Monday, December 17, 2007

BEERNADA - A Visit to Steam Whistle Brewery

You may remember about a month ago, when Beernada's first attempt at a beer review led to an invitation from Steam Whistle to tour their facilities with the brewmaster or one of the owners. Due to scheduling conflicts, we were unable to get a personal tour. (Apparently people are quite busy during the holidays, who knew?) So on Saturday we decided to go on our own, thinking this might make for a more impartial review anyway. We had planned on taking the standard tour at the brewery, but our research department failed to let us know that it costs $8 each. (By the way, this is strike one. Even Budweiser lets you tour for free.) Since Johnada's yearly budget is currently $3.50, we couldn't pull the trigger on the eight Loonies, even though the tour comes with a small Steam Whistle glass.

Despite not taking the tour, we feel like we were able to get a good idea of the place. Everyone at the brewery was in a good mood because it was right before their holiday party. And while we thought about hiding in the bathrooms for three hours and sneaking into the party, we have probably given Steam Whistle enough unpleasant surprises in 2007.

Here's Beernada's take on the day's adventure and his follow up review:

The semi-circular building that houses the Steam Whistle brewery lies just south of the CN Tower in the barren expanse of the semi-aptly named Roundhouse Park. Sandwiched between the Rogers Centre (formerly the Skydome) and the Air Canada Centre, Steam Whistle seems to occupy prime real estate that is useful in luring in tourists from Manitoba and hockey fanatics. Without question, the architecture and location of the Steam Whistle brewery is unique in the world of breweries, but would the product inside be unique as well?

The people who work at Steam Whistle were all exceedingly nice. Unfortunately for them, they didn't get to see the true Beernada. I had to protect my identity in order to preserve the high ethical standards of journalistic tradition. This might explain why we didn’t receive any free t-shirts (Ed. - there may be other reasons). Yet, we were given a generous complimentary sample at the long bar located near the building’s entrance. Maybe I was a little parched from the dehydrating snow storm outside, but I was a little surprised to find a beer that tasted refreshing and not just palatable, but likeable! Yet, the higher-than-would-be-tolerated-by-the-Governor’s General dimethyl sulfide (DMS) level still dominates the first detectable flavours (which can range from that of corn to cabbage to burnt rubber) of this Bavarian-style pilsner brewed by a Bohemian. Thankfully, this corny aroma (which is somewhat nauseating to me) quickly gives way to a robust malty middle that is reinforced by a clean and balanced bitterness like the rebar in the concrete foundation of the CN Tower. This is all nice, but what about the burp-up? You can’t keep the bubbles down too long and, unfortunately, the most volatile chemical in Steam Whistle seems to be the DMS, which is reincarnated in spades at each belch, small or large.

In preparing for this follow-up, I did a little research so that I could at least pretend to have done something premeditated. In researching the water used to brew their beer, I wrote to Canadian Springs and asked them to supply me with a profile of their H2O. Their spring water is pooled from multiple sources to produce a consistent product that meets standards for various mineral levels. Unfortunately, I still haven’t received my profile in the mail even though I requested it more than a month ago. This might be because they never sent it, or maybe because Canada Post is still using beavers to transport mail (Ed. - we're pretty sure this is not true, but we would love it if our mailman was a rodent). However, I was able to clear up one thing: DMS is entirely a byproduct of the modified amino acid S-methylmethionine (SMM), which is produced during the malting of barley and breaks down to DMS during the boil (Bamforth 2000). Some DMS may also be produced by yeast conversion of dimethyl sulfoxide, also derived from SMM, to DMS. Moreover, according to the brewing scientist Charles Bamforth at UC Davis who is famous in part for his elucidation of the biochemistry of DMS production in beer (ed. - Anyone else feeling sleepy?), DMS is “the best example of how a detailed investigation of the pathways by which a molecule arises in beer has led to production strategies that allow good control over the levels of a flavour-determinant in beer” (Bamsforth 2000, p110). This means that Steam Whistle is either uninterested in controlling their DMS levels, or, more likely, they are intentionally producing beer with higher-than-would-be-tolerated-by-the-Governor’s General DMS production. Why would they do that? I have a theory…

The most widely consumed beers in the world often have revolting aromas dominated by DMS. Corona comes to mind as a very good example of corniness (no offence, Mexico, but good beer like Negra Modelo and Casta puts your emblematic brew to shame). Steam Whistle is trying to capture the biggest market they can by doing “one thing really, really well.” It seems strange to me that Steam Whistle would go to such lengths as decoction mashing (a labour-intensive technique often used in German and Czech lager brewing to develop a deep and delicious malt flavour) when, in the end, the DMS levels are so high as to turn most beer snobs like myself away. That is, until you realize the ingenious revolution that Steam Whistle is orchestrating through subterfuge: hook the Corona-gulping masses and ever-so-slowly eliminate the Corona-like flavours until everyone is acclimated to a Bavarian pilsner of unsurpassed quality. Beernada predicts that Steam Whistle will slowly and undetectably reduce their DMS production to a moderate level, just to where the sweet malty flavours are enhanced without tasting like chicken feed. You read it here first.

Addendum: Beernada also recognizes that some people actually like the flavour of excess DMS in their beer. Not me (Ed. - thanks for clearing this up), but I encourage you all to try it for yourself:We think Beernada's finally off his rocker with this theory. My two Canadian cents: Steam Whistle seems to know what it's doing. Johnada encourages everyone to know what they are and be fine with it. Beernada certainly knows what he is: a total snob when it comes to just about everything, including wigs. And Johnada certainly knows what he is: the world's greatest blogger, ever. Steam Whistle knows what it is: a beer for the average Joe who wants to drink a "craft" brew with a taste that is familiar. We don't see this changing, nor do we think it's a bad marketing strategy. (Look what it's done for Stella Artois.) Judging by the number of people willing to spend $8 on a tour, Steam Whistle obviously does fine. My final analysis - the brewery gets 3.5 Hortons. It's a nice place to look at with happy people, great marketing and an environment friendly building. However, the beer, while drinkable, is only slightly better than the mass marketed options. Maybe if it was sold at Cubs games, I might change my mind.

References: Bamforth, C. 2000. Beer: An Ancient Yet Modern Biotechnology. The Chemical Educator 5(3):102-112.

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