Work found me in Fort McMurray last week (does anyone go to McMurray for reasons other than work?). In a fortuitous turn of events, the Wood Buffalo brewpub was a block away from my hotel. I had planned a visit to the pub, but had not planned being so close. I was able to pop in one evening for dinner and also a quick visit with Head Brewer Kyle Smythe.
Wood Buffalo is, of course, part of the growing Bear Hill brewpub chain (which includes Jasper, Banff Avenue and the impending Last Best in Calgary). The pub is situated in a non-descript office building on one end of the city’s main downtown street, like so many things in Fort McMurray seem to be. Inside it offers a casual, low-key atmosphere and the client base was noticeably youngish.
The beer is similar to the offerings in the other locations. There are five regular taps. Gold Digger Golden Ale is a simple blonde ale, offering a light grainy malt aroma and a fresh, sharp flavour. The Wood Buffalo Pale Ale is on the lower end of the bitterness scale for pale ales but has a really pleasant malt character. I picked up some toastiness, biscuit with a light fruitiness to accent. The hops give off a spicy note. Overtime IPA is similar; nice malt flavour as well as a floral, resiny hop aroma, with subdued bitterness levels. The Black Gold Stout accents light roast, chocolate, some coffee, and a demerara sugar sweetness. I was hoping for a bit more body and thickness in the stout, but the flavours are in the zone. The Lift Kit Lager was sold out the evening I was there, but it appears to be an all-malt pale lager.
There were also two seasonals on at the moment. The first, a raspberry wheat ale, is, as you would expect, nothing to write home about but I am told it sells well. However, the surprise for me was the Northern Light Lager. Running at 3.8%, I wasn’t expecting much from this straw-coloured lager. However, I found it has a clean honey and grassy malt profile with a nice balance between sweetness and grainy sharpness. Not much hopping, but not overly sweet. The beer had a delicate flavour with a subtle but noticeable body. I was impressed how much flavour they were able to put into a basic low-alcohol pale lager. It is a nice example of how beer doesn’t have to be big to be flavourful. Nicely done.
From my visit with Kyle, it is clear Bear Hill is a company on the go. Along with Calgary there are plans afoot for a Grande Prairie location at some point in the next couple of years. The Wood Buffalo location, as the only craft-oriented place in town, is booming much like the city around it. Bear Hill is also actively moving into craft distillation. A distiller became operational in the Fort Mac location a couple months ago – the first batch is sitting in barrels and they have plans for some beer schnapps. The Calgary location will also distill, as might Banff down the road.
The Wood Buffalo distilling operation is small, producing only 250 litres at a time. So this will be localized, boutique items. Kyle says they are not quite sure what direction they want to go with the distillation, as they are still getting used to the system and playing around with ideas.
It is interesting to me seeing the growth in this company. I remember having a beer with Brett Ireland, one of the founders, shortly after Jasper Brewing opened, just a few short years ago. Today they are beginning to rival Brewsters for the number of locations in Alberta. (They already have more breweries, as Brewsters has concentrated its brewing in two locations). I am curious where this heads over the next few years.
Before the e-ink was dry on my last news digest (found here), more beer news came rolling in, as usual. Here is the latest of which I am aware.
- Tickets for Edmonton Beer Geeks Anonymous‘ third annual Real Ale Festival go on sale on Friday April 18. This annual event has grown in popularity since its inception, which means tickets sell out quickly so pay attention to that date. As the name implies it is a festival exclusively for real ales (also known as cask ales). the even itself will be Saturday September 6 at Ritchie Hall from 1 to 10 pm. Sales of half pint and pint glasses will be affordable ($3 and $6 respectively). At the moment 11 breweries from Alberta and B.C. are slated to participate, with possibly more coming.
- Over the summer months EBGA will be hosting a series of Street Car beer events in conjunction with the Edmonton Radial Railway Society. Five events are currently organized with Alley Kat, Hog’s Head, Yukon, Ribstone Creek with one still TBA. Each brewery will bring a special cask or seasonal beer to serve. For details go to the EBGA website.
- In brewery news, on Saturday (April 19) Half Pints is releasing this year’s version of their popular annual release, Pothole Porter. This baltic porter is slightly different this year. Obviously hardy Winnipeggers will get first dibs, but I suspect some will also make its way out to Alberta.
