I recently got back from Costa Rica. Not a beer trip – just a holiday. But, being who I am, I couldn’t help myself in seeking out what the country had to offer in craft beer.
On the surface there was potential. In this small country of 4 million, they have 45 breweries – a number not that far behind Alberta. However, 90% of those breweries have opened in the past two years, suggesting this is a very, very young craft beer scene.
Until 2010 the beer scene was controlled (as it still is today) by one brewery – Florida Bebidas. It is locally owned, and it produces a range of pale lagers and other commercial beer, including the best-selling Imperial, Pilsen and Bavaria (all coming in a range of strengths and colours). I will give the beer this – it is relatively cheap, plentiful and not undrinkable on the hot beach during mid-day.
But craft beer it is not.
The country’s most known craft brewery is Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Co., which has been around since 2010 and offers a decent blonde ale and a surprisingly impressive red ale, called Segua. All the others are minnows and finding them takes luck and perseverance.
During our stay I found a random bottle or two in a grocery store or specialty pub. But on our last night in the country I made a point of heading to one of the country’s only craft beer bars. Located in the university district of the capital city, San Jose, Casa Brew Garden reminded me of home. Dark with a low key ambience, the place is all about the beer. A chalk board offers up 32 different beer on tap, every single one made in Costa Rica and not a one brewed by Florida Bebidas.
Now this is my kind of beer place!
Being a newbie to Costa Rica, I mostly had to select beer at random. My main strategy was to not have two beer from the same brewery. They had sample-sized offerings, meaning I tried eight different beer/mead (because one brewery seems to specialize in braggots and meads).
I will admit the beer were hit and miss. I tried a stout that was far too light (I could see through it) and had an off-putting metallic taste. A couple of the IPAs had figured out the hops but needed work on the malt base. But there were also some winners. The Black IPA from La Arboleda Cervecería Artesanal was balanced and flavourful. Cerveceria Gracia offered up an interesting West Coast IPA, with big tropical fruit notes. Cerveceria Calle Cimarrona has a fascinating Hefeweizen called M.L.N.C.H.
But in a way the specific beer didn’t matter. The experience was about learning about a burgeoning beer scene and what brewers do in that environment. CASA Brew Garden meets its goal of creating a place to gather to drink craft beer. It is both inviting and celebratory. The regulars seemed to feel free to do what they desired and appreciated an oasis of good beer. I know I recognized how important this space was for craft beer in a burgeoning craft beer market.
I have no doubt the regular patrons of that bar are in for an adventurous few years of witnessing a maturing craft beer industry.
I hope to be back soon to see what they have accomplished.
The original New England IPA??
A couple weeks back I introduced CBC listeners to a new kind of IPA – new at least for these parts. New England IPA. You can listen to the CBC column here if you wish.
The column was inspired by my sampling of the three-way collaboration brew Troubled Waters (read my full review of that beer here), produced as a first year anniversary celebration for Bench Creek, Blindman and Troubled Monk. They call the beer an East Coast Double IPA, but the moment I first took a sip I knew this to be a really strong rendition of the burgeoning New England IPA style.
New England IPAs, which maybe should be called Vermont IPA to reflect their region of origin, are a relatively new take on IPA and one that is markedly different than anything the beer world has seen before. Light-bodied, aromatic and intensely fruity this new sub-style pushes the bitter hit to the background – although there are clearly IBUs in there – to instead accent hop flavours and aromas of citrus, fruit and fresh grass. It is also as hazy as your best hefeweizens.
The most famous version of the style – and some argue the first, although that is a murky situation – is Alchemist Brewing’s Heady Topper, which I got to try a couple of years ago (read my review here). Regular readers will know that I am something of a style curmudgeon. I resist such terms as “black IPA” and grumble and grouse about the kids these days with their “session” this and “imperial” that. But after tasting Heady Topper, I was sold on the fact this is sufficiently different to rate a unique name. Plus, I rather appreciate it is named after the region of its birth, rather than some oxymoronic descriptor.
