Raising a glass to Vancouver’s homebrewing community
Like any of life’s important milestones, one’s first attempt at homebrewing isn’t likely to be forgotten. Even if the outcome happened to be a complete disaster by food and beverage standards, which it often is, it’s a safe bet that the process alone was thrilling enough to warrant a second try.
My first foray into basement beer-making began in May 2016 and unfolded in this exact manner. I walked into Dan’s Homebrewing Supplies in Vancouver, purchased a starter kit, picked out a recipe, followed the steps, screwed up the majority of those steps, bottled it, cellared it and subsequently drank it anyways. Only later did I find out that brewing a kolsch during a June heat wave was a surefire way to set myself up for disaster. Fermentation temperatures? Those were just an old wives’ tale! Or so I thought…
Ironically enough, Evan and Michael Doan, whose kolsch recipe was the one I butchered so mercilessly that summer, got off to a similar start when they began brewing in 2009 – although they at least had the good sense to test the waters with some easier beer styles.
“I think the first few brews we did were the malt extract partial mash version of the Strathcona Pale Ale recipe from Dan’s and then a Porter recipe,” recalled Michael. “We fermented way too warm, that’s for sure. We really didn’t know what we were doing and honestly the beer wasn’t that good at all. We just loved the experience so much; we were addicted and obsessed after the first batch.”
From there, the Doan brothers began saving their pennies for a mash tun and finally headed back to Dan’s in 2010 to make the switch to all grain brewing. By May 2015, they had turned pro and opened Doan’s Craft Brewing Company in East Vancouver, a 550-litre brew house with a trio of 1,100-litre fermenters. “We were inspired just by the desire to get better and to make a really great beer,” Michael said.
A pilgrimage to Dan’s is likely to make you feel as though you’re hanging out at the bottom of a toaster oven – which is to say, there are a few crumbs here and there, but that’s where it gets its charm. Evan used to work behind the counter and describes it as a total blast. “I had my hands in tons of different malts I hadn’t played with before and it widened my understanding of styles and knowledge of troubleshooting if needed,” he said. “The team there really knows their stuff and it was the best job I’ve ever had outside of a brewery.”
Lately, the Doan brothers have returned to their roots by sponsoring a homebrewing competition at their old haunt. The winner, to be announced in early March, will be invited to their facility to brew a full-scale batch. It’s a prize that homebrewer and Capilano University graduate Josh Wright is itching to get his hands on.
“I’m submitting four beers to that: our Christmas Ale, our IPA, our Saison and our brunch beer,” he said, adding that the chance to test drive some larger equipment and pick the brain of an established brewmaster would be “amazing.” His long-term plan is to open up a craft brewery of his own, though he’s well aware of the learning curve that comes with an industrial setup.
Josh first got into brewing with his brother-in-law, honing recipes with the intention of creating a one-of-a-kind lineup that would hold its own on the local market when the time came. “I’ll take a standard style of beer and then I’ll mess with it, so either buy a different hop selection or a different yeast or even both, or maybe I’ll add a different adjunct grain to there’s something just to make it different,” he said. “They all stand out and they all are memorable, and that’s the whole point for me.”
Josh and his brother-in-law made their first extract brew, a Saison, in his kitchen two years ago before switching to all grain. “Of course the wives kicked us out,” he laughed, “So then we moved to the garage and got a 65,000 BTU burner and we’ve been doing everything out there.”
More recently, they’ve been eying up a three-kettle system with a 20-gallon capacity – “Something more automated, probably like a RIMS (Recirculating Infusion Mash System) or a HERMS (Heat Exchange Recirculating Mash System),” said Josh. “It makes a more refined wort, less cloudy and keeps an even temperature; better quality, more consistency as well.”
Consistency is a big challenge for homebrewers, with mash and fermentation temperatures being the main causes of variation between batches.
Sanitation is another step that can’t be ignored. Homebrewers learn pretty quickly to wash their gear before and after each part of the process, using soap and warm water followed by a no-rinse sanitizer. This is a chore I may have botched slightly during a recent batch of cider. Unless, of course, it was supposed to smell like cat pee.
“Water chemistry, that’s another big one,” said Josh, adding that the same recipe brewed in Burnaby may taste different when replicated in Coquitlam or Port Moody. “And when you’re getting your water for the boil, make sure you’re always using cold water to start with and then heating up to whatever temperature you need.” Doing so will bypass your hot water tank, and any sediment found within it, yielding a better flavour.
There’s something that’s so fulfilling about giving your beer to people and them saying ‘Oh, wow, you made this?’
Add-ins, such as hops, will taste different depending on when they are added during the brewing process, so keeping a detailed journal of each step and the time it was executed will help greatly in replication later on. Josh uses an app called BeerSmith, which allows him to store his recipes in the cloud and receive alerts and time prompts at each stage of the brew.
Still, others find success by breaking all the rules. “Some do it like a chef; they just put this in and this in and taste it and it’s perfect; other people are measuring the exact pH’s and are really detail-oriented,” explained Katy Wright (no relation), co-founder of the Vanbrewers homebrew club. “Both work, both have their valid points.”
Katy, along with partner Graham With of Parallel 49 fame, started Vanbrewers in 2010 with less than a dozen members. “We would all bring beer and we’d sit around a nice big table and taste the beer, talk about it and give feedback,” she recalled. In recent years, as membership numbers have ascended into the hundreds, the club has adopted more of an educational model. Instead of weekly feedback sessions, Vanbrewers now hosts regular presentations and an annual homebrewing competition where detailed critiques are given for each entry. “The quality of beer just went through the roof,” she said. “It’s really reflected in the competitions.”
“Since we started we have seen a dozen brewers go pro, and a few as owners,” said Michael. “It has been incredible. The scene now involves college courses, a very wide range of amazing, resourceful videos on YouTube, et cetera. The books are still great and they are way more specialized now as well. You can really find all of the answers you need to any question you have.”
So the next time someone hands you a bottle of their homemade hooch (unless it’s me), try not to write it off before giving it a try. Or better yet, clean out an unused corner of your garage and begin your own beer-making adventures. “You’ll enjoy the product more because you’re part of the process,” said Josh.
And once you finally do master the basics, creating a label-worthy batch to be proud of, I assure you that this feeling offers a better buzz than beer ever could. My first “a-ha” moment came last month when my brewing partner and I unveiled our Rooibos Red Ale to some friends – the same friends who sampled our inaugural bottle of Kolsch last August and politely asked if we had watered it down.
Vindication never tasted so sweet.
“There’s something that’s so fulfilling about giving your beer to people and them saying ‘Oh, wow, you made this?’” Katy said. “It’s so cool.”
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