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Sometimes Good Things Come from Toronto

denisons2The object of my latest Vue Weekly review (read here) may be one of the most unheralded beer I have ever come across. A fact made especially weird since it is brewed in the Centre of the Universe (Toronto) and usually EVERYTHING from T.O. is talked about way more than it likely deserves (Rob Ford, anyone?).

The beer of which I speak is a little known, about to disappear, hefeweizen called Denison’s. You might have heard of it. You might not. If you haven’t I can’t blame you – this beer flies under the radar. I have made some passing references to it at times on this website, but have never focused energy on it.

I first discovered it while on a work trip to Toronto about five years back. I had it on tap and was struck by just how good it was. During my last trip to the city I couldn’t find it anywhere and have since heard it is undergoing a transition to a new branding as part of a business merger with Side Launch Brewing in Collingwood.

What makes it so good? Balance. It has no one single outstanding feature but finds a way to meld harmoniously all the flavours one looks for in a hefeweizen. Soft, crisp wheat malt, a light fruitiness and a touch of peppery spice and a fresh finish accented by a zest of citrus. The beer has a soft touch to it, one that might at first seem underwhelming but through the glass becomes more impressive. I believe it is very hard to make a decent hefeweizen and most have too much of one thing or not enough of another. Not so, Denison’s.

What I still find confusing is why the brewery never really succeeded. It started life as a brewpub that folded and attempts to maintain it as a brewery failed. The beer, despite its superior craftmanship, remains a well-guarded secret. I realize running a successful brewery takes more than just a quality beer – lots of business acumen, hard work and luck, frankly, is required – but it still confuses me. I am pleased the beer will continue its life in the near future as Side Launch Wheat. Same beer (I am told), just a different name.

A shipment came to Alberta a few weeks ago – I suspect it might be a one-off given the impending name change – and so I snapped up a few cans. I encourage you to do so as you can. And maybe keep that empty as it may be the last of its kind.

Real Tasting Rooms Coming to Alberta

Pints and fermenters. The Green Flash tasting room.

Pints and fermenters. The Green Flash tasting room.

I learned yesterday from beer industry insiders that the AGLC has quietly changed a regulation that prohibited beer sales at brewery locations. Under the former/existing rules a brewery was restricted to only offering free samples for visitors to their brewery. To sell and serve full size glasses, the brewery would have to essentially operate a full-scale taproom, complete with kitchen, etc. Over the years Wild Rose has done this, as has Hog’s Head more recently. Yellowhead also has an event space serving a similar purpose. At other breweries all they could offer you is a 100-ml sample.

That rule has now been changed. Breweries can now have a small bar inside the brewery where they can sell full-size pints of their wares (but those had BETTER be full 568-ml pints, boys!).

The old rule always struck me as kind of an odd policy. Why forbid beer sales at a brewery? It is not like there is a risk of offending anyone (why ELSE would they be in a brewery in the first place?). When I travel to the U.S. seeing a small bar tucked in a corner of the brewery space is common. Many breweries will have a tasting room where you can purchase pints of their various offerings for drinking on premises. The hours of operation vary from place to place, but the consistent element is a dedicated space where people can come and enjoy a pint, maybe while they wait for their growler to be filled or just because it is just as convenient as popping by the local pub on the way home.

These taste rooms never do a tonne of business – they are mostly an add-on for most breweries – but they offer both a small stream of revenue and a source of additional traffic to the brewery. While the sale of that one pint hardly makes a difference to the bottom line, the customer is likely to walk away with a six-pack or a growler or maybe even some merchandise. It is just another way to grow the brand.

So, at any rate, as of now Alberta breweries can operate a small bar without the hassle of a kitchen. They can set up a space somewhere in the public areas of the brewery to sell pints of their freshly made beer. Really, can you imagine fresher beer than served on tap at the brewery who made it?

By any stretch a fairly small change, but judging from the reactions of the beer guys I spoke with yesterday, it it a big deal for the breweries. They are quite elated.

Plus I now have another excuse to loiter around breweries and take in the malty atmosphere (as if I don’t have enough excuses already).

