Big Rock Brewery is one of Canada’s original craft breweries, and its fan-base has been flourishing since the brewery opened in Calgary in 1985. After over thirty years of notable success, the company expanded to better serve customers; opening smaller facilities in Vancouver and Toronto to bring fresher beer to the masses.
While Vancouver saw one opening, Toronto was lucky enough to get two Big Rocks; a brewery in Etobicoke and a modern brewpub with a beer shop and tap room in Liberty Village (Liberty Commons at Big Rock Brewery), in partnership with restauranteurs-extraordinaire Oliver & Bonacini.
And at the sudsy heart of the latter is brewer Dan Ellis, whose skill is hard to deny.
Ellis is a master at his craft; bringing beer lovers from across the city together to sip on suds at Liberty Commons at Big Rock Brewery. It’s a Friday afternoon when I stopped by to chat with Ellis, who’s glistening as he greets me — he’s just about to finish a kettle sour, a recipe he worked on with Oliver & Bonacini’s District Executive Chef John Horne.
Running back and forth between vessels, Ellis is on a time crunch to finish up. “Chef Horne was really excited to incorporate spruce tips in beer,” Ellis begins. “In the spring, they’re especially fresh. He was really big on this ingredient.” As Ellis dumps in bags of locally foraged spruce tips, he tells me, “They’re from spruce trees, so you’d think they’d be piney but they’re surprisingly citrusy. They’re going to be really good in a Gose style beer, which is tart and slightly sour, but really refreshing.”
Prior to manning steaming vessels of beer and working with restaurant pros, Ellis was studying Nutrition and Nutraceutical Sciences at the University of Guelph. While not exactly related to brewing, it was there that he discovered his passion for product development, “I really took to [those projects] — being able to make something with your hands and being creative in the process,” he tells me. Eventually, his passion led him to home brewing, which he mastered in his spare time.
After graduating school, Ellis began working as an account director at a recruitment marketing company, “I kind of fell into it,” he laughs. And though he was content with his job, he wasn’t totally fulfilled. “I would go home and spend my spare time brewing at home. It reached a point where I thought, why don’t I try to do this from 9-5 instead of taking up all my spare time?”
It was then that he applied for a position at Big Rock’s Etobicoke facility. After hitting it off with Big Rock’s Ontario Brewmaster, Connor Patrick, Ellis was given his first official role. Later, he was asked to run the taps at Liberty Commons at Big Rock Brewery, “This is where I wanted to be,” he says.
These days, he spends his time swapping ideas with industry leaders, like Big Rock Brewmaster Connor Patrick, O&B District Executive Chef John Horne, and Liberty Common’s Chef de Cuisine Ryan Lister. “Liberty Commons is meant to be a spot for collaboration,” Ellis tells me. At Liberty Commons, brew-in-food trends on the menu, with almost every dish given a spin with suds. A meeting of the minds not only helps to craft innovative thirst-quenching beers, but gives a grasp on what ingredients will pair best with new dishes.
Take, for example, the Haddock Fish & Chips, which sees the haddock brined and deep fried in Big Rock Pilsner, or beer-infused cocktails like the Hop Sour, a whisky sour shaken with Big Rock’s Citradelic. Beer isn’t just another drink on the menu at Liberty Commons, it’s the base of what everything is built upon.
In prior weeks, Ellis worked with Chef Lister on a Wild Ginger Saison.“[Liberty Commons] is awesome because it’s a small kit here. We’re only making 600 litres at a time, which is not that big — we can be really experimental,” Ellis explains. “Chef Lister is amazing. We chat about cool ingredients I don’t even know exist that might work in beer, that might pair great with the menu.”
On tap at Liberty Commons, you’ll find Big Rock’s signature brands like Traditional Ale, Citradelic, Grasshopper and Cashmere Crooner, but Ellis’ personal creations are made in limited servings. So far, he hasn’t duplicated a single batch yet, keeping things in the restaurant and brewery fresh and exciting.
As he’s finishing up his Spruce Tip Gose, I ask Ellis what his favourite part of the job is. His response: “Making a beer that turns out exactly as I envision it, and then seeing people enjoy it,” he smiles, “That basically validates that it was a great idea.”
Which Big Rock brew is your favourite? Let us know in the comments section or tweet us at @ViewtheVibe.