Share This Blog

Lemons and Limes and Sours, Oh My!

For all of you who are searching for a new kind of patio beer (but with flavour), I think I may have found your solution. What would say to a beer that tastes something like lemonade, something like iced tea but still has a beer character?

If you say yes, let me introduce you to Blindman Brewing’s Lemons & Limes Fruited Kettle Sour (although I am certain they are using “fruited” in an entirely inappropriate way grammatically). As most readers know Blindman has been running an ongoing series of kettle sour beer – beer inoculated with lactobacillus pre-boil to create a fast-acting sour beer. Most of the time they just swap out the hops to see what happens. However, this time for the upcoming summer season, they brewed up their kettle sour with a healthy dose of both lemons and limes to the fermented beer.

And what a difference it made.

The beer pours a deeply murky, almost muddy dark gold. There is no head to speak of. The aroma gives off bright lemon and lime. I find it light, sweet and summery. I also detect some sugary sweetness and light tart character. I also get a little bit of zesty lemon as well. Frankly it smells disturbingly like lemonade.

The taste is similarly intriguing. There is a sugary sweetness up front along with a hint of tannin. The middle sharpens up with a light tartness but also with a fresh citrus flavour. An earthy note also emerges, keeping the beer grounded. The finish is lemony and tart and sweet. The lime is present but plays a supporting role, lifting up the beer and making it brighter and fresher than lemon alone (I have always found limes to be brighter and softer than lemons). The beer reminds me of a lemon-rich iced tea in a way. The tart is present but remains in balance with the other flavours, making for a refreshing finish.

Here is my issue. I can’t decide if this beer is more reminiscent of lemonade or iced tea. There is enough graininess to give a tannin-like character which brings out the tea. But, man, that aroma is straight up lemon/limeade. I like how the sweet, citrus and tart blend together to create a remarkably refreshing and summery beer. Hence my suggestion that this is an excellent patio beer.

My gut tells me this is one of those rare, odd beer that will be a hit both with beer aficionados and reluctant beer drinkers. It doesn’t really taste like “beer”, but it does what it aims to so well that even the most cynical beer geek will have to recognize what is going on here. A masterful effort.

Lemons and limes, indeed.

Steam Whistle/GWB Case Goes to Court

The long awaited hearing of the lawsuit launched by Steam Whistle and Great Western Brewing finally takes place tomorrow and Friday (June 22 & 23). The case, over the Alberta government’s changes to mark-up policy and implementation of a grant program for Alberta brewers (for background read here and here), has been slowly working its way through the system – affidavits, assembling of exhibits, cross-examinations, preliminary matters – you know the stuff that makes legal matters so slow.

Don’t expect a judgement this week. I suspect the judge will want to deliberate and will release their decision in the coming weeks (likely when I am on holidays, as those things usually go). But it is a key turning point at any rate as all of the arguments will be put forth by both sides.

I know the case and its outcome is much anticipated across the entire beer industry, as it will significantly shape the direction of beer policy in the country. Of course, no matter the decision, you can be sure the losing party will appeal; there is simply too much at stake for all sides.

This is likely the appropriate moment to acknowledge that earlier in the spring I was contracted by the AGLC to produce a report to be used in the case. The report, which due to legal blah blah blah became an affidavit (a clunky conversion process to be sure), was a cross-provincial review of beer policies. Specifically, I was asked to look at four policy areas: listing process and approvals; market conditions and government promotional support; mark-ups and other fees; and government financial support for breweries.

I am not at liberty to share the report at this time. Although since it has been filed with the courts, it is a public document if you had the gumption to trot down to the Calgary courthouse. I can say I learned A LOT about beer policy in Canada and likely spent more time digging into the murky details of regulating beer than any human being should be asked to do. I am hopeful that when the time becomes appropriate I can share some of the knowledge I gleaned with loyal readers.

I am also aware that my decision to research the report on behalf of the AGLC may lead some to question my objectivity on this issue and suggest I am somehow “tainted”. To those detractors I say three things. First, my mandate was a factual one. I was to research past and existing policies pertaining to beer. My opinion was not relevant. Second, I have never claimed objectivity (indeed, I question anyone’s ability to be truly objective). I am what I am – an independent observer of the beer industry. Specifically on the mark-up policy and grant program, I have openly stated my position.

