When going on a hike or a ski day, who hasn’t wished their favourite craft beer came in something other than a heavy glass bottle? The reality is that an increasing number of outdoors buffs are fans of craft beer. The issue is that their lifestyle doesn’t necessary fit with craft beer packaging, at least up until the recent rise of craft cans (which are still a minority of craft beer available).
Alex Horner, an avid hiker and skier from Calgary, understood this problem first hand. “One of my frustrations is that it is not practical to haul a heavy bottle into the mountains”. So, Horner, a homebrewer for the past few years, partnered with two friends to open a brewery that would address that problem.
Well, not just that problem. Horner, like many homebrewers, started dreaming of making his beer commercially. “We took some of our [homebrewed] beer to a party. People liked it, and we liked sharing it. It got us starting to think in the back of our minds about how to do this. How could we make a brewery?”
Alex had been brewing with two friends for a few years. They came from different perspectives but shared a passion for beer. Alex was a geo-scientist laid off a year ago with the downturn (which is giving him extra time to build the brewery). His partners are Colin McLean who is a urban planner with a degree in Geography and Matt Berard who has a business degree and is finishing up a law degree. The diversity of skills have served the team well.
Things really opened up for Horner and his partners when a mutual friend offered his warehouse space for a homebrewing collective space. They went to town using the collective equipment. This arrangement worked swimmingly for about a year. Then, about six months ago the space was offered to them exclusively (the other users having moved out).
Exclusive use of the space gave them their opening to start a brewery and Banded Peak Brewing was born. They made the jump and have ordered a 10hl brewhouse with four 20hl fermenters and one bright tank. They intentionally went for a smaller system. “We are the on small size so it allows us to be adventurous and make a big variety of beer”, says Horner.
They expect delivery of the equipment early in the new year, with beer rolling off the line sometime during spring 2016. The brewery is located on 5th Street and 34 Avenue SE, “about five minutes drive from downtown”.
The vision for the brewery fits nicely into the Calgary outdoors culture. “We want to get involved in the outdoors community and be the beer for after a day of hiking or skiing,” says Horner. “We want to create an adventurous and fun beer. It will always be interesting and balance interesting with approachable.”
While the beer line-up is still in development, they have a broad sense of what they want to do. “I want a diverse beer portfolio and start slowly. We will have three staple beer: a saison, a hopped wheat ale that borders between an IPA and a Pale ale; and we haven’t decided on the third but it might be a seasonal rotation”. The anchor beer will likely be the saison, which they fermented a bit on the cool side (at regular ale temperature) to keep the yeast influence fairly subtle. “It will be a crisp, clean and refreshing beer” says Horner. The wheat ale “will focus on aromatics rather than bitterness”.
Keeping the beer approachable is about establishing a link with the outdoor community. Horner argues a big heavy beer isn’t the Continue reading Banded Peak Hoping to Peak in 2016
A couple weeks back, Yukon Brewing held a tap takeover at the Underground Tap and Grill in downtown Edmonton. As part of the line-up, Yukon offered up three editions of its Lead Dog Ale to allow for a vertical tasting. A fresh 2015 was put beside a 2014 and a 2013 for comparison. Underground offered up flights (with a bonus sample of the Midnight Sun stout) to facilitate the vertical.
I have done a few Yukon verticals before (here and here, for example), as the good folks from Whitehorse are quite generous about this kind of thing. But who am I to miss an opportunity to extend my observations on how beer transforms over time? So I gave it a go.
The 2015 tasted as one would expect Lead Dog to taste. Dark, cola brown with a strong aroma of caramel and cherry dark fruit. The flavour was rich with nut, dark fruit and deep coffee notes. There is a slight alcohol warming to the beer (as there should be with its strength). It is a full and rounded beer.
The 2014 maintained that dark fruit character in the aroma, but the caramel became more subtle and fell into the background a bit while some earthiness started to appear. In tasting, I found the coffee faded and the caramel became thinner. These changes increased the perception of the raisin-like dark fruit. It also made the beer seem sharper and less full-bodied. Still, it was very pleasant. If someone gave this to me blind I would still consider it an interesting winter warmer.
