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Sampling a Surprise Mystery Beer at Tool Shed

Yesterday I met up with the guys from Common Crown at their new brewery (more on that visit soon). After finishing up with them, I decided to make an unplanned and unannounced visit to Tool Shed, which is literally around the block from Common Crown.

Much to my delight co-owner Graham Sherman was there and they had just minutes before tapped a keg of a new tap room exclusive. Surprise!

To make things even more interesting the beer was kept a mystery to Graham until just before it was tapped. His brewers concocted a batch of beer right under his nose without telling him. When Graham inquired as to the contents of Fermenter #2, which was adorned simply with a question mark, they brushed him off with vague answers.

Clearly Mr. Sherman is not much of a control freak…

Anyway the beer turned out to be a Belgian Golden Strong Ale which they are calling What is in Fermenter 2?, although Graham was musing calling it WTF FV2? I had a glass of it (it would have been rude to say no, wouldn’t it?). It pours a deep orange with a bit of haze and topped with a loose but impressive white head. The aroma offers up light stone fruit, pilsner-like malt sweetness and a noted spicy, earthy yeast character.

The sip is surprisingly gentle and soft. It starts with a grainy malt accented by touches of honey and apricot. The middle dries out a bit and offers up some earthy tones. A light white pepper spiciness takes over the finish, leaving a lingering earthy spice. The finish is also moderately sweet to balance off the yeast spiciness.

But the single most notable feature of the beer is how well it hides the alcohol. It clocks in at 9% but you would never know it from just the sip. In the long tradition of Belgian-style ales, the punch in this beer sneaks up on you. No alcoholic heat, no boozy aroma, just a gentle warming glow that emerges after drinking a glass.

Sherman says that Lisa, the head brewer, brewed it up in part to keep their Belgian yeast strain alive, but also liked the idea of producing a beer that her bosses had no clue about. For his part, being the good sport he is, Sherman is contemplating making this an annual tradition, allowing the brewers once a year to produce a tap room-only creation kept under wraps from the bosses until it is released.

Sherman may not be the most observant of bosses around the brewhouse, but he clearly knows a good idea when he sees it.

The Dilemma that is Mill Street

I am in Calgary for a couple of days for some work stuff. As usual I am trying to find some time to do a little bit of beer stuff while I am here (hopefully more on that soon). Yesterday I dropped by the new Mill Street Brewpub that recently opened on 17 Ave SW.

There was no debate regarding whether I should give it a try or not – I feel quite strongly it is important to visit every new establishment at least once to get a sense of the place. It was after finishing my flight of in-house made beer that I started contemplating how I should view this new entrant to the Alberta beer scene. That contemplating, of course, led me to a broader reflection on Mill Street’s position in the Canadian craft beer world since its purchase by AB-Inbev, the world’s largest beer corporation.

But allow me to take a step back. The brewpub. I have now been to all of the Mill Street Brewpubs (Toronto, Ottawa, St. John’s, Calgary and  Pearson Airport – the latter of which isn’t really a brewpub). Other than the St. John’s location, which is bizarrely sharing the space with beer hall chain Bier Markt creating a very disjointed experience, all of the pubs follow a similar approach. All are situated in an older building with some history attached to it. The Calgary pub is located in the 1920s era Costigan House (with a more modern annex).

The decor and atmosphere are fairly similar across locations as well. Lots of muted greys, brick and wood that create a subdued but relaxed ambience. The historic buildings are cool but I am left feeling like the interiors are a bit generic.

As for the beer, the Calgary pub had 24 on tap, split equally between brewery core brands and beer made on-site. One frustration was that I had to work too hard to determine which were which and finally requested that the server walk me through the list. This was important to me as I wanted to see what the local brewers were producing. My flight included the hefeweizen, the latest IPA, the double IPA and the Bock (which I interpret to be a Maibock).

