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Quaff & Ale with Jason Fisher of Indie Alehouse

September 15th, 2016 Posted by Feature, Quaff & Ale 2 comments

As we approach the start of 2016’s Toronto Beer Week, we are proud to present a new Quaff & Ale with Jason Fisher, owner of the Indie Alehouse.  Indie was the brewer of the official beer of Toronto Beer Week, Interloper, and is hosting the West End Social on Monday, September 19th, plus a ‘Hangover Brunch‘ on Sunday, September 25th after Toronto Beer Week wraps up.

Who is Jason Fisher?

Who indeed. I’m the owner of the Indie Alehouse. Outspoken about Ontario liquor laws and I occasionally channel Steve Jobs, particularly when he was an asshole to people who could not keep up. But I’m working on it.

You got into professional brewing late, but not brewing itself. Tell us about your path to founding the Indie Alehouse.

I got in early and late. I brewed my first batch of home-brew at the age of 16 for my grade 10 science project in 1985. Got addicted to it, the process of brewing and the results were so much better than I thought they could be. I then read every brewing book or magazine I could find. I have a complete collection of several brewing magazines many of which are out of print now. At the time, the idea of opening a brewery was as unlikely as going to Mars. I went off to Dalhousie University and found out the undergrad geology department had a very serious homebrew club and lab set up so I transferred from chemistry to geology. After school I home-brewed for 10 years then kind of gave it up for a time with no realistic possibility of opening without a role model or a lottery victory. I had a good job that I hated but it paid off the student loan and I was learning business and marketing. Then in 2001 or so, I read Brewing up a Business by Sam Calagione and that was a huge turning point for me. His journey was not too dissimilar than mine, except he went for it at an early age. I decided to work on a plan to do this. I decided to try and learn as much about running a business as I could and learn from successful breweries in the U.S. that I loved so that if I could ever get the cash together I would have some skills to be ready to open a brewery. I also traveled in the U.S. a lot, so I visited and spoke with as many breweries as I could. In 2009 I had 20+ years of business experience, savings and a buy-out from a small company I worked at and enough business analytics and marketing experience to know I could figure out the rest. So I quit my job and set about opening the Indie Alehouse. It took 2.5 years from that time, but we opened in October 2012. As for not being a full time brewer, I try to spend as much time in the brewery as possible, I’m still in on every recipe discussion and and try to get some time on the system when I can, but the paperwork and management time is unreal when doing this on your own. Sooner or later, I will work a regular shift in the brewery just making beer and let someone else look after the bills. I have a plan for that too.

You’re almost a veteran of the Ontario beer scene now due to the explosive growth since your opening. What’s changed from your perspective since you opened?

Yeah, thats scary that Indie is part of the older breweries now. It tells you how much things have changed in such a short time. Maybe people saw me doing it and figured it had to be easy if I was doing it? It is much easier to open now than it was only 5 years ago, I shudder to think what Beau’s and those older breweries had to go through 10 years ago. Craft beer is now in the daily vocabulary in Toronto, that was not the case 5 years ago. I’m sure one of the beer writers in town could tell you the exact number, but I think there were less than 5 real “American Craft Beer style IPA’s” made in Ontario in 2010, today there has to be close to 100. What’s changed is someone finally showed the way. I’m proud to be a very small part of that, and am grateful to those who came before and were of great help to me. I think the recession of 2008/2009 helped a lot too. With most industries tanking on Ontario, craft beer grew >50% those years, while other categories were stagnant or declining, and I think business people finally took notice.

Who are some of the brewers or breweries that you’ve looked up to or inspired you?

I have a great deal of respect for the Ontario breweries that came before us, because I know it had to have been much harder to get as far along as they have than it was for us to get here. But my inspiration and role-models have all been U.S. craft breweries. I spent more than a decade modelling what they did well, and failed at so I could have the advantage of that knowledge when I started out. In part for their business model and complete generosity in sharing their knowledge as well as the their approach to brewing and their beers – I have always found Russian River, Dogfish Head, Stone and Three Floyds brewing companies to be the answer to most of my questions and roadblocks. And their beers always teach me something.

