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How to Celebrate 25 Years of Homebrewing?

My pump-driven, RIMS homebrew system.

My pump-driven, RIMS homebrew system.

2016 marks my 25th year of homebrewing. It is an odd admission mostly because it makes me admit that I am older, balder and fatter than I would like. But, still, I feel like it is an anniversary worth marking.

Homebrewing is what started it all for me. Back in 1991 I was a poor undergraduate who mostly appreciated the process of drinking beer more than the actual product that was in the glass. But I was poor, which meant I had to decide whether to drink less beer or find a cheaper way to procure it. A friend suggested homebrewing, noting that I could make a bottle of beer for around 20 cents.

He had me at 20 cents.

So, I picked up one of those rotten tins of concentrated wort that offered a pack of dry yeast in the lid. For those under the age of 40 you will have no idea what I am talking about, but back then they were ubiquitous. Their design was to offer a weak wort base to which you added a few cups of corn sugar and tossed in the dry yeast. The resulting beer was, to be frank, awful. But it was beer, and you brewed it yourself. Plus I had a couple cases of stubbies, so it made it more cool to pour my beer from those.

As pathetic as those early efforts were, it was enough for me to catch the bug. It wasn’t long before I moved to real extract brewing and, not long after that, all-grain. I quickly fell in love with the magical process of fermentation: making barley juice and watching yeast turn it into a beautiful elixir.

I read and read and read. Within a few years I had learned enough that I was actually producing good beer, despite a paucity of quality homebrew ingredients. In the late ’90s I joined the Edmonton Homebrewers’ Guild and my brewing jumped in quality thanks to the feedback, knowledge and fraternity of the Guild members. In 2003 I wrote the BJCP beer judge exam, which also strengthened my brewing chops.

I competed for awhile, winning my share of medals – I was known for a high entry-to-medal ratio – although a few years ago I retired from competition. I started doing beer writing and education in 2006 and haven’t looked back. Throughout I have never stopped homebrewing, making 8-10 batches a year (I usually make 23-litre batches even though my system can do up to 50 litres).

Homebrewing for me has been a retreat, a solace and a sanity-maker. No matter what is happening in my life, I know that a day spent brewing will put me in a better space. In fact when I go too long without brewing I get kind of squirrelly. For me it is a solitary project – I brew alone – because I just want the focus and the space.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because  for a while I have been thinking I want to brew a special commemorative beer to mark my 25 years of brewing. And I am having trouble deciding what to brew.

So, I am turning to the best community I can think of. Onbeer.org readers. Most of you know your beer. Many of you are homebrewers.

Tell me what you think I should brew. If you have a recipe, even better. You can do it in the comment section or if you don’t want to share your insights to the world email me directly at beerguy [at] telus.net.

I am serious. I want suggestions. I am not saying I will pick one and brew it (although I might). I am simply reaching out, saying I would like help deciding what would most appropriately honour the achievement of reaching a quarter century of brewing. I promise to report back on my decision and how the beer turns out.

I am very proud that I have brewed beer for 25 years (longer than any brewery operating in Alberta except Big Rock – isn’t that weird?). I think that deserves recognition. Even if it is only in my house.

How should I do it? I look forward to your ideas.

Three Guys + Three Hills = Prairie Brewing

prairiebrewinglogoI will say this for Ryan Ferguson, Mark Ferguson (no relation) and Darren Kester. They are not idle dreamers. The three friends grew up together in the Three Hills area (about an hour northeast of Calgary) and today are the co-founders of one of Alberta’s newest (and smallest) breweries, Prairie Brewing Company. They were all involved in either the energy sector or farming (or both). Beer was something you drank while watching a game or relaxing on the deck. “We were straight lager drinkers,” says Kester during a recent phone interview. “We drank normal beer. Bud Light, Bud, Kokanee. We weren’t huge on homebrew.”

Then the three took a trip to Australia in 2014 with their spouses. “It was just a holiday, a trip for fun,” remembers Kester. “Being from Alberta before 2013 and coming from small town, craft beer wasn’t common. We hadn’t seen a lot of breweries.” They sampled Australian craft beer while down under “Experiencing the Australian craft beer market was an eye-opener. In each town could you could get a different beer.”

