Thursday, 10 March 2016

Trafalgar goes to Growler Town

Brewer Ainsley (the pretty one) and Trafalgar Ales & Meads founder
Mike Arnold (the rugged one) pose in front of their brand spanking
new 16-tap growler pour station. It seems every few years, this brewery
reinvents itself in one way or another. I suspect Mike is a restless soul.
Last May, just two weeks after Oakville's Trafalgar Brewing and Distillery won an unprecedented seven awards at the Ontario Brewing Awards, I wrote a piece on them in this space entitled, "The Reinvention of Trafalgar Ales and Meads."

The title was just meant as a nod to the fact that after years of skipping the OBAs, they had finally come back and, in fact, took last year's Newcomer of the Year - 21 years after the brewery's creation. By that criteria alone, I have thread-bare underwear that qualify for the New Briefs of the Year Award, a handful possibly older than the brewery. But in a minute, I'll explain why a little later why that ended up being a little more prophetic than I knew at the time.

But on February 13th, I popped into the brewery at their invite to check out their new growler station. And damn, it's impressive. Sixteen different growler taps - the most I have ever seen - which will be self-serve (soon), something else I have never seen. I mean, leaving growler taps at my mercy? Well, we'll see how that plays out.

I have a chance to chat with brewery founder Mike Arnold that day and as per usual, he was both helpful and forthright. "I don't know of too many other places that has 16 growler taps. We'd like to be be self-serve. We'll help now but in two months, we'd like it to be completely self-serve.
Trafalgar Ales and Meads owner Mike Arnold and General
Manager Connor Orchard pose behind the seven awards
they won at the 2015 Ontario Brewing Awards. A sweet haul!
We'll put a video up there so people will know how to do it." My thinking is if you can pour beer into a glass (as all of you should be doing), you might possibly be capable of filling a growler. Eventually. I get mine filled at Burlington's Nickel Brook all the time and I have watched as my main pourers, Robbie and Amy, deal with the extra head that comes with the keg. More than a bit of foam goes down the trap drain so most of us would be instantly skilled at pouring half a growler of beer with the other half being head. So there's a skill involved here.

So why the costly investment of installing 16 growler stations at Trafalgar? Well, the problem as Mike sees it is that while people will be getting the freshest possible beer from tasting at the growler stations, that may not be the case elsewhere. "The problem is since we don't sell beer to licensees (bars and restaurants), basically the only place people can get (our products) is at the LCBO and that beer can be anywhere from two to six months old. So they're tasting old beer essentially. We were at a disadvantage here. When people sample beers (at other craft breweries), they're getting beers that are three and four days old."
When the Burlington Beer Festival held their kick-off
prior to the Summer Beer Festival, both Cameron's and
Trafalgar Brewery (shown here) set up booths to create
awareness of what very good beer tastes like. True story.
(Full disclosure: the Oakville Beer Store I work at stocks both their Ginger Mead and Peach Mead and while they do sell, they don't exactly fly off the shelf so he's right about the age of their product. It's not just the LCBO. It's us, too.)

He continued: "We do some lovely beers but it's just that sometimes the LCBO (and Beer Store - my addition, not his) doesn't treat them well."
And because he worried about product sitting on the LCBO and Beer Store shelves for months when he recently gave a talk to a Napanee business group about the challenges of running a nano-brewery, he urged them all, "Focus on your retail area. It's always gonna be fresh. You have control over it." So he had to admit, "I'm finally taking my own advice... 23 years later. You can always learn."

Now here comes the ironic part. Mike himself isn't all that big on the whole growler movement. "Growlers, to me, tend to be a bit of fad. I don't think they're going to last too long because they're not the best way to keep beer. In two or three years, we'll change this around again. But right now, growlers are taking off. You can always tell when the fad's over when the (Summerhill in Toronto) LCBO puts in a growler station."
Ironically, after adding a huge 16-tap growler
station, Mike said he thought growlers were a
"fad." I don't agree there but then, I don't have
the experience that he has in the craft industry
He added with a laugh, "They're (the LCBO) not quite leading edge." However, he did acknowledge, "But the people who do come to buy growlers are also the people who know a fair bit about beer." (Hey, that's me!)

