My Brewing Philosophy, with Beau’s Brewmaster Matthew O’Hara
illustration: denis routhier | words: patrick jodoin
When Matthew O’Hara relocated from Southwest Ontario to a new home in the countryside in Eastern Ontario in 2003, he had all but shelved any plans to continue working in the craft brewing industry — at least for the foreseeable future.
What O’Hara didn’t realize was that his career as a brewer wasn’t in the rearview mirror at all. In fact, his greatest achievements lay ahead.
Today, of course, we know O’Hara as the brewmaster at Beau’s Brewing Co., the family-run and employee-owned craft brewery in Vankleek Hill, Ont., but if it weren’t for some great timing and happenstance, things could have unfolded quite differently.
LES MICROBRASSERIES DU QUÉBEC
Coming of age during the first generation of Québec microbreweries — predating even the dissemination of the term “craft” in Canada — O’Hara discovered a variety of beer flavours and styles (beyond the domestic brands) as his hometown of Montréal was enjoying a microbrasserie boom, and the young O’Hara was enjoying wetting his beak. He was impressed early on by the different flavours and overall character available to beer drinkers in Québec.
His discovery couldn’t have been better timed. He began his adulthood tasting the beers of St-Ambroise, Boréale, Belle Gueule and the like — beers being brewed right in his own backyard — just as he was seeking employment after college.
Informed by his new interest in microbrews, O’Hara found a job at the long-standing Brasserie McAuslan in the city’s working class neighbourhood of St-Henri. He got his start working on the bottling line, and was fortunate to climb quickly in the ranks. After a short while he got involved in kegging, and then became an assistant to the brewers.
“At that point I was pretty much hooked,” he says.
His work at McAuslan piqued his curiosity, challenged his intellect and appealed to his youthful energy.
“I’d found work that was enjoyable to me,” says O’Hara. “There was a fast-paced physical aspect to it on the brewing side of things, that was combined with a fair bit of thought behind the process.”
He decided to run with it. The young brewer then bounced around Southern Ontario, eventually landing at Toronto’s Denison’s brewpub, where he found the brewing mentorship that he’d sought
Working alongside Denison’s brewmaster Michael Hancock, a British expat with a penchant for brewing German-style beers, O’Hara thrived.
In fact, Denison’s specialized in all-German styles. This opened O’Hara’s eyes to beers that he was otherwise mostly unfamiliar with — Munich and Bavarian styles. Denison’s best seller, for example, was its helles, a traditional pale lager.
They would brew a dunkel (dark lager), and a signature weizen (wheat beer), and so on. In the winter they’d have a bock, and in the fall they’d have a märzen.
“I became accustomed to brewing and drinking these beers,” he says. “I developed a real appreciation for that brewing tradition — that’s something that’s really stuck with me since then.”
After his tenure at Denison’s he continued working in the industry. His last job before moving to Eastern Ontario was at Black Oak Brewing in Etobicoke, which was his first time in the position of head brewer. There he enjoyed overseeing production.
TIM AND STEVE BEAUCHESNE
(AND ONE CLEVER LAWYER)
When O’Hara moved to Eastern Ontario, he didn’t expect to continue to brew beer professionally. Instead, O’Hara found work in forestry.
Around that same time, local businessman Tim Beauchesne was in a precarious position: he had a factory in Vankleek Hill in which he ran a textile company, but because of an industry shift to overseas production he found himself forced to shut the plant’s doors.
Over a few pints in Toronto, as Tim was informing his son Steve of his plans to close up shop — as the story goes — the two got to thinking. They made the decision to convert the space into a craft brewery. In Steve’s telling, the next morning the father and son still thought the brewery was a good idea, so Steve and his family moved from Toronto back to his hometown of Vankleek Hill, and the rest is history.
David Shelly, the lawyer who was advising the Beauchesnes in their new venture also happened to be O’Hara’s lawyer, assisting him in finding his new home in Eastern Ontario. A friend of O’Hara’s father, the lawyer brokered a meeting between O’Hara and the Beauchesnes, and a new little family dynamic was established.
Brewmaster Matthew O’Hara, centre, is flanked by son and father Beau’s co-founders, Steve and Tim Beauchesne.
LUG TREAD LAGERED ALE
As the Beauchesnes were drawing up their business plan, O’Hara was at first hired on as a technical consultant. He began working on some prototypes at home. Among those prototypes was a recipe for a Kölsch-style beer, which Lug Tread is modeled after.
Given that Lug Tread is not brewed in Cologne, Germany, where the Kölsch style originates and lives, O’Hara and the Beauchesnes didn’t want to use the term “Kölsch”.
(Appellation rules apply to the use of the word “Kölsch,” restricting usage of the term to the pale ale brewed in Cologne. It’s similar to how “Champagne” may refer only to sparkling wine produced from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France, and how this tradition and geographical restriction is protected.)
They decided to call it a “lagered ale”, a term coined by Beau’s that emerged while O’Hara was describing the process behind the brew. The beer is famously top-fermented like an ale, and then cold-aged like a lager for a lengthy period, hence the term.
For a while Lug Tread was the brewery’s only brand. To this day it remains Beau’s flagship beer.
“It’s near and dear to my heart,” says O’Hara.
“It’s a challenging beer in a sense. It’s delicate enough that seasonal variances in the water or in our process can have pretty noticeable impacts on the consistency of the beer. It’s one that still requires a lot of TLC to maintain that consistency and quality.”
Not to mention the growing pains, which O’Hara shrugs off, given the benefit of hindsight. “Going from a 15 barrel system to 60 BBL wasn’t too rocky a transition, but some modifications were made, tweaks here and there.”
In 2016 Beau’s installed six new 360 BBL fermenters — now all filled with Lug Tread — to help accommodate the brewing company’s cross-Canada expansion.
“Every beer has its own set of particular parameters that you have to be cognisant of,” says O’Hara, “Lug Tread, at 75% of our production, represents a huge concern for us — but we also want to hit the mark with all of the other beers too. You want to give all the beers their due.”
Beau’s flagship beer has been accompanied by many other beers in the 11 years Beau’s has been in business. This is part of what Beau’s is known for: a wide variety of offerings and one-offs.
Every “FeBREWary” the brewery offers a different beer each week of the month; the Wild Oats Series, which is “dedicated to exploring bold flavours … interpreting classic or emerging styles in new ways and advancing evolution with new hybrids or brewing techniques”, just saw its 80th release; the Gruit Series (in which herbs, spices and other botanicals replace a dominant hop character) and Farm Table Series (sessionable beers inspired by tradition and brewed true to a classic style) both receive regular releases; and the brewery just wrapped up its Ottawa 2017 series that saw a different collaborative brew for each month of the year.
And therein lies O’Hara’s overall brewing philosophy: To give every beer he and his team brews the respect it deserves.
“A good story has a beginning, middle and end,” he says. “A beer should have more than one thing going on — some complexity.
“You want to avoid producing and selling beer that is compromised. It kind of goes without saying, but the hallmark of enjoyable beer is a sense of balance where you achieve some harmony.”
O’Hara also looks at every collaboration as an opportunity to learn something new.
“I feel fortunate and blessed that I do have a lot of connections now in the industry, doing this for as long as I have. I have a lot of a different resources to draw upon,” he says. “When brewers get together in groups we talk passionately about what we’re doing, and issues we’ve encountered in the past. That’s a great way to learn from others.”
To learn more about Beau’s, visit our About Us page.