I don’t think I can overstate just how different New England IPA is from your regular American, or even West Coast IPA. Intense, attractive fruit aromas and flavours backed by a delicate malt bill. Common descriptors are of Five Alive or Tropical Punch – that is how fruity we are talking. The bitterness is almost an afterthought.
Despite their huge popularity on the east coast, they are still relatively unknown on the prairies. I can’t remember one being brewed around these parts before (although my memory could be faulty). Troubled Waters was a one-off but in a matter of a couple weeks, a new version from Bench Creek, called Apex Predator, will be released. Upstart Outcast Brewing is also playing around with a New England approach to its beer – fruity aroma and flavour forward. I have also just learned that Grande Prairie’s Grain Bin has just released a one-0ff New England IPA as part of its Democracy series.
So, maybe, just maybe, the New England-style is finally reaching our part of the world. About time I say.
Sometimes a beer comes along that you know you just have to review even before you open the bottle. Case in point: Yukon Brewing’s latest bomber seasonal, Charming or Tedious.
I knew I had to review it for a couple of reasons. First, it is the initial offering in their 20th anniversary series. They plan on releasing a new beer each month in 2017 to celebrate 20 years of doing the impossible – brewing beer in Whitehorse and finding a way to actually make money doing it.
Plus, it just so happens their 20th anniversary coincides with a little birthday that is Canada’s 150th, which they are honouring by actually calling the series the Canada 150 Series, rather than the 20th Celebration or some other such name.
Who can turn down such a beer? Certainly not me.
So I cracked it open. The beer is a Maple Wee Heavy. They have added a bunch of maple syrup to accent this malty Scottish strong ale.
It displays as a deep mahogany brown beer. It builds a tight, light tan head that also offers a bit of lacing surprisingly. Quite clear and overall totally fits the look of a Wee Heavy. The aroma starts with a rich burnt caramel, follows with hints of chocolate and an earthy maple sweetness, accented by a dark fruit character.
The flavour starts with a classic Wee Heavy character. the front is rich caramel, brown sugar and dark fruits reminding me of plum and raisin. I may also detect some clove, but can’t quite trust that. The middle sharpens up a little bit and brings a more earthy sweetness which slowly evolves into a noticeable maple syrup. The finish is fairly broad and offers both a dark sugar sweetness and a hint of dark roast dryness. The overall impression is sweet, full-bodied and earthy.
I think I could take to this 7.3% beer without too much persuasion. As a Wee Heavy alone it might lack malt complexity, but the added maple changes the nature of the beer and gives you something else to focus on. I still feel it could use a bit more sharpness in the finish just to balance things out, but as it stands it is an interesting beer. I would happily accept another.
The name almost seems to be taunting the consumer to choose between the two extremes – charming or tedious. If that is the case, I choose Charming.
Sometimes you know immediately that you have found a beer you are going to like for a long time. Sometimes the appreciation grows more slowly.
Over the past couple months I have found the latter applies to new Medicine Hat brewery Hell’s Basement Ryes Against the Machine. I tried it on my initial visit to the brewery (read my profile here) and found it interesting but it didn’t particularly stand out to me. At the time it was a seasonal, but its popularity has led to its addition in their permanent line-up.
I picked up a six pack before Xmas and have been slowly working my way through it. I must admit after each can, I find myself increasingly impressed by this beer. It is not perfect by any means, but my appreciation of it has increased notably. I recently picked up a second six pack – just because – which says something.
The beer presents dark burgundy brown with good clarity. It has a consistent if somewhat lazy layer of light tan head. The beer looks calm and inviting. The aroma is fairly quiet but offers light nut, caramel and chocolate, some generic fruitiness and hints of an earthy graininess. The smell reminds me a bit of cola.
The front has a classic brown ale taste. I pick up some nut, brown sugar, along with hints of toffee and caramel accented by touches of milk chocolate. The middle offers an earthy grain and a touch of fruity ester. As it moves back I get a sharpening of the malt character with a touch of spiciness. Just a bit, enough to add a touch of complexity to the palate, but not to be distracting.
