About Jason van Rassel

Posts by Jason van Rassel:

Getting hot and hefe with Analog Brewing

When we lived in Calgary, my wife Lea and I enjoyed a few getaways to Montana. It was mainly for skiing and other outdoor pursuits in and around Whitefish, but I was always eager for an opportunity to dive into Montana’s rich craft beer culture — particularly in the pre-2013 era before Alberta’s scene took off.

I enjoyed visiting several breweries during our trips to Montana, but I regret never making it to Bowser Brewing in Great Falls before it closed in 2017. A few friends recommended the place, and there was one beer that immediately caught my eye when I visited their website several years ago: a hefeweizen made with jalapeno peppers. With the right execution, I thought it could be an interesting and highly drinkable beer.

Bowser Brewing’s demise prevented me from finding out — until now, that is. I recently discovered Edmonton’s Analog Brewing made a jalapeno hefeweizen called Na’cho Hefe, and I just knew that I had to try it.

From what I can tell, it’s a small-batch release available on tap at the brewery and other select locations. I tracked it down at Little Guy Liquor Store in Sherwood Park, where it was available at the growler bar. After trying the beer over the long weekend, I can say it was worth the drive from downtown Edmonton.

When I first heard about Bowser’s jalapeno hefeweizen, an idea formed in my mind about what the beer should taste like. While I never got to try theirs, Analog’s Na’cho Hefe lived up to my lofty expectations.

You notice jalapeno in Na’cho Hefe right away: it’s in the aroma when you smell it. But so are the elements you expect in a well-made hefeweizen, banana esters and some spicy, earthy cloves. The flavour mainly follows the aroma, but the esters shift a bit from banana on the nose to some bubblegum on the palate as well. The mouthfeel is medium-bodied and just right for the style. The jalapeno is there, but it’s an undertone and provides just a slight spicy tingle. (I took a bit of licence with “Hot and hefe” in the headline, because of its pun value and for the sake of making a Seinfeld reference on that basis. This beer isn’t “hot” at all, so don’t let that deter you.)

Flavouring beer with added ingredients is always a balancing act: First, you have to choose something that will marry well with the base beer. Then, you have to add it in a manner and in a quantity that hits a sweet spot between ensuring people know it’s there, but not so much that it detracts from the drinkability of the beer.

Analog has successfully walked that metaphorical tightrope and made a beer that has a distinct jalapeno flavour, but remains unmistakably a hefeweizen. Most importantly of all, it’s not a one-and-done novelty: I reached for a second glass and enjoyed it as much as the first.

Having said all that, I should acknowledge that I’m more open to experimentation than a lot of beer drinkers. At its worst, beer nerd subculture is insular and isn’t concerned with what a wider audience may want. Fanbois and fangirls often venerate brewers for outlandish things they can do, as opposed to considering whether they should have done it. A beer made with kids’ breakfast cereal may rate as a technical achievement and become a cool conversation piece, but does it have any lasting appeal?

I found Na’cho Hefe plenty drinkable on its own, and I think it has added appeal as a pairing with the right kind of food. I enjoyed it with some barbecue chicken I made for supper, and I bet it would be awesome with (yes) nachos and/or chicken wings, too. I’d love to see Analog make more of this beer, but that’s easy for me to say as someone who isn’t a brewery owner with bills to pay. I’d be happy to see it again, but I also understand if it’s a long time before I do.

Best of the 2019 Okanagan Fest of Ale

Another edition of the Okanagan Fest of Ale is in the books. Once again, it was a privilege — and a lot of fun — to take part in picking the winners of the Judges’ Choice awards at this year’s festival.

Judging took place Saturday morning, with 127 beers entered in 12 categories. With such a large field to evaluate, we were split into three panels of three people. Each team was responsible for judging four categories and picked a winner in each class via blind tasting. (Translation: we weren’t told the names of the beers.)

The 12 category winners advanced to a Best in Show competition involving all nine judges. We decided on the champion after another round of blind tasting and a lively discussion.

