This week’s Canada’s Craft Beer post comes from our Ontario and Quebec craft beer guy, David Ort. Today David checks out a bit of history and also what's new at the award-winning Great Lakes Brewery as it celebrates 30 years of brewing.
All images courtesy of Great Lakes Brewing
"My earliest memory," recalls Peter Bulut Jr., the owner and chief brewing officer at Great Lakes Brewery, "is of going down to Canada Malting and loading up a panel van with 20 bags of grain. At that time, they didn't have weight restrictions so they were 100-lb bags."
His dad, Peter Sr., had just bought the three-year-old brewery and promptly converted it from extract to all-grain brewing. In the 27 years since, GLB has established itself as one of Canada's pre-eminent craft breweries and built a devoted following centred around their home in south Etobicoke.
With Mike Lackey at the head of their day-to-day brewing team, the last five years, in particular, have been very good to them. In 2013, they started a two-year streak as Canadian brewery of the year as chosen by the Canadian Brewing Awards. The next year they swept the North American IPA category — with their THRUST! an IPA, Karma Citra IPA, and My Bitter Wife IPA — at the same awards. Closer to home, 2014 was also the first of three consecutive years being named Ontario brewery of the year at the Golden Tap Awards.
During that stretch from 2013 to 2015, Great Lakes competed in the top tier of Canadian breweries making forceful pale ales loaded with hops. In the two years since, they've expanded the range to include a focus on more low-alcohol styles, Belgian farmhouse beers, and well-made pilsners.
With such a long list, Bulut has a tough time picking a favourite. "I get asked that a lot," he says, "and I usually say 'no.' But as I think about it, over the past two to three years what I really enjoyed a lot was our session pale ales."
"When we first came out with Pompous," he says of their 4.2 percent English pale, "I was having a lot of that one."
Beer drinkers saw a general movement toward these sessions beers — so called because they are lower in alcohol and three or four pints in a session is a manageable proposition — over the past couple years.
This year is the 30th anniversary at the award-winning brewery and Bulut says he's happy to be able to mark the milestone with some special beer releases. "We put in a little pilot system that's seven barrels and we've got four new fermenters (and another three on the way) that are fifteen barrels. So, we plan on using the new system to have a lot of fun this year and knock out some styles that we're not able to on the very large system."
The list will include both new recipes and selections from the back catalogue. Bulut says he's particularly happy to see Ezra, a barrel-aged and funky collaboration GLB made with Amsterdam Brewery. Within the collaboration theme, they also are planning to use the pilot system to brew with various industry groups, including beer writers and licensees.
I had the opportunity to try their barrel-aged Belgian-style quad (specially made for the anniversary) when they had a party for their 30th at the Antler Room in Toronto, earlier this winter. It's an impressive bruiser of a beer (11.3% ABV) with both plenty of weight and finer nuance picked up from age and time in pinot noir barrels.
With the continued success, Bulut does feel the need to manage the pace of expansion carefully and says they're "one of the bigger small ones, but we're still a small guy."
New tanks this year means that he's considering the possibility of "outgrowing the [Etobicoke] facility in a few years. I struggle with the question of how big do we want to be? How big is too big?"
He does still like to get involved as much as possible, but far from lugging sacks of barley up a ladder, Bulut says his day-to-day has become more about "watching the pennies and making sure we're viable for another 30 years."
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David Ort writes about food, travel, and craft beer for various online and print publications. His first book, The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook, is in bookstores and available for purchase online. For more of his thoughts on all things edible and potable follow him on Twitter or get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.