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The Head-y of the Pack

headytopperLast week someone brought me back a little gift from Vermont, and what a great one it was! It was none other than a can of Heady Topper from small and elusive brewery The Alchemist, based in Waterbury, Vermont.

Like most beer aficionados I know Heady Topper’s reputation well. It is widely regarded as a superior Imperial Pale Ale. Yet, it is a very hard to acquire beer. In part because the family owners of The Alchemist are determined to stay small and to serve up only the freshest possible beer (they make only the one beer and sell it only in the surrounding region), and it is almost impossible to keep the beer on the shelves. You have to either be very lucky or very determined to get your hands on some.

Which means for most of us out these parts, the beer is a mere fantasy. So you can appreciate how thankful and excited I was to have some hand-delivered to my door. I definitely fit the “lucky” category!

So, does it live up to the hype?

It is a light gold colour and cloudy as hell – and they like it that way. It builds a sizeable, dense, pillowy white head and leaves significant lacing in the glass. The aroma is surprisingly balanced. I detect sweet white bread, soft fruit and a gentle, delicate fresh cut grass hop, accented by light citrus, some zesty lemon and a bit of grapefruit rind as well. Some yeast notes come through as well due to the lack of filtering.

The flavour starts with a soft, fruity malt. Nothing big here, just a bit of lemon drop and touches of light grain. The main flavour is a distinct, fascinating, complex hop flavour: light citrus, lemon, grass, lime, loamy earthiness, mango and pineapple. I take note that the beer is actually not that bitter and has a surprisingly light body. It is quite unlike most Double IPAs around. It is a deceptive beer. It tastes like a light fruit beer but with a more rounded, real character. And then there is the hop flavour which is multi-layered and, oh, so attractive.

One of the odd things about Heady Topper is that the can loudly instructs you to “drink from the can!”, in direct opposition to everything I understand about beer aromatics and flavour. Their logic is thus: “the act of pouring it in a glass smells nice, but it releases the essential hop aromas that we have worked so hard to retain.”

I wasn’t about to slurp back the entire beer – possibly the only one  I will ever try – from the can, but I did have to see what they are on to. So I smelled the beer before pouring, and then poured half into a glass, leaving the remaining half in the can, allowing for something of a side-by-side comparison. I found the aroma was bigger and more complex in the glass, but the can did seem to draw out some of the sharper, piney character in the hops. In the can, the front end suffered, but I do admit that, surprisingly, drinking from the can did accent the hop flavours more. That said I preferred drinking it from the glass, which I found more complex and softer overall.

In the can or in the glass, there is no question in my mind that this is an original and captivating beer. It is unlike any Double IPA I have had, foregoing the hop bomb for something more subtle and multi-dimensional. They show that you can coax much more out of hops than citrus-y bitterness.

I fear I may be hooked on this beer, as I am already working out reasons to go to Vermont sometime soon.


Swiftly Building a Reputation

black bridge milk stoutI have written about Black Bridge Brewing a couple of times since they hit the radar on Saskatchewan’s beer scene (like here and here). I will readily admit the Swift Current brewery has impressed me in the early going. No new brewery offers perfect beer – it takes time to iron out the wrinkles and kinks in any brewery. Yet, I have consistently been impressed at the early offerings of Black Bridge. Interesting flavours, well-designed intepretations.

They have three beer available in Saskatchewan and Alberta – Milk Stout, IPA! and Centennial Rye Ale (although the latter will undergo a name change soon due to some  trademark issues around “centennial rye”) in both cans and kegs. And while they have only been fully operational for a few months, I think there is ample evidence they are making a mark very quickly.

To that end, I decided a profile of Black Bridge’s three beer would be appropriate for my Planet S/Prairie Dog column in Saskatchewan (you can read it here). While I have reviewed the stout here on the website and the rye ale both here and in Vue Weekly recently (I didn’t re-post it, but you can find it here), the Saskatchewan column is my first take on their IPA.

It seems to take its inspiration from northwest IPA traditions, offering a pig piney, grassy hop character. While the beer has a pleasant toffee and biscuit malt note, this beer builds on hop. I get pine, accents of grapefruit and a resiny linger. It has a complex hop profile.

I can say with accuracy that the beer are still in motion. The Stensons have been clear they are still tweaking and seeking out subtle adjustments that might improve the overall quality of the beer even more.

