As Motown grand dame Diana Ross famously said, you can’t hurry love.
That’s especially true in the case of Main St. Brewing Head Brewer Azlan Graves and his passion project called The Garage Series — an ongoing collection of wild-fermented and barrel-aged beer he’s been concocting at the Mount Pleasant brewery since 2021.
The Garage Series’ inaugural release was a Bière de Coupage that married 2015 editions of Main St.’s Stag & Pheasant Imperial Stout and Barleywine that had both been conditioning in Old Forester Bourbon barrels for five years with a 2020 Bière de Garde Farmhouse Ale.
In 2022, Azlan introduced two more models. First up was Gale Force Old Ale which was built on a base of the brewery’s 2020 Tunnerman’s Dark Mild and underwent a secondary fermentation in bourbon barrels. This fermentation process was thanks to a special strain of brettanomyces yeast that was famously a key ingredient in the beloved 19th-century English beer called George Gale’s Prize Old Ale.
Next was Circa 1775 Sumac Rosewater Saison, brewed from pilsner, raw and malted wheat and rye, and three hop varieties: Magnum, Ella and Hallertau Mittelfrüh. After a 10-month secondary ferment in Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc barrels from Penticton’s Bench 1775 Winery, Azlan rested it on freshly harvested Staghorn sumac and rosewater from Mount Pleasant grocer Afra on Main before bottle conditioning.
Both turned heads and garnered critical acclaim for Main St. Brewing. The former scored top spot in the Strong Ale & Lager category at the 2022 BC Beer Awards while the latter got the nod as best Specialty Wild Ale at the annual best-of-BC event.
Azlan’s innovations also earned high praise from Jordan St. John, Beer Certificate Head at George Brown College and the first person in Canada to brew commercially with Staghorn sumac, a plant that grows extensively throughout Canada but is rarely used in beer. Sumac adds malic acid to the mix, imparting a deep, tart, almost wine-like flavour that, when paired with rosewater, reminds Azlan of a watermelon Jolly Rancher.
“Raw and malted wheat in the same beer is basically unheard of, and adding rye is a real flex,” St. John wrote in his comments about the beer after he tasted it at the Canada Beer Cup judging session last fall. “The rosewater lessens the citric character of the sumac, focusing the beer. Back in 2011, we had oak as an option, but not wine barrels. That’s a neat trick. It fleshes out the body. It’s very clever and I like what you’ve done with some esoteric ingredients in an odd genre. Bravo.”
High praise indeed for Azlan, who first dipped his toe into the home-brewing realm years ago alongside his father Tad. Their Double Axehead fresh-hopped red ale was an annual release at the Graves house in the Kootenays.
“Sure, there was a father-son connection thing, but I also probably had interest in it because I was underage and wanted to know how to make alcohol,” Azlan says. “But the whole fermentation process really grabbed me. You’re fermenting in glass carboys so you can see the reactions and the whole process in action.
“But I didn’t like the taste of most beers, so I would add vanilla and maple syrup to a porter recipe or berries to a blonde ale.”
In other words, young Azlan was never afraid of flavour experiments.
When he was 19, (and could legally consume his own creations) he moved to Vancouver and got a job at Powell Brewery, splitting time between the tasting room and the back of house learning the trade from co-owner and brewmaster David Bowkett.
Around that time, Azlan’s early tendency to brew outside the box began to flourish. It was his first sip of an Imperial Flanders Red Ale from Storm Brewing one night at the Alibi Room that truly sent him tumbling down the wild-ale wormhole.
“That beer was unlike anything else anybody was making,” says Azlan. “It was an eye-opening experience, and then I started to track down as many Belgian sours and Flanders red ales that I could, especially Duchess de Bourgogne and Brouwerij Omer Vander Ghinste’s Cuvée Des Jacobins Rouge.”
Yeah. The rumours are true. He’s well-red.
The next stop in his evolution as a brewer came at Steamworks where he got wise to more brewing sleight-of-hand from brewmaster Julia Hanlon, R&D manager Brett Jamieson and quality control manager Dr. Dan Wilson.
“They would ‘Iron Chef’ me and give me a secret ingredient and get me to make a beer with it, so I got to trial a lot of things I had been putting into practice as a home brewer. It was an incredible opportunity, having access to their resources and knowledge and being able to run quality control questions past Dan.”
Hanlon similarly has fond memories of Azlan’s time spent under her wing.
“I would describe Azlan as a scholar of brewing,” she says, “which is a fancy way of saying he’s a beer nerd.”
“When he was with Steamworks, he was really into using kveik strains for all sorts of styles that would normally use a traditional ale or lager yeast. He seemed to have amassed an encyclopedia of knowledge on using them. Based on the beers I have seen him come out with at Main St., he definitely seems to stay on the leading edge of brewing techniques, for example, adding thiols and using thiolizing yeast strains. I have a ton of respect for him as a brewer and his approach toward beer styles in general.”
After Steamworks — and around the first few months of the pandemic — Azlan joined the Main St. family.
He already had an affinity for Main St. thanks to its dedicated Tunnerman’s Cask Ale program, and once aboard, he quickly affixed his stamp on that brand, diving deep into time-honoured recipes and techniques to add unique new styles to the ongoing series.
So what’s in a name? Plenty, as it turns out, when it comes to the sobriquet for the Garage Series. Azlan began his brewing journey in garages — his own and fellow home brewer Graeme Hystad’s — but there are more layers to this tale.
The heritage building in which Main St. Brewing has been making beer since it opened in 2014 was once home to the Vancouver Breweries Garage (circa 1902), the Auto Maintenance Co. (1919), Ye Old Brewery Garage (1920-’22) and Crescent Motors (1923 to 1934) and remained an auto body and repair garage until it was rehabilitated and restored to its former Mission Revival-style glory in 2010.
What’s next for the Garage Series?
No less than four new models will appear on the Main St. Garage Series showroom floor in 2023: The 2nd annual Gale Force Old Ale, which incorporates portions of the inaugural release; A Brett Pale Ale that will mark Main St.’s 9th Anniversary celebration in May; A Piquette-Style Ale that was conditioned for 72 hours on Pinot Noir pomace (crushed lovingly at Pamplemousse Winery in Summerland by Azlan and Assistant Brewer Joe Ross themselves); and a Golden Apricot & Toasted Noyaux Sour incorporating organic apricots from Blackbird Organic Farms in Cawston and noyaux (the kernel inside apricot stones) that Azlan himself toasted in Main St.’s convection oven.
He’s stoked to see what comes from all of them, particularly the Golden Apricot & Toasted Noyaux Sour. “I’m excited to see how the apricot and toasted noyaux work together,” he says.
His recent travels in Belgium inspired further interest in Lambic styles and how he can use BC fruit in his Vancouver cre-ale-tions.
Still, even he can’t predict what the fruits of his labours might ultimately be.
“They’re all calculated risks, in a way,” Azlan laughs. “That’s why it’s nice to hold back vintages and see how they continue to evolve and think ‘How did I get here?’ and ‘How can we improve on it or repeat it?’ These are very hard beers to repeat, but that’s part of the appeal.”
When it comes to pursuing a passion, Azlan knows that love don’t come easy.
You just have to wait. You gotta trust, give it time, no matter how long it takes.
And that’s one of the many tools Azlan has in his Garage: Time. Knowledge. Resources. A little alchemy. And an insatiable thirst for planting Main St.’s flag in the unexplored terroir and terrain of the weird and wild world of barrel-aged beer.