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Juxtaposing Bitter and Sour

fourwindsjuxtapose2Four Winds Brewing is one of the new breed of B.C. craft breweries that have been taking the province by storm over the past couple years. Four Winds opened in Delta in mid-2013 and in less than two years has already developed a reputation for producing high quality, boundary-pushing ales.

In my latest package from my B.C. beer pen-pal included a bottle of Four Winds Juxtapose Brett IPA, part of their Zephyrus Series (named after the Greek God of the west wind). The trick in the beer is an addition of Brettanomyces in the finishing stages to create an extra layer.

A few weeks ago I opened it up to give it a try (it has taken me a while to turn my notes into prose). It presents light gold with an effervescent, loose white head that reminds me of a snowy mountain top. Decent clarity. The aroma is the first sense this is no ordinary IPA. I get a light malt with a bit of biscuit. This is met quickly by a funky, earthy mustiness and a slightly sharp pine hop aroma.

The flavour starts with a dry, grainy malt along with touches of a citrusy, piney hop flavour. After that comes a complete overlay of musty, pungent earthiness. While I also get some light fruit and grainy pilsner malt, these are all background notes. What really comes through is a tension between bright hop bitterness and rustic barnyard. They dance right through to the end. The linger has a sharp pine, citrus note and a dank mustiness.

This beer has a fascinating flavour mix, true to the name. I kept my attention through the glass as there are many layers and I kept trying to work out that juxtaposition. Clearly not a daily quaff, but a praisse-worthy experiment. Looking forward to more opportunities to try Four Winds.

Six Corners Coming Soon to a Corner Near You

SixCorners_full_320x320Luke Wooldridge knows the brewing end of beer. The former Paddock Wood head brewer, who holds a Masters in Brewing and Distilling from Harriet Watt University in Edinburgh, can work his way around a brew kettle. The marketing and retail side of the business are a bit new to him, though.

“My experience is in the production side. Sales is a new experience for me,” he admits during a phone interview when I relay my surprise to find his Six Corners Brew Works beer on the Sherbrooke Liquor Store shelf last week. Wooldridge acknowledges he has been so busy planning the brewery that he has not focused enough yet on getting the word out.

Wooldridge is so busy because his dreamed-of brewery does not exist yet. He has long wanted to open a brewery in Okotoks, a town about 30 minutes south of Calgary. He grew up near Okotoks and still has deep family roots in the area. For now, he plans to “chase contract brewing capacity here and there” to get some beer on the shelf. “I turned to contract brewing to get the ball rolling so I was not starting at ground zero when the brewery opened”, he explains.

Wooldridge’s experience tells him being a gypsy brewer is not conducive to consistency. “Developing a consistent brand and moving from brewery to brewery will be difficult. The beer will be different when you move anyway, so I decided why bother.” Instead, until the brewery is built, he plans on releasing one-off beer under the brand name to get consumer’s palates wet. “Isn’t one of the exciting things about being a brewer is making different beer?”

The first contract release, brewed by Wooldridge at the new brewhouse in Original Joe’s in Saskatoon (“I traded expertise and advice for some time on the system”) is Trailhead IPA. He describes it as a single hop beer using a new, experimental variety from SS Steiner. It is so new it doesn’t yet have name, going only by #07270. “I wanted to make a beer I was excited about, and thought a single hop IPA would be an interesting first release,” he says. “It is heavily dry hopped, and a lot of late hop additions. The malt bill is simple, some caramunich, malted rye”. The next one-off will likely be a Saison, he predicts.

The brewery is likely “a year or two away”, Wooldridge notes because of the hurdles he still has to clear. “Okotoks is a water sensitive town. They have to decide they have enough water for you to get started”. Wooldridge is confident municipal approval is about to be granted, and then it will be on to constructing the brewery, AGLC requirements and moving forward.

While he is still exploring options, Wooldridge expects when the brewery (which he anticipates will be in the 20 to 30 hectolitre capacity range) is fully functional it will produce a range of styles with a leaning toward Continue reading Six Corners Coming Soon to a Corner Near You

Old World, New World

beer101logoI hosted a beer tasting a couple months back where one of the beer was Fuller’s IPA. I find it is a quality English-style IPA. We can debate where it ranks in the style, but I think there is no question it is flavourful, well-made and accurately reflects the style profile.

I overheard a table of men trashing their samples of it. Curious, I wandered over to inquire. As it turns out all were big fans of IPA and through questioning I discovered their only experience of the style was big, citrusy, American-style IPAs. For them, the Fuller’s was embarrassingly not bitter, not recognizing that it actually achieved what it aimed to be.