So, that gives us all an excuse to pick up packs of their beer on a regular basis to find out what tweaks have been made recently.


DIY Beer Tastings

tasting samplesThe current issue of Vue Weekly is their annual Adventure Issue. As it was a beer column week, I was asked to think about some kind of beer-related adventure, especially indoors (so winter backyard homebrewing was out). I opted for the adventure of organized beer tastings. I essentially offer a primer about how to organize your own coherent tasting to amaze and impress your friends. While a basic theme-based or region-based tasting is fun and a perfectly acceptable option, I spent most of my time in the piece examining a more formal approach – the world of vertical and horizontal tastings (you can read the column here).

Just like in the wine world horizontal and vertical tastings are a way to explore a particular segment of beer in a methodical fashion. Horizontal tastings are the easier of the two to organize. Start by picking a style of beer you want to explore. IPAs, bocks, lambics, barrel-aged beer – whatever catches your fancy and your curiousity. Pick up anywhere from 4 to 12 different examples of the style. Try to get a range of breweries, regions, and interpretations. For example if doing IPAs you must pick up some British-style, some West Coast-style and some East Coast-style to show the range of flavours. The principle is to select beer that have common origins so that you can isolate the subtle differences between them.

The key in any tasting is conscious sampling. Move slowly, doing one beer at a time. Have the guests take a few notes. Leave time after for discussion of what they found, consider the range of tastes and explore why guests preferred one over another.

Vertical tastings take more advance planning. Instead of different examples of the same style, a vertical tasting offers different vintages of the very same beer. Obviously, in the beer world, vertical tastings are only appropriate for a sub-set of styles, those with aging capacity meaning barley wines, Belgian strong ales, imperial stouts, lambics, some barrel-aged ales, and so on. These stronger beer evolve in a manner similar to wine and so tasting versions from different years can be quite enlightening and enjoyable. Of course, strong beer styles are also well-suited for horizontal tastings, so don’t feel you have to exclude them from that quicker model.

What makes verticals harder is the need for advance planning. Occasionally you will find multiple years of a strong beer in the store, but it is a rare find. More likely you need to plan ahead.  Buy  a couple more bottles of that barley wine/imperial stout/etc. that you like and store it in your cellar-like space (cool, dark and fairly stable). Many strong beer tend to be annual releases and those that are year-round offerings can still be dated and stored quite easily.

If you do that for a few years you will find you have a nice supply for a vertical tasting. There is nothing like sampling the same beer side-by-side to see how it evolves with age. Again, similar methods apply; take your time, take notes, carefully consider what you are tasting. Leave time for discussion.

Of course, if you are really ambitious (I don’t mention this in the Vue column) you could organize what I called a 3-D tasting, where you have multiple vintages of multiple beer of the same style. Take two or three breweries’ versions of, say, barley wine, and compare them not just horizontally but also assess how each ages differently. Aside from the risk of palate fatigue and the likely need for taxis home, that could be an epic adventure of beer experience. You will learn much from an evening like that.

Organized beer tastings are not difficult to put together and can be highly rewarding experiences. A beer adventure, you might say.

The Wait Won’t Be Long for Winterlong

winterlongbrewingWould you believe me if I told you that soon Whitehorse will have one of the highest number of craft breweries per capita anywhere in North America? I wouldn’t blame you for thinking I had been drinking too much Lead Dog Ale. But it is true.

By the summer solstice the land of the midnight sun and city of 28,000 people will be home to a second brewery, Winterlong Brewing Company, to accompany longtime mainstay Yukon Brewing.  Winterlong is the brainchild of husband-wife team of Marko and Meghan Marjanovic. The Marjanovics have been a passsionate homebrewing team for the past few years. They have so gotten into the art and science of zymurgy that decided to make the jump to professional brewing.

“Opening a brewery is pretty much every homebrewers dream,” says Marko in a recent telephone interview. “The craft beer scene is exploding. But Yukon hasn’t caught up. We have a government liquor store and it doesn’t bring in any craft beer. The bars don’t bring anything either. My friends kept coming over and asking if they could buy our beer, which obviously I can’t do legally. So we decided to make jump to serve craft beer fans in Whitehorse”.

