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Oilers and the Art of Exclusive Contracts

The offending Arcadia poster. Photo courtesy CBC News.

Late last week the social media world exploded with news that the Edmonton Oilers had ordered the owner of a small, craft oriented bar in town to stop promoting in-house beer specials during Oiler games (you can read the CBC story here). The bar, Arcadia on 124 Street, is committed to serving only Alberta-made craft beer and has developed a reputation in town as a quality craft beer stop. They seem to regularly have something rare on tap (often due to the owners’ willingness to drive to the brewery to pick up a keg) and their cask nights are legendary. They seem an odd place to single out for legal sabre-rattling.

As we have since learned, Arcadia is not alone in feeling the wrath of the Oilers’ legal team. Other bars have also been warned against promoting the Oilers in their establishments.

The threats come with a carrot – at least in the minds of the Oilers management – in the form of an offer that if the establishment carries Molson products, they would be happy to support them in promoting Oilers games. Hmm. Interesting.

There has been lots of consumer outrage over the weekend about this, so I see no need to pile on. The move is understandably frustrating for fans of craft beer and the Oilers are clearly demonstrating a stunning tone-deafness in this PR fiasco.

Instead I want to look at the bigger picture and bring in some analysis to bear.

The problem here isn’t the Oilers, it is the practice of exclusivity contracts. In Regina their fancy new Mosaic stadium has not yet lost its new car smell yet the odour of crass pandering to Molson reeks. Despite their best efforts, Saskatchewan craft brewers were unable to persuade the Roughriders and the City of Regina to serve local beer at the new facility (read here for background). Across the continent stadiums and arenas are seas of monoculture beer, either of the Molson or the AB-Inbev variety. That beer fans point to Boston, Atlanta or Denver where local craft beer is served onsite proves how rare such diversity occurs. I remember once being thrilled at the Brier that Great Western Brewing, rather than Molson, had exclusivity rights (read here), it is that barren.

And it is not just sports. Most music festivals, including my beloved Edmonton Folk Music Festival, offer exclusive pouring rights, in this case often to Big Rock. It is common practice for festivals and events to arrange for exclusivity.

The advantage to the organization/sports team is obvious. Money. In the Oilers’ case Molson is prepared to pay a premium to keep out its competitors. For festivals and the like, the sponsorship money is an essential revenue stream.

For the brewery, the advantage is even more obvious. You get a captured market and oodles of space to promote your brands. Plus your competitors can’t even show their face.

The downside for the consumers is also obvious – lack of choice. But for today, that is not the issue I want to focus on.

The downside for the organization, be it a hockey team or a music festival, is that it shifts their perspective. Unintentionally, the organization becomes an advocate for their brewery partner rather than an advocate for their customers. The Oilers brouhaha demonstrates this shift. The Oilers are actively encouraging bars to sell Molson products (to be eligible for the gravy train that is Oilers promotions). They have become a secondary sales force for one of the largest breweries in the world.

Festivals rarely go that far, but they regularly heap praise on their brewery partner, while offering  silence for anyone else.

Allowing exclusivity sets in motion a certain logic that prioritizes the contracted brewery over fans/consumers/attendees.The interests of the brewery become intertwined with the team/organization. Even the term “partner” is telling. Partners are equals who share in the benefits and consequences of the endeavour. That is not what this is. Molson is selling beer at a hockey game. That doesn’t make them a “partner”. That makes them a supplier. And suppliers should be exposed to the cut and thrust of competition, not shielded in perpetuity because they pulled up to the back door with a Brinks truck.

Exclusivity elevates a supplier to a partner. And thus the logic shifts and we see last week’s farce where a professional hockey club is threatening a small, independent pub run by one guy (literally).

It is not the money that is the problem; there are ways of getting similar revenues in a non-exclusive environment. It is the logic that proves so difficult to overcome. Sports teams, festivals and the like need to stop seeing breweries as partners and start seeing them as beer suppliers.

