One of my pick ups from my trip to San Diego was Sierra Nevada’s Narwhal Russian Imperial Stout. (Yeah, I know they are not a San Diego brewery, but you get while the gettings good). I actually had never had it before – one of the reasons I picked it up – but if it is from Sierra Nevada, it should be pretty damned good, I thought.
I opened it up the other evening while in the mood for something substantial but not hoppy (too many Stone beer at the launch party the other night).
It pours, as expected, deep inky black with a thin but consistent dark tan head. I pick up some medium roast coffee, dark chocolate and a soft alcohol warming in the aroma. I detect hints of molasses and brown sugar as well.
There are lots of chocolate and coffee upfront, as well as some licorice and chocolate syrup in the initial taste. Molasses lingers in the background to add complexity. I also get distinct dried fruit tones at the back. It has a medium body – less than I expected – and the beer tends to dry out as it goes back. The finish is slightly roast-y with a raisin accent. The alcohol (10.2%) is present but not too hot or intense. Just enough to make sure you know it is there.
This is a rich, fruity, complex RIS. Most of the elements I am looking for are there, but somehow it doesn’t come together in a way I hoped it would. The flavours don’t seem to blend enough – it is like they aren’t playing in unison yet. While the flavours are attractive, the beer lacks that rounded completeness I am looking for in a RIS. In particular the molasses seems too pronounced, which interferes with other flavours.
In hindsight I am wondering if I should have waited another six months before opening it, giving the beer time to mellow and its characteristics to find a common note. Alas, I only bought one bottle, so I will now never know. Such is life.
When I do beer education sessions, I frequently make an effort to find out what beer the students/clients currently drink. I subsequently craft my choices based upon where they are, finding beer that will edge them into the big, broad world of craft beer. In other words I start with more modest and “accessible” options so that I don’t overwhelm their palate and/or scare them off.
This, of course, is a basic beer education principle. And it is also only a rough guide, as often people will surprise me, such as recently a man who only drank Budweiser before the event but absolutely loved the sour beer put on offer. Go figure.
I have decided in my Beer 101 column over at the Sherbrooke Liquor website to offer up some ideas for how to edge a friend into the world of craft beer. It is similar to the series I ran in the summer over at Planet S/Prairie Dog, but it will be a little more comprehensive and offers a broader range of options (not being limited to Saskatchewan’s inventory).
The first part of the series, which you can read here, takes the first steps, moving from standard macro-brews to light-bodied, all-malt craft beer. The move to a craft-oriented pale lager is rather straightforward, with a number of decent examples. I highlight four possibilities, including Yellowhead or Ribstone Creek as local options. Similarly simple is the shift from one of the faux-white beer (ahem, Keith’s White, ahem) to a real witbier. It is a straight out swap from a sub-standard interpretation to a real one, like Hoegaarden or Blanche de Chambly.
A bit more complicated is what to do with someone who drinks Stella Artois, Heineken or another so-called “premium” European lager. Not to be bratty, but it is hard to find a craft version of skunked beer – which those green-bottled beer often are. More seriously, they are slightly fuller in their body, and so a straight flip to a craft pale lager might not be quite enough for them. In those cases I lean towards a European pale lager in the German or Czech tradition. They have a more rounded character with a bit of hop bite that will seem closer to the macro European beer.
The final step in the first installment is to edge your lager-drinking friend into the world of ales. A nice cream ale or blonde ale will introduce the light fruity esters found in ales with confusing them with other flavours. As an added bonus it will dispel any of those common myths such as “ales are dark, lagers are pale”.
In the coming months I will look at the subsequent steps, into darker beer and then onto bitter beer and those other wacky offerings in the craft beer world.
Photo courtesy Vue Weekly
The current Vue Weekly is their Chocolate Issue, examining a variety of aspects of chocolate. It also happened to be a scheduled To The Pint beer column week. So, my editor asked me to write a column about chocolate and beer.
