This morning the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) released the long-awaited results of its comprehensive policy review. The review, first launched last fall, sparked much debate among liquor stakeholders, in particular around the issue of liquor mark-up rates (for background on the review read here and here). The report contains 39 recommendations covering a wide scope of liquor policy in Alberta. For the wonkish among you, the report can be found on the AGLC website. For the rest of you with better things to do with your time, I will distill some of the highlights.
A large chunk of the recommendations focus on wine and spirits, and a good number tackle matters more significant for industry insiders, such as information flows between stakeholders, a regular policy review schedule, flexible form submission and increased information support for start-ups. However, the report does touch upon a few matters relevant to beer consumers in the province. These include:
- Elimination of the minimum production capacity requirement for breweries.
- Elimination of the separate “Brew Pub” license, which would remove restrictions on sales to other licensees.
- Small breweries (and cottage wineries) should be allowed to own restaurants/bars. Manufacturers under 25,000 hL would be allowed to own restaurants/pubs. The restaurant must be sold if the manufacturer exceeds 100,000 hL
- Permitting a brewery’s retail store (off-sales) to be in any location of their choosing (i.e., off-site off-sales locations).
- Elimination of separate brewery, winery, distiller licenses, thereby allowing production of any alcohol permitted by federal government at any manufacturer.
- Continued use of a single monopoly warehouse operator.
- No change to inducement policy or enforcement practices.
- Explore the possibility of allowing beer to be sold at Farmer’s Markets.
Some of the recommendations, including the elimination of minimum capacities and the removal of product-specific licenses have already been implemented. Others require regulatory changes and have been forwarded to the government for consideration.
You will note there is not a peep about liquor mark-ups. That is because the report is silent on the matter. One recommendation, dealing with wine and spirit mark-ups, suggests they have delayed a decision on it. Recommendation 11 says AGLC “will be providing feedback received from manufacturers to the government as part of a comprehensive package”. In other words, “we aren’t touching this hot potato and are passing it up to politicians to handle”.
So what are we to make of the report? I have not yet spoken with anybody in the industry, and so this is entirely my own first reaction. There are definitely some positive steps in the report, the biggest being the elimination of minimum production limits. This opens up the possibility of nano-breweries and significantly lowers start-up costs for new breweries. Allowing breweries to retail their beer at an off-site location is a small but useful step. Many breweries are tucked into light industrial parks and are not particularly customer-friendly. Allowing them to potentially set up their off-sales store at a more convenient location seems like a good idea.
My initial reaction to the possibility of allowing small breweries to own restaurants/pubs is positive, as is the removal of sales restrictions for brew pubs. I imagine these two recommendations are a trade-off; allowing brewpubs to sell at other locations needs to be balanced by allowing a brewery to run its own pub. That they have a strict size limit is what makes this palatable – I certainly don’t want a chain of Labatt or Molson Pubs around the province (since de facto we already have that). However, I kind of like the prospect of Continue reading Baby Steps, Missed Opportunities in AGLC Policy Review
In my latest Beer 101 column (I don’t say new because, to my embarrassment, it has been up for almost a month) I re-visit, from a slightly different angle, a topic about which I often muse. I examine the dynamic where beer aficionados prefer bigger, bolder, brasher beer over an equally-well made but more subtle and quiet beer. You can read the whole column here.
I am not really talking about styles here, at least not this time. I mean this in a more general sense. Sure, beer geeks will opt for a double IPA over a cream ale most of the time. And fair enough. But they also drift toward more assertive, more aggressive or more novel interpretations of a style. Also fair enough. But that doesn’t mean that I really understand the process involved in that kind of selectivity. Plus I have long felt it sells wonderfully crafted beer short simply because they are aiming to be something quieter.
My summer travels across the pond have got me thinking about this question in a different way. I offer a fuller re-count of my beer palate reactions during and after my trip in the column so will only briefly summarize it here. In short, I was at first disappointed by British IPAs because they lacked the zesty, strong hop presence we expect in North America. But after some acclimatization I started to really enjoy the balance and quaffability of their interpretations. However, that is not the end of the story. As I neared the end of my trip, I found my enthusiasm for cask ales waning somewhat – too much of a good thing. Basically, I was longing for the familiarity of my own bed. In beer terms, that meant the crisper, more angular flavours that come from North American beer. More hops, fewer fruity esters, etc.