But I won’t hold my breath.

 

Upstreet’s Go Devil Goes Down Just Fine

A friend went to PEI this summer on a family vacation. And proving they are a rather great friend, they brought me back some beer to try. Gahan Brewing (PEI Brewing) is a longtime staple of the PEI beer scene (meaning they were the only one for many years) and have at times sold in Alberta, so they new better than to bring me back that.

The good news is in the last couple years there have been three new entrants into the PEI beer scene. My friend got me three beer from newcomer Upstreet Brewing who just opened their doors last year. It was my first opportunity to try their beer. I was offered their Ruby Social rhubarb witbier, the Eighty Bob Scottish ale and the Go Devil American IPA. Just because I sampled the Go Devil last, it became the subject of this post.

First let me offer a brief comment on the other two. The Ruby Social tasted, well, like rhubarb. Tart with an earthy sweetness. If you like rhubarb, this beer will work for you. If not, well…  It also has some strawberry to soften the effect, but still. The Eighty Bob is a decent Scottish ale with a bit of a dry finish.

As for the Go Devil it clearly presented as an American-style IPA. It pours dark gold with great clarity. It forms a thick, dense white head with noticeable lacing. I also note fairly strong carbonation. The aroma gives up sweet citrus and some floral notes. I get papaya and sweet mango. It is backed by a light biscuit malt sweetness.

The first sip is fruity and sweet with some honey, red fruit and sweet grain. The middle draws out a sharp graininess and a bit of wildflower. The finish is sweet with a clear citrus angle. I pick up papaya but also an odd grassiness that doesn’t quite fit the overall effect. The finish also has a green shoot character to it which I can’t quite reconcile with the other flavours. The linger is fruity and citrusy but not overly bitter. The beer could use a more assertive hop bitterness to draw out the American qualities and to accent the citrus hop flavours.

It is a nice tasting beer. I quite appreciated my 30 minutes exploring it. It had nteresting flavour combinations to keep me thinking. It is not necessarily to style, lacking in clean bitterness, and it has an odd combination of hop flavours which I find curious. Still, I can’t deny it is an enjoyable quaff.

Upstreet is still a young brewery in an under-developed market, so both patience and some latitude are warranted. In that context I see this beer as a very promising start.

I Am Bound to Have Another Metes and Bounds

Sometimes you just have to ignore your inner curmudgeon and just go with the beer flow.  At least I do.

Take the new-ish trend of creating so-called XPA – Extra Pale Ale. It is supposed to a beer that lands somewhere between a pale ale and an IPA. Conceptually it makes sense but part of me wants to run to my BJCP guidelines in a desperate search to find it. It is not in there, of course, because it is not yet officially a style. Which drives the style curmudgeon in me crazy.

But then I got my hands on a bottle of Annex Ales Project’s Metes and Bounds, which they proudly call an XPA. And sampling it quiets my inner style curmudgeon, momentarily.

It pours medium orange copper. It is quite hazy, actually, and forms a huge, dense, bubbly head. The aroma has a bright citrus note, some leafy hop character and a background toffee and biscuit malt. It also has a noted ale fruitiness. It smells fresh and bright.

In the sip, the front front offers a big pit fruit and citrus note mixed with some wildflower honey, light caramel and slight piney earthiness. The middle draws out an earthy hop character and some lemon while staying quite smooth and  creamy in the body. The finish has a bright citrus character and an assertive bitterness, but without losing the biscuity malt base. The linger is pine, lemon and mango.

Okay. I get it. XPA is maybe a thing. Metes and Bounds wonderfully straddles the best of both an IPA and a Pale Ale. An assertive hop presence balanced by a pleasant and rounded toffee, light caramel, toasted malt base. The malt co-stars in this beer, giving it both more balance and more drinkability than a more assertive IPA, while still presenting a stage for the hops to shine. A fine balance, but one nicely struck by Annex Ales.

I must admit I think this could be a dangerous beer for me if I wasn’t careful. The style curmudgeon in me be damned.