During the trip, over beer naturally, they started talking. “We started asking why can’t we do this ourselves? It literally started like that. It started, not as a joke, but became more serious over time.” By the time the got home is was more than just talk, it was a plan. The started researching and realized that, due to the removal of the minimum production capacity, “all of a sudden everything just fell into place”.

prairiebrewingphotoOf course, one of the hurdles is that none of them new much about beer or the range of styles available. “We start filling growlers, buying whatever beer we could to see what we liked and what we didn’t like,” says Kester. And they started homebrewing, buying a SABCO 1/2 barrel system. They spent a few months brewing “pretty consistently” before moving to finalize the plan. “We wanted to verify we could actually produce something we are happy with.”

They applied for their production license in February and got official go ahead in August. The SABCO system with 6 one barrel fermenters is, for now, their official brewery. They are the second new Alberta brewery (with Dog Island in Slave Lake) to gain a license to brew on what will eventually be their pilot brewery.

As three working guys with families, going this route seemed a safer approach. “We knew it wouldn’t be easy. We all had jobs and without committing to a $1.2 million system, we wanted to prove this is viable,” says Kester. “We didn’t want to commit immediately. Financially it was scary, the challenges of finding a building, creating infrastructure.” Kester says selling a couple kegs at a time to locals is a way to get the name out there and get initial customer feedback. So far it is going well. “The guys in town, the tractor dealer, the truck dealer, everyone gets a kick out of it and are big fans.”

Their ambition is to build a 20bbl system, with 6-40bbl fermenters and 1 bright tank, at least to start. The brewery is currently on one of the partner’s land, “but we are going to move into town when we get the bigger system.”

Town, of course, is Three Hills, which is not really known for beer (although I note nearby Olds and Didsbury also sport breweries – something in the water around there?), but the three partners are committed to the area. “We are all lifelong Three Hills residents. This is our home.”

“We want be real local to our roots,” says Kester. “We want to connect on local level. Everyone talks about Alberta’s barley, and we agree it is great. But we can truthfully say we are the farmers, we grow it. The owner of Molson and Labatt don’t go on a tractor and plant seed.” Kester isn’t exaggerating. All three grew up on and around farms and Mark Ferguson is currently a full-time farmer.

prairiebrewingkegThe beer line-up, of course, is still a work in progress. When fully operational they hope to have four or five year-round beer with seasonal offerings as well. At the moment they are working on three beer: an IPA that Kester describes as “milder, about 40IBUs, dry hopped with a big citrus on the end”; a “lower alcohol, lower calorie, smooth drinking” brown ale; and a witbier.

Their overall vision for the beer is “to produce a variety of great tasting beers that will hit all corners of the market.  Everything from easy drinking mild ales for newbies, to the craft beer scene of heavy hoppier beers for the craft beer connoisseur and unique blends and flavours for the people looking to try something different and unique.”

For now they are going exclusively with kegs, but are looking at other options. Filling crowlers (canned growlers) is particularly appealing “so we can sell it in local stores”.

Down the road, they see themselves still anchored by a commitment to local. “We want to be local to Alberta, maybe selling in neighbouring provinces if we have the volume, but we are not looking to be a Canadian, worldwide brand. We want to stay with our local roots, and just making good beer.”

Outcast Brewing Charts Its Own Path

outcast-logo

The Logo of Calgary’s Outcast Brewing

Talking to all the new breweries opening up on the prairies, as I have been trying to do in recent weeks, I come across a lot of different start-up strategies and a variety of visions for the brewery. But when I spoke with Patrick Schnarr, I heard something I hadn’t heard before. Not only is his start-up plan unique for the prairies, his vision for the brewery is also charting a new path.

Schnarr, along with his wife Krysten, are Outcast Brewing (here are their other social media coordinates: Twitter:@outcast_brewing, Instagram: @outcastbrewing, and Facebook). They will be pouring their first beer in Calgary in the coming weeks. What is unusual is they are doing so without having a brewhouse.

