MontreAlers Homebrewing Club

by Denis Barsalo, founding and current member – First published 2022

Since the last article I wrote about the MontreAlers in the fall of 2004, a lot has changed. For one, there are very few of the original members left who participate in a regular fashion. This may be due to the fact that there are so many more options for craft beer now as opposed to 20 years ago and that they have given up home brewing, or maybe their lives got too busy with family, work and other responsibilities, or possibly the novelty wore off for them. Regardless, I think those early founding members deserve a lot of recognition for what they achieved by starting and growing the MontreAlers home brewing club.

Homebrewing in the early 2000’s

The club continued for several years as a casual group of home brewers, meeting once a month at someone’s home and occasionally in a brewpub in town, to exchange ideas, recipes, tips and tricks. The main homebrew shops back then were Gordon’s Cave à Vin in N.D.G., Bootleggers in St-Ann-de-Bellevue, La Choppe à Barrock in downtown Montreal and Atelier Bière et Vin on the South Shore. Gordon’s closed and Nathan McNutt who had been working at Gordon’s for a long time, was also an early MontreAler and a supporter of the club. He ended up working at Vinotèque in Dollard-des-Ormeaux and supported the members of the club with discounts and opportunities to get low-cost or free stuff when the company started getting rid or old inventory.

We had regular group buys for grain directly from Canada Malting or Gilbertson & Page since buying bulk was not possible from the shops. I think our first grain group order consisted of about 35 bags of various malts that we spilt among the members. Hops were usually purchased in a similar fashion from American growers/distributors and choices were not as varied as they are today. This was long before the American IPA craze and Citra, Amarillo, Mosaic, Magnum, and other newer breeds were not even available yet. I think the most exotic hop available at the time was Pride or Ringwood and we were just starting to hear about Nelson Sauvin.

As far as yeast is concerned, there certainly wasn’t the large variety available today in terms of dry yeast. You pretty much had Coopers, Nottingham and Windsor, and if I recall most of us brewed mostly with liquid yeast from WYeast. After S-04 came out and shortly thereafter US-05, some of us started using dry yeast from time to time.

Other group buys were occasionally done for hardware or cleaning and sanitizing products; basically anything related to home brewing where a volume discount might be available. I remember buying gallons of iodophor for sanitizing and pails of “Solid” cleaner from a local company called Atomes, which is a locally produced product similar to PBW but less expensive. I participated in group orders of Colder quick disconnects, kegs, bottles, carboys, anything and everything!

This period of the MontreAlers also saw some of our members turn their hobby into a career. In 2004, Nathan McNutt who briefly brewed at Brutopia ended up as the brewer at Réservoir (a Montreal brewpub on Duluth St.) and in the summer of 2006, Benoit Mercier, who was part owner, became the head brewer at Benelux on the corner of Sherbrooke and Jeane-Mance. Since then, several other members have followed their progression to brewing professionally and I know very few homebrewers who haven’t given a thought to “going pro” after having some success as a homebrewer.

Club Changes in the 2010’s

By the time 2009 came around, there had been discussion among some members of incorporating the club, charging a membership fee and making the club more “official”. At the time, we had no directors and no structure, and it was very loose in terms of who did what for whom. We had several members who were also members of the Members of Barleyment (MOB) an Ottawa based homebrew club which consisted mostly of a virtual presence via a mailing list. We had been able to piggyback on their mail server and had hosted our own mailing list for several years already. In fact, that’s how the group really started growing rapidly. Meetings were starting to get pretty crowded and events quickly sold out due to capacity. There was some serious grumbling from several original members about the thought of making the club more structured, some of which withdrew and never participated again while others thought this was the best direction to go if we wanted the club to grow and prosper. We pointed out that an official incorporated club would give us more power in terms of getting sponsored and possibly lobbying government to change some of the antiquated liquor laws that prohibit us from doing certain things as homebrewers such as sharing beers and holding certain events.

In the fall of 2010, the MontreAlers Homebrewing Club was registered and incorporated with Anthony (Jaf) Wilson, Teklad (Tico) Pavisian and Denis Barsalo as their three officers (President, Vice-President and Secretary/Treasurer). This allowed us to open a bank account and start working out the first version of our by-laws. We held our first official AGM on May 7th, 2011 at the Brouhaha brewpub where approximately 40 members showed up and our first elections were held. The club’s first elected directors were Jaf as President, Tico as Vice-President, Troy Needoba as Treasurer, Yannick Gingras as Secretary and Christian Savard as Member at Large.

The club continued to associate themselves with the Canadian Amateur Brewers Association (CABA) for a few more years, taking on the responsibility of running CABA’s March In Montreal (MiM) which had been a very popular event for Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax area homebrewers for 20+ years. I had been CABA’s Regional Director for Montreal and I ran CABA’s MiM several years after their previous organizers Graham Bigland and Deborah Wood stepped down. The event consisted of some sort of conference on a brewing topic held in the morning followed by a luncheon and a bus tour to either a malting facility and/or several breweries. There was also a MiM competition rolled into the event and in the years that Graham and Deborah ran it, the day included an awards dinner upon returning to town from the bus tour.

