Every Hop Of The Way

Sam Roberts Band’s journey of taste to their own session ale.

By Karen Bliss

Photos By Norman Wong

Sam Roberts band

Sam Roberts Band Session Ale isn’t an existing beer repackaged with their name; they were there every step — or is that hop — of the way. This truly is the Montreal rock band’s chosen beer.

The guys have won multiple Juno Awards, performed for Prince William and wife Kate, recorded in Australia, played the NHL Awards and Grey Cup half-time show, toured all over North America, and, most importantly, made a living doing what they love, But what else makes frontman Sam Roberts, guitarist Dave Nugent, keyboardist Eric Fares, bassist James Hall and drummer Josh Trager happy is a nice cold beer. Roberts has been known to raise a bottle or cup to his audience, which is always met with cheers.

Approached by Toronto’s Spearhead Brewing Company in late 2013 to create a craft beer, the Sam Roberts Band Session Ale — brewed with four types of malts and three types of hops — was released on tap in the summer of 2014, and won Best Collaboration Beer at the 2014 Session Craft Beer Festival and 2014’s Best Beer at Toronto Beer Week’s Drinker’s Choice Awards. A year ago, it became available in bottles at the LCBO, where it is described online as “Hazy medium amber; aromas of caramel, biscuit, citrus zest, spice and herbal hops; on the palate it is medium bodied and gently carbonated, with flavours that repeat the aromas and a mildly resinous hop note that carries through to the finish.”

Karen Bliss spoke with Roberts about creating the ale.

Karen: Outside of creating music, how does having your own beer compare to having your songs turned into Muzak or listed in a karaoke bar, or getting a signature guitar?

Sam: This is way beyond that in terms of how into it we are. We didn’t know when it was brought to us as a possibility that we would invest so much of ourselves into it. But the fact that the beer turned out the way it did made us all realize that this was something that, if we put some work into it, could become an interesting parallel world for us. Obviously, it runs hand in hand with music, so that there’s no conflict there. When I actually tried the beer itself, I realized that Spearhead and especially Tom Schmidt, the brew master, made something really good and something that we were going to be able to, hopefully, bring to as big an audience as we possibly could.

K: As a beer drinker — and probably before you were legally allowed to drink, if I could make assumptions…

S: I’m from Quebec, therefore the law is only a suggestion.

K: How old were you really when you tried your first beer?

S: Oh, I don’t know — three, maybe. Maybe two (laughs).

K: Really?

S: (Laughs). Of course. It was the 70s.

K: So as a long-time beer drinker, did you know essentially how beer is made or has this been a learning experience?

S: My dad used to brew beer with a home kit in our basement so I’d witnessed the miracle before.

K: Was his good?

S: It was — once you got past the sediment that you had to pick out of your teeth. No offence, Dad. But I really enjoyed watching him when he’d let me lend a hand. To see it made on this scale and also the attention to detail — the number of ingredients, how to select the ingredients, to best bring the beer to light  — I’d never been witness to that before. So as much as I’d tried my hand, via my dad, at brewing beer, this was far beyond, in that we went into the kind of malted barley we were using and how the different types would affect the flavour and the different hops you can use, how much of it you use, what colour was it we were going for and how does that psychologically affect the way that you taste the beer? All of these things became a consideration — the head on the beer, the colour of the head, the alcohol content, the bitterness of it. So there were many different levels, in terms of the trial and error, in trying to get it right.

“THERE’S A BASE LINE LEVEL OF QUALITY AND CRAFTSMANSHIP THAT HAVE TO GO INTO IT, NOT JUST MAKING A COLOURED WATER.”

K: So just like cooking a meal and sampling as you go to check if you have too much salt or need oregano, did you go into the brewery and sample different hops?

S: You don’t sample hops, necessarily. You smell them. Although I tried to eat one and luckily they stopped me before I did; I think I’d still be tasting it now. But we’d chew on the different types of  barley. So that was part of the tasting and the development of it and then, of course, you wonder how the hell a guy like Tom takes that — even though we’ve narrowed it down to certain ingredients, it still seems vague because the proportions aren’t written in stone. So it’s sort of like an Italian grandmother who is able to cook based on feel and experience. I guess it was hard to imagine that Tom was going to be able to do that and actually come up with a kind of beer that we were talking about. So then when I went into the brewery on the actual brew day, I have to say that I went in with some doubt in my mind that it was going to be anything like what we were after, and then I tried it and it was all there. That, to me, was an amazing thing to witness.

K: Does this particular microbrewery have a signature style? Did Spearhead give you any parameters?

S: The Spearhead model is beer without boundaries.

K: So you could have done a Corona-Style light beer, if you wanted?