For the moment, Schnarr will be contract brewing out of Cold Garden, another fledgling Calgary brewery (read my profile of them here). He purchased his own 15hl fermenter and will be brewing every second weekend on Cold Garden’s brewhouse. It is a temporary plan. “Whole point of contract brewing is to establish brand, build a track record with consumers,” says Schnarr. “I will do this for six months and then evaluate and move toward my own place. And if this flops I am not bankrupt and at least I tried.”

The longer plan is to open his own smaller-sized brewery with a taproom. the taproom is a central aspect of his business plan, and core to his vision of creating local connections. “It will be small and friendly,” he says. “Twenty to thirty seats, no TV, music really low. I love sitting down and having a beer face-to-face. I want to encourage people to do what they used to do. Forget their phones and do things together.” He plans on having a dart board, board games and other activities that encourage socializing. He doesn’t have a location for the taproom yet, but figures he will either put it in a section of the city under-served for craft beer or try to ensure it offers something other taprooms don’t have.

Schnarr comes to owning a brewery via an unusual route. A native of New Brunswick, he moved to Calgary nine years ago, basically on a whim. “In December of 2007 I was sitting in my house in Fredericton. A friend sent me a message, his roommate just did midnight move asked if I wanted to come visit for a while. I wasn’t doing anything at the time so I said yes. I just wanted to do something cool. I thought I would end up coming back in six months. That was 9 years ago.”

He got a job as a sales rep for Pepsi for a few years, but was laid off in 2013. Then he heard Big Rock was looking for a cellar worker and applied.  “I became enamoured with beer”. That is when he got into homebrewing, and in a fairly serious way. After a year or so at Big Rock he jumped over to do deliveries for Wild Rose, which also lasted for about a year. Now he is working at a flooring business while he builds his brewery dreams.

The other thing that stood out for me in Schnarr’s initials is his choice of opening beer. “At first we will only have one beer, a Double IPA,” he notes. “No one is doing a year-round DIPA. We are going to build our brand on the DIPA.” He will supplement the signature beer with seasonals “every second month”. He is thinking of an Imperial Stout for a Christmas seasonal.

Schnarr knows going with a big, bitter Double IPA is a challenging move. “They are  not something everyone wants,” he admits. “But I want my own spin on brewing, what I like to drink. I can take risks that bigger breweries can’t.” He notes the single beer is just the starting plan and once the tap room is up and running he will expand to a full line-up of beer.

The flagship beer is called Make That a Double IPA and will be dosed with healthy amounts of Galaxy and Columbus. Schnarr wants his beer names to have some creativity to them. “I want clever, funny names that will start conversations. I want customers to ask why is the beer called that? What was my inspiration for that beer? Then I can sit down and talk with customers for a while and make them feel a part of it.”

As for the brewery name, Schnarr feels it reflects his Continue reading Outcast Brewing Charts Its Own Path

Blind Enthusiasm Goes in with Eyes Wide Open

blindenthusiasmlogoThe most-talked-about but least understood beer happening in Edmonton is the impending opening of Blind Enthusiasm. The soon-to-be brewery kind of defies categorization. It will be a brewpub. But it is more than that. It will also be Canada’s first brewery committed to spontaneous and mixed fermentation.

To make sense of things there are couple things you need to know. First, Blind Enthusiasm is actually two breweries under one operation (I’ll explain). Second it is the creation of Greg Zeschuk. For those who don’t know him, Zeschuk is a physician, founder and former co-owner of software and gaming giant Bioware, creator of The Beer Diaries, an online TV program on craft beer across the continent, and former Executive Director of the Alberta Small Brewers Association. Given his financial capacity and his passion for beer, it is no surprise to people who know him that he was going to create a beer project of exceptional quality and ambition.

I had a chance earlier this week to sit down with Zeschuk and one of his head brewers, Doug Checknita, to talk about the brewery, its plans and how it will fit into Edmonton’s beer scene. At its core, the vision is simple. “We want to make interesting, ambitious beer with creativity and artistry and good brewing techniques,” says Zeschuk. He sees the operation as being about moving the public as much as selling to them. “It is about education, showing people what beer can be”.

But in the end, the beer needs to be enjoyable for consumers. “It will be really good and approachable,” notes Zeschuk. “If it is not good, it will not be served”.

