About Jason van Rassel

Posts by Jason van Rassel:

Original Levity is shutting down — but this isn’t goodbye: stay tuned for the next thing(s)

The metaphorical writing is on the wall, in large part because there hasn’t been any actual writing on this website for quite some time.

After a couple of months when I was too busy to post new content here, followed by a couple months more of thinking about my long-term ability to sustain this website, I’ve decided it’s time to move on and shut it down. My web hosting contract and domain registration are valid until the spring of 2022, and I wanted to get this message out now so there’s an orderly transition to what’s next and plenty of time to let readers know about what I have planned.

I’m shutting down this website sometime in March 2022, but I still enjoy beer writing and I plan to keep my hand in it, hopefully with a couple of different projects. The word “projects” — plural — probably seems unrealistic coming from a guy who has found it difficult to find enough time to maintain a website over the years. The difference this time is that I’m talking about collaborations — projects where I won’t be the only one doing all the writing. With any luck, they’ll involve people who are smarter than me, too!

I’d actually say more, if I had more details to share at the moment. This is less a function of me being coy and has more to do with a bunch of decisions that have yet to be made. One thing I’ll say right now is that I’m re-evaluating whether a website is the best medium for my beer writing.

In the beginning, Original Levity was mainly a website with long-from articles that used social media as a way of promoting that content. Midway through its life, I changed Original Levity into more of a multi-platform brand where the social media accounts often had their own content. But as much as I’ve enjoyed creating some fun and irreverent Instagram posts, I have a love-hate relationship with the platform: I like the high level of engagement, but the superficiality bugs me. Craft beer doesn’t need to be super-serious, but there’s more to it than photos of beer pours and the word “crushable” used more times than any reader should have to endure in their lifetime.

I stubbornly maintain my belief in the written word, and I still think there’s an appetite for more Alberta-based beer commentary, context and criticism (in the sense of evaluation and discussion). People who follow Original Levity and read my columns in Edify have always been encouraging, and the few people I’ve talked to about a new project are enthusiastic about it. Over the next few months, I’ll be rolling up my sleeves and getting together with smart(er) people to work on some thoughtful, engaging and fun beer writing and decide on the best way to get it to people.

Wherever I end up, my plan is to take the content from Original Levity with me so that it remains online even after this site goes dark. I may even post a few previously unwritten articles here before next March, if I can manage it.

In the meantime, I’ll continue writing my regular column for Edify and I’ll be sure to post any updates/announcements about my new projects here. I hope you’ll follow me on the next stop of my beer journey, and thanks for reading up until now.

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Hops and Hockey Cards #5: Jim Bedard

Are hockey cards an art form? I certainly think so, to the extent that I started this feature as an homage to the cards I grew up collecting.

Up until now, I’ve focused on notable players depicted on some of the cards in my collection. In the likely event you’re wondering, “Who the hell is Jim Bedard?” I’ve chosen this installment to focus on the card itself: an unexpectedly arty picture of Washington Capitals goalie Jim Bedard from the 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee set.

The 79-80 set is well known, even among non-collectors, because it contains Wayne Gretzky’s rookie card. A rare “gem mint” example of the card fetched $1.29 million US at an auction in December 2020.

Even without Gretzky, the set is one of the most memorable of its era, with blue-bordered cards (a departure from white) and its creative presentation of team names and logos. It was also the year that four surviving clubs from the rival World Hockey Association joined the NHL (and brought Gretzky with them).

Although the set hits a high water mark for design, the photography isn’t much different than any other of the era: action shots for most players, interspersed with the occasional studio picture and a few unintentionally hilarious airbrush jobs on traded players.

Even as a kid, the picture of Bedard caught my eye for being so different — and I’m still intrigued by it. It looks like the photographer snapped Bedard during a stoppage in play down the ice, taking a skate into the corner. Bedard is squarely in the foreground, but the frame has an unusual amount of background in it, including the scoreboard hanging from the roof. The composition is downright artistic, I think.

So much of the commentary about any work of art is what the audience projects upon it, which doesn’t necessarily jibe with what the creator intended. I like the picture of Bedard because I feel like it so neatly captures the archetype of a hockey goalie: the solitary figure at the end of the rink. The most likely reason it was used is because there weren’t many pictures of Bedard to choose from. The thing is, it appears many of the photos in that set were taken at Capitals home games — and Bedard played in 30 matches the previous season, when the photo was likely taken. I have no way of knowing what the photographer had in mind, but I’d like to think that he or she chose it for esthetic reasons rather than necessity.