What are some of your favourite beers you’ve made at Indie?

Instigator IPA was an old home-brew recipe I have brewed for 20+ years, so its my go-to #1. I love the sours and barrel aged and blended beers, the process is so much fun, our Flanders style ‘Ritual Madness’ is another top choice when it’s available.

What are some of your favourite beers in Ontario (or elsewhere) right now?

It’s way too big a list these days, it was not that long ago the list was two or three beers tops. Being inside the industry has very limited perks, but knowing whats coming soon from other breweries and will be fresh is one of them. I try to get fresh IPAs from Great Lakes and Rainhard because they are close by and amazing, whatever funky farmhouse or barrel aged beer is coming from Amsterdam and any of the stuff from Bellwoods the brewers recommend to me.

What does the future hold for the Indie Alehouse?

In the short term, paperwork and meetings. We are considering an expansion, but a small one. World domination and making as much beer as possible are not our goals. Making beer our way, as good as we can make it and having fun doing it – those are the goals.

What advice would you have for someone who wants to get into the beer scene professionally?

Someone comes asking for advice at least once a week, I’m always happy to help real breweries any way I can, as others did for me. My number one piece if advice is to be brutally honest and critical with yourself about what you can do and can no do and why you want to do this. If it’s money, fame and those kinds of things – I can’t help you, you’re crazy. If you think you can do it all yourself, or if you think the brewing part is easy, you’ll just find a brewer – you’re in for a huge reality change. Usually people have questions about financing, paperwork and the processes of opening – those are daunting, large tasks at first but become more manageable with even a little assistance. My advice after helping with those tasks is to make a beer you love, not one that you think will sell well.

What is your most memorable beer experience?

I once had a beer in a pub with Michael Jackson in Yorkshire, the place was packed and I only managed to say “Hi, I love your books” and he said “Cheers”. That’s it. I was nervous. I have also been lucky enough to get some advice and have a beer with Sam Calagione, that meant a lot to me at the time, and still does. But now I can get great support and advice from local brewers, realizing that is the case a year or so ago, how much things have changed here, that is the best.

Where do you see the beer scene headed in Ontario?

Answering this would get me in a lot of trouble – so I will say this: there will be some ups and downs coming very soon. That’s not a bad thing, it happened in the U.S. and it will happen here. We have come a long way in a short time, but to get to the next level beyond marketing noise, contract brewers and Beer Store monopolies – and into the promised land of a high number of quality beers easily accessible, that will be much harder. We have a number of institutional and systemic changes to make, including in peoples’ minds, and right now I don’t think we have the leadership or infrastructure to do it. Everyone is too busy opening up, growing and making beer. Which is amazing, but for it all to last and get better, we need to make some changes. Lots of people don’t agree with me, we will see soon enough who is right.

Indie has been known for excellent events. What goes into a great beer event?

It’s part of my business background, putting on and hosting events – so it’s a comfortable space for me. Two key principles go into an Indie event, and I have found they have served me well. One, the event has to be true to the business, it has to feel like an Indie Alehouse event, not like we were trying to be like anyone else. For us that means no gimmicks, no long speeches between courses and not trying to be a wine tasting. Huge value at a fair price. Two, run the event in your walkthrough planning meetings a hundred times or more. From the view of the customer, the staff, the kitchen, the customers who will be turned away when we are closed, from the VIPs being invited, etc. Again and again and again. Then be ready to improvise, because something always happens, like a power outage or a roof leak.

You’ve done a lot of collaboration beers at Indie. What are some of the memorable ones?

