Big Rock announced today that its founder, Ed McNally, has passed away. He was 89. This is significant news for craft beer lovers on the prairies, as Mr. McNally was a pioneer in craft beer in Canada and richly deserves to be honoured for his many beer-related achievements.
I wrote about my thoughts on McNally upon his retirement in 2012 (you can read the post here), so I will not go on at any length here. All I will say is regardless of your opinions of Big Rock’s beer today, or of your thoughts on Mr. McNally’s politics, you should take a moment to reflect on what beer in Alberta might be like if not for him and the handful of others who blazed a trail, cutting through the swath of pale, adjunct lager with flavourful beer. Dear god, they had the nerve to make a BROWN beer in the 1980s! And an ale, too boot!
Of course one of the great fallacies of history is that it is made by so-called “great men”. I do not argue that without Ed McNally craft beer would not have grown in these parts. The craft beer movement was a social movement, driven by thousands of consumers and led by a myriad of key figures and personalities. Without Ed McNally, there would have been someone else to do something similar.
Yet, that should not prevent us from honouring the history we do have. And Ed McNally played an integral part of that history. So raise a pint of your favourite craft beer and give a moment to thank McNally for his commitment to beer. He deserves that, at the very least.
Doing what judges do. Photo courtesy of Edmonton Journal.
…The Edmonton Journal runs a page 3 article in the business section on the changing BJCP style guidelines, including a monster-sized photo of yours truly.
Seriously. This past Saturday. Check out the online version here.
The back story is that a young reporter with the Journal saw my blog post a couple weeks back with my take on the recentrelease of the new BJCP Style Guidelines (which you can read here). They were sufficiently intrigued that they called me up and asked me what impact this could have on the industry as a whole. After some stammering and meandering, I finally found a coherent answer, albeit a bit of a stretch. The article took off from there. The photo was arranged a couple days later. The Brewsters location was selected because I had just been meeting with Gunther about his Kolsch in preparation for my CBC column last week.
The article is fine, although I am convinced 95% of people reading it still have no clue what has changed. Plus I think the paired quotes between me and Greg Zeschuk are set up to be a bit more in disagreement that I think we actually are.
My argument, to make it more complete, was simple. The BJCP is respected by craft brewers, even though the BJCP’s mission is aimed at homebrewers. If the BJCP gives its nod to a style name and regional tradition, more homebrewers start trying to make it. More beer drinkers have a good familiarity with what that beer tastes like. Which, I contend, creates space for commercial craft brewers to more openly brew that style. I argue it was, in part, the profile provided in the BJCP guidelines to rare styles like Saison, Bier de Garde, Kolsch and so forth that have led both the recent proliferation of these beer, and the direct naming of those styles.
The more consumers understand beer styles, the more they will demand brewers use style names accurately, and the less they will put up with Alexander Keith’s IPA and its mis-named ilk. This is good all the way around. I look forward to seeing in a few years labels proclaiming the latest Leichtbier or Abbey Single, or such other.
Anyway, slow news week aside, not a bad moment in the sun for the hardworking people at the BJCP.
A beer you won’t actually be seeing on store shelves, unfortunately.
So things have been slower on the beer news front the past few weeks as I imagine most breweries in the region are busy trying to keep up with summer beer sales. But a few straggled bits of news have come across my desk, and since I plan a quick weekend camping trip, I thought I would just close out the week with a quick run down on what is on tap, so to speak.
In no particular order:
- One beer you WON’T be seeing this summer is Ribstone Creek’s latest planned season, Firepit Wit. Due to some production problems, they have scrapped its release. It sounds like the problem originated with a new in-house yeast propagation system, which caused the yesat to poop out too early. This is not an uncommon issue in young breweries, so I actually tip my hat to the Ribstone folks for openly acknowledging the issue. I am certain it won’t shake anyone’s confidence in their brewing. As a homebrewer I can say I have lost a batch or two in my day as well.
- A beer you will soon be seeing more of is Grizzly Paw’s Rundlestone Session Ale. Released earlier this year as a one-off at the brewpub, the sales were strong enough they have decided to move it over to their retail side and will be selling it in liquor stores across the province. At 4.5% alcohol, it fits into those lighter beer with a hop accent.
