When I sat down to interview 44-year-old Mike Lackey for my column in The Grid, I was excited—and a little nervous. The Great Lakes brewmaster isn’t exactly verbose and I wanted to find out how he’d gone from sweeping floors at a brewery straight out of high school to sweeping the IPA category— the most competitive bracket—at this year’s Canadian Brewing Awards.
But I didn’t need to worry, Mike’s not a big talker, but he’s no bullshit, he gets right to the point. I’m posting the whole Q&A here because there was a lot of fun, useful stuff I couldn’t squeeze into the Grid column. But I suggest reading the Grid story first, because there’s stuff in there that ain’t in here. But for the secret to creating a kick-ass IPA, read on:
So it’s pretty impressive to sweep the entire IPA category at this year’s Canadian Brewing Awards. Were you surprised?
For sure. Lots of terrific IPAs these days. They were all in fine form though, so we thought we had a good chance to medal.
When did you brew your first IPA?
Oh, five or six years ago, when we got the pilot system. I think that was 2008.
Before then did you brew a ton at home or on your own small system?
No. No, I just brewed here on the big system; that was the only brewing I really did. So it was the big system, just making Horseshoe and Red Leaf
Why did you start homebrewing? A lot of brewers kind of go the other way, start with homebrewing and then become professionals.
I love brewing—just getting right into it and talking about it all the time. I brew whenever I can. It’s really nice to brew in the backyard. It’s a nice thing to do to relax.
So you brew outside?
Yeah, just summertime. Some days when you’re, you know, weeding or cutting the grass and got a brew going too, it’s great.
Right, I guess it’s pretty automatic stuff for you now.
Kind of automatic. I’ve got friends who are interested so they come and do a lot of the work.
I know a lot of homebrewers know you pretty well. You’re a big influence for some of them. Can you talk about that?
Homebrewers? It goes both ways. The homebrew community has been a big influence on me too. I’ve learned a lot from homebrewing, I went to Biergotter probably around 5 years ago to see how those guys do it. I’m coming from pro-brewing, so to see these guys who are grassroots and we’re meeting in the middle—there’s just so much to learn. It’s been a great relationship.
Are you part of a homebrew club?
How many people are in that?
Between five and ten, but three or four serious guys who will drop everything to brew. Hoping a couple guys get their own systems. Everybody finds it too easy to come to my house and brew with the “fancy” equipment.
So you all brew together?
Usually, or I’ll brew by myself when I have the time.
You said that you got your job here at Great Lakes because you knew Peter growing up.
Yeah we went to kindergarten together. And then right after high school, his Dad bought the brewery and I just heard about it and I said, “Uh, I want a job.” And he said, “There aren’t really any jobs yet.” And I said, “I’ll just work for beer.” So he said, “OK, that’s fine.”
Well for a summer there I just worked for beer one or two days a week.
And why did you want to work at a brewery?
Free beer. Basically, I mean. Really. That was my only expense. I lived at home.
Right, it wasn’t like you were like, “I always wanted to make beer?”
No, not when I started out, it wasn’t to make beer.
And so you started out just doing odd jobs kind of thing?
Started down here taking the carpet off the floor, that was my first job.
What year was that?
’91. But then quickly as they went from a little brewery in Brampton to here in Etobicoke, they got busy and needed people to cellar and brew.
OK so the brewery was in Brampton at first?
Yeah it was a little place in Brampton. I was back and forth between there brewing and setting up down here though ’91 and ’92.
And you famously burnt a batch of beer once?
That was in Brampton. We burnt it then we froze it. It was an electric kettle and if you didn’t turn the elements off when you were transferring the wort from the brew kettle it would really burn the beer—and so we forgot to turn the elements off once, and it burnt that whole layer, it tasted a little like ash tray.
Like in the boil, or in the mash?
That was in the boil, when we were transferring into whirlpool. Then we fermented it, and it had this awful taste. And then when it was aging the solenoid broke and the beer froze—and that just intensified the bad.
So it was like a burnt Eisbock or something?
Yeah, like it tasted really not good.
But you drank it anyway?
We drank it, yeah. I mean there were some mistakes back then and we called them GLUOS—Great Lakes Use Only—we just filled a keg, and, yeah, we drank a bunch of those.
I imagine you’ve become a more discerning beer drinker since then?
Yeah, a little more discerning.
Now if there’s a bad batch you don’t drink a keg of it?
Yeah, I’m the opposite. I don’t like to drink any beer that I think is not really good. Life’s too short to have mediocre beer. I figure I’m going to have 5000 more beers that I’m going to have for the rest of my life so I figure I better make it count.