In a way, trading cards are a form of packaging for athletes, so I chose to pair Bedard’s card with a beer from a brewery that has elevated its packaging to an art form: Collective Arts Brewing in Hamilton, Ontario. Four times a year, the brewery posts an open call for artists interested in submitting their work for feature on a label. It’s a laudable venture to generate exposure for artists made even more laudable by the fact that Collective Arts pays artists for their work and the creators retain ownership of it. Any business that promotes the work of creative professionals while also acknowledging its value with actual remuneration (as opposed to an insulting offer of “exposure” in lieu of payment) is A-OK in my books.

Label art for Jam Up, by Joey Rex of New York, NY. (Courtesy, Collective Arts Brewing)

By focusing on Collective Arts’ packaging, I don’t want to give short shrift to their beer, because I really enjoyed it. I had a seasonal variant of their Jam Up dry-hopped sour made with boysenberry and blackberry. This is no one-dimensional yogurt beer soured by throwing some lactobacillus into the kettle: it gets a considerable amount of tartness from what I can only conclude was a shitload (technical term) of blackberries and boysenberries. The tartness and berry flavour are intense up front — in a good way — but yield and the hops pick up nicely where they left off, adding some bright tropical notes with a bit of passionfruit flavour that brings some moderate tartness of its own. The overall impression is refreshing and there are nice levels of complexity and balance, which don’t always have to be mutually exclusive.

So, that’s the beer. What about Jim Bedard, then?

Bedard’s career may not be the reason I featured his card, but the guy deserves his due. In his first five years as a pro, he played parts of two seasons with the Caps interspersed with long stints in the minor leagues. It’s fair to say he was a journeyman — but by no means is that grounds to diminish his accomplishments: he made it to the NHL and played 73 games at the top level, at a time when the league was much smaller. And if you know anything about the Washington Capitals of that era, you’ll know that he didn’t get much help in terms of defence or offensive production. (Don Cherry, who coached the Colorado Rockies at about the same time, spent years making cheap jokes about the team’s goalie, Hardy Astrom, despite the fact he had a mediocre team playing in front of him and a shitty coach. Neither Astrom, nor Bedard, deserve that kind of disrespect.)

Bedard went to Finland sometime around 1980 and played an additional 13 seasons before retiring in 1994. Since then, he’s been a goaltending coach for the Detroit Red Wings, the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League and the Dallas Stars’ American Hockey League affiliate in Austin, Texas. It sounds like he’s had a long and productive career in the game and would have a lot of interesting stories to tell. Perhaps over a beer or two.

Edifying Edition/Locked in the Cellar mashup: closing 2020 with Trappist Westvleteren 12

When it got time to sit down in the fall and write my column for the December issue of Edify, it was apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic would lay waste to my usual year-end theme: beer recommendations for holiday entertaining.

Like so many Alberta breweries, I adjusted my plan to adapt to the less-than-ideal situation we’ve all found ourselves in. Instead, I did my best to wring a bit of humanity and humour from a year that has brought so much death, anxiety and uncertainty by asking a few folks in Edmonton’s craft beer community what beer they planned to drink to usher out 2020.

I capped off 2020 with a bottle of Trappist Westvleteren 12. As I said in the article, the end of 2020 called for the kind of beer that’s best enjoyed with slow sips and quiet contemplation. I didn’t feel there was much reason for a metaphorical victory lap with a celebratory beer. In the back of my head, I was also thinking that if 2021 is any worse, I should get around to drinking a rare beauty like Westy 12 before the world totally falls apart.

Westvleteren 12 is the object of considerable reverence in the beer world — and it’s totally justified: it’s a delicious, complex beer with rich dried fruit flavours of raisins, dates and prunes. Its considerable 10.2 per cent alcohol is well hidden and it goes down smoothly with a pleasant, spreading warmth.

But there’s also no denying that at least some of Westvleteren 12’s mystique and its acclaim as “best in the world” has to do with the fact that it’s so hard to find. The monks of the Saint-Sixtus abbey famously refuse to allow anyone to resell the beers they brew. There’s a thriving underground market for Westvleteren beers, but the only legitimate ways to get them were by drinking them in the café at Saint-Sixtus or picking them up at the abbey — a process, which, until recently, involved using an archaic telephone ordering system. The café isn’t open for dine-in service during the pandemic, and the monks’ ordering system has moved online but appears equally byzantine and sales are currently restricted to people with an address in Belgium.