Fitzsimmons Primed to Win Over Airdrie

A few years back Cody Fitzsimmons and his girlfriend Pamela Jarosz presented themselves with a stark choice. “Do we want to get married or start a brewery?” They felt their energies had to go into one or the other.

The fact that Fitzsimmons Brewing will be opening in Airdrie just north of Calgary in the coming weeks tells you their answer. Beer won out. Who needs a ring when you can share a brewery together?

“The day they changed the [minimum capacity] law in Alberta is the day we started working on it,” says Fitzsimmons. “It was something we always dreamed of doing, so as soon as the law changed we pursued it actively and very heavily. But we took our time opening. We didn’t want to rush it and wanted to make sure we did everything right”.

As the name attests Fitzsimmons is a family project, and not just the two of them. “At the end of the day we just wanted a name that represented what we are,” says Fitzsimmons. “We are a family brewery. Aunts and uncles and cousins – all family. The brewery is not named after me. I just wanted a name that represented who we are.” You will note the lack of a possessive apostrophe on the name.

Fitzsimmons is an Airdrie resident with a background in plumbing and working in the culinary industry. His passion for beer, like many started with homebrewing. “Like every homebrewer I built my system bigger every year, adding new things. I was an obsession that got out of control.”

But Fitzsimmons is smart enough to know the difference between brewing up 20 or 40 litres at home and trying to build a commercial brewery. “We wanted to make sure  we will be making the best product possible,” he says. “I knew as a homebrewer I  could make good beer but not necessarily great beer so I wanted to hire someone who could.”

Enter Allen Douglas. Douglas worked at Big Rock for about six years before switching back to his original trade as a welder. However after a couple years of that he decided “brewing was more fun.” Douglas says when he saw the head brewer position open up he jumped at it. “I connected with Cody a couple years ago and we kept in touch.” Douglas also lives in Airdrie so saw the opportunity as ideal.

Their brewhouse is in place and Douglas will start brewing in the next week or two. Fitzsimmons says they are hoping for end of October to have beer, with the tasting room opening a couple weeks later. They have a 10-bbl brewhouse with 4-20bbl fermenters and two bright tanks.

Douglas says that to start they will have two flagships, an Continue reading Fitzsimmons Primed to Win Over Airdrie

Ol’ Beautiful Aiming to Making Attractive Beer

Another new Calgary brewery quietly slipped onto store shelves and bar taps over the summer (they officially launched in April). Ol’ Beautiful Brewing (the website isn’t much yet, but you know) is the brainchild of Chris Carroll and Devon Sidwell. The longtime friends have been scheming for a couple of years about opening a brewery.

As Carroll says in my recent visit with him, the two just felt like it was the right thing to do. “We have similar backgrounds and interests in traveling, music and the outdoors, we get along really well”. They not only shared pastimes but an entrepreneurial spirit and craft beer. “I spend a few years in Colorado going to school, which is where my spark for the craft brewing industry started. I studied marketing and came back to Canada to become an architectural technologist, but I new lost the passion for craft beer”. As for Sidwell, he studied philosophy in university, “did the wandering nomad life” and after ran a couple of businesses in the safety auditing sector. “Over much biking and beer drinking Devon and I schemed on this thing”.

They watched what was happening in Calgary in recent years and took notice. They realized they needed to get going on their dream sooner rather than later. “We chatted a lot with Dan [Allard] at Cold Garden when he was starting up, getting the lay of the land. He is a key mentor for us. He took a bit of that intimidation factor out of it. Plus we got first hand experience helping him out”, says Carroll.

That relationship went so well Ol’ Beautiful is currently contract brewing out of Cold Garden. They installed their own 30-hl tank and brew during Cold Garden’s down time. “We brew the night shift, We go in after and Zoei will brew 11 hours through the night. It is a quad batch to fill the fermenter up”. The Zoei he mentions is Zoei Thibault, a recent Olds College graduate and someone who totally fits into Carroll and Sidwell’s vibe. Carroll says Thibault grew up in Kaslo and so shares their outdoor passions. “Zoei is technical and well-trained”.

