Q: You've recommended organic beer, but the ingredients come from all over the world. Does anyone use strictly local ingredients?
A: I've gotta confess I'm not a lager lover. Or an ale enthusiast or a beer disciple of any kind, really. But if the sun is properly aligned and brows are beading at every turn, you might catch me cracking open a cold one, and I might just finish it. Maybe. Probably not. Well, the first few sips were damn refreshing.
Regardless, you're right, there aren't a lot of brewers using local ingredients any more, organic or not.
Truth is, you might be able to find wild hops in your backyard (though you'd probably mistake the plant for a weed and yank it), but searching for local hops is now a very one-sided game of call-and-response. Blame mildew woes, the high price of corn and soybeans drawing farmers away from hops - hell, some even blame Prohibition. But the bottom line is that hops have vanished, and not just here but everywhere, which is partly why the price of hops has risen 400 per cent in the last year or two. (Yes, that's probably why the price of your favourite beer went up not too long ago).
Nor is a lot of brewer's barley being grown in Ontario (and global problems with the crop led to a surge in barley costs, too). At this point, the closest barley malt you'll get is from the Prairies, which isn't too far, but if you're looking for pure 100 mile lager, there'll soon be a tear in that beer.
This confluence of factors means that brewmasters - even those at work in your hometown - now pick from (and pay through the nose for) an international smorgasbord of roughly 300 hops varieties, a few hundred malts and countless yeasts.
So don't belittle local organic beers like those made by Toronto's own Mill Street for not buying their ingredients locally. They're not the only ones ordering from the U.S., Germany and beyond, and at least those crops weren't sprayed with chemical pesticides.
They're also GMO-free, which is more than you can say for the big American-style pale lagers. Plenty of the big boys brew their beers with what used to be cheap fillers like rice and corn syrup, heavy in genetic engineering. In fact, in 2007 Greenpeace tested Anheuser-Busch's suds (the company is actually the largest single rice buyer in the U.S.) and found it was using genetically modified rice in Budweiser, a claim the company denied.
And though Japan's top beer brewers vowed to stop using GMO corn in 1999 (Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory use about 400,000 tons of corn a year), the skyward price of corn is forcing them to re-evaluate that stance.
Though there is a thirst-quenching silver bullet, I mean lining, to the whole price spiral. It's pushing rogue craft brewers to take the bull by the horns and (cue trumpets) start planting their own ingredients.
Beau's All Natural (beaus.ca) already uses certified organic malt from the Prairies as well as Germany, but the company's first crop of local hops will be ready for the fall. Beau is also working with researchers at Ottawa U to find the best organic barley seeds to grow in Ontario.
And in the "Cool, pour me one of those" category, the company has also made a special batch of beer called Bog Water, made with an ancient wild hops alternative called bog myrtle that's hand-harvested in the wilds of Quebec by an Algonquin native. Trouble is, you can't find that brew in T.O., so you'll have to grab yourself some next time you're visiting eastern Ontario.
Not sure why the Ottawa region's so far ahead of the curve on this, but that town's got another brewery, Scotch Irish Brewing, that's growing its own certified organic hops and has just planted 7 acres of barley to be malted later this year.
Right now, Stuart's Natural Session Ale (brewed by Scotch; at select LCBO stores) is made with organic UK malt and hops, but hopefully it'll start shifting over to the local hops next year. Scotch is also concocting a 100-mile draft available only at the brewery later this year.
A little closer to home, Burlington's Better Bitters Brewing Company, aka Nickel Brook, now has a Guelph farmer planting hops and is just waiting on better yields. It also has a special-edition beer made with Ontario sour cherries and even uses natural carbonation instead of injecting beer with CO2.
Lastly, Front Street's C'est What Homegrown Hemp actually uses hemp from ecologically grown Hempola farms just north of Toronto, as well as Prairie malt and U.S. hops.
There are lots of great craft beers brewed under our noses with, at the very least, Ontario water, and while they may not use local ingredients, some, like T.O.-based Steam Whistle (which uses Saskatchewan malt) go the extra mile on green issues. These guys cool their brewery with lake water, run their fleet on restaurant grease and use thicker bottles that can be washed 35 times - twice the industry standard - all to be applauded. And all to be savoured to the last drop, even by non-beerheads like me.
And don't forget, kiddies (not the under 19 ones), if your beer wasn't brewed in Canada, the Beer Store won't wash the bottles and send 'em back to get reincarnated again and again. Instead, they'll be crushed up for insulation or road beds, which is better than landfill hell, but your bottle loses its chance at a green second (and third) coming.
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