- Available as of today is Draft Legal Kolsch, a special beer made by the Brewsters brewpub chain (more specifically designed by their Oliver Square brewmaster, Gunther Trageser). It is a beer made exclusively for the World Triathlon Grand Final being held in Edmonton in late August. The name comes from the term for the practice of riding closely behind the rider in front of you, an action only elite level tri-atheletes can perform. The significance of the beer itself is that it is, in my opinion, the closest thing to a traditional kolsch we will find around these parts. Draft Legal will be at all the Triathlon events, including the beer gardens in Sir Winston Churchill Square, but you can sample it starting today at the Oliver Square Brewsters location.
- Last week, Half Pints released the 2014 edition of Humulus Ludicrous, its intense double IPA. If you don’t live in Winnipeg, I wouldn’t hold my breath that any will make it your way. It is possible, but I do know it is highly popular among Half Pints’ regulars in W-town.
- In related Half Pints news, they have announced the second annual Half Pints Pro-Am Brewing Challenge. In partnership with Winnipeg Brew Bombers homebrew club, it is an innovative beer competition where amateur and professional beer are judged side-by-side (although pro and amateur medals are awarded separately). It runs September 29-October 4. More details on entries, etc. are forthcoming.
- Finally, I just learned (because I asked them) that Alley Kat’s next seasonal will be their Pumpkin Pi spiced ale. A popular fall beer, they plan on releasing it September 3. Keep an eye out.
That is what I’ve got for now. Should be enough to keep you sated until I get back from my camping trip next week.
The Edmonton Folk Fest Beer Tent
I just spent the last weekend doing what I always do on this particular weekend of the year; grooving and chilling at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. It is always a highlight of my social calendar in the year. Rocking to long time favourites (this year Michael Franti) and the joy of discovering someone I had never heard of before (this year that prize goes to Hudson Taylor) make it an unforgettable weekend each and every year.
It will surprise you not that I also spend my share of time in the beer tent (officially called the “beer garden”, but to us seasoned, grizzled vets it will always be the beer tent). And that experience is usually less memorable. Not because of the company – it really feels like a large 4-day kitchen party in there – but because of the beer. The Edmonton Folk Fest, like most festivals in Canada, is a tied house. Sponsorship deals lead to only one brewery getting access to the thousands of thirsty patrons looking for a beer or two after seeing some great music on the hill. In the case of the Folk Festival, the fortunate brewery is Big Rock. This year they offered their Saaz Pilsner, IPA and, of course, Trad and Grasshopper.
Over the course of the weekend I tried bouncing between three (I generally avoid Grasshopper like a plague of locusts), and still came away rather unsatisfied. On their own, I don’t really have too large of a complaint about them. The Saaz is a drinkable, decent pilsner, Trad continues to offer reliable flavour and the IPA, while rather disappointing as an IPA does have some things going for it. But put them together and it is a rather uninspiring lot.
I complained about this last fall (which you can read here) when hearing about the range of options at British music festivals. But with my last glass of Trad still lingering, I feel compelled to complain again. In part because as each passing year comes and goes, the excuse for not offering a range of craft beer choices gets less credible. This year I discovered another local beer aficionado (who will remain un-named for obvious reasons) was driven by the lack of choice to smuggle in cans of craft beer to sate their thirst. This is, of course, a forbidden act due to AGLC rules (can’t really blame the festival for that one), but at least they opted for cans rather than bottles (bringing glass onto the festival site is a MUCH more grievous misdeed in my opinion). So while I officially wave my tsking finger at them, I also silently applaud their determination to drink a range of good beer.
Whether it is a sports venue or a music festival, the dollars that come from exclusive contracts and sponsorship are simply too hard to ignore, and that is why they happen. Or at least that is the popular wisdom. I am not saying it isn’t true – Big Rock pays big money to festivals for exclusivity, money desperately needed by cash-strapped festivals. But if we look to Britain, or to sports arenas in the U.S., they find a way to offer a more eclectic range of beer offerings without seeming to suffer too much financially. Of course, I am not their accountant so can’t be sure, but the model does seem workable.