The plan is to have their own space. “Our main ideal is to have a space to share the craft beer experience, share in the culture”, says Carroll. “The focus is on having an approachable, pedestrian-oriented space. That is why we haven’t rushed on space. We are waiting for the best spot”. Carroll is flexible on the timeline but hopes it will be in the next year or so. Their plan is to install a 15 Hl brewhouse and aim to do Alberta distribution, although Calgary will be their main focus.

For the time being they are happy contracting with Cold Garden, who are becoming something of a new brewery incubator as they also host Outcast Brewing. “The contract phase is great”, says Carroll. “We have gained Continue reading Ol’ Beautiful Aiming to Making Attractive Beer

Labatt to Bring Back the Stubby, Maybe

Will the stubby be making a comeback?

Labatt Breweries of Canada, wholly owned by AB-Inbev, has announced it is bringing back the stubby (read news article here). It has invested significant money to upgrade its Edmonton plant. Among the upgrades is to allow their bottling line to handle the iconic squat bottle.

For beer fans of a particular age and/or sentimental disposition this is quite exciting news. Maybe.

I’ll explain the maybe part in a second. But first some background. For all you young’uns out there, the stubby (pictured) was the industry standard bottle across Canada between 1961 and 1982. It was phased out during the 1980s as the big corporate brewers, under pressure from American beer, switched to today’s longer neck bottle. To this day some beer drinkers have never forgiven them.

Regular readers here know full well that I am a big fan of the stubby (read here). I own many cases of them in my home brewery, and have long argued they are the perfectly designed beer bottle, especially for naturally carbonated homebrew. If find the shape of the neck ideal for pouring while leaving sediment behind. Its stout design also makes it quite durable and break-proof. Over the years I have had a number of long neck bottles break during capping, but never once I have lost a stubby that way.

Besides there is something distinctly Canadian about the stubby. It is a piece of Canadian heritage. So that is why it is good news if the stubby is coming back. Though the irony is not lost on me of a Canadian icon being re-introduced by the Belgium-based AB-Inbev, the largest beer corporation in the world.

Now to the maybe. Here is my fear: they will not be bringing back the traditional stubby but a cheaper knock-off. In particular I fear the new version will have a twist-off top, much like the ones used by Brick Brewing, Red Stripe and others. That particular bottle has thinner glass and feels less sturdy – plus the dreaded twist top.

Call me a purist but a twist off stubby is not a true stubby.

There is also the issue that the product going into the new stubbies, if they end up being true stubbies, is equally not deserving of such a respected container. Labatt hasn’t announced which products will be packaged in stubbies, or when. But to be honest, the 1960s and 1970s were hardly the halcyon days for quality Canadian beer, so I can’t get all that worked up about that part.

Still, I am  hoping this will prove to be the real thing and not just another marketing gimmick. (Yes, I know it IS a marketing gimmick, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be authentic.)

I guess I, and you, will have to wait and see.

Snake Lake Hopes to Slither into Consumers’ Hearts

A few days ago I told you about one of Sylvan Lake’s upcoming breweries (read here). Today it is the second brewery’s turn. Snake Lake Brewing.

Snake Lake is the original name of the town, after what the local indigenous peoples called the area due to the inordinate number of garter snakes found on the lake’s shores. “There were so many garter snakes around they had to lay planks down to get to beach,” says Snake Lake co-owner Adam Nachbaur. While they quickly realized the name lacked a certain appeal and so changed it to Sylvan Lake, the history of the name has stuck for locals.

Nachbaur and his co-founders, brothers Bill and Dean Beekman, are all from the area, spending much of their adult life in the region. Snake Lake Brewing in many ways is a product of the recent economic downturn. All are tradespeople. Nachbaur is a mechanic and commercial pilot. Bill is instrumentation technician while Dean is a rig hand who worked his way up in the industry.

