Tooth & Nail Brewing Company – Rediscovering the Basics with One of the Best Breweries in Ottawa

An article by Noah Forrest

Ottawa’s beer scene is growing quickly. New breweries and brewpubs are popping up all the time; some more notable than others, but most moving in the right direction. It’s also a great city for beer-buying. You have the LCBO releases; you can buy growlers, bottles and cans directly from many brewpubs; and you have Gatineau just over the bridge, which carries most of the Quebec bottle offerings. Things are good for those who live there.

Within the Ottawa beer scene, Beyond the Pale Brewery has become the figurehead brewery (at least from my perspective, keeping in mind that I don’t live there). This is especially true since they have started canning. Their beers are now popping up in Montreal trading forums, where they are doing quite well. The popularity is largely due to their push towards aggressively hopped offerings, which always excites people. But the brewery has also hired a new brewer, who seems to be ironing out some of the kinks and pumping out better beers.

Tooth and nail - several cans

This article, however, isn’t about Beyond the Pale. Instead, I want to talk about a brewery called Tooth and Nail Brewing, which I didn’t know existed until a few months ago. I had a chance to try a few of their beers at festivals, and my father-in-law had dropped off a can. I was immediately drawn to the balance and craftsmanship these beers offered. The beer styles were more traditional and there was nothing overtly bold or exciting, but there were no muted or off-flavours either (surprisingly rare). Every sip was — for lack of a better word — perfect. Even just having sporadic samples, I knew that something special was going on there, and I needed to try more.

I got myself some samples and reached out it to Tooth and Nail’s brewmaster, Matt Tweedy, who runs this brewpub with his wife, Dayna. Before truly examining these these beers, I wanted to ask Matt a few questions about his operation:

Tooth and Nail - Glass branded

The following interview took place over email and has been edited for length. 

Every month a new brewery seems to be opening. The Ontario (and Ottawa) craft-beer scene is growing more and more each day. What role will Tooth and Nail play in this expanding world, and how do you think you will stand out?

It’s true the beer landscape is expanding at an alarming rate. I think there are both good sides and bad sides to the growth, and I don’t think you can have too many great breweries. I do think, however, that because the industry is currently thriving people are getting involved for all of the wrong reasons and haven’t taken the time to understand both the product and the industry.  I don’t think that these breweries will necessarily achieve longevity. We have many brewers out there producing Saison when they don’t even understand what Saison is, and I find that misguided.

Our main purpose is to provide fresh, high-quality products to those looking for such a thing. It’s our hope that we can influence newcomers to the game to develop an air of quality around the Ottawa brewing scene. An interesting result of our brewing philosophies at Tooth and Nail is that we receive lots of positive feedback surrounding the fact that we haven’t entered the market with more extreme offerings. Maybe producing more traditional styles will be the next trend, who knows? We often like to ask ourselves if our company and our decisions would have been as relevant a hundred years ago and if they would be as relevant a hundred years from now.

I was able to taste a few of your beers at an event recently. They seemed to focus on balance and subtlety over intensity and brewing gimmicks, which was a breath of fresh air. Your offerings, although arguably less “exciting,” totally overshadowed everything else I had that day. Why do you think that is?

To back up my previous point, I think there is a shift currently happening in consumer demand for well-balanced, clean and highly-quaffable beer styles. The discovery of craft beer takes the beer drinker to many places. Hops are the first thing to blow your mind, followed by more hops and then more alcohol (one needs the other to work). From there, wood aging in wine and spirit barrels seems to be the next progression, followed by funky, sour, complex beers, and then even to the other extreme, session ales of very low strength. After having discovered a great deal of what brewers can do with their skills and ingredients, and how far the envelope can be pushed in all directions, I think consumers then find themselves happy with simple, great tasting products that they can consume in relative quantity. I know brewers do.

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Don’t get my wrong, I love hop bombs, experimental adjunct ales, and big, high ABV, barrel-aged monsters as well. However, subtlety and quality can sometimes get lost in the mix. Do you intend on taking your skills and applying them to more “extreme” styles?

Definitely. I have always believed that there is a beer for every occasion and that complexity keeps us all interested. I do, however, have the belief that brewers need to learn to walk before they learn to run. I think the idea that a brewery is going to open its doors with the craziest concoction that any brewer has ever come up with is hurting the industry as a whole. Before spreading my wings it was important for me that I learn the ins and outs of our new equipment and all of the individual behaviours of our tanks and machinery before going crazy with complicated offerings. I also wanted to make sure that we had a good grasp of our base beers and were happy with them. We are currently branching out a bit with some very fun and exciting beers, but I also don’t want to be a brewery that produces fifty-five one-offs in a year. I’ve always thought that if you’re not producing it again, you probably didn’t make a very good beer to begin with. Some people think that this approach is a bit too conservative, but I’d like to think that we’re in this for the long haul.

I read somewhere that you spent some time at Cantillon, learning about lambic from Jean Van Roy. Can you elaborate on this? Does this mean that at some point you will start experimenting with barrels, wild yeast and/or acidifying bacteria?

My time at Cantillion was life-changing, although I wish I had been there longer and after having a few years of professional experience under my belt. At Tooth and Nail, we currently have a couple of small batches in barrels and are about to brew a 100 per cent Brett-fermented wheat ale hopped exclusively with New Zealand varietals.  We will continue to approach this program very slowly however, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, sour beer production and extensive barrel aging requires two major things that we at Tooth and Nail don’t currently have — time and space. Secondly, understanding and executing a successful program of this nature is very complicated and requires a great amount of experience and study. I don’t want to release something that isn’t well done, as I have had many horrible “sour” beers lately that don’t do any of us any favours in showing beer drinkers how wonderful and complex these beers can be. My brewing education finished with a two-month stint at the Lost Abbey in San Diego where we were able to touch on many of the intricacies of sour beer production, although I feel as though I would like to return and complete my internship now that I have many years of brewing clean beers under my belt.  Once again, time….