Judging beer isn’t “work” in the conventional sense, but that doesn’t mean it’s a frivolous pursuit. Brewers work hard to hone their craft, so their beer deserves fair consideration from judges who approach the task with knowledge, a finely-tuned palate and concentration. Cheers to my fellow judges, who brought all those qualities to the table: Lundy Dale (B.C. beer writer and ambassador), Wade Dhooge (Cask & Barrel Liquor Store), Mike Garson (Pacific Beer Chat), Michelle Gowing (Two Wolves Brewing), Aaron Johnson (Cascadian Beer Podcast), Rob Mangelsdorf (The Growler B.C.) Dave Smith (What’s Brewing B.C.), Joe Wiebe (aka The Thirsty Writer and author of Craft Beer Revolution).

Enough of my droning! Here are the winners we chose:

Best in Show: Would Crush — Twin Sails Brewing

Pilsner/golden lager/dark lager/Kolsch: Nightwatch Coffee Lager — Lighthouse Brewing

Pale ale: Squirrel Chaser — Yellow Dog Brewing

Wheat ale: Dim Wit — Parkside Brewery

ESB: English Subtitles — Kettle River Brewing

Amber/dark ale: Smoke & Mirrors Imperial Smoked Ale — Coal Harbour Brewing

IPA: Loop Line — Iron Road Brewing

Specialty IPA: Dreamboat Hazy IPA — Parkside Brewery

Stout/porter: Tennessee — BNA Brewing

Sour: Tart Wild Ale With Pineapple & Guava — Luppolo Brewing

Fruit beer: Would Crush — Twin Sails Brewing

Specialty beer: Beermosa — Bad Tattoo Brewing

Cider: Broken Ladder Rosé — B.C Tree Fruits Cider

Proud to be #notsponsored

There’s an age-old argument between reporters and editors that goes something like this:

Editor: What’s going on with [Issue X]? We should do a story.

Reporter: (groaning) You’re kidding, right? I wrote an article about that a few weeks ago.

Editor: So what? Nobody remembers.

Now that I no longer have any skin in that particular game, I’ll admit the editors were usually right. When I worked in newspapers, I can’t tell you how many times I received angry emails or phone calls from readers accusing us of not covering an issue … and I had written a front-page article, like, a week before. (And this was back when people read newspapers!)

The moral of the story being, it’s common for writers to overestimate the audience’s collective memory and/or attention span. While advertisers have long understood the importance of hammering home their message through repetition, creative types — maybe out of a misplaced sense of vanity — bristle at the thought of no one remembering their golden prose.

I related this story to a friend who asked why I recently started using the #notsponsored hashtag on social media posts, considering I’ve already been pretty overt about my editorial independence from the beer industry in my bio and by posting a written sample policy here on the site. Like the editor in that newsroom parable, I believe it’s presumptuous to assume that everyone who encounters Original Levity somehow knows who I am and/or what I stand for.

Part of my recent rethinking of Original Levity was to embrace it as a multi-platform brand with different kinds of content in different places for different people, instead of being mainly a blog that had some social media accounts attached to it. There are people who follow me on Instagram and Twitter who have never visited this site, and maybe never will. (And that’s OK, by the way.) I like Instagram, but let’s face it: it’s also a fertile breeding ground for shady influencer marketing, so I wanted a way to set myself apart in terms that social media users will notice and understand. And so, I adopted #notsponsored.

This is probably a good time to add that I’m not slamming creators who post sponsored or branded content and are open about it. Advertising and partnerships are often what makes it possible for bloggers and outlets to tell stories about exciting places or things. Far be it from me to tell anyone else how to run their business if they’re running it ethically.

Ideally, there would be no need for a #notsponsored hashtag if all influencers clearly labelled sponsored content as such. There are guidelines in Canada around disclosure — but the consequences for influencers who don’t follow them seem mainly centred on being held liable for amplifying an advertiser’s false or deceptive claims about a product, as opposed to sanctioning people for hiding a relationship with an advertiser.

