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Toasting Oast House: Farmhouse Week Part 2

oast houseWhen I was in Ontario in May, I found a few hours to visit a couple of new breweries that have decided to swim against the current in the wine-crazed region of Niagara-On-The-Lake. I spoke about them on my CBC column shortly after coming back and intend on getting around to them again – as both are quality brewers. Their names are Silversmith Brewing and Niagara Oast House Brewery. Both have only been open a short time, but are quickly making a dent in the monolith that is wine in that part of Canada.

As I said, I will talk about the breweries more fully another time. Today, I just want to write about a bottle I brought home from the visit. Oast House, opened in 2012, specializes in farmhouse ales – their two main beer are a Saison and a Biere de Garde. During my visit I enjoyed my small taste of Saison enough to pick up a bottle to bring home. And I opened that bottle last week.

It comes in a champagne corked 750-ml bottle. Like most saisons, it pours a hazy bright yellow forming a thick, rocky head. I get a light pilsner malt aroma complemented by a delicate peppery spiciness along with touches of honey and grainy sweetness. The front of the sip is lightly fruity and also offering honey and light graininess. This is a really delicate and pleasing ber in the intial take. Shortly after a rounded yeast spiciness kicks in, but nothing too sharp. Just a touch of earthiness and a dusting of white pepper undertones. It tastes almost like a dry spcied mead. It is really light and finishes slightly dry with a touch of hop linger. It also reminds me of a sharp tripel, except the yeast spicing is different.

Oast House Saison is a very delicate, dry, soft version of the style. I find it much lighter in body and palate than many I have tried, and I appreciate it for that. The dryness allows for a prickly carbonation bite to shine through a bit, adding a touch of complexity. Also going for it is its 6.5% alcohol, which is a more traditional alcohol level for saisons (most newer craft brewery versions are closer to 5%).

It takes an experienced hand to produce a saison with this degree of subtlety and balance. Many saisons either have too much body or go overboard on the yeast spiciness. This one gets that highwire act down pat, and rises in stature as a result.

I recognize this beer is not available on the prairies (yet, I hope), but it really is a must-try if you are in the Niagara region.


Farmhouse Week Part One: Alberta Sahti

wildrose_themidnightsonIn a case of pure happenstance, over the past few days I found myself sampling a range of different farmhouse ales. Of course earlier I had tried Alley Kat’s Old Jake’s Farmhouse Ale (reviewed here) and had planned to sample Wild Rose’s The Midnight Son, but found myself sipping on two others around the same time.

So, says my editor, why not post the reviews in succession and call it something? Sure, good idea, I responded (I do tend to talk to myself a lot). Of course, as editors can be, they were not particularly helpful at naming this festival of farmhouse, so I decided to call it – in the German tradition of obvious and literal beer naming – Farmhouse Week. Welcome to Part One.

First up, the planned tasting of Wild Rose The Midnight Son, brewed as a Sahti, which is a Finnish Farmhouse Ale almost always made with juniper.

It pours hazy dark gold with a thick, dense, small bubbled white head with both staying power and a nice lace. The aroma is earthy and musty with a touch of spice. I get hints of minty juniper but really, really subtle. There is also some moderate toffee malt underneath.

I take a sip and find a beer that first presents a light crispy malt sweetness, but that is quickly overtaken by other characteristics. The body is moderately light and sweet. At first an earthy graininess appears and a bit of floral fruitiness. Then as the beer works its way back, the flavour becomes both more spicy and more musty. The spice reminds one of saison, but with a twist. That twist is an earthy sweetness that, I think, comes from juniper. It effect reminds me of heather, with which I have more brewing and tasting experience. Green, floral, fruity and dirty, the juniper is a rounded, multi-layered flavour that gives the beer some complexity. Plus you can totally tell there is a saison base there.

Of course, I have no clue how close this gets to a traditional Sahti, having never had one. I suspect the Wild Rose folks aren’t really sure either. What I can say is I like the effect of the juniper on the beer (keep in my I like brewing heather ales). What might have been simply a so-so, middling saison becomes a more interesting beer. Maybe not a classic, but it gives a unique tasting opportunity.