I could have gone a few ways with it – chocolate and beer pairings, beer made with chocolate, chocolate made with beer (yes, that occurs). In the end I decided to simplify (I gotta keep some topics for future chocolate issues). I decided to highlight beer that tastes like chocolate without any chocolate added (you can read it here).
I thought that topic would not only attract chocolate lovers to beer but also educate readers about beer’s versatility and just how many flavours you can create from barley. Chocolate really is one of those flavours that I am constantly amazed can be imparted in beer simply through the use of appropriate malts. Roast, sure. Caramel or toast, of course. But chocolate? That seems a bit unlikely and even after 23 years of homebrewing I still stand in awe when I produce a beer with a silky chocolate flavour.
The article mostly picks some readily available beer that accent chocolate. As beer some of them are not particular stand-outs, but I picked them because they really do jump out at you with chocolate – and that was the whole point of the column.
So, from the obvious Young’s Double Chocolate Stout to the intense and complex Brooklyn Chocolate Stout, I offer some suggestions for getting that chocolate satisfaction while tipping a pint. I even toss in a local candidate in Amber’s Chocolate Stout (now made by Hog’s Head).
For readers of this website, I suspect that chocolate flavour in beer is hardly a revelation. However, I suspect that for the bulk of the population it can be quite a surprise that chocolate can work so well in beer. Next year I might turn my attention to beer that actually adds chocolate.
One of the most anticipated days in Winnipeg beer calendar is the (mostly) annual release of Half Pints’ Humulus Ludicrous, their assertive and flavourful Double IPA. It sells out in hours at the brewery. A shipment of bottles usually makes its way to Alberta, as was the case this year. Never one to pass up the opportunity to taste some ludicrous humulus, I obviously picked up a couple bottles, prying one open the other day.
The beer looks like a classic Double IPA, medium orange with an off-white head that builds very quickly and leaves significant lacing as it fades. The aroma starts with a soft pine and citrus hop followed by a touch of caramel, toffee and hints of butterscotch.
I find the first sip noticeably thick with malt sweetness. I pick up caramel, brown sugar, dark honey and some light fruitiness. However this malt impression is rather fleeting as the hops move in rather quickly. I get some rounded citrus, but that is inadequate to describe it. There is complexity to the citrus. I can’t isolate any particular kind of citrus although I do think I can find some grapefruit, some papaya and passionfruit. And then there is the earthy pine character playing wing man to the citrus. The bitterness builds to a significant level but doesn’t get outrageous. Don’t get me wrong, this is quite a bitter beer, but the malt base holds up enough to keep it from moving out of balance. The finish is resiny and the linger seems more piney to me than anything else. And the hop linger seems to last for hours.
I hesitate to bring in the name Pliny the Elder, because that beer truly has no equal, but I can honestly say (especially having had a Pliny a few weeks ago) that this isn’t all that far behind. I think it holds its own in the world of IIPAs. Assertive, unabashedly hoppy but not overpowering in the bitterness with enough malt base to create balance but not so much you confuse it with an American barley wine. A lovely beer.
If it wasn’t such a big bottle I would have another right away but that would be folly. Best to leave the next bottle for another night.
Alberta’s small but growing group of craft brewers will soon have one more member in their midst. Half Hitch Brewing Company is currently under construction in Cochrane, a town of about 18,000 residents just northwest of Calgary. The brewery is currently under construction and they hope to have the first beer rolling out of the brewery in late spring 2015 (just one cold winter away).
Half Hitch has been in the planning stages since 2011 and there have been no shortage of rumours and talk about their operation. To cut through the hearsay, I had a chat recently with co-owner and head brewer (and only paid staff member at the moment), Chris Heier.
The first thing Heier explains is why the lengthy planning stage. He says it is mostly due to slow approval processes, “in particular at the municipal level”. Getting the land sale approved, receiving development approval and other regulatory details moved much slower than Heier had hoped. The complication is that Half Hitch is building their brewery from scratch on a half-acre parcel of land in Cochrane. The brewery site will include a full-service restaurant.
