It’s been a month since our last status update, and through that time we’ve had some really encouraging moments and some really disappointing ones. Follow our progress over the past month, since mid-October.
We decided to pull our offer for the South Calgary leasehold near the Blackfoot Farmers’ Market, which we’ve been working on since late August, and are back to square one with respect to our property search. Our decision to end the offer largely revolved around the dismal behaviour of the landlord over the past several months and other red flags that arose during lease negotiations, which we couldn’t ignore. We won’t say the name of the landlord here but over the past few months we have heard many warnings and stories about them, so perhaps this won’t come as a surprise to those of you that do know who they are. Anyhow, we are engaging with more brokers and widening our search parameters, as we are blocked on moving forward with of our project until we have a location secured. Although we are getting really impatient and chomping at the bit to get a space, we won’t sign a lease for a location unless the landlord can demonstrate that they truly want their tenants to be successful in addition to themselves (which they should want for a variety of reasons).
We recently met with the AGLC representative that will be assigned to our business on an ongoing basis. The AGLC is the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission — the government agency responsible for taxing beer sales in the province and ensuring that liquor is served in a manner consistent with our societal values and ideals. The AGLC are the ones we have to answer to if we make a mistake, so we were a little nervous meeting up with them for the first time. However, any nervousness was dispelled within a couple minutes of getting in a room with our rep, who didn’t fit the stereotype of a regulator in appearance or the way he spoke, which was candid and friendly. We really appreciated the meeting and learned a lot from the AGLC, much of which we wished we knew months ago. We definitely recommend that anyone seriously considering opening a brewery get in contact with the AGLC as early as possible; there is a lot more to know than what is found in the handbooks and the regulations are constantly changing.
Calgary Economic Development
We were in touch with Calgary Economic Development (CED) back in early Spring, but we were not in Calgary yet and the relationship dissolved as we got busy with our move and subsequent priorities. Finally, we made the effort to get in touch with the CED and were thrilled to find out that they have a representative whose job it is to foster the creation of Calgary agricultural jobs and industry, from the farm all the way to the table, as well as scientific research and development. Guess what, that includes breweries! We scheduled a meeting with CED to discuss our business plans, and they have already been connecting us with other Calgarians and local businesses that we are engaging with in various ways, or will engage with in the future. CED is partially owned by the City of Calgary, which gives them an “in” with the City and could help in cases where permits are held up or where information is just hard to come by (as well as other things like helping with real estate). On the private side of things, CED is owned and led by a consortium of Calgary business people that are well-connected and able to provide valuable guidance. Regardless of your industry, if you are planning on starting a business in Calgary, CED are your friends, talk to them as early as possible.
We’ve talked many times about how we brew at home frequently in order to develop our recipes and try new styles of beer. Laura and I have been living with my parents since we moved back to Calgary, and Tyler and I have been brewing out of my mother’s single car garage, completely taking it over and forcing her to park on the street. Recently Tyler and Sarah found a great house for rent in Douglasdale with a large, insulated double car garage, with ample space for all the brewery equipment and even an indoor office area for our lab equipment (yessss!). So a couple of weeks ago we moved everything over to their place and spent much of our time since then building a more permanent, well-organized brewery in the garage.
We originally intended to move our homebrewing setup to our leasehold, where it will be used as a commercial pilot system, as soon as we gained access, but our visit with the AGLC made it clear that we won’t be able to do that until we are licensed to sell beer, so we will be brewing at home for a long time. Throughout the move we also added a third conical fermenter and expanded our homemade glycol chiller setup, which ensures that fermentation temperatures never get too high (which can cause a variety of off-flavours in the finished beer). Today we brewed a Berliner Weisse and it was the smoothest brew day we’ve had since back in California, purely on account of the improved layout and organization of the brewery.
Fun Beer Experiments
Over the past year, the majority of our brewing efforts have been focused on beer that the average Calgarian would find approachable and could enjoy over and over again, especially if their reference point and expectations are based on the typical selection of styles already found on draft throughout the Calgary area, such as tame wheat beers, raspberry-flavoured seasonals, hefeweizens, and IPAs. We love those styles and drink them often, but we want to introduce our community to a wider variety of flavour combinations in beer. With us nearing completion on many of our “approachable” beers, we are finally able to move onto a few of our more interesting beer projects. Here are a few we are working on now – some of these may end up in the Prairie Dog brewpub, some may not.
Oaked Bourbon Blackberry Porter
Porter, with its slightly sweet caramel or toffee notes, dark chocolate undertones and robust maltiness, is a style ripe for experimentation. Much like with chocolate, many other flavours are complementary to the style, such as fruits, nuts, coffee and even tropical flavours like coconut or mango. To this end, I’ve always wanted to try a dark fruit like blackberry in a porter. I’ve tried a few blackberry porters in the past, but I’ve never liked them very much — something was always missing. To my mind, the smell and taste of blackberries recalls an intense, fruity red wine sipped deep in a cool wine cellar somewhere in Napa county, with the smell of oak barrels permeating my nostrils and commingling with the wine in some magical way. Why can’t beer do this? Of course it can! We drew a portion of our most recent batch of porter into an alternate vessel to prepare it for the experiment. Into the beer we added wonderful smelling lightly-toasted oak chips, which had been soaking for several days in American Bourbon whisky (which itself smells and tastes of intense oak and sterilizes the oak chips). Finally, we added several pounds of pureed blackberries to the mix, which will cause it to undergo a secondary fermentation over the coming few days. We will take samples of the beer daily and keg it off when the oak flavour is at desirable levels.