For the moment I will keep the other farmhouse ales a secret, but be sure to return in a couple of days for the next installment of (cue dramatic music) Farmhouse Week!


Jake vs. Jake

AK old jakesRegular readers of will know that I have over the years been exploring the taste differences between keg and bottle (and can). It has been an interesting journey without any firm or solid conclusions so far. You can read previous experiments and side-by-side tastings here, here and here. There is a broad consensus in the beer world that beer on tap and in the bottle display subtle differences. Whether that is actually the case, we don’t really know. Hence my intermittent experimenting. It has been a while since I have made an intentional side-by-side, but the topic still intrigues me.

An opportunity presented itself recently, so I thought I would blow the dust off my lab coat and take another stab at seeing if I could detect any difference. Usual caveats apply – not blind, no control over handling, etc., although I did take the usual precautions – same temperature, same shape of glass and so forth.

The beer in question is Alley Kat’s latest Big Bottle, Old Jake’s Farmhouse Ale. I reviewed it a week or so ago (read it here). I was in Sherbrooke a few days ago and they happened to have Old Jake’s on their growler system. As I happened to have a one-litre howler on me (lucky coincidence!), I decided to get a fill of it. On a lark I decided to also buy another bottle of Old Jake’s.

So far I have tried fairly straightforward beer for my tests, mostly malt accented. I thought testing out a saison, with its pronounced yeast characteristics might prove interesting.  I pulled a glass of each and sat down to see what differences I perceived. We know the beer is from the same batch, and while we can’t guarantee they were treated the same during shipping and storage, we can be highly confident they were given similar treatment – Alley Kat tends to self-distribute in the Edmonton area and Sherbrooke has a sizable beer cooler.

Of course the initial appearance of the beer were identical, a slightly hazy medium gold. Although I did think the head was both fuller and left more lacing in the bottled version. In the aroma, I thought I detected a bit more fruitiness in the kegged version, with the bottle being more sharp. In the taste, the bottled version seemed drier, spicier and more prickly. I might have also detected a bit more hop note as well, but can’t quite trust myself on that one.

The carbonation seemed higher and more acidic in the bottled version. This effect might be due to the slight carbonation loss in the growler filling. However Sherbrooke’s system is fairly high tech, so I can’t really imagine it was that significant to the overall effect of the beer (and for the record I conducted the experiment a few hours after the purchase, so that is not an issue). I am left wondering if the kegged version presents with a softer carbonation – a trait I have often found in kegged vs. bottled beer, even with my homebrew.

I don’t want to exaggerate the difference. They are clearly the same beer. I just think the kegged version presented softer and more rounded. It seemed to accent the earthy notes more than the spicy notes. It also felt fuller in the body.

My experience with the blind test of Yukon Red (that would be this post) makes me more cautious around making definitive statements, but I would swear on a copy of The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing that I detected noticeable differences between the two versions of the beer.

Just another data point on the grand science experiment that is drinking beer.


What Would Alexander Keith Drink?


The indomitable Alexander Keith

This week the annual “Drinks Issue” of the Saskatchewan magazines I write for, Planet S and Prairie Dog, came out (you can read it here – although you need to scroll down past the short blurb stuff to find my piece). The editors wanted a theme of drinks for famous people. I decided to take a slightly different take on that and pontificated on what the giants of brewing would drink if they were alive today.

The reality is that Alex (Keith), the three Johns (Molson, Labatt and Sleeman), Augustus (Busch) and Arthur (Guinness) in their time were serious brewers making real beer. The products that bear their name today have no resemblance to what they created 100+ years ago. Today, those beer are the consequence of decades of post-war corporate amalgamation, homogenization and excessive shallow marketing. Most of them are subtle variations of the same narrow style – North American Pale Lager. Guinness, of course, remains a stout, but even it is quieter and less assertive than the original 1700s version.

Because these six men were serious brewers I argue they would have a hard time stomaching their off-spring today. So, in spirit of the issue’s theme, I contemplated what beer they would drink if they were alive today. Now, because these are Saskatchewan papers, I was limited (mostly) to finding beer actually available in Saskatchewan. Meaning, my recommendations are more pedestrian than I might otherwise offer, although I am convinced they still fit the men involved.