The recent downturn led the three of them to contemplate other work. “We started looking for something different to do other than trades work,” says Nachbaur. “Originally we started out with the idea of a homebrewing equipment store, with a storefront in Sylvan and an online store,” he says. “It slowly snowballed into ‘why don’t we just join the trend and try opening a brewery’.”

This revelation was in February of 2017. The threesome have moved very quickly since. In short order they found a building they bought, located at the traffic circle on the edge of town. “It is the old NAPA building right on highway across from Tim Horton’s,” Nachbaur points out. Sounds good, no?

The busy Sylvan Lake beach

Construction on the site has been ongoing for weeks with the brewing equipment arriving any day. They are installing a 35-hl system with 8 35-hl fermentaters. With that size they know they need to grow outside the small town of Sylvan Lake. Their plans aren’t set yet but they hope to “go as far as we can go,” says Nachbaur. “We will easily outgrow Sylvan so will try to get into liquor stores and pubs in town, Red Deer and then down to Calgary.” Plans don’t yet include distributing through Connect Logistics.

The plan is 355-ml cans along with the usual keg and growler sales. The three owners are homebrewers but have decided to hire a professional brewer from B.C. to be their brewmaster. The initial vision for the beer reflects their tag line: “Hard Working, Easy Drinking”. Nachbaur suggest they aren’t “out to prove anything but make really good beer that are easy drinking.”

“In Sylvan Lake there are not a lot of craft drinkers,” Nachbaur suggests. “So we want an entry level craft beer that will get people in drinking beer and venture off after into different styles.” They plan to supplement the regular offerings with more adventurous styles to appeal to a more seasoned craft drinker.

“There will be four core beer, at least at first. The pilsner will be our flagship,” says Nachbaur. It will be accompanied by a porter, a red ale, a porter and an IPA “not super high on IBUs but will be a decent sized IPA.”

They also hope to give their brewmaster some room to experiment. “We want to give him some room to play, give him the reins to brew what he wants on our [60-litre] pilot system.”

The anchor of the business will be a 80-seat tap room with an equal sized patio to fit the summer tourist rush. It will also, the owners hope, anchor the brewery in the community. In five years they hope the brewery will be “a landmark in Sylvan, part of Sylvan and as well known as the [now closed] waterslide,” says Nachbaur. “We want to support the town. It is a cool way to be involved with such a wicked place, and that is where it will we hope it will go.”

As for Undercurrent Brewing, which I previewed a few days ago, they see them as a perfect complement. “We are building very different models. It is almost kind of cool. People can come to our brewery and  we will say check out Undercurrent while in town. And I suspect they will do the same,” says Nachbaur.

They are hoping to open their doors sometime in November, but are “okay with later” if that is what it takes.

Whether it is sooner or later, Alberta beer drinkers will soon be able to slither up to a pint from Snake Lake.

Edmonton Modernizes Brewery Zoning Laws

Late on Monday night Edmonton City Council passed bylaw changes that will make more city districts available for breweries (as well as wineries and distilleries). The bylaw roughly parallels (in intent, not language) a recent bylaw change in Calgary that appears to have helped nudge the exploding local beer scene down there (read here for details on Calgary).

Up until this week, officially breweries were only permitted to operate in industrial zones. This rule is a throwback to when the AGLC required all breweries have a minimum capacity of 5,000 HL, meaning they were relatively larger operations.

The consequence of this policy is that breweries were forced to open in areas where there is basically no foot traffic. Think about Alley Kat’s location for a minute. Some breweries, like Yellowhead and Situation, were able to finagle their way around the rules, but that was exhausting and, frankly, unbalanced.

Briefly, the new rules make breweries, distilleries and wineries a “discretionary” use in commercial zones, including Whyte Avenue (which has a moratorium on new bars). They limit the size of the public (non-brewing) space to 80 square metres (about 860 square feet), but will allow pints, food, off-sales and private function rooms. They can also have a patio if it doesn’t affect residential property. Residential zoning remains off-limits (understandably).