Without the rye it would likely be a decent brown ale. The addition of rye adds an interesting angular character to the beer. In the end the rye quality is fairly modest – any more would throw off the balance of the beer – but it clearly leaves its mark. It slightly sharpens the body, in particular in the latter half, adds a hint of spiciness in the linger and dries out the finish for good measure.
For people looking for bold, assertive rye ales you might end up being a bit disappointed. But I am growing to appreciate the subtle balance in this beer. Hell’s Basement finds a way to make it accessible and multi-dimensional at the same time. And that is no small feat.
Its amazing what can happen when four avid homebrewers stumble across a commercial brewing system. About a year ago Glenn Valgardson, David Freeman, Brent Babyak and Josh Morrison, who are all longtime homebrewers and stalwarts of Regina’s Ale and Lagers Enthusiasts of Saskatchewan (ALES) – one of the country’s biggest and most successful homebrew clubs – were offered an opportunity to take over the derelict brewing system in the basement of O’Hanlon’s Pub.
O’Hanlon’s is a longtime, popular downtown Regina pub that has long offered Saskatchewan beer as part of its diverse beer line-up. About a decade ago they made a short-lived attempt to become a brewpub. They installed a 7-barrel brewhouse in the basement of the pub and tried to make beer. Unfortunately it was a day early and a dollar short. “They found out it was difficult to operate a brewery in the Regina market, especially if you didn’t use real brewers,” says Freeman. O’Hanlon’s cut their losses and shuttered the brewery. It has sat dormant for years.
But the four partners jumped at the opportunity to revitalize it, even if it was not the ideal space. You see, it is located in the basement of O’Hanlon’s, basically in “a storage room of the parkade garage underneath the pub,” notes Valgardson. They spent the last year renovating and upgrading the space and equipment to make it suitable for a production brewery – including an insane amount of cleaning and sanitizing the derelict equipment. Still, it remains an unusual system. “It is Saskatchewan’s only electric-fired brewhouse. We also have three dish-bottom fermenters,” says Freeman. Dish-bottom fermenters have a flatter bottom than conicals, which can change a number of factors in the brewing process.
Working in the spacious basement brewery
They have called their burgeoning operation Pile O’ Bones Brewing. They have had beer on the market since mid-December and they are slowly ramping up production. At the moment they are keg-only, given their space constraints, but do have some bigger plans for the future.
Their vision for the beer sticks close to their homebrewing roots. “We aim to create classically styled craft beer that is executed well,” says Babyak. “We are about malt and hops. Not saying we won’t use experimental adjuncts, but that is not what we are about. We are not worried about throwing a bunch of spices in. We want to produce traditional beer. None of us are afraid to do things the hard way.”
They are also trying to carve their own niche in Regina’s beer scene. “We looked at the market and tried to see where the holes are” says Freeman. They don’t see local operations like Bushwakker and Rebellion as competitors, and so want to find a way to co-exist alongside them.
As for the beer themselves, for now they have landed on four beer to focus on, with seasonals coming in the future. Their core line-up includes: a Red IPA, “hoppy but not too light or too dark”; a White IPA, “we wanted something that the occasional beer drinker would like as well as craft drinkers”; a Chocolate Stout, “a darker beer but we didn’t want it to be too roasty or have too much coffee”; and their most recent, a Pale Ale, which is “something approachable for the average beer drinker”.
They have also just released their first attempt at a Blonde Ale. They are not sure if it will join the others as a regular offering and are waiting on customer reaction to decide.
As mentioned, the plan is once the core beer are established (and they buy more fermenters), they will release various seasonals and one-offs. The immediate plan is to offer keg only, but in the longer term they hope to upgrade to a packaging line of some sort. One of their hopes is to have the space to age some unique beer that they can sell in bottles as a special offering.
Three of the Four Partners Plus a Friend
In addition to being homebrewers, the four bring other valuable skills to operating a brewery. Valgardson is a certified mechanic, Morrison is a lawyer, Freeman is involved in communications and market research, and Babyak is in IT. Not a bad combination of skills for opening a brewery. For the moment they are all keeping their day jobs, plus some of them have young families. “We are being weekend and night-time warriors,” says Valgardson.
