Sunday, 20 September 2015

A closer look at YellowBelly Brewery

Sitting on the corner of Water Street and George Street in
downtown St. John's, Newfoundland, the historic building
that houses YellowBelly Brewery and Public House has
been a landmark since 1846 when it was rebuilt after a
huge fire. It is one of the few downtown buildings to have
 survived the Great St John's Fire of 1892. It would appear
St. John's had better luck not being on fire in the 1900s.
Anyone who's been on Facebook for more than 10 minutes knows that the social medium has a way of "suggesting" new friends for you. More often than not, it's people you have never heard of, don't remember at all from high school and as silly as it seems, completely unknown friends of Facebook friends. No, Facebook, I do not want my buddy Bob's church pastor as a "friend". Frankly, Bob's gotten into enough trouble having that holy roller on his Facebook and I am not looking to speed up my inevitable descent into the burning abyss. That said, the day my aunt asked me why I had no pictures on Facebook was the same day I discovered the privacy settings do work exceptionally well.

So thank you, Facebook, but I'll add my friends the three traditional ways - 1) they are actually someone I know and like; 2) at the recommendation of trusted friend or 3) completely by accident and to my horror because I'm still a Smartphone newbie.

Clearly, this one lady named Kathryn is a trusted friend because I did add someone at her suggestion. Granted, it was a bit of a no-brainer as his name was Liam Mckenna (so obviously a Scotsman and it's good to have a few of those as friends so you aren't sitting in that burning abyss alone) and, most importantly, he is a brewmaster.
Cheers from the east end of the country as Liam
McKenna hoists a pint of Robert The Spruce,
the brewery's spruce tip ale. Beers like this,
which the Vikings originated but the Scots
perfected, are right in Liam's wheelhouse...
Now I have known Kathryn all her life as she is the youngest sister of one of my oldest friends, Johnny. In fact, I remember her Mom bringing her outside as a newborn so I could meet her. As an eight or nine year old, I am hoping I said the right thing, such as "Aww, she's pretty" or whatever because let's face it, every newborn bears an uncanny resemblance to ET. Given our age difference, she and I obviously ran in different circles. But I do remember one evening hanging in Johnny's kitchen, pounding back the brews while his folks vacationed out east as they did every Summer. At one point, Kathryn stormed into the kitchen and just started reaming us out. She yelled her piece and then stomped off the way that teenage girls do. "What was that all about?" I asked. "Beats me," shrugged Johnny, "Grab me a beer?" The concerns of younger siblings was not paid much heed in those days. A few decades have passed so the age disparity has faded away - so much so that when Kathryn says you should add this brewmaster on Facebook, I'll add him. I would suggest to Kathryn that this is a great show of respect on my part but, well, again, the dude makes beer.

After getting to know Liam, I finally asked how he knew Kathryn. As it turns out, they attended the University of Guelph together, a place they affectionately refer to as U of Goo. (When my brother went there, we called it Moo U because it has Canada's best agriculture program.) But long story short, he asked her out, she laughed in his face and thus a life-long friendship was born. I feel ya, bro.
Here's some Wexford Wheat, Liam's first brew,
coupled with a split baked rainbow trout and a bed of
rice. Am I the only one who just got really hungry??
The whole family's like that, including my best buddy but excluding their Mom, who's a saint for putting up with the unruly lot of them. And truth to tell, if I remained friends with every woman who laughed in my face, my Facebook friends list would be in the thousands. But he did find a true love of sorts there. The university "represented a way to explore my love of arts and science in such a way that only U of Goo can do. I had no direction in my life at all (but I) discovered fermentation. Then I discovered how to manipulate, manage and control it. My peeps at U of Goo encouraged me forward... and that hasn't stopped since."

