Garage-brewed gold

Tara Rafiq photo illustration

Home brewing is reaching new heights during COVID-19, so it’s the perfect time to revisit this story about one of Canada’s most active homebrewing clubs from our spring 2020 issue

Homebrewing is a perennially popular hobby, albeit one that has gone through peaks and troughs over time. Making beer by yourself at home is an involving process that can be fun and interesting, but the best part is sharing that beer with other people. Someone has to drink the five gallons of homebrew, and no matter how attractive going it alone may seem at first blush, eventually you’re going to crave variety. For this reason, homebrew groups have long been an important resource for the zymurgically bent.

These organizations tend to be run by passionate individuals in their spare time, which means that unfortunately, they can fall off the map at any time. Groups like CABA (the Canadian Amateur Brewers Association) and  SOB (Southern Ontario Brewers) have come and gone, but the individual members tend to have amateur brewing careers that span the lifetimes of multiple groups. GTA Brews currently holds the title as the largest homebrew association in Canada, and may very possibly be the largest in the country’s history. With 2,350 members on their Facebook group, GTA Brews is a phenomenal resource not just to learn about homebrewing, but for conversations about all things beer.

This popularity is particularly impressive when you consider that the group began with five members in 2013, and featured something like two beers from each member at the first club meeting. The January 2020 get-together at Toronto’s Muddy York Brewing will be attended by about 70 members, each of whom is likely to bring two or three of their recent efforts.

Lest you think of it merely as a drinking club, there are also presentations on highly technical matters including club president Eric Cousineau delivering the fifth iteration of his research on brewing water chemistry, a presentation on bock beers by longtime member Emily Storey, and special guest, Lizanne Pharand from Toronto Water. Looking ahead through 2020, the majority of the meetings scheduled are of this calibre. The online record for these talks ( is one of the best sets of brewing information available for amateurs.

Certified judges get to take a considered approach to feedback at the GTA Brew Slam. Supplied photo

Most importantly, however, is their annual competition: The GTA Brew Slam. It’s the largest amateur brewing contest in Canada, and, despite the name, features national competition in a plethora of styles. For 2019, the number of paid entries reached an incredible 819 out of the 850 cap maintained by the organizers, with the most popular category being Standard IPA. A whopping 281 separate participants entered the competition, with a restriction to two entries per participant in the first week of registration to ensure that everyone gets a kick at the can. That rule update came after three participants had entered 40 beers each in a previous competition.

All of this effort requires 14 members of the organization to take on different administrative roles for the judging in order to make the event work. There’s a head judge, head steward, cellar master, and registrar, not to mention a team of 134 volunteers and 77 BJCP certified judges, all of whom provide detailed feedback. It’s currently the single largest pool of judges in the country, and the quality of the event is such that in the last two years, judging has included homebrewing legends from the American scene like Gordon Strong and John Palmer.

It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Brew Slam garners more respect than the Ontario Brewing Awards and Canadian Brewing Awards in international circles, partially due to the supporting club meetings and moderated online group. It certainly seems to be the case that the judges prefer to judge Brew Slam.

This is partially due to the fact that it’s taken extremely seriously. The event takes three days to judge. For the last several years, the host has been Amsterdam Brewing’s Leaside facility in Toronto. Each beer is considered independently as part of a beer style group by a team of two judges, with an average flight size of seven samples. If it’s a larger group, the best examples from each flight move on to the second round of judging. The amount of time allotted permits for a relaxed, considered atmosphere where palate fatigue is unlikely to be an issue, even in hop-heavy categories.

Speaking personally, I have judged international competitions in which there might be 100 samples over the course of a single day. When I judged the comparatively reasonable Canadian Brewing Awards this year, it included something like 60 beers over the course of four judging sessions. Extrapolated over the same amount of time, I would have judged half as many for Brew Slam. It’s an environment conducive to better feedback, and when you consider the disparity in entry costs and therefore budget (10 dollars per beer for Brew Slam, 100 dollars per beer for the Canadian Brewing Awards), it’s entirely possible that Brew Slam is the best-run beer competition in the country.

In addition to bragging rights, the 2019 edition featured approximately $24,000 worth of prizes and the opportunity for pro-am collabs. Marcelo Paniza, who won the pilsner category in 2018 managed to parlay his collaboratively brewed bock with Toronto’s Henderson Brewing into a Best of Show award at the Ontario Brewing Awards and a gold medal at the Canadian Brewing Awards. He now has his own contract-brewed line of beer out of Junction Brewing in Toronto Stockyards district. Your mileage may vary.

One thing is for certain: as an organization, GTA Brews is a tremendous force for education, information, and companionship for anyone who’s interested in taking up homebrewing as a hobby or for anyone interested in learning more about the technical aspects of beer. Membership to their Facebook group is free, the conversation is lively, and the passion displayed by the members for their subject is not only admirable but unmatched in this country.

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