I won’t review the individual beer here – suffice it to say they were cleanly brewed but uneven in terms of bringing out interesting flavours. Some were quite pleasant, while others had me hoping they had put a little more courage into the recipe. My overall impression was that the locally brewed beer didn’t seem all that different from Mill Street’s regular offerings or what I have sampled in other locations for that matter. That is not a criticism, per se, just more of an observation. I appreciate Calgary has only been open a short while and the brewers are likely still catching their feet on the system, but I was left with a niggling suspicion that some of that lack of distinctiveness across locations might be by design.

Judged in the context of a local brewpub, it offers me enough that I might drop by once in a while if in the area and the mood strikes me but it wouldn’t become a regular go-to place for me. Fair enough.

However, I don’t know if I can simply judge it in that context. Mill Street, for better or for worse, is now part of the largest beer empire in the world. I have not seen any evidence of the corporates meddling with the beer, at least not yet. But the consequences of their ownership sticks with me like a harsh astringency lingers across Continue reading The Dilemma that is Mill Street

Hub Town to be the Centre of Things in Okotoks

I have a suspicion that the friends and family of Lisa and Mark Watts knew it would lead to this. From the sounds of it this life-loving couple are always on the go, always coming up with new adventures and ideas.

Lisa admits as such. “We are a goofy couple that way. We are always in market for fun and excitement,” she says pointing to trips, outdoor adventures, new hobbies and activities – all while juggling two full-time jobs and a couple of kids.

The two are the driving force behind Hub Town Brewing, currently a small operation with much bigger ambitions. The Watts live just outside Okotoks (southeast of Calgary), and their home –  for the moment – is the focal point of their brewing dreams.

At the moment Hub Town produces custom-made, small batch homebrew kits (more on that in a bit) but the Watts hope to soon turn that small venture into a full-sized brewery in Okotoks.

While Mark always “loved beer”, Lisa was originally cooler on the beverage.Neither new much about brewing or the beer industry – both work in the oil and gas industry (Lisa as a chemical engineering technologist and Mark in IT).

Their passion for beer started with a rather innocuous looking wall-mounted bottle opener. “We went on a trip to Idaho and saw this funky bottle opener on a wall. When we got home – Mark is a hobby woodworker – he built us a wall-mounted opener for our kitchen. It got us talking about what other interesting things we could do related to beer,” says Lisa. At this point she still wasn’t overly enamoured with beer.

“Then we went to Montana and did a tour at Bonsai Brewing, a nanobrewery in Whitefish.” Lisa says the beer they made and the flavours they put into it turned her onto beer.  “It inspired us beyond belief. Experiencing all these flavours I didn’t know existed. That marked it. Wanted to bring it home somehow.”

Mark says they started researching homebrewing. “We studied and studied before brewing our first batch.” They realized standard full-batch brewing would be a challenge for both space and time.

“We tried extract brewing once, but quickly decided it had to be all-grain,” says Lisa. “Plus being a classic woman I didn’t like what was on market . All these plastic buckets all over my house, it was ugly. We decided to build our own brew station – and that was the beginning of Hub Town.”

The Hub Town Mini-Brew Kit

Mark designed a wood station that held all the tools needed to brew up a 1-gallon batch of all-grain beer. Soon after they started selling the stations to aspiring homebrewers in the area. “It is a brew-in-the-bag system,” says Lisa. “We provide the bag. All they need is a pot and colander. All tools are stored in this beautiful piece of furniture. Their wife is not going to say get that out of here its disgusting. It looks beautiful. You won’t get grief from your spouse”. They provide ingredients for 10 different recipes, designed from their own homebrewing.

“We are starting to get return customers, so starting to supply bulk hops and grain, although most of our clientel are new brewers or their spouses buying a present,” notes Lisa. They have also been developing  an education program to advance homebrewing knowledge.

This is all a very interesting story, but what about the brewery? There will definitely be a brewery, sooner rather than later.

Not long into offering up the homebrew kits the Watts had people approaching them asking if they would brew beer for them, for an event or such. It didn’t take the ambitious couple long to realize their might be real potential in opening a full-scaled brewery.

“It will be located in downtown Okotoks,” Lisa points out. “It will be a 15-Barrel system, no smaller. Want to be able to scale up as we go.”