I think the core of the issue is that festivals (and sports events) don’t leverage their own bargaining power enough. The Folk Festival has 25,000 people a day who are provided no choice but to drink the offerings in the beer tent. That is worth more to a brewery than the festival gives itself credit. I argue at the next contract renewal negotiations, if the Folk Fest said to Big Rock, “you will allow a couple of taps for other breweries” as a starting point, Big Rock won’t walk away from the table.
I spent time thinking about it over the weekend. The Festival could go a couple of routes profitably. First they could continue to give Big Rock all the branding and promotional space (glasses with logos, banners, tap handles, ads, etc.) and charge them for that promotion. A couple of other breweries would be allowed to provide product, but not be given the same degree of profile. I think Big Rock might go for that.
Or they could take a more innovative route. Big Rock is now an active member of the Alberta Small Brewers Association. Why not transfer the sponsorship contract to the association? Big Rock would still be Continue reading Arenas, Stadiums and now Beer Tents: Where’d All the Good Beer Go?
In July the Beer Judge Certification Program, the leading amateur beer education and style defining organization, released the draft of its 2014 Style Guidelines (you can find a link to the PDF here). The changes are huge. Massive. Dis-orienting. So, though I might offer up a few of my thoughts and initial reactions to the draft.
As most of you know, I am a BJCP Certified judge and have in my beer writing taken the BJCP Guidelines as my rough road map to understanding beer styles. I have always been careful to see the style guide for what it is – a framework for understanding the differences and similarities between beer anchored in historical and regional traditions and NOT a set of firm rules. Still, its approach has profoundly shaped how I understand beer.
Which means my (and other judges’) world is about to be turned upside down. Previous editions of the guidelines have been anchored around perception commonalities – flavour, colour, etc. The primary divide, a reasonable one, was lager vs. ale (and the quirky hybrid styles) and categories were constructed around beer from similar profiles – pale lager, bock, porter, etc. The new edition comes at the project from a completely different frame of mind. The new guideline is divided, mostly, around geography with some vestigial sensory and ingredient components. The ale/lager distinction is fuzzified, with ales and lagers co-existing in the same category. Some categories, such as Pilsner, are eliminated entirely while others (Stout, Porter, Bock) are scattered among other classifications. Meanwhile many categories arise anew, including International Lager, Czech Lager and American Wild Ale, and a plethora of new styles appear.
There are far too many changes, and their ramifications too far-reaching, for one single post. So, instead, I will offer some initial observations, recognizing there will be many omissions. Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts. I will go at this in two sections – first an assessment of the overall effect and then some specific nits that I wish to pick.
Before I start, I want to openly acknowledge that much of my reaction is simply being forced to re-think what has become second nature. Humans are often reluctant to change, and this one is a biggie. So filter my comments with that in mind.
Virtually all of my comments relate to the categorization logic and style selection. There is a reason for that. I have long felt the BJCP does a good job of describing style characteristics and I am not particularly hung up on the commercial examples they list. And when it comes to styles with which I am less familiar, who am I to question their descriptions? Do I really know better than the authors what a Sahti or a German Leichtbier taste like? Plus it is my nature to look at the logic behind the system as much as the words themselves. So be it.
The old (existing) philosophy had an elegant coherence to it. Like was matched with like. The worlds of ale and lager were distinct. There was an instinctive sense that (most) of the styles naturally fit together. The downside, of course, was that it created a bit of rigidity in interpretations and new developments were not easily absorbed into the system. White IPA is a perfect example – where does it go? The Specialty category had become a grab-bag of miscellany.
The new framing solves the weaknesses of the former versions but at the expense of that elegant coherence. The new categories do not make intuitive sense. American Wheat Beer is clustered with American Light Lager. Baltic Porter is matched with Doppelbock and Eisbock (and categorized as a lager). Saison and Biere de Garde are in separate categories. Why? The forced nature of some of the categories are demonstrated by how many adjectives have to be used – “Amber Malty European Lager”. Surely there must be an easier way to group similar styles?