The problem is, for many businesses the very appeal of influencer marketing lies in disguising the fact that it’s advertising. The beer industry isn’t immune: there are breweries that compensate people in cash and/or free stuff in exchange for artsy product shots and hyped copy that create an illusion of cachet and passion for the product. It’s important to point that I’m not talking about the common practice of breweries sending samples to a wide group of people for potential reviews, with no strings attached. I’m talking about business arrangements between breweries and influencers to talk up the beer. It’s a transaction — a hidden transaction, at that.

Independence and transparency have been my modus operandi in all my years of beer writing. #notsponsored is another way of letting people know my philosophy, but the most powerful demonstration is through action. #notsponsored is a hashtag. Honesty and integrity aren’t.

Enjoying B.C.’s best at Okanagan Fest of Ale

(In keeping with my commitment to transparency, a note about my relationship with the Okanagan Fest of Ale: as a member of the judging panel, festival organizers have paid for my accommodations in Penticton and a portion of my travel to the event.)

It looks like winter has finally released Alberta from its icy grip, judging by the double-digit temperatures and sunshine across the province last week.

You might think it folly for me to recommend a warmer-weather getaway to B.C. when spring has seemingly arrived in Alberta, but I’ve lived in this province for more than 20 years: I know from experience that April can produce some of the nastiest, snowiest weather of the year — particularly in Calgary. (And frankly, I’m amazed how even longtime Albertans forget this.)

So if you’re craving green grass, budding foliage and some sunshine with your beer, head to Penticton for the 24th edition of the Okanagan Fest of Ale on April 12 and 13.

I’ve had the privilege of being invited to the festival as a competition judge for the past four years and excited to return in a few weeks for a fifth go-round. During my time at the Fest of Ale, I’ve seen the quantity and quality of breweries continue to grow. This year’s festival at the Penticton Trade and Convention Centre will feature an event-high 75 breweries and cideries — 19 of which are attending for the first time.

Alberta’s craft beer industry has grown rapidly over the past few years, and the results of this year’s Alberta Beer Awards demonstrate we have a lot to be proud of here in Wild Rose country. But there’s a great big beery world beyond our borders, and the province next door is the home of Canada’s craft brewing trailblazers as well as some of the country’s most innovative newcomers. While it’s true we’re seeing more B.C. beer than ever in Alberta, the Fest of Ale lineup still includes many breweries that don’t ship to our province. Even among the breweries that do make their way here, the Fest of Ale is a good opportunity to sample limited releases that aren’t available in Alberta.

I may push springtime in the Okanagan as a reason to make the trip to Penticton, but I can’t exactly guarantee the weather will be good. One selling point I do feel 100 per cent confident about, however, is the Fest of Ale’s community vibe.

Line-ups at booths are fairly manageable, which gives brewers and guests more of an opportunity to talk about the beer than you often get at larger fests. And unlike some larger events, many of the booths are staffed by brewers and brewery employees who can talk knowledgeably about the beer they’re pouring, as opposed to hired guns brought in to sling beer and not much else. Being a beer writer from out of province has given me the opportunity to field test this claim a few times: unlike many of the other judges, who are from B.C., most exhibitors don’t know me, so I’m confident the treatment I get closely mirrors the experience for a typical festival goer.

The Fest of Ale began as an event to kick off the spring tourism season in Penticton and boost the local economy. Although there’s no doubt the fest continues to fulfill those roles, it now takes place amid a bigger and more vibrant backdrop than two decades ago. With five local breweries and two more opening soon, Penticton’s dynamic local beer scene earned it a #2 spot on a list of Canada’s best beer towns published by the travel site Expedia.ca. Festival weekend has also come to include a growing list of beer events happening around town, perhaps none more popular than Saturday night’s Murderers Row cask event at the Kettle Valley Station Pub. The event’s Facebook page has more details and a list of the 17 breweries participating this year, as well as ticket info — which is important, because it usually sells out well in advance.

Keep an eye on this site for official judging results on the afternoon of April 13, plus I’ll have photos and updates on Original Levity’s Twitter and Instagram feeds throughout the weekend.

Hops and Hockey Cards #3: Al Hamilton

Like a lot of people in Edmonton, I have a problem with the Oilers.

But while the Oilers faithful have been despondent over the team’s on-ice performance for a number of years, I’m a non-fan who got upset at the beginning of this season because of something they did off the ice.