As for the name, most locals understand the reference. It is connected to the original name for Regina. It was a good hunting ground for Indigenous hunters. They developed the practice of leaving piles of buffalo bones behind with the thought that the remaining buffalo would come back to visit the bones. As a result, original European settlers called the area Pile of Bones. The name Regina came after when they formally incorporated the town.
“We picked the name because we wanted to pay homage to the history of Regina and the place we come from,” says Freeman. “We wanted to make sure when a customer saw the logo and the name they knew we were from Regina and not some random craft brewery. We want them to know it was beer made right here in Regina.”
The group is a bit vague on their long term plans – they are focused right now on just getting up and running, but they envision an operation that supports them all full-time and produces beer that can be sold across the province. Whether that is in their current space or they open a new brewery elsewhere is still an open question.
But for now Regina beer drinkers can pile on in their support for Pile O’ Bones Brewing.
[edited Mar 1/17 to fix a couple minor details.]
Continuing in my recent tradition of offering reviews of beer that you may or may not still be able to find, I present to you Bent Stick’s Throwin’ Shade Cascadian Dark Ale.
First, the Bent Stick boys get full marks off the top for calling the beer a Cascadian Dark Ale (CDA). In my curmudgeonly world that is the only appropriate name for this type of beer. Sure, some call it Black IPA, but that is too much of an oxymoron for me to countenance (remember, IPA stands for India PALE Ale). Clearly that is their position too.
For those of you less familiar with Edmonton’s youngest brewery, they have adopted a model of never releasing the same beer twice. Meaning it can be hard for a beer writer prone to procrastination to get around to posting a review that might actually push sales. (I actually sampled a bottle of the beer earlier in January and the notes sat unattended for a while. My bad. Such is life.)
“Get to the beer!” you might cry, lest it sell out before I finally get to describing it. So, here is my review:
It pours a dark, opaque brown, verging on a stout-like appearance. It builds a dark tan head with tight bead accented by bigger, looser bubbles to give it a textured look. The aroma offers chocolate at first along with a hint of coffee. I then pick up some piney, light citrus hop. The choir includes dark fruit of raisin and grape, a hint of brown bread and a smidgen of caramel.
The flavour also starts with chocolate, along with caramel and a rich, dark fruit character that reminds me of raisin, plum and prune. The middle sharpens up intensely, bringing out a resiny, piney hop character and some sharp coffee notes. The back end then brings out a noted bitterness and continues with the piney, earthy hop character. Roast goes along for the ride in the back seat as well. The linger is pine and citrus hops backed by a sweet chocolate character. I do also find an odd harshness to the overall body that I can’t explain.
In my opinion this flavourful beer exhibits the hop character of CDA almost perfectly. Present and forward but not overly dominating. The right tones are there too – citrus and pine and fruit. I wonder, however, if the malt base might be a bit overdone. I find a bit too much roast (even though it is still fairly subtle) and overall it is not as smooth as I might normally like from a CDA. Still, it holds up well as a flavourful, interesting beer. I enjoyed the glass from beginning to end.
I recognize it was the first attempt (such is the highwire act they engage daily). Should they choose to make this again, if they toned down the darker malts a touch they would have themselves a formidable CDA.
And, again, kudos to them for calling it the right thing.
Kristjan Kristjansson, owner of the soon-to-open Winnipeg brewpub, Brazen Hall Kitchen and Brewery, literally grew up in the restaurant business. His dad, Thrainn Kristjansson, ran the Round Table Steakhouse and Pub, which had been a staple of the Winnipeg food scene since he opened it in 1973. Its distinct Tudor-style building was an attraction on Pembina Hwy in south Winnipeg for decades.
The younger Kristjansson, who had actually avoided the hospitality industry and instead went into business development, bought the restaurant from his father in 2010. “My dad watched the restaurant business go to that point where either you re-invent or move on. He also hit that point in the life cycle where he wanted to be a grandpa more than a restaurateur.”
