BEHIND THE BREW: Block Three Brewing Co.
September 21, 2017
Kevin Freer, Head Brewer at Block Three Brewing Co. (St. Jacobs, ON)
... Bring Beertown to work day!!! We followed Kevin around the Block Three Brewery and asked him some questions. We wanted to get the scoop on what it's like working in such a creative and exciting environment. Kevin didn't disappoint. Cheers to craft and the people behind the brews that we love!
Everyone remembers their first – what was the first instance that you knew you were destined for the brew life? How did it come about?
The first instance I knew I was into this life was probably within the first couple weeks of working at my first brewing job at Magnotta Brewery in Vaughan in 2010. I had previously attended school to study music, jazz bass specifically, worked on a cruise ship, toured around the province as a freelance musician and was kind of getting burned out. My wife got me a homebrewing kit as a hobby, and I got really into it. I applied for a job at Magnotta and somehow got the gig. I commuted from Hamilton to Vaughan every day, and I came home every day exhausted, sore, very happy, and eager to learn more. After a few weeks, I knew I wasn’t going to be leaving this line of work. It’s a nice mix of manual labour, creativity, structure and chaos. Plus the people in the industry are amazing, and I’ve made some lifelong friends.
What is your proudest moment as Head Brewer of Block Three?
We have won a few awards on the National and International scale. The Canadian Brewing Awards, US Beer Open , things like that. That always feels pretty good. I always feel pretty proud though when I hear our regulars say things like “the beers here just keep getting better and better” or my peers at other breweries pass along their kind words towards something we have made. I say we because while I do have a vision, it does take a team to execute it, and I’ve been very proud of the work they have done.
Where is Block Three headed? Beer wise, what can we expect in the upcoming months/years? Any future projects that you are excited for?
I have a few things up my sleeve that I am ultimately going to keep secret until the finer details get refined, but I’d expect a lot more of the barrel-aged beers, mixed fermentation beers, and kettle sours. Block Three has always had a sort of Belgian style focus, and Belgian beer is my passion, so that is partly why they brought me onboard. We recently received a shipment of Ontario fruit which is something I’d like to focus on in the future, using more local ingredients and fruits in our sour and barrel-aged program. Long term I don’t think we want to get massive, but continue to put quality over quantity and to be a sort of community brewery and taproom.
Since you have come on board, Block Three has expanded their barrel ageing program significantly. Why barrels, and do you have any plans to continue the expansion?
I’m a big fan of what barrel ageing can do to a beer. Specifically wine barrel ageing. There are so many variables to play within barrels. The different oaks, different toast levels, temperature swings, topping up as some evaporate or not, rinse or no rinse etc….Combine that with the complexities of wine and you have a whole other palette to play with. Add in the world of different yeasts, wild yeast, and bacteria to play with, and it gets even more complicated. It’s kind of like a fun new toy you can never get bored of. We’ve made some great connections with local Ontario winemakers and even brewed a few collaborations with them. I’ve always preached that making barrel aged beer, specifically sour barrel aged beer isn’t an event, but a process. While I’d love to add a bunch more barrels, it’s a slow-moving process, and I would much rather keep the quality high, then add on a huge amount of capacity at one time. Barrel aged sour beer takes patience.
What has been your most favourite beer to age – and why?
Of our own? Tough question. Every beer develops a little bit differently. I find I’m enjoying the few bottles of one beer we made called “Sour Goldie”. It was a Belgian style Golden Strong Ale that my friend and predecessor Bryan Maher came up with. Aged in Ontario Chardonnay barrels on a mixture of yeast, Brettanomyces, and bacteria for about a year. It was a single barrel that turned out to be too good to blend into others, so we bottled it separately as a limited run of 200 bottles. From another brewery, I have a pretty extensive cellar with some Belgian beers going back as far as 2005. Saving for a special occasion I suppose, but I really should get around to drinking those. Things like Belgian Gueuze, Kriek, and other Lambics can age for decades and by performing a side by side comparison between a fresh and aged lambic will be very eye-opening. Orval is another great one to do a side by side. Fresh it has an earthy and floral hop aroma, then given the time it develops a deep Brettanomyces driven funk that can only be described as Orval.
In your bio, you say you’re a Certified Beer Judge – as recognized by the BCJP. Does being a certified beer judge inspire your philosophy/approach to brewing beer?
Being a beer judge is a little weird sometimes. I’ve been a certified ranked judge for 5 years now. I’ve judged the Ontario Brewing Awards, and the Canadian Brewing Awards, as well as multiple homebrew competitions for just as many years. It certainly changes my approach to brewing beer. I’m not brewing exactly to BJCP styles despite being a BJCP judge. The skills I learned training to be a judge though have made me think more critically about recipe formulation, process, and the "why of each step in my brewing process. Some brewers brew to style and want to hit certain accurate guidelines, and that is great. To me, styles are the wording you use to set up a level of expectation in the customers head. If somebody served you a pilsner, but it was black and tasted like a sour beer with raspberries, you’d understandably be upset. I seek to fulfil that customer expectation with my word choices on the label. Customers are getting savvier about historical styles, so it’s a lot of fun to say things like “hey here’s our pilsner, but this is the twist we put on it”.
What is your advice for young homebrewers entering AHA/BJCP sanctioned competitions? Any study tips to those looking to take both the written and tasting component of the exam(s)?
