Thursday, 1 March 2018

A sick swing through Hamilton

The exterior of Grain & Grit Small Batch Beer with me and the
co-owner Joe Mrav inset under the spotlight there. That beer we
are holding up are samples of their In The Palms IPA, which will
not be released until it's canned and kegged for March 1st. But
Joe came to our table with samples tapped from the vat itself...
On Sunday, February 18th, I almost watched a man die in front of my very eyes.

Well, "die" might be a little strong. However, "Unravel at the seams" applies while "Fall apart like a Smart Car getting T-Boned by a Big Wheel" may be even more accurate.

Getting to the point, the guy was Beer Bro Glenn and I am happy to announce that he survived. Like most people who drink with me, he certainly finished the night in far worse shape than he started but at least this time, a nasty bug gets the blame, not me.

When Glenn drove all the way from Oshawa to Oakville, he was just a sniffly lad to start. Lots of nose blowing but essentially, he was still in one piece. As we traveled into Hamilton for a mini three craft brewery tour, well... shit started to turn south for my old college buddy. As we talked, laughed and continued the beer sampling journey together that day, I was pretending to check Twitter on my phone but was actually Googling which Hamilton hospital was the nearest to us at any given moment.

The first stop was to our friends at Collective Arts Brewing because I was intent on grabbing more of their Collective Project IPA No. 5 (New England Style Double IPA) as it is my runaway favourite of that style this year thus far. By a large margin, too, I should add. Well, lemme tell you, gang, my timing was pretty damn good for once.
This is the second selfie Glenn and I took while in Collective Arts. Glenn
ruled out the first one because his eyes, already watering, were far "too
squinty." It'll give you an idea of how bad that selfie must have looked if
this was the one given the green light. He's got that "I just sharted" look

Despite being three small separate rooms, there isn't a ton of space in the Collective Arts lounge area to start with so on a Sunday afternoon at around 3:30, lemme tell you, it was jammed. Nonetheless, we bellied up to the bar and got our on-site beers for the journey. Glenn grabbed their Life In The Cloud Hazy IPA, certainly a delicious choice while I, of course, opted for the IPA No. 5. Truth to tell, I was hoping the brewery's communications manager Toni Shelton would be around that day but she was nowhere to be seen on this sunny Sunday.
Once again, I have a Collective Arts Spiegelau IPA glass to go with the
proper brewery pint glass. After breaking two of their Spiegelau's, I
thought "nuts to that" and went for the far sturdier pint glass. But the
brewery's Toni Shelton read my plight and gifted me a new Spiegelau.

You see, before I left for Las Vegas to enjoy my Birthday Week (February 12-16) down there, I wrote one of these little columns on my issue with the Spiegelau IPA glasses. The issue is a remarkably simple one. They are insanely fragile and I have broken four of them thus far - two of which were Collective Arts branded. After that, I said, "No more. Nuh-huh. Not gonna do it" and bought their proper pint glass. While it, too, is made of glass, it may as well be titanium steel next to a Spiegelau.

Anyway, Toni read my spastic tale of woe and soon after, contacted me on Twitter to say she had set another Spiegelau aside for me. A very generous donation to a doomed cause?
Out front of Fairweather Brewing in Hamilton, you can see
I'm sporting this stylish "Drink Local" shirt gifted to me
by my friends Amy and Sandi at Christmas. While I am
always harping on about shopping locally, it's clear the
ladies know I'm not talking veggies. Drink local, folks!!!
But I was so pleased with her thoughtfulness that on my birthday, February 14th, in Vegas, I wore my new Collective Arts T-Shirt in front of the iconic "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign. (That story will be coming up in the immediate future - oh man, the American beers I enjoyed! The million dollar jackpots I didn't win! The showgirls who shunned me!)

But before we left Collective Arts, there was the small matter of getting our to-go beers. While Glenn opted for a few different ones, I knew their supply of IPA No. 5 was dwindling and straight up went for a six-pack. "Oh," the young lady said, "Let me see what's left." Turns out I got the last four in stock. All I can say about that is, well, sucks to be the next one in line. And anyone after him or her.

Now initially, we were thinking of a four brewery tour but because Glenn was slowly descending into "Dammit, Jim, he's dead!" Territory, we bypassed Merit Brewing (just this one time, gang) and drove straight to the west end to land at the two newbies we were dying (almost literally in his case) to try - Fairweather Brewing and Grain & Grit Small Batch Beer.

