Robert McIntosh started homebrewing from kits in Scotland in the late ’80s. “Most of my kits and equipment came from Boots, which is a pharmacy chain. It was mainly Munton & Fison, or Coopers kits, which came with a wee pouch of dried yeast under the lid along with the instructions. I would pour the extract into a plastic pail, rinsing it out with boiling water, then adding a kilogram of sugar, and the yeast. Nothing was ever boiled—I followed the instructions! After a week, I transferred it to a plastic pressure barrel—from Boots—and added a half cup of sugar, then shaking it up and leaving it for another ten days. Storage was at room temperature, then serving temperature was wherever was coolest, usually the garage!
The first third of the barrel was cloudy and yeasty, the next third was actually quite drinkable, and the last third was froth that had to sit for a while to settle. But it didn’t put me off!”
After McIntosh graduated from university in Scotland, he went on to work in the Scotch Whisky industry, where he was a Scotch Whisky blending manager at Bell’s and started his sensory and palate training. After that, he went to teacher’s college and moved to Canada in 1989, where he decided to level up his homebrewing to all-grain.
At that time, homebrewing in Toronto and the Durham region seemed like a fairly popular hobby. “There was small chain of homebrew stores in the Durham region—D&G Wine and Malt shop. They had stores in Pickering, Whitby. I think there was one in Ajax as well. D&G is still going strong, but it became a supplier of equipment wholesale and wine on premise [D&G Wine and Malt Shop is now D. Repol Enterprises Inc.—Editor]. As his business developed, he got more and more out of the beer, which was unfortunate, but it certainly gave us a start.”
We were able to get grains, pretty much anything that we wanted through D&G. They obviously had big stocks of 2 row and stuff like that. He had a corona malt mill where we could buy the grain and crush it on his corona mill. He kept some specialty malts as well. Hops were a bit of a hit and miss. He would get hops and sometimes leaf hops as well, mostly leaf pellets, which he would pack in nitrogen. One of the biggest issues was the freshness of hops. Homebrew stores at the time did their best, given the small quantities people were using, but they were repackaging bulk hops in opaque plastic pouches. Yeasts were mainly dried yeast. White Labs was just coming in about that time, and they were becoming available as liquid yeast at that time. We tried a few of them, but it was mainly dried yeast. In the early days, we used Lalvin yeasts, but the quality and stability really improved when Wyeast Activator packs became available. At that time, I was confidently storing and repitching yeasts.”
In 1992, the club East Enders was born at CABA’s Great Canadian Homebrew Conference. “It started off with four of us, and it never got really got very big. That was intentional so that we could meet in each other’s basement. We would brew beers in competition with each other and we’d put them into competitions. Like maybe between the four of us, we’d have 60 beers in the competition. It was kind of crazy in those days, but it was good fun. And what it did, because we were competing against each other initially, it pushed the quality up…we were trying to make better and better beers.”
The East Enders were frequent customers at D&G, and ran some seminars for him. While D&G tried to start their own homebrew club, it wasn’t very successful, and East Enders inherited those members. Despite that, the club never grew larger than eight members. “We didn’t charge dues, we never had agendas or anything like that, but we did talk a lot about the beer. It wasn’t the case of going to get hammered, it was more of meeting people.”
Regarding styles that were popular to homebrew, there were no standouts. “At that time, it was pretty much everything under the sun. Some of the guys liked to make Belgian styles. One guy in particular liked to make more English-style bitters. My own specialty was Weissen beer. I made a quite a lot of wheat beers, but I always had a pale ale as my house beer, just for drinking in the house.”
In 1996, McIntosh took his hobby pro with two other friends, Bruce Halstead and Eric Mann, to open The Durham Brewing Company in Pickering, ON. “I was in Scotland looking at possibility of starting a brewery there, which didn’t happen, but I sourced a lot of equipment there. We had it manufactured and shipped over to Canada and built the brewing company in Pickering, which is still going strong, though there’s only one guy left from the group.”
And as it happens with a lot of homebrewers, McIntosh drifted away from brewing. “What happened was…we all started having children and work got in the way, stuff like that…we kind of drifted away from the brewing for the most part at least, and now I’m coming back to it. I retired a couple years ago, moved to the booneys, dug out a lot of my old equipment.” While he still has most of his original equipment from when he first started brewing, he’s pretty happy with his RoboBrew upgrade. “I’ve spent some time experimenting with that and now I’ve got it pretty much the way I wanted. I’m brewing probably every six weeks or so, and I’ve been doing my house pale ale. I’ve got a keg of it on just now.” McIntosh’s got a wheat beer in the works, and found a local hop supplier that grows the hops ten miles from where he lives. “I got some pelletized Cascade from [them], which I put in my most recent pale ale, which is excellent. But he’s also got some leaf Hallertau, which is in my freezer right now; I haven’t even opened it but I’m really looking forward to using that in the wheat beer.”
Cover photo: Medals that Robert McIntosh had won at CABA’s homebrew comps. Photo courtesy of Robert McIntosh.