The new edition increases the number of defined styles to 104 (plus 13 mead and 11 cider). On that front, I am quite comfortable. I think the authors have done a great job of addressing the bulk of the major omissions from previous versions. Most of the newly added styles are longstanding beer that simply fell through the cracks – Kellerbier. Australian Sparkling Ale, Trappist Single and Wheatwine just to name a few. The number of styles remains manageable and is a better reflection of the world of beer today.
I also think they hit a stand-up triple in their handling of the various specialty, historical, spiced, gluten-free and sour beer. The old category 23 (Specialty) had become nonsensical. There is now a much higher degree of demarcation and identification which creates more room for brewers and easier assessment for judges.
However, I simply can’t get past the geographic anchoring. It feels clunky to me. I have three main concerns. First, I find it creates artificial divisions between beer of relative similarity. For example, Czech Premium Lager (what Czech Pilsner is now called) and German Pils have more in common, both stylistically and historically, with each other than their new category mates (in the case of German, Kolsch, Exportbier – the new Dortmunder Export – and Leichtbier – a newly recognized style). There are lots of those examples.
Second, I think it overvalues some regions’ brewing traditions and under-values others. Czech beer is given its own category and four styles, while Baltic and Nordic brewing traditions are passed over. Or how about Japan? I realize the Czechs have a long and storied beer history, but so do many other places. Also, I recognize not everyone can be included, but this is the danger in creating regional vs. perception separators. I am well aware Czech interpretations are Continue reading The BJCP World Turns Upside Down
What may be one of the most interesting new projects in Canada’s beer scene is Ontario’s Collective Arts Brewing. This Burlington-based company is an intentional fusion of beer, music and visual arts. They have partnered with various musicians and artists in Ontario to produce a unique approach to label design. Most breweries are careful to ensure their label design consistently builds a brand recognition. Collective Arts went the other way. Every time you pick up a b0ttle of their beer, you can be assured the label will be VERY different than the last time.
Collective Arts’ labels are works of art, literally. Every few months they launch a new numbered series of limited edition artwork, each one with its own distinct tone and style. Further, using some new-fangled app, you can scan the label to launch music, videos and bios of the artists involved. Cool, eh?
I really like how art and design is fully integrated into the mission of the brewery. They are not just making beer, they are making a statement about culture in general. I am pleased to see craft beer aim high.
Oh yeah, and the beer is pretty darned good as well. I picked up a couple of bottles when in Ontario a couple months back and tried them a couple weeks ago. They have two beer: Rhyme & Reason, what they call an “extra pale ale” and Saint of Circumstance, a citrus-infused blonde ale. The former won gold in American-Style Pale Ale at that 2014 Canadian Brewing Awards.
I could easily have reviewed either beer, as both are quite well done, but opt to give you my impressions of Rhyme & Reason.
It pours slightly hazy dark yellow and produces a dense, tight white head. I immediately pick up a strong citrus hop aroma, accented by grapefruit and sharp lemon. A moderate grainy malt lies underneath, but the aroma is biased toward hops.
The flavour begins with a grassy, grainy, almost wheat-like malt sweetness. I also detect honey, light fruits and meadow flowers. The hops kick in fairly quickly, building a very fruity, citrusy character. The finish has a bit of resin and more grapefruit blended with honey. The beer reminds me a bit of a White IPA (maybe because I have been drinking lots of them lately), but not quite as bitter. The light, blonde-like body alters the shape of the beer.The finish is fairly dry and sharp, and citrus carries through the linger.
One might make comparisons to Trashy Blonde, but R&R has a smoother, sweeter body. Lighter in body than most pale ales, but with a strong hop assertiveness. This is no IPA, but neither is it a traditional take on pale ale. A very creative, intriguing beer. But I guess that would be appropriate given the brewery’s broader mission.
My third beer during Farmhouse Week is a beer I picked up during my May trip to beer Mecca, Portland. In a place like that you can likely imagine when you only have room for a handful of beer in your suitcase how hard it is to figure out what to choose to bring home. Luckily one of my choices was Mount Hood’s Logsdon Farmhouse Organic Ales’ Seizoen Bretta, their regular Saison spiked with Brettanomyces.
I was originally planning on letting this beer sit for a year or two to allow the Brett to keep working on it. But when I found myself trying a bunch of other saisons a few days apart, I thought I might as well crack it open (plus my cellar is bursting at the seams, proving I have something of a store-it-but-never-drink-it problem).
