Eating & Drinking

“Yeast is the animal in your zoo” — Quinn Hodgins of Ashton Brewery on the messy, marvellous process of open fermentation

As Quinn Hodgins gives me a tour of his brewery, it’s obvious he has a passion for making beer the old fashioned way. He’s also quick to say it’s not easy. 

“I don’t necessarily recommend it to anyone because it is the most stressful thing in my life,” he says, adding that the staff at Ashton Brewery feel the same way.

Brewers at Ashton Brewery keep a close eye on their vats. Photo by Simon Gardner

The process is called open fermentation. Put simply, it involves beer fermented in open vats with no lid. Open fermentation is rare, but some brewers still swear by the method. (Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, a pioneer in the craft brewing industry, still uses open fermentation). 

“There are arguably more cons to open fermentation than closed,” says Hodgins, “it doesn’t make your life easier, but if you can pull it off it gives you enormous street-cred in the brewery world.”

The open stainless-steel vats used at the Ashton Brewing Company are simple — just like huge, tall buckets. By climbing a small step ladder you can see the action of the yeast fermenting the liquid that will eventually become beer. 

The frothy, messy, and soon-to-be delicious concoction at Ashton Brewery. Photo by Simon Gardner

A frothy mixture forms at the top of the container and bubbles over the edges, dribbling down the sides and onto the floor. 

“That is another excellent reason why a lot of people don’t like open fermentation,” says Hodgins, “the mess it makes is pretty impressive. You have to clean it up. It sucks.”

Owain Delvin at work in the Ashton Brewery. Photo by Simon Gardner

That is not the only problem. Yeast is a single-cell micro organism that exists everywhere. There are some 1,500 strains and, if given the chance, they will compete with each other for a food source. And their favourite food? The sugary liquid used to make beer. 

Hodgins says that because the Ashton vessels are left open, his chosen variety of yeast is vulnerable to invasion by wild yeast lurking in the environment outside the walls of the brewery. 

“A brewer is essentially like a zoo keeper,” says Hodgins, “and yeast is the animal in your zoo. You are just trying to keep the yeast happy so it can perform at a very high level, it can be viable, it can be strong, and it can fight off the attackers.”

Open fermentation also means only one strain of yeast can be used in the  brewery. The chosen variety is called Ringwood, and it imparts a malty, fruity flavour, well-suited to English style ales.

Owain Delvin, left, and Quinn Hodgins at work in the brewery. Photos by Simon Gardner

Using more than one strain of yeast would lead to open warfare among the different varieties. 

“They are going to start competing with each other and wear each other down and then the brewery is going to be susceptible to wild yeast, which are difficult to control.”

Hodgins says open fermentation is especially suited to Ringwood because the organism thrives on more oxygen. 

Quinn Hodgins, left, and Owain Devlin discuss the day’s work. Photo by Simon Gardner

“It’s really cool when we bring people though this brewery that know a little bit about brewing and what we are doing. It kinda blows their minds.”

The Ashton Brewing Company produces about 8,000 litres of beer a week. The flagship brew is a moderately hoppy amber ale, but over the course of a year they make up to 20 varieties, everything from stout to light beer.

Photos by Simon Gardner

The Hodgins family has a long history in the Ottawa pub business. Quinn’s father, Art, decided to invest in the Ashton site 10 years ago. He had encouragement and support from Lorne Hart, the founder of the former Hart Brewery in Carleton Place.

“Lorne was ahead of time in terms of craft brewing,” says Quinn. 

The Ashton Brew Pub and the brewery are located off Highway 7 in Ashton Station. Photo by Simon Gardner
Ashton Brew Pub has a traditional pub feeling — and beer that follows suite. Photo by Simon Gardner

The beer coming out of Hart Brewery was brewed using open fermentation, so the Hodgins family followed suit. Beer from the Ashton brewery is now available at pubs throughout Ottawa and  Kinston; in additon to the Ashton Brew Pub, the Hodgins family also runs two pubs on Bank Street, Quinns, and Patty’s.

“Because this is how Lorne Hart taught us to do it,” he says.

Ashton Brewing Company, 113 Old Mill Road, Ashton