It was the 2013 where I really started to notice changes. The aroma was more subdued overall, with earthy character, some light sherry and a noted plum. Earthiness and a rustic prune dominate the flavour, complemented by a Thompson raisin fruitiness. Near the end a licorice and molasses character arises, lasting through the linger. The alcohol warming seems to come out a bit more than the other two, and it seems to regain some of its lost body. It seems the thickest of the three vintages.
I was struck at the rapid transformation of what is a fairly hearty beer. What got me the most was how the body sharpened and them rounded back out again, which is not what I would expect as it ages. My theory is that the caramel notes fade away to be slowly overtaken by earthy and oxidation roundedness. The 2014 likely presents the beginning of that shift and the 2013 shows the end.
Now, we have to keep in mind some (or much) of the flavour difference could be attributable to differences in the original beer. I have no doubt Yukon has great quality control and so Lead Dog is fairly consistent over time. However, it will not be identical year over year. It is possible the 2014 batch started life a bit thinner than the other two. There is no way to know without having taken notes of its character when fresh (I really wish people would give me three of four years heads up of these adventures!).
We are relatively safe to assume that, when fresh, the three beer were relatively similar, so we can be confident the changes are the effects of aging. Which makes the trajectory of the beer fascinating to observe. It is also interesting to compare this to my findings of a Lead Dog vertical a couple years ago (here). I wonder what the 2010 would be like right now?
In the last couple years we have seen new breweries pop up (or soon to pop up) in all sorts of places in Alberta – from Lethbridge to Edson, Red Deer to Fort McMurray, not to mention Lacombe, Camrose and Plamondon of all places (read here).
Absent from the growing list has been the Northwest Alberta city of Grande Prairie. A oil and gas town, Grande Prairie seems to lag behind the rest of the province around craft beer. Well, Jason Petrone has plans to change that with GP Brewing Co.
Petrone is one of the owners of Madhatters Pub in the city’s downtown. A couple years ago Petrone and a couple of partners, staff at the pub, starting thinking about the growth of craft beer around the province. “But there was nothing here in Grande Prairie” Petrone muses. They decided the time was right to create a craft brewery in their town. Petrone owned a building directly west of Madhatters and they started the process of getting zoning, permits, etc. to build a brewery. Things got bogged down in a hurry. “The zoning didn’t allow breweries, so we needed to work with City to introduce what a brewery is and what it looks like, so they could vote on”. It took longer than Petrone had expected. “It was just a lack of knowledge at Council”, noting it took about eight months to navigate the process.
All the paperwork is now in place and they are putting the finishing touches on the brewhouse, a 25 hectolitre system with 12 fermenting tanks and four bright tanks. They plan on firing up the kettle for production next month with a predicted February release. The initial release will be a flagship pale lager with another six beer to come out eventually, including a honey brown, stout, hefeweizen and IPA (others are still being designed). They also plan ” a series of rotational seasonal releases, once we get our feet”. In addition, the brewery will supply three house beer exclusively for Madhatters.
Petrone explains their choices as reflecting the burgeoning nature of craft in the region. “For the flagship we are shooting for a light drinking beer that will appeal to mass market because it is a new thing for the Grande Prairie area” he says. “Craft beer means many things. We are introducing them to fresh, local product. All will be introductory beer in their segment.We won’t have an IPA that blows you out of the water, because it will be the first IPA for many of the drinkers up here”.
They intend on canning their product, with the lager in a tallboy (473ml) can, with the others in standard 355 ml cans. There will also be mixed packs available. The brewery will have retail space, growler fills and small sampling room serving full pints but the focus will be on retail and pubs and restaurants in the region.
Their focus initially will be on Northwest Alberta, in particular the communities surrounding Grande Prairie. Petrone is even sure if he will ship beer to Edmonton. “We want to sell as much of it around here, build our name up here at home”. He thinks there is much untapped potential in the region.
Petrone is convinced their local connections will spur loyalty. “People here are proud of the area, proud of local. We want to embrace and carry that”. GP Brewing’s vision, Petrone says, is “the field to the can. All local products as much as we can. We will get anything that can be manufactured in Canada. We are something unique coming out of peace country other than oil and gas and farming and forestry.”
Adding beer to the Peace Country’s claim to fame seems like a pretty good idea.
Which seems more possible? Seeing a real, live unicorn (fat or thin) or a brewery operating in Plamondon, Alberta?