I can say that I am not sorry I cut its life short.
It is a very hazy, light gold beer that builds a thick, consistent white head with moderate lacing. It shows itself to be very effervescent. The aroma first shows up with yeasty spicing, some honey-like malt sweetness and a rough, earthy character. There is a mustiness there, but in the aroma it lingers in the background.
The front of the taste is relatively traditional, offering a dry saison character. It has some sweetness but is mostly crisp and spicy, with pepper and an accent of tart fruit. The middle has a slightly greasy, silky feel. It is in the back end and the linger where the Brett shows itself. Musty, earthy and sweaty, it is unavoidable but does not overtake the other flavours. The Brett builds in the aftertaste. The linger is yeast spiciness, hay, and musty barn. I find myself wondering if there is a bit of umami character to the beer. Who knows?
This is a beer that shows what you can do with Brett, how to offer another dimension without trashing the other flavour elements. There is no question Brett has shifted and changed this beer – I wish I had also brought home their regular saison – yet it does not lose its dry, refreshing saison character. Clearly well crafted, interesting and original. It may offer too much to be a beer to drink after mowing the lawn (something most saisons can do), but I don’t regret hauling it across the border by any stretch.
OV: Well crafted, interesting and showing brett without being too overpowering. Not sure I would have a second, as the mustiness does get palate exhausting by the end.
When I was in Ontario in May, I found a few hours to visit a couple of new breweries that have decided to swim against the current in the wine-crazed region of Niagara-On-The-Lake. I spoke about them on my CBC column shortly after coming back and intend on getting around to them again – as both are quality brewers. Their names are Silversmith Brewing and Niagara Oast House Brewery. Both have only been open a short time, but are quickly making a dent in the monolith that is wine in that part of Canada.
As I said, I will talk about the breweries more fully another time. Today, I just want to write about a bottle I brought home from the visit. Oast House, opened in 2012, specializes in farmhouse ales – their two main beer are a Saison and a Biere de Garde. During my visit I enjoyed my small taste of Saison enough to pick up a bottle to bring home. And I opened that bottle last week.
It comes in a champagne corked 750-ml bottle. Like most saisons, it pours a hazy bright yellow forming a thick, rocky head. I get a light pilsner malt aroma complemented by a delicate peppery spiciness along with touches of honey and grainy sweetness. The front of the sip is lightly fruity and also offering honey and light graininess. This is a really delicate and pleasing ber in the intial take. Shortly after a rounded yeast spiciness kicks in, but nothing too sharp. Just a touch of earthiness and a dusting of white pepper undertones. It tastes almost like a dry spcied mead. It is really light and finishes slightly dry with a touch of hop linger. It also reminds me of a sharp tripel, except the yeast spicing is different.
Oast House Saison is a very delicate, dry, soft version of the style. I find it much lighter in body and palate than many I have tried, and I appreciate it for that. The dryness allows for a prickly carbonation bite to shine through a bit, adding a touch of complexity. Also going for it is its 6.5% alcohol, which is a more traditional alcohol level for saisons (most newer craft brewery versions are closer to 5%).
It takes an experienced hand to produce a saison with this degree of subtlety and balance. Many saisons either have too much body or go overboard on the yeast spiciness. This one gets that highwire act down pat, and rises in stature as a result.
I recognize this beer is not available on the prairies (yet, I hope), but it really is a must-try if you are in the Niagara region.
In a case of pure happenstance, over the past few days I found myself sampling a range of different farmhouse ales. Of course earlier I had tried Alley Kat’s Old Jake’s Farmhouse Ale (reviewed here) and had planned to sample Wild Rose’s The Midnight Son, but found myself sipping on two others around the same time.
So, says my editor, why not post the reviews in succession and call it something? Sure, good idea, I responded (I do tend to talk to myself a lot). Of course, as editors can be, they were not particularly helpful at naming this festival of farmhouse, so I decided to call it – in the German tradition of obvious and literal beer naming – Farmhouse Week. Welcome to Part One.