However, here I have no such limitations. So let me contemplate what beer they might choose if they had the world (or at least that portion of the world I have actually sampled) at their disposal.

Alexander Keith: I am not sure I would change my initial thought on this one – Propeller IPA. When fresh a fantastic version of an English IPA. Keith, a loyal Scot, would not go for the modern, Americanized IPAs, but he would still be looking for some nice hop character and a balanced bitterness. Propeller fits the bill. Plus it is from Halifax which seems appropriate.

John Molson: I think Fuller’s London Pride might draw Mr. Molson’s attraction. Wonderfully balanced, not too heavy and decidedly English, it may be the closest relative to English Bitters of the 1800s.

John Labatt: Alas, I don’t think John Labatt would have much time for BrewDog’s quirky, experimental ales, being something of a traditionalist. He might, however, have a lot of time for Belhaven stuff. But I am going to go with a beer I tried in Portland recently. Hair of the Dog Will is a fantastic Scottish Ale, with a complex malt character and just enough dryness at the finish. I realize this is a hard to find beer from a brewery devoted to staying local. But really, trust me.

A young John Sleeman

A young John Sleeman

John Sleeman: I think the criminal Mr. Sleeman might take a liking to The Kernel Brown Ale, the new generation London brewer that is taking Britain by storm. We can’t get their beer in North America (I think), but we can hope. They have two versions of their brown ale; this one is a more traditional British interpretation and then there is their India Brown Ale which is much more American-influenced.

Augustus Busch: To continue with my suggestions of beer no one reading this blog can likely find, I argue the eldest Busch would horde bottles of Heater Allen Pils. I tried this Oregon beer while in Portland and was impressed with its take on the traditional Bohemian Pilsner style and just how close it came to being perfect. Refreshing but with a lovely, spicy hop character.

Arthur Guinness: There are any number of quality stouts available these days that can likely lay claim to the Guinness heritage more than today’s Guinness can. I could easily list a half-dozen beer here. But I am going to go off-chart and suggest Pike Brewing’s XXXXX Stout might find a warm place in Mr. Guinness’ heart. I have had it only once but was impressed by its full body yet surprisingly dry and easy finish.

It seems to me this experiment ended up being almost random. For each pioneer I could have picked a dozen or more beer that would have worked (maybe the limitations of Saskatchewan’s beer supply was a good thing). I will make no defences of my choices – any number of beer would have worked. So feel free to offer other ideas. I likely will agree.

I think the point is that there are many, many brewers who deservedly earn the legacy of these great men, brewers and entrepreneurs. Of course, none of them are connected to their names. Sadly.

A News Quickie

YB up the creekIn my post last week trying to get everyone caught up on beer news on the prairies, I missed a couple of updates – as usual. So, in a brief update just to get everything covered, here is what I found out since publishing the last one:

  • Big Rock released two cherry-accented beer this week. First is the return of Cherazz, this time as their latest Alchemist Series beer. Last year it was a limited keg-only product. This light (4.2%) Belgian-style ale is infused with two kinds of cherries and raspberries, keeping it light and fruity with a touch of tartness. Also up, as the new Brewmaster’s Edition is Cherry Bomber, a hefeweizen infused with, you guessed it, cherries.
  • Yukon Brewing quietly slipped into the Alberta market with Up The Creek Birch Sap Ale. I think the name speaks for itself. Well, more accurately it is made with birch syrup, rather than the unprocessed sap itself. Up the Creek is the latest in their new Bomber Series of beer bottled in 650-ml bombers. It is also the 8th rendition of a birch syrup beer that they do up every spring – and every year it tastes different.
  • Grizzly Paw Brewing this week released their latest seasonal, Hazy Hefeweizen, which is as named. They also have announced the launch of a weekly cask night at the brewpub in Canmore. Starting today (July 18) they will offer a new cask ale starting at 5:00 and going until it runs dry.
  • Finally, I simply forgot to mention that Village Brewing in Calgary served its 2014 edition of its Prairie Oyster Ale a couple weeks back at a fundraiser for the Calgary Prostate Cancer Centre. I imagine it is gone now, but I add this mostly as an apology to Village. They dutifully sent me the email about the event and I neglected to included it in the last news roundup. So, my bad. For what it is worth this year’s version had pineapple and ancho peppers with some wit and New Zealand Waimea hops to minimize the potent testicle taste. Yes, you read that right. Bull testicle – this is a beer made with bull testicles. Maybe that is why my brain blocked it out…

Anyway, those are the stragglers I missed last week. I fully expect more next week, making this an almost impossible task.

