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Big Rock’s Big Plans and Other News

BR erraticYesterday, Big Rock released the latest in their Alchemist Series. This latest one is Erratic Stone-Fired Ale, a Stein Bier. Only 3300 bottles (750ml flip tops) were produced. I have not tasted it yet (although I do have a bottle in my possession, so I will report on it when I try it), but the style alone suggests that Big Rock is continuing to up their game.

Stein Bier, for those who are unfamiliar, is an old German brewing method, back before kettles that could be consistently fired by coal/coke/gas. Essentially the brewer would super-heat a bunch of rocks (granite was the most durable) and drop them into the wort to heat it to boiling temperature. Stein is German for “stone”, so there you go. The process would give the beer an intense caramel flavour (due to the wort caramelizing on the surface of the stone) and a slight smoke character.

Big Rock claims that they did exactly that – added hot stones (B.C. granite, they say) to the brew kettle. I suspect they used the stones for supplement, rather than for the entire heating, if for no other reason than reliability. But if the stones had any significant contact time, the character should still come through (as I say, I will let you know when I open it).

Stein Bier is virtually unheard of today. I can only think of one or two American breweries who have tried it. Which means I think Big Rock is the first Canadian brewery to try brewing a stone beer. I could be wrong but I don’t recall hearing of one in Canada before. Which leads me to say that I am becoming increasingly convinced that Big Rock is determined to get back into  craft beer business in a serious fashion. So far their new releases have been flavourful and interesting interpretations – even if not the most bold examples of the style. The release of a stone beer ups the game that much more.

What is more, in the interests of transparency (they say they are tired of being accused of copying other breweries’ beer even though theirs had been in planning for months), they have released their entire 2013 beer schedule. No specific dates, of course, but they have listed all 16 seasonal and one-time beer that they will be releasing this year (you, I hope, can find the graphic here). It is a very interesting list, including various beer with fruit and spices, including rosemary, plum, spruce, pinot gris grapes and licorice. There are also some classic styles such as Marzen, Bohemian Pilsner and an IPA with Fuggle and Bramling Cross. I also see a “Belgian Style” Cherry beer, but they do not indicate if it will be a lambic.

Of course, the proof is always in the tasting, but the list itself is intriguing. It certainly is not a list produced by a brewery playing it safe. Big Rock, I think, is quite serious about re-creating their reputation. At the end of the day, the quality of the product will determine whether their project succeeds or not. They should expect a well-deserved skepticism from the beer community, at least at first. Which is also fair.

I am very curious where this leads.

Other News

There is some other beer news that I should likely report as well. In no particular order:

  • Village Brewing in Calgary is releasing (today actually) their latest seasonal, Village Ginger, a (obviously) ginger-infused beer.
  • Ribstone Creek has created Buckin’ Bronco IPA as a limited release beer for the Calgary and Edmonton Craft Beer Festivals. It will also be on tap at select Edmonton pubs (no word yet on where).
  • In other Big Rock news, a couple of weeks ago they release a new can mixed pack with 3 each of Saaz Pilsner, Grasshopper, IPA and two seasonal releases: Paradox Dark Light Ale (a low-alcohol dark ale) and Purple Gas, a wheat beer with saskatoon berries and agave. Longtime Albertans will know that “purple gas” is a reference to the subsidized gasoline given to Alberta farmers for many years, which was dyed purple to distinguish it from regular-priced gas. I don’t think Alberta was the only jurisdiction to do this, but it remains a central part of Alberta folklore.

12 comments to Big Rock’s Big Plans and Other News

  • Nicolas

    I recently arrived to Canada: Will someone tell me why does BigRock need to re-create their reputation? Does it have a dark past of some sort? Personally I have only tried their wheat ale and I found it fairly good.

