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Oakes Weekly - January 16, 2003

Crannog Ales - Organic Farm Brewing in BC
Brewers/Industry January 16, 2003      
Written by Oakes

Richmond, CANADA -

<P>Like most beer lovers, I get a lot of beer-related stuff for Christmas. This year, one of those gifts was the Organic Beer Guide by Roger Protz. The book is divided into two sections - one on the issues surrounding the production of organic beer, the other devoted to the brewers who make organic beers, and the products themselves.

<P>Once you get past the hyperbole and pseudo-scientific scare-mongering, the first part of the book is highly informative. It illustrates the troubles of brewing organic beer. Foremost is the scarcity of ingredients. Most organic beers are made with Pacific Gem and New Zealand Hallertauer, heretofore unknown hops in most of the world, but widely cultivated organically. Only a handful of growers in England produce organic hops, and those are destined mainly for the leading organic beer - Caledonian Golden Promise. Organic malt is a little easier to come by, but may not offer much variety in terms of kilning.

<P>The brewers and beers component of the book sheds light that there are a lot more organic beers than meet the eye. Some are well-documented: Samuel Smith's Organic Lager & Ale, the entire Pinkus Müller line, Caledonian Golden Promise, Wolaver's. The amount of others surprised me, but when I thought about it, I've actually had quite a large number of organic beers myself. I've not sought them out specifically, but I count 28 organic beers on my list, plus a couple that weren't organic when I had them but are now (Fish Tale IPA, for one).

<P>A book like this is an excellent resource for those interested in organic living, of whom there are quite a few. The Canadian importer for St. Peter's beers has traditionally been able to leverage the unique bottle for sales, but when the time came to list one of those beers permanently in the LCBO, the Organic Ale was a slam-dunk because it came with a built-in market.

<P>The only real complaint that I do have about the book is that it seemed to be researched from Protz's home - the French section merely mentions many organic brewers without providing tasting notes or details that would indicate a brewery visit. The US section seemed a little light, with small brewers like Hawk's of Oregon (who are gaining a huge reputation amongst serious drinkers in the region, by the way) omitted. Likewise, countries like Canada and New Zealand (they don't grow all those organic hops for nothing) were completely snubbed. This is a shame. There are three brewers in Canada making organic beers. The first was Pacific Western, a regional macro in BC who normally makes beers for the discount market. Their NatureLand Organic Lager is by far and away their most characterful product, almost dortmunder-like, and it has opened up new markets and provided some life to what always seemed a moribund firm.

<P>The latest is Mill Street Brewery of Toronto, whose Organic Lager has just hit the market (I haven't even tried it yet). In between, however, debuted the most interesting organic brewer in Canada - Crannóg Ales of Sorrento, BC. I had a chance to interview Rebecca Kneen and Brian MacIsaac, the owners of Crannóg, about organic brewing.

<P>The beginnings of the brewery were formed when the pair were still in Vancouver. Rebecca was working in the food trade, which gave her exposure to the organic market. Brian was brewing, both at home and during stints with the likes of Storm and Sailor Hägar's. He had, in fact, a large homebrewing system that he operated with one of the founders of Shaftebury back in the mid-80's. The duo wanted to start an organic farm, and it only made sense given Brian's background that an organic brewery be part of the mix as well. In addition, it was Rebecca's impression that many lovers of organic food had relatively sophisticated palates that were not satisfied with NatureLand.

<P>On the farm, they produce apples, pears, plums, cherries, raspberries, vegetables, seeds, and livestock. Yeast & trub are used as compost, and wastewater is re-used on the farm. Spent grains are sold as feed. They also have a portion of the farm dedicated to hop production. It took a few years for the hops to be certified organic, but now that they are some are making their way into Crannóg's beers. The rest come from New Zealand. Eight varieties of hops are grown on the farm, in order to best determine how to grow hops organically, and which ones will grow best in the region. Thusfar, Goldings, Nuggets, Willamettes, and Cascades are growing the best. Within a couple of years, production of these hops will be sufficient to meet the brewery's needs.