As I mentioned, Blind Enthusiasm consists of two separate brewing operations in two locations. The brewpub will be located at the four corners in the Ritchie neighbourhood south of the east end of Whyte Avenue. It is the anchor of a multi-business new building that will also house Transcend Coffee Roasters, Acme Meats and a bike shop. But they are also building a second brewery a few blocks away off 99st (across the street from the old Amber’s Brewing brewery). Each brewery will have its own dedicated head brewer.

be-building-drawingThe brewpub will offer “traditional” craft beer offerings, from pilsners to bitters, IPAs to stouts. A possible flagship beer might be a Belgian Single, the style brewed by Trappist Monks for their daily consumption. Zeschuk explains they will serve 12 to 13 beer at a time, along with a couple of guest taps. “We will have a limited regular line-up”, opting instead for mostly one-offs and seasonals. “We might go for a model of a summer line-up and a winter line-up,” rotating beer as seasonally appropriate.

Given their co-tenants in the building, food pairing and brewing with coffee will be a big element of their approach. “You will see a lot of coffee beer on tap.” They hope to design the menu to include beer as a central aspect of the food.

They are installing a 10hl brewhouse with 10-10hl fermenters and five serving tanks to create maximum flexibility. Also the second floor will house a barrel room where they will produce a range of barrel-aged beer. Zeschuk says the brewpub will have a “warm industrial” feel, with lots of glass, high ceilings and a “big patio”. He also hopes it to be a family-friendly space, where kids are not only welcome but encouraged.

If I stopped there you would be convinced this will be an impressive and highly anticipated project.

Then there is the second brewery, which will be devoted to “mixed fermentation” beer. In other words, sours and lambic-style beer. The sour brewery will have a 20hl brewhouse and a sizeable warehouse for storing barrels for aging. The volume is needed because, aside from aging, they will engage in traditional blending processes to create complex sour and lambic-style beer. They have even ordered a custom-designed coolship (a large, shallow vessel for initial innoculation) to facilitate spontaneous fermentation . Yes, they are going to do spontaneous fermentation in Edmonton.

Zeschuk knows they are Continue reading Blind Enthusiasm Goes in with Eyes Wide Open

Random Acts of Beerness: Beer Guides and Beer Weeks

albertacraftbeerguideWelcome to the second installment of Random Acts of Beerness, my occasional effort to update people on beer happenings on the prairies in a rather random, haphazard way (read here for an explanation of its origins).

Your Guide to the (Beer) Stars

Last weekend, Alberta’s version of The Growler, B.C.’s quarterly guide to local beer, officially launched. Simply named Alberta Craft Beer Guide, its 68 pages includes a summary page of every brewery operating in Alberta (including ones who opened during the summer) mixed with some beer education articles. I will skip over my contribution to the guide, which was a State of the Beer address for Alberta beer, and note pieces on style-bending and beer tasting as highlights. This guide is interesting to me because a short few years ago it would have been a pamphlet. That the scene has grown enough to make such a thing possible is saying something. You can find the Guide (until stocks run out) at your local neighbourhood Alberta brewery and at many discerning beer stores, pubs and restaurants.

Your Map to the (Beer) Stars

And if that wasn’t enough, our friends over at The Daily Beer last week launched an interactive online map to Alberta beer – find it here. You can search for breweries, liquor stores and beer-oriented bars in your area. It is the kind of feature other locations have had for ages but, again, Alberta simply didn’t have the critical mass for it until now. Cool.

Mother, What an Honour!

bushwakker-red-fifeRegina brewpub, Bushwakker, just won an unusual award for their recent collaboration with a National Historical Site. Bushwakker made a commemorative beer for the Motherwell Homestead Historical Site near Regina, called Motherwell Red Fife Witbier. The beer was designed to highlight Motherwell and its preservation of Saskatchewan settlers in the 19th century. As it works out the beer, and the events around it won won the 2016 Parks Canada CEO Awards of Excellence in the category of ‘Facilitating Memorable Visitor Experiences’ for the associated commemorative symphony concert that took place last summer. How often does a brewery win an award for helping to celebrate history?

