Share This Blog

Changes Coming at Big Rock?

brlogonewMy CBC beer column last week centred around the news of the resignation of Big Rock CEO Bob Sartor. It was somewhat surprising news and it got me wondering what might this mean for Alberta’s oldest and largest craft brewery. You can listen to the column here.

For those not familiar with Big Rock’s long and winding history, I start with a short synopsis of their roots, their various trials and tribulations over the years and how they got to where they are now. In particular I focus on how as a pioneer of craft brewing in Canada they fell prey to their own success. A big expansion, designed for a failed attempt to woo the American market, created a dilemma for the company. They had a huge brewhouse that they needed to keep busy. This logic led them during the 2000s down a path that, in hindsight, might not have been advisable.

They started seeking greater market share through a variety of means. They started chasing the pale lager market, releasing a series of uninspiring lagers in an attempt to woo Labatt and Molson drinkers. They also pushed into the discount beer segment with Alberta Genuine Draft and creating a whole host of “house beer” for bars and restaurants (beer that sells for less and is branded for the bar, rather than the brewery). They also achieved national distribution and became one of Canada’s largest independent breweries.

Along the way their craft credentials took a big hit. Newer microbreweries passed them and Big Rock found itself stuck, well, between a rock and hard place.

Sartor’s arrival marked a significant shift for the company. During his four-year tenure Big Rock has tried very hard to re-establish their craft beer credibility. They dropped their efforts to court the mainstream market (or, maybe, they recognized that craft is becoming more mainstream) and stopped chasing the same fads the big boys constantly chase. They have de-emphasized (but not halted) their production of discount beer and house brands. Instead they have increased their efforts around creating interesting seasonals and one-offs and have expanded their line-up to include more “craft” like styles, like Scottish ale, dunkelweizen and even a single-hop IPA.

brhollowtreeThe results of this effort have been mixed, both in terms of the beer and the reaction from the consumer. I think Big Rock has made great strides in repairing its relationships within the industry, but at times the beer drinker can be stubborn and slow to forgive. I truly am not sure where their reputation sits these days. Definitely improved, but I just don’t know by  how much.

So, going forward, what does the future hold for Big Rock? I, obviously, have no insider information but I think they are at a fork in the road. New CEOs usually mean a new course, even if fairly subtle, for a company. Profits have been down in recent years, what with rebranding costs and lower production volumes. The shareholders may be restless and see this transition as an opportunity to shore stock value back up. Conversely the next CEO might double down on the repairing craft credentials project.

Both paths are fraught with risks. Going back to chasing volume could leave Big Rock in the same no-person’s-land they were in a few years ago; rejected by craft beer drinkers but slow to be adopted by commercial beer drinkers. But the craft world is becoming increasingly competitive and challenging, so that option is no walk in the park either. It is moving very, very fast. Is a brewery the size of Big Rock able to be nimble enough to keep pace? I don’t know.

What I am fairly certain of is Big Rock will look quite different a couple of years from now than it does today. I will be watching with great interest.


Let’s Hope First Ditch Isn’t the Last Effort

outcast-logoThis past weekend there was something of a mini-buzz around the very first release of Alberta’s first gypsy brewery, Outcast Brewing (although I am not sure the term “gypsy brewery” applies as he isn’t planning on moving around quite yet). First Ditch Effort Pale Ale is the first batch from Patrick Schnarr, the founder and sole employee of Outcast. (For background on Outcast, read my profile of the brewery here).

It is a small batch (9-55l kegs to be exact), meaning it wasn’t going to last long. Edmonton got a grand total of ONE keg, on the growler bar at Sherbrooke Liquor Store, which was tapped on Saturday morning. Consumers were warned not to delay and that threat was proven right, as the keg ran dry by mid-afternoon Sunday.

As it works out I think I was the very last customer to get a growler of the beer, having only been able to swing by on Sunday afternoon.

I tried it on Monday night (I had other things to do on Sunday). I fully recognize this is the VERY first beer from a brand new brewery, so I always set my expectations with that context. That said, I think the beer is worth writing about (even if you can’t even get it at the moment – although I assume you will again sometime soon).

