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BEHIND THE BREW: Nickel Brook Brewing Co.
October 20, 2017

Patrick Howell, Funk Master & Head of Barrel Management at Nickel Brook Brewing Co. (Burlington, ON)...

It's time for another Behind the Brew! With our new location opening in Burlington, we thought featuring a local brewery would be the best welcome to the city. Nickel Brook Brewing Co. has been a great support with the opening and with that, we had to follow Pat Howell around his Funk Lab! In true BTB fashion, we asked him questions, snapped some photos, tasted fantastic sours, and lived it up, Nickel Brook Style! 

Funk Master isn’t just for 90s hip-hop anymore, Briefly describe to us what you do!

The brief description is that I make beer that I enjoy drinking. I work with wild and ‘funky’ yeasts and bacteria to make non-traditional and out of the ordinary alcoholic beverages. No ingredient is wrong and no flavour is turned down.

How did you become the Funk Master and Head of Barrel Management at Nickel Brook?

I have worked in many facets of the brewing industry over my career and have done many jobs. Packaging line operator, cellarman, shift brewer, sales, marketing have all been part of my job description at one time or another. When Nickel Brook was shifting its main beer production over to Arts and Science Brewing in Hamilton, the opportunity to convert the original production facility in Burlington to a Funk/sour facility (now called the ‘Funk Lab’) arose. As far as this style of beer, although it had been done before by Nickel Brook as well as other breweries in Ontario, no one had committed to doing it on a large scale, production basis. The creation of the Funk Lab gave us the opportunity to venture into a beer style that we not only loved but with enough exposure, the consumer would love as well. No one on staff really had a strong grasp on the do’s and don’ts of wild fermentation and sour beer production, so the job was offered to me with the idea that it was going to be a trial by fire. Don’t get me wrong, we have made mistakes, but overall we have been able to create consistently unique products that keep the consumers, as well as ourselves, excited for the future of the style.

What initially drew you to the craft?

The sense of community that is expressed within the brewing world. If you are in a bit of a jam or are short on ingredients, a quick phone call to a fellow brewer will always help to remedy your situation. Brewers, homebrewers, consumers, all seem to share a similar drive, adoration, and general respect for the craft. This community always keeps me happy and grateful, even when I am having a bad day.

How would you describe the Funk Lab and how has it impacted the industry?

The Funk Lab, although still in its infancy, has shown that this style of beer has its place in the industry. I hope that it has given the rest of the industry the confidence to experiment more with this style of beer. We can already see other examples of companies in Ontario going down this road. Beau’s has helped to develop Halcyon Barrel Works, and breweries like Bench Brewing and the Exchange Brewery are pushing the limits of flavours that funk /sour beer and beer, in general, is capable of producing.

In the Lab, you’re encouraged to play with various yeast strains and bacterial cultures. While Lactobacillus, Pediococcus and Brettanomyces are most commonly used when it comes to creating sour/funky beers, are there any other microbes and/or specific strains of brett worth mentioning? What do you enjoy working with the most (What makes your “geek” out)?

I don’t really ‘geek out’ unless I'm working with something that is currently out of my league, or out of my repertoire of techniques. Mastering lambic beer, which is a traditional style of Belgian beer which is made through fermentation with wild yeast and microbes naturally captured from your local environment, is my main drive. In my opinion, if you get into the production realm of wild fermentation and you don’t have lambic beer as your end goal, then you have not set your aspirations high enough. The level of care, attention, patience, artistic flair and luck that goes into the lambic style is so enthralling to me that I get giddy just thinking about the few times that I have had a chance to experience a great beer made in this traditional style. Also, anything involving multiple strains of different yeast and bacteria (also called mixed fermentation) gets me in a good mood. The depth of layered character which is possible can rival any alcoholic drink I have come across.

What is your all-time favourite sour/wild beer?

Cantillon Kriek. Full Stop.

(yeast pulled straight from the tank)

Let’s talk about Nickel Brook’s Barrel Aging Program. How many barrels do you currently have in-house, and how do you select barrels to include in the program? Before a barrel is filled with beer to age, what methods does Nickel Brook use to prepare it?