Graduating as a microbiologist, Liam spent years as a professional brewer and beverage consultant in North America and Europe. In fact, the beer he created in Dublin between 1996 and 2000 was so good that Guinness actually paid publicans not to stock it. Looking back, he chuckles at the memory. "It was more about inducements, shit like no or low-interest loans in exchange for tap exclusivity. They did not want to allow us in. Fair play. If I had that sort of power and control, I'd do the same. To them, the thought of someone else brewing a stout in Dublin was anathema."
Liam hangs at the Public House bar with Craig Flynn, who
owns the brewery with his wife, Brenda O'Reilly. When the
couple approached Liam asking who might be a good
brewmaster for their new brewery, he suggested himself.
While he noted the Guinness brewery was something of a "strange beast," he is quick to add, "Their brewers, like most all brewers, were the finest kind of people."

Landing back in Toronto, Liam was mostly a beverage consultant (while brewing on the side) and made friends with John Maxwell, the owner of the hugely-popular Irish pub Allens on the Danforth ("He remains my biggest fan.") Through Maxwell, he met Craig Flynn and Brenda O'Reilly, board members of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, who had plans to open YellowBelly Brewery in St. John's. With a strong nudge from Maxwell, when the couple approached him looking for a brewmaster, "I suggested me. I needed to stop the peripatetic life of consulting. I had a 10-year old (daughter named Isobel). I love Newfoundland. My talented wife, (Janet), who works in communications was ready for a change. It required little thought. I do not miss Toronto, save the multicultural food."
I haven't even had tried this beer and I already know their
Fighting Irish Red Ale would be my favourite.  Liam calls
it "our most complex beer" with its big malty flavour.
And thus it was that the trio happily landed on The Rock with Liam setting up shop at the brand new YellowBelly Brewery.

Now before we continue with Liam's story, a quick look at the brewery's colourful name because it has a distant connection to me. It harkens back to the Irish immigrants who entered Newfoundland between 1750 and 1830. The Yellowbellies were an Irish faction hailing from County Wexford who famously tied strips of yellow cloth around their stomachs during hurling matches. Following their victories, King George III is said to exclaim, "Well done the Yellowbellies!" My connection? The Redmonds hail from County Wexford.

Once landing in YellowBelly, it was time to start brewing but where to start, what style to begin with? In the end, it was the Wexford Wheat.
The last of the brewery's four mainstay beers
was the St John's Stout. which Liam says is full of
complex, burnt, "roasty" flavour. We're sold...
"When I arrived here, Coors Light was the number one draft (and still is.) People thought if you were microbrewing beer, it was happening in a galvanized tub. I needed a (lighter) 'cross-over' beer that people could come in, have a pint of, join the club and maybe have another." While noting it's a balanced and drinkable American wheat, "it's nothing to write home about... except if you are an aficionado of the style." He is clearly not but he followed that with the YellowBelly Pale Ale, the Fighting Irish Red Ale and finally the St John's Stout.

"All, except for the wheat, have significantly migrated from their original design and recipe launch points. I am comfortable with where they sit right now. (I make) small tweaks now and then but that's just my ADD."

But while he brews that Core-Four for the taps at the Public House, as well as sale to the public, brewmasters all have that creative mad scientist thing happening and that means lots of experimentation and one-offs. Of particular interest to me is the Deep South IPA, a west-coast style weighing in at 6% and 60 IBU (international bitterness units), introduced in August and made with both American and British yeast and Pacific Gem (New Zealand) and Mosaic (Australia) hops. The first batch sold out almost instantly so Liam is back at the tuns and kettles with another batch "back by popular demand."
Created for St Patrick's Day 2015, Liam brewed up his
Paddy's Pale Ale, a malty traditional British style IPA.

But another that caught my eye was his Spruce tip ale, Robert The Spruce. Liam spent considerable time in the Spring and early Summer, harvesting Spruce tips for this 5.5% specialty beer. He took 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds) of the spruce tips and suspended them for 20 minutes in a boiling kettle of 1,100 litres (290 U.S. gallons) hopped wort. As with any new experiment, he "approached the project with great trepidation. I've had too many spruce beers that taste like Pine-Sol floor cleaner." Using citrusy Cascade hops to balance the spruce, in the end, he was happy. "The Spruce was present but not cloying but... there was a berry element there that I couldn't seem to articulate." The brewer offered up a free pint for anyone who could. I wasn't there but I'm throwing boysenberry out there in case that pint was never claimed.

