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Beer That Makes Your Heart Grow Three Sizes That Day

yukon 39 poleNormally naming something 39-1/2 Foot Pole might not be sending the right message to your customers, since the term comes from “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and who would want to be associated with seasick crocodiles, dead tomatoes squashed with moldy purple spots, and crooked jerky jockeys (whatever that is)?

Yet our friends at Yukon Brewing gleefully plow ahead with their 39-1/2 Foot Pole Black Currant IPA, embracing their inner Grinch (okay, maybe their inner Who). This release is part of their new bomber series of one-off seasonals. Some of you who purchased the 2013 version of the Craft Beer Advent Calendar may remember this beer as Yukon’s contribution to the yuletide beer gift box.

However, in the need to accommodate the packaging of the calendar (a rather involved process as you can imagine), they had to brew the beer in the summer. This meant black currant puree instead of fresh fruit. Plus by the time consumers got to pop it open, much of both the black currant and hop character had dissipated.

So they wanted to try it again, and this time do it their way.

I picked up a bottle a couple weeks back, shortly after it arrived in Alberta, and opened up recently. It pours light orange with a decent but quickly dropping white head, leaving behind some lacing. It could be my imagination but I swear I detect a slight purple hue  in there, ever so subtle (or ever so projected by my brain).

The aroma begins with sharp black currant mixed with an earthy hop aroma. Other fruity esters supplement and create depth. I pick up light toffee malt underneath, but this aroma is about rich fruit. The black currant aroma is definitely still in full bloom.

In the sip, I get a surprisingly light malt upfront. It has some toffee, a bit of honey graininess. Then the fruit note starts to rise, offering an earthy, sharp sweetness that reminds me of blackberry (really!), grape and saskatoons. What quickly starts to emerge is a fascinating interplay between earthy, sharp fruit and a rounded, more grassy hop flavour and bitterness. At first it is hard to discern which is which, but then the hop slowly takes over and you can see a citrus, grassy bitterness form. The linger is a interesting mix of bitter and fruit tang. For the serious IPA-heads, the hop portion of this beer might disappoint, but that would be missing the point. It is not the most aggressively hopped IPA, aiming more towards balance than big hop hit, but that allows more of the fruit to shine through. It is its balance that makes the beer work.

By the time last year’s version got to people it was past its prime. This year it is fresher and the fruit is still making its presence known, creating a very engaging flavour combo. Neither element is overdone – the bitterness is present but reined in enough to allow the fruitiness to show itself as well. The black currant might be a great choice for fruit, adding sweet esters but also an earthy, slightly tart edge. A well-designed effort. It shows you what fresh can do.

Yes, I am certain I would touch this beer with a 39-1/2 foot pole. In fact I would happily touch it with a five-fingered hand. Repeatedly.

Full Moon vs. Full Moon

spyvsspyJust like the old Mad Magazine feature, Spy vs. Spy, the best way to work out the recent change to Alley Kat Full Moon from a Pale Ale to an India Pale Ale (see here), would be to have them face off against each other. The spies were identical except for their colour and were bitter enemies; the beer come from the same lineage and clearly are not enemies but the question is how much is different between them? The best way to find out is through a side-by-side taste test.

Actually the decision behind doing a side-by-side was born at the Next Act pub on the first day the new Full Moon IPA was available anywhere (Saturday, December 6). I had made a point of swinging by to try a pint and, as it worked out, Alley Kat owner Neil Herbst was there with a staffer giving it a try as well. We discussed the new beer and he suggested that trying the beer beside each other might be a useful exercise. I ran with the idea.

I got a pack of each beer from the brewery (so I was confident they were well handled despite being created a few weeks apart), handled them identically upon arriving home and poured them into identical (Alley Kat) glasses. So, I did my best to control extraneous factors beyond age, which was unavoidable.

The first clear impression is that they look identical (see photo below), just like Mad’s spies (actually less different than them). Not a wisp of colour difference, they have a similar head profile, same carbonation, and both offer nice clarity. Virtual clones of one another. This is interesting because I might have thought the extra malt would have added a bit more colour.

full moon 007The aroma is also very similar. It has that recognizable, wonderful Full Moon aroma of light toffee, biscuit and a noted fruitiness accented by a citrus, orange, floral hop character. The two aromas told me immediately I was dealing with the same beer, only that the IPA version was ever so slightly bigger – its aroma character was just a touch more assertive all the way around.

