Steelback is no longer the swill I loved to hate
photo illustration by david van dyke/metro toronto
There used to be a day when you could hate Steelback and feel good about it.
Between CEO Frank D’Angelo’s over-the-top self-promotion and the cheesy 1970s guitar riffs in their TV ads for what was some pretty awful beer, the distaste seemed justified.
But you can’t hold on to ill feelings when they’re no longer valid or relevant.
The buck-a-beer brewer made a big splash at the recent Ontario Brewing Awards, the big winner of the night with two golds, a silver and a bronze out of six entries.
“I was surprised by how well they did,” said awards host Roger Mittag, “but I can tell you they deserve to win.”
Without naming categories, he allowed that some beers won their awards by 0.5 points in the 20-point rating system for appearance, mouth feel, taste and overall impression (five points each).
After a rough start over three years ago, with CO2 leaks, filtering and packaging listed by D’Angelo this week as their “growing pains,” the little brewery in Tiverton, Ont., just southwest of Owen Sound, has changed its ways. But it was a passion for beer that got the company started. “Why should an import sell well when we can brew one just as good domestically?” the apple juice giant said this week of why he entered beer brewing.
But the recipes by quality controller Jayne McGillvray are the same, brewmaster Bob Shami says. The ex-Northern Breweries man was hired full time in November, and has helped streamline some processes.
After the controversy that I may have contributed to as one of the judges, I sat down with the four medalling beers, each $2.50 from the Beer Store in a muscular 710-ml can, sipped and typed away so I could let you know my thoughts.
And dammit, none were bad nor had much aftertaste (not always a good thing).
•Tiverton Bear Honey Lager (gold, honey beers): **** (out of 5)
Pleasant brown sugar and honey sweetness follow a sugar pie nose, with hops to tame the sweet Bear brew with five per cent alcohol per volume. Pure, clean amber in colour. This could very well be Ontario’s best honey beer.
•Steelback Dark Lager (gold, dark lagers): ***
Obvious carbonation from the pour. When I held the glass to my ear, it popped like Rice Crispies. Looks black but it’s a deep amber. Brown sugary sweet nose. Robust burst of CO2 bubbles bounce off the tongue from the first sip. Caramel and molasses notes balanced by coffee-like bitterness.
•Steelback Red (silver, lagers): ***
Noticeable carbonation, some hints of apple and sour citrus, and sharp bitterness up front. The 5.5-alcohol drink is clear blond through and through. The nose evolved from apple cider to butterscotch.
•Steelback Silver (bronze, lagers): ** 1/2
Pale; somewhat carbonated; eggshell-white head; thirst-quenching, hoppy flavour tempers an apply nose.
Don’t believe me? Try them.
Q&A with Steelback brewmaster Bob Shami
by Aonghus Kealy
Q: Were you surprised by the success Steelback enjoyed at the Ontario Brewing Awards?
A: Yeah, it was surprising. We only submitted six and we won four medals. To get two out of three in the lagers category, and we were close to sweeping, it's fair to say and self-congratulatory to say we were the talk of the event. This was surprising, but mostly gratifying. To get it from your peers and acclaimed beer aficionados, that's real praise.
Q: Some people, including beer geeks (visit bartowel.com), are crying foul about Steelback's wins and criticizing the awards as being assessed by judges without credentials, and saying it's a farce that your brewery, based on its previous reputation, won these awards. Why do you think there is such a backlash?
A: I don't know if our reputation was the best. There were some mistakes made (when the brewery first began three and a half years ago). There were some beers produced and sold that shouldn't have been out at the time. There was a lot of enthusiasm when the company was launched, and a lot of it was our beer didn't live up to people's expectations. It's tough to overcome first impressions. The word spread among the beer geeks, as you called them, that we weren't a contender. It's sour grapes. Perhaps we've addressed the problems we've had. People are so reluctant to give us our due. It will be our hard work that will overcome it. We'll win our customers over one by one.
Q: Where do you believe Steelback's bad reputation come from?
A: I'm not even sure. Occasionally, there would be some kind of issue that would result in a recall and then suddenly everything you make is no good (perception). People didn't have history to assuage them that these were isolated incidents. It was a learning process for them. It persisted well beyond anything that is legitimate anymore. ... Some of the beers could have used a little more time or learning curve. I think we're past that now.
Q: What about the comment that Steelback uses kettles and other brewing equipment that was used for the production of apple juice? Is that valid, and does that affect your beer?
A: Some of the equipment here was used in the manufacturing of apple and other fruit concentrates (not D'Angelo juice) before it was used for beer here. To not use a fermenting tank because it formally held apple juice ... that being said, certain kinds of equipment are not amenable to brewing.
When a tank is manufactured, the manufacturer doesn't know if that stainless-steel tank will be used for beer or apple juice. Our brew kettle used to evaporate apple juice, and now it's boiling wort. But it's a boiler.
It's nothing more than a big kettle. That's really a bogus complaint. We're using storage vessels that can be used for any type of liquid food whether it be milk, beer or apple juice. It's temperature-controlled, with a regulator ... you dial in the temperature profile you want for the beer that you're storing. The standard for hygiene and cleanliness, air-actuated controllers, the whole brew house is computer-controlled, it was installed under the guidance of the original brewer and (brewing engineers). It has everything you want in a brewery.
