Brewer vs Brewer: The Steeltown Edition

Aaron Spinney, head brewer at Merit Brewing, which he owns with partners Tej Sandhu and Jesse Vallins. Supplied photo

Hamilton is a hot spot for Ontario’s craft beer and Merit and Clifford are leading the way

When I ask Ontario brewers about the beer they drink, many cop to being too busy to sample widely. They tell me that when they’re not drinking their own stuff, they fall back on established favourites.

Pressed to name names for who makes those standbys, none come up more often than Aaron Spinney and Brad Clifford.

These two head brewers lead small brewing teams at two of Ontario’s best-known and successful breweries. But, day to day, they both still have a hand firmly on the mash paddle.

Aaron Spinney—or just Spinney to almost everyone—left a prime gig as head brewer at Sawdust City to start Merit with partners Tej Sandhu and Jesse Vallins. Since opening in May 2017, they have become a thriving brewpub, drawing beer (and sausage) connoisseurs to the James Street strip in downtown Hamilton.

Brad Clifford, head brewer and owner at Clifford Brewing. Supplied photo

After leaving his nanobrewery at Get Well in Toronto to move to Hamilton, Brad Clifford spent a few years searching for the perfect location to build a production-size brewery. About six months after Merit did, he threw open the doors on his taproom in East Hamilton.

The attention on Hamilton’s beer scene really came into focus in last May when Clifford took home brewery of the year at the Canadian Brewing Awards. So, naturally, we talked about awards, but we also found out what their day looks like and the beer styles they’re excited about at the moment. Of course, they both had high praise for their Steeltown neighbours.

With growler fills and top-notch food, Merit really is a classic, you-have-to-visit brewpub experience. Supplied photo

GROWLER: What’s your day like at the head of a brewing team? How has it changed in the few years since you opened?

SPINNEY: Opening a brewpub was a dream Tej and I were working on three years prior to opening. I was working at Sawdust before that and as we got everything going we decide to keep it small, at first at least.

I had to reestablish [at Merit] and I really had to prove it, prove to myself. So I tried to take on every role in the brewing process for the first year and a half, which worked out but then, obviously, growth starts to happen so you start to burn out pretty quickly.

March 27 was our first brew and I didn’t take a day off until I had a buddy’s bachelor party on Labour Day weekend. It was a great way to start, but I feel like at some you just start having a hard time trying to find the energy for the smaller details and processes and tweaking and stuff so last January we ended up hiring another brewer.

CLIFFORD: It’s a lot of managing how to do projects because we’re growing pretty fast. I’ve always gotta find more efficient ways to do things. I’m actually doing some training as well. I have a new hire right now who is washing kegs and we’re gonna brew our Vienna lager tomorrow morning.

I am the owner, manager—everything, pretty much—face of the brewery and I’m also still the head brewer. I do have a brewing assistant, which is very helpful.

It’s a mix every day. I end up getting involved with every aspect of everything going on all the time.

GROWLER: Do you have a flagship beer? Is that an important idea for your brewery?

The science behind the use of hops has totally changed our perspective.

With growler fills and top-notch food, Merit really is a classic, you-have-to-visit brewpub experience. Supplied photo

SPINNEY: It definitely matters for sure. Especially in this constantly growing market. We have an IPA called Young Rival that’s our flagship.

We’re really proud of the idea that it’s constantly evolving, not just with ingredients and what we’re learning but also with the trends and the new science coming out, too. Not only have we adjusted the yeast we use over the last couple of years but hopping rates. And also different ratios of grain with more oats and wheat to create more of that haze. So we were out in front of that even though it’s a flagship brand and we’re really proud of it.

We’re also happy to tell everyone that this is going to change for the better because it’s a project that we want to continue to evolve with and learn new skills. The science behind the use of hops has totally changed our perspective. When Sammy [Corbeil] and I were brewing together at Sawdust we were focusing on hot side and putting everything in the kettle or the whirlpool. And now all the science is going to cold side fermentation and dry hopping—you have to grow with it.

Porter is a constant for Clifford—and the only beer in the lineup that doesn’t reference their East Hamilton home. Supplied photo

CLIFFORD: Our flagship is definitely still porter. It’s our number one LCBO seller. I’m brewing more porter than any other beer. Through the spring and summer, even, I would say we average 100 hectolitres of porter.

I do tinker with a bit. Out of all my recipes, it’s probably the most consistent. I’ve been brewing it since I was homebrewing. and while all those years helped it grow, It is the exact same recipe.

GROWLER: Are beer awards worth it? Brad, have you seen a bump since winning at the CBAs?

SPINNEY: As a branding, marketing and consumer standpoint the general public finds it fascinating. We don’t enter. It’s just so expensive.

From a Canadian standpoint, they are gaining some respect. It’s nice to see awards. We’re not brewing beer for that reason.

I was as surprised as anyone to find out that we won brewery of the year. I’m still surprised.

CLIFFORD: I can see their perspective. But it’s nice to be recognized for high quality. Obviously, there are hundreds or thousands of entries from breweries who do enter and do care. I’ve said: “They don’t care when they don’t win and they do care when do they win.” I’m the same way.

I was as surprised as anyone to find out that we won brewery of the year. I’m still surprised.

Clifford says Devil’s Punchbowl was developed when he dry-hopped leftover East Hamilton lager. David Ort photo

GROWLER: Hamilton is great for drinkers because of choice—what’s it like brewing there?

SPINNEY: They need a bag of sugar, we’re their neighbour. Super happy to work with Fairweather all the time and Grain and Grit. We follow each other closely and it seems like there’s a lot of similarities. The quality is continuously growing which is amazing and that’s where the opportunity is.

GROWLER: What’s on the horizon?

CLIFFORD: The big thing is we’re doing a lot more live music here. My brother, who’s a musician, is booking bands from around Hamilton and also up from the States. A mix of Americana, rock, rockabilly. It’s bringing in a lot of people and I love music—partly because I used to play drums.

SPINNEY: We’re really pushing the boundaries. We have a unique opportunity being on the doorstep of Niagara. I love wine. I like hanging out with winemakers. We love doing these hybrids.

We just put out two white-wine lagers, which are fantastic. An orange wine concept with a rice lager base. These are something that we’re going to slowly release over the year. We’ll have a gamay-rosé-gose hybrid. We’re going to put it in clear bottles since there’s no hops.

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