It got me thinking. I have noticed an uptick lately in the dismissing of traditional European styles. Not just Engligh IPAs, but German Helles, Scottish Ales, Northern Brown Ales and other long-standing styles. Thinking led to writing, which resulted in a Beer 101 column published last week (you can read it here). It is the first Beer 101 of the new year due to some technical glitches over at the website.

In the piece I suggest that North Americans have become a little too enamoured with big and bold. Breweries feel the pressure to constantly push boundaries, to create a more intense version of this or a barrel-aged batch of that. I think in all the rush to bigger and crazier, some people lose sight of the joys of more traditional, old world styles.

By no means do I mean everyone. Most of the beer aficionados I know are thoughtful, varied in their preferences and respectful of old world approaches. But the craft beer world is growing and there is now a sizable number of beer drinkers who appreciate quality craft beer but are not as steeped in the histories of beer. There is no question in my mind I have been observing more dismissiveness than before.

I actually think it is a trend that is much broader than beer. Allow me to quote from the Beer 101 column directly:

The culprit, I believe, is our North American fascination with big. It is not just beer. Everything on the continent is getting bigger or more extreme. Hamburgers. Houses. Cars. Sex and violence in movies. Even our politics are becoming less moderate as market fundamentalism takes hold. We have become enamoured with everything big and boundary pushing. Anything less is settling.

Maybe that puts me in the camp of old fogeys, and so be it. But there is value in the old school approach to restrained flavour and balance.

Personally I intend to double up my efforts to educate Canadian beer drinkers about the wide diversity of flavours possible – both to get timid drinkers to open up to something more bold and to urge lupulin-heads to consider the beauty of a quiet English Brown Ale.

Are you in?

March Beer Madness

yukonrapscallianIt has been a while since I did up a news update, in part because it has actually been a bit quieter on the prairie front in the past few weeks. I am certain that is all about to change, however, as spring seasonals start to get unveiled, meaning this will likely be out-of-date hours after I post it.

I am also hot on the trail of an ever-growing number of rumours around new brewery start-ups around the prairies. So, if anyone has any leads of a brewery I haven’t mentioned in any of my recent profiles, let me know.

Now, with the usual caveats (no particular order, anything missing is because I didn’t hear about it, etc.), here is the latest news:

  • Currently in planning stages, Two Sargeants Brewing (I did a profile of them here) have announced a short-term arrangement to contract their flagship Bangalore Torpedo IPA at Tool Shed in Calgary. This will permit them to have beer available for the upcoming Craft Beer Festivals in Edmonton and Calgary later in the spring and to allow for some initial profile while they complete construction of the brewery.
  • Speaking of Tool Shed, both the brewery and tasting room are now open in northeast Calgary (801 30 St NE). The tasting room is Alberta’s first full-service location, meaning they can serve full pints of their beer. It  also means the beer you find on shelves and on tap around the province are now made in Calgary and the contract arrangement with Dead Frog has reached its end.
  • Big Rock has announced that last year’s one-time release, Fowl Mouth ESB, has been added to their year-round Signature Series.
  • Sticking around Calgary, Wildrose Brewery’s latest seasonal will be Switch Hitter India Pale Lager. It will be released on April 9.
  • Yukon Brewing currently has two new beer on Alberta shelves, both part of their ongoing Bomber Series. First is the return of Yer Gallus (Gaelic for “your’re cheeky), their Scottish Export Ale which was first brewed back in 2012. They also have out a Roggenbock called Rapscallion’s Cousine. It is brewed like a weizenbock, but with rye rather than wheat. A third, tap-only release is also floating around selected locations. Buffalo Stance Robust Porter is as the name implies and, like the buffalo, is scarce. So when you spot one, snatch it up (the beer, not the buffalo – the latter would be unwise).
  • Alley Kat will soon announce it next two seasonal releases. Next up in the Dragon Series is Argyle Dragon – a sister of last year’s Plaid Dragon. No word yet on the hops being used. Also slated for the summer is a keg-only release of Cloudy With a Chance of Lemon Hefeweizen. The decision to go with a tap-only offering is interesting
  • The first contracted brews from Wildcraft Brewery in Lethbridge have hit the market. The beer is currently brewed at Big Surf in Kelowna while they construct their brewery/restaurant. There are three beer available at the moment: Wild Pilsner, Wild Amber and Wild Hops.
  • Jumping over to Winnipeg, as usual Half Pints has a few things on the go. Particularly noteworthy is the return of the always popular Pothole Porter in late March. Also currently pouring on their brewery growler station is Chris’ As Yet UnNamed Wheat. Finally, in a rather cryptic message, Half Pints Dave says that another upcoming release is “Our Most Requested Retired Beer Makes a Comeback- Yep, it’s coming. Still not gonna tell you what it is tho. :P All will be revealed sometime in April-ish”. Let the guessing games begin now!