Chocolate Peanut-Butter Porter
As mentioned above, porter is great for experimentation with nuts, and the style already tends to have some chocolate notes from the malt, so why not try making a chocolate peanut-butter porter? Of course, when anyone thinks of chocolate and peanut butter, it is hard not to think of Reese’s Pieces, which I have to admit may have been an inspiration for this beer; however, it is important to remember that Reese’s Pieces are extremely sweet, and it would be very difficult to achieve anything resembling that flavour in a beer without forgoing fermentation altogether, not to mention the beer would be very hard to drink in any quantity. So instead we set out to make a beer that resembles dark milk chocolate with peanuts, like the toppings on a Peanut-Buster Parfait.
Because we wanted to work from a common base porter and make all our additions post-fermentation, we needed a way to add sweetness and body to the beer. Lactose, the sugar found in milk and unfermentable by beer yeast, does the job nicely. Further, the lactose may help the drinker recall the flavours of ice cream treats with dark chocolate and nuts.
Now for the peanuts. Peanuts are full of oils and fats, which are an enemy of beer both because they stale rapidly and because the fats destroy head retention. We are not equipped to remove the fat from peanuts, but thankfully someone has already done that for us with a product called PB2. PB2 is made by squishing roasted peanuts in a specialized press until the oils and fats separate out and can be removed. In the end, less than 15% of fats remain, making the product better for beer making than anything else. Additionally, because the peanuts are pulverized into a powder, they are easy to introduce at various points throughout the brewing process, such as into the fermenter, as we did after mixing the PB2 with finished porter on a stovetop and boiling for sanitation.
Finally, the chocolate. The base beer already has notes of chocolate derived from specially roasted malts, but we really want the beer to scream “chocolate”, so that isn’t enough. We found high-quality organic cacao nibs that would do the trick nicely; we wanted to add these to the fermenter too, but they must be sanitized first, which presents other opportunities. Much of the flavour of the cacao nibs is soluble in alcohol, but the low levels found in our porter may not be enough to extract sufficient flavour from the nibs, so we soaked them in the same American Bourbon whisky that we used for the blackberry porter above. Why Bourbon in this beer? Well, aside from the obvious woody complexity it adds, Bourbon is loaded with vanillins pulled from its oak cask. The vanillins impart typical vanilla flavours and aromas, and a perception of sweetness much like you’d find in vanilla ice cream.
This beer will undergo a small secondary fermentation due to some sugar in the PB2 mixture, and will probably be ready to drink in 4-5 days – we are very eagerly awaiting its completion.
Berliner Weisse is a highly carbonated, refreshing straw-coloured beer of German origins with very low levels of alcohol (around 3% ABV) and noticeable acidic or tart character. Though the beer can be quite sour at first, it is very easy to drink and gaining popularity rapidly. The tart acidity is the result of higher than normal levels of lactic acid in the beer (the same acid that makes your muscles sore after a workout, or that makes yogurt taste sour). How a brewer gets the lactic acid into their beer is a matter of preference and personal style, and can be as simple as directly adding laboratory-grade acid to the finished beer, or complicated by the use of probiotic bacteria to create lactic acid from the sugars in the beer.
Since late last year, we have been working on a method of safely and reliably culturing wild Lactobacillus, a bacteria that creates lactic acid as a by-product of sugar consumption, and the same organism that makes milk go sour. The culture grows in a “sour mash”, which starts as most beers do with a typical mix of grains and hot water, but is cooled after saccharification to a temperature where lactobacillus thrive. After cooling, the mash is inoculated with some Alberta barley, purged of all oxygen, and sealed for a number of days while being held at a warm temperature. Some days later the sour mash mix is opened, tested for taste and acidity, and blended back into a regular non-sour wort to achieve the desired flavour profile before boiling/sterilizing it. The past several days we have gone through this process using Alberta two-row barley as our inoculant and equipment that we’ve adapted to facilitate our sour mash procedure. This morning we brewed the remainder of our base beer and blended with our sour mash to the desired effect, perfectly achieving our planned sugar content and acidity range. The beer is currently fermenting away and will not be ready to try for at least a week, but samples of the beer as it went into the fermenter are promising.
Expect to find a write-up here at some point in the future about the sour mashing process we have developed.
CAMRA Cicerone Training
CAMRA Alberta is a volunteer-driven organization devoted to the growth of craft beer culture through education and promotion, and are involved in many of the beer-related events throughout Alberta. We have been members for a few months now and are happy to be a part of such an organization. CAMRA’s latest events are part of their Master Class Beer Education Series, are a three-part course devoted to training attendees about beer styles and off-flavours, with the goal being to better prepare attendees to pass a Cicerone exam (the Cicerone program is the beer equivalent of the Sommelier program for wine). Several members of Prairie Dog have taken part in the training so far, which has been quite informative, and we will be attending the upcoming off-flavour class, the last in the series. We are eager to see how well we perform at another round of sensory analysis and curious to compare CAMRA’s methods for setting up and organizing the tasting against the methods we recently developed.
Well, those are all of the interesting events and developments of the past month that we can think of. Interested in how our beers turn out? Want to learn more about our sour mash? Follow us or message us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, we’d love to chat more.