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Barking at a Witbier

driftwood whitebarkWitbier has long been one of my favourite styles. I brew it often at home, and even a Hoegaarden can be a nice falback for me, despite that I believe it is a shadow of what it was 10 years ago. So I was very pleased to see Driftwood Brewing’s version, White Bark,  on the shelf this summer. Driftwood is a solid B.C. brewery the makes a lovely IPA and other stand-out beer. I scooped up a bottle without hesitation.

It wasn’t quite what I hoped for, but it is still noteworthy, especially on a slow August afternoon.

The appearance is hazy pale straw with a big head that offers loose and bubbly formation. The aroma has lavender and light citrus as its dominant features. I find the aroma very floral  with a pleasant grainy base. In a way I find it sharper aroma than most wits.

The flavour starts with what I expect – soft wheat up front, with a berry fruitiness and a light graininess to accent. I find the yeast notes are in balance, with some citrus, some earth, and some floral lavender. I also pick up a noted silky flower taste, even though I am not quite sure what that means. It finishes a bit harsher than I would like but is still enjoyable.

Overall I find it is not as refreshing as most wits. I tis more of an assertive interpretation, bringing out the yeast esters and the sharp graininess more than most.  But I have to say I find its big floral interesting. Plus it doesn’t get out of control as it is balanced by other flavours, including the fruitiness. I also find it finishes a bit sweet for the style.

I wouldn’t classify this in the “classic” end of the witbier spectrum, but I like it just the same. I appreciate sampling an example that pushes some boundaries and tries to make something different of a style where most efforts tend toward boring.

I don’t regret drinking it by any stretch. In fact it makes me motivated to make my own version sometime again soon.

 

Is This a Puckin’ Saison or Not?

northcoastpuckI have been in the beer business for many years. That doesn’t mean I still don’t learn things from time to time. One of those things recently was the historic style Grisette. Even though the name was vaguely familiar, until a few weeks ago I didn’t know very much about it.

Grisette is related to Saison in that it was born in the French region of Belgium. Saison was a beer of the agrarian age, brewed by farmers for serving to farmhands working the fields. Grisette, however, is a beer that transitions to the industrial age. It was, reportedly, made for miners in the region to sustain them through their difficult days.

I have read, although cannot confirm the accuracy, that the name Grisette (grise is French for grey) comes from the grey smocks worn by the women who delivered the beer to the miners at the coal face. It may not be true, but I kinda like it.

The parallels between the two beer are interesting. Both are a beer made for the toiling classes to sate them during their difficult, brutal work days. They also have flavour similarities, although it seems grisette should be lighter both in body and alcohol.

I mention all this because recently the first grisette (to my knowledge) entered the Alberta market. North Coast Puck is vaguely marketed – they call it a dry-hopped “petite saison” – but a bit of digging reveals it is intended as a grisette. Having never sampled a grisette I cannot speak to how authentic it is to the style, but I am happy to offer my thoughts nonetheless.

The beer pours pale yellow with a consistent blanket of tight bubbled white head. It also offers a bit of lacing on the glass. The aroma has a soft grainy pilsner malt, some touches of honey and peach fruit. It also offers a light pepperiness, but nothing too big.I also find I pick up a bit of lavender as well, although I am not sure why. It is, overall, Quiet and soft.

The first sip reveals a chalky grain upfront with a pilsner accent. The middle brings out a bit of earthiness and just the slightest hint of pepper that seems to blink in and out. Some light fruit adds a second dimension. The beer is very light in its impression. The finish is only slightly Belgian as well as being quite dry. The dry-hopping (which I am told there is) is pretty understated, only showing up as a bit of fresh grass at the end.

It is hard to figure out how to judge this beer. If you judge this as a saison you will be disappointed. It is designed to be more sessionable than that. It seems to offer a bit of a middle ground. The Belgian character is present but understated, giving you a clear sense this is no ordinary blonde ale, but it need not scare you off. The beer is intriguing in its delicateness. On the surface there is not much there, but there seems to be enough to keep you from getting bored.