The beer pours very cloudy (I think due to it being the end of the keg) and offers up a dark orange hue. It quickly builds an aggressive head that fills more than its portion of the glass. There seems to be an above average carbonation as well.

My immediate impression of the aroma is that is has a HUGE juicy citrus character with a hint of hop resin. Like a freshly squeezed grapefruit mixed with a bit of freshly picked hop. I can also find some soft honey poking out from underneath.

I take a sip and at first am not sure what to think. The front offers a light biscuit malt and a grainy sweetness. I wonder if the graininess might be a bit harsh. The middle opens up with a bit of tree fruit and floral honey. At this point the body seems surprisingly light. But at that point you get what your palate is waiting for: citrus. Grapefruit, pineapple and papaya all come out in a burst of hop flavour. I also get some resiny pine character. The bitterness is assertive and unapologetically American. The linger is also quite sizeable, leaving a grapefruit rind and hop resin note along the edges of your throat. The bitterness level seems in the zone for a pale ale, but the finish is moderately dry, which accents the hop character. I find a bit of harshness in that linger that I can’t quite describe.

The clear thing about this beer is that it is a very assertive pale ale. No question. Big hop flavours are the feature of this beer, and its best qualities. The aroma, I must say, is absolutely gorgeous. The hop flavour is both enticing and the central character of the beer. The grain reveals a bit of astringent harshness – not a lot but noticeable (for me) and the hops also offers a sharp, slightly pungent finish. Those might be elements that could be tweaked for the next version.

Also, I might be old school but I find the balance a bit out of whack in this beer. I still like my pale ales to be quaffable. First Ditch finishes moderately dry and the body is a bit light. I realize that is the in-thing these days, and so this isn’t really a criticism, per se, just an expression of preference.

Overall First Ditch is a good first effort. It makes me greedily anticipate the release of their upcoming Double IPA.

Small Brewery, Big Picture is Rocky View’s Vision

rockyviewlogoLyle Thorsen’s wife was thrilled when he told her he wanted to open a brewery. Many partners might be nervous that he was thinking of quitting his lucrative job in the oil patch or was planning to place a second mortgage on their home to make it happen. Thorsen’s wife knew better. “She wanted me out of the house more,” he says. “I was always brewing in the house and she hated it. My daughters always cleared out when they smelled the mash.” He says she loved the idea of moving the brewery to the shop on their acreage.

Part of his wife’s response was due to the unique nature of Thorsen’s project. He wasn’t planning a full-sized commercial brewery requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars to get up and running. His plan was what he calls “a hobby business” where the beer is serious but the rest is about balance. The result is Rocky View Brewing Company, which opened its doors a few weeks ago.

Thorsen is an engineer actively employed in the oil sector. He has been a homebrewer for a long time. “I got into homebrewing in university, just to keep cost of beer down.” When family and career came along he dropped the hobby, but picked it back up a couple years ago, once the kids were a bit older. This time he was more serious about it and really applied himself. “It was about from scratch, seeing what I could do. I would be brave enough to take my wares to parties and it was well received.”

That got him thinking. Thorsen has both an Engineering degree and an MBA, meaning he combines the technical curiousity with an acute business sense. “I have always had something of a business hat,” he says. “I don’t want to be afraid to try something new. I thought ‘why not give it a shot?'”

He did some math and realized that if he built his brewery on his property, which is located outside Cochrane officially in environs of a tiny town called Bearspaw in Rocky View County, he could make it work. “It was a good fit. It was something I was doing anyway – brewing every couple weeks – and so I thought I would just size it up a bit and keep it at home”.

And that is basically what he did. He had been brewing on an unusual single vessel, electric-fired set-up from a company called BrewHa. They had just released a 5BBL version of their system, which essentially allows the brewer to mash, sparge, boil, and ferment in the same vessel. Thorsen decided to simply buy that new nano-sized version and away he went. “I know it is unconventional, but I already understood how the system worked,” which reduced the learning curve, he notes. The limitation to the system is that he can only have one beer on the go at a time (since his fermenter is also his bright tank – not to mention his mash tun), but for now that works for him. “I can always add more vessels down the road if I want to double batch or something.”