- Saskatoon’s Paddock Wood will be releasing in the next two or three weeks the latest version of its 1000 Monkeys Russian Imperial Stout, with two barreled version to come shortly. Barrel Full of Monkeys will be bourbon barreled, but they also have also put some in rum barrels, which will be called Monkeys of the Caribbean (get it?). Rumour also has it that a Black Rye IPA and a traditional German Roggenbier might be on the horizon.
- Village Brewing has announced the re-start of growler sales (after a recall of defective bottles a few weeks ago) with a special charity fundraising campaign. 5000 new growlers have been produced and each new owner of a growler is encouraged to go to their Growlers For Good website where they can donate $1 to one of Calgary’s theatre companies.
- Finally Ribstone Creek has designed a new label for their Rangeland Pale Ale. This is part of their gradual progression to expanding their line-up. Rangeland, along with Lone Bison IPA and Firepit Wit, will soon be available in canned six-packs. No timeline as yet, but that is the medium range plan.
We SHOULD get a bit of a pause on new releases until we get closer to summer, but you never know, do ya? Keeps giving me something to do on this website, anyway.
I have been talking a lot about New Belgium Brewing since it recently arrived in Alberta. A few weeks ago I did my CBC column on it (sorry, no tape or link), and last week a Vue column was published (found here).
There are two reasons why I have been so bullish on New Belgium, as I admitted in my columns. The first reason is that the beer is very good. I remember first trying Fat Tire Amber Ale in San Francisco while attending the Craft Brewers’ Conference. It surprised me with how flavourful it could be while still staying moderate, drinkable and accessible. Fat Tire is not a blow-you-away beer. It is a -wow-that-is-surprisingly-good beer. I have also had the Ranger IPA which is a quality IPA. I have not had others, but the reputation of them is quite strong.
But there are lots of breweries that produce good beer. What particularly draws me to New Belgium is the other stuff. Maybe it is because of my political predispositions but their environmental efforts impress the hell out of me. Solar, energy efficiency, water capture which leads into co-generation. There is no shortage of the things that they are doing to make brewing sustainable. Plus they are one of North America’s largest employee-owned companies.
The environmental commitment and alternative ownership structure may or may not be significant to you. But none of us can deny that finding a way to make brewing more environmnentally sustainable is a good thing, plus it helps lower the costs of production over the long term.
The combination, plus that it hit Alberta in a big way in recent weeks, blanketing the province very quickly, makes it a fascinating story. For the most part I will let the column speak for itself, but I want to add that it is rare to find such a combination of community-mindedness, environmental consciousness with an equal commitment to good beer. New Belgium is commendable for that reason alone.
Feel free to feel they are over-rated, that they are too hop for their own good. All fair. All I know is that I can find little to criticize. Their price in Alberta is not great – $19 for a six-pack is too much – but we likely need to blame broader institutions and policies for that.
At any rate, buy a six pack, think about how they are transforming craft beer and enjoy the flavour. Not a bad pint, eh?
My homebrew system in its old location
I normally don’t write much about my homebrewing. I have been a proud homebrewer for almost 23 years, but I want this to be a broadly accessible site of interest to many types of beer appreciators. As much as I love homebrewing I am well aware a small percentage of people ever do it. That is why I don’t bore you with stories about my stuck mashes (okay, I actually never have those), sluggish yeast issues (that does happen to me from time to time), ingredient woes and so on. I realize they are only interesting to a minority of my readers.
However, I feel compelled to tell you a story of my last week of trying to homebrew. I think the story itself, regardless of technical issues, will have a broad appeal. The beginning section is a bit geeky, but if you persevere much human drama occurs.
I start by noting that I brew on a propane-powered system either in my unheated garage (with the large door open for safety reasons) or on my driveway when the weather is nice. I have a pretty nice system – three tier, pump driven, with flexible volume capacity (anywhere from 10l to 40l works great, with calculation adjustments). It is portable, so it stores nicely up against my garage wall and can easily be wheeled into place. The only downsides are the requirement of an outside water source (my garden hose) and the propane, which is an inefficient, finicky gas.
In all, this means I don’t brew in the winter. Most years I can sneak a brew session in late November or early December when the thermometer peaks just above zero (that is all I need – enough to make the water flow), and then start up again sometime in March, usually later in the month.