That’s what I got for the moment. As you all know, more news as events warrant.

Hop Aboard Trolley Five

trolleyfive_artistrendition1Calgary’s famous (infamous??) Red Mile is about to get a makeover. The site of the old Melrose Cafe and Bar, a longtime Calgary mainstay, is being demolished and will be replaced by Trolley Five Brew Company (no website yet), a project of two long-time Calgary restauranteurs. Ernie Tsu (former owner of 1410 World Bier House and Classic Jacks), and PJ L’Heureux (President of CRAFT Beer Market) have teamed up to build Calgary’s latest beer location. I had a chance to speak with Tsu last week about the brewery/restaurant and its plans.

“We want to bring the brewpub culture to Calgary”, says Tsu. “Our location is one of the most iconic in the city. We want to create a community feeling in the space. Family oriented. We want to emulate what we see in cities like Portland”, where quality beer meshes with a family-friendly environment.

Tsu mentions brewpubs but his vision is much grander than that. They are installing a 15-hl brewhouse (with 4 double-sized fermenters and 5 or 6 conditioning tanks) and envision selling their beer across the province. “Our goal is to be all over Alberta”. That said, they plan on taking it slow, starting with the restaurant and building out. “It will be a baby step process. Need to make sure can keep up with volume inside the pub,” notes Tsu. And there will be a lot of volume to meet at the pub, as they are planning a four-story, 15,000 square foot restaurant, with the brewery on site.

Community is a key priority for the new enterprise. The name is designed to reflect the history of the Beltline neighbourhood where the pub will reside. Trolley Five was the line that ran through the historic neighbourhood.

While Tsu is a restauranteur, he has a long connection with beer. “My lifelong passion has been to brew beer,” he says, adding that they are hiring a professional brewmaster for the brewery.  His restaurant chain was “the first one in western Canada, along with Sugar Bowl and Buzzards, to really push Belgian beer”. In preparation for the brewery, Tsu says that he has “toured 180 breweries around world. I have interviewed every beer master, and made beer with 70% of them.”

The exact beer line up is still a work in progress but Tsu suggests a West Coast-style Pale Ale , an IPA, a White IPA, and a Nut Brown Ale will be part of the offerings. “We will have six regular offerings and two seasonals on at any time,” Tsu says. “Plus guest taps. We will offer gold medal standard beer. Craft beer that won awards. The best North American craft and my favourite Belgians.” They will have room for up to 30 taps, but will start smaller to gauge interest and market desire.

“Our goal with our beer is to be Continue reading Hop Aboard Trolley Five

Building a Legacy, One Beer at a Time

9mile logo croppedWhen it opens in a few weeks, Saskatoon’s 9 Mile Legacy Brewing Company will easily win the title of smallest brewery on the prairies. With their 150-litre brewhouse (when maxed out) they truly can call themselves a nano-brewery in every sense of the word.

And that is exactly how partners Shawn Moen and Garrett Pederson want it, at least for now. The duo have been homebrewing for almost a decade and last year decided to make the jump. But they wanted to do it their way. “We wanted to avoid the capital cost upfront,” says Moen. “We wanted to keep control of our business and capitalize ourselves”. So, they opted to start small, very small, and build reputation and a customer base they can leverage in a couple of years to a bigger set-up.

They have moved into a business incubator space across from the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market and hope to attract both market attendees and the after-work crowd looking for a growler on the way home. “We want them to come taste some beer, buy a growler, maybe a bunch of merch and start to get to know us” says Moen.

That the two men are opening a brewery almost seems like destiny. The idea was born during their first day homebrewing together. “When you get into something you don’t know what you are doing. We did our first batch in the winter. We brought a kit up to boil and then left it outside to cool. It took eight hours to be ready to pitch. So we drank beer and played X-Box while we waited,” Moen remembers. Their dream of starting a brewery was born then. And, like most homebrewers they talked about it for years with out really taking any steps to make it a reality. “Finally Garrett’s wife said either do something about or stop talking about it. So we did something.”

Eighteen months ago the two quit their jobs and started travelling to learn the craft, working at breweries around the world, including B.C., New Zealand and the U.S. They attended the Seibel Institute in Chicago. They came back to Saskatoon a few months ago and started seriously putting the brewery together.