The Pale Ale version offered flavours of toffee, touches of sharp grain, biscuit and a fruitiness to add depth and complexity.The IPA has the same beginning but just like the aroma a little bigger. In both beer the hop takes its time building but winds up in a place of dominance. In the pale ale, it has a pleasant, moderate hop linger that grows ever so slowly but eventually makes itself known by the time the beer works its way to the back. In the IPA the hops still slide in casually but they keep going further, creating a more assertive effect.

It is in the linger where the two beer are most different. There is a noted citrusy, grassy hop linger to the IPA, while the Pale Ale is a bit cleaner. There is no question Alley Kat upped the beer to stretch it into the IPA category – where it legitimately resides. The finish alone tells me that.

I suspect most casual Full Moon drinkers won’t even notice a difference (some initial conversations with friends confirm this), but that does not mean there have been no changes. As I expect from Alley Kat, they are true to their word. They promised an IPA and they delivered. It is not the most aggressive or hopped-up IPA, but it deserves to be called as such.

So what to make of it all? That depends on Continue reading Full Moon vs. Full Moon

Saskatchewan Liquor Privatization Bad Economics?

liquor store coolerA new research report was released last week examining the economic case for the privatization of the SLGA in Saskatchewan. Called A Profitable Brew: A Financial Analysis of the SLGA and Its Potential Privatization (you can find a link to the PDF at this website), it was published by the Parkland Institute and the Saskatchewan branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. It is, as these kinds of reports are, full of numbers and fairly technical talk and thus likely desired reading for only the more policy wonkish of you (a crew with which I associate myself). However, since I taken a keen interest over the years on the consequences of liquor policy, and privatization in particular (find some samplings here and here and here), I thought I would briefly summarize its findings.

First, I have to say the report offers one of the most comprehensive explanations of how liquor distribution and retail occur in Saskatchewan that I have ever read. If you want to understand the province’s rather complex system, read pages 6-14.

The study’s overall assessment is that privatization would be a bad economic move for Saskatchewan citizens resulting in the loss of potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. Their main argument is that the SLGA is currently a highly profitable operation and any private option would invariably lower the profitability of the sector. The paper doesn’t say this openly, but the loss of revenue would require either cutbacks to government spending or new sources of revenue (taxes) to make up for the missing money.

gross profit marginsThe most intriguing aspect of their argument is their comparison of the economic performance of liquor retail in the four western provinces – two of whom have public retail (Saskatchewan and Manitoba), one a mixed system but growing increasingly private (B.C.) and one wholly private (Alberta). The numbers are striking. The chart to the right tracks Gross Profit Margin in each province. Alberta is that sad little red line dropping and dropping. B.C.’s drop is associated with its first major shift to private options.

The main culprit in Alberta’s sagging profit margins is the increasing cost of wholesale product. Wholesale costs grew almost three times faster in Alberta and B.C. than Manitoba and Saskatchewan over the past decade. This statistic might explain why Alberta beer prices are, inexplicably to some, higher than other provinces.

The reason is simple. First, having a single buyer and distributor is a form of vertical integration. Allow me to quote from the study:

One reason integration can control wholesale costs is that liquor suppliers need only deal with a single entity in order to sell their product across the entire network. There is no need for the liquor suppliers to intensively sell their products at the retail level, and therefore the marketing and administration costs of the suppliers are minimized, which can result in lower purchasing prices. Under a privatized retail system such as Alberta’s, there are hundreds of retailers with which a liquor supplier or agent might have to interact. (p. 23)

Second, privatization leads to a more complex distribution system. To again quote from the report: Continue reading Saskatchewan Liquor Privatization Bad Economics?

Last Best Ramping Up for Calgary Market

Dandy Brewing 007One of my stops when in Calgary a few weeks back was a visit with Brett Ireland over at Last Best, the soon-to-be brewpub that recently took over Brew Brothers brewhouse (life has been a bit busy, so this post has taken a while to get to). While the pub itself is still undergoing extensive renovations – they have hopes for a spring 2015 opening – beer is flowing from the operational brewery and can be found on tap at selected locations in Calgary.

