How Great Lakes’ Mike Lackey went from sweeping floors to reaching the upper echelon of Canada’s award-winning beer savants.
It took seven tables of judges to blindly sip and sniff their way through all 65 India Pale Ale entries at this year’s Canadian Brewing Awards. As organizer (and judge) Tracy Phillippi explains it, choosing the gold-, silver-, and bronze-medal winners was an extremely arduous affair—the arbiters narrowed the field to more than 20 brews before making their choice.
Eventually, they announced that Great Lakes Brewery had swept the category, winning the top prize for its Thrust IPA, a silver for Karma Citra IPA, and a bronze for My Bitter Wife IPA—in addition to the title of Best Brewery in Canada for the second year in a row. It was a very good day for brewmaster Mike Lackey.
Easily spotted in his signature Leafs jersey and trimmed beard, Lackey has been a fixture on Toronto’s beer scene for decades. Upon finishing high school, the now 44-year-old heard that his kindergarten friend’s dad, Peter Bulut Sr., had bought a brewery. Lackey cold-called him and asked for a job at Great Lakes; there were none to be had. “I said I’d work for free beer—that was my only expense. I lived at home.” Bulut agreed to his terms.
At first, Lackey’s role was limited to a couple of days a week ripping up carpets, sweeping floors, and sometimes bottling. He didn’t originally have designs on becoming a brewmaster, but before the end of his first year, he was assisting the head brewer in churning out batches of Red Leaf and Horseshoe lagers.
“I was learning the [technicalities] of brewing,” Lackey says. Still, he didn’t consider the boozy pursuit a lifelong vocation. In the span of his 27-year career, he’s taken a few extended leaves from Great Lakes, first to get his BA in sociology, then to travel to Europe and Australia, and occasionally to clean the draught-beer systems at city bars.
Finally, in 2005, he bought a house just outside the Junction and realized his most fulfilling pursuit had been brewing. “So I put my nose to the grindstone.”
For Lackey, that meant frequent trips to craft-beer hubs in the U.S.—namely, California, Vermont, and Michigan—meeting brewers, tasting great beers, then returning to Toronto to tweak and replicate his favourites.
Lackey’s palate is admired by many of his Toronto beer peers. “He can identify the separate parts of what makes a beer great,” says Iain McOustra, brewmaster at Amsterdam. “That allows him to try different styles and really ace them.”
Jason Fisher, owner of Indie Alehouse, also lauds Lackey’s suds sensibilities. “He gets a lot of credit for his IPAs, but in my opinion, his barrel-aged ales, sours, and porters are just as good, if not better.”
These days, Lackey has pretty much free rein at Great Lakes, but it’s been a struggle to convince a family-owned brewery that they should put their moneymaking light lager on hold so he could dedicate some tanks to more radical brews. In the end, Lackey’s belief in big flavour wins out. “You just gotta do it, and sneak a brew in sometimes,” he says. “If it sells, well…hey, there you go.”
LACKEY’S TASTING NOTES ON HIS WINNING IPAS
Thrust: “Grapefruit; stone fruit.”
On tap now at The Wren and The Only Café.
Karma Citra: “Grapefruit; lemon resin.”
Coming to the LCBO in mid-July.
My Bitter Wife: “Grapefruit; resin.”
Available at the LCBO, $5.95 per 500-ml bottle.
Crystal Luxmore blogs talks about beer at crystalluxmore.com and @crystalluxmore.