They are still working to finalize a space but are Continue reading Hub Town to be the Centre of Things in Okotoks

Random Acts of Beerness: Rumours Edition

An Oilers Nation branded beer is coming to Edmonton

It has been a while since I have attempted a Random Acts post (they are turning out to be ALMOST as time consuming to prepare as my previous news roundups). Life has been busy.

This post I don’t want to focus so much on the actual real news as on rumours and buzz (maybe I should have named it the “Donald Trump False News Edition”). There is a lot of talk around the prairies these days regarding all things beer. It has caught my attention – and things that catch my attention is the focus of this feature.

The biggest rumour story out there is Edmonton. While the Alberta beer scene exploded in 2016, with an doubling of the number of breweries operating, Edmonton was relatively quiet. Yes, Situation and Bent Stick opened their doors, but that is dwarfed by the 7 breweries in Calgary that opened their doors. The past year saw as many breweries open in Grande Prairie (GP Brewing and Grain Bin) and Medicine Hat (Hell’s Basement and Medicine Hat Brewing), as the province’s capital city. It is noteworthy.

Near the end of the year, some flickers appeared. Blind Enthusiasm officially announced its planned mid-2017 opening, and Edmonton-based brewer Bruce Sample launched Elbeck Brews – at first as a gypsy/contract operation. We also heard that long anticipated Polar Park (read my profile here) will be releasing its first beer – contract brewed at Two Sergeants – later in January. The beer, a blonde ale called Oilers Nation, is done in partnership with the hockey blog, will be available exclusively at The Pint locations (with whom Oilers Nation has a partnership).

So, this was a modest start. But over the past 3-4 weeks, the rumours have picked up steam. I have now heard of four in the Edmonton-area with definitive plans and vaguer indications of at least three or four more possibilities. I won’t name the four definitive projects for the moment (but hope to have a profile or two for you soon) out of respect for business plans (not everyone likes to be public early on), but it increases my hopes that maybe, just maybe, Edmonton might finally catch up with its sister city/rival to the south.

  • Of course, my database of breweries in Alberta also says there are 15 other breweries in various stages of planning in Calgary, so maybe Edmonton isn’t going to catch up after all. In a future post I will pontificate on what Calgary’s ceiling/critical mass might be, as I get asked that question a lot.
  • Since I am referring to my database, I currently have a list of 35 planned/projected breweries of which I have heard something substantial. This ranges from those quite close to opening, such as Folding Mountain and Annex Ales and the contract breweries still seeking capital (e.g., Six Corners, Goat Locker) to those that are not much more than a name and a dream at this point. How many of those 35 make it to fruition, especially if the economy continues to lag, is an open question.
  • Look! Foeders!

    It isn’t a rumour, being actually happening and all, but Blindman has dipped into the crowdfunding well with a call for support to buy some foeders – large oak vessels used in traditional Cognac production in France. They are looking for $20,000 to finance the purchase and shipment of two used foeders from France. Their Indiegogo appeal (found here) runs to February 5.

  • Just before Christmas, the new Conservative Manitoba government of Brian Pallister decided to play Grinch and cancelled a small brewer loan program launched just a year earlier by the previous NDP government. The Manitoba Brewers’ Association were diplomatic in their response but allow me, as an outside observer, to suggest that this might be a classic example of biting off your nose to spite your face. The program was slated to cost only $5 million and the loans would have gone a long way to help burgeoning and small breweries in the province. Manitoba has one of the lowest brewery per capita rates in the country. This decision will not help them fix that.
  • Finally, there are plans afoot  – so past a rumour but not yet reality – to launch an Edmonton Brewery Tour similar to that running in Calgary for the last year or so. The idea is a small-capacity tour to many of Edmonton’s brewing spots. Things are still being finalized, but I will update you when things get closer.

Of course, if any of you have a rumour you want me to know about, I am all ears. Drop me an email or DM on Twitter (@ABBeerguy) and I will do my best to follow up on it.


Oblation a Good Offering to the Beer Gods

Troubled Monk in Red Deer has had a busy, eventful first year or so. World Beer Cup medals, surprising consumer demand. And they finished 2016 off with a release of their first attempt at a Barley Wine, which they call Oblation. Oblation is a religious term meaning an offer to God/the gods. Seems appropriate.