Bring Out Your Alberta Beer!

September 23 to October 1 is Alberta’s 2nd annual Alberta Beer Week. Details are a bit slim at the moment but if last year is any indication there will be a wide range of events highlighting and celebrating Alberta-made beer. Like last year the Calgary and Edmonton Oktoberfests bookend the week and in the middle there will be a variety of tastings, dinners and other events. The website is a bit thin on details at the moment, but check back closer to the week to find out about the various options.

Torque, umm, Torques It Up

New Winnipeg brewery, Torque Brewing, has shifted into full production in recent weeks and is now shipping both kegged and canned product around the province. While this isn’t news, per se, it remains a good news story for prairie craft beer.

To Hell With It

Similarly, Hell’s Basement in Medicine Hat has gotten off to a fast start, selling out their initial beer within days and now starting to sell canned beer to thirsty Hat residents. Expect to see them elsewhere sooner rather than later.

4thmeridian-logoCoulee Comes to Town

New Lethbridge brewery Coulee Brewing is now up to full production and ready to spread its good beer word across the province. They tell me within days they will be shipping beer to Connect Logistics, so expect to see their beer in a good beer store near you soon.

Lloyd Joins the Beer Revolution

The latest Alberta brewery to be granted a production license is 4th Meridian Brewing in Lloydminister. I haven’t had a chance to talk to them yet, so don’t have much to offer around what they are about, but stay tuned. I am behind in my profiles, but determined to catch up.

That suffices for now. More when the spirit moves me!

 

Really Great Time Had by All at Real Ale Fest

summer-2016b-034This past Saturday was the fifth annual installment of the Edmonton Beer Geeks Anonymous Real Ale Festival, held in the skating rink of Ritchie Community Hall. As usual a few hundred thirsty folks attended to sample some of the best, creative or just plain strange cask ales made by Western Canadian breweries.

For those not in the know real ale – often called cask ale around these parts – is beer naturally carbonated in the serving container through the addition of sugar at packaing time. The beer is served fresh, generally warmer and imparts flavours you can’t get from regularly prepared beer. It is common, although not mandatory, to also add hops, spices or other ingredients to the cask to further enhance the flavours.

This year’s event was both the biggest yet – 29 casks (30 were scheduled with one last minute drop out) – and seemingly the most efficiently organized. From my vantage the volunteers from EBGA have got this event down like clockwork, including (I finally realized) putting the casks in alphabetical order.

I am really growing to appreciate the location of the event. While it might seem odd to hold an event in a skating rink (sans ice), I like that it creates an outdoor, festive atmosphere while the boards create a natural way to contain the space.

But, let’s be clear, we were all there for the beer (and community).  I did not get to all 29 casks – didn’t even try – but did taste an even dozen. I had gone with the best intentions of carefully taking notes of each beer sampled, but found myself talking all afternoon instead. So, I pull all this out from memory.

summer-2016b-030I will remind that I judge cask ales differently than regular beer. For one they are intended to be experiments, a never-tried-this-before-maybe-it-will-be-cool kind of thing. Second, they are unpredictable. Even the best of brewers can be surprised how the beer turns out. So, it is important to enter cask ale tasting with a forgiving eye.

Overall, I found the casks to be of consistently good quality but none really gave me a moment of “oh wow! That is amazing!” Almost all the beer I tried were enjoyable, many were intriguing and a couple had me contemplating a second sampling. Here are some random observations:

Stickin’ with the Basics. As I say, cask does not have to be all about the extra ingredients. Both newbie Grain Bin Brewing’s Participant Special Bitter and Alley Kat’s (oddly named) Fullen Si Ihre Stiefel Altbier stood out for their willingness to just present the beer naked. And both turned out quite nicely.

Oxymoron Beer. The good folks at Ribstone Creek had me smiling with their Old Ale, which tasted quite fresh and, well, young.