We did tons at the start, then essentially stopped them when they became kind of a joke in the industry. We actually met with and brewed with our collaborators. Then all of a sudden there were festivals of collaborations, 99% of which involved musical acts who never set foot inside a brewery – it became a marketing ploy when it was once a way to share the brewing experience and for brewers to learn from each other and make adventurous beers. It turned into a way for an event organizer to make money and people to cash in on craft beer. So we dramatically slowed down our collaborations and when we do them we didn’t publicize them very much. It was originally for fun and adventure, anything less than that is not for me. The two most memorable collaborations – we brewed with Ralph Morana for the Bar Volo 25th anniversary – we used Italian chestnuts in a saison and made “Ralph’s Nuts” – such a great beer in my mind. Second, there was an infamous attempt at a collaboration with Iain McOustra from Amsterdam. We may have had “a few beers” during the brewing – and possibly for that reason, we neglected the beer and we encountered “a few problems”. What was initially supposed to be a Tripel, turned into a kettle sour and it was the first one we ever made.

What was it like to develop the official beer for TBW this year?

Like most things Indie Alehouse, we likely should have not pursued this, it was too big a task for us this year and would have been a much better idea two or three years from now. However, that’s not how we do things, so we went for it. It’s far too complicated a beer and process for the resources and time we have on hand, but you don’t know what you are capable of if you don’t test your limits. It put a very large strain on the brewers to make these 20HL of beer in the middle of our busiest summer ever when we are at full capacity all the time. But we did it and I can’t wait for people to tell me its not like a traditional Farmhouse Ale. It’s not, we know. We went for a big-risk beer style that is not well known to even many craft beer drinkers, our first LCBO listing and did it while at full capacity. That’s what I want to keep doing at Indie.

Thank you Jason, and have a great Toronto Beer Week!

TBW Love Craft Beer

Quaff & Ale with Troy Burtch of Great Lakes Brewery

June 18th, 2015 Posted by Feature, Quaff & Ale No Comment yet

Welcome to a new feature on The Bar Towel called Quaff & Ale, or Q&A for short. In a Quaff & Ale we interview personalities in the beer world to get their take on this delicious and booming industry.  Our first Quaff & Ale is with Troy Burtch of the Great Lakes Brewery in Toronto.

Who is Troy Burtch?

Troy Burtch spends his days getting people excited about craft beer! Troy is part of a growing sales team at Great Lakes Brewery, the 2013 & 2014 Canadian Brewery of the Year, getting GLB products into the hands of passionate beer drinkers. He also serves as GLB’s Community Manager, is the co-founder of Toronto Beer Week where he oversees the Director of Partnerships portfolio, sits on the Ontario Craft Brewers Conference committee, was once a beer blogger over at Great Canadian Beer Blog, and is an avid breweriana collector (canadianbreweriana.com). Instead of long walks along the beach, Troy prefers the long walk of a good pub crawl. Troy is a proud east-ender, calling the Danforth home.

TBT: How did you get interested in craft beer?

TB: It’s a long story… I was in grade six when I took my first summer job, riding on the back of a garbage truck collecting curbside garbage and recyclables with my Step-Father’s sanitation business. It was north of Toronto, near cottage country, and I remember collecting empty beer bottles that had interesting labels, many from other countries. Growing up where I did, well, people drank either Labatt 50, Molson Canadian, Lucky Lager, Labatt Blue or Coors Light, so many of these empty bottles were new to me and I made a goal to try them all one day when I was old enough. The shelves in my bedroom were full of these old bottles. Moving on past high-school and into college; I was President of the Students’ Administrative Council and part of the duties included overseeing the student pub. I was big into Alexander Keith’s at the time, which was a “big beer” for the Brechin/Orillia area, and one day a sales rep from this brand new brewery walked into the pub to offer us some samples to try. It was Steam Whistle. I remember that first drink to this day. It literally changed the way I thought about beer and it’s beer craft since then.