The vision came together a year ago while Marko was taking some time off to camp and hike in the Yukon mountains. “I came home, mentioned it to my wife and she agreed.” And the rest will soon be history.

Their plan is to go small – nano small. A 3-barrel brewhouse with two fermenters is currently being shipped to their 800 square foot store front in a light industrial area just outside Whitehorse. Their first steps will be to brew once a week, meaning a total annual production of 150 barrels (about 180 hl). “We will sell beer Friday night and Saturday during the day, and maybe brew on Sundays”, says Marko.

When asked why start small when the economics are much harder. Marko says starting as a nano gives them the opportunity to get their feet wet without risking everything. “We are starting small because there is less risk, and we are not sure we are going to enjoy this lifestyle,” he says. “It is something of a test. We have got to figure out if people will like our beer.” For the time being both will keep their day jobs (he is a software engineer and she is a biologist), and they will be equal partners in the brewery. “We will do everything together: brew together, fill growlers together, clean together, marketing, everything”.

The original plan was to actually open a tasting room in downtown Whitehorse but it ran into difficulties with government agencies. They also have decided to do growler fills only, as Yukon’s differential tax rates make packaging in kegs “not economically viable,” says Marko. “Taxes for kegs are almost triple as for growlers”.

The name is simple. “Winters are long in Yukon. We didn’t want to be too cliché, but wanted something Yukoners would recognize”. He says it came to him one night while sampling beer when his wife was away. “She liked it and I remembered it, so that meant it worked”.

As for the ever-important question of what kind of beer they will brew, Marko says they are intentionally going a different direction than their neighbours. While Yukon Brewing is known for its balanced, English-influenced ales, Winterlong’s anchor beer will be Continue reading The Wait Won’t Be Long for Winterlong

Hopping on the Hops Train

hopsA few months back I wrote a series in Planet S/Prairie Dog looking at how to transition to craft beer, taking newbies one step at a time from pale lager to the accessible zones of craft to the more challenging. I also re-posted them on this website (here and here). One characteristic I didn’t really delve into too deeply was hops and bitterness.

I finally got around to rectifying that omission in my latest column for the Saskatchewan papers (you can read it here). I walk through some possible steps to introducing someone to the wonderfully pungent and puckering experience of hops. While I do make some specific beer selections, keep in mind I was limited to what is available in Saskatchewan at the moment, so a drinker elsewhere may have alternative options. Pay more attention to the principles rather than the specific suggestions.

After some a primer on the effects of hops, I suggest starting with a real pilsner of some kind. Beginning with what is essentially a hoppy pale lager (yes, I know it is more complex than that, but bear with me), you can isolate the flavour and aroma effects while maintaining a very familiar malt profile. Often it is good to pair the pilsner with a decent all-malt pale lager to really note the differences.

I then suggest moving into the world of Pale Ale, which still maintains some balance. Since there is a noted range in pale ales, you can move from more modest examples to more assertive interpretations over time.

Then your newbie friend might be ready for IPA. I would argue if you start with a British-influenced interpretation first, they can transition quietly from pale ale to the more lupulin influenced American types. IPA is actually ideal for exploring someone’s lupulin threshold. A Propeller IPA might suit them fine, but Green Flash West Coast IPA is just too one-sided. Fair enough. Or maybe they prefer the bigger, more citrusy American versions.

The final stage, of course is Double IPA. I consider this an optional step, only to be taken if your friend has not yet topped out on their tolerance. If Red Racer IPA was too hoppy for them, you can be pretty sure that Pliny the Elder isn’t going to suit their palate. No point feeding someone a beer you know they won’t enjoy.

Hops and bitterness in beer is, in many ways, the final threshold of beer. My experience is that it is a combination of acquired tastes – some people truly do not like the flavour of hops – and experience. We have had generations of beer consumers raised to expect single digit IBUs in their lagers. Hops is an alien taste in the mainstream beer world. It is important those of us who have had our palates shifted through years of drinking IPAs and such remember that we too, at some point, found bitterness in beer strange.

If we can slowly shift our tastes, so can almost anyone. It simply requires time, patience and practice.

A Bloody Surprising Stone Collaboration

bomber_bloodfromastoneCollaboration brews – where two or more breweries cooperate to create a special, one-off beer – have become commonplace. A few years ago they were a rare item, but the practice has taken off recently and we see collaborations from a whole host of breweries around the world.