Where Did that Addition Go? More than one entry boasted an ingredient that did not seem to come through in the final product. Not to pick on anyone, but Tool Shed’s Red Rage with Tequila Oak Chips seemed lacking in tequila to me. I also couldn’t really find the plums in Theoretically Brewing’s Curiosity Amber infused with plums. To be clear, both beer were enjoyable – I just didn’t get the advertised addition.

summer-2016b-040More Like Dessert than Beer. Situation Brewing’s Iconoc Milk Stout seemed more like an After Eight than a beer – but in a good way. Coffee, mint and chocolate added to their base sweet stout turned it into a smooth, mouth-cleansing after dinner treat.

Needs More Rhubarb! Norsemen Brewing went to town on rhubarb with their Runestone Rhubarb Saison With Even More Rhubarb. I feared it would be like sucking on a rhubarb stalk. Instead, it was pleasantly balanced with some light tartness and hints of rhubarb. Surprisingly, it could have used more rhubarb!

Bigger is Better. It seems appropriate that the biggest beer at the event, 10.5%, comes from Alberta’s largest craft brewer, Big Rock. Their Bourbon Barrel Aged Amber Ale offered a moderate oak character and touches of bourbon warming. It was a very dangerous beer, as you couldn’t really tell it was that big. Good thing I only order a half glass of it!

Those are just some of my highlights. If you were there post a comment telling us what your favourites were. And if you weren’t there, tell us what you would like to see in a cask ale.

As usual the Real Ale Festival was a fabulous afternoon of conversations, beer sampling and contemplation of casks-to-come. I am booking off the second Saturday of September 2017 right now!

 

Wildrose Beer Policy an Embarrassment

liquor store coolerYesterday the opposition Wildrose Party (not to be confused with Calgary’s Wild Rose Brewing) in Alberta released a policy plan (read here) around the beer industry. It is a response to the NDP government’s recent series of announcements (read here for background). They call it their “6-Pack Plan for Alberta Beer Producers and Consumers”.

I was sincerely interested in what the Official Opposition’s take on this might be. They have been strangely silent in recent weeks on the matter. So, I went to read the plan to work out what it might mean for beer in the province.

Except there is no plan. Not even close.

It consists of six vague bullet points (even the “read the full plan” link). I will quote the whole thing (it doesn’t take long):

  1. Improve Free Trade: Promote inter-Canadian free trade and fight unfair trade barriers faced by Alberta brewers in other markets;
  2. Lower Beer Taxes: Reverse beer tax increases imposed by the NDP government;
  3. Encourage Growth: Support new breweries and encourage expansion of existing ones by ending minimum capacity regulations and retroactive markup rates for small and medium-sized breweries;
  4. Protect Consumers: Maintain our open access approach that ensures Alberta consumers have better access to the beer of their choice than Canadians in any other province;
  5. Fight Protectionism: Make the staff who are studying the trade barriers we are lobbying to remove available to brewers to help navigate the obstacles and red tape in other provinces; and,
  6. Stabilize Business: Put in place a clear, predictable regulatory and tax regime for brewers that is consistent with our trade agreements and the Canadian constitution.

Even though a piece of me thinks that responding to this piece of media puffery is giving it too much credit, allow me to make a few points about how the plan is not a plan.

Let me start with the easy stuff. First, the level of vague generality is laughable. Most of the bullets are rhetoric with not a substantive policy plank to be found. Numbers 1 and 5 are basically the same point. And number 6 is platitude that offers nothing of substance.

Numbers 2 and 4 essentially amount to returning Alberta to the pre-election status quo. Open borders with a mark-up regime that provides a lower mark-up to every small and medium brewery on the planet. How well did that work for Alberta breweries?

The Wildrose nod to Alberta brewers is found in number 3 – except that is addressing issues that were solved in 2013!! They seem to proclaiming themselves saviours of problems solved THREE YEARS AGO!! (Note to Wildrose MLAs: there is neither a minimum production capacity nor a retroactive mark-up increase anymore. You can thank Alison Redford for that.)