So if I go to a baseball game, there’s no good beer there, I don’t want to go. I just don’t drink—well I don’t go. I mean that’s where I am at this point; weddings and stuff can be bad, you know, I want to go out with old friends and they’re like, “We’re meeting at Maple Leaf Sports,” and I’m like, “No, I’m not going.” Or I go and I’m pissy.
You’ve often been the first to come out with revived or new craft beer styles in Toronto commercially, why do you think that is?
Well, we’re lucky to have the ownership we have—Peter brought in the pilot system for us to experiment. It’s hard to convince people to change if the industry’s been in one place for so long with styles. It’s like why do new stuff if you’re doing alright? So the key was travelling and tasting it, and then the light bulb goes off.
A lot of people will have different opinions than you—they’ll say, “You can’t do that in Ontario, and it’s like, “I don’t care what you say,” and just doing it.
Basically don’t worry about other people. They’ll come along if you’re passionate and you believe in your palate, your ability, and your team. And just having fun, you know. It’s like at Stone brewing in California, they say you can taste the morale.
And Great Lakes is a small family-run shop, and now it’s expanding but you’ve been here for a long time, it’s not like you’ve always gotten to do crazy beers. Has it been a struggle for you as a brewmaster to say, ‘Hey, c’mon guys let me do this?’
Sure. It’s been a struggle at times. It’s hard to make decisions to change things. I understand that. And if you’re focused on the moneymaker being blonde lager, then to switch gears, it’s a bit of a leap. I believe in it, so I’ve been pushing it.
And how did you persuade Peter to be like, “Hey, give me this tank?”
I just started doing it. I think you gotta’ just do it—and sneak a brew in sometimes and if it sells well, hey.
You and Peter went to kindergarten, but you started working with his Dad. How’s that, is it weird?
No, it’s the same. I mean I’ve always been working with him. I mean I guess it’s been weird at times over the years, but we have a pretty good relationship.
Well you must, to have stayed at Great Lakes this whole time. Do you think you’ll be a lifer?
I like the sound of an early semi-retirement, especially with the home brewing. But it’s not in the cards for the next decade at least.
And you’ve finally carved out that tank of your own and you can produce whatever you want, that’s a pretty sweet gig.
Yeah, and I like the idea of working on my own, but it’s also nice to be part of something bigger.
Tell me about your approach to creating an IPA. What do you think about?
There are two things. First of all, it’s figuring out the system. All systems are different.
The second thing is when to add the hops. Traditionally you add bittering hops [at the beginning of the 60 or 90-minute boil], flavouring [somewhere mid-boil] and aroma [late hops, added at the very end, and/or during fermentation].
American style IPAs are almost exclusively late hops, but it takes awhile to get there, to wrap your head around exactly how late a hop it is. It’s not traditional at all. And I think when you start, you know that, but you still stick to some of the traditional stuff, so over time you just learn your system and learn where the hops can go in.
So you put most of them in really late in the boil?
All of them.
Really? Nothing early? So we’re talking like 10 minutes left in the boil, or?
The very end.
Yes. We do a couple a little differently. There’s whirlpool for some and we sometimes use a hopback. And we do a big dry hop [adding hops after the boil is done, during or after fermentation]. But then it’s keeping your nose to the ground with what new hops are coming. Like the Thrust is Nelson Sauvin, it’s a unique taste, so making sure you get that and get the contract for it, you’ve got to build those relationships. I was lucky enough to go to Yakima Valley last year for hop selection so I was there smelling the fresh hops and that is invaluable. And thinking this would be a nice blend with Citra. Then there’s obviously tasting a lot of beers, and hopefully the brewer will be nice enough to tell you what he put in it, or you can guess—well, it smells like Nelson and some Sorachi…
So you can pick up an IPA and pretty much guess the blend?
Well I can try. And if I don’t know, I’ll ask the brewer. I mean you learn from that, you might taste a beer and think, I like that but maybe 20 percent more Citra. But there are a lot of unique hops out there, like Nelson or Sorachi, so it’s great to get a hold of one of those and put it in a blend for an IPA, because your IPA will taste much different just by adding say 20 percent of that one hop. Changing just 20 percent of the entire hop bill with a distinct hop will change the flavour tons.
You were self-taught here in terms of brewing. Have you done training here and there?
Not really, no. No training. I mean it was just working with and learning from the great guys here. Way back it was a great brewmaster here, Orin Besco, from Molson and he’d been there for 30 years or something, so he had a lot of great knowledge. And Callie and Noel on the team are really experienced too. It’s a good team because they don’t head out to the US and stuff to taste beer, but I do and get ideas, and then run stuff by them and they have a lot of good technical knowledge.
How long have you been travelling to the US to discover and taste beer?