Like many bandwagon things, I find the inspiration behind collaborations has become diluted and/or muted. Back when they first started becoming “a thing”, collaborations brought two brewing styles or traditions together to create synergies, or they were to celebrate an important event or milestone. I think about Brooklyn partnering with Schneider to create a fascinating hop-oriented hefeweizen, or the Sierra Nevada/Anchor collaboration to celebrate 30 years of craft brewing. These days I often find it hard to find the significance behind the collaboration.

Of course things like the Alberta Unity Brew, where all of Alberta’s craft brewers get together to make a beer once a year and the proceeds go to charity, are admirable and make complete sense to me – they are fostering community and contributing to charity. But two breweries from different regions getting together isn’t enough to make me stand up and take notice. I need something more.

I mention all this because I recently saw a collaboration beer that truly surprised me, even though I have no idea why or how it happened. My surprise arose from the participants. On of the collaborators was Stone Brewing – no real shocker there as they have done this kind of thing before. It was the other partner that got me: Bomber Brewing from Vancouver. This small brewery has been open less than a year. While I am yet to taste their beer and so cannot comment on the quality, Bomber has yet to really make much of a mark in the brewing world (this is not a criticism – they are very young – just an observation).

You might be able to see why I was surprised at the pairing. An internet search didn’t really reveal a good reason why Stone chose Bomber (I am assuming they had most of the control over the decision given their size) and I am too lazy to call anyone and ask.

The beer that came out of the collaboration is Blood From a Stone, a red rye IPA (I will refrain from grumping about the ever expanding adjectives attached to IPA for the moment). At 6.8% alcohol and 60 IBUs it has a formidable stats sheet befitting Stone.

It pours dark rusted copper with a brownish edge. It forms a sizable light tan head with moonscape-like craters and a dense consistency. The aroma offers dry nut, burnt toffee, some light caramel and toffee, and a toasty brown sugar character. I detect a bit of sharpness in the nose which could be the rye.

The front is a moderate rich malt along with some cinnamon toast, light toffee and slight brown sugar note. The hops build fast, coming in resiny, piney and thick. The malt doesn’t dissipate and so can offer up some balance to the hop onslaught. The linger offers pine, spruce and thick resin.Throughout the tasting I never really pick up a particular rye flavour or mouthfeel.

While this is an interesting, creative beer I am not sure it reaches its full potential. The malt and hops don’t blend as well as they could and I simply do not pick up any rye character at all, which is disappointing as that would have added an interesting complexity to the beer. Still, I don’t regret trying it.

Now if I can only figure out the purpose behind the collaboration in the first place.


Take a Sip of History

whiteshieldIn this day and age full of hopped-up IP-Everythings, it can be very easy to forget the origins of the style India Pale Ale. Before the Americans brought their big and brash to IPAs, the British had long been taking their own approach to the style. A modern British IPA is a fruitier, more balanced and significantly less hopped brethren to American IPAs.

I think in our ongoing quest for that elusive lupulin hit, we can often overlook the joyous subtleties in a classic British IPA. What I appreciate about British interpretations is that they are often a direct link to their historical roots. While the recipes are undoubtedly changed, the overall approach, as well as the traditional brewing processes, often remain standing.

Case in point: Worthington’s White Shield, recently available in Alberta. White Shield is a hallmark of traditional British IPAs.When I first discovered its arrival I quickly felt I had to make it a subject of some columns. A review was published in Vue Weekly last week (read here) and on Friday it will be the focus of my CBC column (4:40 pm on 740AM/93.9FM).

I am drawn to talk about this beer for a couple of reasaons. First, it has real history, having been brewed in Burton-Upon-Trent since 1822. Second, I believe it still represents what a British IPA is all about, a delicate hop bitterness balanced by round malt and a distinct fruitiness.

Third, I appreciate the irony in its recent revival. A couple decades ago White Shield was dying a slow, mostly anonymous death. Then the purchase of Bass Brewery (who took over Worthington’s in the 1920s) by Molson-Coors about a decade ago actually gave room to breathe new life into the brand. With the added marketing and distribution power of the large multi-national, the beer has started to take off again. And, thankfully, (at least as far as I can tell) they haven’t messed with the recipe.

It is an interesting study in both beer history and a often over-looked approach to brewing IPAs. Well worth a try or three.