The Oilers aren’t my team, but I’m an avid hockey fan and I’m passionate about the game’s history (if the existence of this running series didn’t make that already apparent). I’m also an insufferable pedant — which is why I can’t abide by the Oilers declaring that the 2018-19 season would be a celebration of the team’s “40th anniversary.”

Thing is, the Edmonton Oilers go back a lot longer than 40 years: they began their existence in 1972 as one of the founding clubs of the World Hockey Association, a league locked in a bitter rivalry with the NHL for seven seasons. (A league where a kid named Wayne Gretzky made his professional debut as a member of the Indianapolis Racers.)

The NHL won the war of attrition, and its victory allowed it to extract a surrender agreement from the WHA that was strongly in the senior league’s favour. Four teams — the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers (renamed Hartford), Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets — were allowed to join the NHL in 1979. Two other surviving WHA teams, the Birmingham Bulls and Cincinnati Stingers, were paid to go away.

This next point is important, because it sets the stage for the Oilers’ “40th anniversary” nonsense: the NHL considered the addition of the four WHA teams as an expansion, rather than a merger. The most obvious byproduct of this arrangement is it gave the NHL justification to pick clean the WHA teams’ existing rosters by reclaiming players who had jumped leagues and forcing the clubs to rebuild via an expansion draft.

The WHA survivors eventually recovered from the pillaging and went on to contend in the NHL — none better than the Oilers, who began a Stanley Cup dynasty after five years in the league.

One repercussion of the “expansion” deal still being felt to this day is the NHL’s petulant attempt to minimize the WHA’s role in history. WHA statistics are not recognized in players’ career totals, and the surviving teams’ in-house records were wiped from the books. The NHL’s perpetual grudge can be seen at its most absurd on Oilers merch that’s embroidered with the date “EST’D 1979,” leaving no doubt how the league views this year’s milestone.

The Oilers either didn’t have the autonomy, or the good sense, to rise above such bullshittery. An unfortunate victim of this ham-handed process (other than the truth) turns out to be one of the franchise’s most beloved players: Al Hamilton, a defenceman who played for the Oilers during all seven WHA seasons plus a year in the NHL. His number 3 was left off a commemorative patch emblazoned with the club’s retired numbers.

True, the six whose numbers made it onto the patch — Gretzky, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri and Mark Messier — are members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Hamilton isn’t.

Fans noticed the omission, and many didn’t like it. Sure, Hamilton wasn’t a superstar hall-of-famer, but he was considered a leader in the dressing room and he put up some decent numbers, too. You could say he was a stalwart. A mainstay.

Being steady and reliable are admirable qualities — but alas, they can be taken for granted. People can be fickle. That’s certainly true among sports fans, but respected Toronto writer Stephen Beaumont recently noticed the same phenomenon in the beer world: sales of brewery mainstays have been sagging across the board as fans ditch the classic brands that made them interested in craft beer for more exotic and out-there offerings.

The trend inspired Beaumont to declare this month the inaugural “Flagship February,” and thus began a campaign to get beer drinkers to give some love to old mainstays they not have enjoyed in awhile.

It seems only fitting, then, to pay tribute to Hamilton with the mainstay of Edmonton craft beer mainstays: Alley Kat Brewing’s Full Moon Pale Ale.

Alley Kat has branched out into an ever-increasing number of seasonal and one-off beers since opening in 1995. During that time, Alley Kat’s beers have become bigger and more ambitious, like its Dragon series of IPAs. Throughout, Full Moon has endured — though some might remember Alley Kat briefly reformulated it as an IPA in 2015 in an attempt to capitalize on that style’s increasing popularity. (To its credit, when Alley Kat changed Full Moon back to its original recipe in 2016, it didn’t try to erase its first 20 years of existence by claiming it was a new beer.)

Today’s Full Moon holds up. Like a solid and reliable pale ale, Full Moon has balance: biscuity caramel malt that delivers a touch of sweetness, but not too much. The hops deliver grapefruit, orange and pine in noticeable measure, but they’re in good balance with the malt. The overall impression is hoppy, but not overly bitter.