But one thing he would dearly love to see - as would I - is craft breweries being able to sell each other's product. When the Ontario Liberals came through with these Beer Reforms late last year, that was part of the changes but it seems to have fallen to the wayside. Said Mike: "That's on the back burner now. It's not off the burner but it's on the back burner because the government right now is going to focus on 'Let's roll out as many grocery stores as possible, make sure they do well and then we'll consider (cross-selling between craft breweries.)' It's not a high priority item. It's a shame because there's some beautiful beers being brewed in Ontario right now and a lot of them aren't in the LCBO." (Again... or in the Beer Store. Just keeping it honest here.)

And he wasn't shy about who he'd like to see on the Trafalgar taps, singling out out Waterloo's Innocente Brewing, noting he had enjoyed their Charcoal Porter on cask in a Burlington restaurant. "It was delightful," he said, adding with a grin, "It was almost as good as ours. I would love to be able to get their beer on tap (in Trafalgar)."
Poor forlorn Ainsley, completely coated with yeast, was
the brewery's choice for their International Women's
Day pic on Twitter. Ainsley wasn't feeling the love so
much as the laundry she would be doing... Just yeastly!

But here's the thing about Trafalgar. This brewery is always in transition, hence their "reinvention." Two years ago, they also became a distillery, as well. Mike is always shaking stuff up! Oh, they still do their beers and many meads - that hasn't changed. But while their rye whiskey percolates in barrels for another 18 months, they have been making "moonshine" (which takes considerable less time than three years - ask anyone in Kentucky) This year, it's the growler station. Trafalgar is always shifting in new directions (every two years, it seems) simply because Mike can't stop switching things up.

"I guess we're quite unique in that we're both a brewery and a distillery retail store," he told me.
"The rye whiskey needs three years in the oak (barrels). We've got some in the back that will be ready in a year and a half. Those of us who work here are kinda Irish Whiskey fans so rye is kind of on lower on the totem pole."

He added that most of the beers on tap as trial efforts. "Most of the beers here are test beers. We don't have plans to bottle them. Like the Apricot (Fruit Ale). We're not gonna put it in the LCBO or the Beer Store. We'll run it for a few months, see if we get good feedback and then maybe put it in the LCBO."
Trafalgar's Norfolk County Baked Apple Mead was, in fact,
a tasty treat but it took both my teeth and vice grips to get that
cork out. It was my first mead in over 20 years and was worth
the effort. At 8.5%, it's not an every day kind of drink but it is
something you could enjoy on special occasions. Like dessert!

But that's precisely why the brewery has little one-ounce plastic tasters cups at the spigots - they want you to try everything. "They're tiny cups so no one's going to get into any trouble sampling," Mike noted. As well, the individual brewers at Trafalgar are identified for their efforts at every tap. "That way, they can get some ownership of their beers."

So while I was there pestering Mike, I sampled some of Head Brewer Dave Jamieson's Norfolk County Baked Apple Mead and was impressed enough by a tiny taste to track it down at the LCBO. Now I'm a beer drinker but I do know a little bit about meads, which use the more expensive honey rather than sugar in the mix. Going back to 7000 BC, they actually predate beer and were the preferred beverage of Vikings (well, okay, that's just cool). Also by using honey, the only non-perishable food item in existence, meads last a long time. In the case of modern ones like this, they do use hops and barley in the mix, much like beer. The Baked Apple Mead was 8.5% so it's not something to be toyed with but that said, here's your perfect post-meal beverage. Like a good chocolate stout, the sweetness of the apple and cinnamon in this would complement a post-meal coffee and dessert treat perfectly. This actually was delicious to the point that I am looking at meads with new-found appreciation. The little Oakville brewery that finally caught my attention with their Chocolate Orange Porter and later seriously impressed me with their Mighty Oak Imperial Brown Ale has a few new tricks in their bag, it seems. Being as they are actually right around the corner from my Beer Store, I will be back for more of that Baked Apple Mead but their Cask Porter is also on tap now. If I don't try that, society itself is being denied. And by society, I mean me. (Screw society - society sucks.) Next up, Mike and his brewery join 19 other craft breweries on the Beer Store's recently-expanded 25-member Board of Directors. Why? Well, that's a helluva question so we'll have to answer that, won't we? But guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here! Until next time, I remain...