Oversights R Us, and Other Beer News

br winter spiceSo in my round-up earlier this week (here) it appears I missed more announcements than usual. And then another new release was announced today. So here is a VERY quick update, along with a mea culpa or two:

  • As the comments section of the last post notes, Ribstone Creek has released Old Man Winter Porter in six packs this year. Last year’s popular seasonal on tap now get elevated to retail sales as well. The good folks at Ribstone had actually told me about the release (as I ask breweries to do) but I simply forgot it when compiling the last list. So my apologies to Ribstone on that one.
  • Also from the comments section, it appears the Rebellion Brewing are off and running, with their first batch available in Regina starting next week.
  • And one final bit from the comments section (good thing prairie brewers aren’t afraid of telling me when I screwed up!), Brewsters has a couple of winter seasonals on tap right now, including their annual Blue Monk Barley Wine, along with Howitzer Winter Ale and Tailgate Session IPA.
  • And now for the new announcement. Big Rock is bringing back an old annual favourite, Winter Spice Ale, as part of its Brewmaster’s Series. Expect it on shelves any day now.

Okay, that should be it for now. I hope. And Lord, let’s hope I haven’t missed anyone else this time around!

Gardening a Pretty Interesting Beer

Village Gardner 005I mentioned in my recent round-up (here) that Village Brewing’s latest seasonal release is Village Gardener, a community-collaboration beer where the ingredients, including hops, honey and lavender, were grown by local communities and farmers. They called Community Involved Ale.

No question this is a pretty cool project. I love how they link actual Calgary community leagues, as well as local growers into the project. It is the best form of community involvement by a craft brewer.

Well, as it works out I happen to be in Calgary at the moment and stumbled across a bottle of Village Gardener at a local beer store. How could I resist? In their promotional material about the beer, Village never really hinted at the style they were aiming for, but I knew to expect honey and lavender.

It pours light gold with a touch of haze. It builds a tight, dense, blanket of white head. A very attractive beer, I must say. The aroma immediately exposes lavender floral notes along with touches of earthy honey and accents a generic light malt sweetness. The lavender really carries away the nose.

The flavour offers a similar interplay. The front is fairly light, offering summer fruit, some gentle soft malt and a meadowy honey sweetness.  The middle develops a bit of soapiness but that is quickly replaced by a floral, rustic earthiness and perfume character of lavender. I get a mix of perfume and dried grass and dusty wheat fields. The finish hands itself over to the lavender, with honey chasing behind saying “wait for me!” No particular hop character jumps out, although there is enough there to offer a solid back up. The hops in this brew are acting like the stay-at-home defenceman, who are best doing their job when no one notices them.

I am pleasantly surprised by this beer. I went into it really not knowing what to expect. Lavender can easily be overdone, but they find a way to walk that line. The flavour is confident without being exaggerated. The delicate body holds the summer-y flavours well. I find the effects of the lavender remind me of heather, but with a more perfume character. Sometimes I wonder if the bases beer in  Village’s experimental releases need a bit more oomph to create a fuller over all effect. Not this time. The delicate, fruity malt base is exactly the way to go to support the lavender and honey.

A very interesting beer. No question. Both intriguing enough to ponder, but still very quaffable.

Amazing what can happen when an entire community gets involved in making a beer.

Something Olde, Some Things New

pw cherry monkeyWhen I wrote up the latest beer news roundup less than two weeks ago. I predicted that within days a whole bunch of new releases would be announced. Well, I was right. Last week was a busy one for announcements and news. So, I thought I might as well do a quick catch-up before the latest news gets lost like my garden hose under a blanket of snow.

So here are some new beer you will see soon, and some other related news.