Full Moon is a beer that satisfies, even if it doesn’t shoot the lights out. And on many nights, as in some hockey games, that’s all you need to win.


Back with a vengeance healthy dose of indolence

If conventional wisdom dictates that blogging exists under a “publish or perish” imperative similar to academia — that you have to keep up a steady stream of content to keep people coming back — then I guess my unplanned five-month hiatus could be viewed as a mortal blow to Original Levity.

Luckily for me, I didn’t start Original Levity for the conventional reasons, like making money via advertising or clicks. While I certainly view the blog as a way of keeping my personal brand out there after leaving daily journalism a few years ago, my main purpose from the beginning was to create an outlet for my beer-related brain droppings outside of regular contributions to publications like Avenue Edmonton.

“Let’s take a relaxed attitude toward blogging and watch the baseball match.”

The simplest explanation for my absence is that life has been busy over the past few months. But on a deeper level, I was wrestling with my motivation and something more existential: I have spent my entire adult life writing for a living. Coming home from work to sit down in front of a screen and write some more was starting to feel, well, a lot like work. And I’ve been struggling with that.

I’ve recently started putting together a couple of new posts, but it didn’t feel right to come back after five months and act like I never went away. While mulling over what to say, I came across a blog post that articulated many of the things I had been feeling, titled The Modern Trap of Turning Hobbies Into Hustles.

Sometimes, being a good writer means stepping aside and recognizing when someone has said something better than you ever could — and that was the case when I read this passage: “It’s OK to love a hobby the same way you’d love a pet; for its ability to enrich your life without any expectation that it will help you pay the rent.”

What that doesn’t mean is that I’ll write for others for free — that’s not a hobby for me: I’m a professional writer, and I’ve earned the right to expect to be paid for my time and effort in the 25-plus years I’ve plied my trade in newspapers, broadcasting and, more recently, magazines.

This blog, on the other hand, is a hobby. I’ll gladly write for free when the person in charge is me. But as the old expression goes, “You get what you pay for.” Absent the prospect of a paycheque (or any need for one) my output will vary accordingly.

Now … if a five-month holiday from posting doesn’t kill a blog, telling people, “Don’t expect anything new here!” surely will. So let me say in no uncertain terms that’s not what I mean. Stick around (or maybe, more accurately, come back), because I have plans.

While I’ve never really cared about clicks, one thing I’ve always wanted with Original Levity is engagement. What the past few months have taught me is that different people engage in different ways. Rather than stubbornly expect everyone who’s interested in what I say about craft beer to come here, I’m going to talk to people where they’re most comfortable hanging out and engaging — whether that’s discussing an interesting beer article I share via Facebook or Twitter, checking out Untappd to see what I’ve been drinking lately, or following my beery travels on Instagram.

By no means does that spell an end to this blog. While I want to use different channels to reach people more frequently, to me this is still a valuable venue for storytelling, reviews and opinion. To that end, I recently visited Alley Kat Brewing here in Edmonton and had the privilege of sampling every vintage of its Olde Deuteronomy barley wine going back to 1995. Watch for that story in the coming weeks.

When I started this blog in April 2018, I invited people to join me for a beer and some interesting conversation. My invitation is just as sincere today: the only difference is, you may find me in a few different places. Please don’t let that throw you. I’m just as thirsty and chatty as I’ve always been.

Coalbanks Porter: black gold from Lethbridge

If there’s an upside to the unseasonably cold weather that has descended upon Alberta, it’s been an opportunity for me to dive back into some darker beer styles I typically put aside for a couple of months.

It’s also been a chance for me to discover Coalbanks Porter from Coulee Brew Co. in Lethbridge. Coulee’s opening, and a few others in southern Alberta, coincided with the time I started working in Edmonton, so I have to admit breweries from that part of the province haven’t caught my attention maybe as much as they should.

That appears to be my loss, at least as far as Coalbanks Porter is concerned. It won gold in its category at the 2018 Canadian Brewing Awards — and as much as competition results aren’t the be-all and end-all (which would make an interesting blog piece in its own right), earning some hardware at a reputable competition overseen by knowledgeable judges is a reasonable indicator of quality.