(If you’re intrigued by Westvleteren 12 but have never tried it, don’t despair: St. Bernardus Abt 12, commercially brewed and widely available in Canada, is a more than acceptable substitute. The St. Bernardus brewery in Watou, Belgium, brewed Westvleteren 12 under contract for the monks for several decades. Today’s Abt 12 is brewed with the same recipe the monks provided in 1946, with a couple of key distinctions: the monks of Saint-Sixtus use a different yeast strain today and the water used by each brewery imparts subtle differences.)

The monks of Saint-Sixtus made an exception to their ban on commercial sales in 2012, when they exported a quantity of Westvleteren 12 to help finance an expansion of the abbey. I seized the opportunity and bought several bottles at the time, sampling a couple of them fresh and keeping six or seven for special occasions.

The bottle I opened on New Year’s Eve was my last one. Was it worth holding onto for eight years? Yes and no. The common wisdom is that Belgian quadrupels like Westy 12 peak after about five years of aging, and experience has led me to the same conclusion. Make no mistake: my eight-year-old bottle was still delicious and I enjoyed it tremendously, but it had lost a lot of the complexity that makes the beer so highly regarded. The layers of dried fruit had receded and were replaced mainly by sherry-like notes and some cola. The thick head and rich mouthfeel had changed to a quickly-dissipating ring of foam and a thinner body. Even in this state, it was a tremendous beer, but it didn’t deliver the same sensory experience.

But the biggest difference between this bottle of Westy 12 and others I had enjoyed wasn’t a product of age: it was the absence of the shared experience that so often goes hand-in-hand with drinking great beer.

I shared the second-last bottle in my collection a couple of years ago with our friend Almas, who was in Edmonton visiting my wife, Lea, and me. Almas isn’t a beer nerd like me, but she’s one of those people who has a good palate and a genuine love of great food and drink. In a similar way, I’ve always valued the fact that Almas has viewed me as a kindred spirit in this sense: I’m not a wine person, but Ali has always made sure that I get a glass of the good stuff along with everyone else, confident that I will fully appreciate it. (And I do.)

It was in this spirit that I decided to open a bottle of Westvleteren 12 and share it with Almas after I had done some evangelizing about beer over supper at our place. While I recall that the beer hadn’t quite fallen off as much as the one I had on New Year’s Eve, my most vivid recollection of that second-last bottle was seeing that metaphorical light switch on as Ali realized just how diverse and complex beer can be. Being able to share that beer, and my enthusiasm for it, is a big — and inextricable — part of why I enjoyed it so much.

With my supply of Westvleteren 12 exhausted, it looks like the only way I’ll be able to acquire more is by visiting the abbey in Belgium. That would mean being able to travel again and being able to enjoy it in the company of friends and loved ones. And that will beat a dusty old bottle from my cellar every damn time.

You’re all right, Saskatchewan

People who know me outside of the beer scene, know that I have a long history of wisecracking about Saskatchewan.

There’s no sense trying to deny it. The internet is forever, and there’s a long online breadcrumb trail of taunting and trolling that leads back to me. But in my defence, I’d say that my animus is aimed mainly at the Saskatchewan Roughriders rather than at the province in general.

I became an avid Stampeders fan after living nearly 20 years in Calgary, where hating the Roughriders is serious business. I have a longtime friend whose father played for the Stamps in the 1950s and 60s and whose mother was once the reigning Miss Stampeder. My friend’s mother has the graceful and dignified bearing of Jackie O, but would yell “Dirty old Saskatchewan!” from the stands when the Roughriders came to town. It’s probably the closest she has ever come to using profanity — and the Green Riders drove her to it.

Given my track record, it was fodder for many jokes when I took a road trip to Saskatchewan in October with my wife, Lea. Admittedly, it was a Plan B after the pandemic scuttled plans to visit her family in Nova Scotia (where there was a 14-day isolation requirement for out-of-province visitors) and spiking case numbers in Toronto made it too risky to visit my folks there.

Our main reason for going to Saskatchewan was to research some of Lea’s family history: her father was born in the small town of Rabbit Lake, north of the Battlefords, and her grandfather and great-grandfather farmed in the area for decades.

