North America’s beer industry began when immigrants brought their own traditional style of brewing, but after a long period of Prohibition, Depression, and World Wars, many breweries shut down or consolidated. At the same time, North Americans grew to prefer light lagers, further decreasing the variety of beers available. By the late 50s-60s, homebrewing enthusiasts began brewing beer to bring back more flavours and traditions to American beer, as it was the only other way to experience other beer styles. To separate themselves from the view of North American beer as a mass-produced commodity with little culture, character, and tradition, craft brewers sought to distinguish themselves.
So, what makes craft beer so distinct? The answer lies within innovation, creativity, and experimentation. Just like winemaking, craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists using traditional and untraditional ingredients, and develop new styles with no precedent. The craft brewery members in the Ontario South Coast Wineries and Growers Association are no execption. New Limburg Brewery focuses on traditional Belgian beer styles such as blond ale, wheat beer, and Trappist styles. Their inspiration comes new and old favourite Belgian beer brands, and including North American influences in their beers. Initially, the brewery was hesitant to produce non-Belgian style beers, but when a competition for brewing a Belgian style IPA with local hops came up, the Petit Blond IPA was born. Likewise, the Black Sheep milk stout was also produced for a similar reason. Food also serves as an inspiration, be it creating a creating a beer to pair with a dish or bring certain flavours into their beer, or using local ingredients. Moving forward, New Limburg plans to age their beers in various barrels such as oak and wine to experiment how new flavours and character can be imparted to create unique beers. They will also experiment with cherries, peaches, and raspberries (which aren’t uncommon with Belgian beers) in the brewing process.
Meanwhile at The Blue Elephant, Sarah the brew master, follows a scientific approach to making beer. Once she has an idea for a recipe, she researches the style or ingredient she wants to emphasize the most, allowing her to figure out which approach she wants to take before making it. Then she calculates the math to achieve the optimal final product. By comparing the brew with her calculations, Sarah is then able to adjust the next batch as needed or repeat the process for a consistent beer each time. When it comes to what inspires her, she draws inspiration from anywhere and everywhere. Ingredient use and beer styles are two main sources of inspiration. When it comes to ingredients, she looks to compliment the flavours when adding fruits, vegetables, spices, or tea to a beer. If she has an excess of a certain ingredient or want to use them before they expire, she also creates recipes around them. Aside from experimenting with the brewing process, she also enjoys making a beer true to style while using the most traditional ingredients possible.
Out in Elgin County, Railway City Brewing Co. combines the basic building blocks of beer–water, malt, hops, and yeast – with the goal of producing a pint of beer that is harmoniously balanced and highly approachable. Main sources of brewing inspiration comes from the history of St. Thomas and experimenting with flavour profiles by using fruits, herbs, and spices. Their Dead Elephant and Double Dead Elephant IPAs are both inspired by the death of Jumbo the Elephant, who died in a rail accident in St. Thomas. With the Orange Creamsicale, they were inspired by ice cream parlours and pastry chefs: whole vanilla beans play with the bready, pastry-like sweet malts, while orange zest adds a citrus twist reminiscent of a classic ice cream treat. While uncommon in day-to-day operations, the brewers at Railway City do branch away from traditional beer brewing by using the technique of blending barrels to create their specialty barrel-aged Barrel Reserve line and Bourbon barrel-aged Stout.
As craft beer culture grown, it has grown more intertwined with wine culture. Modeled after the Sommelier Certification Program, the Cicerone Certification Program was launched in 2008 to ensure proper beer service, particularly food and beer pairing. Certified and Master Cicerones are then able to help beer lovers match their food with the perfect beer choice. Despite sharing the same blue collar stigma as large, industrial beer producers, craft beer isn’t so different from wine after all. There is so much more depth and complexity than meets the eye.
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