I got a bottle which sat around my cellar for a few weeks before I finally got around to tasting it a few days ago. I say that because I fear I am offering this review after the beer is gone – but if I am lucky there are still some bottles hanging around somewhere.

Barley Wines can be challenging beer to brew. They require a bold touch combined with the art of subtlety. Big alcohol – Oblation kicks in at 11.5% – requires managing full flavours while keeping alcohol heat from getting to big. Naturally they are a great style to age, so sampling a young one isn’t necessarily the best time to evaluate it.

But, that is exactly what I did.

It is packaged in a 650-ml bomber, which is most unfortunate given its alcohol strength (good thing as a homebrewer I possess a capper to re-seal for enjoying the last half the next day). It pours dark amber verging on reddish-brown. It builds a full off-white head. It also possesses good clarity. The carbonation seems a bit light but appropriate for the style.

The aroma brings out a rich, full caramel and toffee, along with some dark fruit reminding me of cherry and plum. I also get touches of nut and sugary sweetness.

The sip starts with dark fruit, caramel, toffee, some treacle notes and a touch of molasses. Rich malt character dominates the middle. The middle also brings out a touch of fruity esters, licorice and rich sugar. The finish is tantalizingly balanced, with a hint of hops, some subtle alcohol warming, a fruity linger and a gentle warming. I can say without equivocation that there is alcohol in this beer. The finish is fairly sweet with a caramel, fruity note.

Oblation is a full-bodied and complex barley wine. It finishes a bit sweet but marks its territory as a substantial, interesting beer. It is not perfect – there is maybe a bit too much heat right now, but that should mellow and the fruit esters are rather forward –  but it presents as an interesting, flavourful attempt at a challenging style. As interesting as it is now, it seems like a beer that given a year or two of aging could end up with it being quite memorable.

Too bad I don’t have another bottle on me – I only got one. Maybe I need to beg to someone to get a second to age for a couple of years to see how it goes?

Gypsy Brewers Coming to Alberta?

The world’s most famous itinerant brewer, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø of Mikkeller. Photo courtesy Sydney Morning Herald.

Last Friday I decided to focus my attention in my CBC column on something that might, just might, become a thing in Alberta in 2017. Namely that the oil province may pick up on an international trend that has, so far, mostly eluded Canada. I speak of Gypsy Brewers. (You can listen to the column in its entirety here.)

Or at least that is the common name. I struggle a bit with the cultural insensitivity of the label – the Roma (the group to which we normally apply the term) have long faced discrimination and stereotypes in Europe for their nomadic lifestyle. The term “gypped” is a derogatory reference to the Roma. The term “Itinerant Brewer” would be more appropriate. Alas, the term gypsy brewer has stuck.

In short an itinerant brewer is a brewer who, rather than build their own brewery, arranges to have their beer brewed at a variety of breweries around the region, or even the globe. They avoid all the upfront capital and sunk costs of operating a brewery and, therefore, be more experimental and edgy. Itinerant brewers are a sub-set of contracting brewing, a long tradition of paying another brewery to produce beer rather than constructing their own brewery (or while waiting for its construction). The difference is that contract brewers usually stick with a single brewery, while itinerant brewers intentionally move around. Itinerant brewers also usually eschew the idea of a bricks-and-mortar brewery as part of their business plan.

Itinerant brewing has its origins – curiously – in Scandinavia. The first and most famous itinerant brewers come from that region. Danish brewer Mikkeller would be the highest profile, but there is also To Øl and Sweden’s Omnipollo. The trend has spread to the U.S. with noted itinerant brewers Evil Twin (interesting owned by the twin brother of Mikkeller’s owner), Pretty Things and Stillwater.

Western Canada has not been a region available for an itinerant brewer. There simply have not been enough breweries operating with sufficient capacity to accommodate such a business model. There have been contract brewers from time to time, but the model employed has been more a temporary arrangement while building their own brewery. We simply lacked the infrastructure to accommodate such a model. Plus Canada’s range of complex provincial beer production laws make travelling to breweries across provinces notoriously difficult.