A classic British pub…
Of course, as a surprise to both myself (and readers), my choice of a first beer back was Mill Street Don Valley Bench, their summery chardonnay-esque wheat beer, in their Toronto Airport pub. I could have chosen a Tankhouse Ale or their IPA for a bigger hop hit, but my palate called for something cleaner and more refreshing. Maybe it was allowing for transition. Or maybe I just was open, once again, to a quieter, more subtle beer.
I think my point in these ramblings is to suggest that we, quite naturally, grow accustomed to certain flavours and profiles. For the beer geek, we want to try the latest new offering from Dieu Du Ciel, Brew Dog, de Molen, Mikkeller, Green Flash, etc. (insert your favourite “out-there” brewery here) and have – possibly without knowing it – edged our expectations and our palate to the farther edges of the scale. So much so that when someone offers us something more in the middle of the flavour spectrum, we find it boring, lacking complexity and missing an outstanding feature.
I often point to the beer rating sites as an example of this phenomenon. I do not criticize those sites; in fact I find them useful gauges from time to time, and often utilize them when going to a city or region for the first time. But I can’t help but notice a built-in bias toward big, alcoholic, hoppy, aggressive beer, both within styles and between styles. Don’t believe me? Check the range of top scores for Russian Imperial Stout and compare it to the top scores for Oktoberfest. On ratebeer.com the top 100 RIS’s score above 99.79, while the top-rated Oktoberfest is 95.9 and only 9 score higher than 90.
This is just one example, used for illustrative purposes. Other websites will show the same pattern, as will other style comparisons.
However, it is telling. It is not that the top 200 or so Imperial Stouts are all better than the world’s 10 best Oktoberfests. Impossible. It is just that the members of the site find more to chew on with RIS than they do Oktoberfest. These leads to an unconscious process of slightly downgrading the score of the more subtle beer.
Of course, you can easily argue that comparing across styles is a fool’s game. Maybe. But I think Continue reading The Bold vs. Subtle Debate
I may or may not be the first person in Alberta to try the latest version of Paddock Wood’s Winter Ale. I tried it last night, after picking it up earlier in the afternoon. Likely someone else bought and opened one first. All I know is that it has only been on Alberta shelves for a few days and there is no outward evidence of someone having tried it yet. Not that it matters; I am usually weeks late on my reviews.
It is just nice, once in a while, to actually be in front of the curve. It doesn’t happen very often for me.
Anyway, despite its name PW Winter Ale for the last few years has been designed as a Belgian Dubbel, rather than a classic Xmas ale. This makes it something of an anomaly among Christmas/Winter themed beer. In previous years I have asked to myself whether that makes any sense, without satisfactory answer.
But on to the beer:
It pours reddish brown with a pale tan head and a tight bead. I also find quite a bit of lacing. It is quite, and surprisingly , clear and crisp looking. The aroma is dominated by toffee, burnt caramel, raisin and a bit of toasty bread. I do find some Belgian yeast character but it is rather subdued.
However, the flavour suggests something quite different. At the front is a bit of bread, caramel, toast, and a dark fruitiness of black currant, raisin and plum. In the middle we finally find the yeast note as it draws in an earthy spiciness of nutmeg and clove. The finish builds a bit more pepper and yeast funkiness. the finish is moderately sweet but balanced by an earthy sharpness.
As a dubbel it is not perfect, but quite fascinating. It is a bit fuller than many versions, but it has a sneaky spiciness that is appealing. To be honest, I think this beer could easily confuse people. It has some strong nutmeg, ginger and clove character that could convince someone that it is a winter spiced ale. So, maybe its Winter Ale moniker is not so badly placed. In a way, if you compare it to the sweet, vanilla-infused examples of Winter Ales, it comes out looking quite good. It has a fullness you want from a winter ale, a sharp spiciness to add character and an overall warming effect from the alcohol content.
So, despite my previous doubts, I suspect this beer deserves to be called a Winter Ale. They have found a way to combine a classic Belgian style with a more modern sentiment about winter beer. Good on them. An interesting beer that will go with many holiday events.