Last Best, of course, is the latest venture from Bear Hill Brewing, the chain of brewpubs in small centres across Alberta (Jasper, Banff and Fort McMurray so far).

Brett toured me through the site and we chatted about their plans. In particular I was curious how they were going to handle entering a burgeoning and relatively more sophisticated market like Calgary (as compared to Jasper or Fort Mac). We then sat down and tried some beer.

Their original plan was not to hit Calgary quite yet. Instead they were eying locations in other mid-sized cities. However, word came down that the owner of Brew Brothers wanted out, so they started talking. As that was ongoing, the lease for Amsterdam Rhino, the restaurant attached to the brewery space (once linked to Brew Brothers but in recent years independent) came up and the restaurant owners also decided to close up shop. Suddenly Brett, Socrates and their partners found themselves with both an opportunity and a dilemma. they decided to jump and start the process of opening their next brewpub in bustling Calgary.

Dandy Brewing 006

What Last Best looks like at the moment.

At the moment the pub looks like, well, a construction site, but Brett described their plans for this two-floor, expansive space. It seems their plan is a combo of open and elegant with a touch of grounded country. It will have hundreds of seats, possibly making it Bear Hill’s most ambitious project and possibly the most aggressive brewpub initiative in Alberta yet (I say that without really working out Brewster’s capacity – they may very well have similar sized locations).

But it is the beer that interests me most. I am on the record saying that the beer at Bear Hill’s brewpubs are designed for their market. They are well made, but they aim for accessibility rather than stand-out flavour. I get this. They are in markets that are light-years away from Portland or Denver. Their conscious plan is to slowly move palates in those cities. That means, for the moment, their beer can be rather uninspiring for an experienced beer consumer, but we need to interpret that in context. I remember this spring being in Fort McMurray (and quite enjoying aspects of their pale ale and IPA), and talking to someone I was meeting with for my day job. I mentioned Wood Buffalo (in the same building as them) and they criticized it for “not having a real lager”. For the record, they do have a lager on tap, meaning this person’s critique was about something else entirely – namely finding something that tastes like Bud. That is what they are dealing with.

But I will admit I was a bit worried they would apply their usual business model to the Calgary location. I asked Brett and he explained that they knew “the Calgary market is different. We need to bring beer that stand out”. Talk is one thing, and beer is another. So we sampled some of what they have Continue reading Last Best Ramping Up for Calgary Market

Crossing the Bridge to Good Beer

Black Bridge 001Imagine my surprise a couple weeks back to be scanning the shelves of my favourite beer store (you all know who that is) only to stumble across a little cluster of cans from Black Bridge Brewing. Those of you with stronger memories will recall that Black Bridge is the new brewery in Swift Current, Saskatchewan who literally opened their doors a few weeks ago.

My surprise was to find how quickly this beer had found its way into Alberta. I had expected that for the first year (or more) they would focus on establishing themselves in their home province and I either would have to take a side trip to Speedy Creek (does anyone ever take a side trip to Swift Current??) or bribe friends/relatives to get me some.

But lo and behold, there it was! A six-pack of their Centennial Rye Ale and a four-pack of the Milk Stout. I picked up one of each and happily carted them home. Below I offer a shortened review of both for your edification.

Starting with the milk stout (which is the one I drank first – no other reason than that). It pours deep black with a fairly thin dark tan head, but one that is quite dense and consistent. The aroma is rich chocolate, dark fruit and touches of roast but rather subdued on that front. I also get some molasses and brown sugar. Smells sweet and (if this is even possible) silky.

The front taste is quietly sweet, with a chocolate and dark sugar character. Some rich dark fruit accents. The middle adds a bit of drier bite, partly astringent, partly sour.  A rounded lactic sweetness begins to build as well; nothing too noticeably, just a background note. The roast is present but chooses to hang around upstage, not making too much noise. The finish is relatively sweet with a slight roasty linger to add balance.

