It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon as I make my way through Alex Blais’ yard, following the sound of laughter toward an outbuilding at the back of the property. Stepping inside, I see a climbing wall taking up half the space. The other half is filled with bottles, hoses, barrels, and other beer-brewing paraphernalia. I’m instantly welcomed in by Alex and his two friends, Adam Crysler and Chris Frederiksen. This trio of self-proclaimed beer geeks comprise Comox’s best-known homebrew team: the Lazo Barrel Collective.
The three friends were initially brought together via their proclivity for craft beers and local “bottle shares” (informal gatherings of beer lovers sharing fun beers with each other). In 2018, the group came into possession of two red wine barrels from Gladstone Brewing, which offers local red wines on tap in addition to its own beers. Blais had extra workshop space, so the guys decided to collaborate and launch their own passion project. The Lazo Barrel Collective was born.
With a shared interest in the “wild” side of beer, the group members experiment with creating unique mixed-fermentation and barrel-aged beers that hold a variety of ingredients and flavours. (Mixed fermentation requires using more than one kind of yeast.) Frederiksen explains that, when possible, they like to incorporate local ingredients: “One of our more unique beers was a golden sour ale that was aged on salal that Adam harvested. It had a beautiful colour and a really interesting flavour profile. We’ve also aged beer on native rosehips, salmonberries, and thimbleberries, and looking ahead, we’re excited to find other local ingredients to use.”
While the Lazo Barrel Collective is a hobby for the trio, they have gained national recognition for their unique beers in competitions across Canada. Their lambic-style ale, called Primary Fission, took Best in Show at the 2019 Saskatoon Headhunters Brewing Competition. They also received gold medals in the Sour Beer category at Vancouver’s 2019 VanBrewers Awards and Toronto’s Brew Slam 2019 competitions. And one of their personal favourite brews, a dark mild that they fermented in a freshly emptied bourbon barrel received from Phillips Brewery, took home the bronze medal at the Winnipeg Pro/Am, a competition that pits homebrewers against professional brewers.
So what’s next for the Lazo Barrel Collective? The guys have a ton of projects and ideas to test out. First on the list is trying spontaneous fermentations. Blais explains, “It’s a wild (literally!) process where, instead of pitching any yeast, you allow the freshly brewed wort* to cool overnight, exposed to the atmosphere, so it can be inoculated by the native yeasts in the air. Some Belgian breweries like Cantillon have been doing this for centuries with amazing results. There are many potential pitfalls, but some of the most phenomenal beers we’ve ever tasted were made this way, so we’re excited to give it a go.”
And while you might want to get your hands on some of these unique homebrew batches, for now, the guys just enjoy sharing their brews with friends and family. As Blais puts it, “It’s especially fun introducing our beers to folks who’ve never tried mixed-fermentation beers. Trying to prepare people for what they’re about to taste usually goes something like ‘Imagine that you’re about to try a completely new type of beverage, one that lies somewhere between wine, beer, and kombucha. Expect to experience flavours that you’ve never really come across before.’”
*Normally when you brew beer, you essentially steep malted barley and other grains until you have a sugary liquid called wort. To make actual beer, you need to add or “pitch” yeast to eat those sugars and create alcohol (among other things, like esters and phenols, that contribute to the taste).