Third, and this is most important for me, I believe I should be judged by my actions. On this and any beer issue I try very hard to listen to all sides, to accurately reflect their positions and to be fair to all involved. Mostly, I try to recognize these kinds of issues are complex. Whether I succeed I leave for others to judge.

For the record I will continue to comment on the court case and other developments in the beer world and I will continue to be guided by the principles of writing honestly and being transparent about my own involvements.

More as events warrant.

Be Sure to Get a Hold of Some Freehold

Passionate commitment to Alberta meets culinary artistry meets craft beer, all in a heritage building. Welcome to Freehold Brewing, one of the roster of breweries slated to open in Calgary in the coming months.

Freehold is the creation of Matt James and Tavis Agnew who met in their respective corporate world jobs. But their day jobs weren’t the relevant connection; beer and food were. James had a long history in the food industry, in kitchens and later in leading teams and project management. He longed for a re-connection to the culinary arts. Agnew had discovered homebrewing a few years ago and was taking the craft quite seriously when they met. As James recounts, “when Tavis introduced me to the brewing side of things, it was a natural fit with my culinary background in creating recipes and marrying flavours”, he says. “We started brewing some good beer, and learned a lot about the science end of it. We decided we could make a go of it”.

They have been working actively on Freehold for the last two years. “Our first focus group was three years ago”, says Agnew. ” We spend a year convincing ourselves, doing recipe design and building the business plan. Then a year of pinning down real estate”.

The historic C.C. Snowden building

And, boy, did they pin down some impressive real estate. The brewery and restaurant will be in the historic C.C. Snowdon building, located southeast of downtown on the way to the popular Inglewood community (home to Cold Garden and Highline). The Snowdon building was built in 1912 and housed “one of Alberta’s first oil and gas operations” according to Agnew. The building has been sitting derelict for years until Agnew and James opted to locate Freehold there. The building will house the restaurant, which they envision will offer a unique, well-refined culinary experience. They are building a separate building onsite to house the brewery.

Despite having a location, the brewery is still likely a number of months away. At the moment the guys are hoping for an early 2018 opening. “The original plan was to be open by now” says James, but as often happens unexpected issues have delayed construction.

As mentioned, their plan is not a simple taproom, but a full experience restaurant. “I am quite opinionated about food”, says James. “The overall experience when I go to a brewpub is that they offer everything under the sun. The menu is difficult to go through, people become undecided about what they want to have. It can be jarring. I want to be focused around food with a smaller, more focused, well executed menu”. James says the food will be “Alberta contemporary” as he strongly believes Alberta’s food scene is under-rated. “We have some of the best product available and I want to showcase that and instill some pride in how awesome we are”.

As for the beer, Agnew says their goal is carving out their own space. “It is important to be innovative. Our approach is not about BJCP guidelines and hitting the style right up the middle. Our process is iterative. We want to bring an incredible amount of flexibility to the beer”. The plan on starting with four of their own core brands along with four rotating seasonals and then also offer four guest taps to fill out the menu. At the moment the plan is to have the four core beer be a pale lager, a farmhouse ale, an IPA and a stout.

“Our real focus is on farmhouse and saison style beer,” says James. “It tends to be our favourite and most interesting style. Plus it aligns well with agricultural roots of province, which we will be hanging our hat on”.

The core listings may sound basic, but Agnew says there will be an original twist on each. “Our lager is based on some flavours, the saison same thing”, he says. “We want to be known for flavours and for being approachable. We want to impress beer aficionados and also ensure Continue reading Be Sure to Get a Hold of Some Freehold

What’s Up with Excise Duties Going Up?

Is the price of your favourite beverage going up?

It’s not news at this point, but in case you hadn’t heard federal excise duties on beer are going up. And up. And up. I have been meaning to turn my attention to this issue for a while but have been distracted by other projects (more on that soon) to do any research or thinking about it. But while I am still not as boned up on excise as I would like, I have spent a bit of time digesting different things to offer some thoughts.

First, I have noticed there has not been a lot of independent analysis of this, meaning maybe my post isn’t so late after all.