It proves itself to be an interesting, full bodied stout. I find the middle is a bit confusing, but it doesn’t detract too much and otherwise it offers some nice flavours. A little tweaking and this could be a wonder of a beer.

A couple days later I cracked open the Centennial Rye Ale, which is exactly as it sounds, a rye ale with Centennial hops. It is medium gold, bright,  and creating a thin layer of white head, leaving some decent lacing. The aroma wafts up with a light citrusy fruit with an accent of sharp graininess. Some honey and a bit of pine accent add complexity.

Honey and fruit start the sblack bridge milk stoutipping followed by a sharp, spicy malt flavour coming from, I suspect, the rye. The middle offers a citrus-woody blend of flavours, making it both summery refreshing and autumn-like earthy. The finish builds a piney hop character. The hop is not about bitter but more hop flavour and linger. The bitterness seems fairly subdued, sub-30 IBU, but the hop flavour is quite noticeable and fresh.

I am quite drawn to this beer. It is fresh, spicy and sharp. The combo of citrus and sharp graininess is quite appealing and creates a refreshing, full flavoured beer. It is quite the original concoction, not much like anything else on the market around here.

An extremely encouraging start from an extremely young brewery. Feel free to cross that bridge anytime.

What Would Jesus Drink?

An aptly named beer for the season.

An aptly named beer for the season.

My latest Vue Weekly column was written to fit into the magazine’s theme for that week (you can read it here). It was their Xmas feature and this year they went with a look at the religious aspects of the season. You can imagine the head-scratching that went on when my editor asked me to write something about beer, Xmas and religion.

To be honest, I wasn’t flummoxed for long. When you think religion and beer, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Well, the drunk monks, of course. I mean here the Cistercian monks that centuries ago figured out that brewing beer was a pretty good way to both serve god and sate thirst. Their descendents are the purveyors of the divine (in multiple senses of that word) Trappist ales. If you want to inject some piety into your holiday festivities, I can think of nothing better than a Westmalle Tripel or a Rochefort 10. If you want something really special – and can wait a while –  age a bottle of Orval for two to three years. It develops a unique earthy, musty flavour that alters the profile of the beer completely.

In a way linking the brewing monks to Xmas imbibing seems quite appropriate. Whether Xmas really is Jesus’ birthday or not (and it more likely is not), in Western society it has become intrinsically linked to that event. Sipping on a Trappist beer is a way to acknowledge the modern interpretation of the season without having to either fully embrace its religious aspects or entirely reject it either. Consider Trappist Ales a good agnostic choice for the season.

Being every flexible, in the piece I also offer up a couple of more secular options, including St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout and 5 A.M. Saint. The religious connection in both beer is solely the name – no religious icons were harmed in the making of these beer.

So, while I suspect wine, rather than beer, was the tipple of choice for the son of god, we at least have a few beer-y options that would meet his approval these days.



AGLC Policy Changes, One Year Later

aglc-logoExactly one year ago today, the AGLC announced a package of policy changes coming out of a wide-scale policy review. At the time (you can read the post here) I opined that it was a mixture of small steps with some missed opportunities. It seemed as good a time as any to analyze what effect the changes have had on craft beer in the province. My CBC column this afternoon (4:40 on 740 AM/93.9 FM or live streamed here – sorry they don’t generally post it on the website after) will be looking at the state of affairs, but I thought I would delve into it a bit deeper here.

So, as a quick recap (for more details read the original post or the report itself) the key changes, at least potentially, were: the elimination of a minimum production capacity, brewpubs allowed to sell retail, small breweries could open restaurants, and permitting off-site brewery retail locations. More recently, the AGLC quietly announced that breweries can now sell pints in their brewery tasting rooms (see post here).

After only one year, we can’t expect the world to have been turned upside down. But, let’s take a look at what we have seen so far. I contacted the AGLC to get some numbers and facts – so for once I am not just making this all up on the fly.

First not all of the 39 recommendations have been implemented yet. The rules around allowing breweries to open restaurants are still being worked on, they are still pondering whether to let breweries sell in farmers’ markets, and we are also still waiting for the new unified producer’s license.