Q: How many tanks do you have, how many of them were used for juice and what is the capacity of your boiling kettle?
A: Six fermenters and six aging tanks. I can't say how many were used to make apple or other fruit concentrates, because I don't know. The kettle 90 hectalitres. It's a tremendous piece of equipment. It's similar to a percolator-type boiler. You get a good rolling boil.
Q: Some people think there is apple flavour in your beers because you're using the former apple juice equipment. Does that make sense?
A: The short answer is no, not with the level of CIP (Clean In Place) cleaning. It's a program of acid-baced cleaners, a sanitizing computer-based program. There is no residue, certainly of something like apple juice. There is no hint that, four years later, there are remnants of apple in this plant. It really is not unusual to use vessels from other beverage industries. We're not Molson, Labatt or Sleeman. Small brewers use what¹s available to them. It's a red herring.
Q: How many hectalitres per year does Steelback produce?
A: (In a jovial tone) I can't tell you. We're a private company. Smaller than Brick, but larger than most of the microbreweries in the province.
Q: What was the feeling like in the room when you accepted the awards?
A: (Steelback quality controller) Jayne McGillvray accepted at the awards ceremony. They're her babies, her recipes. I just thought she did fabulously. A lot of problems (now overcome) were shelf life issues, packaging. Beer is best if it's packaged and consumed within four or five months, with the exception of barley wine. Shelf life is an issue for every brewer. To Jayne go all the kudos. I was a happy bystander at the awards.
Q: What was your brewing background before Steelback?
A: I was with Northern Breweries in Sault Ste. Marie since 1981. A brewer wears a lot of hats in a small company like that ... tour guide, purchase agent I sort of gained a lot of experience in a lot of aspects. It's sort of a blessing. I'm now able to focus on the beer. Some of the equipment (at Northern) was original. The lautertun was original, the malt scales were original. They still refer to the new addition to the cellar in 1968 as "the new cellar."
Q: You still live in Sault Ste. Marie. Do you think you'll move near Tiverton at some point?
A: Well, I fly from Sault Ste. Marie to Toronto, then drive three hours north and west. Some weeks, I stay in the Sault ... It's not in the plans.
This has been working. My family is getting used to it.
Q: Do you think you'll introduce one of the Northern beers to Steelback's portfolio?
A: Red Maple amber beer with maple syrup from the area, it was an award-winning beer ... maybe some version of that would be popular with Steelback. That would be fun to do.
Q: Is there anything you'd like for beer geeks and naysayers to know about your beer?
A: I would challenge those guys to try our beers in a blind taste test. If you're talking about beers from three years ago, they're not the same as they are today.
Q: Anything else that you'd like people to know about Steelback?
A: I'm not going to be shy about dealing with criticism. It will take a long time to win people back. We have letters from people with negative impressions who have turned into fans "Wow, your beers are kinda good." We have several (of these) letters on the lunchroom bulletin board from the last few months. It's very easy to get a bad reputation and hard to earn a good one. I loved getting those letters — good for you for figuring that out, and tell all our friends we make good beer.
Q&A with Frank D¹Angelo, Steelback president and CEO
by Aonghus Kealy
Q: How do you feel about your big night at the Ontario Brewing Awards?
A: We're all quite proud. We're all very happy. It's hard to be respected in Ontario, especially in a province with a lot of great breweries.
Q: Have there been any good responses that have pleased you since the awards night?
A: I was at the awards personally. I was very impressed with all of the microbreweries, who came over to talk to us. Second and third place for the lagers, in my opinion, is a huge compliment in such a competitive category.
Q: After all the troubles your company had in its initial stages and the bad reputation that your company has had to deal with, are you surprised that you're winning awards in Ontario?
A: Three and a half years later, we're beginning to understand exactly what we have to do. This is a big deal for us. I think the Ontario Brewing Awards have spoken. Our biggest weakness was the packaging side ... proper CO2, or issues with how we were filtering and packing. Look at Hyundai, at where they started in the car industry and where they've come. Beer is Canadian culture. It's hard to get respect from brewers that have been around for a very long time. I think winning four awards and a gold medal in honey lagers and the dark ... I'm very proud of my staff in every aspect.
Q: What will this mean for Steelback?
A: I think it's given us a benchmark for us continuing to be consistent.
Q: Some people are criticizing the awards and say that your medals hurt the credibility of the awards, and that some of the judges' credentials are questionable. What are your thoughts on this?
A: The awards are unsolicited. The process of this is probably the fairest process ... Who is the expert? Everybody has a different palate. Another guy drinking a dollar-a-beer it's what you're used to. ... From ground zero for some of our beers, we have increases of 12, 15 per cent per week. We've kind of mastered (the) huge errors on the can packaging side. We're now in B.C. and P.E.I. With the globalization of all the national brands, it's hard to know what's Canadian and not Canadian. It's guys like us and the microbreweries of Ontario who really set the pace.
Q: Have you spoken with your main sponsored spokesman, Phil Esposito, about the awards?
A: Phil was very happy. We have a long-term commitment with Phil. He was very pleased.