I believe the first year I ran the event I had Greg Noonan come up from Burlington and speak about the challenges of going pro. At another MiM, we had Peter McAuslan talk about his personal experience of opening one of Quebec’s first successful microbrewery. One year, we had CABA’s president Paul Dickey guide us through a doctored beer tasting, helping us identify specific flavours and defects typically found in beer. I always tried to hold these events in Montreal’s newest brewpub in order to show the out-of-town people what we had to offer. I believe in the years I ran March in Montreal, we had conferences at Dieu du Ciel, Réservoir, Brutopia, L’Amère à Boire, and even at the Académie restaurant on St-Denis where their BYOB policy allowed us to do a guided tasting of various Quebec Amber beers. When I took over, I decided that the luncheon would become our Awards presentation for the competition and I dropped the dinner from the event.

The competition usually had one category called: “Look-a-like” which was an attempt to involve one of the breweries and brewers we were going to visit after lunch. That category would be judged by the brewery and the award would be given out at the brewery during the visit. Some of the beers that I remember trying to copy were “Coeur d’Or” from the defunct brewery “Le Chaudron”, “La Maudite” and “La Blanche de Chambly” from Unibroue, and “St Ambroise Pale Ale” from McAuslan. These were some of the more popular beers back then and homebrewers enjoyed trying to replicate them at home. All these beers would have been judged by the brewer/owner/staff of each brewery and the award given to the homebrewer who came closest to cloning the beer in question. Both the event and competition continued to be quite successful, selling out yearly and seeing well over 200 beers in the competition. I had started attending CABA events both in Montreal (MiM) and in Toronto from as far back as 1995 and kept meeting more and more Montreal brewers most of which eventually became MontreAlers.

Eventually, CABA started to fizzle out and the MontreAlers thought it best to no longer partner with them. Instead, they started running their own competitions and their own bus tours on the day of the annual general meeting in an attempt to attract more people to attend the AGM and hopefully participate and volunteer for board positions.

The present and future

When I first started judging homebrew competitions back in the late 1990s, the task was somewhat easier since there was usually only one, two or three outstanding beers in a flight of 8 or more beers. It was usually pretty obvious who deserved gold, silver and bronze, and which beers would get the minimum score for having failed completely. What I’ve noticed over the years is that with the information available on the Internet, along with the support of homebrew clubs such as the MontreAlers, the quality of homebrew has greatly improved and judging a flight of beers has become much more difficult. Now, gold medals often go to beers scoring in the upper 40s (out of 50 available points) and unless your beers scores into the upper 30s, there’s very little chance of getting bronze. I have often spent much longer debating with other judges on the merit of which beer deserves a higher score since you often end up with several beers in the 38 to 42 point range which back then would have easily won gold but now might not even medal at all.

The availability of homebrewing equipment has also taken off with more and more brewers using conical fermenters, automation, Grainfather-type setups, Brew-in-a-bag systems, etc. This allows the process to be more easily streamlined and repeatable time after time giving the homebrewer a chance to reproduce successful brews or tweak them to perfection.

Styles have also evolved due to the availability of new high alpha hops, hops with flavours ranging from pine to pineapple and yeasts such as Kveik. There are more and more homebrewers getting into highly hopped cloudy NEIPA, sour beers, spice, herb, fruit and vegetable additions.  In fact, there are no limits to the creativity that I’ve seen recently. When I think back to when American IPAs were considered “pushing the envelope” I can’t help but laugh at what might be trending in years to come.

In recent years, we’ve seen phenomenal growth in membership, outstanding events such as the very popular Ironaler or conferences with some pretty stellar speakers such as John Palmer (How to Brew), Stan Hieronymus (“For the Love of Hops”), Raphael Sanregret (InnoMalt), and Alex Bastien (Houblon Bastien), Eric Abbott (Lallemand yeast) and  Chris Saunders (Escarpment Labs).

Unfortunately, in 2020 we’ve also seen the passing of some of our former members, some going back to the early days of the club. Just this past year we lost Mike Ward who I met during the CABA events of the mid-1990’s and became one of the first MontreAlers, Stephen Silverthorne also an early MontreAler and Christopher Needleman who had been a board member for several years and the MontreAlers’ president at the time of his passing.

The club continues to expand with a new website, an online forum to replace our old mailing list, new homebrewers finding us and wanting to learn and exchange ideas, sponsors being added, bigger and better events, conferences and competitions. Looks like the club’s future is in good hands with the stewardship that is now in place and the MontreAlers are well positioned to keep the club alive and growing for several years to come.