  • Starting out east (sort of), Half Pints in Winnipeg has just released its latest incarnation of Noche De Los Alebrijes, their Mexican-style dark lager which comes out once in a while.
  • One province over, Paddock Wood has just put out Cherry Monkey, their imperial stout aged in cherry barrels. Alas, it is a small batch so unlikely to leave the boundaries of Saskatoon.
  • Edmonton’s Alley Kat has not one, but two releases this month. First up, last Thursday, was the latest Dragon Series release, White Dragon, brewed with Chinook hops. This coming Thursday sees the return of Olde Deuteronomy, their annual Barley Wine release that had to get back burnered for a couple of years due to tight capacity at the brewery. I am particularly excited about Old Deut’s return as I have kept a handful of bottles from each and every year it was released. Vertical tasting, anyone?
  • Grizzly Paw in Canmore announced that their one-time one-time release, Chinook Red IPA, will now become a year-round product, as part of its recently launched Summit Series. It joins Rundlestone Session Ale as the second brand in this new series.
  • In a similar vein, over in Calgary, Big Rock has announced that its Dunkelweizen will become the latest beer in its Signature Series, which is its name for its regular year-round line-up. Also, coming in the next few days is the latest Alchemist Series beer. Ivan the Fermentable is a Russian Kvass Ale. It is a low alcohol (2.5%) beer modeled after the historic Eastern European beer brewed with rye bread.
  • Gardener-Glass_GrowlerStill hanging around Calgary, Village Brewing has just released its latest community beer, Village Gardener Community Ale. It is brewed with locally grown/produced honey and lavender and also includes hops grown in four Calgary communities, making it quite the local project. This is the second year of this annual community collaboration project. It comes in a rather unique looking 1-litre howler bottle.
  • Finally, for under the “almost there” file, Tool Shed Brewing announced that they produced the first test batch on their newly constructed Calgary brewery. Within a couple of months the upstart will be able to officially join the ranks of Alberta-based breweries. Their beer is currently being brewed by Dead Frog in B.C.

Okay, that is all for now. Come on, prairie brewers, I dare you to release something in the next couple days just to keep my stupid streak of bad news round up timing alive!



Saskatchewan Exploring Liquor Privatization (Again)

What will the future of Saskatchewan liquor retail be?

What will the future of Saskatchewan liquor retail be?

The Saskatchewan government has launched a public consultation around the future of liquor retail in that province. The consultation paper (found here) walks through the history of liquor retail in the province, outlines the current system and compares it to the systems in Ontario, B.C., Alberta and Manitoba. It offers five options for consideration, along a range from status quo to expanding the public system to full-scale Alberta-style privatization.

I have written in the past about my views on privatization (here and here, for example), so won’t go into any great detail here. However, I have read through the report and thought it might be worthwhile to make a few observations.

First, the history is, actually, kind of interesting. It is useful to see how liquor laws have evolved and you can see recent trends quite clearly (spoiler: the Sask Party government has been edging toward private retail for some time). The comparisons of the other provinces are factually accurate, but the authors do a little bit of cherry-picking around what aspects of each system they discuss. They are more specific in highlighting the  benefits of private retails (e.g., greater selection) and unnecessarily hedge around the downsides (e.g., prices). One particularly irksome example of selectivity is their decision to cite a Fraser Institute study applauding privatization and ignore other studies that have been conducted over the years, including this one.

In the world of politics, making predictions about which direction governments will go is about as precise as using the Magic Eight Ball to decide whether to buy or sell your house. However, I will try anyway, just because.

Having read the report and some media coverage around it, I suspect the government is preparing Saskatchewanians for some kind of hybrid system such as B.C. or Manitoba, where existing SLGA stores will remain but the role of private stores will be increased. However, there is a chance they are angling to make full-scale privatization an issue in the next election – an election they are likely to win. The comments from the Minister responsible for SLGA in this news story are quite aggressive and point in that direction. One particularly irksome comment is his flat-out rejection of expanding the public system, saying “if the public says they really, really want that, then a government could go that direction — but it won’t be our government”.

That irks me because it makes the consultation a bit of a sham. If you have no intention of adopting that option, why do you put in the list of possibilities? I will tell you why – to make the consultation seem more objective and inclusive than it is. Basically this consultation is about exploring which KIND of privatization Saskatchewan residents want, not whether they want it or not. This kind of sleight of hand always angers me, as a person who values transparency, honesty and integrity.