This year, not so much. Winter hit hard in mid November, with tons of snow and the mercury never again got anywhere near zero. Scrub the late season lager plan (a pilsner was on the schedule). Then March was a nightmare. After a short teasing early in the month, for which I was not ready, we got another solid wallop that stretched through to just over a week ago. So much for my March plans.
So you can appreciate I was in a bit of an impatient state. Virtually all of my stocks were depleted. I was antsy. Brew days are therapeutic for me. I need one every few weeks to relax me, take me away from life’s stresses, and give me for one day a singular focus. For many years my five to six hours of brewing have been highly valued moments, for the process as much as the end product.
But last week it finally seemed like the clouds had cleared. The weather forecast was good. My schedule was clear. Saturday April 5 was going to be my inaugural 2014 brew session. I decided on one of my favourite recipes, a Steam Beer (the one that a few years ago became Taste 25 for the Taste of Edmonton Festival). I procured the missing ingredients from Edmonton’s best homebrewing store, Lendrum Winning Wines Plus, finessed the recipe and water chemistry and awaited the day. I smacked the yeast pack on Friday morning (it was fresh) and later that day ground the grain (I sometimes grind the day before just to minimize brew day distractions). I even brought the garden house inside to prevent it freezing overnight (I have that most unfortunate experience in the past).
All that was left before going to bed was to prepare my step-up, which is a larger volume of starter to which to add the yeast pack to build up the total number of cells ready to ferment. For ales, or in this case a lager brewed at ale temperatures, I go with a 2-litre starter pitched at high krausen if possible. (Don’t worry, the technical stuff is basically over.)
I get everything ready, add the yeast to the growlerI dedicate to yeast propagation which is full of wort and put the airlock on. All is good. I decide to move it to a more out of the way spot on the counter. As I set it back down on the counter a sudden and very unexpected gusher of liquid starts up on the side of the growler, near the bottom. I am stunned for a few seconds, unable to comprehend the disaster unfolding before me. In a raging torrent all the liquid in the bottle explodes out onto my kitchen floor, over the cupboards and me. Within a couple of seconds, before I can even react, my entire starter is lying on my kitchen floor.
My brew day flashes before my eyes. I can’t believe it! In the depths of shock and despondency I think I will never brew again, the beer gods have turned against me.
As my head cleared, I figured out the growler had an undetected hairline fracture, that with the slight liquid pressure finally gave way. Understandable but hardly appropriate solace.
In the middle of the night I wake with the faint hope that Continue reading What We Do for the Joy of Homebrewing
I took some time last night to give Alley Kat’s latest release (just discussed in the latest news digest), Bearded Dragon Imperial Red IPA. Of course, the first thing I and many people note is that they have the gumption to call it a Red IPA. Well, we all know that isn’t officially a style, but in a world of White IPAs, Black IPAs and ISAs, calling a beer a red IPA doesn’t seem so sinister.
I will go officially on the record that I am not particularly fond of how brewers are naming their style-shifting IPA hybrids and experiments. I think a little more creativity is in order. I prefer Cascadian IPA over Black IPA, for example because it at least shows some acknowledgement of (debated) regional origins. White IPA is okay with me, just because it is a Witbier hybrid. Red IPA? Well, it is descriptive but not particularly inspiring.
My naming qualms aside, I actually like the morphing of IPAs by tring different approaches. In particular I like the versions that help create balance. Too often these days I find IPAs to be all about the hops and the poor old malt base sits lonely, unwanted in the corner. It wasn’t ever thus, but even craft brewers brew what the people demand. And there are a lot more hopheads these days than 15 years ago. It is possible I am simply experience lupulin fatigue in my quest for something a bit more balanced.
But I have wandered significantly astray from this post’s original intent – a review of Bearded Dragon.
It, indeed, is red. A deep ruby red. Allow me to clarify: this beer is a gorgeous soft red. Not amber. Not brown with red tinges. It is EXACTLY what I hope to see in a red beer. Add to that a large, rocky medium tan head with large bubble highlightes and a fair bit of lacing and you get one beautiful looking beer. The thing is truly a sight in my opinion.
The aroma is quieter than I expected. I get a moderate citrusy hop and a pleasant toffee, nutty malt. It has all the elements I want, just not quite as strongly as I might hope.
