Old School Organic
Beer has been brewed organically for thousands of years. Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of beer, was said to have been head brew master to the gods. Inscribed on a clay tablet from 1800 BC are details of her ancient recipe.
When beer first came to Canada, along with its European masters, grains grew in abundance without the widespread aid of artificial agents. Most towns had at least one independent brewery serving the local area. Limited technology kept farming and beer production small-scale.
Industrial farming and enhanced shipping practices allowed grains to travel farther from the farm, adding to the carbon footprint. Much later on, concern over pesticide use and food safety (among other things) spawned the organic and “eat local” movements. Demand for these organic beers has resulted in greater choice for discerning consumers.
nelson brewing company
tradition with a twist
Nelson Brewing Company (or NBC) produces seven full-flavoured certified organic ales, reflecting the spirit of Nelson in BC’s West Kootenay Region. As brew master Mike Kelly said, “Nelson is considered to be a very organic-oriented or natural place to begin with. There are a lot of people here who are very progressive.”
Kelly begins with original recipes and alters these to complement the character of the town and the other beers on offer. He added toasted hemp seeds to a German style called Kölsch to create the popular Harvest Moon Organic Hemp Ale. According to Kelly, “Hemp seeds seemed like a fit for Nelson, which is a kind of a natural food-hippy-organic kind of place.” Collaborating with an organic coffee roaster, Kelly created a mocha doppelboch — a sweet, malty German style lager — by adding cocoa and coffee. Released on Valentine’s Day, this new brew is called Stimulator Mocha Bock.
NBC uses mainly Canadian-grown organic barley from Saskatchewan and Alberta, malted in Armstrong, BC. The organic hops originate from Germany, Belgium, Washington State, Oregon and a small quantity come from British Columbia.
When asked which beer he prefers, Kelly says, “It depends on what situation I’m in. For example, if I’ve just finished playing hockey, I like to have Harvest Moon, which is very light and refreshing and goes really well when you are hot and have just done some exercise. And when it’s snowy and cold, I like our Faceplant Winter Ale — it is a stronger, darker beer but it’s not too bitter and not too heavy.”
mill street brewery
first in ontario
Creating the first certified organic beer in Ontario in 2002, Mill Street Brewery has a stable of non-organic brews including a coffee porter, wheat beers, a helles bock and pale ales. Named “Canadian Brewery of the Year” in 2007, 2008 and 2009, Mill Street Brewery located in Toronto’s historic Distillery District, where they built a brewpub in 2006. A second brewpub in Ottawa opened January 27, 2012.
The Original Organic Lager was designed with lower alcohol content for the selective consumer. “It’s for someone who is health-conscious and isn’t drinking beer solely as a source of alcohol (although it is part of the fun!),” said brew master Joel Manning. The 100% barley malt beer “is a tapestry woven from a large number of very small flavours so that it has wide-ranging use and appeal,” he goes on to say. The inspiration behind the beers comes from Manning’s passions, and the preferences of customers.
Mill Street Brewery buys malted barley from Canada Malting’s certified organic processing plants in Vancouver, Washington, and has started contracting directly with farmers in Saskatchewan. Manning says that Mill Street would like to “get closer to the farm” and trace the organic barley back to individual fields. A German variety of hops called Hallertau comes from New Zealand, and Mill Street has also started to buy organic hops from two Ontario farmers as well as a farm in Quebec. “Hops have the same kind of varietal variation and are subject to terroir in a similar way to grapes.”
The Original Organic Lager has a delicate floral aroma with a fairly grainy, malty palate and grassy herbal overtones. It’s best paired with semi-mild cheeses, sandwiches, light pasta and seafood.
The decision to start Beau’s Brewery was made over a pint of beer. When Tim Beauchesne’s textile business in Vankleek Hill, Ontario, lost its last customer, he approached his son Steve with the idea of starting a craft brewery. Steve offered to quit his job, sell his house and move back home to help him start it. The next day the two men sobered up and it still seemed like a good idea. The rest is history.
Beau’s aims to preserve the natural or artisanal quality of their beers rather than keep ingredients and processes constant. “We think of ourselves more along the same lines as a vintner would, where we are more worried about making the next batch of beer taste better than the last — instead of making it taste the same as the last,” says co-owner Steve Beauchesne. Beau’s offers one main brand year-round, Lug Tread Lagered Ale, with a new brand released to celebrate each season.
Every six weeks, a one-off batch of experimental beer is released when the brew tank is available. One of the very first seasonal brews was a gruit beer made with bog myrtle, which hasn’t been brewed commercially since about the 1400s.
Steve mentions it’s very hard to source organic ingredients in Canada, although Beau’s is working hard to change this and is using local malts and hops on a trial basis. Their Lug Tread is a very delicate beer with a lot of complexity, and pairs well with a soft cheese with a bit of nuttiness, fish or chicken that isn’t heavily breaded or spicy, and salads.
Located on a 10-acre farm in Sorrento, BC, Crannóg Ales was the first certified organic farm/microbrewery in Canada and one of only a handful in the world. The organic farm came first, followed closely by the brewery. Co-owner and alesmith Brian MacIssac stays true to his Irish roots in the styles of beer brewed and his deep respect for the environment.
Crannóg Ales is a zero waste emissions brewery where recycling is used as a last resort. All packaging is reused, spent grain feeds pigs and chickens, and leftovers are composted. A water reclamation system allows the brewery to use processed water to clean kegs and tanks and for irrigation. MacIsaac doesn’t create single serving packaging and delivers ale in kegs to encourage beer lovers to gather in groups. According to MacIsaac, “I don’t think it’s a good idea for people to be sitting in their basements by themselves with a single serving of beer.”
Even with the potential for growth, MacIsaac and co-owner Rebecca Kneen are not looking to expand. “We could’ve grown if we wanted to, but we are not interested. We have enough customers,” says MacIsaac. They have a name for farmers seeking to enlarge their operations: “We call them ‘stainless steel farmers’ because they just keep on adding more stainless steel.”
All ingredients come from North America, with barley from Northern Alberta or Saskatchewan. The hops come from the farm with the remainder from BC hop yards that MacIsaac and Kneen have helped establish. As MacIsaac says, “We don’t want to throw a bunch of petrol up in the air to get our ingredients to us.” Water for the beer comes from a well on the property fed by nearby springs. MacIssac uses 11 different varieties of hops in the beers, usually four in a single brew.
Crannóg‘s stouts and porters pair well with desserts or stews or something a little bit heavier, like chilli or spaghetti. The lighter beers go well with curries and fish and chips. The Irish red ales pair well with salads, whitefish and salmon.
Organic beer is perfect for environmentally conscious people looking for products made with little impact on the land. Microbreweries across Canada craft small-batch brews based on traditional styles to suit local tastes.
NBC brew master Mike Kelly said it best: “People who make organic beer like to tell their story.” He advised us to look for local beer using local ingredients and visit the brewery. He goes on to suggest asking about the brewery’s carbon footprint. It will definitely add interest to your glass.