My instinct is to use this beer in between two bigger beer as a way to refresh my palate. It is light and quenching without doing anything too intense to your palate. Overall an enjoyable, very light and slightly spicy beer.

I repeat that I cannot judge this beer as a grisette, never having tried one before. I can say it has saison-like qualities but is a bit lighter, a bit more refreshing. All I will say is that I like the beer, style guidelines or not.

 

Beer Geeks and More on the News Roundup

ebgarealale2015It has been a fairly quiet few weeks on the prairie beer front, but I figured it was time for a quick round-up to get us all caught up.

The most noteworthy bit of news is likely the 4th Annual Edmonton Beer Geeks Anonymous Real Ale Festival. This event has quickly become a highlight of the beer lover’s calendar. The big change this year is it is moving outside to the ice rink outside the Ritchie Community League Hall (site of the event the past couple years). That could be fun. To date a couple dozen casks have been confirmed, and the list of participating breweries includes some regulars along with some newcomers, which will make things interesting.

The Real Ale Festival runs September 12 from 1 to 8 pm. Tickets are $30 and available here. All the firkins will be tapped at 1:00, and served on a first-come-first-served basis, meaning don’t wait until six to arrive. If previous years are any measure the event will a) be sold out in short order (so don’t delay buying your tickets) and  b) an absolute blast (read my review of last year’s event).

The other beer news is a bit thin, but there are a few things to highlight:

  • bushwakkerBushwakker Brewpub has partnered with Parks Canada to produce a commemorative beer celebrating the Motherwell Homestead, an historic site east of Regina that preserves early prairie agricultural life. Motherwell Red Fife Witbier will be available for a limited time only.
  • Alley Kat’s annual release of its popular Pumpkin Beer will take place on August 27. Yes, we are not at Labour Day yet, but soon our shelves will be full of pumpkin beer of various sizes and shapes.
  • Bench Creek Brewing in Edson will be officially launching its first beer on September 4. They had an open house last Friday to christen the brewery and product will be on shelves in Northern Alberta sooner rather than later.
  • Winnipeg’s Half Pints Brewery has a lot on the go right now. This past week they announced the release of three new beer. A first time release is  Saazmatazz, a 4.8% red ale made with Saaz hops. Also returning to the fold is WeizenHeimer. In a particularly special release, they are putting out Eastmount ESB, a bottle-conditioned extra special bitter that, they say, is the favourite recipe of brewer Jeremy Wells. Also, in varying stages of availability or “sorry you missed it” include Heiðrún’s Sweet Mead, Voodoo Child Mild and The Golden Brett, made from the last of the yeast used in the Trinity series.

CIC_Beer Event PosterFinally, in an somewhat unusual turn of events, I am the guest speaker in September for the Edmonton Chapter of Canadian International Council, a non-profit society aimed at educating the public on foreign affairs and Canada’s place in the world. They approached me to see if I would be willing to talk about Canada’s place in the globalized world of beer.

I have titled my talk “Does ‘Canadian’ Beer Still Exist? The Global Dynamics of Beer in the 21st Century”, and I intend it to be a serious talk about the state of beer in Canada in a global context. I will touch upon multi-national conglomerates dominating the industry, the retreat of Canadian-owned breweries, the rise of craft beer and local beer and the effects on “beer culture” in Canada.

The event is at the Black Dog on September 10 at 6:00 pm. Tickets are $5 for CIC members and $10 for non-members, and includes one pint of beer in the price (so a pretty good deal, all told). Tickets and more information available here.

I anticipate September to be a busy month for new beer releases and such, so expect another round-up sooner rather than later.

 

 

 

 

Cans are the New Black

beer101logoThe trend is unmistakable, even for someone as thick as I am. Cans are in, big time.

Beer cans, of course, have been around for decades. But for most of that time, they have been the sole domain of mainstream lager and discount beer. Craft wouldn’t be caught dead in a can. Not so much anymore.