It is getting hard to keep up with all the beer happenings on the prairies these days. Slow down, all you brewers, you’re making me dizzy! (Just kidding. Keep ‘em comin’).
So, even though it has only been less than three weeks since my last news update, I feel the need to do another to keep from falling behind all the flurry of activity. So, in no particular order:
- Big Rock continues its furious pace of new releases and one-offs. A couple weeks ago, they put out a new one-time mixed six-pack called Lumberjack Pack, with entirely new beer. And quite the beer they are. It has a spruce tip infused amber ale (Spruce Goose Ale), a brown ale packed with 8 different adjuncts, including elderberry, juniper, dandelion root, birch, rose petals and honey (Hibernation Ale), and a dark winter ale infused with licorice and coffee (Twisted Antler Dark Ale). Right on the mixer’s heels last week was the announcement of Cuvée Bru, the latest in the Alchemist Series. Cuvée Bru is a Druivenbier, meaning wine grapes have been added. More specifically, Big Rock added Pinot Gris grapes from the Naramata Bench winery Therapy. This lightly hopped concoction will likely remind people of champagne.
- Not to be outdone, Alley Kat has announced the return of Blue Dragon, which was originally the second in the Dragon Series. This new edition, to be released next Thursday (28th) at the brewery, is intended as a fundraiser for Movember. Blue Dragon, for those not keeping score, is single-hopped with Columbus.
- Village Brewing takes local to a whole new level with its Gardener Community Involved Ale, which it released a week or two ago. They proclaim it is made with 100% locally source malt and hops, with the hops actually coming from the farm of co-owner Tim Duffin and a variety of backyards in central Calgary. Released only in 1-litre mini-growlers, Village is hoping this is the spark to a much more ambitious urban farming initiative where greater numbers of gardeners grow ingredients for beer.
- Filed under bad news, is the announcement by Portage Ave BrewWorks and Kitchen that plans to open Winnipeg’s only brewpub has been delayed due to the loss of their selected location. They are now searching for a new spot and hope to open sometime in 2014.
With my luck around this stuff, within hours of posting this, other prairie brewers will make announcements, making me obsolete once again. At any rate, as of writing, this is the latest beer news from the region.
Who is the Devil in this drawing?
My Vue Weekly column this week offers up a review of Shawinigan Handshake from Quebec brewer, Le Trou du Diable. Handshake is an interesting weizenbock, but the real story is the name and label. It harkens back to an incident in 1996 when then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien choked a protester. Not a pretty moment for Monsieur Chretien.
Now, those of you with good memories or quick on your search engine fingers will know that I reviewed this beer in a post about 18 months ago, when I picked up a bottle in Halifax. I made the conscious decision to not refer back to that post when doing up the review, which means we have a nice example of being to measure how the beer has morphed and moved over the past year or two. Of course, this is hardly scientific – one bottle was purchased in Halifax, the other Edmonton, and I made no attempt to control for age of the batch, etc. However, it is interesting nonetheless.
For those of you wishing to play along, you can find the Vue article here and the original onbeer post here.
Back in Halifax, I found the yeast notes of the beer a bit overpowering, with some classice weizen esters, but also more peppery and spicy notes as well. At the time I reported that I appreciated the beer, but questioned its weizenbock-ness, and opined it might be a bit overdone.
This time, the weizen yeast notes are more pronounced, as is a light bread and honey sweetness. If find this version to be more bitter and with a noticeable hop character to it, once again bending the traditional style a bit. I also note the beer is smaller – 6.5% compared to last year’s 7%. Overall I found the beer more balanced and aligned.
I won’t opine on which I preferred, as 18 months later there is just no knowing that. Neither will I pontificate on what I think they changed in the beer. That the recipe has been changed seems obvious, but it is a mug’s game to try and pinpoint what they did. For example, you might say they increased the hopping rate for the new beer. Maybe not. Some of that pepperiness I got last time could have been from hop interacting with other flavours in the beer. Even a different harvest year can make a difference.
Plus there is the age old caveat that much of the differences found are due to my palate and not the beer. To be honest, I doubt that. While I recognize time and place can impact taste perception, I would hope my palate is good enough that I can demarcate changes in the beer.
