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!