But here's the thing. I was a journalist for more than a couple of decades and you never ever use just one source, even one as reliable and trustworthy as Liam.
Sadly, I measure a man and brewmaster by his Monty
Python and The Holy Grail knowledge. So, of course, I
asked Liam, "What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen
swallow?" When he answered, "West-South African or
European?" I knew he was the real deal. Well done!!!
That meant sending in one of my best operatives, Tommy Salami, a former Beer Store buddy of mine. Now granted, he and his beautiful wife, Nicola, were already in St John's to get their daughter Isabel set up for her first year at Memorial University at precisely the same time Liam was setting Isobel up in Halifax's University of King's College. So naturally, I used Tommy's presence there as an opportunity to spy (uhh, I mean, report) on YellowBelly. His report on the brewery and Public House came back somewhat positive.

"We went in for dinner on a weeknight. Like 99.999% of this city's population, everyone is super-friendly. (The Public House has) a dark, cozy ambiance with a glass wall separating the brewing equipment and the bar area. We sat at the bar for our meal and met Peter, the bartender. He was Asian and this becomes relevant in a second. He said, 'Just shout if you need anything.' I said, 'What if I just shout 'yo'?' He said, 'That works as well but my cousin's name is Yo'." Tommy said the ladies had the fish and chips while he had the filet mignon with veggies. "Both were incredible." As for beers, Tommy stayed true to the Fighting Irish Red through several visits ("Tasty and dark") while Nicola alternated between the Wexford Wheat ("Refreshing") and his Apple Cider ("Crisp, tart and sweet.")
If you happen to land in St. John's, Newfoundland, what
can I say? This place comes very highly recommended.
When they returned for one final visit after Isabel was settled in, Tommy reported that is was the "same cozy friendly atmosphere with a guy on guitar squeezed in between a couple of tables."

Now the one thing I always ask brewers is what is the next big beer style since IPAs are riding the wave now. I told Liam that one told me he thought sour beers; another said barrel-aged beers. So, as a brewer, what does he think? "Fuck sours! That may be a bit strong. Hah! I have been at tastings where the presenter was all poetic about a particular sour beer. Fast-forward to my notes, saying things like, 'Wet ass, shitty diaper, cheese, vomit, dog breath, horse blanket, mouse shit'. I could go on. I wish I was kidding. Obviously not a fan. The pendulum swings. I like the re-emergence of milder styles. I love malts just as much as I love hops. I do not like wood on beer except on rare occasion. I would rather have a decent pint and (then) lick a plank. It would be generally more enjoyable."

So what then? "I like to think the next wave will be well-made, balance, drinkable, shelf-stable beers. As a brewer, I think we make liquid bread."
Here's the paddle of YellowBelly's Core-Four forward and
then backwards. The Wexford Wheat, YellowBelly Pale
Ale, the Fighting Irish Red Ale and the St. John's Stout.
He continued: "The analogy is near-perfect historically, sociologically, economically and nutritionally. What could be the point of making a loaf of bread that people only want one slice of?" He added with a laugh, "I should temporarily ignore that loaf of pumpernickel in my freezer although it's been there for a year. I should probably throw that out."

He closed out by noting, "It is a fond hope that we may some day share a pint or two. I know that would be great. You are always welcome here in St. John's." Sweet. Now on the Bucket List between "fly a helicopter" and "die in bed in the arms of a Las Vegas showgirl." Okay, this one may be a little easier, actually. Liam, we will meet... and drink YellowBelly beers. Next up, I promised young Megan that I would do the East Coast Challenge before Summer was over. I started with Liam for the east coast angle and now I have two days to do Megan's portion before Summer is over. Put me on the clock! But guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here!! Until next time, I remain...