After I shut off my recorder, Cam Fryer reflected a little further on the brew schedule ahead of him. Royal City's Smoked Honey was about to hit the LCBO and, he'd heard, a "honeymoon period" of demand was bound to follow. It was an overcast Friday when I sat down with him in Royal City Brewing's storefront/front of house/brewery on Victoria St., but there'd already been enough summer preview that I couldn't help but think of my own time spent in breweries – the emotional and physical bolstering every employee goes through leading up to the busiest time of the year; that joyful sort of resignation. The more people want to drink your beer, the more you have to make. It's a success and approval that you rarely get to pause and bask in.
Royal City launched in June of last year and, from the sound of things, Fryer hasn't had much of a break since then. I asked him if the reality of owning and operating, along with childhood friend Russ Bateman, his own brewery had sunken in yet. When you're up against the tank all day, he tole me, it's hard to see the forest for the trees. But from time to time someone will point out to him that he's "living the dream." Indeed, working in a brewery has, over the past few years, become pretty romanticized. Fyer doesn't disagree, cops to feeling fortunate, but I get the idea that his idea of that dream is a bit more realistic. In the background of our talk a pump was whining and kegs were constantly clattering and there was that sweet buttery smell of yeast being bled onto the floor. As we got closer to the end of the day, the end of the work week, the storefront started to fill up with people grabbing growlers, here maybe for the first time and rightfully asking after each of the nine Royal City beers chalked up on the menu board. The math of it's simple: every bit of beer that leaves the space needs to be replaced. In this sort of work there aren't really such things as breaks; there's just waiting to get back to work.
Did you start out home brewing?
I started out in Great Lakes in Toronto. I was a delivery guy. I’d fill in on the line if they needed me; box beer, do a bit of everything. That was where I learned to brew. The first beer I ever made was with Mike Lackey, which was kinda awesome. That’s a good way to start. The next day I went out and bought a [home brew] kit. I knew I wasn't going to get to brew at Great Lakes as often as I wanted to.
When was that?
Five years ago… What year is it? 2015? So, yeah, five years ago. Time flies these days…
I’ve been a beer nut my whole life. Russ and I grew up in Aurora drinking Guelph beer. We grew up stealing Wellington from our dads. Sleeman Dark and Wellington County Ale is what the supply was at the time. Both of our parents I’m sure knew we were ripping beer off of them. I mean, I’d miss beer all the time if my kid was taking it from me...
But that’s neither here nor there. I’ve been a beer nerd my whole life, and had done everything to do with it except make it professionally up til a year ago. I’ve delivered it, I’ve cleaned it up off floors, I’ve served it. I’ve made it in my basement. This was the next logical step.
I feel like for years that was the trajectory in the industry. You start by loading bottles and, if you had the interest, eventually learn the whole process on up to brewing. Now, with programs like Niagara College, there seems to an increasingly academic entry into brewing. Do you think it’s a different experience starting in school instead of from the ground up?
For me, it doesn’t matter so much how you come to making beer. There’s definitely a lot of value to doing an academic program that’ll give you a grounding in the basics, but I think there’s a lot of value in experience as well. We’re the sum of our experiences. That’s who we are. Whether that experience is throwing kegs around or being in a classroom, there’s value and benefit to both those things. A person who has both is probably the better brewer.
I was a history teacher before I started making beer, so… The reason I didn’t look at the Niagara program was I had three degrees already and didn’t want to go back to school – that’s enough. I’m done. For anyone who’s thinking about going to school, I’d say be sure that brewing is absolutely what you want to do before going. Try to work in a brewery before doing it. It's not sexy work. Brewing's hard, it’s hot – it’s not like there are Oompa Loompas filling the tanks. People have this idea…
“I’ll just drink beer all day!”
Yeah. That they can show up at noon, prance around, drink some beer, somehow the tanks will get full, and they'll go home at the end of the day. But this is dirty, hot, heavy work.
Don’t make any weeknight plans.
That’s it. I really recommend people get a grounding of what the actual job looks like. Not everyone who walks out [of a program] gets to be a brewer. I get to be head brewer because Royal City’s my brewery. But not everyone can walk right into a position in a brewery where they can be creative, or get to make recipes, or get to guide or direct the way the beer works. A lot of them might start out as a shift brewer. You start at eight at night and work until four in the morning. It’s not always glamorous. I've been home for about 365 hours in the past year – awake, at least.
So did you and Russ sit around a campfire when you were kids and make a promise that you’d open up a brewery before you were 40 or something?
Russ and I grew up together. I’ve known him 22… 23 years? 24 years maybe. What year is it?
I started home brewing, and Russ thought he wanted to make beer too. So we started brewing together and it got to the point where we decided, What the hell, let’s do this for real. We did a fair bit of research, looked at where the industry was and where we were, and decided that Guelph had a lot of room. In the overall percentages, craft beer is still very minimal. There’s a lot of room for growth. We live in Guelph, it’s our town and our home, and this is such an awesome place for supporting local things. I happily tell people that there’s really not another place like Guelph. This is a two degree of separation town. If you know one person, you pretty much know 130 000 others. It’s a very special place. I came here the first time as an undergrad and stayed.
There’s a saying: you’re either a Guelphite by birth or a Guelphite by design.
That’s pretty much it. After I graduated, I moved abroad. Then I moved to Toronto and quickly got out of there, came back here. Based on how the landscape looked, Guelph was the perfect place for something like Royal City. It’s a craft beer town. You don’t need to sell anybody on craft. Everyone’s eager to try it. With Welly expanding right now, we thought there’d be a bit of a vacuum. As they grow out, there’s a bit of space behind them for us to step into.
