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La Folie is Hardly Folly

new belgium la folieI think I have been fairly clear over the last few months just what I think of New Belgium Brewing (if you are not sure read here and here). Their entry into Alberta has been nothing short of fascinating for someone who watches the beer scene. There has been a level of buzz about their arrival among Alberta beer drinkers unparalleled by anything else I have seen. Is it too much? Maybe. The price point sure seems higher than it need be. But there is no questioning that Albertans have embraced New Belgium.

Most of the interest is over their Fat Tire and, to a lesser extent, Ranger IPA. But the agency has brought in some other stuff from them as well, which is flying more under the radar. I recently picked up a bottle of their La Folie (2014), which is a wood-aged sour as part of their Lips of Faith Series.

The label says it is aged from one to three years in french oak. I take that to mean the final product is a blend of younger and older but I can’t be entirely certain of that. My instinct is that this is being brewed as a Flanders Sour, most likely a Red.

To begin, the appearance is perplexing and intriguing. It is dark burgundy red with a tight, unbelievably tight tan head that hangs around for hours and leaves behind some intense lacing. The head is almost like that from a stout. The aroma gives away the beer immediately. It i s distinctly tart with a earthy, woody, nutty, caramel malt undertone. The other aspects create complexity in the aroma, but really, this is about the sour. Like a darker, richer version of Duchess or Rodenbach. First impressions suggest a beer landing somewhere in the middle between Flanders Red and Oud Bruin.

A slightly sweet nutty malt flashes across the tip of my tongue, but only for the briefest of nanoseconds. Then in comes the behemoth of tart. It has two layers, starting clean and lactic but then becoming more woody and phenolic. The strongest point is just before the swallow, where it feels the sourness will suck your tongue straight into the roof of your mouth. The linger eases off a bit, allowing touches of soft malt to return to create a bit of beer character.

La Folie is an intense, tart experience. Not as clean as traditional versions – more rustic and rangy in its feel. A full 650 ml bottle is too much for one person – needs to be shared. Overall I think lacks the finesse of traditional Belgian sours I have sampled but still a fascinating beer. If you like your sours, then it is likely worth a shot.

Why Portland is Amazing, Redux

The now-famous Portland Beer Truck.

The now-famous Portland Beer Truck.

I know I raved about Portland a couple of months ago and how incredibly amazing the place is for craft beer. Well, the columns I wrote about my trip have been trickling out, giving me another opportunity to wax eloquent about Portland’s charms. (You can read the Planet S version here).

In short, it is what all other cities aspire to. Huge local beer culture, craft beer in virtually every pub, and a friendly competitiveness that spurs quality and innovation. I know, the prairies feel like a million light years from that place. And while we have a long way to go, I actually think we can get there quicker than we think. It will take effort and some major re-thinking on part of government/business/consumers, but it is doable.

So, what were my favourite parts of Portland. For one BEER TRUCKS!! Best thing ever (see the post here). I wish we had them everywhere. Beyond that it was simply the ubiquitous presence of craft beer. Sure, I drank some amazing beer in some amazing beer pubs – which I chat about in the above-mentioned columns. But I was most struck by the sheer availability of local craft beer. As a test, I walked into an average sports bar – you know, the kind of place that has too many TVs and who think they are being edgy by offering a tap of Shock Top. I was floored. Despite a plethora of Bud and Coors paraphernalia on the wall, half the taps were local breweries and they even had 4 IPAs. I found that amazing.

That is why I find Portland to be an exemplar for the rest of us. It shows us where craft beer can go given enough time and support. For god’s sake, 45% of all beer sold in that city is craft! Imagine that!

I am not saying Portland is the be all and all. Every city and region  has its craft beer highlights, and we need to support and value our local craft breweries, since they are our neighbours and friends. But you will forgive me having a bit of a Portland crush right now.



Nokomis Knows Ales

nokomis logoWhat do you do if you are a carpenter living in a town of about 450 residents? If you are Jeff Allport, you open a brewery! The prairies’ newest brewery, Nokomis Craft Ales (note, this is just a placeholder site for the moment), is located in the non-metropolis of Nokomis, Saskatchewan. Allport, a former Vancouver resident tired of the bustle of the big city, moved to this tiny town mid-way between Saskatoon and Regina a couple of years ago with his girlfriend to hit the reset button on his life. As a carpenter he knew his skills were transportable, but it was his homebrewing and not his hammering that led to his next big project.

Allport has been a serious homebrewer for “quite a few years” and, like most homebrewers, he dreamed of one day starting up his own brewery. With recent changes to SLGA rules around capacity he realized maybe, just maybe it might work out. Partly appalled by the state of beer in Saskatchewan (he quickly excepted Paddock Wood and Bushwakker), and partly intrigued by the opportunities a small town afforded he decided to give it a shot. “Every homebrewer dreams of the idea of starting a brewery. I never would have considered in Vancouver – tight marketplace and much more expensive to get a business off the ground in urban centre”, he says.” Our cost of living is quite low here and affordable to get a business off the ground”.

After developing a business plan he approached the Nokomis town council and purchased three-quarters of an acre of land from them for $1 (try THAT in Vancouver), where he mostly by himself built a small building to house the brewery. He then scrounged and saved and borrowed and begged to self-finance the purchase of a small 7-barrel brewhouse with 2 fermenters and 1 bright tank. And then he started brewing.

He sold his first beer less than two weeks ago. The plan is to go exclusively with kegs and growlers, selling to select bars and at the Saskatoon and Regina Farmer’s Markets (the province recently allowed growler fills at farmers’ markets). “I don’t foresee ever getting to packaging, just kegs and growler sales”. Partly this is due to his limited capacity.  At the moment he can only brew 800 litres a week, mostly due to the limited fermentation space. Although he hopes to double that capacity in the next year or so, the plan is to always remain small and local. “I just need enough to pay the bills and pay myself. I don’t want to compromise quality and freshness by stretching too far”.

What he gives up in volume, he will gain in flexibility and innovation. He plans on using the extra land around the brewery to plant hops and intends on getting into micro-malting to create truly local beer. “They grow great two- row barley right outside my back yard” he notes. “It is crazy to have to ship it somewhere and then buy it back”.

As for flexibility, when I ask him what his beer line-up will be, I get an unexpected answer. “None. Not packaging frees me from having a flagship beer”. Instead his plan, in true homebrewing tradition, is to constantly brew up new things and rotate through styles. However, he does admit that “I will likely always have an IPA available, but I might mix up the hop varieties and stuff like that” to keep the beer new and interesting. To give a sense of what his approach is he walked through his first few batches. “My first batch was a dry-hopped American wheat ale, the second an IPA, the third a brown Ale, there is an American pale ale in the tank, and today I brewed an oatmeal stout”.

For the moment Nokomis truly is a one-man show. He brews, he cleans, he delivers, he sits at Continue reading Nokomis Knows Ales

Ed McNally Passes Away at Age 89

bigrock_edmcnallyBig 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.

You Know It Is a Slow News Day When…

Doing what judges do. Photo courtesy of Edmonton Journal.

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 Little Mid-August Clean Up

A beer you won't actually be seeing on store shelves, unfortunately.

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.


Arenas, Stadiums and now Beer Tents: Where’d All the Good Beer Go?


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.

folkfestlogoI 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?

The BJCP World Turns Upside Down

bjcp logoIn 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.

beer glass lineOverall Impressions

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

For Very Good Rhyme and Reason

collective arts logoWhat 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.

Seize the Brett: Farmhouse Week Part 3

logsdon brettMy 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.