We expected our legwork would be confined to taking pictures of old headstones and rifling through some yellowed documents if we were lucky, but we ended up spending a fantastic day talking to several longtime residents — many of whom had vivid memories of Lea’s great-grandfather, who was also the town doctor. We also heard Doc Storry was a habitue of the bar at the local hotel, and the current owner swears his ghost haunts the place to this day. (Lea wrote about our visit on her site if you want to read more about it.)

The old journalist in me was eager to help Lea, who’s also a former journalist and who keeps a hand in the craft with her writing business. However, in the spirit of marital give-and-take, Lea asked if there were any breweries I wanted to visit during our swing through Saskatchewan and I was happy to add a few beery stops to our itinerary.

Before I go any farther, I want to caution that this isn’t meant to be a detailed travelogue of beer destinations in Saskatchewan — rather, it’s a totally selective snapshot of a few places we enjoyed visiting in the short time were there. Case in point: we passed through Saskatoon on a Monday, when many of the city’s breweries were closed. We also missed dining at Ayden Kitchen and Bar, a critically-acclaimed restaurant owned by chef Dale MacKay, a former Top Chef Canada winner.

Although we didn’t get to experience Saskatoon’s beer scene, we had a fantastic meal the following night in Regina at another of MacKay’s restaurants, Avenue. Lea’s a Maritimer who rarely eats seafood unless she’s within shouting distance of the ocean, but she was blown away by the trout from Lake Diefenbaker, served with beets and a dill cream sauce. I didn’t order it because I don’t like beets, but Lea shared a beet-free bite and I was equally transported: it was so fresh, moist and flaky. We also had an amazing appetizer of pork belly pieces glazed with gochujang and tamari and served atop little rectangles of rice, like sushi, topped with cucumber kimchi shavings and sesame seeds — a vivid collision of flavours and textures in a neat little bite-size package.

When we visited Malty National Brewing in Fall 2020, the taproom was closed for renovations. Customers ordered at the front door and could enjoy their beer on the patio out front.

Our first beer-related stop in Regina was Malty National Brewing, tucked away on a quiet side street in the central Heritage neighbourhood. The taproom was closed for renovations when we visited in October, but it was still mild enough to sit on the patio out front — which, to me, was the ideal place to enjoy this brewery and feel how much it’s a piece of the fabric of the community. As much fun as it can be to hop from taproom to taproom in one of Calgary’s brewery districts (for example), an outing like that is appointment drinking — an event. That type of experience has its time and place, but I personally get more enjoyment from spending time at the kind of place where visiting is part of the regular routine for people in the neighbourhood. As we sat on the patio at Malty National, a steady stream of people walked over to grab a seat, buy beer to-go or order takeout from a food truck parked in the alley next to the building.

We enjoyed sitting on Malty National’s patio and watching the comings and goings on the charming residential street outside the brewery.

By dwelling on the ambience at Malty National, I don’t want to give the impression that their beer isn’t the main attraction. It is. The only reason I didn’t mention it sooner is that Malty National is one of those breweries with a constantly rotating line-up, so it’s unlikely anything I enjoyed back in October is due to reappear anytime soon. For what it’s worth, I consider lagers to be a good bellwether of a brewery’s capabilities, and Malty National had a solid pilsner called Instant Classic when I visited: a nice balance of bready malt and just the right amount of bitterness. I also took home an assortment of beer that included a New England IPA, a West Coast pale ale and an oatmeal stout with cocoa and raspberries. After enjoying them all, I feel comfortable saying Malty National has a creative and versatile brewing team.

When we started planning our trip, I had been especially looking forward to visiting Rebellion Brewing. I’d exchanged a few friendly words with the brewery and its founder, Mark Heise, on Twitter, and grew to appreciate the combination of authenticity, fun and community spirit that seemed to come through loud and clear across the miles.

My visit to Rebellion lived up to what I had sensed about the company’s approach — and they make great beer, too. It’s easy to see why Zilla IPA is Rebellion’s #1 seller: it’s a well-balanced IPA that ticks all the boxes, with orange, grapefruit and pine hop characteristics, a nice malty counterpunch and a building bitterness on the palate. Of the mainstays, I also enjoyed the Amber Ale, which begins with a big, round caramel flavour but avoids getting too sweet, finishing instead with some pleasant toasty malt notes and a small whiff of floral hops.