After college I worked for the OPP and the Ministry of Community Safety before heading to Nova Scotia for a year of fun. I took a job with Labatt, where they trained me at the Beer Institute and that helped fuel my desire to seek out more and more local beers (Garrison, Propeller, Granite, etc). I started the “Great Canadian Beer Blog” shortly after moving back to Ontario where I profiled brewers, bar/pub owners, did bar and beer reviews, interviews, event postings, etc. It’s hard to imagine now, but in 2009 there were literally only a couple of us “beer bloggers” in Ontario. Fast forward a couple years and another stint with the province. The craft beer movement had a hold of me and I couldn’t shake it. I was writing and selling ads for TAPS The Beer Magazine and helping with the Canadian Brewing Awards and in 2010 they made me an offer to be their National Director of Sales & Marketing. How could I say no? That same year some friends and I started Toronto Beer Week, which is now entering its 6th year – all successes.

In 2012 Great Lakes Brewery made me an offer to join their growing family and I’ve been here since as Community Manager and handling east Toronto sales. I also teach the Beer Appreciation continuing education course at George Brown College, sit on the OCB Conference Committee and visit craft beer bars on a daily occurrence.

So, like I said, it’s a long story.

TBT: What’s your favourite beer / beer style?

TB: Really hard to say. Here’s the cliche beer industry answer – It depends on the season, my mood, etc… Whatever. I love West Coast style IPAs and Pale Ales. I’ve always loved Belgian IPAs. And session beers, real session beers. My favourite everyday beer is without a doubt, Canuck Pale Ale. Has been even before I joined GLB in 2012. We always joke that I’ve drank more Canuck than anyone else on the planet. My favourites, in no particular order: Orval, Saison Dupont, Het Anker Gouden Carolus Tripel, Four Winds Brett Saison, Granite Best Bitter Special, GLB’s Limp Puppet, Firestone Walker Pivo Pils, Amsterdam Testify, Benelux Cuda. A lot of those for sentimental reasons as well.

TBT: What’s your most memorable beer experience?

TB. Good question. There are a lot, but really hard to choose.

  • That first Steam Whistle that changed my attitude towards beer.
  • Drinking a freshly tapped firkin of Granite’s Best Bitter Special at the Victory in 2008 after walking an hour in 30 degree temperature. That beer was simply amazing.
  • Staying at the Het Anker Brewery in Michelin, Belgium.
  • Touring and tasting my way through Brasserie Cantillon for a day with owner Jean Van Roy.
  • Drinking out of the Canadian Brewing Awards gold mug after winning Brewery of the Year award in Victoria, BC in 2013.
  • 106 people participating on a Danforth GLB pub crawl last September.
  • Having a Canuck Pale Ale fresh off the line each week :)

TBT: Where do you see craft beer headed in Ontario?

TB. Nowhere but up. There have been a lot of brewery owners, presidents, industry vets who have been projecting that with the new grocery stores sales, when rolled out, that Ontario craft beer will reach double digit growth faster then expected. I tend to agree with that. More and more breweries are opening in this province, which is great, but we need more retailing options to build growth and the grocery store method will drastically help.

I also think that Ontario craft breweries will really need to start focusing on quality control as the growth happens. All craft breweries tend to be painted with the same brush. If someone has one bad experience with a craft beer, when experiencing one for the first time, they lump all craft breweries into that. It’s partially our own fault as we all stand side by side, but as more and more new breweries open up, going from garage style home brew to brewing batches for the public, quality control measures need to be put in place. And fast.

And finally, craft breweries will continue hammering home on the local aspect of supporting neighbourhood beers, continue with all the educationally components of training bar staff and the public through tastings and tours. More and more tap rooms will start coming to Ontario breweries like you see state side. It’s already happening (Royal City, Big Rig, Steam Whistle, Left Field) here, but they will continue to grow helping bring in more tourists, community groups, and new craft beer drinkers.

TBT: What do you think about the Ontario’s government’s grocery store announcement?

TB: As a sales rep for GLB, I get asked a lot. Answer right now is that how can it be bad? More shelf space in a market that is too tightly controlled is nothing but good. Of course there are concerns about what the big breweries will do for “prime shelf space” and distribution methods, but that’s a wait and see. The announcement, or should I say plans for grocery store beer sales, should have been done years and years ago. Once the whole plan is rolled out and is up and running, I think Ontario beer drinkers will appreciate it and craft breweries with enough size to get into the stores will appreciate it.