But Heier can see clear sailing now “we just poured the concrete floor and soon will be building the timber frame”. The brewing equipment, a 20-barrel brewhouse with a series of 40-barrel fermenters, will be delivered in February.
The Heier Family Getting an Advance Taste
Once they are up and running, Half Hitch’s priorities will be “family and community”. The brewery actively promotes that it is entirely family-owned and operated (the family is self-financing the project as well), and they are working hard to be a good citizen in Cochrane. Other members of the family are assisting with the brewery including handling website and social media and one brother doing all the woodwork, including custom designed tables, for the restaurant. They pay homage to Cochrane’s western heritage (and present) throughout the operation.The brewery building is being designed as a Monitor-style barn, which is a classic horse barn design with a two-story centre portion and two lower, sloping outer wings (admission: this city slicker had to google that to find out what it was). Even the name is linked to community. “The half hitch is a knot you use to tie up horses. Be we interpret it more about how the business will operate,” says Heier. “It is the bind that brings the family and community together. We use it as a symbol of being part of the community.”
The beer names and branding continue this association. Heier sees them as a trilogy, three parts of a farming story. With the product branding “we wanted to be humorous but still keep it western-style. We want to tell a story with the beer.” The three beer are Farmer’s Daughter Pale Ale, Fire N’ Fury Red Ale and Shotgun Wedding Brown Ale. Heier explains: “the labels are like panels in a cartoon. It starts with farmer’s daughter, to the father’s reaction at what he is seeing going on in the barn, and then finally to the shotgun wedding”, he says with a chuckle.
The three beer can also be seen as a trilogy stylistically-speaking as well. “If you look at BJCP, they are a Category 10 trio of beer”. Category 10, in the current BJCP guidelines, is American Ale, with Pale, Amber and Brown Ale subcategories. Heier describes them as stylistically circling that category “with our own particular way of going about it.” He says the Farmer’s Daughter (at 4.5%) will be “drinkable with a crystal malt backbone and well hopped, citrusy flavour and aroma”. The Fire N’ Fury will have “a heavy caramelly flavour, but it will keep North American hoppiness”, while the Shotgun Wedding will be heavier (5.5%) and “may approach something of an India Brown Ale, we are going to get a bit more bitterness in there”.
The three mainstay beer will be sold in cans, growlers and on tap. Heier also plans to do seasonals and limited releases which they will manually bottle in bombers (650-ml bottles). The seasonals are still under development. “I have various different recipes I want to try at scale. There will be other interesting concoctions, I am not afraid to experiment”.
While they are getting close, there are still many steps left to go, and Heier is doing his best to remain patient. “I am itching to brew. It has been a long time coming”. For Heier and Alberta consumers both. Only a few more months before we can hitch ourselves up to a pint of Half Hitch beer.
And the fall beer releases just keep on coming! This time with plenty of umlauts to go around!
Time for another news roundup. You know the drill, I offer up what news I have gleaned as of the day of writing, so if something is missed don’t blame me (or blame me but then help me get better info), and I present it in no particular order.
- First up this month is Great Western Brewing who have not one but two new beer hitting the market. As a fall seasonal they have released Harvest Bock, what they are calling a Helles-style Bock brewed with an addition of brown sugar. While I am pretty sure brown sugar is not traditional in a Bock, it might for an interesting flavour profile. They are also expanding their Original 16 line-up with the launch of Krystall Wheat, which seems from the product information to be a German-esque filtered wheat beer but with an American yeast character (read: not a weizen).
- Calgary is a busy place this month. Wild Rose’s latest seasonal is just out. Roggen’s Heroes (those of you over 40 will get the pun) is an Oktoberfest-style beer but brewed with rye malt, which they say gives the beer a sharper, spicier edge. An interesting experiment.