Finding Fairweather Brewing at 5 Ofield Road in the Ainslie Wood neighbourhood (an industrial street literally a stone's throw from residential), it seems they, too, had a bustling Sunday afternoon crowd on the go. But as we parked, I couldn't help but marvel at the size of the facility. Clearly, it used to be some sort of manufacturing company. Though our very helpful server told me what was housed there in its previous incarnation, I forget now. That said, whatever the previous business was, there is no chance it was as pure and noble and honourable as a craft brewery.
Okay, this is Fairweather's High Grade
American IPA caught in the sunlight
through a side window as the sun was
beginning to set. You see, I like to use a
little nature in my pictures when I can.
Just kidding, it was convenient lighting.

So how big is this place, I asked her. Gotta be at least 10,000-square-feet. She laughed and said, no, it was actually closer to 20,000. Holy Cannoli, that ain't small. You could house a plane in that. Is it possible they're using all that space? Not at the moment, she told me, saying the two far back corners are being rented out to other businesses because, well, there's that much unused space. "But if we need it for the brewery in the future, that space is ours to expand into," she smiled.

Open since last May, Fairweather is the creation of friends Ram MacAllister and Brent Milcz, both of whom attended Niagara College's Brewmaster program, and Dan Ryan, a longtime homebrewer. Their philosophy (edited here) on their website makes it clear that this is truly a labour of love. 

"(Beer) should be swirled, wafted, clanged together, sipped, shared, gazed at, spoken loudly over, savoured, spilled and taken everywhere... We will tirelessly strive to create the best beer you will find anywhere. Period... If you are even a little bit interested in flavourful, thoughtful experiences with people who love what they're doing, we're going to have a lot of fun together. After all, this is for you."

Now, poor Glenn was fast approaching the point where he soon wouldn't be able to smell or taste anything, constantly blowing his nose and wiping his eyes. Nonetheless, he bravely soldiered on ordering their 6% Still Shining Citrus Pale Ale while I opted for their 6.6% High Grade American IPA.
If you like your pale ales with a higher ABV - 6% - and a
heapin' helpin' of citrus goodness, look no farther than
Fairweather's Still Shining Citrus Pale Ale. This is tasty-ass
Both were top-notch brews. The High Grade at roughly 65 IBUs (international bitterness units) was very tropical fruit and melon on both the nose and the tongue, Very tasty. And the Still Shining at roughly 40-45 IBUs was, as advertised, citrus with some more citrus, all topped off with citrus.

But the Fairweather beer that blew this hophead away was their Silky American Oat Porter. This is one of the best of this style I have tasted in quite some time. Always on the hunt for the next hop beast, when a darker style grabs me by the neck and tosses me around the room like a rag-doll, I pay attention. Good Golly Miss Molly, this was some kind of delicious. One of these guys scored 100% in Porter 101 at Niagara (or perhaps at home.) And if it's the brainchild of all three, well, then you can have too many chefs in the kitchen. Silky is certainly an appropriate name for this 5.5% offering with its smooth chocolate, coffee and rich oatmeal on the back-end. It seems we have an early contender for my Best of 2018 list.
That's Fairweather Brewing's Silky American Oat Porter on the left and
Grain & Grit Small Batch Beer's Winter White Stout on the right. It still
freaks me out a little to drink a stout that's not jet-black. Old habits, eh?
I liked the white stout but found it just a touch too sweet for my tastes.

One last note on Fairweather (or at least until my next visit), among their product was - hey now! - branded Spiegelau IPA glasses so that makes two breweries in Hamilton that carry them. But I also noticed another Spiegelau glass with a wide base and a huge round body. Equally thin glass, though. We're so used to our IPA glasses that we often forget that Spiegelau is the name of the company, not the glass style.

When we asked our friendly server where Grit & Grain was, she pointed out the window and said, "See that white building over there? That's them." I actually walked over while Glenn drove so I could have a smoke.
This isn't the full picture from their website as I've lopped
off a third on the right but it gives you both a good sense of
the customer area, as well as the size of their vats. And if you
look at the top right, yup, that's Joe Mrav behind the bar...
But we were in for a special treat on this day as Joe Mrav, who co-founded the brewery with his wife, Lindsey, was actually our server on this day. Set up in a former garage with two huge bay doors, Joe was telling us that after they opened last October, "You'll remember we still had some beautiful warm days so we were able to open up the door to the outside. Everyone loved it." 