I want to pause briefly and explore the consequences of the decision. The City has decided not to make a brewery an accepted use in commercial zones, but instead a “discretionary” use. In the documents supporting the motion, the City officials say that classifying breweries as discretionary is “the recommended method for managing a complex use that can occur in a variety of sizes, zones and contexts, with as few regulations as possible. As a discretionary use, the Development Officer is able to apply policy and discretion, and avoids the need for complex rules to manage a variety of scenarios.”

While I do get what they are saying – every brewery application will be different, requiring a case-by-case approach – I do get a bit nervous leaving the approval process in the hands of the development officer. I am not touting some anti-government hysteria theory here. I just know how these things work. Every officer approaches their job differently. One officer might be fine with a particular application while a similar project could be denied by a different officer.

I don’t want to make too much of this. I trust over time officers will work out a common strategy for handling brewery applications, but there will be some early bumps and I am concerned for those first brave few who try to test out the new rules.

Don’t get me wrong. I think this is a smart approach to the issue. Better to allow flexible responses then bog everyone down with a long list of rigid rules. But no policy is perfect. Just pointing out the downsides.

Overall, I am thrilled this policy passed. It may seem like a small thing – zoning blah blah blah and all that – but I believe it is the municipal equivalent of the AGLC’s removal of the minimum capacity rule. It just opens up so many doors to people contemplating a brewery.

I could be wrong but I predict in the next two to three years, Edmonton will see a quick expansion of the number of breweries. That was starting to happen anyway, but this new policy will help accelerate the process.

Good job, City Council! Get cracking, aspiring brewery owners!

Good Beer Under the Radar at Undercurrent

Sylvan Lake is not seen as a craft beer hot spot, but that may soon change. Rumblings have it there are some things afoot in the central Alberta town located just west of Red Deer on the popular lake of the same name. Sylvan has long been a summer tourist destination, but with the downturn in the economy they have witnessed some hard times.

Maybe not the best time to open a brewery in town, but as it turns out in the coming months there will be not just one but two new craft breweries throwing open their doors to thirsty consumers. The first of the two is Undercurrent Brewing (they are first simply because I spoke to them first – the second brewery will be profiled in the coming days).

Until recently Undercurrent was definitely swimming under the radar. They have been working on this project for almost two years. Undercurrent is the husband and wife team of Bryan McHale and Kathryn Blair. Both are/were lawyers. Both had successful practices, first in Vancouver then in Calgary when they wanted to move closer to home to raise kids. But recently they decided they had enough of lawyering. “We decided we wanted to get out of the business and find something else”, says McHale in a recent interview.

“When we were in Vancouver we watched what was happening with beer and were very excited,” he says. “The mix of craft beer, food trucks and local culture was amazing.” When they returned to Alberta a few years ago they started to notice things were lagging behind Vancouver but looking up.  “We heard about things happening here. We said we gotta get on it, let’s do it.”

Their vision is a small operation focused on local. “Our inspiration is 33 Acres and Brassneck [in Vancouver],” McHale says. “A community-based brewery, close to a lot of traffic where people come in and sit and have a pint. We want it to have vibe.” The plan is to not package but only do growler fills and pints in the tasting room.

“We’ve been looking for 18 months for a good location,” says McHale. At first they searched in Calgary but quickly decided that market was getting quite full quite quickly. So they started looking at Sylvan Lake. Blair grew up in Eckville not far from there and so she knew the area well (McHale, for the record, grew up in Fort McMurray). Its mix of locals and tourism economy made it seem like the ideal place.

They finally found a spot on the main strip in Sylvan next to the lake. “We took over a former gas station at 50th and Lakeshore Drive – kitty corner to where waterslide used to be,” notes McHale. The location, they suggest, will help both with integrating with other businesses in town and capitalizing on the high summer traffic.  “We hope to take advantage of the tourist population by doing more of a tasting room focus,” he says. “We have no plans to go through Connect [Logistics warehouse]. It will be all from the tap.” Although he acknowledges they hope to sell a small portion to local restaurants and so forth.