- Big Rock has a new seasonal variety pack designed to straddle the fall and early winter days. Barn Burner includes Trad and Scottish Style Heavy Ale and also includes two new Brewmaster’s Limited Edition beer. Thresher Wheat Lager is made with caramelized wheat malt to give it a fall feel. Steel Cut Oatmeal Raisin Stout is a more wintery offering, although I don’t think there are actually any raisins in it.
- And what may be the biggest small news, Dandy Brewing Company (which I profiled here) is up and running, officially making it Alberta’s first nano-brewery. Two of their beer can now be found around Calgary. Golden Brown Dandy Ale and Dandy in the Underworld Sweet Oyster Stout can both be found in 650-ml bottles (and the occasional cask) in select locations.
- Not one to be left out (and completing the Calgary cycle), next week Village Brewing will be releasing its latest seasonal, Village Brünette, a dunkelweizen and our first umlaut beer of the month. At the same time, the third in the brewery’s Village Square mixed pack series (each box is designed by a different Calgary artist), will be launched. The pack will include Brünette along with two other mainstay beer.
- And a final, sort of, Calgary story. The Brewsters Brewpub chain officially launched six-packs sold in liquor stores. The roll out began at the end of September, first with Willow Park in Calgary, but with plans to soon be available in most beer-oriented stores around the province. Six of the regular Brewsters beer will be sold in stores: Wild West Wheat Ale, River City Raspberry Ale, Brewfoot Blueberry Ale, Hammerhead Red Ale, Rig Pig Pale Ale and Curly Horse IPA. With the launch also comes a new packaging, offer bright colours and simple design features on the six pack boxes to help them stand out on the shelf.
- Continuing with the umlaut trend, District Brewing in Regina has released its first ever seasonal beer. Sasktöberfestbier is a German-style Marzen that will only be available for a short period of time (it may be gone by now for all we know).
- Moving north, the mighty Yukon Brewing’s entry into the pumpkin beer derby has arrived in Alberta. The Angry Hessian, first released as part of their now discontinued A.D.D. Series, this year comes in 650-ml bombers with all the usual flavours one expects from a pumpkin beer.
That is what we got for now (but it sure is plenty). Keep it comin’ prairie brewing guys and gals!! If you keep releasing new things I will keep doing news roundups.
Celebrating Edmonton’s first Cask Event back in 2010.
It has been four-and-a-half years (May 2010) since Edmonton got its first cask night, which was at the Sugar Bowl (see article here). The first few events were high energy, anticipated and joyful. They were something a beer geek made a point of attending. Over the past few years, the number of venues hosting monthly or weekly casks has grown significantly. By my count the Sugar Bowl and Next Act, the first two to embark on the project, continue their monthly events, while Craft and Beer Revolution do weekly casks. Others have come and gone over the time, trying it out and deciding against it.
At the Edmonton Oktoberfest Festival last weekend, I got to talking with the good folks at Edmonton Beer Geeks Anonymous about the state of cask in Edmonton. They were there to babysit a handful of casks that were being served up throughout the two day event. I have been mulling over that conversation in the days since, wondering about what is going on with cask in Edmonton.
Much of the energy behind cask has ebbed and the hoped-for next steps are yet to arrive. There is, of course, the excellent EBGA Real Ale Festival once a year, which retains much of that buzz of beer adventure. But otherwise I wonder if we have lost some of our momentum recently?
I will admit that I have not been attending the cask events much in the past couple years – so clearly I am part of the problem. It is mostly life that has gotten in the way; they are often at times when I have other commitments. But, really, that isn’t much of an excuse.
However over the summer I did make it to a Sugar Bowl cask and to a couple of the Beer Revolution casks. My experience was that the buzz simply wasn’t there. Most of the room had no idea a cask was being served and it was clear to me that it was more of an average night with an added option, rather than an event per se. I saw few of the beer crowd that in the past I could reliably meet at such events (and still do at festivals and the like).