He brewed his first batch in September and has been consistently brewing every second weekend since. With his job he gets every second Friday off as time-in-lieu. “Those weekends I brew. I keg Friday and get ready to brew Saturday or Sunday, depending on what is happening that weekend.”

As part of his starting modest mantra, Thorsen is starting with three Continue reading Small Brewery, Big Picture is Rocky View’s Vision

Cask Ale: The State of the (Burton) Union

Owen getting wet tapping a cask!

Beer judge Owen getting wet tapping a cask! (I love this photo!)

A few days ago I attended a cask vs. cask event at Accent Lounge where Alley Kat and Blindman each had a cask tapped at the same time and customers encouraged to vote for which was their favourite. The two intrepid breweries produced VERY different beer. Alley Kat added oak cubes that had been soaked in Old Deuteronomy to a cask of their Tartan Party Scottish Ale, a process that I thought brought out a smoky character in the beer with just a hint of that Old Deut wonderfulness. For their part Blindman dry hopped their Saison Automne with (I think) Galaxy hops (I didn’t take notes and it was a few days ago), producing a beer with a fantastic citrusy aroma followed up by an earthy Belgian spiciness. I don’t know who won (my voting tickets stayed in my pocket because I am a coward).

My point of this post is not to give you a play-by-play of that cask event. Instead, while sipping on the offerings I got into some conversations about where cask ale is at in Alberta these days. So I thought a state of the union article might be in order.

In short, we have come a long way in a short time. I reported on Edmonton’s first cask event back at the Sugar Bowl in 2010 (read my review of the first one here). And, as it works out, my last state of the cask post was two years ago – also after a conversation with beer people about cask events (read here). Looking back at those articles there is no mistaking things have shifted – and mostly for the good.

Allow me to offer some observations about where things are at, followed by some analysis.

  • Cask events have simultaneously increased in number and lost some of their excitement. People don’t come “for the cask” anymore, but when it is there, it adds an interesting twist to the evening. You can get a cask a couple times of week now. That said, Sugar Bowl has recently decided to move their cask night from monthly to quarterly (which I predict will soon lead to its elimination). It is important to not read too much into that decision, as the Sugar Bowl is a hopping place on any given day and the cask may not add value for them anymore – but that alone says something.
  • Alberta breweries are now expected to produce cask ale as part of their cycle. It is seen as part of the job. If you don’t do casks, at least once in a while, you are seen as not getting in the game. And given the quickly growing number of breweries opening in the province, that means a greater diversity of cask offerings. Related to that, I also sense that breweries are working harder to make their casks interesting and creative (which is the point), meaning better cask offerings.
  • The nature of cask events is shifting. We are seeing more events like the one at Accent the other night – face-offs, multiple cask tappings and so on. The popularity of the Edmonton Beer Geeks Anonymous cask festivals continues to both demonstrate the interest in cask and to encourage breweries to up their cask game.
  • Alberta finally has its first everyday cask offering. Situation Brewing serves up a cask ale almost everyday at 5:00 (they skip Mondays and stat holidays). As a brewpub this has been fairly easy for them to incorporate into their brewing schedule.

So what to make of all this?

We are slowly creeping forward, step by step. Events like the one at Accent last week are a sign of progress, so is the daily Situation cask. It suggests that there is an appetite for greater cask offerings and a customer willingness to try the creative offerings they provide.

But the slow progress equally suggests to me that cask has not yet broken into the broader craft beer drinking public. It remains a niche product where a small Continue reading Cask Ale: The State of the (Burton) Union

4th Meridian First in the Hearts of Lloydminster

4thmeridianlogowhiteThey are, without debate, Alberta’s most eastern brewery. 4th Meridian Brewing opened its doors (just outside) Lloydminster a few weeks ago. You can’t get more east in Alberta without finding yourself in Saskatchewan.