As Reliable as -20 in February: The Latest Beer News

villageundertakerWell, the calendar has flipped over to February and winter keeps hammering the prairies, as usual. Just as reliable are the region’s craft breweries, who continue to release new beer at a good clip even during the cold months. Here is the latest round up of beer releases and other news that have come across my desk. Usual caveats about missing items apply:

  • The latest seasonal from Calgary’s Wild Rose Brewery is now out. Regal Lager is designed as a Schwarzbier and will be available for the next couple months. Also new from Wild Rose is their announcement in late January of Strange Brew Thursdays at their Tap Room which will profile unique, one-off beer designed and produced by the brewery’s brewing staff. The beer will be different every month, as will the actual Thursday which it is released.
  • In the coming days Big Rock will release their latest beer (it is unclear from their release last week which series it is). Birch Bark Canadian Imperial Stout is a twist on the formidable Russian Imperial Stout. Big alcohol, rich, roasty flavour with the addition of birch syrup to give the beer a unique Canadian twist.
  • Calgary is a busy place this month as last Wednesday Village Brewing also released its latest seasonal. Village Undertaker is what they are describing, intriguingly, as a Black Saison. The beer is brewed with rye malt, saison yeast for a spicy character and, the release says, “complimented by a tart sourness”. While I am not sure sour is a traditional quality of saison it could make for a very interesting flavour combination.
  • An hour west of Calgary, Grizzly Paw has announced the second release in its 622 Main Street Series (named after the address of the original pub). The series offers a selection of limited edition lagers brewed at, and only available at, the original brewpub in Canmore. The latest release is India Black Lager. The name is fairly self-explanatory. The beer clocks in at 5.8% alcohol and 60 IBUs. Move fast, however, as it has been around for a couple weeks now and might be running low.
  • Many Edmonton beer drinkers were surprised in late January to find bottles of beer from Calgary’s The Dandy Brewing Company in their favourite liquor stores. Dandy’s arrival in Edmonton was unanticipated and quicker than expected. Their mainstay, Golden Brown Dandy (reviewed here) as well as a couple seasonals, Bleak House Ale, a black ale, and Wilde Mild which the label indicates is a “steam beer” but its profile is much more like a Mild Ale. Apparently the boys at Dandy drove the beer up to Edmonton personally – what in the jargon they affectionately call “self-distribution”. While I imagine Edmonton won’t see tons of their beer – they brew 300 litres at a time after all – but it is nice to see them reach out to the other half of the province.
  • beer revolution logoBeer Revolution in Edmonton and Calgary are in the midst of Hop Revolution, a three-week celebration of hoppy beer of various sorts. This is not soley about IPAs (although there are a lot of those slated to be tapped), but anything hoppy. They will have a hoppy hefeweizen, a Triple IPA (seriously!) and a number of exclusive and one-off offerings over the next couple of weeks. While you will never now which beer are pouring on any given day (as is Revolution’s wont), you can expect over the course of the three weeks to see beer (many of them one-offs) from Evil Twin, Elysian, Crew, Steamworks, New Belgium and even the elusive Stone Enjoy By IPA. It runs in both locations until February 21. Plus, in March they will be holding a “Sour and Funk Beer Festival“. Get those cheeks ready for puckering.
  • Over in Winnipeg, Half Pints continues to roll out experimental new beer. First, the unnamed amber ale mentioned last time now has a name – First Fruit. Second, their latest on-site only one-off beer is Dr. Frankenstein’s Alt, which should be available for growler fills in the coming days.

That is it for now, as far as I know anyway. And just as we know another snowstorm is coming sooner rather than later, you can trust there will be another news roundup sometime in the next few weeks.




Beer Will Soon Flow in Bench Creek

benchcreeklogoIn the third of what has become my week of new brewery profiles is Bench Creek Brewery, founded by Andrew Kulynych. Bench Creek is planning to be a “rural destination brewery”, meaning they hope to collect not only locals but travelling tourists on their way to Jasper.

At first it might seem out of the way, about 15 minutes west of Edson on Andrew’s acreage (Edson is a small city about 2 hours west of Edmonton on the way to Jasper). However, once you get there you can see the appeal. “Bench creek is the creek that goes through Edson. It originates in wetlands behind my property,” says Andrew. “My land seemed a perfect place to build a brewery.” Andrew speaks of the beautiful hills and forest that stretch out beyond his property, making an ideal place to have a pint or two. An onsite tap room will serve both as a retail location and a go-to spot for people to have a beer. “The taproom vision is about the experience of sitting down and having a pint in nature”.