When cask events first started, the beer would last less than an hour. Today they make it through most of the night, with some reports of never getting to empty. I suspect that is one of the primary reasons for the lack of an event feel. There is no pressure to be there on time (or early) lest they miss out.Plus maybe with 10 or so events a month, there is less novelty to it. “I’ll catch it next week” is an easy response.
The initial instinct is to suggest that Edmontonians just aren’t that interested in cask, or that there are too many cask nights around town. Upon reflection I don’t think that is the case. I think it is an interplay of factors. First, building awareness of cask, building a cask-culture so to speak, takes time. It is slow work. Most beer drinkers are just starting to wake up to craft beer, let alone something as strange as cask. I think there are more people today who are aware of what a cask is, and have even tasted one, than four years ago. Yet it is a process that takes years, not months. It is a slow build.
Second, I do think for beer geeks some of the shine has ebbed around cask events. When they were new, everybody wanted to be there. Now they are more commonplace and so there is less of an air of “must attend” around them. For guys like me, there is simply less drive to carve the space out on my calendar. I think this is neither surprising nor disappointing. It is part of the natural evolution of trends. A hot beginning followed Continue reading A “State of The Cask” Address
The Halifax Brewpub is no more, but its beer continues on.
I experienced a ghost the other night. Not one of the spooky kind, although it was a dark as night. I pulled out of my cellar a bottle of something called Commissar, a Russian Imperial Stout made once in a blue moon by Greg Nash at the Hart and Thistle Brewpub in Halifax (see my post about my first visit there).
Why is it a ghost? Because the Hart and Thistle is no more. They closed earlier this year. Their waterfront site in the Historic Properties is now taken by Gahan House Halifax, the Nova Scotia outpost for the PEI Brewing Company (Gahan House).
The longer serving of readers at this site may remember that I spent two springs in Halifax in 2011 and 2012. While there I got to know Greg Nash a little bit, the irascible brewing madman of Atlantic Canada. This is the man who, in 2011, produced a beer with a whopping 1200 IBUs (theoretical) – you can read my review of it here – among other such creations. The man loves his hops. But he also shows a deft hand for many other styles as well. That includes Commissar, a RIS fortified with bourbon, infused with vanilla and aged in oak-barrels.
The Hart and Thistle didn’t bottle, but Nash would also siphon off a handful of bottles for aging and special occasions. He was extremely kind to offer me one of the few bottles of the 2011 version of Commissar. I brought it home with me and decided, given its strength (11%+) and its fortification it might be a good candidate for my cellar. I originally planned to keep it a year or two and then pull it out.
Well, you know how these things work. One year stretched to three plus and I only finally got around to it this month. In a way it seemed a fitting, albeit unintentional, tribute to the Hart and Thistle. It tried to go there regularly while in Halifax, even though it was a KILLER bike ride up the hill on the way home.
So, let this be one final review of a beer from a brewpub no one will ever sit in again (under that name, anyway – I don’t know if Gahan kept the brewhouse or bought their own).
As expected it pours inky black, offering only a thin wisp of dark tan head. It seems to have lost most of its carbonation and presents reather flat. The aroma gives off licorice, molasses, dark chocolate and a musty raisin with a backbone of bourbon.
The first sip reveals smooth chocolate, licorice with a noticeable bourbon character as well as touches of wood, adding vanilla and a bit of woody sweetness. The roast has mostly disappeared, leaving behind a kind of soft, stale coffee character. Body is medium and smooth. In the middle some raisin and dark fruit character add a second dimension. Retains its wood-aged character and the bourbon is more a flavour than alcoholic harshness.
I think it aged quite well. I get some sherry and dark fruit oxidation but it fits well with the beer so actually enhances its qualities (as can happen with bigger, darker beer). The aging has added complexity and smoothed out the rough edges on the beer, making it a lovely sipper for a quiet night. I am glad I kept it for three years.
RIP, Hart and Thistle. Keep brewing, Mr. Nash.