There is another reason the brewery may be destiny. In their travels, the Moen and Pederson realized their families have a joint history going back over 100 years. “We realized our partnership had been happening a lot longer. We have a 100 year history. Our families’ farms were nine miles apart”, near Swift Current. “Our families always found a way to work together,” says Moen, listing off great-grandparents and grandparents who helped each other with the challenges of tilling the prairie soil. “We stumbled into our history but it is who we are”.

It is the reason for the name – 9 Mile Legacy – and for the design of the brewery space. “The space has reverence of those who came before. The bar is an original commission made from my mom’s barn wood”, and there are many other features that honour the two men’s family and agrarian history.

But the central question for every new brewery is “what about the beer?” For now it is about establishing some initial anchors and having fun with experiments. “Our goal is to create a high quality varietal experience. We have a number of recipes we are confident in, that are dialed in. Will eventually create flagship style, but for now are playing it by ear.”

Their plan is to have four beer on tap at any one time. Initial thinking is that an Continue reading Building a Legacy, One Beer at a Time

This Banquet is More of a Wieners and Beans Thing

coorsbanquetI wasn’t going to write about it. Honestly I wasn’t. I told myself that there was no point in reviewing Coors Banquet; that I was only giving it more profile.

But then I heard all of those damned ads extolling its long history back to 1873, that it was an original Adolph Coors recipe and how amazingly full-flavoured it is. Really, it was the history claims that broke me. The amateur social historian in me simply cannot brook such open-faced falsities. There is NO way the Banquet beer being hocked as a domestic premium lager these days is the same made by Adolph Coors back in the 1800s. Not a chance!

So I sucked it up and bought a case. The results can be read in my latest Vue Weekly column (which you can read here). The beer looks like a pale lager, is surprisingly low in carbonation, has a honey, corn-sugar sweetness to it and seems like hops were only waved over the boil kettle.

It is what I expected. It is fairly clean and unassuming. There is nothing particularly wrong with the beer; it is just that there is nothing particularly worth noting in the beer either. In the review I sum it up as being like “watered-down Kokanee”, which is saying something.

Of course I knew better. I shouldn’t have bothered. But those damned ads!!

And now, of course, I have the problem of what to do with the rest of the case?



Labatt-ABInbev Trying to Have it Both Ways?

Labatt wants you to think they have nothing to do with this beer.

Labatt wants you to think they have nothing to do with this beer.

When ABInbev aired its Bud Superbowl commercial extolling the virtues of boring, pale lager with its caricatures of moustachioed hipsters sniffing goblets of “pumpkin peach ale”  I chose to give a pass on commenting (I refuse to embed the video on my site but if you haven’t seen it, search for it on Youtube).

Why? Partly I felt there were lots of others making useful and valid critiques of the video, such as that ABInbev actually BREWS a pumpkin peach ale via one of its recently acquired craft breweries. But mostly I let it slide because I didn’t agree with most of the reaction to the ad. People complaining about the insulting representation of craft beer fans, I think, were over-reacting and made us sound defensive and insecure.

Craft brewers have taken dead aim at the big boys for years, regularly mocking their products and their overdone marketing. Sure, I haven’t ever seen a craft beer ad that made fun of macro lager consumers, but I think we can see that it is a fine line sometimes.

However, earlier this week when my attention was drawn to a post on Ontario-based Ben’s Beer Blog, I changed my mind. Ben (as you can read here) offers up a glimpse into the inner world of Labatt/ABInbev Canada. In short, Ben got his hands on an internal ABInbev Canada document indicating plans to grow the faux-craft Shock Top brand 40% in Canada in 2015, and to do so by masquerading it as an independent craft beer. The post is from last fall, so it isn’t exactly news, but I hadn’t read it until this week, which actually is a good thing since we can now interpret the document with the awareness of the Superbowl ad.

The most egregious aspect of the document, in my opinion, is the recognition that 75% of consumers believe Shock Top is made by a small brewer and the company’s conscious attempt to design marketing to entrench that misinformation by maintaining it “is from a small brewer”.  It is also noteworthy that there is a direct admission that small, locally-anchored craft brewers are giving the big boys headaches.

I need not repeat what Ben says in his post. Instead I want to contrast the two approaches. To one segment of the market, ABInbev wants to drive a rift between craft aficionados and “real beer drinkers”, a transparent attempt to stem the bleeding. They are happy to mislead their core segment about “who” craft beer drinkers are to create a negative attitude. On the other hand it wants to appeal those very aficionados (or at least the craft curious) by misleading them about Shock Top’s origins and placement in the market.

Good corporate strategy? Definitely. Clever marketing? Maybe. Acting with honesty and integrity? Not a hope.

