Interview by Megan Cole
After stumbling into the world of professional brewing, Vancouver’s Todd Graham is now applying his nearly life-long love of fermentation to a new career path, and is sharing his delicious fermented goods with secret supper guests. While fermentation has a long, long history in many traditions, there is something rebellious about using bacteria to create tasty food, which makes sense for this punk rocker and former member of Victoria punk bands Lost Cause, Outright and Grasp. We caught up with Graham to talk craft beer, his secret suppers and fermentation, including his time spent with fermentation master Sandor Katz.
You used to brew at R&B Brewing in Vancouver, how long did you work there?
A little over five years.
Were you brewing somewhere before that?
No, I wasn’t.
How did you get into brewing?
I always brewed at home, usually more wine and sake, as opposed to beer. I just sort of stumbled into it. I had a friend who was working there, and I went in to do some basic construction like build some walls, and they happened to need someone at that time. I kind of knew what I was doing, at least basic fermentation stuff. I said I would help out for a bit and that was that.
Did you have a culinary background? Is that how you got into fermentation?
Yeah, to a point. When I was young, that’s what I wanted to do. I worked at a catering company for quite a while and was essentially schooled by a guy who was a really good chef. I went to cooking school for a little bit, but kind of got more involved with playing in punk bands. Growing up playing music and that sort of thing, it was just where I ended up working because it was the only place that would hire me. A lot of it came from culinary stuff, but I came from a big preserving family. My folks were always making sauerkraut and stuff.
Do you have that Eastern European background then?
I’m sure it’s mixed in there, but my family never had a strong cultural significance, there was a little French there with my grandparents, but it was more Maritimes, going out and picking our own food in the forest and catching crabs. There was more of that background than anything cultural.
It was just the necessity of it, more than the cultural aspect?
Yeah, and poverty had a lot to do with it.
What was it like to be with R&B during the Vancouver craft-beer explosion?
It was interesting. I’m not there anymore. I recently left. I don’t know, I’m kind of all for having more independent businesses, no matter what they are. I wonder how the market will continue. A lot of places are just selling an image. Anyone who’s making beer in a professional setting is likely making pretty good beer. Lately, it comes down to how you market it. The average beer drinker is looking for something that tastes good, and pretty much everyone is making beer that tastes good. There aren’t a lot of places that will put out undrinkable beer, but part of me wonders how far it can go. But then every tasting room seems busy every day.
How long before the bubble bursts, and we start to see some of these breweries closing because there isn’t enough demand?
Some breweries are already at a point where they are re-negotiating how they are going to stay open, and someone will get lost along the way.
Tell me a little bit about what you are doing now that you’re not with R&B.
I kind of wanted out; I want to continue brewing beer on some level, but I don’t know that I want my day-to-day, and for all my energy every day to be put into booze production. I don’t know if that’s where I want to be. I started doing a lot of food production about three or four years ago. When I was in Victoria, my friends and I did a lot of food-oriented projects, and a couple years ago I started to get into it a bunch more because I was getting tired of only producing beer. I had always been interested in other forms of fermentation, and started getting really into it when I went to see Sandor Katz speak about five years ago. He was a pretty engaging guy, and I was super into his philosophy about food. He has a really good outlook on food and the cultural significance of food and continuing traditions, things that used to be standard, that are slowly going away. Baking bread and preserving food is what everyone did because you had to. I found him to be pretty engaging, and so I got his book, and got more and more interested in it. A couple of friends and I started doing these dinners once a month that were focused largely on fermented foods. That ended up doing super well and we’ve been doing that for over a year. I went and lived out at Sandor’s house in Tennessee for a while, and spent five weeks picking his brain every day, living up in the hills. That experience solidified everything for me. My goal now is not to have a full-time job and just find ways to cobble a life together doing things. It feels nice, it’s how I used to live. I never had a full-time job until I worked at R&B. I’m happy to get back to piece-mealing things together a bit better.
You guys are doing secret suppers? How’s that going?
They’re going great. We were doing them out of a smaller place, and it was amazing, but we had kind of hit the cap there of what we could pull off. It didn’t have a kitchen, so we had to bring in propane burners, which meant we were really limited as to what we could make there. We just moved into the new space, we had our first supper there two days ago. We had 70 people and it has an almost-full kitchen. It’s a great location, too. It went over great, so we will start doing those more. It’s also a great place to do fermentation workshops and my own fermenting.
What’s the structure for your secret suppers? Do you guys include booze?
We currently include booze. We have a set price and it’s relatively low, and it includes everything. I love secret suppers, and I have friends that do them as well. We wanted to keep it an affordable event. I don’t know that I would call the other ones unaffordable, but I wouldn’t call them totally inclusive to everybody. Food is expensive, so I understand why people need to charge more, but we keep our menu within the $20 range and that includes everything. We may have to negotiate what we’re going to do in the future given that I don’t work at R&B, so my pipeline of cheaper beer has dried up a bit, but there are other breweries who are supportive and I have friends that work at a few of them, just from being in that industry. I will probably go back to trying to brew somewhere professionally, but only a day or two a week.
Are there a lot of secret suppers up and running in Vancouver right now?
Yeah, there’s a few. There’s the ones that have been around for years, and there are a couple new ones. There’s a really great vegan one that a lot of friends have been going to, and sounds amazing. One of the people that is part of the group that I’m doing ours with has started her own; I think the first one is in two weeks. There are definitely a few kicking around the city.
There used to be one in a warehouse where they brewed their own beer and made their own sausage.
Oh! That does sound totally familiar. I think I even went to that one. The name of the beer thing they were doing was Crab Alley. That’s really funny, the guy who made the beer, his friend was a sausage maker, or a butcher. And the guy who made the beer was actually the guy who taught me how to brew when I started at R&B. His name is Hamish MacRae.
Yeah, that’s it!
He’s the guy who was the head brewer when I started there. And trained me how to brew professionally. It’s a small world when it comes to stuff like this. Now he’s one of the head brewers at Red Truck Brewing.
Has anyone ever been busted by the authorities when it comes to secret suppers, or have you guys been left alone?
Not that I know of. Not over here. We got caught when we were doing it in Victoria once. We were doing it out of our house a number of years ago. The city came once. Someone complained, and we’re not 100 percent sure, but we’re pretty sure that it was a restaurant owner who employed one of the people who helped do our secret supper. We thought he was upset that she asked for a day off to do it, and that was his way of getting back at her. The thing with how we do it is we don’t charge a set amount. We have a jar by the door and no one monitors the money, if you have the money, obviously we have to cover our costs, so we hope people will pay. We’ve never had any issues or had people feel they were overcharged. Basically, it’s by donation, and none of us touch money and there’s no price posted any where. In Victoria, that’s what saved us. The city worker who came was like, “Technically, you are having a BBQ or picnic,” but he knew exactly what we were doing, but said if we don’t touch money or set a price, we’re just having a potluck. Our events are open to anyone who contacts us, and they aren’t generally open to the public, and we’re in an area where no one knows where we are. You basically have to text someone to get in the door. We’re careful, there’s no need to tell anyone where it is unless they are coming for the event.
Todd Graham’s Hand Taste Ferments does a monthly supper based on fermented foods.