TBT: What’s it like to be a part of the GLB family?

TB: Interesting. Never dull. Always fun. When I joined GLB in 2012 I knew what I was getting into, but didn’t know at the time who much fun it would be. This is one brewery that drink together, hang out together outside of the brewery, collaborate together, and work well together. Coming up with new names for new beers is always great and one of the best parts of GLB. I have been really privileged to watch, and be part of, the changes made since 2012 when the 25th anniversary series of beers were launched; which kick-started the new branding, attitude and change in direction of the brewery.

TBT: You spent some time in Nova Scotia, what do you think about the beer scene down east right now?

TB: I did. As pointed out in the first question, I lived in Halifax for one year in 2006/07 and worked for Labatt. Almost immediately after I arrived there I started to get to know the dudes at Garrison Brewery and I’m still friends with them to this day. We just brewed a beer at GLB with their Brew Master, Daniel Girard, that will be available in Halifax in August (we are taking over the taps at Stillwell Bar…). Propeller and Granite breweries were also up and running and putting out some great beers. I’ve always kept my eyes and ears on the scene out there (while working for TAPS it was part of the job) and it’s really really exciting to see how far Nova Scotia has come. Garrison and Propeller both have two breweries now to keep up with demand. All these new breweries are popping up and doing some great beers. I love some of the beers from Big Spruce out in Cape Breton. The bars are supporting craft beer like never before, which is hard to do in Alexander Keith’s town, but consumers are thirsty for craft.

TBT: What accomplishment are you most proud of in your beer career?

TB:

  • Having lunch with Jim Brickman, after he left Brick Brewing, who shared his amazing story over many pints.
  • Winning the 2013 & 2014 Canadian Brewery of the Year award with Great Lakes.
  • Starting Toronto Beer Week from scratch with sweat and tears…with friends.
  • Interviewing and drinking with Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head), Garrett Oliver (Brooklyn Brewery), Daisy Claeys (t’ Brugs Beertje), James Watt (Brew Dog), Jean Van Roy (Cantillon)

TBT: What do you like most about the beer scene in Ontario?

TB: The cheesy, but true answer – the people. That’s everyone from the brewers, to the sales reps, to the supporters (bar staff and craft beer drinkers), to event people and beer media. Everyone is genuinely awesome and passionate about this great industry.

I also really like the diversity of the styles being offered in Ontario. We don’t have a particular style anymore. Yes, safe Golden Ales and Ontario Pale Ales have been done over the years, but if you really look what some breweries are doing these days, it’s inspiring. Amsterdam is doing some killer farmhouse beers. Nickel Brook IPAs and Pale Ales are terrific. Cheshire Valley and the Granite with English style knockout porters and stouts. Our IPAs at GLB. Beau’s and their Germanic styles.

And finally, the camaraderie amongst breweries. While some breweries don’t see eye-to-eye with everyone, most of us work so well together and work to build each other up. At GLB we have great relationships with many breweries and you can see it in the events we collaborate on, the beer we brew together and the drinking we do together when the day is done. It truly is unique.

TBT: What could be improved in the beer scene in Ontario?

TB: I’ve already mentioned more need for quality control as the rapid growth happens. There is no room for mediocre offerings. I heard a line from a brewery owner in the US a couple of years back refering to the huge growth down there with more and more breweries opening by the day. He said something to the effect of “Before you release a barrel-aged, hickory smoked, vanilla bean, espresso stout, learn to brew a fucking solid stout first.” I like that thought.

While it’s getting better and better all the time, due to passionate bar owners and breweries who invest in professionals, another thing that could be better in Ontario is regular line cleaning. Steve Riley, of Better Beers, is a true champion of this and would love to see a Dine Safe type program roll out to bars & restaurants that would monitor the cleaniness of beer lines, facets and fobs. If this was so, everyone’s experience with fresh craft beer would be heightened immediately.

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