Is Elbeck Alberta’s first itinerant brewer?

However, I suggest (possibly prematurely) that conditions might be evolving to allow for the possibiilty of an itinerant brewer in Alberta. A slew of new breweries have opened up in the past 18 months (there are now 43 independently operated breweries in the province, with more to come). Many of those breweries are running full tilt to keep up, but others have excess capacity (for a variety of reasons). It opens the door to a more itinerant approach to the contract brewing arrangement.

In fact Alberta has one, possibly two and maybe more itinerant breweries operating or soon-to-be operation. The lack of precision is that, especially in these early days, the boundary between a contract brewer and an itinerant brewer is quite fuzzy. The one self-proclaimed itinerant brewery is the soon-to-be Elbeck Brews (which I recently profiled here) based in Edmonton. Owner Bruce Sample intends on brewing different beer at different breweries over the next year or two. He does have longer term plans for a brewery, but he is content to brew this way for a while and see how things go.

Down in Calgary Outcast Brewing recent shipped its first batches to thirsty drinkers. Patrick Schnarr’s plan doesn’t quite fit the itinerant bill, but comes close. His brewery plans, for the moment, are tentative – he mostly wants to see how this project goes. Currently he is brewing exclusively at Cold Garden (with his own fermenter), but given Cold Garden is recent start-up, it is hard to know how long they will have capacity to accommodate him.

Others say that Brauerei Fahr and Six Corners Brew Works might also fit the bill, as both have contracted to different breweries at different times. However, to my mind both are actively pursuing the construction of their own brewery and may better fit into the category of temporary contract brewing.

I appreciate it is a fine line, and I could be wrong, but I really believe that with the extra capacity that will undoubtedly appear across Alberta breweries, some other enterprising brewer without capital will realize this is a workable model these days.

At least that is my thinking on it for the moment.

History and Place Define Medicine Hat Brewing

Back in 1913 there was a brewery called Medicine Hat Brewing Co. It lasted until 1920. A second incarnation was attempted between 1925 and 1927 but ultimately failed. The city’s third iteration of Medicine Hat Brewing opened its doors on December 10, 2016 – 103 years after the first attempt. (For the record, Medicine Hat was also home to Alberta’s first brewery ever – Tom Ireland’s Saskatchewan Brewery which opened in 1882, long before there was an Alberta).

The newest Medicine Hat Brewing is the project of Warren Vancuren and his family. Vancuren is a retired oil and gas businessman who has operated a number of servicing companies over the years. He had thought he had retired a few years back when circumstance forced him and his wife to take over active operations of their most recent company. “We got tired of running an oil servicing business full-time”, he says. So they finally sold all of their holdings. But Vancuren wasn’t ready to really retire. “I have had success but I didn’t want to retire yet, wanted something to do as a family,” he says. He and his two sons stumbled onto the idea of opening a brewery. The four of them – Warren, his wife Kathy and sons Kaiden and Brennan are the brains, brawn and sweat behind the brewery.

Why a brewery – in Medicine Hat of all places? “We liked drinking beer so much we decided we should start brewing it,” Vancuren jokes. More seriously he says that the time seemed right to open a brewery in the southern Alberta city. This was about 3 to 4 years ago, before he had heard about Hell’s Basement and their plans.

“The plan is to get it off the ground, get the boys running it and then the wife and I can do nothing but R&D,” he laughs.

Vancuren knows neither he nor his sons are beer experts, so they scooped up Mitch Dalrymple , a veteran of the Canadian craft beer scene known mostly for his more than a decade as head brewer at Bushwakker Brewpub in Regina to handle recipe design, production and all things beer. For his part, Dalrymple says the timing was right for a change of scenery. Extolling the virtues of Bushwakker, he decided he wanted “one last adventure” in brewing before moving on to other things.

