You could forgive Ralf Pittroff for getting antsy late in July, or shuddering when people talk about the transition between July and August.
At that time of year, the brewmaster at Vancouver Island Brewery ought to be in his element — it’s the height of beer-drinking weather and fresh beers fly out of the brewery each day. But Pittroff knows a shadow looms around the corner.
A 17-year veteran at the brewery, Pittroff must prepare for the brewery’s winter visitor: The inky black Hermannator starts to make demands.
The seasonal brew, which turns 25 this year, requires a demanding process that begins at a time when Pittrof’s brewhouse undertakes some of its hardest work.
“People don’t look forward to [that time of year],” Pittroff said with a laugh. “They look forward to the result, though.”
The hard work and three months of conditioning does, however, appear to be worth it, even if Pittroff cringes at the thought that it all starts again in about seven months.
A beer originally conceived of and brewed by brewmaster Hermann Hoerterer 25 years ago as a winter treat for his friends and family, Hermannator has become the harbinger of winter for beer aficionados and the signal that the nights are getting longer and other winter-styled beers are about to appear on shelves.
“It is a very unique beer. We’ve been doing it since 1987, and back then it was a game-changing, mind-blowing kind of beer,” said Rob Ringma, marketing manager for Vancouver Island Brewery.
“Today there are a lot of other stronger beers out there, but back then a 9.5 per cent alcohol beer was very different.”
In Victoria, all the craft brewers now have seasonal beers that come out when the temperatures drop. There are barley wines and malty offerings from each of them.
“The really gratifying thing for us is that Hermannator has been around so long, and it really stands on its own. The quality is still there, and consumers come back year after year,” Ringma said.
Pittroff said the hype around the beer has been there since the brewery started selling it. At first, there was a cult following that would swoop in quickly to buy the small batches of it that were made.
But demand grew, and the brewery tried to keep up.
Ringma said they are committed to keeping Hermannator a small-batch brew that is available for a limited time, though they have increased production.
They now make about 200 hectolitres of Hermannator. As a comparison, in a given year, they will make roughly 2,000 hectolitres of the popular Piper’s Pale Ale.
Pittroff said while production has increased, there has been virtually no change in the recipe Hoerterer came up with, though the brewers have moved to a smoother specialty malt.
Pittroff said it was a bit daunting to take over the recipe, but overseeing the increase in production was more of a challenge — one he still faces today.
“The brewhouse we have is not meant for the malt load, but to produce a beer like that, you have to go beyond the limits,” he said.
This year’s Hermannator has been bottled in regular-sized bottles and a 650-millilitre “bomber style” bottle. Both have a limited-edition label, though the larger size, available only at the brewery, comes hand-dipped in black wax to offer a more permanent seal.
Ringma said that was done to allow some beer lovers to let the brew age.
There was also a limited amount of the brew put into kegs for sale at a few local pubs — Garrick’s Head Pub, the Beagle Pub, Yates Street Tap House, Tudor House Pub and the Bard & Banker still had some left as of the middle of this week.
Pittroff recommends drinking Hermannator chilled, but not too cold — between six and eight degrees Celsius — in a cognac or tulip-styled glass that’s not filled to the top, in order to allow the aroma of the brew to get into the nose.
- - -
Winter brews from Victoria’s craft breweries
Vancouver Island Brewery
Storm Watcher winter lager at 5.5 per cent alcohol
Hermannator Ice Bock at nine per cent alcohol and Dough Head Gingerbread Ale at 5.5 per cent alcohol.
- - -
Instigator Doppelbock, a full-roasted flavour and deep amber body that comes in at 8.5 per cent alcohol
Trainwreck Barley Wine, a lightly carbonated malty sweet beer aged in Kentucky bourbon oak, 10 per cent alcohol.
- - -
Gratitude, a full-bodied, slightly spicy strong ale billed as a winter warmer at nine per cent alcohol.
- - -
Siren Imperial Red Ale, a rich malty body with an assertive hop bitterness coming in at eight per cent alcohol.
- - -
Old Cellar Dweller (Barley Wine Style Ale) in two styles: traditional that is tank conditioned and Kentucky bourbon-barrel aged, 11.8 per cent alcohol.
© Copyright 2013