Which is why 4th Meridian is called what it is. “It comes from the Dominian Land Survey (DLS) system,” says co-owner Edward James in a recent conversation. “It is the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan,” which runs through the middle of Lloydminster. “I worked in the oilpatch where we use the DLS all the time. Plus it is a name that just sounds appropriate. Everyone in the oilpatch and in Lloydminster would know what it means,” he adds.

“We threw around other names to do with native plants, animals, etc. But so many have done that. How many breweries can you have named after creeks and rivers?”

4th Meridian is the creation of James, his sister Helen Ramful and her husband Brad Hoffman. All three were connected with Alberta’s oil and gas sector; James in Calgary as a project manager, Hoffman with an oil service company in Lloyd and Ramful as an environmental consultant. The economic downturn hit them all hard. James lost his job, Ramful’s work dried up and Hoffman, while still working, found things slower. The time seemed right to pursue their dream.

James had been homebrewing for seven years and, like most of us, fantasized about opening a brewery. “My mom bought me a book with instructions on all-grain brewing [the book was CAMRA’s Brew Your Own British Real Ale], I went for it and got not too bad at it.” As he got more into homebrewing he starting thinking about a brewery, but his day job kept him busy. “But then I got laid off two years ago and asked myself ‘what am I going to do with my life?”

“We got serious in January 2016,” he notes. “We were sitting at my parents’ kitchen table in Edmonton. I didn’t have a job. My sister didn’t have a job. And we had the possibility of free space [at the acreage of Hoffman’s parents outside Lloyd].” So they decided why not?

But they didn’t have tons of capital so they knew they had to do it in an affordable way. They built a 3.5BBL system using only their own money. “We pieced it together a bit here and a bit there.” They have gone with plastic fermenters (for now) along with some “ugly” Grundy tanks (squat, English serving tanks produced 50-60 years ago) as bright tanks. “Dandy Brewing was our inspiration. We felt if they could do it so can we.”

For the moment they have three beer on offer. Bachelor Blond Ale, Re-Session Ale which James describes as “a pale ale, more hoppy than blonde but not super IPA hoppy – about 30 IBUs”, and a recently released Mango Hefeweizen. “I did the Mango as a homebrew. I had mangos lying around and had just made wheat beer, so thought I would try it.” He is well aware releasing a quintessential summer beer in November is a bit crazy, but early reaction has been very positive.

James says that he and Hoffman like their flavourful Continue reading 4th Meridian First in the Hearts of Lloydminster

The Corporation, the Retiree and Beer for Life

abinbevlogoToday I want to wade into an issue that, in general, is not the territory of this website – even though it is a beer industry-related story. I am not entirely sure why I feel the need to write about it. Maybe it is because it is a rare confluence of my day job and my hobby-job. Or maybe it is just because it is a slow beer news week. Or maybe because it speaks to the difference between corporate beer and craft beer – in more ways than one.

I am referring to a story that came out a couple of days ago that ABInbev (Labatt’s for those of you who continue to believe it is a Canadian-owned corporation) has decided to discontinue its policy of providing an annual beer allotment to its Canadian retirees. You can read the CBC story about it here.

Before I offer some commentary, some background is in order. First, a policy of providing a certain volume of free beer to employees is a longstanding and widespread industry practice. The unionized corporate breweries have it written into their collective agreements. But craft breweries (if they have employees) almost universally do it as well. The corporate breweries also have a long history of extending that benefit to long-serving workers who retire, more than 50 years in ABInbev’s case (I don’t know if there are craft breweries who offer a similar retirement benefit – someone feel free to fill me in).

To some the benefit may seem like an outlandish perk, especially the notion of “beer for life”. But let’s pause a moment and look at the policy carefully.

First, free beer for employees might seem like a perk (and it kind of is), but it is also smart business. Working at a brewery means being around beer all day. Brewing, transferring, packaging. There is beer everywhere. Imagine what would happen if the employer didn’t offer an allotment of free beer? Pilfering would be rampant. There would be no shortage of opportunities to make a six pack “disappear” over the course of a work day. And who could blame the workers? They made the stuff, for goodness sake! Asking them to pay for it would seem like an insult.