Sure, they also talk about defending Alberta breweries by fighting against inter-provincial barriers. That point I can get on board with. But what are you going to do? What steps are you going to take to bring down decades-old laws that restrict imports? Promises like that are easy. How are you going to actually persuade other provinces to change their rules to let Alberta beer into their stores? A one-page glossy isn’t good enough for what is a complex inter-provincial trade issue. Besides, what do you do in the meantime, Continue reading Wildrose Beer Policy an Embarrassment

Alley Kat’s High Wire Act with High Level IPA

AK high level ipaWith all the young, flirtatious upstarts popping up around Alberta, gathering the attentions of the wandering-eye beer consumer, one wonders what the established craft breweries need to do to re-capture some of the attention that used to go their way. Looking at the recent activities of Wild Rose, Alley Kat and others, the plan is to (at the risk of taking this metaphor too far) spice things up a little. The more established breweries are ramping up their approach to one-offs and seasonals, trying to both offer more of them and to make them more eye-catching in their ingredients, approaches or styles.

Case in point: Alley Kat’s new Back Alley Series which launched this summer. These one-off beer, I am told driven by suggestions from the brewers, attempt to play around in a way that Alley Kat, known for their steady hand and sound decision making (except for the Full Moon oopsie), is usually careful not to do. The first out was a spruce beer made with hand-harvested spruce tips. I don’t recall a prairie brewery attempting a spruce beer before (but could be wrong), so that was newsworthy.

Second up, released last week, is High Level IPA. An IPA may not seem like a way to spice things up, and ordinarily it isn’t. However, the Alley Kat brewers experimented with hop bursting for the beer – again (I think) a prairie first.

For those unawares, hop bursting is a process where the bulk of the hops are added late in the boil. Usually beer achieves its bitterness from early additions of hops to allow time for isomerization. Late additions in the last 15 minutes are made to add hop flavour and aroma. Hop bursting eschews the traditional timing and instead adds high volumes of hops late in the boil – 15 minutes and less. The theory is the method reduces the sharpness of the bitterness and allows hop flavour and bitterness to blend more into the beer. At least that is the theory – I admit to never having tried it at home and can’t recall sampling a commercial example (again, that could just be my bad memory).

When I was told by the rep that they hop burst the beer, my ears pricked up. Why do I suspect the eye of many beer aficionados will dart Alley Kat’s way upon that news?

Of course, theory is one thing and practice is another. How did the beer turn out? First, they report using three hop varieties in the beer: Eldorado, Mandarina Bavaria and Jarrylo. The IBUs are in the IPA zone at about 52 IBUs. [edited Sept. 12 to correct IBU number.]

The beer pours dark gold with a big, rocky, consistent white head that leaves some lacing. Carbonation might be a bit subdued, but still decent. Really, it looks gorgeous in the glass. The aroma is strongly characterized by fruit. I pick up peach, mango, orange, some other vague citrus and hints of red berry. A lightly toasted malt along with some sweet toffee complement the fruit. I also detect hints of graininess. The aroma is a really nice start. It has a really smooth hop character that blends really well with the malt and fruity esters.

In the taste first impressions are strong stone fruit and citrus blend, with a bit of pine blended in for good measure. The malt has a highly recognizable Full Moon malt character. Light toffee, some toast and biscuit and soft graininess. Then there is the hop flavour, which is the dominant feature of this beer. I pick up at various moments evidence of peach, pine, grapefruit, orange and pineapple. It is a complex interplay of flavours. The finish is balanced with both a noted malt sweetness and an assertive hop character. The bitter linger is surprisingly smooth and fruity. It might be more about what it is missing – that resin-y, sharp, almost astringent quality many IPAs have. It really softens the overall impression of the beer.

I like that in addition to a complex and intriguing hop profile, the base beer has that classic Alley Kat character as well, making it seem comfortingly familiar while charting into unexplored regions of beer flavour. In a way it is scarily drinkable.

Will hopheads approve? I don’t know. Those looking for a lupulin kick might be disappointed. But if you want to experience other dimensions of what hops can bring to beer, this one might offer something of value. As I say my lack of hop-bursting experience limits my ability to offer a definitive conclusion on whether High Level IPA is a success or not. It seems to hit all the notes that a hop-bursted beer should achieve. And I certainly know I wouldn’t turn it down if someone offered me another.

 

Uncommon Quality Goal of Common Crown

Common_Crown-common_sizeWho in heaven’s name would give up a successful career in film to open a brewery? Hanging out with the likes of Ang Lee, Anne Hathaway and (my favourite in the list) Allan Hawco of Republic of Doyle fame.