Comparison was not the reason for reviewing Handshake. The backstory was too good to pass up (even a second time), and seemed a good fit right now. The retrospective on last year’s version is just a happy by-product of my review choices.
I posted last week about some of the experimental, style-bending beer I sampled from Hopfenstark while in Montreal a couple weeks back (read the post here). Clearly I admire the push-the-envelope approach to brewing they and others are displaying. However, while in Montreal I also made a quick return visit to L’amère à boire, a mainstay brewpub in the Latin Quarter. They specialize in European lagers . Their beer takes a very traditional approach to old styles like pilsner, dunkel and Munich helles. They do pale ales, porters and other styles as well, but their signature beer are their European Pilsner.
I had a glass of the Cerna Hora, their take on the classic Czech Pilsner. It pours dark gold with a slight haze and topped with a fluffy, lively white head. The aroma is spicy, earthy hop, soft pilsner malt sweetness and some yeasty notes. The initial flavour brings out a grainy, rounded malt. The beer sharpens in the middle, with a spicy hop flavour mingling with sharper grain. The finish is very playful. At first is seems rather sweet, but the earthy, spicy Saaz hops build over a few seconds. Only at the end does the Saaz flavour start to really shine through. I also pick up a bit of yeast bite in the background. The linger has an appropriate bitterness, but it retains a good degree of balance.
While I argue the beer could be a bit cleaner (I speculate that it may not be filtered), it really offers an enjoyable pilsner. It hits all the key touchstones for a Czech pils – rounded but grainy malt, the distinct Saaz spiciness and a slight lean toward bitter without losing balance. It might be one of the better pilsners brewed in Canada.
A nice beer experience, but today I want to go a step further. With the deluge we see of imperial-this and Americanized-that, I often wonder if beer aficionados are losing sight of the joy of a straight-forward, classic style? It is increasingly hard to find a solid Munich Helles or Ordinary Bitter on the store shelves, jockeying they are with the latest experiment.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining about the wondrous range of amazing beer on offer these days. We are blessed to have such a plethora of creative craft beer to sample. But the other day I was in my favourite liquor store and without having to move my head, I counted 13 different pumpkin beer. I am sure there were more if I swiveled my head a bit. How does a gentle summer ale or a Kolsch compete with that?
What is more intriguing for me is that while we are seeing the resurrection of certain historical styles, the ones with all the cache right now are the bolder, quirkier ones such as Gose, Rauchbier and Saison. Again, I am very pleased to be able to sample a handful of interpretations of Gose or Saison – it is strengthening my sense of styles which were unavailable when I was cutting my beer judging teeth.
Consumers have the right and the power to choose the beer they want to drink. Which is great. I just hope that in our excitement to try the latest fill-in-the-blank infused one-off we don’t stop picking up a bottle or two of something quieter and more straightforward. There are many amazing craft lagers and ales out there that quietly go about their business of being satisfying. We should be rewarding those breweries for making consistently high quality beer as much as we do the breweries who wow us with their experiments and envelope-pushing.
The good news is, unlike wine, beer tends to be cheap enough we can afford to buy both!
I appreciate fresh hop beer, often called wet hopped, as in general these beer bring out hop characteristics I enjoy. I find the hop flavour to be fuller, less harsh and the bitterness more rounded. In a well-made fresh hop beer, you can taste the cone leaves. So, you can imagine I was looking forward to trying Big Rock’s first foray into the wet hop world when it came out a few weeks back.
They called it Anthea Wet Hop Ale, and only 3,600 bottles were made. Anthea is an alternate name for the Greek Goddess Hera, and literally translates to “blossom”. Big Rock claims the hops were picked less than 24 before being used in the brew. They also say they started mashing the beer while the hops were still in the air on their way to Calgary. That is pretty darned fresh!
Their attempt at fresh hop brewing is the latest in their efforts to step their game up, both in terms of process (e.g., their stein beer earlier this yeare) and ingredients (rosemary and other unusual additions) over the past year or so. Having Big Rock taking experimentation seriously is a good thing for all beer drinkers, even if someone doesn’t appreciate the results of their efforts. Big Rock’s reach and name recognition help lend credibility to experimental beer, in my opinion.