Initial tasting notes are soft, creamy toffee with a nutty edge. The malt bill is solid base for this beer – substantial without being cloying. The middle sharpens notably as some pine and citrus change the direction of the beer. The hops has a resin character to it. The finish is a blend of moderate creamy malt and a citrusy, resiny hop. The hop linger builds through the glass, turning more distinctly C-hop as the volume drops.
I should note this is quite quaffable for 8%; the alcohol is well hidden. The malt is king in this beer for me. It is multidimensional but not overdone. I contemplate that the risk in trying to get that amazing colour would be to overdo the malt bill. But it remains nicely restrained.The hop flavour is quite appealing and I like how it builds through the glass.
I suspect that this beer will not diminish the debates about whether Alley Kat’s Dragon Series are bitter enough. Many would argue this beer needs to present with more bitter. I am not sure I agree. If you are going to create a Red IPA (to go with that moniker for the moment), you are telling the world you are trying to create a beer that has a bit more balance than a regular IPA. The malt should play a co-starring role, meaning the hops has to reduce its screen time a bit to give room.
I think Alley Kat’s approach to bitterness perception is well suited for this kind of beer. Pressent but not hogging the spotlight. Just as it should be in a so-called red IPA.
Now we just need a better style name for it.
Only two breweries involved in this edition of the news round-up, but they both make up for it in sheer volume of announcements.
Alley Kat last week released a hybrid Big Bottle/Dragon Series beer. Bearded Dragon is an Imperial Red IPA, so they figured it fit the bill for both series. It is not single hopped, but is hop accented. This week is the official release of their new gluten-reduced Scona Gold. As I mentioned earlier they use an enzyme process to break down residual glutens. They cannot guarantee 100% gluten-free, but the level of gluten is miniscule. So those with gluten intolerance will need to evaluate the degree of their sensitivity before purchasing.
But, wait there’s more! I have learned that May 1 will be the release of the next official Big Bottle beer, the return of Loaded Goat Maibock, which was one of the first Big Bottle beer a couple years back. Finally, June 5 is the slated release date for Rainbow Dragon in the Dragon Series. Deviated from the usual single-hop format, this Dragon uses Chinook, Cascade, Centennial, Simcoe and Columbus. I suspect there will be a little bit of citrus going on in there.
Heading down highway 2, Big Rock also has a busy few weeks ahead. First, on Friday the latest Alchemist Edition will be released, Freyja’s Field. Interestingly it is a braggot, a blend of beer and mead, which will be a first for the longstanding brewery. More interestingly Frejya’s Field is named after the Norse goddess of sex, beauty and fertility. My kind of God! Except she is also the goddess for war and death, which makes her a bit bi-polar.
Later this month, Big Rock launches a brand new series (to go along with Alchemist and Brewmaster’s Edition). Bomber Series, obviously named for the 650-ml bottle it sells in, will start with Dead Reckoning Royal IPA. It is purported to be 7.5% and about 73 IBUs, hopped with Golding, Challenger and Progress. That tells me to expect a British interpretation.
And finally in more business-y news, three of Big Rock’s regular beer – Grasshopper, Traditional and Warthog – will now also be available in 473-ml single cans. I find we are seeing more and more of that format in craft beer. Not a bad option, all told – a full U.S. pint and you can buy just one or two cans instead of committing to a dozen.
More news as it comes my way.
This is one of those rare moments when I actually don’t know what to think. India Session Ales (ISA), or Light IPAs. They are a thing now. A growing number of craft breweries in North America have been brewing up these oddly categorized beer. Phillip’s, Central City, Nelson and Spinnakers are Canadian breweries with one of which I am aware.
The idea is a hop forward bitter beer with lower alcohol content, usually under 5%. IBUs run in the 40s and dry-hopping is essential to bring out hop flavour and aroma. All on top of a light ale base.
I have no issues with the beer itself. I find them to be interesting beer, for the most part. The lighter base really allows the full character of the hops to come out. My question is with the name: India Session Ale. I understand what they are getting at – making clear this is a beer that is related to IPA. But is it?
I think I have two issues (maybe three) with the name. First, higher alcohol is a traditional aspect of the IPA style, arising out of its history. Lowering the alcohol, one might suggest, moves it into another style range. Second, the malt bill for these beer seem too timid to relate to IPA as well. While IPAs are hop-focused, the malt bill is also important, providing biscuit, sometimes toffee or toasty notes. The ISAs I have tasted do not have that characteristic.