S: I don’t think that they would ever be into that and I think had we brought that to the table, that would not have been representative in any way of what they were doing. There’s a base line level of quality and craftsmanship that have to go into it, not just making a coloured water. The first questions [from Spearhead] was what kind of beer would you like to make? And we came back with English ale. And they were into that idea because they have an IPA [Indian pale ale]; they have a stout; but they don’t have an English ale and a session ale at that, which is another level of distinction. The whole thing was that they then came back with, ‘Okay, let’s make an English ale, but let’s add a little bit of an American style twist to it,’ and by that I think the bitterness went up a little bit and it had a little bit more alcohol than a traditional English ale, which sometimes run as low as 3.8, 3.9 or hovering around the 4 percent mark. And ours is at 4.5, which still qualifies it as a session ale in that it’s not a 5, or 5.5 or 6 or like an IPA sometimes up to 7 percent; it still falls in the realm of an ale. So they came back at us with that, that they wanted to still make it feel like a North American beer, but with a lot of the traditional English characteristics to it.

K: You mentioned earlier about how the colour can psychologically affect the way that you taste the beer.

S: How it affects your experience. How it looks in a glass to you.

K: How did you want this to look in a glass?

S: I wanted it to look like it’s interesting, like there’s a level of complexity, that this isn’t just take one sip and what you get is what you get. The whole point was that this was gonna be a multilayered experience, like most great beers are. There’s a start, there’s a middle and there’s a finish and a journey of taste that you go along on the way. We definitely wanted to make it that. The colour and the head and the way it looks in the glass prepares you for that. It indicates that that type of experience awaits you, so that became a very important part of the process. When you pour a Guinness into a glass, it puts you in a certain mindset before you even have your first sip.

K: Having been in the recording studio watching the painstaking process of what goes into cutting a song, the listener hears the end result, not knowing that guitar part could’ve taken hours or the mixing days. Creating a beer is not that different.

S: You’re right, having spent my life in record studios making music and exactly what you’re saying, it’s hard to overstate how much attention to detail goes into writing and recording a song and this is very much the same thing. In that sense, it made it easy to relate to the process and also to know how to participate in it.

(L to R) Sam Roberts; Dimitri Van Kampen (President, Spearhead); Tom Schmidt (Brewmaster)

K: People hearing a song might not pay attention while it’s on. Perhaps they are talking and it’s on in the background. Sitting in a bar or at a friend’s, talking, they just mindlessly drink or guzzle your beer. Do you want to say, “Hey, I just spent three weeks deciding that!

S: Not every moment can be so heavy with thoughts. To have to appreciate everything you’re writing the song, you put these little moments in there in the hopes that there will be that one person at some point down the line who has their headphones on, and is really in deep with the music, and that they’re gonna hear those hidden messages that you’ve left for them. But for the most part once you’ve done your work and you’ve left the studio, you do have to let go of that. You have to let go of the fact that you spent hours mulling over frequencies and how the snare drum was gonna sound and what kind of microphone you should use for your vocals or what kind of amp you’re gonna use for your guitar and all those myriad decisions that are made constantly when you’re recording music; you just have to let people experience it as a song and not break it down. I’ve learnt to be less precious about the work that you put into it. Everyone’s going to hear it a different way.

“I’M A HUGE FAN OF IT. OUR NAME’S ON IT BUT I LOVE IT. I LOVE IT IN A WAY THAT I CAN’T SAY I LOVE MY OWN MUSIC. ”

K: It won a couple of ‘best beer’ awards. It’s doing well.

S: It’s absolutely in production now. It’s in the Spearhead roster. It’s not meant to be just a flash in the pan limited-edition. We were approached by a company that knows what it’s doing, and again, you never know how these things are going to turn out. It could’ve just been a fun thing to do over a few months, but the fact that it’s gone beyond that, now, hopefully, it turns into on that sort of level would probably be sensory overload and we’d would probably not end up getting anything done, as a species, so I don’t think you can expect that of people. From time to time it would be nice to think that somebody sat down, had a sip of the beer, or listened to song and said, ‘I haven’t heard that before.’ When one of those things where again people want to drink it because they enjoy it and not because it has our name on it necessarily, that it comes to perpetuate itself rather than us being spokes people for it all the time. I’m a huge fan of it. Our name’s on it but I love it. I love it in a way that I can’t say I love my own music. It’s all I drink now and it’s completely unashamed, whereas if you caught me driving down the street listening to my own record, I would be so embarrassed but this is something I can really go out there and flaunt it.

K: Well, maybe now your dad can get his sediment beer picked up.

S: No, it was a lot of fibre; it was a lot of fibre.