Coalbanks pours a nearly opaque dark brown, with a thin head and a cocoa-like aroma with a coffee undertone. The flavour follows the same general combination, but there’s a bit more complexity on the palate than on the nose. Coalbanks is sweet at first, but not cloyingly so. It’s more like semi-sweet chocolate. The dark malts bring some roastiness with them, too — but it’s moderate, like a lightly-sugared coffee with some milk. The carbonation is low and Coalbanks is smooth going down.

Although there’s a building dryness as you go, this porter definitely falls on the milder side for the style. It could be a tad fuller-bodied, but it’s a nice comforting sipper for the colder days ahead.

Original Levity Collage

An Untappd resource comes to Original Levity

Since starting this blog a few months ago, I’ve been wrestling with some Untappd potential.

A priority of mine from the beginning was to give people a steady diet of interesting and entertaining things to read. Ensuring I could do that meant (a.) I produce the aforementioned content, (b.) I use the associated social media channels to tell people about the good stuff on here and (c.) I keep the social media tasks and associated technical stuff to a sustainable level so I can focus my limited time on actually writing things.

When I initially did this calculation, Untappd didn’t make the cut. My Untappd account, which was under my name, had long been linked to my personal Twitter handle — and without that tangible connection to Original Levity, I didn’t feel the time I spent checking into beers would bring any value to the blog or its readers. Combined with my not-insignificant reservations about the usefulness of rating sites (which may be worth a blog post of its own someday), I let my account go largely dormant since launching the blog.

A couple of things recently changed my mind. The first thing was I discovered the WordPress Untappd widget while visiting someone else’s blog. I figured this was the answer to my quandary about linking my Untappd checkins to the Original Levity brand. As you can see, there’s now a listing of my 10 most recent checkins on the right-hand side of the blog. I changed my Untappd username to Original Levity and linked it to the blog’s Twitter account, so any checkins will automatically produce a tweet in addition to showing up here.

But the most decisive factor was that I often have people ask me what I’ve been drinking lately. If I put aside my qualms about the helpfulness (or lack thereof) of rating sites and view it simply as a vehicle for answering those questions — and possibly pointing people to some good beer or away from the bad stuff — then it’s a useful addition.

This is a good time to add that Untappd checkins will not replace the more detailed beer reviews I do here.  I may offer some quick thoughts and a score a beer that’s new to me, but more often than not, it’ll likely be more of a “current mood” tweet — particularly if it’s a beer I’ve had many times. View it as no more than a simple listing of what’s currently in my fridge at home or on the menu when I’m out for a beer.

Likely the biggest impact on the site will be design-wise. Putting the Untappd listings in the righthand sidebar works for now, but I’m wondering if there are other themes that would better accommodate it and improve the overall look of the blog. Stay tuned — and send me a toast on Untappd next time I check in.

Django: unchained and enjoyable

From the moment I heard about it, I liked the idea behind Ale Architect, one of the latest entries to Edmonton’s craft beer scene.

I’ve always thought of brewing as a combination of creativity and precision, which is why the name appealed to me. While the two principals behind Ale Architect, Mason Pimm and Ryan Stang, are both beer industry veterans, their backgrounds outside the biz reflect that yin and yang of zymurgy: Mason, a partner at Two Sergeants Brewing, is a mechanical engineer while Ryan, who was head brewer at Norsemen Brewing in Camrose, has worked in the design field. (He used his creative chops to give Ale Architect its cool look.)

Mason and Ryan have launched Ale Architect as a contract operation, a move that they believe will allow them to take some risks and make adventurous beers without the significant costs involved in owning a bricks-and-mortar brewery. (At least not initially.)

After a couple of collaborations with other breweries, Ale Architect has come out with the first beer of its own: Django, a Belgian-style witbier (wheat ale) spiced with ginger and Szechuan pepper.

The exotic additions certainly fit the concept that initially piqued my interest in Ale Architect. After trying Django, I’m happy to say I’m a fan of their execution too. For as much as Django is a break from a conventional witbier, it’s as approachable and easy-drinking as a traditional example of the style.

