creative, have fun and take chances. Like we’re doing a witbier but it’s being made with hibiscus, so it’ll be bright red.
606: This is my go-to beer. Its moderate malt and caramel depth is balanced by a refreshing citrus and grapefruit hop bitterness and flavour. The British yeast adds a nuance of fruit, creating a “Bob Dylan” effect — “Something’s happening here, what it is, ain’t exactly clear.”
Czech Mate: This is an old-style Pilsner, which means lots of hops. We crank up the bitterness to 40 IBU, but the effect here is a crisp dryness. It’s a clean beer with slightly herbal Czech Saaz hops.
A language-lover, Quebec City native Daniel Girard quit his job at a brewing equipment manufacturer in Tokyo to train as a brewmaster for Ginga Kogen Beer, one of his former customers. Then after studying to be a master brewer with 17 others at the prestigious VLB Berlin, he chose to work at Pumphouse Brewery in Moncton, as it was close to home. After eight years he was lured away by Brian Titus, owner of Garrison Brewing in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Under his watch Garrison was awarded Brewery of the Year at the 2011 Canadian Brewing Awards. Part artist, part scientist, Girard’s passion for brewing is contagious.
How did your time in Japan influence your brewing style?
I learned two things. The first is the language of business: I come from an arts background, but working as a salesman there I soaked up the strong business approach that the Japanese have. Now I can talk numbers with my bosses here. The second: I learned how to work in an extremely clean manner. Anyone who works with me knows how fastidious I am. We never touch anything that will touch the product.
Do you believe in pairing food with beer, or do you opt for wine at the table?
If I have a nice steak I would probably have a glass of red wine — that’s the only time I think that beer cannot match as well. Otherwise I’ll pair beer every time.
You lead a lot of beer and food dinners. What are your go-to pairings?
Stout and chocolate cake: one of the absolute, it always works. Witbier with a salad is always surprising. And barley wine with foie gras is phenomenal. Phenomenal! Once or twice a year I take a piece of foie gras and barley wine with some French bread and I’m in paradise.
You’re very passionate about brewing — have you ever found romantic passion through beer?
I made a barley wine for a wine festival in Moncton and I gave my card to a woman whose husband wanted to buy our beer for a business event, but her friend took the card, put her phone number on it and handed it back to me, saying “If you’re this passionate with your beer, you can be passionate with love.” Later I told my friend, ‘I might be naïve, but I’m not stupid,’ and I called her a couple of days later. My wife and I have been together ever since.
Where does your inspiration for recipes come from?
Often things that happen in my life. I was at a wedding in Switzerland and there was a bay tree in the backyard, I said, “Oh! It smells so good.” I picked a leaf, cracked it, and the impression I had was unbelievable. I knew I could make a beer with that.
Spruce Beer: My goal was to reproduce to the taste and means of the day the alcoholic drink that was made by our first settlers here in Halifax. I used molasses, which was the main source of sugar for all purposes then, with spruce and fir shoots to balance the sweetness. With a rich, complex nose of earth, wood and brown sugar, and flavours of molasses, caramel, dark fruits, spruce, alcohol and a piney bitterness, this beer is great with oven roasted hen or chicken, barbecue, and beef stew.
Imperial IPA: This strongly-hopped and medium-bodied ale is beloved enough to have been twice named the Canadian Beer of the Year at the Canadian Brewing Awards. Dark orange and hazy, its unfiltered brew has an intense aroma of grapefruit, tangerine and pine with a biscuit and malt sweetness. Drink with any hot and spicy dish — Thai, Cajun, Mexican and Indian all work well.