What of the beer, then? It is light copper and builds a rich, dense white head that deposits a gentle web of lacing. It has lovely clarity and, I must say, is a very attractive beer. The aroma is fresh and grassy which I would immediately identify as Cascade hops even if they hadn’t told me that ahead of time. Underneath the soft hop aroma I find some light toffee and some crisp burnt caramel. Overall the aroma isn’t as pronounced or as “fresh” as I hoped.
I take a sip and find the front continues with the light toffee theme, adding some crystal malt notes and a grainy edge. The hop flavour kicks in rather quickly. I pick up an earthy, viny character that is more like plant than hop. I can also detect the hop green mass in the flavour. The bitterness is deceptive. At first seems too low, but slowly builds over a couple of sips until it presents a nice, fresh, earthy bitterness that smacks of hop cones. The body has a silkiness that contributes to the sneakiness of the hops, masking the bitterness at first.
While Big Rock does not admit to a style, I regard this a pale ale with a distinct Cascade character. The first sip is deceptive, seeming like the IBUs aren’t there and the hop a bit too harsh. However, the bitterness rises over time, showing itself to be in the zone. I like the soft, rounded nature of the bitterness. However the linger also offers a sharp green vegetation note, which is not entirely pleasant. They may have imparted a bit too much of the character of the cone itself – such is the risk of fresh hopping.
Overall, I enjoyed the beer. As expected the freshness offers a new dimension to the beer which makes it interesting through to the bottom of the glass. While head brewer Paul Gautreau may not have fully exploited the potential of the harvest fresh hops, he is in the right zone. The base beer complements the fresh hop well, and there is a great deal of potential for this recipe, should they choose to brew it again next year, maybe with a larger aroma addition. It would also be fun, in my opinion, to get the same beer released simultaneously with standard hopping and with fresh hops to really draw out the effects of using fresh hops.
Just a thought.
The understated space of Station Ho.st in Montreal
I mentioned a couple posts ago that I was in Montreal on a family trip recently. While that meant not much time for beer exploration, I did wheedle (whine?) a couple of hours of beer time. With such a limited window, I focused my energy on Montreal’s newest beer spot. It is called Station Ho.st (no, that is not a typo – there is a dot in the pub’s name) and it is, essentially, a tied house for Hopfenstark, one of the core group of Quebec craft breweries.
Station Ho.st is a quiet, understated pub on the quiet end of Ontario Street, about 10 minutes east of Cheval Blanc. Natural wood and muted tones dominate the decor of the long, narrow room. It is quiet and somewhat dark space for the moment relatively sparsely furnished. It has been open for less than 3 months, which means it is still very much a word-of-mouth operation. Good news I have good hearing.
They have 20 taps. Most are Hopfenstark products but they always make sure to have at least a couple devoted to other Quebec breweries. They have the wise policy of offering 100 ml servings of every beer they sell, so you can essentially build your own sampler tray. It is a bit more pricey that way, but I was able to work through a much larger chunk of their tap list while still remaining coherent. I could even read all my notes afterward, which is a good sign.
There were a number of highlights, but I have to start with their Boson de Higgs, what the very knowledgeable bartender called a berlinerauchsaison. Yes, you read that right. It is a saison with some smoked malt added. It also has some tart Berliner Weisse character (plus it clocks in at the berliner-like 3.8%). I can safely say I have never had a beer experience like this. It is a subtle mixture of clean, fresh tartness, a light citrus and spice note and a hint of smoke playing in the background. It works in part because it starts fairly crisp and sweet, allowing first the smoke and then the tartness sharpen and alter the beer. Subtle yet marvelously multi-layered. I really enjoyed my sample.
They also offer an actual Berliner Weisse, called Berlin Alexander Platz, which I had to try because it may just be the only one brewed in Canada. Very puckering and quite refreshing. I can see why Germans drink it for breakfast. Sure beats grapefruit juice. I can speak to how authentic it is for this rare and difficult style, but it hit the markers I was expecting.
Hopfenstark clearly likes their saisons – there were no less than 6 on tap – and to experiment. They had regular saisons, a rye saison and even a saison with spruce needles (called Voivod: Kluskap O’Kom, whatever that means). Their flagship line – Ostalgia Rousse and Blonde – were well-made German styles (an altbier and a kolsch). They even had a cask ale, an American Pale Ale with Simcoe additions.
