Beau’s Lug Tread, An Oral History, Part 2: A Bumpy Ride
Essential related reading: Beau’s Lug Tread: An Oral History, Part One – Choosing the Perfect Beer
Now that a flagship beer has been decided upon, it’s time to start brewing it. In order to meet the planned kick-off schedule, the team begins brewing off-site in Campbellford, Ontario, using the brewing equipment at John Graham’s Church Key Brewing.
Phil: We were not supposed to have a birthday of July 1st, it was supposed to be Victoria Day weekend, but our first ever batch of yeast got stopped at the border at customs and died. We had to delay.
Steve: And they only made yeast of the Kölsch variety like once every three moon cycles or something, because in North America no one was making a Kölsch.
Phil: That batch that died had been specially propagated for us—they had to pull it out of their cryo-vault. *laughter*
It wound up changing our release date because we were doing a style that, at the time, was so obscure. Now people are like ‘Kölsch, how pedestrian.’
Matt: The good ol’ days.
Jamie: That was the pioneering phase, and those are some of my fondest memories of the early days, because it was such a new thing for all of us, and we were so emotionally invested in the enterprise. It was a crazy adventure. Every day was fun, but fuck, was it a lot of work.
Jamie: Brewing at Church Key, we would work on a rotation. Leading up to the launch—
Steve: Matt wasn’t on rotation though— (Laughter)
Matt: Not so much!
Jamie: We would do two or three days per brew, so we would go out to Campbellford in pairs and brew the beer.
Matt: If we were going into the big tank it would be two days. You brew on the first day, the next you might filter, then carbonating kegs—but it didn’t always wind up that way.
Steve: The conditions there were not always ideal.
Tim: We didn’t know any better.
Matt: I was kinda losing my mind at times. It was set up in such a challenging fashion. BYOH: Bring your own hydrometer.
Steve: I remember showing up—Matt and I were supposed to filter on this particular night—it was one of the last batches there. We’re getting set up, and it was so cold in the brewery, John Graham, founder of Church-Key told us ‘the caustic is a little bit thick today.’ Well…
Phil: John is super, super strong. I was tiny when the brewery started. I couldn’t even turn on the garden hose. I actually had to get John to come over, and with just two fingers, he turned it on.
But it was like that for everything you had to do. So to work the mash tun you had to self-agitate the grain bed with a canoe paddle.
The story of the first batch—the accidentally imperialized beer
With a press conference scheduled to release the beer—and some unintentionally high ABV beer on-deck—what do you do? Well, if you’re Beau’s, you run with it!
Matt: Well. We had suffered all of these setbacks: the yeast shipment not arriving, the scramble to get a replacement—it was right down to the wire.
It was quite stressful, we had a commitment to having beer out for Canada Day. It had been fermenting but it was taking a while, even after getting the replacement pitch. We didn’t quite finish the lagering process that we had in mind, and we went to filter it and it was horrendous.
Steve: We had a press conference scheduled in Ottawa that night.
Matt: Jamie was with me. There was a lot of back and forth. I was very concerned about the quality of the filtration. It was coming out fairly turbid as well. There was definitely a haze to it—it just wasn’t behaving.
Jamie and I went through two days of filtration—or Jamie didn’t, really. I had a lot to do, he just had to look at my anguish.
When we finally got through it, to the end of the tank, we said “Where is all the beer?” It was about half the amount that we were expecting to get out of that. And I was less than over-the-moon about the flavour. It came out super malty. In retrospect it was a clean beer, with nice German malt notes, but it was entirely different than what I’d had in mind.
Jamie: It was way off the mark, yeah. We didn’t really pick up on the reasoning behind the ultra-low yield until the next day or the day after we figured it out. I remember getting the beer in the van, driving out to the press club—literally getting the first keg in there as people were arriving.
Steve: You were about an hour late from when we’d said the conference would start because the filtration had gone so poorly. I think you took the first four kegs, put ’em in the van and bolted back to get to the press conference. Me, Dad and Phil were at the press conference just trying to convince all the reporters not to leave.
