Over the last five years, I’ve noticed that Nickel Brook has undergone a tasty transformation. The Burlington-based microbrewery, launched in 2005 by brothers John and Peter Romano, has expanded its range of brews to include goodies like my favourite, Naughty Neighbour American Pale Ale, its remarkable Berliner Weisse in the summer and the heady Bolshevik Bastard in the winter. It’s tweaked its flagship recipes, like Headstock IPA, for the better, and undergone a much-needed rebranding.

And this summer it moved into a brewhouse six times the size of its current Burlington facility. So, I thought it was time for a Q&A with Ryan Morrow, one of the shyer brewers in the province, and the brewmaster behind both Nickel Brook and Collective Art’s beers, to see what’s inspiring all of this change—and how he’s coping with the brewery’s recent growth spurt.

So any growing pains with the new brewery?

Well, we’ve got a used brewhouse from Sleeman in Dartmouth—and it’s about six times bigger than what we we’re brewing in Burlington now. It’s coming along it’s a bit painful. There’s a lot of variables that we’re trying to hit, just trying to get the performance to normal and then we can start fine tuning. We are already brewing for production and we should have a retail shop open towards the end of July. 

What’s going to happen to the Burlington brewery?

We’re keeping production there too. And there’s a  real chance that the Burlington facility will go all funk or sour, perhaps in the next year. 

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Really? Why go that direction?

I thought about it just because we had a dedicated brewery available and we’ve already started doing a bunch of that kind of stuff, so with an all-sour brewery our yeasts don’t have to cross one another and we won’t have  risk of contamination by wild strains or bacterias. 

It makes my life easier everything is under one house — Canada has a contract out to other breweries to get their production now under one roof 

So how’d you get into beer in the first place? 

I dropped out of a molecular biology and genetics masters at Guelph University when I realized I couldn’t’ stay in a lab my whole life—I needed a little more activity. I needed a change so I decided to get out of that and into brewing. So I took a bunch of Brewing and Distilling Courses, I got headhunted by Molson out of university, worked there for three months, and then started at Nickel Brook in 2006.

Why brewing?

 I’ve always loved beer, since way before I was legally allowed to buy beer. I was always asking people to get us the craziest thing we could find in the LCBO or the Beer Store. I was also homebrewing back then too, we were lucky enough to have a home-brew store around us that didn’t check ID very closely and we brewed a bunch of different recipes.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that Headstock is tasting different. Have you added new hop varietals—and if so—how do you do that and still keep the beer relatively consistent for loyal drinkers? 

It’s been a slow evolution. We’re just trying to use the best hops we can, but keep the recipe relatively the same. Simcoe has been the main hop in Headstock for a few years now, and I’ve recently added Mosaic and Equinox—newer hop varietals that aren’t as readily available in Ontario.

Besides new hop varieties, where else do you find sources of innovation and inspiration in the brewhouse?

New ingredients are a big part of innovation for us. We’re seeing more and more different bacteria and yeast strains, so there’s a bit of innovation we can do that way too. As the industry grows, innovation becomes easier, because more and more tools are becoming available for us brewers. The whole industry is leading the innovation so long as you’re tuned in and willing to try new things—it’s there.

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I know you hang out with a bunch of the brewers in Ontario. How do you influence each other? 

Mike Lackey influenced a lot of my approach to hoppy beers, since he’s so good at them. And brewing collaboratively is lots of fun and it helps build friendships and a feeling of togetherness even though we’re working for different companies. I might be short on a hop variety or in need of malt, so we’ll help each other out. And we talk about performance at the brewery or issues with a recipe with each other. But a lot of it’s just having fun and getting to brew something totally different, like Iain McOustra at Amsterdam and I just did a smoked sour beer aged in Cabernet Franc barrels and grape skins.  

You’re also the brewmaster for Collective Arts Brewing Company. Both of the breweries you design beer for love their hops—how do you ensure your recipes are distinct for each one?

The process of coming up with the recipe for each brewery is very different. At Nickel Brook John lets me come up with ideas and if the brewery is into it, they’ll get me to do that. Collective Arts knows their beer really well, and they’ll have strong ideas about each beer they want to brew. As well, I want my beers to be distinct, so I’ll make sure to keep doing something different with each new beer.  

Images: Nickel Brook Brewery

What’s your favourite Nickel Brook beer? And what brewmaster would you like to see us interview next?  Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @CrystalLuxmore.