Kristjansson raised the necessary capital to not only buy the restaurant but the land it sat on as well (his dad had leased for 40 years). He felt having full control over the property gave me greater options. Also, operating a steakhouse, a more conservative and formal segment of the industry, wasn’t top of his to-do list. “I am not built for the steakhouse business”, he notes. “I am more gregarious and adventurous. Plus I had been thinking about breweries for years. I love the science of it and all the flavours you can create.”
Kristjansson spent a lot of time in the U.S. exploring some of the big beer cities and their beer scenes. “But I knew I couldn’t completely transfer those ideas to Winnipeg. They are big, exciting scenes,” where Winnipeg’s beer culture was still growing. He also points to being exciting by what he experience on Vancouver Island with Spinnakers’, Hoyne and others. The idea of a brewpub started to gel in his mind.
“I owned this 8,000 square foot building,” he says. “It was too big for a restaurant, but was a great site for something. Then a light went off. 5,500 for the restaurant, the rest for a 10-hectolitre brewhouse!” He proceeded to gut the building (having closed the restaurant in 2015) and do a major refurbishment to make it suitable for a modern-day brewpub.
But before doing so he took a lesson he learned on one of his brewery tours to heart. “The best advice I got was from the smallest place I visited. Junkyard Brewing in Fargo [North Dakota],” he explains. “The guy said to me ‘if you think you are going to come in, throw a brewhouse in your restaurant to save it, you will ruin brewing. It won’t work.”
Kristjansson took that message to mean he had to make beer the centrepiece of the new operation. Quality food was important, but the beer had to come first. And as a non-brewer, he knew he needed to find a first-rate brewer. At first he looked internationally, not wanting to poach from local breweries, but plans to bring in a brewer from Iceland (Kristjansson is of Icelandic heritage – if the name hadn’t tipped you off) fell through and, as these things happen, Jeremy Wells, at the time a brewer with Half Pints, was looking for an opportunity to become a head brewer. They talked and decided it was an excellent pairing. “I wanted a guy who wouldn’t compromise and he wanted an opportunity to show what he can do.”
Kristjansson says the beer will have a “Northern European and English influence”. Their first beer, which they brewed at Half Pints last fall for the Flatlanders’ Beer Festival was Naughty Vic, a “honest to style” best bitter named for Queen Victoria. Served as a cask ale, it was a bit hit at the festival, motivationg Kristjansson to make it their flagship, at least for now.
And, yes, it will continue to be a cask ale. Kristjansson says the plan on “always having two cask ales available”. The two casks will be supplemented by 8 other regular taps. They are still finalizing the list but plan to go with a line-up of six regular and four rotational taps. The regular line-up will span the range of styles. “Will have a great lager – a helles, a gentler amber for those drinkers, a nut brown, IPA, stout and maybe a farm ale of some sort.” As for the four rotating taps “we will go hog wild and have fun with them.”
The brewery consists of a 10-hl brewhouse with 3-1ohl fermenters and 4 bright tanks, “just to get us rolling,” says Kristjansson. “It is designed to triple Continue reading A Brazen Plan to Create a Great Brewpub
A couple weeks back I wrote a post reflecting on my visits to Calgary’s newest and second oldest breweries (which you can read here). The visits got me pondering the similarities and differences between older and newer breweries. Since that post I have been pondering the issue further. More specifically I contemplated the tendency in today’s fast moving beer culture to seek out the new and interesting and, by extension, dismiss the older and more familiar.
Those musings grew up into a Beer 101 column, which was published last week. You can read the article here.
The origins of my musings have been commentary recently about how great the “new” breweries are in western Canada combined with a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) disparaging of the more established craft breweries in the area. Not all ascribe to this line of thinking, but I have heard it enough times in recent months to believe it to have some traction among a portion of the craft beer consumer.
My piece attempts to break down the logic in that argument – more specifically the errors in that logic. I argue it actually starts from a reasonable and natural tendency; we all are attracted to the new and unusual and can get bored with the things with which we are most familiar. It is totally fair to be excited to get your first pint of that new brewery’s first release or the latest beer you have never tried before.