That said, I do think it is important for Saskatchewan residents to make sure their voice is heard on this. It is, obviously, not as important as health care, education or infratstructure, but it is a real public policy issue and one that needs public debate – something Albertans never got to do twenty-some years ago when the Alberta government made the decision for us.

I want to urge Saskatchewanians, however, when engaging in the discussion is to take a broader view as citizens and not narrow consumers. A consumer only cares about what is in it for them. A citizen is concerned about the consequences for everybody. Good luck, Saskatchewan. I will be keeping an eye on it.




Testing Aging Effects, Gonzo Edition

midnight sun 003You gotta love the folks at Yukon Brewing! I am amazed at how willing they can be to accommodate my crazy beer experiments. They have facilitated a number of my efforts to explore how beer changes and morphs under different conditions. They went out of their way to allow for a blind, side-by-side-by-side test of beer vs. can vs. keg effects (read here) and they gave me the opportunity to do a vertical tasting of their Old Ale, Lead Dog (read here). They have always been open, curious and not at all self-conscious about how it might make their beer look. They deserve full marks for that.

I mention this because a few weeks ago, Yukon Dave (Gardner, but no one cares what his last name is, right?) presented me with an opportunity. He found a bottle of Midnight Sun, their espresso stout, accidentally left in storage dating back to 2009. He also happened to have a 2012 bottle and a relatively new bottle around. He proposed I take all three and do a vertical tasting to see what happens over that period of time.

Now, Midnight Sun is 6.2% alcohol, so not really a cellar beer, meaning at five years old, it could be pretty nasty. But Dave was curious and I couldn’t turn down an opportunity for an experiment, ad extremum. So I gave it a shot.

But before I reveal the results, I want all of you to hear that Yukon are being extremely generous here – most breweries would have dumped the old beer and never told anyone it existed. They deserve kudos, not criticism. Whatever I say below about the older versions of the beer bear NO resemblance to the quality of their fresh beer and say NOTHING of their fastidiousness at cleanliness and sanitation. Beer is a volatile product. Even the best beer in the world (okay, maybe not Cantillon) will eventually fall apart. It is a fact of life, just like death and taxes.

I decided to start with the fresh version first (date: May 2014), as I need a baseline for the test. I did the 2012 version (date: August 2012) second and finished with the 2009 (date: July 2009). While I knew this might lead me to focus on the differences and compare to the baseline, it felt the best way to accurately gauge the aging effects.

The 2014 pours a deep, opaque black with a dense, moderately sizeable dark tan head. The aroma is strong with medium roast coffee accompanied by chocolate and a bit of dark graininess. The flavour offers up some dark chocolate up front with a burnt caramel accent. This is quickly overtaken by a pronounced coffee roast. There is a light fruitiness and it presents a surprisingly clean body overall. Linger is a soft coffee roastiness, like burnt coffee beans but balanced by a decent chocolate and malt sweetness. A more than decent coffee stout.

Turning to the 2012 version, the colour is the same, but the dark tan head doesn’t seem quite as dense as the 2014. Actually the beer appears less lively overall, with lower carbonation and a flatter impression. The aroma leans more toward molasses, dark sugar, some chocolate and some dark fruit notes, cherry and sherry. The coffee is barely perceptible. I am surprised at how much the coffee disappeared.

The flavour confirms this impression. The body is thinner, with a noted cherry and sherry edge. I also get raisin, almond, chocolate and a slight tart tang (which is ever so subtle). Some vanilla lurks in the background. Not at all unpleasant, I must admit. I also find the alcohol comes out a bit more. The dark fruit actually adds an interesting dimension to the beer. This version is drier and seems more like a barrel-aged stout in some respects.

Overall, it seems to have lost its fullness and its roastiness but it does maintain a pleasant character. If I sampled it on its own I think my impression would be that it is not a world beater, but still drinkable. I think it is only because I tasted the fresh one first can I see it deterioration.

