BrewBriefs: Canada's Alternative
Originally published in Brewing Techniques 1 (4), November/December 1993

by Rosannah Hayden

For the past six years, brew-on-premises facilities (BOPs, or U-Brews), have afforded experienced and novice brewers the opportunity to create their favorite beers at a fully equipped brewing facility using facility equipment and recipe materials for a set fee. Depending on the ingredients, total costs range between Can$80 and $100 ($60-$75 in U.S. currency) for 48 L (approximately 12.5 gal) of beer.

Ontario's 250 BOPs provide large brewing kettles, plastic fermentation tubs, and filtering and bottling or kegging equipment to customers lacking the necessary space or equipment for a good home brewery setup. BOP facilities usually brew in 50-L kettles, which produce 48-liters of beer (approximately 12.5 U.S. gal, or just under 1/2 bbl). Some BOPs, such as Brew Perfect in Oakville, Ontario, also have 100-L kettles available.

Itinerant brewers can brew, ferment, filter, and bottle their beer for a fraction of the cost of store-bought beer. Apparently the Canadian government has realized it may be missing out on significant revenues, and the new Can$0.26/L tax seems at least partly motivated by the desire to trap some of the revenue stream generated by BOPs (see box, opposite). Other forces behind the new tax include lobbying pressure from Canada's largest breweries and the Canadian microbrewery industry. Eager to reclaim the 3% beer market share taken by the BOP industry, the larger brewers have successfully fought for increased regulation and taxation of the BOPs. Incidentally, although homebrew supply stores were originally intended for inclusion under the new tax, legal loopholes have, for now, spared homebrew suppliers from the new materials tax. Only BOP customers are being charged the new Can$0.26/ L tax, although the law continues to have negative effects throughout Canada's homebrew trade. Ironically, though, the tax may have a positive effect on some BOPs.

When a customer arrives at a BOP facility to brew, a kettle of boiling water already awaits; the brewer chooses a recipe (some facilities offer more than 70), measures the ingredients (facility- or customer-supplied), dissolves extract (most BOPs are extract-oriented), and hand-grinds grain adjuncts. At facilities that offer all-grain brewing, such as Brew Perfect and Toronto's Select Brewing, the grain bill is crushed by machine. Wort is boiled for approximately 1 h with a hop bag; the customer keeps time logs. After the middle and final hops additions, the facility runs the wort through a heat exchanger, and the brewer pitches the yeast. Next, the pitched wort is pumped into a plastic fermentation barrel, and the customer has only to return later to bottle or keg the finished beer.

Before bottling, BOP facilities filter and carbonate the beer (thick, dark beer styles are left unfiltered), and the customer bottles it in 1-L plastic PET bottles with screw-top caps. Plastic bottles may seem unappealing, but the hazards and weight of glass (remember, people have to carry those 48 L out to their cars and safely home) have made plastic bottles an industry standard. Keith Gavel, Select Brewing's night manager, adds, however, that their customers are free to bring their own glass bottles if they want to, although they need to bring in their own bottler, because the facility is not set up for glass packaging.

Some BOPs offer kegs on deposit and swing-cap (Grolsch-style) bottles. Plastic bottles can be purchased for around Can$0.60 apiece, and glass swing-cap bottles, offered by Brew Perfect as homebrew gift bottles, cost around Can$1.10. Added to the Can$90 in materials and equipment rental fees, the initial Can$28 needed to buy a set of PET bottles brings the cost of brewing that first 48-L (12.5-gal) batch of distinctive BOP beer to almost Can$120 (US$96), or just under a buck a pint, U.S. currency.

The BOP market caters to at least two major niches. One consists of customers seeking a cheap alternative to expensive store-bought beer. This sort of customer tends to favor brewing North American-style ales and lagers, such as the styles brewed by large Canadian and American breweries. A second niche consists of knowledgeable brewing enthusiasts looking for quality brewing facilities in which to brew different styles of top-quality beer. Although the new tax on BOP beer has discouraged some newcomers from seeking bargain beer at BOPs, it has indirectly encouraged brew premises to expand their services to attract sought-after customers.