“When you showed up we just grabbed the keg and threw it on tap, there was no discussion whatsoever. Just pour it, pour it, pour it.
CTV was there with a video camera and they’re filming the very first taste I’ve ever had of Lug Tread, and I’d love to see the expression on my face now because this was absolutely nothing like the pilot, but it was delicious (pauses) but it was also like—horrible. (Laughter)
At the event, we’d had a couple of pints of this stronger Lug Tread, and Aunt Alice, in particular, had three pints and she was just walking sideways.
Phil: We were so up front with everything, it’s just the way we are. We told them a little bit had been frozen out of this.
Matt: I discovered it because I was going to be brewing into that tank again, so I opened it up, looked inside, and there’s all this ice.
Steve: Just rings of ice.
Jamie: As for the ABV, I remember having a pint and thinking ‘Whoa! I don’t know if it’s the excitement or what.’
Jordan: I remember going to The Manx and having a couple pints of it. I walked out of The Manx like Aunt Alice did at the press club. (Laughter)
The Beer in the Bathtub
The online forum wars, and the first award for Lug Tread
Jen, to Jamie: What role did your bathtub play in Beau’s first award?
Jamie: We had this keg but we had nowhere to keep it—
Steve: It was the second week of deliveries. One of the accounts said they didn’t want the keg—and we had no cold room, because all the beer was kept at Church Key. We were like: ‘How long does beer stay good if it’s not a fridge?’ We didn’t know.
Jamie: We know now it would have been fine just sitting in the kitchen for a few days. But at the time we thought ‘We’ve gotta keep this cold—keep it safe.’ I was living in an apartment in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood. It had a main-floor bathroom and this weird basement with a full bathroom but you had to duck down to get to this tiny door, and there was a bathtub there. So we brought the keg downstairs, put it in the bathtub, and kept putting in bags of ice every couple of days to keep it cold ’cause we were worried it was gonna go bad.
Steve: Here’s the funny part: While we were coddling this one keg, we were too afraid to give it to any of our accounts in case we had already spoiled it. And it just kept sitting there and sitting there and sitting there. Then we had the second batch, and were saying ‘Shit, we don’t want to sell this keg now it’s from the first batch, we want to move forward.’
At the same time we had this hate-war on RateBeer going on. It had spread onto The Bar Towel. It started with one shitty review, and then this other guy had a review that said ‘This is the worst beer ever, ewww. Terrible.’
Tim: The comment that pissed me off the most was ‘I can’t believe they would serve this shitty beer at The Manx.’
Steve: And so, we had a number of followers already who were on the Members of Barleyment page, and I said, ‘By the way, guys, we’re getting really shitty reviews on RateBeer, you guys are saying it’s ok—would you mind putting that on RateBeer?
So a couple of them signed up and said ‘You know, it’s not a Kölsch, clearly, but I really like this beer.’ It turns out this one particular guy was actually the administrator on RateBeer, and was so adamant that our beer was so terrible that he literally banned people from RateBeer because they’d put ratings that weren’t terrible.
It became this big thing and was getting discussed on Bar Towel, and this guy said ‘Why are you bad-mouthing me?’ and I said ‘Are you kidding me?! I wasn’t bad-mouthing you, you’ve been bad-mouthing me!!!’
So: How do we tell the folks in Toronto that the beer is actually really good; that this guy’s just being a total d*ck? And we had this one keg left, and the Golden Tap Awards came up.
That became the big debate with me and Matt—we were on the third batch at that point. Matt wanted to bring the third batch because it was a pretty good representation of what Lug Tread is today. It was in good shape and he was really proud of that, and deservedly so.
My big issue was we were getting our asses handed to us on RateBeer and on Bar Towel about that first batch—
Jamie: It’s important to note how big that really played into everything back in those days. That was our only online presence: these sites where we’re getting this shit kicked out of us. So we definitely took the ratings to heart.