So, to quickly catch you up. In the March federal budget, the Trudeau government announced a 2% increase to beer excise. Further they announced that from this point forward the excise amount will automatically increase by inflation every year, something that has become known as the “escalator tax”. Here is a story on the federal budget announcement.They also increased excise rates on wine and spirits, but that is the job of some other website.

Excise on beer is charged per litre (per HL, officially, but who’s counting?). It has six tiers based on production volume, ranging from 3.2 cents per litre for the first 2,000 HL up to 31.8 cents after 75,000 HL. For most prairie brewers (Big Rock and Great Western excepted) they are likely paying between 6 and 10 cents per litre averaged out, depending on how big they are.

At first all you heard about the change were crickets. But then in May Beer Canada, along with its equivalent organizations for wine and spirits, started raising concerns. They launched the Cork The Tax campaign earlier this month opposing the change. They are hoping to persuade the Senate to block passage of that element of the budget.

(I will leave aside the strange feeling I get when I hear people call for the UNELECTED Senate to overturn legislation passed by the ELECTED House of Commons, and just stick to the issue at hand.)

I will start my commentary by saying that I can understand why the beer industry is upset. This comes on the heels of mark-up increases in many provinces, including Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario, and at a time when beer sales, at least for the corporate breweries, are declining. It must feel like a death of a thousand cuts. The increase hits the value segment particularly hard.

I also understand if consumers’ first reaction is frustration. It does seem like every time we turn around taxes are going up. It isn’t true, but it can seem that way. There is a natural desire to want our beer to be as inexpensive as possible. I get that.

But, to be honest, I can’t get all that worked up over this one. Here are a few reasons why.

First, due to the tiered structure, the increase is much Continue reading What’s Up with Excise Duties Going Up?

Beer Reflections from Toronto

A couple weeks ago I spent a few days in Toronto (as I shared here). It was mostly for work but I was able to get some beer time in on the side. I have had a bit of time to reflect upon the beer I tried and consider the state of the Ontario craft beer scene.

There is no question the beer scene in Ontario is much bigger than out here on the prairies. From my database Ontario has 230 breweries and brewpubs with another 44 contract operations (I could be a few off as it is a moving target). During my five days in Toronto I was able to sample 45 different Ontario beer (to be clear, most were 4 oz. sample sizes and some were 1-2 oz. tasters, lest you worry about my consumption). And I stuck exclusively to Ontario beer I had not yet tried.

What is my overall impression? First, the range of styles and approaches is almost dizzying. With that many breweries there was no shortage of different styles to try. I tasted six different versions of a New England Pale Ale/IPA and had a handful of sour beer of various shapes and sizes. I tried everything from a classic pilsner to an Oud Bruin. Plus a couple casks along the way.

Second there is some great beer being made in Ontario. Some of my highlights included High Road Bronan IPA, Napanee Blacklist Schwarzbier, Left Field Eephus Oatmeal Brown Ale, Bar Hop Tremolo II Saison and Sawdust City There’s No Way of Knowing Saison. Plus there were a dozen or so more that I found quite enjoyable. I also had a couple great casks at The Queen and Beaver Pub.

And while I am talking about great things, I need to give a shout out to Bar Hop and Bar Hop Brewco (sister places a few blocks apart – for the record I preferred the newer Brewco location) as well as C’est What and the previously discussed Hair of the Dog Pub for offering up a fantastic craft beer experience for a traveler.

Third, like all places not every brewery is created equal. I tasted a lot of so-called Meh! beer, including a couple that were clearly infected. I won’t name those breweries but the experience hardened in me the sense that as a beer scene grows a division of quality develops. Twenty years ago you had to make good beer to survive. It might be safe, but it had to be well-made. Today, the measures of success are different.

It means you can make “out-there” beer and attract the curious beer drinker. But you might be able to get away with something that is of lesser quality than consumers deserve. To be clear, the outright awful beer were restricted to a couple, but the so-so beer had a  higher number than I would have preferred.

There is a good lesson in that. Local beer fans who are versed in the beer scene know which breweries and beer to avoid. As an outsider I didn’t know so tried a wide range of breweries, 34 different ones in total. As a result I think I experienced a more representative range of what is on offer in the province than if one of my respected Ontario colleagues offered up suggestions for me.