The trend, as these things do, started down in the U.S. a number of years ago, and we have seen a slowly growing number of breweries who supplemented their bottle production with cans (Yukon, Phillip’s, Big Rock to name just three). This I – and likely you – have known for a while.

What has come up and smacked me in the face during the past few months is the swift onslaught of can-only breweries. I have spoken to, and written about, many of the new start-ups on the prairies over the past few months. Of those who will package, every one – every SINGLE one – indicates they will be packaging in cans. Not both, only cans (except for bombers and growlers).

It has become so obvious, it sparked me to formalize my thoughts on the matter. I did my CBC Radio column on the topic a few weeks ago (they never post it online anymore, I am afraid). In that column we sampled a can and a bottle of Yukon Red on air to see if we could detect any flavour differences. The main answer is no. I found some subtle differences – the can seemed slightly fuller bodied and sweeter – but it is not possible to isolate that finding to the packaging.

This past week, my latest Beer 101 column focused on the topic. You can read it here. I do my best to offer an objective analysis of the positions on the issue and discuss both why I think the shift is happening and what it might mean.

Why is rather straightforward. The costs of canning have dropped significantly and new breweries have decided cans are what customers are looking for these days. Plus there is an increasing suspicion about getting looped into the Industry Standard bottle pool (which is controlled by the big three), despite its obvious environmental advantages (I lay those out in the column, so click on the link if you want to read more about that).

What it means is harder. While I see advantages to cans, such as their light weight, break resistance and complete impermeability to light, I also see big downsides – including their single-use status, their plastic lining and the lower recycling rate.

Lots of people I talk to tell me cans are the future of craft beer. That may be. But the old traditionalist in me isn’t happy about it. I like the aesthetic of a bottle – be it industry standard or a custom design. I like the substance in the grip. I even like the clank-clank of the bottles as you transport them. I find I resent the pile of empty cans, while I have no trouble with the stack of six-packs waiting to be recycled. (Of course, keep in mind I am also the guy who continues to have a love affair with the stubby.)

It may just be me – yet another example of how I am old before my time. But if, indeed, cans eventually take over the craft beer world (and I don’t think they will, craft always has room for diversity) I think we will be a little bit poorer for it. Of course, as long as the beer inside is high quality, I suspect I will eventually get over it. But you are going to have to give me a little while to do so.

What do others think? Are cans preferable? I am truly curious.

Dungarvan a Pleasant Surprise

dungarvan coppercoastI like surprises. Especially beer surprises.

I got one recently that grew up in to my latest Vue Weekly column (which you can read here). While perusing the new arrivals shelf of my local beer store, I found a couple of beer from a brewery called Dungarvan Brewing Company. The label indicated they are Irish. Cool. But I had no idea who they were.

On a pure whim I scooped up a bottle of their Copper Coast Irish Red Ale. A few days later I popped open the bottle, poured it into a tulip pint glass and sipped. As I lingered over the first couple tastes, I googled the brewery. I was quite surprised to learn they are a VERY small brewery from Waterford, Ireland and they have been open only five years.

How in heaven’s name did such a small operation find its ways across Alberta’s borders, I asked?

I can’t really answer that question, although I have a suspicion it may have been a one-time trial and we may not see them here for long. What I can say is that the Copper Coast IRA is quite good. The initial taste is fruity with some caramel, although I find it could be a bit fuller. That critique is washed away, however, in the middle palate, where a subtle sharpness builds to balance the sweetness of the first tastes. It finishes moderately dry without losing that caramel, toffee character.

An admirable Irish Red, if you ask me. Drinkable with a careful balance between caramel and fruit and dry hints of roast and subtle touches of hop. I can only imagine how good it would be fresh from the brewery.

In a way I got a double surprise – a pleasant and enjoyable beer from a brewery I had never heard of. My lucky day.

Rodenbach Caractère Rouge Has Real Character

rodenbachcaractereRecently I received a very lovely treat. Someone gave me a bottle of Rodenbach Caractère Rouge. Don’t know what that is? I don’t blame you. It is a once-a-year seasonal where they take the sour beer base and soak it in oak with cherry, raspberry and cranberry. The goal is to create a fuller, more complex and fruity version of their Grand Cru, which is a marvel of a beer.