Then there is the 2009 version. While it is still opaque black that is about all it has in common with the other two. It has almost no head at all, forming Continue reading Testing Aging Effects, Gonzo Edition

Triple the Devil

duvel hopI have always found Duvel to be a fascinating beer. I find it rather unique among Belgian strong ales. Its light body, delicate fruitiness and soft palate are really quite special. I find in comparison to other Belgian beer, the spicing is toned down a bit, allowing some other aspects of the beer to shine through.

So you can imagine my intrigue when I found a bottle of Duvel Tripel Hop on a store shelf. The label claims it to be a more assertively hopped version of Duvel, including a regime of dry hopping. The bitter and flavour hops are Saaz and Styrian golding, which are pretty routine for Belgian beer an apparently their regular hop additions. It was their choice of dry hop that arched my eyebrow – Mosaic, the new hybrid from the makers of Simcoe. Mosaic apparently displays very American citrus characters (I haven’t brewed with it yet, so am only going on a smattering of samplings).

My instinct was that this beer was either going to be fantastic or a complete train wreck. The issue is that I, personally, find the mixing of sharp American hop flavours with Belgian yeast spiciness to be off-putting most of the time. I think the flavours clash and fight each other too much. But given how much I enjoy Duvel, it seemed worth a try.

It looks exactly like Duvel, pouring pale yellow, almost straw in colour. It builds a huge white head with significant lacing and which finds a way to last all the way through the sipping. It is very effervescent with active, extensive bubbles. The aroma is light and  grainy. I detect a soft pilsner malt accented by subtle pepper and a noticeable fresh, green fruity hop aroma. There is also some clovey earthiness in the background.

In the sip I get a soft silky malt at first accompanied by a light pear fruitiness. The middle presents a delicate hop freshness, offering a fruity, earthy hop character.It is not so much a citrus flavour as more grassy and lemony. The Belgian spiciness starts to makes itself known half way in with a light pepper and finding a way to accent the earthiness. I sense touches of clove as well. The linger starts with some hop character but is quickly owned by the Belgian spiciness.It offers a pleasant, fresh, peppery linger well past the end of the sip.

This is no train wreck. Quite the opposite. For once I really like how the hops and Belgian spicing come together. The Mosaic addition seem to make the beer fresher and greener. It seems to add a layer of fruitiness to the beer, rather than a harsh hop citrus-y note. The key may be that they didn’t spike the IBUs too much (if at all, the bitter impression remains rather balanced). Instead they went for accenting the classic Duvel flavour with a bit of hop flavour and aroma – adding another dimension, so to speak.

The beer holds all of the remarkable drinkability of Duvel (which makes it such a dangerous beer) but adds a little extra something. An admirable and well-executed experiment.


Not Sure About Riding this White Horse

chevalblancMy lastest Vue Weekly column is a review of Le Cheval Blanc – the White Horse. On the various beer rating websites, the beer is fairly well regarded. It recently arrived in Alberta, so I thought I would give it a shot.

Of course, I am speaking of the Cheval Blanc from Montreal brewer Brasseurs RJ, not the Montreal brewpub of the same name (lord is that confusing! Who knows how that happened?). Officially it is Le Cheval Blanc Blanche, as they have a few under that brand, but only one has made its way west, so the short name is plenty fine for us. It is, as the name implies, a Witbier.

So, here is my issue. I went in with moderately high hopes, but something went remarkably wrong on the way, as you can read in the review (which you can find here). It looks great. It is hazy white with a huge, rocky head and very effervescent. The aroma is lovely – lemon and orange, a crisp wheat and hints of pepper.

But when I take a sip I know something is wrong. I get a fair bit of astringency (an unpleasant grainy, sharp mouthfeel) and a soapy character that distracts from the light citrus and soft wheat flavours of the beer. Somewhere this beer has wandered into the wrong neighbourhood and come out worse for wear. The soapiness persists through the linger causing the beer to lack that refreshing finish I expect from a Witbier.

