Ontario Brewing Association awards highlight Norfolk’s emergence/growth as craft brewery
A trio of Norfolk craft breweries have enhanced the county’s reputation as a worthy beverage destination with a total of five awards from the 2021 Ontario Brewing Awards (OBA) competition.
“We want to make sure we’re on the map, and winning awards definitely helps that,” said Tyler Ferguson of Wishbone Brewery in Waterford. “It shows people from the GTA or London there’s some excellent breweries here in Norfolk putting out some, I’ll say world-class product.”
A former member of the auto industry, he agreed with an analogous comparison of the critical mass drawing power of an auto mall, with development of a craft brewing region, a shared mutually-beneficial and respectful endeavour between participants. Locals already understand the area has undeniable natural beauty along with great restaurants, great wine, great cider and great beer, Ferguson continued.
“We welcome people from outside Norfolk County to come and find out for themselves.”
The 2021 OBA competition featured 109 potential awards (gold, silver and bronze) in 36 categories (a proscribed level of points must be achieved or an award is not presented), along with Beer of the Year designation for the best in the show. Selection is made by panels of accredited Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) members assigned to specific styles and flights.
Meuse Brewing Company co-founder Estelle van Kleef views the event as a collaborative effort highlighting the industry as a whole, promoting a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose among participants while bringing positive attention to Ontario craft brewing.
“A complementary competition if that makes sense,” she said. “Everybody knows big beer, but not everybody knows all the little guys showing up in the past four or five years.”
Each participant receives judging notes on their entry, regardless of whether they win an award or not, feedback van Kleef’s partner and head brewer Mischa Geven finds valuable.
“I tend to be very critical of my own beer,” he said, appreciative of external, non-biased and qualified input.
“What are some parts we are really good at and where can we improve?”
There is a definite pride in producing what they consider is a quality product, says Geven, an effort validated through competitive success.
“It’s really nice to have someone who knows beer tell you that.”
Meuse’s two awards including gold for its Saison de la Meuse in the Strong Belgian Ale class, which in practice, includes strong, average and lighter entries, were doubly satisfying in beyond the obvious, the barley used in all Meuse beer is grown right on their farm. Inspired by traditional farmhouse beers from northern France and southern Belgium, Saison de la Meuse’s mild herbal and floral hop aromas complement the house yeast’s character.
“It’s kind of special to see how far we can go with not just locally made, but locally grown,” said van Kleef.
Meuse also captured a bronze in the Trappist Ale class, for its ‘8’, a local take on a traditional Trappist style (brewed by monks in abbeys or monasteries) typical to Belgium, its simplistic title following the genre’s naming convention while identifying it as a strong, darker ale.
The 2021 OBA were Charlotteville Brewing Company founders Melanie Doerksen and Tim Wilson’s first foray into any kind of competition, attracted as much or more by the opportunity for unbiased, educated opinions on their product, enhancing an existing commitment to continual improvement.
“That’s one of the perks, I guess,” said Doerksen, thrilled in addition to see their Wedgie Delight capture a bronze award in the Amber and Brown American Beer category. “It was a wonderful surprise.”
One of their original six 2018 beers, the medium-bodied ‘Wedgie’ contains some roasted, biscuity notes along with a hint of coffee, an ideal educational or entry point Doerksen believes to the darker beer experience.
“It’s not overpowering, super hoppy, just a clean, easy-drinking beer.”
In its three-and-a-half years or existence, the Charlotteville Brewing Company has striven to build relationships along with a line of quality beverages, an approach standing it in good stead throughout the undeniable challenges of COVID-19 restrictions to the hospitality industry.
“We consider ourselves lucky we have a great group of clientele who continue to support us through the pandemic,” says Doerksen. “It’s an important element for us to recognize them, and a gauge to let us know we’re doing something right if they continue to support us.”
In a sense, OBA recognition provides similar encouragement and confirmation of their efforts. Doerksen and Wilson thoroughly enjoyed carving a bit of time from mutually-busy schedules to meet with other Norfolk winners (“They’re great people,”), celebrating how their shared success shone a little light on county craft beer.
“It’s been a great ride thus far and although 2022 has started off with a little bit of a rough start, we think it’s going to be a great year.
“We still have lots of room to grow and get better,” Doerksen concluded. “(But) we’re on the right track, at least.
Wishbone is the new kid on the Norfolk craft beer block, opening July 23rd, 2021 following a year of construction and the previous year of planning.
“It’s definitely not a money game, it’s more of a passion game,” said Ferguson, a home brewer hailing originally from Burford, who loves dealing with people, the science of brewing, “and obviously the end product.”
Head brewer Nick Lang brings five years of commercial experience and a shared commitment to ‘coming out aggressive and fun,’ resulting in a wide-ranging 11-beer array on tap at opening, which Ferguson admits bordered on insanity.
“We’re here to work really hard and produce a great product and customer experience.”
Confident in a ‘mean IPA and a really good blackberry sour’, Wishbone entered the OBA, ‘throwing it at the wall and see what happens.’
What happened was a pair of awards, beginning with a bronze in the New England IPA division, for Carried Away. ‘Hazy’ IPAs have ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ interpretations says Ferguson, the former pale, yellow with a lot of ‘piney’ overtones. Carried Away fits into the latter, a ‘thick, opaque brew with hints of citrus, pineapple and stone fruit, flavour punched up by ‘dry-hopping’ four varieties later in the brewing process.
“You get the aroma and taste but not the bitterness because we’re not boiling the hops for very long.”
Wishbone’s Jam Band Blackberry added a second bronze in the Catharina Sour class, celebrating fruited sour brews. ‘JBB’ has a beautiful pink hue to it says Ferguson, a very fruit-forward brew with mouthwatering tartness and sourness backed with citrus/grapefruit notes and a blast of blackberry on the finish.
“It’s a really cool-looking beer,” he added. “One of those beers where the visual appeal and flavour actually match each other.”
Six months following opening, Ferguson admits to ‘still learning’ systems, service and consistency, but is understandably pleased to receive what amounts to a significant industry nod of approval along with much-appreciated customer support. Conceiving, construction and launching mid-pandemic, or dealing with successive waves has admittedly not been ideal, but has certainly worked out thus far.
“If we can conquer all that, I’m very excited to see what we can be when we get back to normal-ish,” he concluded.