With only 900 bottles produced annually, it can be expected that Caractère Rouge is usually not available in Alberta. So getting my hands on one was a bit of a coup. I picked the right moment to open it and savour what it offered from inside.

It pours a dark red, verging on brown. It is quite cloudy with not much head at all. It seems to have a darker, more intense colour than the usual Rodenbach and less carbonation. In the aroma I pick up moderate sourness but balanced by raspberry, cherry and other fruitiness. The sour is clean, slightly winy and lactic. I am reminded of a raspberry wine in the nose.

The flavour has a sharp tart to start, but it is quickly over-run, temporarily, by an enjoyable berry flavour. Raspberry, cherry and strawberry come through. The tartness re-asserts itself mid-palate only to again be countered by a soft fruitiness. It is a fun intertwining. The beer finishes clean and refreshing with a light berry linger.

This is a truly intriguing beer. It is more wine than beer in its presentation. It reminds me of berry-based wines I have sampled. The tartness is expertly delivered and the fruit just add a nice counterweight, making a surprisingly balanced beer. It is subtle, clean and refreshing. I could have this beer inplus-30 degrees or minus-30 degrees. It is a brilliant expression of what a flanders can be. The fruitiness contrasts the tartness wonderfully, creating a dangerously drinkable beer.

It is one of those beer to which I would love to have access at all times. Alas, I must satisfy myself with the one bottle I did procure.

 

ASBA to Hold First Annual Alberta Craft Beer Week

beerweek2015logoAlberta will finally have a Craft Beer Week. The Alberta Small Brewers’ Association announced yesterday the launch of the province’s first official Beer Week from September 25 to October 3. It will be bookended by the Alberta Beer Festival’s Calgary and Edmonton Oktoberfests. You can see the Beer Week website here.

A couple of events have been announced already for the week, including Big Rock’s 30th Anniversary party on September 26 and a second installment of the Edmonton Beer History Tour on October 3 (more on that another day – but, yes, I will be hosting it again). We also know that both Beer Revolutions will commit all of their taps that week to Alberta beer only.

The rest of the events are still TBD, but I do know there are plans in the works for some beer dinners, beer tastings, some free events, and, hopefully some creative stuff. The ASBA also hopes to use the week to draw attention to Alberta craft beer – a politically useful time to do so given the new government.

I suspect most of the events will be in Edmonton and Calgary, but I believe we will see some interesting stuff in Red Deer, Camrose and hopefully other places.

I note they are officially calling it “Alberta Beer Week”, which I suspect is to allow for some of the province’s less-than-crafty breweries. However, I don’t think it is necessary. Every brewery involved in the ASBA (and a couple of others who are not yet members) are small, independent and h0nest, which is most the way there to craft. So, they are being overly safe in my opinion.

I am quite excited about this, not only because I suspect it will be a busy social week for me, but because I really like the concept of craft beer weeks. They draw attention to local craft beer, give a critical mass to promotion and marketing that individual breweries simply can’t do on their own, and encourage newbies to try craft beer. For example, imagine having Beer Revolution (and hopefully other pubs) offer ONLY Alberta beer for a week. Hundreds upon hundreds of people will come away with a new Alberta beer experience.

This is the next step in the maturation of Alberta’s craft beer scene. I promise to do a preview post closer to the week, when events are more settled. Plus I will try to offer some observations of the events I attend (but no promises on that front. I might be busy – there is beer to be consumed, after all).

I await the week with anticipation. Because it is the first attempt, I keep my expectations in check. All things take time to build. I am just glad Alberta is finally making the step.

Mark your calendars now, and await further updates.