More importantly, will it work? Likely in the short term. We will see Shock Top sales increase this year, and Bud will continue its reign at or near the top of the sales figures. But it is a strategy destined to fail in the long term. Ask any army general what happens when you try to run a two-front war. Neither half gets the resources it needs and eventually you get squeezed on both sides. The big boys have been squeezed for the past decade or two, and it will continue. Ramping up advertising won’t work. Buying legitimate craft breweries can diversify their portfolio but does nothing to salvage their core business. Pretending to be small and local is just as likely to create a backlash as to fool anyone for long. At some point they will have to make a decision and decide to whom they want to sell beer.

Clever attempts to have it both ways, notwithstanding.

Susan from the Farmstead is a Beauty

hillfarmstead susanLast week I wrote about a treat provided to me by an acquaintance recently returned from Vermont (read here). Well, Heady Topper was not their only surprise for me. They also brought back a bottle from Hill Farmstead Brewery, the Greensboro, Vermont brewery who in a short five years have become known as one of the best breweries in North America. You can imagine the double delight of getting two beer I normally would have no hope of acquiring.

My friend brought back their Susan IPA in a large format swing-top bottle. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, beyond a strong likelihood that it would be quite well made.

I pours light orange with a noted haze. The head is thick and tight with moon-like craters along the sruface. I immediately detect a big fresh citrus and pine aroma softened by fruit and a delicate soft honey malt.

In the sip I first get a delicate sweetness built on top of a surprisingly light body. I get some clover honey, red berry and soft grassy malt. The middle opens up a bright citrus to accent the initial fruitiness. The final bitterness takes a while to build in the linger, but it just keeps coming. Sharp yet not too tangy, with pine, grapefruit and a soft earth character. Some resin notes linger under the surface. Throughout the body stays quite light and results in a refreshing finish.

Susan is a subtle, refreshing, yin-yang type of IPA. It has lots of fruity flavour and aroma which nicely balances the substantial but not overdone hop biterness. A lovely beer that lives up to the brewery’s reputation. It is superb in its understated qualities, finding a way to hit just the right notes with nothing out of balance.

The only shortcoming is that I only received one bottle and have no plane ticket (yet) to Vermont.

Sign Up for the Temperance Movement!

temperancecoopWant to own part of a brewery? Now you can for as little as $150.

Better yet, want to be a part of the Temperance movement? No, the two aren’t contradictions, at least not in Saskatoon these days.

You see, a group of aspiring brewers have launched Temperance Brewing Co-operative Ltd. which hopes to be rolling out craft beer in Saskatoon sometime in 2016. In many ways it is an ordinary brewery start-up, trying to round up capital at the same time as they sample test batches and finalize plans for the future brewery.

Except that Temperance is structured as a co-op, an unfamiliar legal entity and particularly rare in the beer world. Most breweries adopt a standard corporate structure, with ownership shares and a for-profit purpose, meaning both the control of and the benefits from the brewery accrue to the owners. We all get to share their beer, of course, but the profits only go in one direction.

The co-op model turns that on its head. “We won’t make a profit in a strict sense”, says Adam Worobec, one of the founding members of the Co-op. “We can’t do dividends. Profits of the company will be folded back into the company”. This may sound odd to many, but it is a standard procedure for co-ops.

Co-ops are a form of democratic, collective ownership that spreads both the risk and the decision-making authority. Without getting too technical, Temperance in the parlance is a consumer co-op, much like MEC or Co-op grocery stores. $150 buys you a share in the co-op and gives you a slice of the organization’s ownership. With membership comes some key rights. “Members get a vote, priority access to beer and events, brewery discounts and a say in what beer we brew” says Worobec.

Temperance’s plan is to build a base of a few hundred members who are invested, both financially and psychologically, in the brewery. They hope to leverage the capital raised from members into additional financing for a 10 to 20 hectolitre brewery with a full-service tap room to serve the region. As an initial step, they hope later this year to contract brew a beer to get the name out and start generating some revenue.

“This year is about the membership drive and a funding drive. Hopefully by next year we will be putting the wheels in motion on our own stuff”, says Worobec.

The project started, not surprisingly, over some beer. About 10 homebrewers talked about starting up a co-op beer operation. “Opening a U-Brew was the first idea, where members have access to the equipment. But once we started digging into the legalities of that, it eliminated itself from consideration due to needing a large enough system.” Rather than quit, they decided to go all in and Temperance Brewing Co-op was born.

“We still hope to have a smaller-scale system in the brewery for members to access, but we are focusing on building a full-scale brewery”.

The name comes from Saskatoon’s history. “Saskatoon was originally a temperance colony” observes Worobec. “There is a long history of Continue reading Sign Up for the Temperance Movement!