In short there is a good selection of world-class beer on offer. But there is also some sub-standard beer that shouldn’t be sold and a whole bunch in the middle that are nice beer but not particularly noteworthy.

Toronto may be the centre of the universe but when it comes to beer it seems like their scene, while more mature than out here, offers up the same range of the great, the good and the ugly.

Calgary’s Summit Brewing Reaching for New Heights

Over the last few weeks some of you may have seen an unusual beer pouring in selected bars in Edmonton and Calgary. Something called Finnigan’s Irish Pale Ale, which is not a style we are used to seeing.

It is the product (sorta) of Summit Brewing (no website yet, but here is their Twitter account), which will soon be opening in Calgary. For the moment they are contracting with Half Hitch Brewing to make a couple of beer for them to get their name and brand out there. I recently spoke with owner Troy Kamphuis-Finnigan (the Finnigan behind the beer’s name) about his plans for Summit.

As it turns out his Irish Pale Ale reflects what he envisions for the brewery as a whole. He wants to put out beer that resemble styles people are used to, but have their own unique twist. As for the Finnigan’s, he explains it this way: “It is something that wasn’t being done. There are lots of IPAs, New England Pale Ales and the like in Alberta right now. I wanted something different.”

Kamphuis-Finnigan currently is a liquor importer, specializing mostly in wine, operating his own agency since 2008. His business takes  him around the world seeking out new product. “I import a lot and spend a lot of time in Ireland, touring microbreweries around there,” he says. As for the Finnigan’s,  “I like the American Pale Ale style, but I also like the nuances in Irish beer – they are drier on palate. I wanted the hop aromatics, but not the bitterness. I also wanted a dry, sharp mouthfeel”. And his Irish Pale Ale was borne.

Even though he is a wine and spirits importer, he does have some connection to the beer world. “About five years ago I was approached by Wildrose to come as a consultant”. It was around the time Wildrose was getting serious about building a new brewery. “Bill McKenzie [then CEO] got me to stay, so I did. I stayed four and a half years doing marketing and business development”.

His time at Wildrose was instructional, where he was part of the build-out of the new brewery. “It was an incredible opportunity to build a brewery and build a brand and figure out what to do”. It gave him the idea of building his own brand. Last fall he left Wildrose to work on Summit Brewing.

Kamphuis-Finnigan has ambitious plans for Summit. His vision is not a small, neighbourhood operation but something bigger. “It will be a mid-sized brewery, one of the bigger ones in Alberta. It will be somewhere between Village and Wildrose. We will focus on commercial brands with the aim of making them big brands.” His long term plan is to be a “national player” with significant exports across Canada.

As a consequence of that plan, the vision for the beer is “very approachable, easy drinking yet flavourful beer”. The first releases, such as Finnigan’s, will have a hybrid character. His second release, coming this summer, is Rocky Mountain Lager, a pale lager with a continental twist. In the fall comes Finnigan’s Irish Red which he describes as a “northwestern amber ale with Irish feel and a little lighter body”. He plans a fourth flagship but has Continue reading Calgary’s Summit Brewing Reaching for New Heights

Beer 101: Graduation Day

You all, simply, have gotten too smart. You know too about beer these days. So, congratulations you graduate!

A couple weeks back Sherbrooke Liquor posted my final Beer 101 column on its website. You can read it here. I started writing Beer 101 back in 2009. The explicit mission was to provide a range of basic beer education for consumers interested in learning more about beer. It was  never about shilling product for Sherbrooke, although I did sometimes talk about specific beer. It was all about the education.

Which made it the ideal gig for me. I got to write about whatever I wanted, share beer information and try to raise the level of beer knowledge among western Canadians. At first I was quite methodical, gong through ingredients, process, styles and so forth. As the number of columns piled up, I started picking subjects that interested me or were on my brain at the time. The focus remained on education, but the scope of topics broadened.

In all I wrote 90 Beer 101 columns over the past 8 years.

So if I like it so much, why end it?

Because, like all things, it has run its course. I think there is less need for basic beer education today, plus there are now lots of sources. When we first started Beer 101 I was the only one in the region doing this work, today there are many.