Joe came into the brewery business from a Mechanical Engineer career while Lindsey left her calling as a Graphic Designer and Digital Strategist. Joe, a homebrewer, told us that it was Lindsey that nudged him to take a chance with opening a small brewery. The pair then found German ex-patriot, now Hamilton resident Alex Sporn with a background in Chemistry, Biology and wine-making but also an enthusiastic homebrewer to head up their beer production.

The only hold-up, he told us, in their starting date was bureaucracy. "We were supposed to get our permit (from the City of Hamilton) in three months but it took six months and that was with me chasing them every day."
This picture from their website gives you an idea of what this place will
be like in the Summer with the bay-door wide open and a food truck at
the ready. Joe told us that they will be applying to the city for a patio
permit so they can fence off 15 or 20 feet out front so we can sit outside.
Based on the direction the building faces, it'll see sun from noon til dusk.

So that took their 2017 Summer opening hopes out of play but I just checked my calendar and it turns out there's another Summer fast approaching (though not quite fast enough for most of us.)

But let's get to the nitty, uhh, Gritty here - the beer. Checking their menu, I was dumbfounded. Their Light Ray Session IPA is a very reasonable 4.5% but its IBU is off-the-charts at 80. Is that a typo, I asked him? "No, it's 80 IBU but don't let that scare you," he reassured. Scare me? Uhhh no, I was pumped! I've had Double IPAs with 80 IBUs. The Light Ray was beautifully hazy, huge aroma of pineapple and orange with some grapefruit back end. I'm beginning to think I could have my Best of 2018 list done by June with three (so far) winners in this column alone. It was a great day for beer!
Grain & Grit's Huell Melon Pale Ale was another dandy in a
day filled with beauties. I'm beginning to think someone took
Hamilton and swapped it out for Portland, Oregon while we
weren't paying attention. What a craft beer scene there now!

Glenn, whose pulse I was now checking in 20 minute intervals, gamely tried the Huell Melon Pale Ale, a 4.7%, 47 IBU offering. When I tried it at home, it had delicious melon (no idea which - there's like a hundred - Huell Melon is the hop) on both the nose and tongue. Just another solid soldier.

I wandered out for a cigarette at one point and kind of journeyed around to the back of the property to see what kind of room they had to play with there. It looked like a decent distance between the brewery and the business directly behind it. So I asked Joe about potential room to expand. "No," he said, "We have maybe about 15 or 20 feet behind us that's our property. That's it." Well, that rules out expansion (at this location) but also ensures us they will be staying small batch from some time to come. There's something very reassuring about it.

But Joe wasn't done with us yet. With their In The Palms IPA scheduled to be released this weekend (and yes, I am driving in for some), he poured both of us a sample glass directly from the vat.
If you have not had Grain & Grit's Light Ray Session IPA,
then haul your butt over to 11 Ewen Road in west Hamilton
and get some pronto. One of the best sessioners I've ever had.
And then the damnedest thing happened. "I can smell this!" Glenn exclaimed loudly. Well, if that's not a testament to the power of great craft beer and its healing potential, I don't know what is. Okay, okay, the aroma was just that powerful that it probably cut through the blockage in his nasal passage but still, I believe in miracles. I'll wait until I have a full can in front of me to properly review it but this sneak preview? Damn, that thing was popping with flavour!

Well, all fun days must come to an end so Glenn and I grabbed some more beers and hit the QEW back to Oakville. Since there was no chance I was letting him drive to Oshawa in that sickly condition, we set up shop in the Man Cave. With Glenn comfortably set up in the Lazy Boy with my son's Spider-Man blanket and pillow, we drank some more beers, watched X-Men 1 and 2 (which Glenn had oddly never seen.) I noticed his eyes slowly closing towards the end of the second one as he settled in for the night. He and my Lazy Boy are old friends. The thing is we could have packed it in at any point in the day but, no, Glenn insisted on soldiering on. My old college chum wasn't willing to let the small matter of being as sick as a dog stop him. That shows both dedication and the possibility of previous head trauma. But Scooby Gang, that's it, that's all and I am outta here. Until next time, I remain...