Tis the Season for Saison

AK old jakesSaison really is the latest sexy thing in beer. The whole Farmhouse Ale rage is really becoming quite noticeable. You know a trend is popular when beer that don’t resemble the style try to use the name anyway (sorry, Olds College). It seems everybody – including many prairie brewers – are doing up a saison or some other traditional Farmhouse Ale as a seasonal this summer.

I remember back when I was studying for my BJCP beer judge exam (way back in 2003 before we had cars and people had to walk to school uphill both ways), Saisons and Biere de Gardes were rare, quirky, odd styles that only a beer geek could love. Their peppery, earthy character and their notoriously finicky yeast strains put them out of reach of most beer drinkers.

No more apparently. Which speaks volumes at how quickly consumers’ palates have shifted in this country. I have long appreciated the spicy yet refreshing character of farmhouse ales and have tipped a glass of Hennepin or Saison Dupont often. Now it seems my range of options has exploded.

The other day I picked up a bottle of Alley Kat’s entrant into the Summer Saison Sweepstakes, Old Jake’s Farmhouse Ale, and gave it a try last night (I also got the Wild Rose, too, but haven’t had a chance to crack it open yet).

It pours bright medium gold with a moderately tight white head. Slightest hint of haze in the beer, but nothing distracting. The aroma rises with soft, crisp grainy malt sweetness and a musty, earthy aroma on top. I detect a background of pepper spice, lemon and a touch of honey. Overall a moderately spicy aroma.

The first sip is surprisingly full upfront, with a moderate crystal and pilsner malt sweetness along with some honey. The middle brings up some zesty orange and a bit of peppery spice. Along the roof of the mouth builds a sharp lemony ctirus and along the bottom comes a musty, earthy rusticness. Finish is a blend of sweet orange and soft pepper spice. Finishes a bit sweeter than expected, but still fairly refreshing. The more sips I take, the more the earthy spiciness builds giving it a sharper final note.

I argue they have created a fuller, more robust version of the style. The malt remains delicate enough to keep it in the Saison camp, as opposed to becoming a Biere de Garde, but it definitely is sweeter in its profile than, say, Hennepin. Still I appreciate the deft hand at the spicing which still rings through as a pleasant feature of the beer.

I will post on the Wild Rose Sahti once I get a change to try it.


Granville Island Takes a Big Swing

gib swing spanI like it when I get pleasantly surprised. We can all fall into the trap of thinking we know what is going on with a particular brewery. That is because, like people, breweries do have a personality. We come to expect certain things from them. Some are careful and measured, others more adventurous and experimental. Some lean toward hops while still others seem to do malt well.

A classic example is Granville Island. They have been around a long time and I suspect we all have a well entrenched sense of their tendencies. I have long found them to be reliable but not particularly boundary pushing. Even their seasonals have matched that overall pattern. That is why I did a bit of a double take upon taking my first sip of their latest release, Swing Span Amber Ale. The beer, the first in their new Under The Bridge series, was not what I expected it to be. Enough so that I made it the topic of my latest Vue Weekly column, which you can read here.

I’ll admit I didn’t do much research before opening the bottle. The name seemed self-explanatory. I was fully anticipating a malty red ale with caramel and toffee notes. Well, not so much.

This is an American Amber Ale, in that the hops play a much more central role than most ambers we see around. I do get some soft toffee at first, but that is quickly overtaken by a fruity, citrus hop flavour and bitterness. I found I quite liked the hop dimension, both for being assertive without being overpowering and that it had a tropical flavour without that bite you get from more grapefruit-y hops. The flavour reminded me of mango and passionfruit – sweeter and more rounded.