A judge in a BJCP comp is going to judge your beer based on the language of the style guidelines. No exceptions. Don’t worry about the abv, colour, or finer details. If your Pale ale drinks more like the IPA guidelines read, then enter it as an IPA. It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s not like the judges get your recipe sheet or brew day notes. We get a plain cup and are told it’s a porter for example.
I might be dating myself here, but I took the exam long enough ago that the tasting and written components were done at the same time; they would literally Interrupt you writing an essay to hand you a beer to judge. But some things hold true. Try to comment on everything listed. Hop aroma, intensity, and place. Don’t say “smells like grapefruit”, instead say “strong aroma of grapefruit upfront with lingering orange peel”. Get very familiar with off flavours like DMS, Diacetyl, and oxidation. Learn your classic styles and their geographical regions. If I say, Dubin, you better be able to tell me what about their water makes dry stout taste so good, and describe the flavour of it in BJCP friendly language. Same goes for Prague, Burton on Trent, Munich etc...
We heard that you recently attended Carnivale Brettanomyces in Amsterdam this year – how exciting! Can you briefly describe Block Three’s involvement and how the project came about?
I had heard of Carnivale Brettanomyces before through the nerdier beer circles I run in. My friend Richard Preiss at Escarpment Labs was giving a talk there this year, so I considered going. It didn't seem to be in the cards, so I told Rich that, and said something along the line of “it’d be different if we were pouring there”. Couple days later I get an email from the festival organizer asking us if we wanted to do a tap takeover at the Beer Temple in Amsterdam. Rich played a big part in that, so I owe him big time. Through another complicated series of emails, I got linked up with Roel Buckens of Brouwerij Frontaal in Breda, who helped us facilitate shipping a bunch of kegs over there, as well as doing our first European collaboration brew. It’s a saison using Ontario Wild captured Yeast and Brettanomyces then being aged in Spanish Rioja Wine Barrels. It’s likely that beer will never see North America, but who knows.
Any fun beer moments while in Amsterdam that you like to share with us?
The beer scene over there is incredible. Just seeing people heading home after work, or taking their kids out to the local town square to enjoy a beer while their kids ran around and they talked with their neighbours. That type of beer culture doesn't really exist here yet. Of course, you are in the land of Heineken so I had to have a couple of those while touring the Canals. Travelling to Europe to try some beers from notable American breweries was kind of funny. I met so many brewers from across North America and Europe, and everyone was happy to share their beers. Oedipus brewing in Amsterdam held a brew day where everyone brought their bottles and added the dregs (leftover yeast at the bottom of the bottle) to the barrels we were brewing into. Certainly a worldwide collaboration.
We were huge fans of Block Three’s recent release “Hype Foeder-Aged Rustic Saison” and your revolutionary “crown and cage” process. For those just being introduced to the craft beer industry, what was this beer really about?
"Hype" was a reaction beer for us. Regarding the larger beer industry, we do not have any hype like some of the more well-known breweries do, so we had to manufacture some hype. It came out of a conversation I had with a friend of mine. We both wanted a mid-strength, lightly tart oak aged saison. From there the jokes about manufacturing hype just came quickly, hence the crown and cage. Hence the wax dipped bottoms of bottles etc...We were just having fun with the packaging format of a beer that would have been very expensive if we had some hype. Much like everything we make, it’s just kind of what we want to drink at the time. Foeders and saison might be very trendy right now, but we aren't exactly chasing trends, and I think our ability to make fun of ourselves shows that we have a sense of humour about it.
What is an ingredient you’d most like to work within the future? Any trends that you see coming our way?
I’d love to get more into locally grown ingredients. It’s easy to source things like fruit, but the hop and malt industry still has room for growth in Ontario. I love the fact that I can call up an Ontario Malt supplier like Barn Owl and have them tell me they are all out. It means there is a need for it, and it’s great to know they are doing great business.
I think the trend is going more towards niche breweries. Look at our region here in KW, each brewery kind of has a speciality. If somebody wants a great double IPA, I know I can direct them to Innocente for example who makes great hoppy beers. Lager fan? Wellington has got a great Helles in 355ml cans you can grab a six pack and bring it to the beach. Hopefully, if you are into Belgian styles you come check us out at Block Three. I believe that may be the way the industry is going. Smaller community breweries are specializing in one or two things. Plus, the market is so saturated right now it’s kind of the golden age of choice for the consumer.
Choose your favourite meals that you can cook and then pair it with one of your beers.
Given a choice, I would prepare and cook charcuterie and smoked bbq all day. Specifically the BBQ of central Texas. A lot of people might suggest something hearty like a big imperial stout to go with traditional BBQ meals, but a lot of folks in the south are eating BBQ for lunch, and an imperial stout doesn't exactly make for a productive afternoon. Plus it’s hot down there. Something like our king st saison or fickle mistress dry hopped sour would pair nicely because they lift the otherwise heavy and sweet flavours of BBQ and the fat of charcuterie off the palette and refresh, making you ready for the next bite.
Who would you like us to interview next in our Behind the Brew Series? What would you ask them?
I think you should call up Sam Corbeil at Sawdust City. He’s got quite a bit of experience and education in the industry and is all around a pretty funny guy to talk to. I’d probably ask him a few technical questions about his Can Conditioning process. As far as I know, he’s the only guy in the province naturally carbonating the beer in cans, similar to the refermentation process we use to carbonate in bottles.
Contributors: Evin Lachance & Jen Tamse