As it turns out, a brewery in Plamondon is not only possible, it actually exists!
The next natural question, dear reader, can expected to be “where is Plamondon?” The answer, of course, is Plamondon is a small hamlet about 30 km west of Lac La Biche in northern Alberta, and it is now home to one of Alberta’s newest breweries. Fat Unicorn Brewery, whose logo is a rhinoceros – get it? – has been up and running since late June. Interviewing and profiling Fat Unicorn has been on my to-do list all summer but I finally hooked up with owner Paul Reutov to chat about his plans for the new operation.
Reutov runs a variety of businesses in the area, including a housing development company, and has been a homebrewer for a long time. “I grew up with brewing. My parents always made homemade wine,” says Reutov. “Don’t get me wrong. I like wine, but I like beer more. It grew from a small hobby and as time and finances allowed I got more and more into it.”
About three years ago, Reutov started seriously thinking about opening a brewery and has been working away at it quietly ever since. “I kept it hush-hush until it was open. Suddenly there was a brewery in town”. The brewhouse was actually ready a year ago, but Reutov moved slowly, making sure everything was in order. “I spent months talking with seasoned brewmasters, make sure I was doing it correctly. I knew what I wanted, I just wanted to be sure I was doing it correctly”.
At the moment, Reutov has two beer out, both available in 650ml bombers and in kegs. Last Call Blonde Lager is a pale lager in the North American style. Naughty Amber Ale is a red ale with a touch more hop bitterness. More are in the works. “I hope to have four beer out in the new year”, including a Russian Imperial Stout and a rotating seasonal. The choice of the RIS is an homage to his White Russian heritage. The brewery has also been helping out Two Sergeants Brewing, who have used his brewhouse to make beer while their brewery is under construction.
Reutov also plans on being creative with his packaging. He says a bottling line is coming in a month. He plans on doing six-packs of his mainstay beer in unique 330 ml bottles, as well as 12-pack variety packs. He also plans to experiment with one-litre bottles to see how that goes.
The brewery, located on his 1000-acre cattle ranch just outside of town, is a full size operation. The brewhouse is 10-barrel capacity and Reutov currently has six 20-barrel fermenters and 2 bright tanks. He is just working on the finishing touches of the tasting room for growler fills and retail sales. However, he is aware that given his location, he won’t get a lot of walk-up traffic. “There won’t be a lot of walk-in customers. I wasn’t going for that market. I don’t want to be open every day for the public. The tasting room will only be open a day or two a week”, says Reutov. “I want to be a destination on the weekend. People can drive out on weekend, look around, and take some beer home”.
Reutov compares his model to the small cottage wineries in B.C., where people Continue reading It’s No Myth, Fat Unicorn is Brewing in Plamondon
Earlier this week I received a copy of a letter from the AGLC to all beer industry representatives issuing a policy interpretation. The letter (which you can read here) states that, after some investigation, the AGLC has ruled that when breweries or agents clean tap lines for a pub, or pay for the cleaning of a tap line, they are engaging in the act of inducement. Therefore, henceforth (unless the ruling is reversed), cleaning a tap line for an account is illegal.
The core of their logic is the cost of cleaning a tap line is “something of value” and therefore forbidden under the AGLC regulations. The AGLC bans any form of inducement by producers and agents to bars, restaurants and liquor stores to purchase their product. An inducement is defined quite broadly to include almost any financial favour offered to accounts. The regulations explicitly exempt beer mats, tent cards, glassware and other such items, including, oddly, event tickets and fridges.
As you can appreciate local breweries and import agents are not happy about this ruling. Cleaning tap lines has become an industry-standard practice. The breweries defend it as an act of quality assurance. They claim the reality is that pub owners are not particularly careful about tap line maintenance and it is the brewery that suffers when dirty lines affect beer quality. Some of the more craft-focused places do their own tap cleaning, but most small bars simply don’t devote resources to regular cleaning practices, meaning it falls to the breweries to cover off this essential task.
This line cleaner had better not be working for a brewery.
I can appreciate their position on this matter. Cleaning tap lines is not a luxury for breweries and hardly going to make or break a deal. Leaving breweries dependent upon an under-resourced bar owner to tend their line is an uneasy prospect. Plus, I have observed a brewery cleaning all the lines, not just theirs, since it is just as easy once you are there and set up, meaning it is hardly a competitive activity.