Seven or eight years—right away I saw pilot systems down there and said we should have one up here, and that took a couple years. I don’t do it as much anymore but for years I dedicated myself to going to California, Vermont, Maine and Michigan.
And you would go and talk to the brewers?
Yeah whenever I could. I had a a lot of great experiences. I was at Hill Farmstead way back when he first opened, like his first six months. I heard about it, I think he was getting a bit of buzz then. I went on a Saturday and I was the only guy there and we talked for three hours—now there’s a big lineup.
And I met Vinnie and his wife from Russian River, I just emailed him and said I was coming down to Santa Rosa and they invited me to come to the brewpub and have dinner with them. And so I spent two or three hours talking to those guys. His beers have been a big influence for sure.
What has been your biggest influence as a brewmaster?
The travel. Travelling, tasting, all those experiences. Having eye-opening IPAs—and you know you have one and it’s like, “Holy Mackerel.” Way back, I had the Stone IPA and I could barley drink it, it tasted so hoppy.
Is there a brewery on one of your earlier visits or now that if you could take this brewery and transplant it into Great Lakes?
I would say Russian River. Overall, his sours, his barrels, his IPA and just his innovation, he was the first guy to set up some of those styles anywhere. The first time I went there he was on the forklift in the brewery… still working.
Keeping it real.
Yeah, still keeping it real.
Any highlights in your career?
I don’t know…the Canadian Brewing Awards last year when we won Brewery of the Year. Truth is, any recognition is nice but personally it makes me feel humbled and somewhat embarrassed because I know there are so many people in brewing who know more than I’ll ever know, which makes me realize how much I have to learn. The learning is the fun part though.
And what about any lows? It’s not easy to get up early everyday and clean the whole brewery everyday…
Yeah, exactly. That’s it.
It’s really hard work on your body, I imagine.
My back was really bad. I was wearing work boots and working long hours—I only wear running shoes now. But when I was first working on the pilot system, I was doing 12-to-14-hour days just to make enough beer. My back was getting so bad that I was pretty much crippled, I had to stop playing hockey. There were some low points there when I was fumbling around and thinking this is never going to get better. I wondered if I’d be able to keep brewing. But then I just went to running shoes and it cleared up.
Do you have more help now? Are you still doing 15-hour days in the summer just to get the beer out?
I’m doing less, now that we have bigger tanks. In the summer I work quite a bit. In the winter, my schedule changes when I play a lot shinny hockey.
Quite a bit.
Almost, like noon to 2 or 3. I’ll come in early and come back in the evenings. I’ll work weekends too. It’s just outdoor pickup, no equipment or anything — just a group of guys that come out. It’s a good way to stay in shape.
Is that your other big passion, hockey?
And you’re in another league as well?
Bryden’s Hockey League. A bunch of guys from there, we play twice a week.
Are the Leafs your team?
Yeah, the Leafs. It’s awesome.
I remember you told me once you have a shit ton of beers in your garage? I know a lot of brewers in the industry who like to pass out on your couch.
Yeah, Iain (McOustra, from Amsterdam Brewery), Erica McOustra (brewer at Steam Whistle), Ryan Morrow, (brewer at Nickel Brook), and Jason Fisher (Indie Alehouse owner) will come by and just talk about beer and make beer. I have six taps and backup kegs. I haven’t been buying as many bottles lately, just keeping the fresh draft.
Mostly stuff from here?
Stuff from here or I try to make trades with Bellwoods and Amsterdam.
So you trade with other brewers?
Yeah and that’s one big influence too. You travel and then you come back and get to talk to those guys — and they’ve changed a lot too, their breweries.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
Semi-retirement. Would love to do a backyard thing. You know a shed, basically, a small nano-brewery. Pay some bills. But that won’t be anytime soon.
How old are you?
I’m 44. So in ten years maybe? Freedom 55, kinda? Still learning but on a smaller scale with lots of dogs.
Do you have dogs?
Three dogs, yeah. Jack Russell, Chihuahua and Italian Greyhound, he was a rescue and a real pain in the butt. And we had Ezra—he died on the day we were brewing a collaboration beer with Iain from Amsterdam, so we named that beer Ezra, it’s being bottled today. It was hard.
But yeah, that’s the dream you know, working in an out building in the backyard basically, no driving. Just brewing.
And what is it about making beer that you love so much that you never want to stop?
Well drinking the beer it is a big part of it. It’s nice to have such a tangible thing to enjoy for all your hard work, And it’s learning, always learning. And it’s something about the cooking too, you know, when you’re mashing in the morning, there’s something instinctual that happens whenever you cook or you smell fresh bread—it’s like you know you should be doing this yourself. And the mash when it’s been steeping, it’s like…instinctual for sure.