A history of Ontario’s Iron Brewer competition

Local brewers sample each others’ wares and size up the competition at the 2022 Iron Brewer competition. Paul Dickey photo

One of the most interesting (yet under-the-radar) brewing competitions takes place right on our doorstep: Iron Brewer, held by the Master Brewers Association of America, Ontario District.

Iron Brewer is an annual competition held among and for Ontario District members. It is a unique chance not just to test their skills and versatility, but to do it before their own Ontario peers. They brew at small scale and bring ten litres to judge at an awards event hosted by an Ontario brewery. Instead of representing their employer they compete for bragging rights on their own behalf. This year, Avling Kitchen & Brewery in Toronto hosted the Awards. In 2022 it was Hamilton’s Clifford Brewery, while Stonehooker Brewery held the honours in 2021.

Origins and Organizers

To learn more about Iron Brewer, I sat down with Paul Dickey, until recently its long-time organizer. He developed the competition in 2010 as an initiative of MBAA Ontario’s Technical Committee. Paul was a key member of the influential Canadian Amateur Brewers Association, garnering many awards. He also brewed for numerous Ontario breweries, including his own, Cheshire Valley Brewery. Adding to this, he is a BJCP judge-Grand Master level, and a busy brewing consultant. A few years ago, veteran home brewer Ian Johnson joined with Dickey in the organizational duties. In 2023, Aaron Spinney (Merit Brewing) and Geoff Wiseman (Foundry Brewery) took over these responsibilities along with Johnson.

How the Brewing Works

Contestants select some or all of the ingredients from a package distributed by organizers but may not add anything—no grain, sugar, water adjustment, etc. They can brew any style. Suppliers associated with MBAA Ontario donate malt, hops, and other ingredients, and package contents change every year.

This year the package included malts (Euro Pilsner, Rahr 2-Row, Golden Promise, Vienna Malt, Caramunich II, and Pale Chocolate), hops (Eclipse, Topaz, a New Zealand blend, and a numbered experimental variety), yeast strains (Thiol Libre, Clean Ale Yeast, Nova Lager, and Verdant IPA), and more esoteric ingredients like Coriander, passion fruit extract, and watermelon extract.

Ingredients for 2023 were contributed by Escarpment Laboratories, BGS Canada, Brew Culture, Canada Malting/Country Malt Group, Hops Connect, Lallemand, Monarch Tea, T45 Hops, and Yakima Chief.

The winners of 2022’s competition (Iron Brewer Scott Darby, left photo, and People’s Choice Winner Dave Coutts), as congratulated by the extremely accomplished Paul Dickey.

Event Participation and Judging

Up to 16 competitors present their beers at stands. In the past tickets were sold only to MBAA Ontario members but this year a limited number of tickets was made available to the public, part of the proceeds of which go to Breast and Prostate Cancer Research. Each ticket brings with it the right to taste the competing beers and sample complimentary snacks. Attendance has reached around one hundred in recent years, impressive for an intramural event in a relatively small brewing community.

Judging for Iron Brewer is done by an expert panel of three blind-tasters, currently Dirk Bendiak, Marta Horofker and Kevin Hryclik. In 2015 a second award was added, the People’s Choice. All attendees at the Awards get to vote for People’s Choice. Last year Scott Darby won Iron Brewer for an I.P.A., with Dave Coutts winning People’s Choice for his Marzen. The year before, Steven He snagged Iron Brewer for a New Zealand Pils, with People’s Choice going to Ian Johnson for a Dunkelweizen. The winners of Iron Brewer and People’s Choice earn a spot in the next year’s competition. A spot is also reserved for the hosting venue, and a student selected by Niagara College Teaching Brewery.

One of the great things about the competition is the way it permits an entrant’s creativity to blossom. Consider Ian Johnson’s 2021 Dunkelweizen: “We were given quite a bit of wheat and a huge variety of dark malts. While there wasn’t a major ingredient, it made sense to create a flavour profile that would be equivalent to Munich Malt. With the Weizen I yeast, a Dunkelweizen made sense. You look at the box and ask, ‘what can I do with this?’ It’s improvisatory.”

Using a limited number of ingredients to brew any style, a variety of tastes will emerge. Yet, the entries have a certain unity, since they use largely the same ingredients–which justifies judging them as a group. The results depend on whatever imagination the brewers bring to the assignment.

The Future is Wide Open

Iron Brewer has made a unique mark on the beer judging landscape, and the future holds even more promise. Geoff Wiseman considers the program a great confidence-booster, especially for assistant and younger brewers, himself included at an earlier stage. He hopes to encourage more of this segment to participate. According to co-organizer Aaron Spinney, “We’re proud and happy to carry on the legacy that is the Iron Brewer… We’re looking forward to bringing the excitement back to the Iron Brewer event post-Covid lock downs. We’re off to the races.”

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