There were some misses as well; I found Continue reading Berlinerauchsaison and Other Hopfenstark Innovations
My most recent Vue Weekly column is a review of Hog’s Head’s (hmm, two possessives – that can’t be right) Hop Slayer. I reviewed their flagship IPA shortly after its release, but thought I should offer it a bit more space given its newness on the Edmonton beer scene.
I won’t rehash either review here – you can read the Vue version here – but I will re-iterate what I find interesting about this beer. Because they have intentionally made the beer darker with a bit more malt accent, the beer comes across as much more balanced than would normally be the case for a beer with 100 IBUs. There is a definite hop bite, but it comes later than with many IPAs, and it doesn’t seem to overwhelm the beer as some IPAs can be. Now, if you like a hop bomb, then this particular version may not be for you, but I personally like the appearance of balance while knowing there are some real hops in there.
There has been some talk on the street about some quality control problems with Hop Slayer. I can’t confirm that is the case, but neither am I worried at this stage. A batch that goes sideways shortly after it leaves the brewery is a concern but not fatal. Such a hitch is not uncommon for new breweries. It is one thing to nail a beer while brewing test batches; it is far another to consistently be error-proof while simultaneously ramping up production, learning the kinks of the brewhouse and scrambling to procure the right ingredients on a regular basis.
My recommendation for people is that you keep trying the beer periodically over the first couple years of production. First, it will undoubtedly shift as the brewers tweak the recipe. Second, production issues will eventually get worked out. In the meantime, if you do get a pint or a six-pack that seems off, don’t hesitate to inform the bar owner/liquor store owner. And be sure to offer a heads up to the brewery as well. They can’t fix what they don’t know has gone wrong.
Following my own advice I will be picking up another six-pack of Hop Slayer sometime soon.
The first slate of winter releases have been popping out over the past couple weeks, so it seems time for another news roundup. I suspect there will be a few more announcements in the coming weeks, but this is what I have heard from around the prairies recently.
- Alley Kat’s latest Big Bottle series is out this week, and it is called ________’s Chocolate Orange Porter. Customers are encouraged to personalize their bottle by adding their own name to the label. While it might seem a cute gimmick, it actually has a natural connection. A couple of years ago, Alley Kat brewed up the Chocolate Orange Porter as a Christmas gift for loyal customers and clients. It was released for sale and was personally delivered to select people. Releasing the Big Bottle version with no name kind of links to that original idea. The beer is a robust porter with some citrus character to it.
- Edgerton’s Ribstone Creek continues to expand their repertoire with the release a couple of weeks ago of Rangeland Pale Ale. This keg-only product can be found in a handful of locations in Alberta (the usual spots – you know where to look…). Described as an “easy-drinking pale ale”, it is intended to be a new permanent addition to their line-up.
- Village Brewing in Calgary has just released a new Winter Mixed Pack called, appropriately, Village Square. Each 12-pack includes 3 bottles each of their Wit, Blonde, Blacksmith and Monk. It will be available in Calgary for certain. No word if they plan to send it northward as well.
- Over in Saskatchewan, Great Western Brewing was recently named the Official Brewery of the Canadian Football League. To mark the new partnership, and to commemorate the 101st Grey Cup which will be held in Regina later this month, they have released a one-time, limited edition beer, simply called CFL Beer (okay, no points for branding originality there). It is an American-style wheat beer packaged in cans designed to look like a football. More importantly, I am told by GWB’s Brewing Supervisor, Greg Kitz, that the Grey Cup holds exactly 9 1/2 bottles of beer. Who knew?
- Heading back to Calgary, Wild Rose’s annual winter seasonal, Cherry Porter, is back on shelves in their traditional 1-litre swing top bottles. This dark, fruity porter is very popular which is why it merits return engagements every year.
- Finally, Half Pints has announced December 6 as the release date for its latest version of Demeter’s Harvest Wheat Wine. This wheat barley wine is surprisingly light and earthy with a noted honey sweetness. Or at least the last version was. Who knows what Dave has up his sleeve this year.
That’s what I got for you for now. Wow, a whole bit of news coverage without one mention of Rob Ford’s troubles! A rarity these days.