It may or may not be a stellar example of an American Amber, but there is no question it comes out of that Northwest hop tradition. It has a sharper and edgier profile than almost anything  I have had from Granville.

And what an interesting surprise that was!

Nice to know that as Granville works its way through its middle-aged years, it still knows how to stretch things out a bit. And throw us beer geeks a curve ball now and again.

A Run-Down of the Summer Hits

olds 1350The new releases and other news have not stopped rolling with the coming of summer. Most of the prairie brewers have been trying to offer up something new and interesting for the summer quaffing season. So without further ado, and in no particular order, here are the latest releases:

  • Last week, Alley Kat put out its latest Big Bottle Series. Old Jake’s Farmhouse Ale is their latest take on Saison. Over the years they have tried a few interpretations of this refreshing but flavourful style. Plus as an odd coincidence, I was at a certain liquor store last Thursday doing some planning for my CBC column last Friday, which was on the topic of Farmhouse Ales. I had arrived about an hour after the Jake’s had hit the shelves. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to sample the beer Thursday night, so couldn’t do a tasting if of it on air (I chose Hennepin for that instead), but I just found the timing interesting.
  • A couple weeks ago, Wild Rose also put out a Farmhouse Ale as a seasonal. Only theirs originates in Finland, rather than France or Belgium. Midnight Son is brewed as a Sahti, a traditional Finnish farmhouse ale brewed with juniper. Also, coincidentally, the latest issue of Brew Your Own has a profile on Sahti. Earlier in the month they released 42, a pale ale brewed with Galaxy hops – and thus named after the famous answer to the meaning of life from the Hitchhikers’ Guide series (if you don’t what that is, you need to seriously get more froody and read it).
  • The Olds College Brewery, which has had the beer from its first year of students slowly trickle out around the province, has just announced a collaboration with AdFarm. a marketing firm specializing in agriculture. They call the beer 1350 Long Farmhouse Ale but it is not a real farmhouse ale, more of an “American Wheat Ale” according to Olds’ brewmaster. Apparently 1350 refers to the degree of ripeness in the barley when harvested, or something like that (hey, cut me some slack, I grew up in Northeast Edmonton…).
  • Half Pints in Winnipeg returns with a couple of longstanding seasonals this summer. Already available for a couple of weeks is Phil’s Pils which may or may not make it outside Winnipeg. Last Saturday the latest installment of Weizenheimer Wheat Ale was released at the brewery. That beer should makes its way westward in the coming weeks.
  • Big Rock has expanded its cider line-up with two new ciders to be included in a new cider variety pack alongside its longstanding Rock Creek Apple Cider. The new Cherry Cider and Pear Cider (which should be called a Perry) try to tap into the growing market of fruit ciders in Canada.

I imagine as the temperature picks up and prairie denizens hit the patios to soak in the sun we will see a few more announcements of summer releases soon. More when events warrant.




Craft Beer and Sports?

beer and sportsOkay, that headline is a bit of a dumb question. Of course craft beer goes well with sports. In my mind craft beer goes well with everything. However, one does not normally hear serious talk about beer on the various sports shows on radio and tv. Most references to beer in such contexts is about quantity and temperature, not quality and what beer pairs with what events.

That changed for 30 minutes last night. I was asked to be a guest on Inside Sports with Reid Wilkins on 630 CHED to talk about all things craft beer. I found the invitation intriguing so took him up on it. A half hour talking about beer on a radio talk sports show. It was fun.

By the way you can listen to the whole segment here – the interview begins at the 21:00 minute mark.

I think the whole thing happened because the host, Reid Wilkins, is a bit of a craft beer fan himself and he wanted  to merge the two things he loves. Besides it is a slow month for sports in Edmonton, so he had a segment to fill. I was happy to oblige.

The interview is fairly wide-ranging. I update people on the latest with Edmonton’s craft breweries and the growth in craft beer generally, we talk about why beer is a good fit for sports and I offer some ideas for people who want to take that first step from macro lagers to craft beer. We also tried a couple of summery craft beer that I thought might interest people – Alley Kat’s Scona Gold Kolsch and Red Racer India Session Ale. I even got my favourite pet peeve in, reminding people that Alexander Keiths is NOT an IPA. Plus we took a couple of spontaneous phone calls, which was a surprise.