Twin brothers Damon and Andrew Moreau for two. Both were involved in the film industry, Damon as a camera operator and Andrew in art production before moving to run a construction company. But a few years ago the two were ready for a different kind of adventure, and being entrepreneurial types and beer lovers, found their attentions drawn to beer.

The end result is Common Crown Brewing in Calgary, which will start brewing beer in a couple of weeks and should have product available in October. I had a chance to talk with their Head of Sales and Social, Brock Stuart, about where the brewery is at and what their plans are.

“They were looking for a new avenue. both brothers are entrepreneurial,” says Stuart. He notes that they had been homebrewing for a few years and had totally caught the beer bug, so opening a brewery was in their imaginations. “They looked at new legislation and decided to give it a shot. They wanted to take their garage beer and take it to the masses.”

The two brothers, along with a silent third partner, are setting up Common Crown to be about “local and social”. “The whole concept is to bring high quality craft beer to everyday Albertans,” says Stuart. “We aim to bring high quality at affordable prices. We want the stigma around our brewery to be that we are trying to do as many things as local as possible and that we are bringing the social together.”

Part of their vision of social is people putting down their technology and talking face-to-face. “When the  taproom opens, we want it to be a gathering space like we used to have before technology. We will showcase local agriculture, local music, local art. We want to create events and support local charities.”

Stuart sums up their mission. “We want when people think of Common Crown they think of a fun place to go, to meet people, and a place to be yourself and have a pint with somebody.”

The brewery is located in northeast Calgary, just a block from Tool Shed. They envision the 60-70 seat tasting room to be a gathering point and an anchor for their business.They have a 24hl brewhouse with three fermenters to start. The plan is to package the beer in cans and offer crowler (canned growlers) fills at the brewery, as well as the usual kegging. The hope to start with three mainstay beer and add in rotating seasonals, some of which Continue reading Uncommon Quality Goal of Common Crown

Trade Complaint Over Mark-Ups to Go Forward

scalesofjusticeA complaint under the Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT) – a trade deal signed between provinces and the federal government in 1994 – against the Alberta government’s new mark-up policies has been forwarded to a formal hearing, according to a press release from the Canadian Constitution Foundation. The complaint was formally filed by import agency Artisan Ales and is being supported by the Foundation. The claim is that Alberta is violating the provisions of the AIT by treating Alberta beer preferentially at the expense of imported beer. The complaint is being applied to both the original October policy change and the new single mark-up/grant program arrangement. (For background on this issue read here.)

The initial investigation found there were sufficient grounds to proceed with a full hearing. The decision is akin to a preliminary hearing, where there is no verdict on the case, just simply an assessment that there is sufficient evidence for a hearing to not be a waste of time.

This is the second case filed against the new policy. Steam Whistle earlier launched a lawsuit citing constitutional grounds. No decision has yet be rendered on that case. It is suspected to be a number of years before either case will fully resolve itself.

Artisan Ales is owned by Mike Tessier, a Calgary-based importer. It specializes in Quebec beer, including renowned Montreal brewery Dieu Du Ciel. The Canadian Constitution Foundation is a non-profit legal advocacy group that supports constitutional challenges around “individual freedom” and “economic liberty”. The Foundation has links with the right-wing think-tank Fraser Institute and has taken on cases advocating for greater private health care, protecting property rights and curtailing the rights of unions. It is also supporting the New Brunswick case over inter-provincial transport of beer as well a a variety of other consumer advocacy cases. The Foundation’s mandate suggests, for them at least, this is about more than beer prices and has a broader ideological purpose.

It was fully expected that the government would face additional challenges to its mark-up policy, and it is entirely likely this will not be the last complaint filed (one under New West Partnership is also possible). There is a great deal of money at stake in the cases. They will also affect the future of Alberta’s burgeoning craft beer scene. I speculate whether a complaint on behalf of an Alberta brewery against policies in some other jurisdictions might also be warranted at some point?

I suspect all eyes will be watching carefully (although don’t expect a resolution anytime soon, so no need to hold off that bathroom break). More as news warrants.