 

Going to the Well for Community-Supported Beer

thewelllogoMost craft breweries start in a pub or a homebrewery, with a couple of beer passionate people talking about taking their hobby professional. It is not very often when a brewery starts in a classroom. But that is exactly what happened with The Well Brewing Company. Quinn Wilton and Bryton Udy, two 22-year-old Mount Royal University business students in Calgary were tasked last fall in their Entrepreneurship class to develop a business plan for an original business idea. “We came up with the idea of a community-supported brewery”, says Udy. “Why beer? We had been to the Calgary International Beer Festival and were struck by the passion they have. It is bigger than the brewery itself. They supported each other”.

A community-supported brewery takes off from community-supported agriculture, where consumers invest in farm operations and in return get a pre-determined amount of food in return at harvest/slaughter time. They don’t get an ownership share, but receive exclusive benefits and direct sales.

Wilton and Udy saw a space for that model in beer, “Craft beer is great, but most of the time there is no community input into the product. They just get the product in hand and drink it. We want to give customers a say in what they are drinking, in how the beer is made”, says Wilton.

In a way community-supported beer is a hybrid between a coop structure and a standard corporate structure. “We dabbled in a coop structure. But we figured it would be difficult to have a certain direction and have it be streamlined. We figured out best way to keep involvement of coop and still have a solidified direction of a corporation” was the community support model, says Udy.

The model is anchored around membership. People buy a membership and in return get a volume of beer, access to member-only events and, most importantly, a vote on which beer should be brewed and other beer-related decisions. The Well will have three levels of membership. The Cascade level, the most basic, provides a welcome package of swag, four bottles of beer bi-monthly, admission to member events and a vote in beer selection for $175/year. Chinook  ($250/yr) offers all Cascade rewards but adds a t-shirt and ups the beer to 4 every month. Simcoe ($500/yr) adds access to input at the company’s executive meetings.

If all it was about was the beer, that would be a pretty pricey four-pack. But the main benefit is input on what will get made. “We are centering it around membership events, a place to come together and talk about what the next beer should be”, says Wilton. They give an example of the first steps of how the process will work. “Our first main goal is a membership event in August or September. We will have three pilot batches of beer, which will be tasted by members. We will put it to heir vote for which beer we brew. Once they choose, we do a bigger batch of beer and send it to members”.

They are finding people really like the idea of having a say in the beer they drink. “Everyone likes the idea of having a say. When I mention the concept, I get suggestions of everything from a big IPA to ‘I want the fruitiest summer beer you can make’. Everyone has an interest”, says Udy.

In the early days they will make beer for the members only. They plan to brew initially on an existing breweries test brewery, so they will be looking at a couple of kegs-worth at a time. No contract has been signed yet, but at the time of our conversation they were hopeful they could work out something with the Olds College Teaching Brewery, which is largely idle in the summer.

Obviously there goal is to ramp up production for retail sale and, eventually, Continue reading Going to the Well for Community-Supported Beer

Lifting the Lid on an Old Kilt Lifter

AK kiltlifterA few weeks ago a beer friend gave me a box of beer that had been sitting in his basement for a few years. The beer went unconsumed because, unfortunately, he had developed Celiac Disease. He was moving and realized he had this collection of beer and thought of me. Some of them were nicely cellared, like a Cantillon and a barley wine or two. Others were beer that maybe could do a year or so, but were long past their prime.

In the mix was a bottle of Alley Kat Kilt Lifter, a one-time seasonal they released in 2011 – four years ago. It was designed as a Scotch Ale and at the time was received with middling reviews. The beer had some moderate alcohol strength, running at about 7.5%, meaning it could likely appreciate a bit of aging to develop some of the more subtle flavours.

Four years, though? I doubt it. However, I am a man who likes to explore the edges of beer flavour. I have played with over-aged beer before (including here). I decided it would make for a good experiment and I opened it.

Before I tell you the results, allow me to state clearly that Alley Kat had no idea I was doing this, and likely they would frown at trying this particular beer at this age. So, anything that comes below is not a measure of Alley Kat’s brewing ability. It is simply a taste experiment and nothing more.