Now let me immediately shoot down my concerns. First, England has been offering lower alcohol IPAs for generations. I also admit the boundary between pale ale and IPA historically was fuzzier than what we acknowledge today. Second, many American-style IPAs offer very little malt flavour, opting for a clean, crisp base.
You can see my dilemma. I don’t want to be a style nazi by insisting on tight, rigid rules for styles. Yet, I find there has to be some kind of intuitive logic behind the naming of a beer. For example, White IPA makes perfect sense to me. It perfectly describes what the beer is – a hoppy interpretation of a Witbier. Even the much-maligned moniker Black IPA, while not my preference, makes some sense. Does India Session Ale or Light IPA? I am not sure.
Often a wise strategy when uncertain is to let one’s tastebuds make the decision. You know what comes up for me when I drink a so-called ISA? My mouth tells me I am drinking a hoppy blonde ale. The base beer reminds me totally of blonde ale – soft, light and fruity. My tastebuds don’t jump to IPA simply because they pick up a high level of bitterness and hop flavour. Maybe your tastebuds do, and that would be fair.
I think that position is bolstered by the longtime presence of BrewDog’s Trashy Blonde. Not my favourite blonde ale, but there is no denying it has a hop kick to it. I suspect there are other breweries who through more than a small share of hops into their blonde ale. What is the difference between that and an ISA? I am hard-pressed to find one.
In a way this is a silly argument. What we have is a style-bending type of beer – a sessionable yet still hoppy ale. That is a good thing. I guess we still need to keep our eye on stylistic integrity. If we throw proverbial rocks at AB-Inbev for calling Keith’s an IPA, we need to be careful that we are not breaking any of our craft beer glass panes while we are at it.
ISAs may or may not be a valid name for hoppy blonde ales. I am not sure. I think I should go drink one and ponder it a while more.
Yesterday the Ontario government announced a pilot project to allow liquor to be sold in grocery stores (here is a CBC story on it). Well, sort of. The actual plan is to open 10 LCBO “kiosks” inside select grocery stores. The 2,000 square foot mini-stores will operate separately from the grocery store, purchases will be paid at the kiosk directly, staffed by LCBO staff, and operate regular LCBO hours (usually 10 to 8 or 9) not the grocery store hours.
How exactly is this different than the existing stores adjacent to grocery stores? Well, humble reader, the kiosk will be INSIDE the store, amid the bananas, toilet paper and ice cream, of course., and not simply along the outside wall or joined by a doorway.
I forgive people for yawning at this point.
However, bear with me a moment or two. This decision follows B.C.’s recent, yet still unimplemented, decision to allow grocery liquor sales (see post here), and random musings by a couple of Conservative cabinet ministers in Alberta (post here). It is a further sign that politicians are feeling some pressure and/or space to consider what long was a verboten concept outside Quebec. I increasingly believe that over the next few years alcohol will slowly move into grocery shelves in one fashion or another.
I doubt a Quebec-esque free-for-all or U.S.-style system will be the model. Province’s liquor commissions are powerful entities and unlikely to cede control (and revenue) from liquor sales to grocery chains. Even in Alberta, where retail is already private, an entrenched industry of liquor stores has a vested interest in keeping liquor separate from grocery.
I have said before I hardly see grocery store sales as a panacea for craft beer. The economic logic suggests, just like in liquor stores, the bulk of shelf space will go to corporate beer. However, I can see the argument that liquor in grocery stores is a sign of a mature society. Plus the convenience is obvious.
It is not a hill I am prepared to die on. I am more concerned with creating rules and market space for quality craft beer, which is a much slower process and one that requires intelligent government policy-making. Beer in grocery stores is, for the most part, a populist, easy victory for politicians staring down the barrel of an imminent election.
It won’t be the end of moral society as we know it, but neither will it beckon a new era of enlightenment. It simply shifts around who gets the profits from the sales. However, I promise to keep my eye on what is now officially a trend.