That said, the policy wonk in me can understand the logic of the AGLC. Line cleaning costs money, either directly through contracting to a cleaner or through staff time. If a brewery or agent offers line cleaning as part of the deal to get a tap line, then it could be considered an inducement. Is agreeing to clean a line all that much different than offering to install the tap system (as has happened and is illegal)?
Except if you take the thinking to the next step, the logic starts to fall apart. I have two issues with the ruling. First, glassware, beer mats and other assorted promotional items also have a monetary value. Refrigerators most certainly do. How is it those cost items are not considered “of value” and excluded? Oilers tickets also have value (well, okay maybe not Oilers tickets, per se, but you get my point) but can be offered up to loyal accounts. Some of these things cost more than others, but the AGLC has never put a monetary minimum on the use of promotions – it applies a more qualitative test.
Second, and more importantly, this ruling needs to be seen in the context of the broader issue of inducements. To put it bluntly, the AGLC turns a blind eye to a whole raft of illegal inducement practices, and has for years. Even when presented with evidence, they refuse to step in an enforce the existing rules. Many breweries and agents regularly offer inducements – everything ranging from paying for the tap system installation, paying for exclusive tap lines, deals to offer 1 free keg for every few kegs purchased, to free trips for account principals and many other things. Yet, it has been years (more than a decade) since anyone has been penalized for such illegal activity.
The line cleaning ruling is an example of how the inducements policy has become a satire of itself. It simply lacks any Continue reading Cleaning Tap Lines Now Considered an Inducement
I find I have a problem. When I set a beer aside in my cellar for aging, I have a hard time finding the right moment to drink it. The off-shoot is that sometimes and I can over-age the beer an miss its prime time for consumption. I have been trying to get better at it. I have implemented two rules. First, one beer in, one beer out. If I add a new beer to my cellar I must remove one beer for consumption in the near future. Second, I am trying twice a year to go through my cellar inventory and make a conscious decision of whether a beer is ready to be consumed or not (if I remove a few I temporarily suspend rule #1). It has helped to some degree.
However, I still get hung up on beer that are particularly rare or special. I just have a really hard time popping the cap on those ones. I keep telling myself I should wait until a more appropriate event or time.
A recent case in point. I was fulfilling rule #2 a few weeks back and got to my stash of Westveleteren, the rarest of the Trappist Monastaries. I mostly have their 12, the quadrupel, and so am content to leave those around a little longer. However, I stumbled across a 2010 bottle of the 8, the Dubbel. Oops. Didn’t plan to leave it that long.
Now, at 8% it is on the big end for a Dubbel, but likely five years might be a bit of a stretch. But there was absolutely NO way I was wasting the beer (as hard to come by as it was), so I opened it recently. What I found was an interesting lesson.
The appearance is dark deep brown with a slight haze. There is no head to speak of. I get some fizziness as the beer pours, but it drops away almost immediately, giving it a fairly lifeless look. The aroma offers up raisin, molasses, cola, some dark fruit and a hint of earthy spiciness. Not unpleasant, I must say.
The sip reveals caramel, toffee, molasses, and some dark brown sugar sweetness upfront. I also pick up a notable plum and blackberry fruitiness which stands off from the malt sweetness. The middle opens up a rustic earthiness and the beginnings of a light sherry note. The finish has a mild spiciness that reminds me of coffee cake. The beer has a soft velvet texture to its mouthfeel.
The years have mellowed the beer. The alcohol is almost imperceptible and the spiciness quite subtle. However the sherry and fruit add an interesting dimension to the beer. The beer is smoother and quieter than its fresh version. I find it still holds a remarkable flavour profile.
Likely I should have opened this a year or two sooner, before the spiciness dropped off too much. Still, it was a pleasant and complex experience. World class still shows itself through, even five years later.
Obviously the big news in the beer scene on the prairies this month has been the change to Alberta’s mark up regime. But I have said enough about that (in case, somehow, you missed it, you can read here and here), so allow me to return to a standard news roundup to get you all caught up on the latest beer happenings in the region. No particular order, as usual (you all know the drill):
- October saw the launch of both Bench Creek Brewing and Blindman Brewing. Bench Creek starts with three beer: Naked Woodsman Pale Ale, White Raven IPA and Black Spruce Porter. Blindman is beginning with their Blindman River Session Ale and Longshadows IPA. Expect to see their beer slowly work their way to a tap line near you.