Also Sherbrooke is in the middle of revamping their website and overall social media strategy. We sat down to review the column and mutually agreed it was time to bring it to a close. To mark the occasion Sherbrooke is offering up Beer 101 Graduation Certificates for any loyal readers who want one – click here to go to the registration page.

But don’t fret Beer 101 fans. My presence at Sherbrooke writing beer education articles is not over. In the coming weeks we will launch a new project from me on the website (and various other social media-like places). The focus will still be on education and I still won’t be shilling for Sherbrooke. Not sure why they agree to such a one-sided arrangement!

So for the moment savour your graduation. I look forward to sharing my new project with you soon.

Oh, I almost forgot. You all get an A+.

Beer News! Beer News Everywhere!

The iconic Molson sign is coming down, replaced by a faux “microbrewery”

Wow! I go away for a week and the whole beer world turns upside down.

Okay, not really, but I am amazed at how many comment-worthy beer stories popped up in the last few days (I will write more about my trip to the Centre of the Universe in the coming days). So, without further ado and tangent let me get to them.

Story #1: “Micro” Brewery to open in old Molson Brewery

Tucked into an Edmonton Journal story last week (read here) was the news that the old Edmonton Molson brewery, shuttered in 2005 will soon be home to a new microbrewery. Kinda. Sorta. The journalist felt the lead was the removal of the iconic Molson sign that has sat atop the brewery for decades, and the fact that “a new Molson micro-brewery” was going to re-purpose the first floor of the historic building merely mentioned a one-line, uncritical mention.

I appreciate the sign’s demise is of some note, although it sounds like it will be replaced with a replica, but the real story here is that Molson is deigning to open something it calls a “microbrewery”, aimed at “craft beers”. I have for a while grumbled that the so-called Brewery District (as the new development going up on the old Molson lands is called) doesn’t even have a brewery in it. But this isn’t what I was hoping for.

Molson hasn’t released any details on the plan and so I don’t know what kind of brewery they are putting in. My guess, however, is that it will look a lot like Batch in Toronto, which is their so-called urban”craft” brewery. Batch has a small brewhouse that makes in-house beer which are supplemented by the stable of Creemore beer (who are owned by Molson).  I wonder if the Edmonton location will be Granville rather than Creemore. I didn’t get to Batch in my recent trip but did make a visit back when it was called Beer Academy (read my post about it here) and the beer was quality stuff. So the beer is not the concern. It is their gall at calling it a microbrewery. Nothing from Molson can claim that title.

I get quite torn about the big boys opening brewpubs and small-scale breweries (such as Mill Street). But the thing i am clear about is that they are definitely not micros.

Story #2: Trade Challenge Hearing

Artisan Ales’ trade challenge through the Agreement on Internal Trade against Alberta’s beer mark-up policy went to hearing last week (read the story here). You can see the background on this challenge here. There isn’t a whole lot of new info in the story, but it does highlight that Artisan Ales, an importer who specializes in Quebec craft breweries including Dieu Du Ciel, has experienced a 40% drop in its sales since the policy change. The challenge is being supported by the right wing Canadian Constitution Foundation. The panel is expected to issue its ruling within the next two months.

This challenge is separate from the lawsuits launched by Steam Whistle and Great Western Brewing which are slated to go hearing later this month.

So stay tuned for more interesting developments on the beer mark-up lawsuit front.

Story #3: AB-Inbev Buys Part of Ratebeer

Continue reading Beer News! Beer News Everywhere!

Craft Malting Comes to Alberta

Last week I devoted my CBC column to the arrival of craft malting to Alberta. The timing seemed right as we are on the verge of a mini-explosion of small scale, more artisanal malthouses.

Many of you will know what I am talking about. For those of you who don’t, let me quickly fill you in.

Craft malting is the barley equivalent of craft beer. Small scale, more traditional approaches to malting barley to create a range of flavours and aromas. To quickly take another step back, malting is the process of preparing barley (or any grain) for beer production. It basically starts the germination process then halts it, which develops the much desired sugars yeast loves. Different approaches to kilning and roasting can create a wide range of malts that offer a myriad of flavours and aromas.