So breweries, wisely, developed policies to ensure workers get a fair portion of beer as part of their overall compensation. Workers are happy, less beer goes missing and the cost of the beer is fairly small. In fact it is likely less than the amount workers would pilfer. It is kind of a win-win.

What about retirees? I don’t know the original reasons for initiating an allotment for retirees, but given when it was implemented I think it was likely a recognition by the employer for long service. Someone toils for you for 20-30 years and the employer (at least back then) feels some obligation to honour that loyalty. It is not unlike offering a pension plan or post-retirement health benefits. At one time it was widely acknowledged that employers’ responsibility for their workers did not stop on the day they got their retirement wristwatch. It was considered an extension of the obligations arising out of the employment relationship.

So, for 50+ years retired Labatt’s workers received an Continue reading The Corporation, the Retiree and Beer for Life

Random Acts of Beerness: Celebration Time!

benchcreek_troubledwatersI know the Xmas season is soon upon us, but it seems like prairie breweries are getting a head start on the festivities. There seem to be a lot of celebrations of various shapes and sizes happening, along with some fascinating other initiatives. So let me get to highlighting some of the beer news that caught my eye in recent weeks.

  • I discussed Blindman’s first year anniversary last week (read here), but they are not alone in celebrating key birthdays. Troubled Monk and Bench Creek also turn one this fall. And to celebrate the three breweries have gotten together to jointly celebrate by giving consumers a gift. Troubled Waters East Coast Double IPA (get the name?) is what it says it is and is intended to celebrate their mutual success over the first 12 months or so. They gathered to brew it yesterday and it will be available in kegs only a few weeks from now.
  • Speaking of collaborations, Blindman recently spent a day brewing with the guys from Steel & Oak in B.C. The at-the-moment mystery beer will be out in a few weeks.
  • While talking about the trio of toddler breweries, Troubled Monk has released the hilariously named Red Ensign Session Imperial Mild. Rather than having it make my style curmudgeon head explode, I will simply chuckle at the cleverness of the Red Deer brothers. I tip my hat to you, boys!
  • I got a lot of things to talk about The Dandy Brewing Company, so let’s get to it. First, they are celebrating an upcoming expansion, having taken over the bay next to them and ordering a bunch of (non-plastic) brew equipment. It seems the Dandy boys are about to make the next jump in their progression. While talking about them they have also started a very cool initiative to sign up an Artist in Residence. I gotta say I love this announcement. They are going to support a local artist for 6 months with a monthly stipend and cross-promotion to both advance their art and entrench Dandy’s community reputation. The first artist in residence is Kelsey Fraser, who happens to be  responsible for the new artwork on the brewery’s labels. Finally, Dandy has a new seasonal, a Biere de Garde, which will only be available at the brewery taproom.
  • I will file this one under Wild Rose, even though Dandy is involved with it as well. The two breweries have partnered with Fallentimber Meadery to create a collaboration beer to be released next week. Called Fool’s Errand it is a Honey Lime Ginger Sour aged 6 months in tequila barrels. All I can say is whoa!
  • wildrose_dandy_fallentimber_foolserrandAlbertans also get to celebrate a couple of new breweries opening up. Last month Rocky View Brewing opened its doors in Bearspaw, a small town between Calgary and Cochrane. The nano-brewery has modest goals at first, but we will see where things go. I am trying to get in touch with them and will offer a profile when I can. Also, High Line Brewing in Calgary will be officially opening its doors this week in the hip neighbourhood of Inglewood. I recently wrote a profile on the new brewery, which you can read here. More to come – of that I am certain. Also, last week Common Crown’s first beer rolled out of the brewery and into consumers’ glasses (read my profile of them here).
  • Half Pints is also celebrating this month. In their case it is the opening of their recently renovated tap room space. Recent rule changes in Manitoba made operating a full tap room (before it was just a retail sales space) feasible. The refurbished space has opened for growler fills and will start serving pints once they get the needed permits.
  • Edmonton has a new beer organization focusing on bringing beer to women. Much like the Pink Boots society, its goal is to promote craft beer among women. It is called Alberta Beer Girls (not a huge fan of the use of the term “girls”) and its mandate is to create a space for women to appreciate beer. They had their first sold-out event at Situation Brewing last week, and will be announcing future events soon.
  • Yukon has launched their Xmas seasonal beer, 39 1/2 Foot Pole Black Currant IPA. They have released version of this beer in previous holiday seasons. The highlight is the locally sourced, hand-picked black currants.
  • Alley Kat has launched a cluster of seasonals in time for the holidays. Their latest Back Alley series is a Stout made with craft, small batch biscuit malt from Red Shed Malting and hops from Alberta hop farm Northern Girls. At the same time they have put out Tartan Party, a Scottish Export, as their latest seasonal. Both are available in 650 ml bottles. Also out, rather quietly is Pour Boy Chili Beer. For years Alley Kat has made a chili beer for Dadeo’s Restaurant on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton. Pour Boy is a one-off packaging of the beer to see if it might have wider appeal. No word on whether they believe it is worth a second try. Another Dragon is coming in the next couple of weeks as well.
  • In general there is lots going on in Manitoba. Peg Beer Co., Barn Hammer and Torque brewing are  now all going full blast, releasing a wide array of beer. I won’t try to list them here, but if you are in Manitoba be sure to seek them out.