What did the policy changes do? The key measure, obviously, is whether they have spurred any growth in Alberta-based breweries.

toolshed_logoSince last December, three new breweries have been granted licenses, two of whom would have not been eligible last year. Tool Shed Brewing is the largest and most recent, having just gotten approval a week ago. The two small breweries are Calgary’s The Dandy Brewing Company (profile here and recent review here) and Troubled Monk Brewery in Red Deer. The latter is not yet selling beer. I have been in contact with them and will have a profile on them soon, but can tell you for the moment they are extremely small, currently running a 50-litre system (that is not a typo), but will be expanding to a 15-barrel brewhouse next year. More on them soon.

In addition, there are three breweries who have applied for a license and, for a number of reasons (including not yet having built the brewery), have not yet been granted. They are Half Hitch Brewing in Cochrane (profile here), Wild Craft Brewery in Lethbridge (profile here) and Fat Unicorn Brewery in Plamondon (a small town near Lac La Biche, for those wondering).

When I saw the last one on the list, I went “who?”. I had heard not a peep about them. I made a few inquiries and briefly connected with the owner. I will have a profile of them early in the new year, but can say for the moment they have a 10-barrel brewhouse with plans to distribute across northern Alberta.

Six in 12 months is not a mind-blowing number, given that many have opened in Ontario in the past month alone. However, we need to keep in mind it can Continue reading AGLC Policy Changes, One Year Later

RIP Full Moon Pale Ale, Long Live Full Moon IPA and Other News

We shall miss you, pale ale friend.

We shall miss you, pale ale friend.

Normally when I do a news roundup I try to give the various breweries involved relatively equal billing. However this week it is a bit different. Upon hearing the news that Alley Kat is re-formulating its flagship Full Moon Pale Ale to become an IPA, I found myself with very mixed feelings. I find I can’t just simply report that tidbit in a bullet with all the rest. So, once I have done a run-down on the other news, I will offer my thoughts on Full Moon’s transformation.

But first some of the other beer happenings around the prairies, as usual in no particular order:

  • Big Rock released a surprising new beer to its Brewmaster’s Edition series with a collaboration beer with a Spanish brewery. Colaborador Español Farmhouse Ale was developed and brewed by Big Rock’s Paul Gautreau and Alberto Pancheco Martinez of Mateo & Bernabé & Friends, an artisanal brewery in Spain’s Rioja region. [edited to add the following:] As usual the day I publish a round-up someone announces something else. Today Big Rock released a limited-edition pack containing three barrel-aged beer. The three strong ales have been aged in different barrels, Bourbon, Sherry and Cognac. No word on the base beer involved.
  • Hog’s Head in St. Albert continue their furious pace of new releases. Last week Toboggan went on tap at their tap room. It is described as a darker-coloured pale ale aimed for winter. Then in a couple of weeks look for Death by Gingerbread Man, which as the name implies will have the character of gingerbread. It also will be a one-time, keg-only product.
  • A couple weeks back Grizzly Paw in Canmore released its winter seasonal, Hibernation Winter Ale. And then last week announced a very interesting new series. Called their Sour Beer Collection, it includes soured versions of their Indra Island IPA, Big Head Nut Brown and Barley Wine. All were aged in Kettle Valley Caboose wine casks to create the sour effect. All are available only at the brewery.
  • Tool Shed Brewing can now OFFICIALLY call itself a Calgary brewer, as late last week they officially got their production license from AGLC. Test batches are ongoing and Calgary-produced beer will be appearing in the new year.
  • BR colaboradorFor those of you in the Regina area this weekend, be sure to swing by the Bushwakker Brewpub as on December 6 they will be releasing their 2014 version of their very popular Blackberry Mead. This year’s is made with 400 pounds of Lumsden Valley honey and 84 pounds of blackberries. Last year’s version reportedly sold out in under two hours and some people waited in line all night to ensure they go their allotment.
  • While we are in Saskatchewan, Paddock Wood in Saskatoon has two new releases. First, their annual Winter Ale is now out and will be working its way across the prairies in due course. Remember, this is not a traditional winter ale, as it is brewed as a Belgian Dubbel. This year’s edition of Heartstopper chocolate stout is also ready for release.
  • Over in Winnipeg, we have a case of “sorry you missed it” and “better line up now if you don’t want to be sorry” at Half Pints. Ursa Minor, an Extra Pale Ale brewed with Galaxy & Nelson Sauvin hops came out a couple weeks ago but is already sold out. However, do not fear, next week, The Mighty Red, an Irish Red ale will be available at the brewery. It, too, will be a keg/growler option only.