 

Vim & Vigor (Pilsner)

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Hearing Matt talk about their operation had me wanting to drink these cans even more. I’m going to start with the pilsner. Pilsners get a bad rap in craft beer, largely because we’ve been force-fed them for decades. But also — and probably more importantly — because the macro breweries have bastardized the poor thing by adding adjuncts like corn and rice to the mix. I’ve fallen back in love with the style when done well, particularly if the hoppiness is augmented just a little. 

Tooth and Nail’s pilsner, Vim & Vigor, pours out that typical golden-yellow colour, with a good sized frothy white head resting on top. The aromas throw up herbal and zesty hops, with a malty backdrop of honey, hay and oats. It also smells tangy and musty, with lemons and light citrus in the finish. 

After the first sip, the first notable piece is the sharp hop profile. Following this comes that light hay and honey malt base that the nose foretold. This is all quickly cut down by a very intense, but clean bitterness. It’s tangy and herbal, with lots of lemon zest and slight crisp apple-like freshness. 

Overall this is crisp, clean and balanced, but still a tad aggressive on the hop front — which I adore.

Fortitude (Stout)

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Fortitude stout pours out black, with a nice and thick light-brown head that sticks around. The aromatics consist of dark-roasted coffee, star anise, some musty yeast, mocha and slight hop-back drop. Some vanilla sweetness starts protruding through the head, followed by a bit of milk chocolate as well.

The mouthfeel is slick and sexy, coating my mouth beautifully. It’s dry to the bone, with a clean, rather bitter finish that is reminiscent of dark-roasted coffee. The hops provide a subtle fruity component that adds an extra layer to this aggressively attenuated beer. That being said, there is a wonderful milk chocolate presence that alludes to a sweetness that’s simply not there.

The flavours are well-rounded and balanced overall, creating a robust, but incredibly easy drinking stout. I feel like it was downed in three sips. This could easily be a staple in my fridge.

Rabble Rouser (IPA )

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Rabble Rouser pours out a deep copper orange colour, with a nice white cap of foam that rests on top, not going anywhere. The nose is juicy, throwing some tropical aromatics at my senses. Mango, apricots and citrus fruit mix well with some sweet malty complexities that add layers. There is a bit of pine and an earthy component as well, balancing the fruit-forward hop presence. 

The flavours put forth ample amounts of grapefruit and mango, coupled with grass and pine — but nothing that punches you in the face. There is a slight caramel component, but it finishes perfectly dry, without an aggressive bitterness. Although not as fruity or juicy as the nose, this beer provides a great flavour profile and a near perfect balance of flavourful hops, malty sweetness and clean bitterness. It has little to no linger, which I’m not as used to these days given the resinous hop bombs I’ve been ingesting. It is one of the cleanest American IPA’s I’ve had in some time. Although I’m generally more interested in resinous, unfiltered, juicy hop explosions, the balance and execution makes this something that I’d love to have in my fridge any day of the week. I’m really coming to learn that subtlety and balance is a theme with Tooth and Nail.

Tenacity (Pale ale)

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Tenacity pours out an amber-orange colour, with a nice white head resting on top. The aroma is earthy, with some English yeast and slight fruity esters coming though as well. I also get sweet caramel malts followed by a bit of grassy hops.

The nose was a bit one dimensional, but there is a lot more going on here after taking the first sip. It’s medium bodied with a present maltiness that doesn’t really carry any sweetness to it. It really feels like a cross between an English and an American pale ale. It certainly has that earthy English ale thing, with some noble hops mixed in there alongside the American ones.

Again with these guys, it’s about balance and approachability. The fruitiness of the malts match the hoppy presence perfectly. As it warms, the malty, slightly caramel component becomes more present. This complements the hoppy, tangy and bitter finish. You really don’t get that cloying sweet thing that marks so many pale ales and IPAs.

Stamina (Belgian Inspired Session Ale)

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Stamina pours out a foggy yellow-orange colour, with a nice frothy white head. The aromas begin by tossing up light Belgian yeast phenolics, with some dust and a bit of cloves. It’s not particularly apparent though, as if an afterthought. There are lots of herbal hops as well, with a tangy fruity complexity.

Like the nose, there is a Belgian yeast presence, but the phenols and esters are not over the top. They just add a subtle spicy and earthy component, coupled with a bit of fruits — like pears and apples. There is, however, a good amount of herbal and grassy hops. I find this session ale quite similar to the pilsner, though with an additional yeast component and a slightly bigger body.

It’s earthy, musty and tangy all at once, with a big hop kick. Yet the finish — like all Tooth and Nail beers — is extremely clean and approachable. This drinks beautifully, going down with ease, making for a perfect summer patio beer. What I like the most about it is that at no point does it carry that watery thing that I get in many, if not most, session beers. 

Tooth and Nail isn’t a brewery that concentrates on trends and hype. They don’t release a new IPA every week, and they are not throwing every one of their beers into an oak barrel. Us beer geeks need to realize this is okay. So many of the breweries in my life are wearing experimentation on their sleeve. Every week I dissect various complex concoctions, and I love every minute of it. But it’s been amazing to step back and drink high-quality, balanced and clean beers again. I had been starting to worry that I didn’t care about basic beer styles anymore. I know now that this isn’t the case; I just hadn’t had a great one in a while.

An article by Noah Forrest

Photography by Noah Forrest

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