The name of the brewery was intentional to link it to the city’s past. “To be honest it was my marketing team’s idea. I didn’t even know there was an old brewery in Medicine Hat until they told me,” admits Vancuren. “People really connect with the idea of naming the brewery after the city and its history,” he says, acknowledging that the name “comes with a lot of responsibility” to live up to the name.

Part of that is ensuring the beer lives up to the name. Vancuren knows making craft beer in Medicine Hat has its own challenges. “Medicine Hat is a Bud Light, Old Milwaukee city,” so he knows the beer needs to balance craft credentials and crossover appeal. Their goal is to “swing people over” to craft beer. Vancuren believes their beer needs to appeal to the “blue collar guys” who work hard and have a deep pride for Medicine Hat.

Currently they have seven beer which will likely be their year-round offerings – although that decision is not yet fully made and things may shift. All the beer are named to have an historical connection with the city. Twin City Lager, which is a name from the original Medicine Hat Brewing to honour the relationship between the Hat and its abutting neighbour Redcliff, is a European Pale Lager. Hatfield Blonde Ale is named after a con-man in the early 1900s who convinced the city he could make it rain. Burnside Blood Orange Ale is the Hatfield with blood orange puree added and named after a prominent businessman in the city’s history. Sin Bin Red Ale is named after the nickname for the infamous downtown Assiniboia Hotel (I don’t think I need to tell you why), while Industrial Avenue IPA is the location of the original Medicine Hat Brewing. Finally, Saamis Session Ale honours the original indigenous name for the area and Gentlemen’s Stout, an oatmeal stout, is named to remember the Cypress Club, a space where early 1900s men could go to relax and do, um, gentleman things (or not).

While the line-up is not fully finalized, Vancuren indicates they are planning on offering a range of seasonals on top of the regular roster. Plus, “we are thinking of a barrel-aged series and hope to do casks and that kind of thing.”

The brewery can be a bit hard to find as the street address doesn’t reflect where the front door is. I got lost trying to find it and I actually know my way around Medicine Hat. The key is to ignore their Brier Park street address and instead drive along 23 Street NW where the sign will be unmistakable.

Vancuren says their initial plan is just to figure out how to service Medicine Hat and area. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have bigger plans. Within three years or so his hope is that “we will try to get our beer all over Alberta and Saskatchewan. That is our goal.”

At the moment they are keg and growler-fills only, but they have their canning line and are working on getting it up and running, meaning they will have packaged product within a few weeks. In the four weeks since their opening the brewery has been “flat out busy” as initial reaction has exceeded expectations.

With an experienced brewer behind the brew paddle and a clear business plan, it seems Medicine Hat Brewing is set to eclipse the success of its 1913 predecessor. It may be opening at an ideal time to achieve that goal.

Be thankful Medicine Hatters. Within a couple of months you now have not one, but two local breweries to appreciate.


2016: A Year in Review

In the dying days of 2016 (you know, so late last week), I did a province-wide beer column looking at the year in beer. We talk about a few things, but mostly it is about the unbelievable year in Alberta beer that 2016 was.

You can listen to the full column here – and you should because it nicely summarizes the year.

My highlight of the year was the stunning growth in the number of Alberta breweries. We exactly doubled the number of breweries in the province – from 21 to 42 (by my calculations – others might differ in total number). The bulk of those new breweries opened in the last half of the year.

There is no other word for that fact than “wow!” Alberta is finally starting to join the big boys in terms of beer.

The column gave me an excuse to remind people of Troubled Monk’s big win at the World Beer Cup with their American Road Brown Ale, plus I also tossed in a mention for Ribstone’s Old Man Winter Ale and its win at the Canadian Brewing Awards. Plus I toss in a mention of Blindman’s sour ale series.

After we did a side-by-side tasting of the Bench Creek/Ribstone Creek collaboration The Hermit (which continue to amaze in their differences), I also talked about some import beer  highlights. For me that included Beau’s All Natural, Firestone Walker and Logsdon Farmhouse Ales.

Plus, of course, I couldn’t ignore the other big beer stories of the year, including the ABInbev-SABMiller merger, creating a behemoth none of us can actually imagine. And then there was the entertaining spat between Premiers Notley and Wall around beer mark-ups.