Honesty in Advertising
My most recent column in Planet S/Prairie Dog is sparking some controversy in the flat province (you can read it here). A while back my editors asked if I might do a piece on cheap beer (what the producers of those brands call “the value segment”). I hummed and hawed for a while since as a beer guy, I don’t spend a whole lot of time dealing in the discount end of the market. But they persisted and I finally relented.
As this is an article for two Saskatchewan papers, I focused on what was available in that province (which means Drummond and others who would otherwise deserve mention were omitted). I defined cheap beer as selling for less than $2 per bottle. The main macro brands run between $2.10 and $2.50 a bottle in Saskatchewan, so I wanted to capture brands that were intentionally aiming for the price conscious consumer.
I worked hard to make it clear I was not endorsing these beer, arguing that to get the price point down inevitably requires compromises on ingredients and process. However, not all cheap beer are created equal, and so I tried to point readers to some better examples of brands available.
Figuring high on that list is Great Western Brewing. Excluding their Original 16 series which is legitimately more craft-y, they generally play around in the value segment, as they own a large brewhouse and need to move quite a bit of beer to keep it economical. I also toss in Molson’s Old Style Pilsner, despite the misnomer style name, as I have always felt it is a step up from some of the other discount options out there. I also make the decision to scare people off Minhas products. For readers of this site it is no mystery that I am not favourably inclined to Minhas due to their marketing practices and low beer quality.
It appears this may have been a column that pleased no one. I have gotten some WTF comments from craft beer fans in province, while Minhas is none too pleased with me either. My editor says that Great Western wants to talk to me, as well. I am not sure why but my editor ominously suggests people don’t call when they are pleased. We are currently playing email tag.
Rather than scurry away and let the column fade from memory I am choosing to re-post it here. All I will say in my defense is that the so-called value segment is a valid and sizable portion of the beer market. Sure, it may not be beer for the experienced beer aficionado, but the world does not revolve around beer geeks. I figure if I can point beer consumers to locally made, relatively better quality beer than I am doing the beer world a favour. The men and women in this segment are very price aware. They simply won’t buy a beer that is three or four dollars a bottle. It is an exercise of meeting your audience from where they are, rather than where you prefer them to be.
Plus, in the coming months I am planning a couple of columns focusing on “transition beer”, beer that can take the value segment (or pale lager) drinker, when they are ready, from Old Style Pils or Canadian or Rickard’s Red to something more fully craft. That seems the next natural step.
For now I will take my lumps and drop any expectations of getting a Christmas card from Minhas this year.
The Village Brewery sans Monster Bottling Line
As part of my recent visit to Calgary, I made some time to finally swing by Village Brewing. It was my first opportunity to see the young Calgary upstart. I had arranged to meet with co-owner Jim Button, and he suggested I come by on the Wednesday. Well what I thought was going to be a standard interview/tour/visit turned out to be something quite different. Turns out Jim had invited me to come to what they call Hump Day Social (HDS). This is a twice-monthly event where people with ideas and initiatives can come and talk to Village about how to collaborate, or mutually assist one another.
Consider HDS as a kind of incubator for the creative communities in Calgary. The day I was there a couple of women had brought some kombucha (in borrowed Village growlers) and were experimenting with blending it with Village beer. (Kombucha is a strange tea made with a particular culture of bacteria and yeast that is touted for its health benefits.) Others included a local photographer, some musicians and a group of aspiring nano-brewers. Village provides a space to talk, share ideas and brainstorm about how to get ideas off the ground through collaboration. All over beer, of course. It is not a public event per se, although the process for getting invited remains a bit fuzzy to me. Maybe Jim just invites people over like he did with me.
I will admit I came away impressed with that initiative. Village’s marketing has always been heavy on a sense of community (heck, it is their name, after all), but this was a real-time experience of how they actually try to walk the walk. It turned out to be better than the standard interview-tour. Although the brewmaster did tour me around the brewery and I got a chance to talk with Jim and a couple of the other owners about the brewery and how things are going. They are expanding quickly and report they are on target with their business plan (I didn’t see the plan, so have to take their word on that one).
Button reports that they remain committed to a Calgary-only policy, feeling they have lots of room to grow in that city and don’t want to lose that local feel. Plus this way they can avoid the pitfalls of Connect Logistics by self-distributing. Of course some leakage is occurring; they agreed to send kegs up to Edmonton for Craft Beer Market and I recently saw a Village tap handle in Medicine Hat.