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Kitchener-born brewer gains a cult following with inventive beers

Patrick Howell is the head brewer at Blood Brothers Brewing in Toronto
Patrick Howell Blood Brothers Brewing
Supplied photos (Blood Brothers/Patrick Howell)

Patrick Howell lives and works in Toronto, but the impact of his beer stretches far beyond the Greater Toronto Area. The concoctions he brews at Blood Brothers have gained critical acclaim from one of the most popular breweries in the province.

Howell got his start in the beer industry at Brick Brewing in 2010, back when the brewery straddled the city lines between Kitchener and Waterloo on King Street. Since then, he became the head brewer of the Funk Labs program at Nickel Brook Brewing in Burlington in 2013, to his current gig as the head brewer at Blood Brothers in Toronto.

His initial foray into the beer industry was almost by accident, as he took some time away from pursuing his kinesiology degree at the University at Windsor. The Kitchener native started with an entry level position at Brick Brewing, but little did he know that job kick-started his 12 year-career.

“My first two summers were seasonal work, I remember after my first summer, I realized it was the first job I got home from that I was actually happy going back to work the next day,” Howell said. “It’s a lot of strenuous labour, but it made me happy to do that kind of work and be interested in the products we were making.”

Howell went back to university and finished his degree, but every summer, he’d come back home and work on the packaging line at Brick. He loved what he did, but he craved something more. In his thirst for knowledge, Howell came in to the brewery on his days off and mentored with the brewing team to learn the ins and outs of the business.

A position then opened on the brewing team, Howell pleaded his case, and he transitioned over from the packaging team to the brewing team at Brick Brewing. He beefed up his brewing acumen by earning his master’s degree in brewing in distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland.

With his newfound knowledge, Howell moved over to the brewing team at Nickel Brook for the next five years, and has been at Blood Brothers for the last two-and-a-half years. It’s been a baptism of fire of sorts for Howell, as he thrust himself into one of the biggest craft beer hotbeds in Canada.

“Blood Brothers has probably been the most aggressive learning experience I’ve had in my career,” Howell said. “We’re continuously pursuing new avenues for products, as well as trying to perfect all our current products in our lineup.

“It’s a lot of strain, a lot of stress, a lot of creative output that you need to sustain. The two years I’ve been here, I’ve probably done more learning on every aspect I’ve ever had to do in my career.”

As head brewer at Blood Brothers, Howell’s days are extremely varied, but they’re frantically pushing out beer from their Geary Avenue location in Toronto. During busy weeks, they make 4 batches of beer a day, some days brewing from 6 am until 2 am just to get it all done. At their peak time, Blood Brothers brews 16 batches of beer a week.

During their busiest month of the year, Howell and company brewed 500,000 litres of beer, which was barely enough to keep up with the rampant demand from their fans. At the beginning of the pandemic, customers started panic buying their favourite beverages, but Blood Brothers also expanded their home delivery program, which allowed them to push more beer out the door.

The brewery has some of the most inventive concoctions you’ll find in the province. Earlier this year, Blood Brothers released an imperial stout with pretzels, graham, vanilla, caramel and chocolate. They also released a fire breather of a sour ale brewed with mango and Chocolate Bhutlah peppers, one of the hottest peppers in the world.

Every quarter, Howell and his brewing team sits down and maps out which styles they’d like to brew, or how they’d like to approach old releases in a different way. They plan a road map and sometimes use seasonal ingredients to influence certain choices.

In a brewing industry that’s getting bolder every year in terms of taking risks with flavours, Howell said every idea has been done by now. He’d rather focus his energy on making beers people will come back and try for a second time.

“The idea of revolutionizing and coming up with new ideas that nobody’s ever done is impossible,” Howell said. “It’s just too saturated of a market to not have someone come up with an idea before.

“Everyone’s goal within the brewing industry now is to do those ideas, but do them better. Do them in a way that will draw your customer base in and make the customer happy with the product you’re developing.”

Living on the cutting edge of brewing involves taking a lot of risks, which inevitably leads to some mistakes along the way. As sacrilege as it sounds, Howell will scrap a beer if it’s not up to his standards.

It’s a tough decision to make, but he said the risk to the reputation of the business is too great to release an inferior product. Sometimes, messing something up during the first batch makes the beer better the second time around.

“I’m very open to people who ask: ‘How did you get to this product?’ I’m like: ‘We dumped the first batch,’” Howell said. “We screwed up somewhere along the line, whether it was human error, or we didn’t know enough about the style or the ingredients we were using. We then learned our lesson, and we improved upon it. We only wanted to give the customers our product we improved upon.”

Asking a head brewer to name their favourite beer is like asking a parent to name their favourite child, but Howell chose Werecat and Abattoir as two of his favourites in the two-plus years he’s brewed at Blood Brothers.

Werecat is a bourbon barrel aged sour brown ale that comes in at 8.7% ABV, and Abattoir is a dry hopped barrel aged farmhouse ale that he’s quite fond of. He enjoys the duality of simplicity and complexity all in one glass.

“Those ones I love because there’s no flash to it,” Howell said. “It’s just the simplest form of taking base beer and combining it with these other things to make a full, completely layered, textured product.

“You don’t have to throw a tonne of fruit at it, you don’t have to cover up these nuances with a tonne of spice. It’s just very simple, clean and super drinkable. Those are the ones I really enjoy doing because they’re minimal, but there’s that little bit of tweaking that you have to do to make it perfect.”

The weeks leading up to the holidays are high season for new releases at Blood Brothers this time of year. They’re averaging two to three new releases every week, which is their highest density of variety all season.

One of Blood Brothers most popular brews is Guilty Remnant, and ode to the HBO series “The Leftovers”. The white chocolate white stout is a cult favourite and sells out at a breakneck pace. Blood Brothers will have two new variants of Guilty Remnant coming later out this winter.

Although he was raised in Kitchener and is now a Toronto transplant, Howell is impressed by how the Waterloo Region craft beer scene has expanded and elevated itself in recent years. He’s still close friends with many of the big players in KW beer, including Red Circle Brewing’s brewmaster, Brett Croft, and Rob Hern from Short Finger Brewing.

In fact, Blood Brothers and Short Finger teamed up to brew a collaboration beer which will be released through Short Finger in Kitchener. Howell doesn’t have any plans to move back to KW anytime soon, but in the meantime, he continues to put his unique spin on the Toronto beer scene.

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