The beer looks like it did a few years ago, pouring  a mahogany brown with some ruby highlights. However, it has a bit of haze and not much head to speak of, which suggests its age a bit. The aroma gives off raisin, molasses, some dark fruit, plum, and brown sugar. It is surprisingly complex and reminds me more of a rich barley wine than a scotch ale.

The first sip offers some molasses, brown sugar and a rich syrupy note on the front. The middle thins out weirdly, giving way to some raisin and plum flavours. The finish has a alcohol edge and a funny winy note. The thin body and noted dark fruit characters dominate the beer. I can see hints of what the beer was at one time, but it now is rather unbalanced and too oxidized. No other off-flavours appear other than the stale dating, which is a good sign.

There is no question the beer is gone – succumbing to the inevitable oxidizing effects of age. But I am fascinated at how much of it still holds up. The fruitiness is not unpleasant and if not for the cardboard notes it might still appreciate it. Time has made the beer more complex, but also ate away at its core.  Such is the pity.

I would have liked to try this beer two years ago, when it was only moderately aged,  to see if time sat better with it. A subtle oxidation combined with a touch of alcohol warming might have been interesting.

From this experiment I take the lesson that one should be careful with their beer cellar. Not every higher alcohol beer is suited for aging, or at least lengthy aging. Kilt Lifter was likely best designed for 12 to 18 months of aging before consumption. Four to five years was simply too much.

However, I appreciated the opportunity to try it.

The Peg Finally Gets a Brewpub

pegbeerlogoUsing a number of matrices, Manitoba’s craft beer scene lags other places in Canada. They have the fewest craft breweries and not a single brewpub to be found anywhere. The good news is that things are changing. I profiled recently the coming launches of Barn Hammer Brewing and Torque Brewing in Winnipeg. And soon Winnipeg will have its first brewpub.

And it has some pretty good credentials, to boot.

Peg Beer Co. is the creation of none other than Nicole Barry, co-founder of Half Pints Brewing who left the brewery a year ago. Barry was the business end of the partnership, being a chartered accountant by training. But Barry is a person who knows her beer, and knows her way around a brewhouse as well.

Barry has been working on the project for about 10 months. After she left Half Pints last year she was casting about for what to do next. She thought how to best use her accounting and business experience. “I got headhunted. A couple really great people approached me to lead their company, but it wasn’t in beer,” she says. “I couldn’t do it. Beer is my passion.”

Then she came across the idea of a brewpub. “Winnipeg doesn’t have a real brewpub”, she notes. And she knew she was the right person to do it.

With a brewpub location is key. She secured 125 Pacific Avenue, the site of a former indoor skate park in downtown Winnipeg. It is an area of town that is undergoing a revitalization and promises to be a heart of Winnipeg’s night scene. “We are in the exchange district, which is our theatre district”. she says, mentioning that the Fringe Festival, which was underway when we talked, had the area “swarming with people”.

She is pleased with the space, which will have about 150 seats, saying it has a great “sparse” atmosphere. She describes the exposed brick and large wooden beams. She is aiming for a “bare bones experience” that has a welcoming feel. “I  have done enough traveling, been to enough taprooms, to get the vibe I love and feel most comfortable. It is family friend, laid back, relaxed. It might have the best beer I have ever tasted but it is not pretentious”.

Barry is hoping for a December opening. Construction is under way with the 15-barrel brewhouse to be delivered soon. The size of the brewery gives Barry some options. While the focus will always be on the pub, she envisions retail sales as well in both kegs and cans, following the latest trend in craft beer.

As a brewpub, Barry has to pay attention to the food. She doesn’t plan on anything too elaborate. “The food will be simple. This is a brewery, we are here for the craft beer” she points out. “The menu is simple appetizers. Locally cured meats, flatbreads, simple pizzas, salads and stuff like that”. She talks about maximizing local ingredients, with charcuterie of locally produced meets and cheese boards from local cheese makers.

And what of the beer? (I always know that is the big questions of onbeer readers.)

They are still working on the initial line-up, but Barry says Continue reading The Peg Finally Gets a Brewpub