2016 was a good year for beer (not so much for celebrities we grew up with).

Let’s hope 2017 is up to the challenge.

Gifts for Beer Lovers – Good for Any Occasion

The gift of beer is appropriate any time of year. Except maybe this particular brand.

When you have a beer aficionado in your life, it is like every day is Christmas. So even though we are a good 36 hours or so into 2017, I see no reason why I shouldn’t dredge up my pre-Xmas gift guide offered up during my regular CBC column a couple weeks back. (Full truth is that the link was only sent to me a few days ago, meaning posting earlier wasn’t possible.)

You can listen to the column here.

In many ways it is a standard listing of good gift ideas for someone who appreciates beer and the things that surround it. But as I listen to it again, I realize it also demonstrates just how far and how quickly the Alberta beer scene has come. When I did a similar piece a few years ago, most of the beer highlights were imports and other such things. While I did make a point of mentioning a couple of import options, including the newly arrived Logsdon Farmhouse Ales and the intriguing Beau’s Best of 2016 mixed pack, this year the list is dominated by Alberta beer, including the appearance on Edmonton shelves of Coulee Brewing and Hell’s Basement, along with the – at the time still available – Twin Creeks collaboration between Bench Creek and Ribstone Creek (read my side-by-side review here).

It speaks volumes that without much effort I could offer multiple Alberta beer suggestions – and having to omit a number of others to keep it manageable.

In the column I also offer up some non-beer suggestions, such as picking up a copy of the new World Atlas of Beer, the long-awaited successor to Michael Jackson’s famous compendium of beer. The new version is written by Tim Webb and Toronto’s Stephen Beaumont. Books from Pete Brown are never far down my list either, as he offers the wonderful combination of humour and beer insight. Finally – because I can – I suggest getting the beer fan in your life a homebrew starter kit so that they, too, can experience the joys of crafting the magical elixir themselves.

Sure, I know Xmas has come and gone, but there are never any shortage of occasions for which you want to buy beer-related things for your beer lover. Or maybe this can push you to get a very early start on next Xmas’ shopping.

Happy new year!


Big Rum from Big Rock

Big Rock has quietly launched a barrel-aged beer series with currently two releases under its belt. The second and most recent release is a rum-barrel Barley Wine. Their barley wine was aged an impressive 8 months in rum casks from a renowned Barbados distillery and then blended with a dark amber ale. The result was a 10.8% alcohol beer.

The story behind the beer caught my interest so I scooped up a bottle recently and decided to give it a try.

It pours a slightly hazy mahogany brown, offering almost no head to speak of. I note it has a rather quiet carbonation. The aroma gives off dark raisin, molasses, brown sugar, some earthy notes, a bit of rum and a butterscotch oak. Rather inviting all around.

The sip starts rather viscous and sweet. I pick up molasses, burnt caramel, dark fruit, sherry as well as light maple syrup. The middle brings out a light rum character of candy and brown sugar. The back is slightly alcoholic accented by a raisin and a subtle wood character. It finishes slightly sweet and leaves a linger reminding me of rum, brown sugar and a hint of warming.

It is surprisingly light-bodied and gentle for a 10% beer. The barrel character is either well integrated into the beer or is subdued, depending on what kind of barrel hit you are expecting going in. I find the slight candy note interesting and adds something to the beer. I must say the base beer doesn’t seem barley wine enough, too light and silky. I attribute that to the blending with the dark amber, but I am not entirely sure what they were aiming for with that decision. Because it says barley wine on the label, consumer’s expectations lead in a direction of a more traditional barley wine body. On that score it falls short. That said, the impression the beer does give – if you disregard the label – is quite pleasant and appreciated.

The choice of a rum barrel might be perfect for this beer. It accents the dark fruit and caramel sweetness and generally brings out the best features of the beer.

If I were to judge it as a barley wine, I would be disappointed. But if I simply look at it as a rum barrel beer with some alcohol content, it is more satisfying. The rum character adds enough to keep the beer interesting throughout the sip. A good barrel-aging effort. A tweak on what to call it would help.