Beer Column: Wooden Horse rides high with health brew

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Beer is touted to have many health benefits, from decreasing heart disease and reducing kidney stones to increasing bone density among women.

But it seems to me that a tiny new brewery in Niagara might be taking it to a whole new level.

Wooden Horse Brewing was established a year ago, contract brewing out of the Niagara College Teaching Brewery where co-owner Brad Barta is both a graduate and part-time instructor.

Currently available only in bars in Toronto-Niagara, Wooden Horse’s roster seems pretty straightforward until you hit Saison Kombucha, a summer seasonal, which earns a gold star from me for innovation and for what promises to be a big hit among health-conscious craft beer drinkers.

The recipe was developed with kombucha, flavoured with pineapple and sage made by the wife of Brad’s business partner and blended with a saison to balance the crispness of the kombucha.

“All of the serious craft beer bars wanted to try it and we had great reviews and feedback,” Brad said. “One of the biggest challenges with this beer is that the kombucha is full of probiotics, therefore it is still alive with bacteria and yeast, and continues to slowly ferment in the keg. Ideally this beer needs to be put on tap fresh.”

Wooden Horse won’t be alone for long in the Ontario kombucha category. In London, Booch Organic Kombucha is in the process of getting a licence for kombucha beer. There are already similar brews on the market in the U.S.

Kombucha is a slightly fermented Chinese tea, noted for its probiotics and B vitamins. Advocates praise it for helping digestion and boost the immune system.

“Ontario regulations are very strict about calling any alcoholic beverage ‘healthy,’ so we certainly can’t market it in that way, but if a beer lover wants a low alcohol beer (3.6 per cent abv) that utilizes fresh ingredients of fruit and herbs as well as the probiotic benefits that kombucha is known for, this is the beer for them,” Brad said. “Are there any other beers out there that offer such benefits? Not that I know of.”

Wooden Horse’s Saison Kombucha brewing has wrapped up for this summer and it will return in 2018. Meanwhile, Brad has another interesting trick up his sleeve: A 4.7 per cent alcohol sessionable stout.

Stouts, enjoyable as they are, are usually a one-and-done, end-of-meal thing, so the notion of a dark beauty being sessionable is intriguing.

“The real intent with the stout was to make a flavourful stout that wasn’t in and of itself a whole meal,” Brad said. “Light with hints of roasted barley and coffee (without actually using coffee). We wanted a stout that you can drink many of, and that is the most common response that we get from people.”

The recipe was developed with women, who make up 40 per cent of Ontario craft beer drinkers, in mind.

“Many don’t realize that the most common beer among women is stout — a huge market/consumer of beer that most breweries don’t give the time of day to,” Brad said.

The innovation of kombucha and a sessionable stout aside, these are not the beers that pay the bills.

Like most other craft brewery, it’s sales of IPAs and, increasingly, pilsners that keep the lights on.

“Our most popular beer is our Northern Pilsner,” Brad said. “What makes our pilsner ‘Northern’, i.e. Canadian, is that I include some Canadian malted rye to the grain bill (the Germans would be pissy about that), but it adds that little bit of spiciness that you get with malted rye.”

Wooden Horse’s Bavarian IPA has a pronounced bitterness and won a Golden Boot award from TAPS Magazine.

On the business side, plans for a bricks-and-mortar location as well as retailing through the LCBO and Beer Store progress. Craft beer lovers should watch for this up-and-coming brand, or get the jump by making haste to craft-friendly pubs in Toronto-Niagara.

Wayne Newton is a freelance journalist based in London. 

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