In hindsight one topic I would have liked to raise was the question of beer selection at Edmonton sporting events. I have touched upon this topic before (here), but I think we need a more serious conversation about what beer gets sold at Commonwealth, the Corporate-Name-Here hockey arena and other sporting venues in town. Go to Boston and you will get to sip on local craft beer. Same thing in New York. (Of course, at prices higher than in your average pub – nothing is perfect.) Yet here, because of exclusivity contracts with the big boys, we get the standard fare of Canadian, Coors, Kokanee, etc. It is time we opened up our sporting events to a wider range of beer. Imagine quaffing an Alley Kat Full Moon at an Oilers game, a Yellowhead lager at a football game, or Hog’s Head Baby Back IPA at the rodeo (even if it had to be at inflated prices). That would create a more satisfying experience.

Overall, I found the interview interesting and enjoyable and it does have me wondering if more could be done with sports and serious beer talk. For now it was a pleasant change of pace for me and, hopefully, for the listeners as well.


Greening Your Beer, Parts I and II

beer101logoIn the grand debates about climate change and the state of the earth’s environment, beer rarely comes up. Why would it when much bigger culprits like tar/oil sands, automobiles and coal-fired electricity are around? Beer, on the whole, is a fairly benign product environmentally, especially if produced and consumed locally.

However, that is not an excuse for not trying to do better. This spring I embarked on a series looking at the environmental footprint of beer. I felt my Beer 101 column with Sherbrooke would be a good place for it. The first two parts ran in May and June (which I promptly forgot to post here). Part one, which you can find here, works out exactly where we are in terms of environmental stewardship.

The first lesson I learned writing it was how hard it was to get reliable data from the beer industry. Unlike other more obviously polluting industries, there are few external watchdogs creating independent numbers, which means for the most part we have to depend on self-reporting. Lesson number two was that the big boys are simply not to be trusted. Case in point: carbon footprint. My best searches revealed an average bottle of beer is responsible for between 300 and 900 grams. The large range is due to the number of variables that need to be taken into consideration – where was the malt sourced, how was the beer dispensed, how far away from the production was it consumed?

But what did our good friends at SABMiller suggest was their carbon footprint? 47 grams per bottle. Huh? This must be an example of what they call “new math” where 90% or more of the numbers are externalized.

Carbon emissions are not the only source of environmental impact by breweries. There is water and energy usage, use of non-renewable materials (e.g., aluminum), and chemicals (mostly cleaning agents and the like). While most breweries do their best to minimize waste, the conclusion is unquestioningly more can be done.

The first part leaves things on a down note, but we have to know where we are before we can get better. The second part, found here, hones in more specifically on the bottle vs. can issue. I have talked about that issue before, but this time take a more serious and detailed look.

What makes the debate fairly intractable is that each side has a good argument. Cans can argue their light weight – 15 grams vs. about 250 grams for bottles – gives them a distinct advantage. Bottles, on the other hand can point to re-usability and recycle-ability for their case. In Canada the average industry standard bottle (the twist-off long necks) is re-used 19 times. That saves a whole lot of resources. Even the non-reusable kind are easily melted and turned into new glass.

Bottles also have the clear advantage in terms of production. Glass production is fairly benign and utilizes fairly common ingredients (sand, dolomite and limestone). Cans, on the other hand rely on aluminum smelting, which is a nasty business overall. Plus those plastic liners needed to prevent the beer from interacting with the metal, are an environmental nightmare.

It might initially sound like bottles are the winner, and they are if the beer stays close to home. If you are drinking a bottle of something from Europe, Asia or Australia, then we might be talking differently. Bottles’ extra weight mean extra fuel to ship them, which ups the environmental footprint. Is that enough to overcome bottles’ other relative advantages? I don’t know. I couldn’t find firm enough numbers to reach a solid conclusion.

The third part, which should be up in the next week or two, looks at what breweries can do to shrink their footprint and points to some particularly heartening success stories.