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Flexibility and service are crucial to business success in any saturated market. The BOP industry has rapidly grown from a few fledgling facilities in the late 1980s to over 250 in current operation; competition for customers is fierce, and BOPs faced with the new tax are lowering prices and offering promotions to draw customers in. Select Brewing has been in operation for over four years and is open six days a week from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., extended hours that offer increased options for Toronto's 9-to-5ers. Another quality BOP facility concerned with survival in a market pinched by competition and heavy taxation, Brew Perfect (established March, 1991) has concentrated on the high-end consumer market to stay abreast of their competitors. Says owner Mike Arnold, "We never advertised ourselves as a cheap alternative to store-bought beer. We don't compare ourselves to domestic breweries but rather to imported beer makers. We focus on quality of beer and quality of service and try to do whatever people want in terms of brewing."

Select Brewing's Keith Gavel explains that customer service and a full range of brewing options are what distinguish their facility from others, allowing them to stay competitive in a saturated market. "We have all the ingredients on hand for around 70 recipes, although customers can and do supply some special ingredients. One of our patrons uses maple syrup for flavoring, and another adds ginger and spices and wants a 15-day fermentation -- no problem. They have all the leeway. Our customers make ales, lagers, stouts, bocks, porters, bitters, rye and wheat beers -- you name it, we help them make it."

In addition to longer hours and all-grain brewing capability, BOP facilities distinguish themselves by the variety of recipes and quality of ingredients. The more successful facilities boast a menu of over 15 types of hops, including Chinook, Willamette, Hersbrucker, and Saazer. Grains include Carastan malt, chocolate malt, black patent, wheat, rye, roasted barley, and Bavarian malts, among others. They also offer a variety of yeast strains, although some facilities discourage the use of exotic yeasts, such as champagne yeasts, for fear of contaminating other beers.

Although only a small percentage of BOP patrons bring their own ingredients, the better facilities do encourage experimentation. "We provide cask or bottle conditioning if the customer so desires, and we'll lager for as long as people want; the longest so far was a three month lager," says Arnold.

At the more fully equipped brewing establishments, customers interested in brewing high-gravity beers simply pay for the costs of extra barsmaller, simpler facilities geared toward customers who brew less-expensive North American-style beers, recipe and brewing options are often more limited.

The future of BOPs, may be in facilities' abilities to maintain both open doors and open minds toward their customers' brewing needs and desires. However, the current tax battle plays out, it has served to encourage a healthy competition within the industry and a strong commitment to customer service and brewing quality.

BrewBriefs: Great American Beer Festival Takes America to a Mile-High High
Originally published in Brewing Techniques 1 (4), November/December 1993

by Fal Allen

For those of you who couldn't make it to this year's Great American Beer Festival (GABF), 8-9 October 1993, you missed a unique and all but overwhelming experience. The GABF is truly the Kentucky Derby of the beer industry: It has all the hype, show, and fanfare of the Derby, all the action, and all the crowds. There were winners and there were those who didn't win, but at GABF 1993 there were no losers.

Anyone who attended had a chance to try some of the best beers in America, and there were many. Over 200 breweries brought more than 950 beers to be tasted by the festival throng. If you really tried you might sample a quarter of those (I was held to less than 80). This year the beers were better than ever, and the selection ranged from the common (American light lager) to the absurd (a beer fermented with champagne yeast, which was 17.5% alcohol [v/v]), and every possible style in between.

The festival's new location in Currigan Hall in downtown Denver was the best venue to date. It provided more than enough room for the 8000+ people who attended each night. The organizers did an especially good job this year, and the festival went off without major incident. The medals awarded this year were spread out more evenly among many breweries (another indication of an overall higher degree of quality beers); 97 medals were awarded to 74 breweries all over the country. Many new faces appeared in the winners' circle.

But the GABF is not merely a spectacle contained within the walls of the exhibition hall. It spills over into the rest of Denver, taking brewers, beer drinkers, marketing people, and the press swirling from one adventure to the next, both in and out of the pubs.

Denver is home to some of the best beer drinking establishments anywhere, offering something for every taste. You might enjoy going somewhere fancy and refined, like the fashionable maritime pub in one of Denver's older posh hotels. It has only 6 taps but over 40 bottled beers. Or perhaps you'd like to go across the tracks to an extraordinarily cool, old, run down roadhouse that features live blues and 18 beers on tap. With more than 25 breweries in Colorado, 4 of them in downtown Denver, you are never far from a good beer. All of the breweries, including the giants, go out of their way to accommodate the visiting masses.

If you weren't one of the multitude at this year's GABF, maybe we'll see you next year. Of course, we may not remember it.

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