- Alley Kat’s latest seasonal is the return of their Coffee Porter, made with freshly roasted Transcend coffee. This beer was last out a couple years ago and makes its return in 650ml bombers.
- Down Highway 2, Wild Rose has two new beer out. The annual release of Cherry Porter occurred earlier this week. This year they have released the popular beer in a gift package including a 1-litre bottle of the beer with two stemless glasses. Get it while you can. Also this past weekend they released the second in their new Barrel Aged Series, Flanders Ave Sour Red which, as the name implies is a Flanders Red. It is being released in small quantities to get it while you can.
- Hopping over to Saskatchewan. Rebellion Brewing has transformed their Belgian Wheat into Midnight Wheat, a black witbier, so to speak. Available at the tap room only while supplies last.
- Finally jumping to Manitoba, Half Pints is hard at work, as usual. Their latest releases include Dead Ringer, a Belgian IPA, the latest release of Hoppenheimer and the most recent version of Heiðrún’s Sweet Mead. All are relatively limited quantities, so hit by Winnipeg to pick some up.
That is what I got for the moment, but I can give you a tantalizing tease to keep you coming back. Over the next couple weeks I will be profiled a number of new breweries in the works on the prairies as the craft beer scene continues to expand on the flatlands. So stay tuned!
In September I started a series in my Beer 101 column exploring what some beer styles today might have tasted a couple hundred years ago. It is intended as a kind of thought experiment, using what historical knowledge I have combined with my understanding of brewing, ingredients and their effects, etc. I don’t claim my descriptions to be a guaranteed replication of historical beer – as it really is impossible for any of us to know. Consider it a fanciful moment to explore our beer past.
The first column (which you can find here) looked at some dark ales from England and Scotland. The second piece (which you can read here) looked at a wider range of styles. It starts with something easy and with better historical records than most – IPA. There are a few factors to contemplate in considering the flavour of a 1700s IPA, not the least the effect of the three month sea voyage to India. Without reproducing the whole column, I can tell you I predict the flavour profile fell somewhere in between today’s mild and sessionable English IPA and the bolder, brasher American IPA.
The most fun style to contemplate was the taste of North American Lager back when it was still beer, rather than fizzy yellow alco-pop. They key is realizing the American brewers of the 1700s and 1800s would most likely be European brewers and their descendants. They will have brought German, English or Bohemian traditions and methods with them. However, they would have had to rely (to a large extent) on indigenous barley and hops, which would have transformed the overall taste of the beer. So, again, consider it something of a new world-old world hybrid. Interesting to contemplate, eh?
The third beer I tossed in almost to be mischievous. Lambic has hardly changed at all – at least traditional Lambic. So, really, if you want to taste what a Gueuze tasted like in 1800s, just open a bottle of Cantillon or Tilquin and you will know.
Some things change and evolve. Others do not. I love the world of beer!
A tempest in a beer mug?
Since my post on Wednesday on the Alberta budget and the change to mark-up rates (see here) I have been trying to keep my mouth shut and let readers say what they want to say in the comments section. After all, I rambled for 1500 words or so therefore the least I could do is give some space to others to respond.
I must say the level of debate on this site has been a lot more thoughtful and respectful than stuff I have seen elsewhere – so thank you all for that. I encourage it to continue – there is no limit to how many comments can be added to a post, so debate away!
I am fascinated by the shape the debate is taking over the past couple days. I have read media stories, had many private exchanges with people on all sides of the issue and done a couple of media interviews myself (such as for this Global TV story). Lots of interesting takes have been shared. In many ways they parallel the three perspectives I discussed in the post, but given the specific context of the change, I am very interested in how they are each expressing themselves.
Here are a few observations a few days in, in no particular order:
- First, I have learned that on the same day as the budget, Connect Logistics, the private monopoly contracted by the previous government to handle warehouse and distribution of all liquor in the province (except Alberta-based producers who are allowed to self-distribute if they choose), announced a set of fee increases starting in the new year. They charge for a variety of things and their rates are going up between 2% and 40%, and they are adding some new fees for longer term storage. The biggest increase is in fees for using the cooler space – something only affecting beer. So an interesting double whammy for imports. Local beer are affected as well, since most use Connect for at least some of their distribution.