My most recent Beer 101 column arises from a pub session where, by chance, I found myself drinking only beer whose styles were at one time considered either extinct or restricted to a very narrow local population. The coincidence led to a pit of pondering about the role of craft beer in resurrecting dead styles and popularizing regional styles.
The column, which you can read here, really only touches upon a few examples of what, I realized, is an extensive track record of bringing beer back to life. From Peter Celis singlehandedly returning Witbier to thirsty drinkers to Charles Finkel persuading Samuel Smith Brewing to give Porter a second chance, the pioneers of craft brewing had a significant hand in bringing beer to the attention of a wider audience.
Many of us know those stories – and others – quite well.
But as I looked at the beer menu during my pondering, I started to theorize that maybe, just maybe, we are seeing a second wave of resurrections. This time it may not be as dramatic as re-brewing a beer that had completely disappeared. It may be more a case of spreading the reach of what have been localized, niche styles.
Think about it – Biere de Garde, Saison, Gose, Kellerbier, Sahti, Gruit – the list of obscure styles reborn as craft seasonals or even year-round offerings are staggering. Even longstanding regional mainstays, like Czech lager, are getting some mainstage attention.
While in the past it was the nervy ambition of one or two people, the spread this time is more diverse. With so many more craft breweries operating around the world, there is simply more space for experimentation, meaning styles can get around fast, making it hard to determine who did it first.
I am also struck by the speed in which these styles spread. We hear of one version and a year (or less) later there seems to be a half dozen options available. There is more to it than copycatting. I honestly think brewers are coming up with ideas simultaneously.
It helps that some of the original versions of these resurrected styles are still around and slowly increasing their spread. Plus the degree of global travel also feeds into it
Regardless of the reasons, it is striking (to me at least) at the volume of formerly rare styles available in North America and being brewed by North American breweries. It heartens me to think that at the same time craft breweries are pushing boundaries and concocting new styles they are also paying attention to beer tradition and history and trying to create a new generation of beer drinkers with an appreciation of rare or historic styles.
I will admit I don’t really get the pumpkin beer thing. I mean, I don’t mind the taste profile but it is the kind of beer where I am happy just having one and moving on. I don’t really like it enough to have a second pint in the same night, and I certainly don’t appreciate it enough to try most or all of the dozen or so versions currently available in the province.
This is not a criticism of the beer per se. As I say pumpkin beer has an interesting flavour profile. It just doesn’t fit into my favourite beer zone.
I will acknowledge I appear to be in the minority on this one, as pumpkin beer seems to have become one of the most sustained beer trends in recent memory. At one time I thought it was a fad that would fade away after a couple of years, but I was very, very wrong about that. If anything the popularity of pumpkin beer has been growing faster recently. The sheer number of options has become staggering. I counted 20 different breweries with a pumpkin beer this year, and I may have missed some.
So, pumpkin is big. One of the reasons, I suspect, is its limited availability. It truly is a fall beer and no one tries to stretch it into a year-round option (Hog’s Head did initially, but I think they figured out pumpkin beer doesn’t sell after Christmas), meaning there is a narrow window for beer drinkers to have it which may keep interest in it up.
All of this is a funy way to lead into what is a fairly positive review of Alley Kat’s Pumpkin Pie Spiced Ale. My latest Vue Weekly column looks at their interpretation of the style, which you can read here. I could have picked any number of pumpkin beer, but selected Alley Kat in part because they are local, in part because they were the first in the region to do a pumpkin beer (originally in collaboration with Sherbrooke Liquor), and in part because I do find it a nicely balanced interpretation.
I think what I like most about Alley Kat’s version is the malt base. It has a nice biscuit and toffee flavour that gives the beer a bit of a toasted character that balances well with the pie spices. It rounds out the beer a bit and keeps the spices from running amok.
A beer that I am happy to try each September. You are just not likely to see me having a few – which is not the beer’s fault.