Jordan: And meanwhile on the taps getting great feedback.
Jamie: Sales were good but the online community was stomping on the beer.
Steve: I remember working out a deal with Matt where I was going to pick up the first keg and bring it to Church Key where he was working with John Graham—brewing some more beer—I bring the keg there, we try some beer, and if any one of us could find a flaw with the beer, we’d go with the third batch, and if none of us found a flaw—I feel really strongly about this, I’m bringing the keg from the first batch—and the three of us tried it. We all agreed it was clearly not a Kölsch, but no flaws. This is a good tasting beer.
I took it the Golden Taps and also took with me these handbills that describe the error—
Jamie: To me this is the best part of the story because we were all still so much living in our punk-rock mindset. This wasn’t a beer event, it was a show. When you go to the show, and people are handing you flyers for a show the next day. It was an opportunity to bring that punk rock/music scene attitude to a beer event, and it obviously worked out…
Steve: I got there and had a panic attack: I went to order one of our beers, and it came out pure foam and shit. I walked out of the building, I got three blocks away, and thought: ‘I’m going back. I’m gonna do this. I’ve come this far, I’m not walking away now.’ I walked back and handed out the flyers, and they at least got people trying the beer. Out of the people that tried it, there were enough of them that loved the story and agreed that the beer was good and thought ‘I’m voting for that one.’
The funny thing was: We didn’t even know that there was a vote for the best beer there. We were just trying to win on the online forum of people trying the beer and saying it wasn’t shit. I didn’t know until I showed up that there was actually voting, and handed out those flyers—at the end of the night when they announced the winner I was like ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’
And you could just see the shocked look on every other brewer’s face in the crowd that night.
They made the announcement and all the people that voted for the beer cheered, then there was another group that just stared: ‘What the fuck just happened here?’
Tim: There were a few noses out of joint that night.
Steve: The next year there we won again. The event runs from about seven ’til midnight or so, but they announce the awards at 10. I was there the whole time. All the Mill Street guys showed up five minutes before they announced the award. Clearly there to take a picture, give everyone the bird and leave.
Then they announced us as the winner. You could see their rage. No one had cheered for Beau’s that night.
Jordan: Lug Tread was a juggernaut at that festival for a number of years. Still going, but.. Best beer, best brewery, etc.
Jamie: We had a solid run of consecutive years.
Steve: I don’t know if you remember, they used to split the award in two categories: best in Toronto and best everywhere else, because they never believed that anyone outside of Toronto ever stood a chance of winning.
I remember the year Cass [Enright] told me they were going to amalgamate it. What that meant was that we beat out all the Toronto breweries the year before, and he thought ‘Well shit, I don’t need to separate them anymore.’
Jamie: We were on this tiny side tap at The Manx
Jordan: Who still has the original ceramic tap handle? The Manx does.
Jordan: People embraced Lug Tread. Instant fans were born. What was it like to keep up with the demand?
Tim: For years it was a challenge.
Phil: It was a long weekend and we’d just gotten the growlers for the retail store. In the early days a Herculean effort on the part of one person could be the difference between a long weekend being a success or a failure.
Steve spent three nights awake filling the growlers (or ceramics) on the two-head filler. We used to have these old six-foot wide, 12-foot long buggies from the textile company.
Dad and I come in and he’s on auto-pilot. He’s done. We said ‘Steve, we think you’d better take a break,’ and offered to take over. I remember he mumbled something about moving the buggy, then goes to push the buggy and it goes right into the gutter. We actually recovered quite a bit.
Tim: Steve stomped out, and then Phil went on the loudspeaker and announced something about a new record of bottles being broken all at once…..
Phil: To think about now vs. then. Especially the first few years. We would sell out a batch and say ‘Is there anything we can do to have the next batch ready?’ Now we have capacity to hold hundreds of thousands of litres at a time—and we sold 32,000 litres our first full year. You’d just be out of beer!