First up, the planned tasting of Wild Rose The Midnight Son, brewed as a Sahti, which is a Finnish Farmhouse Ale almost always made with juniper.
It pours hazy dark gold with a thick, dense, small bubbled white head with both staying power and a nice lace. The aroma is earthy and musty with a touch of spice. I get hints of minty juniper but really, really subtle. There is also some moderate toffee malt underneath.
I take a sip and find a beer that first presents a light crispy malt sweetness, but that is quickly overtaken by other characteristics. The body is moderately light and sweet. At first an earthy graininess appears and a bit of floral fruitiness. Then as the beer works its way back, the flavour becomes both more spicy and more musty. The spice reminds one of saison, but with a twist. That twist is an earthy sweetness that, I think, comes from juniper. It effect reminds me of heather, with which I have more brewing and tasting experience. Green, floral, fruity and dirty, the juniper is a rounded, multi-layered flavour that gives the beer some complexity. Plus you can totally tell there is a saison base there.
Of course, I have no clue how close this gets to a traditional Sahti, having never had one. I suspect the Wild Rose folks aren’t really sure either. What I can say is I like the effect of the juniper on the beer (keep in my I like brewing heather ales). What might have been simply a so-so, middling saison becomes a more interesting beer. Maybe not a classic, but it gives a unique tasting opportunity.
For the moment I will keep the other farmhouse ales a secret, but be sure to return in a couple of days for the next installment of (cue dramatic music) Farmhouse Week!
Regular readers of onbeer.org will know that I have over the years been exploring the taste differences between keg and bottle (and can). It has been an interesting journey without any firm or solid conclusions so far. You can read previous experiments and side-by-side tastings here, here and here. There is a broad consensus in the beer world that beer on tap and in the bottle display subtle differences. Whether that is actually the case, we don’t really know. Hence my intermittent experimenting. It has been a while since I have made an intentional side-by-side, but the topic still intrigues me.
An opportunity presented itself recently, so I thought I would blow the dust off my lab coat and take another stab at seeing if I could detect any difference. Usual caveats apply – not blind, no control over handling, etc., although I did take the usual precautions – same temperature, same shape of glass and so forth.
The beer in question is Alley Kat’s latest Big Bottle, Old Jake’s Farmhouse Ale. I reviewed it a week or so ago (read it here). I was in Sherbrooke a few days ago and they happened to have Old Jake’s on their growler system. As I happened to have a one-litre howler on me (lucky coincidence!), I decided to get a fill of it. On a lark I decided to also buy another bottle of Old Jake’s.
So far I have tried fairly straightforward beer for my tests, mostly malt accented. I thought testing out a saison, with its pronounced yeast characteristics might prove interesting. I pulled a glass of each and sat down to see what differences I perceived. We know the beer is from the same batch, and while we can’t guarantee they were treated the same during shipping and storage, we can be highly confident they were given similar treatment – Alley Kat tends to self-distribute in the Edmonton area and Sherbrooke has a sizable beer cooler.
Of course the initial appearance of the beer were identical, a slightly hazy medium gold. Although I did think the head was both fuller and left more lacing in the bottled version. In the aroma, I thought I detected a bit more fruitiness in the kegged version, with the bottle being more sharp. In the taste, the bottled version seemed drier, spicier and more prickly. I might have also detected a bit more hop note as well, but can’t quite trust myself on that one.
The carbonation seemed higher and more acidic in the bottled version. This effect might be due to the slight carbonation loss in the growler filling. However Sherbrooke’s system is fairly high tech, so I can’t really imagine it was that significant to the overall effect of the beer (and for the record I conducted the experiment a few hours after the purchase, so that is not an issue). I am left wondering if the kegged version presents with a softer carbonation – a trait I have often found in kegged vs. bottled beer, even with my homebrew.
I don’t want to exaggerate the difference. They are clearly the same beer. I just think the kegged version presented softer and more rounded. It seemed to accent the earthy notes more than the spicy notes. It also felt fuller in the body.
My experience with the blind test of Yukon Red (that would be this post) makes me more cautious around making definitive statements, but I would swear on a copy of The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing that I detected noticeable differences between the two versions of the beer.
Just another data point on the grand science experiment that is drinking beer.