We really want to be Guelph's brewery. That was our intention when we sized ourselves. We wanted to focus on being a brewery for the local market. I think Oakville is the furthest away we go, but that's just because they come here to pick it up.
How’d you land in the location you're in now?
We spent probably five months looking for a spot. That was one of the biggest headaches we had, finding the place. We had two models we were working off. One involved a lot of walk-in traffic for the storefront. The other involved the production facility and licensee sales. The problem with working in Guelph is the city deems brewing to be a light manufacturing, which means the property must be in an industrial area. There are very few of those areas close to downtown. Here is one of the closest areas would could have got to the centre of the city. That’s why the other breweries are way out on the periphery where space is cheaper and easier to come by. But this is a good spot, just on Victoria, pretty busy, it’s in the Ward, the Ward’s awesome.
Did you use consultants to set up the brewing system?
Nope. We did it ourselves. Part of what we’ve did for the past two years was visit every brewery we possibly could, see what they’d done, why they’d done it. We sized our tanks off what we thought Guelph’s volume would be, what we’d be able to provide for the local market. We were a little conservative. Really, would should be twice the size we are.
How many fermentation tanks are you working with?
We have 9000 litres for fermentation capacity – 90 hectolitres. We only have a five hec beer run, which means I brew a lot. A lot. We have eight fermentors – five 1 000 litres, three 500 litres. We have a bright tanks for each beer run and 10 one hectolitre tanks for pilot beers.
Just looking at the board now, you’ve got, what, nine beers on?
We try to run nine at any point in time. That’s the goal, to always have nine beers on. The four regulars we always have: the Dry Hopped Pale Ale, Smoked Honey, 100 Steps Stout, and Suffolk St. Session. We strive to always have those on. We try to have about three rotating and a couple pilots available at any point in time.
|Royal City's house board as of May 2.
How did you establish those standards?
We knew what boxes we had to check. Smoked Honey I’ve been making for the longest time – probably three or four years now. I’m probably happiest with that recipe. It’s our flagship beer right now. It’s just different. It’s a dark beer, but it drinks fairly light. The honey gets fermented out, so it’s not sweet at all, which is different from a lot of honey beers. And it’s very conservatively smoked. My thinking was, we’ve done some IPAs in the past, and certainly everyone’s looking for IPAs right now. Assuming we could make a fantastic IPA, we’ll be throwing that on the market with a hundred other fantastic IPAs. Where would we be standing out? We have our Exhibition IPA right now, which has been fairly popular, but otherwise we don’t do much on that spectrum.
Two things that I personally like to drink are English ales and German lagers. Those are my two favourite styles, or umbrellas, of beer. And I like to make stuff that I like to drink.
Most of your recipes come from your own home brewing?
Mostly yes. The Suffolk St. Sessions was not. The Dry Hopped, 100 Step, and the Smoked Honey are home brew recipes. Everything else are pilots that we’ve tried since opening this place.
There's been this hop craze the past few years that sort of reminds me of that period where every indie rock band had to have a string section. Do you see that starting to change?
Why I think the craft brew movement this time is here to say – and there’ve been some other minor craft brew explosions in the late 80s, as soon as it was legal to brew beer other than Molson and Labatt.
I don’t know if people really know that prohibition was on the books in Canada for so long...
Yeah. 1985 is when that was lifted. Most of Ontario’s liquor laws were written in the 1910s, so there’s still a whole lot of stuff that needs to be substantially overhauled.
But why I think the craft brew movement is different this time is because people’s pallets have really changed. Previously with all these breweries popping up, they were making mostly light lagers. Now they don’t. People are looking for different things to try now. And a lot of that was driven by the IPA boom. People were used to drinking light lager, or American lager, or an English ale or dark ale, but all of a sudden there was this whole other area of beer. Unexplored, uncharted territory for what beer could taste like. The ones who were adventurous, who wanted that, went to craft brewing quickly.
People were no longer ashamed to ask what the difference between an ale and a lager is.
And brewers were as keen to explore new beers as drinkers were. It’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. People expect beer to be hoppy now, they’re seeking it out maybe because it's what they think they’re supposed to be drinking. That’s the first step into craft. And then you step beyond that. You try Belgian wheat beers, sours, or the next up-and-coming thing.
Do you feel that demand? Do people keep an eye on Royal City knowing you guys will be trying different styles?
One of my goals is to not become complacent. I want to constantly be trying new things. Different ingredients, different tastes. One of the eye-opening moments for me was going to Dieu du Ciel in Montreal as a young craft beer drinker in the early 2000s. They’d been around for 20 years at that point in time, but I showed up and decided the world had changed, walking in there are seeing their blackboard with thirty beers listed. When they run out of one beer, they just turn the page in the recipe book kind of thing. They’ve got that big resource to draw from to keep things changing constantly.
Changing consistently, do you keep an idea of identity? If we were talking writing, I'd call it "voice," I guess.
Yeah. For one, all the beers are unfiltered. The reason is... I like unfiltered. Unfiltered beer tastes substantially better. More vibrant, alive. So we get a lot of yeast character in everything we do. There's also a couple of little things that I like to sneak into just about every style that we make. Stuff that's not necessarily orthodox. I won't say what those ingredients are, but they make for a house flavour.
Is there a prize offered to anyone who can put their finger on those ingredients?
I'd never admit it if someone guessed right, and a couple already have! I think for us right now it's a lot of us trying to develop what that "voice" is. In nine months we've done 87 different beers. A lot of those were pilots, brewed on a very small scale, but that's a lot. Some of them aren't ever going to see the light of day again. We're not even a year old yet, but given enough time I think we'll arrive at something that's distinctly us. I guess right now what's distinctly us is we're all over the place, and we're happy to be here!