- Media reports have generally been favourable to the policy, seeing it as a benefit for local companies. However, many misinterpret or only partially understand the change. Many emphasize the mark-up separation between small brewers and the big boys, but downplay the effect on imports.
- In private conversations with some agents and non-NWP breweries, I am a bit surprised at the speed of the effects. A number of accounts dropped some of their imports the very next day. Whoa. That said, I am also getting reports of many accounts pledging to keep the product, despite the price increase. It will take a while to really get a sense of how this will affect imported beer. The price increases are immediate, but how it ripples through the market is still hard to tell.
- I am growing increasingly aware that, like all policy, there will be some collateral damage. I am not overly concerned for the fate of Stone Brewing or Innis & Gunn if their sales drop due to the change. They have solid, sizable home markets and plenty of options around the continent to sell their beer. However, smaller breweries, especially Canadian breweries with more restricted options in terms of alternative markets. I don’t mean to single out Yukon, but many people, including Alberta brewery people, have expressed to me their empathy for Yukon’s plight. Their home market is small (and they already rock it pretty well) and so Alberta is a crucial market for them. It is unfortunate, especially in the short term.
Continue reading A Post-Script on the New Mark-Up Policy
Most of the coverage of yesterday’s Alberta provincial budget, the first by the new NDP government, focused on the deficit, the pledge to create jobs and protect services, and their infrastructure spending. However, hidden in the details was a decision that will have huge ramifications for the beer industry in the province.
The Notley government announced sweeping changes to the beer mark-up policy. This issue has been burning for quite a while now (read about past developments here and here), sparked in large part by Minhas Brewing’s practice of shipping low cost beer made in Wisconsin and claiming it to be Alberta beer.
In short the new policy does three key things. First, it restricts the small brewer’s mark-up to breweries based in Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan. All other breweries must pay the full rate, regardless of size. Second, the small brewer rate will now be graduated, meaning increased rates will apply only to production above the threshold, not to all production as was previously the case. Third the full rate went up by 5 cents to $1.25 per litre.
I want to do two things in this post. First, I will break down the meaning and possible rationale behind the new policy. Second, I want to discuss how it will affect the various players. And then I may weigh in with my own view.
The third component of the policy is the easiest to explain. The province needs more money and alcohol is an easy target. The 5 cent increase is fairly minor, but we do need to remember it is on top of a 22 cent increase by the previous Conservative government in the spring, meaning the beer mark up has increased 27% in the last 8 months. To keep that in perspective, it is an increase of 55 cents per six pack.
The new small brewer rate starts at 10 cents per litre for the first 10,000 HL, climbs to 30 cents for 10,000 to 50,000 HL, 55 cents for 50,000 to 200,000 HL and the full rate after that. Graduation has the effect of meaning the effective mark up moves up gradually. By the time a brewery is producing 400,000 HL it is still only paying 86 cents (averaged) per litre.
There is no question this is a huge advantage for small brewers based in those three provinces. The broad purpose is clear – to promote local production of beer by providing a cost advantage for local beer. The government is making a clear decision to side with local(ish) producers instead of imported beer. Plus the decision puts an additional $17 million or so in the government coffers at a time when likely every penny counts.
The whole B.C. and Saskatchewan thing is understandably confusing. Why just those two provinces? The rationale is this: Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan are signatories to the New Western Partnership, a free trade deal reducing barriers. My understanding is that the government is worried about ramifications of shutting out those provinces, fearing negative ramifications. Of course, this doesn’t speak to the fact that B.C. and Saskatchewan do not have policies giving Alberta breweries a level playing field, but so be it. That is what they are thinking.
Some have noted the policy may also contravene NAFTA, WTO and AIT provisions. That is possible. But when we examine beer policy across the continent, Alberta’s continues to be more open than most, so it seems a far stretch to suggest that somehow partners are going to retaliate against Alberta for this policy.
As for the second purpose of this post, the reaction has been swift, polarized and fascinating. As I have said before, there are at least three different perspectives on the matter. Alberta breweries (now joined by Saskatchewan and B.C. breweries) are clear winners in Continue reading Alberta Shifts the Beer Playing Field