The problem comes when we try to contrast the more familiar beer with the excitement of that new-ness. The latter naturally pales in comparison. I dub that tendency Shiny New Thing Syndrome (SNTS). It is something we can all be afflicted with but must work to avoid.
The second logical flaw is the presence of selective vision. We tend to compare that fancy new Double IPA or Kettle Sour from the new brewery (because that is what catches our attention) to the most accessible of the older brewery’s beer. It is an unfair comparison.
Related to that is the third logical issue: ignoring sales. Sure, beer aficionados get excited about that new Imperial Stout or SMASH (Single-Malt-Single-Hop) beer – and we should. Be we shouldn’t ignore that the brewery that just put out that amazing East Coast IPA also likely has a session ale, blonde ale or some similarly accessible style in their line-up. And in most cases (admittedly not all) that accessible beer is their best-selling beer.
How is that so different than the 20-year-old brewery whose bills are paid by a fruit beer or a blonde lager? It is the reality of selling beer in Western Canada, what is undoubtedly still an emerging craft beer market. Breweries, at the end of the day, need to be financially sustainable and producing a beer people like is not a bad thing.
Besides, what is inherently wrong with a fruit wheat beer or blonde ale? Sure, fruit beer are not really my cup of tea (ale?), but if it is well made and honestly marketed, who am I to say it isn’t a worthwhile beer? We have to be careful not to let our more experienced palates lead to snobbery. Beer is supposed to be a social drink after all.
It is a false dichotomy, this new vs. old. Drink the beer you like. Respect all craft breweries who make well-executed beer, no matter how long it has been on offer.
Who knew Alberta brewers were into three-ways?
Collaborations, that is.
To celebrate their first anniversaries – which came within a few weeks of each other – Bench Creek Brewing, Blindman Brewing and Troubled Monk Brewing got together to brew a three-way collaboration beer. I think it was a fitting way to mark the trios’ respective milestones. All three have made a noticeable mark on the Alberta beer scene and, to my mind, have done so adopting very different approaches to both their beer and their marketing.
In a way their differences make the collaboration more interesting. They opted for a Double IPA, but not your usual kind of DIPA. It is more of the trendier East Coast-style, which, among other things is usually quite cloudy and fruity. Brew day was early November at Bench Creek outside Edson, and the beer was released in early January as a keg-only product. They called it Troubled Waters – which even the most distracted of you should figure out the connection.
I first had it at a local establishment a few weeks ago. But I hate writing on my phone so didn’t take any notes (in case there was any doubt, I am no Millennial). Earlier this week I scooped up a crowler of it so I could sip on it at home and dig into its layers of flavour.
As promised it pours deeply hazy with a light to medium yellow hue. It builds a big white head that is both bubbly and dense and rocky at the same time. I notice the formation of considerable lacing along the glass. The aroma gives off fresh citrus, lemon, grapefruit, papaya, orange and a touch of leafy hop aroma as well. I even pick up peach and apricot in the background. Let’s just call it “very fruity”. Only a hint of light grassy malt to balance. It has a very tropical character.
The beginning of the three-way brew day, where I am told much brewing and very little beer drinking took place.
The flavour starts with a light grassy grain, followed by a delicate fruitiness. Different kinds of fruit mix, including papaya, peach and hints of lemon. The middle brings a bit more floral hop character and a drier graininess. Hints of pine also sneak in. As it works its way back I find myself thinking about Tropical Punch and the vivid tropical fruitiness it offered when I was a kid. The finish is surprisingly soft. The perception of bitterness is subdued, this is more about fruity hop flavour than IBU intensity. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely bitter in there, it is just not the main player. The linger is grapefruit and passion fruit. Overall the body is quite light and refreshing. I even get an ever so slight tang to the beer to give it a summer-y, refreshing note.
Very East Coast. I really appreciate the accent on the fruitiness rather than a lupulin crush. The alcohol is extremely well hidden – it is an 8% beer after all – which is both impressive and scary.