    • beerguy

      Nicolas, Big Rock has a long history, being one of Canada’s first craft breweries. They have gotten rather big (in Canadian terms – they are still small by US standards). For a while BR started chasing a more mainstream crowd – release a series of pale lagers – and falling for the same fads the big boys go for – low carb beer, lime beer, etc. Many craft beer fans either wandered off to more interesting breweries or expressed frustration with BR’s direction. That is why the recent spate of releases is so interesting and intriguing. After many years of one pale lager after another, seeing the diversity and creativity behind some of the new beer is very encouraging. I hope that answers your question.

  • Having fond memories of Trad, McNalley’s Extra and Warthog in the 1990s, I for one am hopeful that Big Rock can deliver on the promises that they have made with this anouncement. They have the technical savvy – you can’t produce pale lager without that – they have the marketing money, they have the volume and apparently they have discovered the motivation. They have the very real ability to reinvent themselves and move to the forefront of the Canadian craft beer scene. At one time, Big Rock was the most innovative brewer in Alberta, and there is pretty much no reason they can’t return to that status, notwithstanding they may always sell more Grasshopper and random Lager than everything else put together. I wish them the best. Really, I can’t understand the attitude I have heard from some people completely dismissing Big Rock now and forever. There may be a hint of the Prodigal Son to their story, but let us beer nerds truly celebrate when a brewer returns to the craft beer fold.

    • Mark Heise

      As I said last week, there is nothing wrong with more good beer being made. I have very fond memories of Big Rock in the 90s, they certainly expanded the beer world for me, and at a time when little else was available.

      However, I personally haven’t been impressed by any of the “crafty” options Big Rock has put out in the last 2 years or so.

      Regardless, I applaud their efforts, and hope they stick with this new approach.

    • Craig

      Traditional and McNally’s were go to beers for me in the ’90s. My wife, a big fan of Warthog, she was – “tasted like strawberrys”.

      The only beer of Big Rock’s I really liked recently was Magpie. One bottle, fished out of a back fridge in Alix, Alberta 🙂

      I’m glad they found their mojo, and I’ll be the judge of whether it paid off or not this weekend.

  • What a great article. I think you did a nice job of capturing what we did with the Erratic and the new direction we are taking our beers. We actually pulled the granite from the property of winemaker we are associated with in Kelowna. I must say though that it was a bit of an engineering feat to safely pull this off. I really didn’t know what to expect when the granite hit the wort and I am so pleased everything worked out as planned. We removed the tops of three old kegs and used them as a type of tea bag submersing them into the wort one at a time. We heated them to 700 C and rotated them throughout the boil. The heat from each load of stones actually kept the boil going for 15 minutes. Once removed from the boil the keg of stones went right back onto the flame. We were able to boil the wort for over an hour using this method. It was fun and probably a little dangerous but easily the most exciting day I’ve had in the Brewhouse in a long time. Go to YouTube and type in ‘Erratic Stone-fired Ale’ and it shows the whole process…

  • Matt A

    Funny, I was just reading an article in the latest BYO magazine talking about stein beer. Looking forward to trying it and hearing your tasting notes.

  • Chris

    I previously commented on this site that I felt Big Rock was no longer a craft brewer, for the reasons detailed above, but had become a smaller version of the “big 3”. With the recent limited releases of unique, high-quality craft brews such as this, I must retract that earlier statement. Big Rock has found their way again, and may currently be the most exciting brewer in the province. The release of the 2013 beer schedule shows no sign of Big Rock slowing down with this new direction. I’m excited for quite a few of the upcoming releases.

  • Liam

    Phillips Brewing out of Victoria does as stone fired ale called Service Ale. It’s only available in Victoria on tap and occasionally in growlers.

    • beerguy

      Thanks Liam. I didn’t know that. I suspect there may be a few other examples that simply haven’t been widely distributed or hit my radar.

  • Matt Sander

    I had the opportunity to smell a chunk of granite used to boil this wort. Beer scented pet rock, anybody? I’m curious to see what the granite will add to the consumer’s experience of the finished beer.

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