Craft brewing started to explode in the U.S. a few years ago and there are currently about 50 craft maltsters in that country. Alberta got its first craft malthouse last year – Red Shed Brewing just outside Red Deer. Those tied into the craft beer industry have known about Red Shed for months, but I think the average craft beer drinker is still yet to learn about them. Hence the column. I make a point of profiling Red Shed and the Hamill brothers to give people a sense of what their story is (listen to the column here).

But wait! There’s more!

Within the next year or so, Alberta will see another 4 craft maltsters open up.There is Hogarth Malting in Olds who will be the first in Alberta to produce floor-malted malt. Floor-malting is an older, more traditional (and more labour intensive) malting process. Then there is Origin Malting in Strathmore, Heritage Malting in Calgary and Hobo Malt in Beiseker, who all hope to open up in the next 6-18 months.

Why should we care about craft malting? I think for three reasons.

First, it is an extension of local. Red Shed uses barley from its own family farm and other barley farmers near by, meaning the malt never goes more than a couple hundred kilometres to reach your glass.Your beer becomes that much more local.

Second, it bypasses the big maltsters. Don’t get me wrong the big operators like Rahr and Canada Malting make excellent product and they are not nearly as corporatized as the beer end of the industry. Still, they make large quantities of the same malt designed for the big breweries. That is not a criticism, it is where the market is. The size difference between them and Red Shed, for example, is stunning. Red Shed can produce up to 5 tonnes per week. Rahr in nearby Alix? 3,000 tonnes per week. The scale simply is beyond fathom. Which is Red Shed’s advantage. What they lose in economics of scale, they gain in flexibility and being able to experiment. It is just a way to insert diversity into the market.

Third, it gives more room for brewers to experiment with different flavours and aromas. They can get a one-off batch of malt for a seasonal to create something that they couldn’t have made before and likely won’t again in the future. The craft brewsters are likely not going to be a substantial part of a brewery’s regular line-up, they can’t produce enough. They are ideal for one-offs, seasonals and interesting experiments, like Troubled Monk’s Golden Gaetz malt experiment (which I wrote about here).

Most consumers may never know what impact craft maltsters will have in their beer. But they should. Craft malting has great potential to contribute big things to Alberta-made beer. I look forward to it and I think you should too.

The Joy of Finding New Places

I am in Toronto this week for conferences for my day job (these days they call it “Congress”, but I much prefer the older name – “The Learneds” which were mercilessly mocked as “The Stupids” which I loved). However, even the most riveting conference requires a break, so I am trying to sneak in a bit of beer exploration while here.

Near the conference site my research found a little local pub with quality beer offerings. It is called Hair of the Dog Neighbourhood Pub. It is a cozy little place in an ivy bedecked building. It has an extensive bottle list and a well-curated tap list of mostly Ontario beer with a smattering of other Canadian craft offerings. It was a very pleasant distraction from the rigours of my conferences.

For the record I had a High Road Bronan IPA, which is decent example of a New England IPA, and Flying Monkeys Chocolate Manifesto which certainly lives up to its name.

Hair of the Dog is not the most renowned or famous place around. There are places with better selections, better atmosphere, better locations. And none of that matters.

I have been to many places like HotD, and that is the point. I love finding the local secrets that offer a real, down-t0-earth beer experience. They are all unique and offer the best they can to fit their situation. And they are, I believe, the heart of the local craft beer experience.

By contrast I have also popped into 3 Brewers (the Anglicized name of 3 Brasseurs chain) while here, and the experience was more sterile and generic. There I felt I could be in any city. I am not trying to diss what 3 Brasseurs does – they are clearly highly successful at it – instead my point is that I truly appreciate finding a place where you know EXACTLY where you are because there is no other place exactly like it in the world. Hair of the Dog fits that bill for me. And thank god for that.

There is a particular joy in finding a place that is off the beaten track. I am not saying HotD totally classifies as a hidden gem – it is in a pretty central part of Toronto – but it is a place that I wouldn’t have found if I was only looking for the well known craft beer bars in this city. I had to expand my search to find it. And I am glad I did.

Every city has a place like that. And that is the joy of experiencing craft beer.