In a way it reminds me of – and I say this with care – Heady Topper. It is difficult to compare any beer to such a singularly brilliant creation (read my review of it here), but I can safely say that it possesses many of the same kind of flavour notes, suggesting to me they are definitely in the ballpark of the style and do a mighty fine job of executing it.
Clearly a good example of what happens when you put three young, adventurous breweries together who are in a mood to celebrate.
Brewsters’ old workhorse brewhouse in their crammed brewery space.
Recently in the course of 24 hours I spent time talking to Calgary’s second oldest brewery and its two youngest. And I was amazed at how they were vastly different yet somehow similar.
The first day Brewsters’ co-owner Matt Lanigan generously spent a couple hours showing me around their main production brewery (which, oddly, I had never seen) and chatting about the brewery’s history and future. The next day I popped by both Common Crown Brewing and Highline Brewing to catch my first glimpse of their activities. The two new breweries opened within weeks of each other and are still feeling out the market.
I could likely write a post on each of the three visits separately but I am learning these days given my schedule that is an unlikely outcome. Besides it makes more sense to contemplate how the old and the new are related.
I learned a lot with my visit with Lanigan. Brewsters has seen a lot over the past 26 years. When they opened, the term “craft beer” had not yet been invented. They were truly tilling virgin land (along with Big Rock). I appreciate that Lanigan openly acknowledged that in the early days the beer quality “was up and down”, which – as an early customer – was certainly my experience. But they were feeling out what the beer consumer wanted (which was constantly in flux) and trying to create something original and fresh at the same time. It was early days for craft beer in Alberta.
Today, Brewsters is often seen as conservative by many beer aficionados. Their flagship is their River City Raspberry Ale, followed closely by the blueberry ale. That might be a reason to disparage, but I disagree. To quote Lanigan, “you don’t pick your flagship, the consumer does.” That was the reality of when Brewsters got into business. The raspberry was the workhorse that allowed them to sell Blue Monk Barley Wine and many of their other more challenging seasonals over the years. The same reality faced Wild Rose, Alley Kat and other early entrants.
The contrast with today is not as stark as you might think. It is true that Common Crown, Highline and other new breweries don’t have to produce a fruit beer to survive. But it continues to be true that every brewery on the prairies needs an easy-drinking beer to appeal to a sizeable portion of consumers. Sure, they get to also experiment with bolder styles, but so has Brewsters over the years. I think over the last 20 years I have tried almost every beer style – save Lambic and other spontaneous fermented beer – at my local Brewsters pub.
It is easier for a brewery to brew “craft”-ier beer and make a living these days. But no brewery, at least not yet, can take their eye off of accessible and popular. Common Crown admits this reality. They have produced Brewmaster Blonde Ale that while they are quite proud of it, they admit is their gateway beer. They also have a quite good Coppersmith Brown Ale and a noticeable IPA, but, even as a new brewery, they recognize they have to have a foot on either side of the flavour divide.
And they are not alone. Look at any of the new Alberta breweries. Do they have an easy-to-drink offering? Yes. And that is not a bad thing.
Highline’s cozy taproom
Highline, which for the moment is mostly aiming to attract local neighbourhood customers, may be able to extend experimentation further, given their small volumes and local focus. So far they have been very adventurous, including making beer with Yerba Mate tea and playing with styles like creating a nitro-infused bitter stout. But even they know that they need something accessible, hence their burgeoning flagship, Common, a gentle ale that reminds me of a lower-IBU Steam Beer.
The three brewery visits were very different. Brewsters is well established and trying to expand their reach with Albertans, as well as maintain their reputation as a reliable go-to spot. Common Crown is new and delving into the heart of the craft beer industry by creating interesting beer to attract a range of beer drinkers. Highline is trying to develop a small-scale, artisan-created experience. Three very different breweries, but dealing with a very similar environment – meeting the needs of a mix of beer newbies and beer aficionados. Not an easy customer base to bridge.
Things may be more open for breweries today and the tough slogging of Brewsters’ early days may be gone, but that doesn’t mean it is easy sailing for a new brewery. They still need to find a way to produce a beer a wide range of people will like. And that reality is what brings the two generations together.
Let’s celebrate both the old and the new!