The busy Sylvan Lake beach

Due to their plan, they are installing a very small brewhouse – 5 Barrels with five-10 Barrel fermenters, which they think is enough to keep the community supplied year round. While the couple have homebrewed they know enough to know they don’t know enough to brew commercially. They have brought in long-time Saskatchewan/Alberta brewer Dave Neilly to consult on the initial construction and recipe design and plan on hiring an Olds College graduate to become head brewer after start-up.

The initial beer plan includes four anchor beer but with a goal of an ongoing mixture of styles, “like what Dandy is doing in Calgary,” McHale notes. The first four beer include a California Common, West Coast IPA, Porter and Belgian Strong. They hope to have eight on tap at any time.

“Each beer is very different,” says McHale. “We want to offer real choice. We want something drinkable, but beer is very subjective. We want to have enough variation to let people try different styles. We want people to explore and learn more about beer.”

The name Undercurrent comes from their attitude about opening a brewery. “A lot of craft beer is about counterculture. There are the macros and the little guys,” observes McHale. “We worked ‘for the man’ as lawyers. We wanted to find something that fit better for us. Undercurrent is more the social meaning for us than the water meaning. There is something under the surface, something more meaningful. It just fit.”

The brewery is currently under construction and they have started their AGLC licensing process. Their hope is to have beer available sometime in November, but recognize lots of things can delay things at this stage.

Whether in November or early in the new year, Undercurrent if finally have to stop going under the radar and publicly tell the world they are open and serving beer. And won’t that be a great day for Sylvan Lake?

Ale Spruced Up And Nowhere To Go But In My Glass

Grande Prairie’s Grain Bin Brewing is a small outfit (as I have explained here). Yet someone seems to be making an effort to try to get at least a few bottles of their product down to Edmonton, as it pops up once in a while at Sherbrooke Liquor (and maybe other places too).

A recent find was a bomber of their recent seasonal release Ale Spruced Up, an American Pale Ale flavoured with local spruce tips. While spruce beer is not exactly my favourite style (I generally find the balance is out of whack) the novelty of getting a rare Grain Bin beer made it a no-brainer. It sat in my cellar for a couple weeks or so (which means it might be sold out now. If so, sorry for posting this too late), but I did finally get around to cracking it last week.

It pours medium gold with a slight haze to it. It builds a big white head and leaves a fair bit of lacing on the side of the glass. Carbonation looks a little light. The aroma comes out with a soft pine note at first, followed by some spruce aroma, all backed by a honey malt accent and some light graininess. Not a bad start.

The front of the beer has an earthy, spruce/pine character along with some honey and light fruity esters. I immediately notice there is an interplay of pine and spruce going on. The middle brings in more hop flavours of citrus and pine, but with the spruce still lurking in the background. The linger is fresh spruce bough, pine, and a light grainy note. Bitterness level is moderate but present. My initial suspicions of the carbonation are borne out – it could have a bit more fizz to bring out some of the subtle flavours more.

My main impression of this beer is its balance. The spruce makes itself known throughout the taste but doesn’t take over the beer, leaving other qualities to shine as well. Spruceheads (is there such a thing?) will likely call for a bigger spruce character but, me, I prefer its more subdued approach.

I also suspect that the hop additions were intentional to draw out a pine character. I really appreciate the interplay between the spruce and the pine. Not only does it create an enticing tree-ness, the two combined offer a bit more complexity, allowing the beer to escape the risks of being a one-note wonder (which I find can happen with this style). For an American Pale Ale, it likely could do with a bigger bitterness impression, but that might come at the risk of throwing off this cool pine-spruce tension the beer has going on.

Just goes to show you that little gems that can be found in every corner of Alberta these days.

A nicely done beer.