The AGLC policy changes were what sparked Andrews to make the jump. “I am just a big homebrewer and when they changed the licensing requirements I saw this was my opportunity”. While his capacity would have exceeded the previous minimums, the new openness the changes suggested gave him a sense that the time was right.

Andrew has kept costs in control by building the brewery on his property, essentially upscaling from his homebrew system. He is currently installing a 20 hl system and hopes to launch by the early fall. His plan is to focus on the local area with keg and growler sales and supplement with retail sales across the rest of northern Alberta. He is joining the growing trend to packaging only in cans, and as a result hopes to expand his reach.

As a self-described “hophead”, he admits he wants to make a “big IPA which is very citrusy”. Such an IPA is planned to be a part of his initial release, along with a Pale Ale that is “Full Moon-esque”, as well as a Porter.  He sees the Pale Ale “bridging the gap between what most people drink and craft beer” and the IPA as the solid offering for the beer geek. He also hopes for regular seasonals on top of a regular list of 5 beer.

He wants to attract tourists on their way to Jasper, but his initial plan is to win over the locals. “We want to start local and teach the people in this area what good craft beer is like. We are very much supportive of the local community,” says Kulynych. “We want them to get to know us – figure out the connection between the beer and the person making it for them”.

Initially he plans to open the taproom Friday through Sunday “for about 6 hours a day”, but will expand the hours as demand increases.

Andrew jokes that he will make beer with “nothing but the best Alberta gluten”, meaning no adjuncts or unnecessary additions. And he is committed to reflecting the local atmosphere. “This is where I live. There is a great opportunity to grow the market.” His main focus initially will be to win over local residents but he hopes quickly to “expand to Edmonton” for retail sales.

If nothing else, Kulynych gives us a good reason (finally) to stop in Edson.


Brewing it up in Yellowknife

NWTbrewing_logoFor a number of years I have extolled Yukon Brewing as Canada’s most northern brewery. So much so I made them an honorary Prairie brewery, even though there are no prairies to be found in the northern territory. The Northwest Territories don’t really have any prairie either, but for the same reason I am going to adopt what soon will be Canada’s most northern brewery – overtaking our good friends at Yukon.

NWT Brewing hopes its brewpub in Yellowknife will open in late spring. There are still some hurdles to be cleared but the last couple of months have been good for NWT Brewing’s co-founders Fletcher and Miranda Stevens. “The building is under construction. We are getting the brewhouse in April and hopefully if all goes well we will be open in June”, says Fletcher in my conversation with him.

NWT Brewing is a plucky, determined project that hopes to create a Yellowknife anchor. At the moment the city of 10,000 has no real beer spot to speak of. The Stevens’ are building a 3,000 square feet, 120 seat restaurant that will be anchored, at least initially, by a 12 tap bar offering 6 beer made on site along with 6 guest taps. The guest taps will help ease Yellowknife drinkers into the craft beer world.

“Until now this town is Budweiser all the way” says Fletcher, adding humorously that the closest he will get offering that macro-beer in his bar is “maybe putting their tap handle on the urinals”. His plan is to offer solid craft offerings like Steam Whistle and Mill Street Organic as a gateway for the more traditional patrons.

For those more ready for craft beer he is creating a set of ales that will appeal to a wide range of tastes. The flagship will be for hopheads. Called Bug Repellant IPA, it is rich with Citra and Centennial hopes. While it offers a formidable 65 IBUs, Fletcher argues it is “all about the aromatics. We hopburst it at the end and seriously dry hop it”. He wants the beer to be bitter without the harsh linger.

The name comes from his first camping trip with his wife and business partner, Miranda. “I moved to NWT before I was a teenager,” says Fletcher. “I brought my wife up here. It was her first time north of 60. I took her camping and the mosquitoes were exceptionally bad. She stopped counting at 72 mosquito bites”. When he finally found an IPA recipe she liked he knew Bug Repellant was born.

Other beer will include Ragged Pine Pale Ale, named after Continue reading Brewing it up in Yellowknife