I actually considered not submitting the review. I don’t really see my job as running around trashing craft beer for no good reason, plus my editors say the readers prefer positive reviews (they want to read about what they should drink, not what they should avoid – I get that). Yet I felt I needed to follow through on my plan. When I purchased the bottle it was with the intention of reviewing it. I know the agent will be unhappy, and it is completely possible I got a single funked bottle, but I have to write what I taste. There was something wrong with that beer.

So, this is what I want to know. Did I just get a bad bottle or is this beer over-rated? And you are exactly the crew to ask. Onbeer readers are a smart, savvy bunch. Have you tried Cheval Blanc? What did you think? I know a handful of website comments are not a scientifically valid sample but I suspect that your views will help solve this mystery.

Maybe the beer is better fresh in Montreal (on my visits there I haven’t tried it). Maybe it was a bad batch. Or maybe there is something about the beer I simply don’t get. All are possibilities. Let me know what you think.


As The Seasonals Turn…

Yukon secret serviceEverything in my instincts tells me I should hold off one more week before doing another news roundup. Yet, the balancing act is the beer that have been released stop being “news” while I wait for more new releases. So, I trade off, fully expecting a couple of announcements next week that I will have missed.

At any rate, on to the latest beer news. It has been a quieter few weeks since my last round up at the beginning of the month, telling me even more some big announcements are coming soon. Still, there is enough happening to make a quick update worthwhile. With the usual provisios (no order, etc.) here is what has happened recently around the prairies.

  • Yukon Brewing has actually been fairly busy, releasing two new beer, both slated for early November arrival. Secret Service Imperial IPA clocks in at 8.1% alcohol and promises significant hop although I trust it will also possess the familiar Yukon balance and drinkability. Meanwhile, 39 1/2 Foot Pole Black Currant IPA is exactly as promised, an IPA with black currant added – and intriguing choice if you ask me. As the name implies, they are aiming it for the Xmas season (if you don’t get the reference, my friend, you really need to get out more…).
  • Big Rock also has recently put out two new beer. A couple of weeks ago they put out their latest Brewmaster’s Edition beer, Abandoned Abbey, which is a Belgian-style quadruple. At 9.2% it packs this Belgian Dark Strong packs a whallop. Then this week they are releasing the second edition of Anthea Wet Hop Ale, their fresh hop beer, as part of the Alchemist Series. This year’s Anthea deviates from the first version in that it has not been filtered, which should impart a bigger hop aroma and flavour.
  • Over in Manitoba, Fort Garry continues their recent practice of rotating seasonal releases with Das München Oktoberfest, their take on the classic German fall seaonal. This is (to my knowledge) their first seasonal release in 473-ml cans. Odds are it doesn’t make it out of Manitoba, however.
  • Over in Saskatchewan, the news is not about new beer, per se, but more about new breweries. Black Bridge Brewing in Swift Current officially opened its doors earlier this month. At the moment they are doing growler fills and slowly increasing tap room hours as more beer comes on line. The first beer off their line is a Milk Stout, which they hope will black bridge milk stoutbe available in SLGA stores sometime next month, interestingly in cans. Coming soon are Centennial Rye Ale and IPA! – exclamation point included. [NOTE: This entry edited to correct hyperlink and add coming beer]
  • And finally it is not really news, but I didn’t feel like it justified a full post, my profile of Nokomis Craft Ales and Rebellion Brewing came out earlier this month in Planet S and Prairie Dog Magazine (you can read it here). I, of course, did profiles on both breweries here at onbeer earlier (here and here) and the content in the magazine piece is a re-work of those interviews, but it is still worth nothing here, since they are/soon will be part of the growing Saskatchewan craft brewing movement.
  • Finally, while it is not “news” anymore – having been announced the day after my last news post – in the spirit of fairness I mention that Grizzly Paw in Canmore released Jack O’Lantern Pumpkin Ale as their fall seasonal. We may be reaching the end of the pumpkin beer season, but at least you know it is out there if you feel like one last example.

I hereby predict someone releases something before Halloween, just to continue my streak of missing somebody by mere hours. But that is the latest news for now. Now, go find something to sip on while handing out candy to trick-or-treaters.