Django pours cloudy and straw-coloured like you’d expect from a witbier, but the aroma quickly hints that you’re in for something different: instead of orange and citrus, there’s a distinct — but not overpowering — whiff of ginger. Ginger is also the first thing to hit the palate, but again, it’s pleasant. The carbonation is light and spritzy and Django finishes dry, with a slight tingle of ginger on the tongue — not unlike how pickled ginger is used to cleanse the palate when eating sushi. The peppercorns are there, too, but I’d say they’re subtle. Witbiers traditionally have mild spiciness and earthiness from additions like coriander; in Django, it’s from peppercorns. When it comes to putting peppercorns in beer, I’d argue less is more: I once had a porter spiced with peppercorns from Hong Kong and they overpowered the beer, basically rendering it an interesting but not entirely pleasant experiment rather than something I’d want to drink even a second time. 

Django, on the other hand, is a refreshing and thirst-quenching beer worthy of repeat enjoyment. If I’m disappointed about anything, it’s that it’s coming out near the end of summer. Here’s hoping there are a few more hot and sunny days to let it shine.

  • I have more about Ale Architect and some other new breweries on the local scene in the September issue of Avenue Edmonton. Read the article here or pick up the magazine at various locations around the city.

 

 

Bench Creek Brewing’s new pilsner is tops

There have been some big changes at Bench Creek Brewing lately — most notably, the introduction of two new beers to its year-round line-up: a Bohemian (Czech-style) pilsner and a Czech amber lager.

The changes are part of a larger rebranding that saw Bench Creek expand the Apex Predator name — used up until now for its popular seasonal double IPA — to a line of year-round releases that includes the two new beers, as well as the existing porter (no longer called Black Spruce), session ale (the former Flint and Steel) and red ale (RIP, Northern Grace). Bench Creek also killed off the Naked Woodsman name for its pale ale and rechristened it Dead Woodsman. White Raven IPA is still White Raven. Got all that?

I’ve heard some grumbling about the name changes being confusing and/or arbitrary, but my own reaction is: “So what?” It’s not that branding isn’t important: woe betide any company that tries to get away with tasteless marketing in this day and age — and rightly so. Nor would it be smart to use names or imagery that make your product seem unappealing, particularly if you’re selling something you want people to eat or drink. “Tailings Pond Stout” is probably not a good name for a beer, no matter how good it is. Considering Bench Creek’s rebranding doesn’t cross either of those lines, what we’re left with is a subjective debate about personal preference. Tomayto, tomahto. The guy who owns Bench Creek, Andrew Kulynych, decided it was time for a change — and that’s, quite literally, his business.

Thanks to that little rant, I’ve gone and buried the lead, which is Apex Predator Bohemian Pilsner is a first-class beer. My many years as a reporter, a job where offering opinions was usually verboten, have left me averse to using absolutes or superlatives so I don’t mean it lightly when I say I think it’s among the best Czech-style pilsners made in Canada, right up there with Steamworks Pilsner from Vancouver.

The problem with a lot of mediocre and subpar pilsners is that many are just golden lagers in disguise, lacking the spicy noble hop punch that sets pilsners apart. Apex Predator is all pilsner, from the minute you open it: it’s an appealing straw colour and pours with a smooth white head. The noble hops are there on the nose, with a spicy and slightly herbal aroma that mingles nicely with some bready malt. The flavour combines the same elements, but it accomplishes that neat trick of being complex and drinkable at the same time. Start with bready malt and a bit of grain husk, followed by some spicy, slightly bitter hops and a touch of honey sweetness. Back to bready malt and moderate bitterness. All in one sip.

Apex Predator finishes crisp and clean like a well-made lager should. It’s tasty, balanced and refreshing — and I mean that as high praise. In an age when barrel-aged, high-alcohol and out-there beers get the lion’s share of attention from fanboys and fangirls it’s easy to take a straightforward quality like drinkability for granted. It’s ironic, if not a little unfair, because beer nerds, of all people, should know how difficult it is to achieve the kind of subtlety and balance that make a great pilsner. Apex Predator has it.