And now I turn my attention to Full Moon. The new IPA version will be first available at the Next Act Pub on December 6 and at the brewery retail store starting next week. It will work its way into liquor stores in the new year as current stocks of the original version are bought up. The new version will be slightly higher in alcohol (5.5%) and will up the IBUs from 31 to 45.

Why my mixed feelings? Well, in a way I grew up on Continue reading RIP Full Moon Pale Ale, Long Live Full Moon IPA and Other News

GBD is Just Dandy

Dandy Brewing 014On my recent trip to Calgary, I was able to get my hands on one of the beer made by nano upstart The Dandy Brewing Company. They have only been selling beer for a few weeks now, so it was fun to find at least one of their two beer in a store. I scooped up the bomber and hiked it back to where we were staying to put it in the fridge. Alas, I didn’t get to sampling it while in the city boundaries, but did get to it recently sitting in my home office.

The one I got my hands on was Golden Brown Dandy, an enigmatic beer stylistically. Lighter than a brown ale, not as hoppy as a pale ale and not as light-bodied as a blonde ale. Plus at 6% alcohol it is bigger than, say an Ordinary Bitter or British session ale. So, we will have to see just what the result is.

It is medium orange, pale copper in hue, lighter than a pale ale, but darker than blonde. It offers a tight beaded moderate head with some British lacing. It also possesses some decent staying power through the tasting. The aroma is of toffee, plum, baked apple, some light caramel and fruity esters. I find it a VERY British aroma. Big fruity esters balanced with some nice light malt character.

So good so far. And so the big question is the flavour. The frond has medium caramel, toffee, fruitiness with a rounded fruity body. This start reminds me of many real ales in England, with its full character and unabashed fruitiness. The middle brings a little floral hop, but not much. The beer clearly leans toward the malt.  The finish is lightly malty, edging toward a brown ale character but not quite, with just a touch of hop bitter. The beer seems a bit like Fuller’s ESB without the IBUs.

I find this an intriguing, decent beer. Not sure what to call it – it seems to fall between styles, which is fine. Fuller than it looks, maltier than it smells. A bit more hop would create an interesting English Pale Ale. Seems to be an odd hybrid of pale ale and brown ale, both English-style. Creative. They have made a worthy sipping beer by still finding a way to chart their own course.

An interesting start for this young, new brewery.

Next Steps to Craft

beer101logoLast month I started a series with my Beer 101 column looking at how to introduce newly beer-interested people to the range of craft beer flavours. The first part (whch you can read here) took those initial baby steps with all-malt lagers and blonde ales. This month we take the second step – moving into the malty, darker end of the spectrum. You can read the post here. In it I offer specific beer suggestions. Here I will just outline my logic.

I argue to start with dark lagers – Dunkels and the like – as the easiest transition, although if those seem to big a jump for your friend, amber lagers could be a half step. However, how different is Creemore Springs from Boston Lager, for example? That is why I suggest starting with something darker.

The next step is to return to ales, with brown ales and then into porters. I would spend a fair bit of time with porters, as there is a big flavour range available, from more chocolatey to more roasty and even some big, sweet Baltic porters. Similarly with the shift to stouts. There are enough of them out there that you can find a relatively more subdued version, like Gahan’s Sydney Street before bumping up to more aggressively roasty versions.

The final step in the land of dark would be, of course, Russian Imperial Stout. There is absolutely no need to go that far if your friend does not wish it. RIS’s are not for everyone. Even I find at times they can be just too much beer for the moment. Again, there is a nice range that you can offer.

By the time the journey is finished, your friend will have worked their way through lots of malt flavours – from caramel and soft butterscotch to chocolate to dark roast coffee. All in beer. They will be amazed.

Next month I will look at some of the more challenging flavours to introduce, including bitter, sour and odd ingredients.