I am well aware I am missing stuff, but that will do for now. I will try to do another one before Xmas with an updated list of holiday seasonals – as more will be coming, trust me.








Court Grants Injunctions in Mark-Up Cases

scalesofjusticeEarlier today (Nov 10) a Calgary judge granted injunctions to Great Western Brewing and Steam Whistle as part of their ongoing legal challenges to the Alberta government’s  beer mark-up policy (read the CBC story here). For background on the issue read my previous posts here and here.

Officially, Steam Whistle’s injunction is an extension on their previously granted injunction at the time of the first policy change. The Great Western injunction is new. In both suits, the breweries are alleging the mark-up policy combined with a grant to Alberta breweries is unconstitutional because it is a trade barrier.

The narrow upshot of this is both breweries will, for now, apply their previous mark-up rates. For example Great Western’s previous rate was 48 cents a litre. Actually, it is a bit more complicated than that as the breweries would be obligated to repay the government for the difference if they lose their lawsuit, so the breweries will need to make a decision about how much to hedge on the case. My guess is Great Western will try to lower its prices as much as it can to regain a competitive price point.

As for the broader issue, today’s decision doesn’t really change anything. The injunction was expected (given the previous Steam Whistle decision). Temporary injunctions are not indicators of the relative strength or weakness of the parties’ cases.

It sounds like the actual hearings in the cases will be heard in May. So, kids, we’ve got a long way to go before this one is over. I will do my best to keep you posted.



Blindman’s Anniversary Beer Something to Celebrate

blindman1yearI like it when breweries have birthdays because it usually is the consumer who gets a present. And with the brewery boom taking place on the prairies, beer drinkers in the region can look forward to a raft of beer celebrating early accomplishments. I know of a few coming down the pike in the coming weeks and months.

First up is Blindman Brewing’s first anniversary beer, deceptively called 1 Year. It is a Belgian Golden Strong Ale, clocking in at 8.9% and packaged in a 500-ml bottle. I am told they hope to do a different anniversary beer every year (the Blindman boys like their numbered series – Kettle Sours, Anniversary Beers…). I got my hands on a bottle over the weekend and gave it a try.

It pours pale straw and quickly builds a formidable bubbly white head. I note a fair degree of haziness. It is also very effervescent, much like the style should be. In the aroma I detect pilsner malt, honey, some light fruit, and a stalk-y graininess. It also gives off a bit of wildflower, an earthy pepper spiciness along with a hint of funky yeast.

I take a sip and at first get a soft grainy malt sweetness upfront. I find it very floral with a honey accent. First impression is that the beer is quite soft and gentle. The middle then builds a peppery, earthy yeast character which also begins to dry out the beer. The back end offers a bit of floral hop note and a moderately sweet finish. A lingering yeast spiciness blended with a bit of earthy hops and a honey ester finish off the beer.

