It is a hellishly hot summer’s day.
The kind that brings about a storm of messages from public health departments to steer clear of the heat and seek refuge in the air-conditioned indoors.
Ian Watson has heeded part of that advice. He’s inside, tucked away on a busy Niagara Falls artery in a restaurant brewery that looks like a cross between a science lab and a messy garage. Hunched over a steel cauldron that, like a wizard working his magic, he’s working to a boil, Watson stirs a giant paddle around in his brewing concoction. All the while, he’s getting little reprieve from the heat, as steam starts to spill out of the kettle.
It sounds like fodder for a weather joke starring the devil himself, but really, this is heaven for a guy who started making beer in his basement in the 80s.
Watson is the brewmaster responsible for refilling the kegs of Niagara’s Best Beer at The Syndicate Restaurant and Brewery and supplying Taps on Queen in Niagara Falls with the antidote to a Canadian’s thirst on a hot day.
“I like brewing the most,” the soft-spoken Watson said about his work. “Some of the jobs are more tedious; making sure each batch is the same as the previous one, that everything is going well and there’s no infection.”
On this day, Watson is showing his mastery of multi-tasking as he brews his 76th batch of Niagara’s Best flagship Blonde, whipping up about 3,600 litres of the ale for brewski aficionados. He works at a good clip, moving between kegs in need of filling, a refrigeration room — and reprieve from the stifling heat — where his hops are stored and a steaming kettle in need of the occasional stir and temperature check. All the while, his brow barely glistens in the unforgiving heat.
“The smell of the malt after it’s crushed and going into the mash tun, the wheat smells….,” Watson waxed on about the joys of a job he has held since 2005. “When you put the hops in, which add the flavour — each hop has its own character. There are probably 60 or 70 different kinds.”
Watson sticks to about 10 tried and true hops to make the best Niagara’s Best he can. In addition to serving Blonde, the Logger lager, a pale ale, porter and other specialty brews at The Syndicate and Taps, Watson said business is picking up as orders for his days’ work pour in from other restaurants that want to have local craft brew on their own beer lists.
He’s been brewing for two weeks straight “just trying to get the fridge full.”
Watson works tirelessly, continually honing a hobby he got into 23 years ago, after watching a homebrew how-to hosted by beer god Charlie Papazian, into a paying job.
He got on with Niagara’s Best after curiosity spurred him to ask if they needed any help. That turned into a gig bottling while learning the “bells and whistles” of the brewing equipment. He eventually got to try his hand at making beer for the label, which he has been doing ever since.
It’s not the same story at home anymore, though. These, Watson opts to garden in his spare time instead of making beer for fun. But that’s not because homebrewing seems elementary now. Watson said he’s still learning the tricks of his trade, trying new recipes and even taking up the challenge of brewing beers requested by the members of The Syndicate’s Growler Club, just to see if he can do it.
Take the Big E Choke Slam with its 100 international bitterness units, a beer that has reached the “theoretical limit of bitterness.” Any more than 100 IBU and our tastebuds can’t tell the difference.
Named after Eric, a bouncer at Tapps, who, legend has it, managed to sling two kegs and put a rowdy in a choke hold all at once, the Big E Choke slam is “almost like someone someone grabbing you by the neck and giving you a choke slam,” Watson described.
Watson smiles proudly as he recalls his handiwork. Still, there is no bigger critic of his work than Watson himself.
“I always get people to try it because I think something might be wrong with it. I worry,” Watson admitted.
Fortunately, he hasn’t had feedback that has been tough to swallow.
“Beer’s subjective. The porter, some say it tastes like cocoa, others like coffee. One guy said it tastes like fruit cake, which I can see. I like asking people what they can taste,” he said.
And taste is what sets apart Watson’s work from the mass-market suds that are more about a lifestyle than a sipper to savour.
Fortunately for Watson and his fellow micro brewers, more and more people are ordering pints of flavourful craft beer over the fermented grain juice being offered up by the big boys.
“It could be part of the local movement and people wanting local beer that’s not pasteurized and has no chemicals but just pure natural ingredients,” Watson said. “More people are getting into craft beer because they’re more concerned about taste.
“That’s the thing about craft beer — it has flavour, not like the macro breweries,” he added. “What I do get sick of is the ads for the mega breweries because they don’t talk about taste. They don’t sell anything with taste. It’s an alcohol delivery system.”