We currently have just over 500 barrels filled and in circulation. Now the bulk of these have predetermined products in them such as Kentucky Bastard (Bourbon Barrel Aged- Russian Imperial Stout), Winey Bastard (Wine Barrel Aged- Russian Imperial Stout), and Cuvee (Spiced Reserve Ale), but we do have some experimental barrels that we are slowly rolling out in small batch, one-off releases. My selection of barrels is very hands on. Depending on the source of the barrel, I may fly down to Kentucky or just drive to Niagara to inspect for quality. My main goal is to make sure that the barrels have not been sitting for too long and have not dried out. The higher the level of leftover booze from the original barrel source (winery, or distillery), the better. Leftover alcohol sitting in the bottom of the barrel generally means that the barrel has been stored in good condition, and has not been sitting long enough for the liquid to evaporate, this is referred to as a ‘wet’ barrel. Leaving a barrel dry for too long can spell disaster for whatever beer you are planning on putting into it. Once I know that the barrels are still wet, I can inspect for damage, smell, age of original product, and the cooperage which supplied the barrel. All of these factors can drastically affect the final product.

Once we have received the barrel at the brewery, we do as little as possible to the barrel before adding the beer to it. We want the barrel to express it’s history as directly as possible, which means that we get variation from year to year based on the barrels which I source.

Our sour barrel program will reuse these barrels once most of the original flavour has been stripped away through multiple uses. We are trying to eliminate the barrel character and create a blank palate for the cocktail of yeast and bacteria we add to the barrel to present itself in the strongest way possible.

If there was a particular barrel you could get your hands on (no matter the cost), what would it be? What would you fill it with?

Right now my goal is to get my hands on a wet Tequila barrel, but they are expensive and I don’t have a lot of room for expansion of our barrel program. I would love to try a Tequila barrel aged Ceres (Cucumber-Lime Gose) I think that the flavour will be out of this world with the addition of the wormwood and oak character that will come through. In time, I’m hoping we’ll be able to try this out. Fingers crossed.

We hear that Nickel Brook is planning to build a destination brewery in the Niagara region. Can you give us any “insider” information on this project? Will the Burlington facility continue to operate as the Funk Lab?

We are planning on moving to the Niagara region to build a destination brewery, but that’s about all of the information that I'm able to give to you at the moment. We are currently looking at some different locations, as well as some different options for equipment, and layouts. We are trying to do all of the research that we can in order to not make any missteps during the design process to make the best brewery that we possibly can. I'm about as excited as I can be at this stage. It’s big news for us and its big news for the Ontario Craft beer industry.

Final meal on earth, choose one of your sours/funky beers and a food dish to pair with it!

My grandmother’s sweet and sour spareribs with a Raspberry Uber… but it has to be eaten on a shaded patio on a sunny day. That just sounds too perfect.

We want to know your Weirdest beer story…and go….

When we first started to add Brettanomyces to our Winey Bastard Russian Imperial Stout it was by complete accident. When we first started the brand, the beer used to go into oak barrels, with no wild yeast addition, and we would place a hard bung in the top of the barrel, which completely seals that barrel, and does not allow pressure to actively go in, or out of the barrel. When we found out that we had an infection of Brettanomyces, it was because the end of one of our barrels exploded out and sprayed stout all over our barrel room. This was obviously a problem, and we had to send someone into the barrel room to pop the bungs and relieve the pressure on these barrels, that person was me. I put on all of my protective equipment took a screwdriver and started popping bungs. It turns out that it takes a lot of pressure to explode a barrel, and these bungs were holding it all in. Every time I popped a bung out, it would shoot across the room like a bullet, hitting me, or whatever else was in its way, this was followed by a geyser of stout about 2’ high which proceeded to get all over myself as well as the walls. It was the one of the stickiest, most miserable days that I've ever had, and it was something I never envisioned myself doing when I first got into the industry.

Who would you like us to interview next in our Behind the Brew Series? What would you ask them?

I would get you guys to interview someone from within the Cider industry. West Avenue, Revel, Collective Arts, Sulkers are all doing some really cool stuff with what I think is an under-appreciated drink. I would ask them why cider drew their attention in the first place and why they think there is so much potential to capture people’s imagination in a perceivably simple product.

Read the last Behind The Brew with Block Three Brewing Co.

Contributors: Evin Lachance & Jen Tamse

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