My first thought about this beer is that nowhere can I find evidence that it is 9% alcohol. No heat or lingering vapours, this beer really hides its punch.That is a very, very good sign for a Belgian, as they should sneak up on you. It is a very smooth with a soft profile overall that I find quite pleasing. The yeast spiciness is fairly moderate in volume but hits the right flavour notes. I wouldn’t have minded if they could have coaxed just a bit more pepperiness out of it.Although I did notice that when I drank the yeasty dregs (I leave the sediment behind in the original pour but then like to swirl and drink the remainder at the end, just because I hate wasting good beer), the yeast spiciness picked up noticeably. Not sure what that means, but it does suggest the Belgian spicing is there.

Finally I find the finish doesn’t dry up the way I might like, it keeps some residual sweetness. This isn’t a flaw, per se, just a preference. The style allows for a range of sweet to dry. Also, the stats suggest it did finish quite dry (1.005), but the perception comes away as sweeter, likely due to the fruitiness of the beer.

In a way the beer presents as being quite fresh (which it is) and a bit young (which it is). It has me very curious to find out what this beer might taste like in a year or so. With a bit of age on it, it could prove to be quite the celebration beer.

Happy birthday Blindman! Looking forward to many, many more.


Workhorse IPA Works For Me

laurelwood-ipaPortland is truly beer heaven (as I attest to here). I went a couple years back and spent a few days dipping my toe in the amazing beer culture they have built. I tried many amazing beer, the range of which was kind of overwhelming. If you like a particular kind of beer, Portland has it.

They, and the rest of the West Coast, are mostly known, of course, for their IPAs. Dry, citrusy and sometimes insanely hoppy. A hophead’s dream come true. I tried many IPAs during my trip and enjoyed most of them.

In the weeks after the trip – when memories start to fade – I found one IPA hung around in my brain. It wasn’t the most out-there beer, nor in the moment the most attention-grabbing. But its flavours lingered with me in a way many of the others didn’t. I also know it does not have the same kind of global reputation as some of its compatriots in the city.

And then a few weeks ago I was at my favourite liquor store (you all know who that is…) and found a bottle of it on the shelf! I don’t know if this was a one-time thing or if their beer will be regularly available, but for a brief moment I was transported back to Portland. And, obviously, scooped up a couple of bottles.

That beer is Laurelwood Workhorse IPA.

Laurelwood is mostly a brewpub that does some packaging on the side (which is why I was surprised to find it in Edmonton). Portland is a crowded, and highly demanding, market and so I have no idea where Laurelwood sits in the overall community. Although I must note they have 5 locations, including the airport, so they must have some decent penetration. All I know is this beer stood out for me.

Why? Let me describe.

It pours light orange with a moderate white head. It offers a substantial amount of lacing and generally something of a viscous look overall. It has only a hint of haze, instead offering a quite clear presentation. The aroma is dominated by rich pine and citrus hop, supported by some sweet honey in background and notes of light fruit as well. I also get some papaya and a resiny hue.

In the sip it starts with soft biscuit and toffee. I get a floral honey out of it along with some fruity esters. The middle brings out some soft sweetness but also a resiny, fresh hop note. As the beer moves across my mouth an assertive pine, papaya and grapefruit citrus flavour builds. The finish is piney and resiny with just enough fruity sweetness to balance. That also might be my one quibble: the resin lingers a bit too long and interferes with the finish. Being a touch cleaner at the end would help the overall impression.

There is no question this is an assertive IPA, but I don’t find it overpowering. It has a forward West Coast hops that are dominated by pine and citrus. That said, I find there is enough malt bill to keep the beer from becoming one-dimensional. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a West-East Coast hybrid, but it does offer enough malt to edge it in that direction. Maybe that is what I like about it. It has a capacity to be complex without any one element getting out of proportion, something I find sometimes in west coast IPAs. This is a real IPA, but maintains drinkability by being interesting.

Portland has no shortage of things to offer the beer world. Many get shouted from the rooftop. Laurelwood’s IPA may be one of those quieter secrets that people in the know, well, know. Officially consider yourself a person-in-the-know.