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Let it Flow

Posted September 12, 2011 | 11:56 pm, by nadine

As the snow begins to melt after a long winter and the days become warmer, sap begins to flow from the Canadian sugar maple. It is sugar-season in Canada! Sap isn’t the only maple product flowing in Ontario this spring. For a few years now, three Ontario Craft Brewers have been releasing maple beers to celebrate the thaw… 


A quirky little adjunct

Canada produces 83% of the world’s maple syrup. This quintessentially Canadian ingredient is used to flavour a variety of comestibles including: candy, ice cream, doughnuts, cereal, baked beans, tea and fudge. Brewing with maple however, is not as easy as pouring syrup on pancakes.

As the brewers explain, maple is: “a quirky little adjunct!” The first thing to consider is that sap is “natural and variable”; the high mineral content and volatile aromatics are a challenge at every step of the process. Also, depending on the weather, sap can have different concentrations of sugar. Unlike standard brewing ingredients, there are no statistics available to brewers to let them know how the syrup will affect the colour and taste of the final product. There are no guidelines as to when to add the syrup, in what form, or in what quantities. It can be very tricky to find the right balance between the maple flavours and the beer.

Heritage, Trafalgar and Nickelbrook breweries have each tackled these challenges in a different way to create their respective maple beers. Each beer is brewed in a different style, and has included the maple in a different way, resulting in three distinctive and tasty flavour profiles.


A Heritage Seasonal

Heritage Brewing Limited released their Maple Bush Lager for the first time in 2006, following six months of planning and eleven test batches. It was Ron Moir who designed the recipe. He was inspired to brew a maple beer because Heritage brewery is situated in “The Maple Syrup Capital of Ontario”: Lanark County. His idea from the start was to use maple sap instead of water, and brew a medium-coloured European lager. “Maple is a delicate flavour, and so I didn’t want to overwhelm it” he explains. The first step for Ron was to decide at what stage to acquire the sap, because the flavour of the sap changes throughout the season. To do this, he collaborated with Ray Fortune of Fortune Farms, tasting syrups made from sap collected at various times. In the end, Ron decided to buy his sap mid-season, when it has “the strength of the maple flavour that we were looking for, and…what could be described as earthy or smoky flavours”. He then developed a recipe around these flavours, using caramel and smoked malts to accent the maple. Each batch is made with 2000 litres of sap (which costs as much as one month’s water bill!) The result is a beer with a distinct maple flavour that comes across like hard maple candy due to the caramel malts. All this is balanced by fresh citrusy hops, and the finish is smoky with hints of maple. Over all, Ron is pleased with the final product. Not surprising after eleven test batches! The beer is also very popular with customers, and Ron is considering doing a double-batch this year. Maple Bush Lager should be available at select LCBO stores the first week of May, depending on when the sap runs. It will also be available at the brewery, and on tap in Ottawa-region bars.


Meanwhile in Oakville

Trafalgar Ales and Meads has been brewing Trafalgar Maple Bock for a few years. Head brewer Dave Jamieson doesn’t remember “who approached who”, but explains that the beer was created in conjunction with nearby Bronte Provincial Park, where a large sugar maple festival is held every spring (they also provide the maple syrup for the beer). For Dave, the choice of a traditional Bock style for his maple brew was obvious: “Bock means goat, and the goat in German brewing is the symbol of spring time. When the ice melts, the Bock is ready and that’s when the sap starts running from the trees… I can’t think of any better style to go with maple syrup than Bock.” Dave spent more than a year experimenting with small batches to decide at what stage of the brewing process to add the maple syrup. These test batches were served on tap at The Tied House Pub, Trafalgar’s on-site pub, and Dave made sure to get some feedback from the customers at every step of the way. After four or five batches, Dave decided that the best time to add the maple syrup was after primary fermentation. Ten litres of dark refined maple syrup are added to the beer as it is transferred into an aging vessel. There it will undergo a second five-month fermentation, or lagering, which is traditional for a Bock beer. “Maple syrup flavour is volatile”, Dave explains. Adding maple at this later stage of the process means that very little is needed to get a full maple flavour. Maple Bock is indeed quite flavourful, without being overly sweet. Its high alcohol content also gives it a fuller body, and warming quality. Only one batch of Trafalgar Maple Bock was brewed this year. The beer has been available since early February, and can be purchased at the brewery while quantities last.


Nickelbrook takes the plunge

Tim Blakely, the Brewmaster at Nickelbrook, started thinking about “doing an old school European-style beer and putting a little Canadian touch on it” while chatting with a pub-owner about Canadiana. Tim settled on a Porter-style beer because he felt that the sweetness of the maple syrup would nicely balance the bitterness of the roasted grains. The Maple Porter is the only beer he has ever had to do a test batch on. Originally, Tim had planned to brew with tree sap instead of water, but found some difficulty in acquiring the sap. A an alternative, he settled on using unrefined dark maple syrup and calculated the amount equivalent to replacing brewing water with sap, using a 40:1 reduction. He added the maple syrup directly to the kettle because his personal philosophy is that, as a brewer, what he makes has to be “a fermented product…anything added post-fermentation is a cocktail, and the bartender could just squirt maple syrup into a pint of beer.” Tim feels that fermenting an ingredient breaks it down into separate flavour components. The Maple Porter therefore has “the maple syrup flavour, the essence of the tree that the maple came from, the leaves of that tree and the earth that it grew out of”. It also has an aroma that captures “being in the sugar-bush on my ski-doo in the winter, minus the gas fumes”. The different maple flavours in this dark beer take turns in the foreground, and a pint will go through “two or three flavour changes” as it warms. This is the second year that Nickelbrook Maple Porter is being brewed. Although it was released as spring seasonal last year, it was so popular that the brewery decided to release it in early winter this year and carry it straight through to the spring. It is currently available at the brewery and in bars throughout southern Ontario.

An adventure in Canadiana!

There are many maple beers available throughout Canada. Heritage Maple Bush Lager, Trafalgar Maple Bock and Nickelbrook Maple Porter are just three examples. The very Canadian combination of beer and maple can result in a number of tasty flavour profiles, and each new maple beer is just as much an adventure to taste, as it was to brew!


Other Canadian Maple Beers



Canoe Springtime Maple Bock: Canoe Brewpub www.canoebrewpub.com

Kitsilano Maple Cream Ale: Granville Island Brewing www.gib.ca



Maple Beer: Pump House Brewery www.pumphousebrewery.ca



Picaroons Maple Cream Ale: Northampton Brewing Co. www.picaroons.ca

Maple Fest Ale: Paddy’s Pub Brewery www.paddyspub.ca



Sugar Shack Ale: Barley Days Brewery www.barleydaysbrewery.com



Double à l’Érable: Benelux www.brasseriebenelux.com

Tord-vis: Les Brasseurs RJ www.brasseursrj.com

Maple Rousse & Maple Cream: Brutopia www.brutopia.net

L’Érabière: Ferme Brasserie Schoune www.schoune.com

Ambrée a l’Érable: Microbrasserie d’Orleans www.microorleans.com

La Coulée: Multi-Brasses www.microbrasseries.ca

Publication: TAPS Magazine

Date Published: Spring 2008

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