<P>The farm is located in the Shuswap region of central British Columbia, and its remoteness makes it ideal for organic hop production. One of the major problems with hop farming is that they spread beyond the planted boundaries. These fringe areas found around all hop fields are difficult to maintain. If a farmer wanted to grow organic hops next door to a conventional hop farm, it would face a steep uphill battle. The fringe areas of the conventional farm would not be sprayed with pesticides, and would thus be attractive to the pests that had arrived in the neighbourhood enticed by the presence of the hop fields. These pests would then easily move from the fringes of the conventional farm to the organic farm. In the Shuswap, there are no other hop farms, so these pests are not as prevalent. Crannóg doesn't rest on this fact, however, and uses a variety of natural protective measures - ladybirds, beneficial insects, and water & cayenne spray.

<P>Organic malt is sourced from Briess. Crannóg is working with the local Shuswap maltster Gambrinus to secure a local supply of organic malt. According to Brian, working with organic malt differs from conventional malt in that it contains much lower levels of cadmium. Because cadmium impedes fermentation, beer made with organic malt ferments much faster and better than beer made with conventional malt. It also has higher resale value, because the spent grains contain 30% protein after the mash, which renders it excellent quality feed.

<P>The water comes from a well on site, and is not treated with chemicals. Organic brewers using municipal supply often have to naturally dechlorinate the water before it can be used. Organic yeast must be non-genetically modified. Yeast mutates naturally, and this is fine, but some larger brewers use GM yeast to achieve greater consistency and for specialty products like dry beers.

<P>The market response has been positive, but Brian & Rebecca are not naïve - they knew they needed to make great beer because organic certification alone would not make the brewery. Sales are slowly progressing in their home region, which is not known for its consumption of microbrewed beers, and Crannóg beers have established a loyal following in Vancouver in neighbourhoods like Commercial Drive and Kitsilano, usually alongside the taps of other small brewers like Storm and Backwoods. While the most loyal accounts (like the famous vegetarian restaurant The Naam) have demand from their customers for organic products, most accounts stock Crannóg for the quality of the beer, with the organic aspect being a nice bonus.

<P>The best seller in their lineup is Beyond the Pale Ale (aka Partition Bitter), followed by Red Branch Irish Ale and Back Hand of God Stout, which are about even in sales. The brewery actually got into trouble a couple years back for the name "Back Hand of God", as some bureaucrat decided that religious groups would be offended by the name. Of course, when the brewery began to ask around at various churches, it uncovered a group that was happy to see somebody putting God back into the day-to-day life of the people - not surprising in an era of "holiday" trees and Xmas.

<P>Other products include Old Mill Flax Ale (with the grain of the same name), Pooka Cherry Ale, Bansidhe Ale (unhopped fruit ale made with produce from the farm), and Hell's Kitchen Irish Ale. The latter has been sold at the Irish Heather in Gastown under the name Limerick Ale. According to the brewer, it is a more robust rendition of Irish Ale than Red Branch. Hell's Kitchen is brewed with potatoes (organic, of course). Although they don't show in the flavour, they provide starches which give the beer a bigger, smoother mouthfeel. They have tried different varieties of potatoes, but seem to have settled on russet, which Brian feels gives some earthiness from the skins.

<P>For the time being, Crannóg's beers are draught-only, and it does not appear that Brian and Rebecca have any interest in changing that. They are committed to brewing local beers for the local audience. The most reliable outlets for Crannóg Ales in Vancouver are Café Deux Soleils and Wazubeez on Commercial Drive, and the aforementioned Naam in Kitsilano (on West 4th, near MacDonald). Reservations are recommended for the highly popular Naam - I used to live just around the corner and they're always lined up out the door.

<P>If you've gone through this entire article wondering just what, precisely, a crannóg is, you're not alone. According to the <a hrefhttp://www.crannogales.com>brewery's website, a crannóg is a dwelling built in a lake or bog, either on stilts or on a man-made island. And yes, there is a crannóg on the farm should you wish to see one close-up (or have a pint in one, if you so desire).



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