I was fortunate to be passing through during the narrow window of time when Rebellion’s fresh-hop beer was available. Part of the brewery’s Solo Crush series of single-hopped beers, it was made with freshly-harvested Comet hops from JGL Shepherd Farms in nearby Moosomin, SK. The beer was not only a great example of the style that showcased these local hops in all their bright, herbaceous glory; to me, it’s another example of how Rebellion walks the talk in terms of supporting local. This is a brewery that established itself, in part, by making a beer with lentils — a crop that is tremendously important in Saskatchewan, which is the world’s largest producer and exporter.

Some correspondence between us led to an invitation to come onto Rebellion’s weekly podcast for a chat with Matt Barton, the brewery’s communications manager. We’re both former journalists with a passion for craft beer, so you can imagine the hour flew by. We chatted for a couple of hours after the microphones were turned off, and Matt showed me around. He told me about how the wood lining the walls was reclaimed from grain elevators in the area and that the bricks came from local school buildings that had been decommissioned. Rebellion is a brewery where the connection to its community isn’t only part of the company’s ethos: it’s literally built into the place.

On our way back to Alberta we stopped at Rafter R Brewing in Maple Creek, which opened in August 2020. What caught my interest about Rafter R is its small-town locale. Although craft beer in Saskatchewan has grown tremendously since my last visit in the early 2000s, much of that growth has been concentrated in Regina and Saskatoon. The province hasn’t experienced the rural brewery boom Alberta has — at least, not yet.

A good-looking flight at Rafter R Brewing in Maple Creek, SK.

Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that a veteran of Alberta’s rural brewery scene is behind this foray into small-town Saskatchewan: Ryan Moncrieff, who owns Rafter R with his wife, Teresa, was the former head brewer at Ribstone Creek Brewery in Edgerton.

While chatting with Ryan during our visit, he said opening their own brewery was an opportunity to do things their way: small batches of beer sold and mainly consumed fresh at the brewery (or close to it, in the case of growler sales).

Rafter R Brewing’s Ryan Moncrieff

Rafter R’s offerings span a range of styles, and the samples I had were well put together. I enjoyed a flight that included a slightly toasty and easy-drinking English-style mild — not surprising, considering Ryan’s the architect of Ribstone Creek’s award-winning mild, Abbey Lane. I also sampled a nice red ale with nice caramel malt character and some lightly floral hops, as well as a refreshing hefeweizen that brought the requisite banana and clove traits.

Many people, all smarter than me, have extolled travel as a means of broadening one’s horizons and fostering tolerance and mutual understanding. Going to Saskatchewan hardly qualifies as a cross-cultural experience — and I’m not trying to portray it as one, but the trip served as a good reminder to me to revisit, both literally and intellectually, some of the places I’ve been. I lived in Calgary for nearly 20 years before moving to Edmonton, and both cities are far different than when I moved to Alberta in the mid-1990s.

I’m glad I went to Saskatchewan and saw how much has changed, and I enjoyed some great beer and met many friendly people along the way. And dare I say it? I’m looking forward to going back sometime.

But I still hate the Roughriders.

Edifying Edition: Continuing the conversation about diversity and social issues in beer

I started a feature back in the spring called Avenue Adjunct, which I intended as a companion to my regular column in Avenue Edmonton — a place for interesting stuff that didn’t make it into the magazine.

A funny thing happened since then: Avenue Edmonton has rebranded as Edify magazine, which debuted online in September and released its first print issue in October. It makes sense to retire Avenue Adjunct along with it. Say hello, then, to Edifying Edition: the new home for bonus content related to my regular magazine column.

My first column for Edify examined how Alberta’s craft beer industry is responding to the social upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to make a meaningful contribution to discussions about race, diversity and inclusion that have followed the killing of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, at the hands of police in the U.S., as well as revelations of racism and systemic bias in Canadian policing.

As you can imagine, there was a lot to cover. One of the most enjoyable and enlightening conversations I had was with Sharon Ruyter, a craft beer enthusiast and communications professional who lives in Calgary. Ruyter, who is Black, contacted several Calgary breweries that had published social media posts expressing support for Black Lives Matter to ask them what they actually planned to do to address systemic racism and increase diversity and inclusion.

Ruyter told me she came away from the experience encouraged that so many breweries responded so openly to her questions, either by taking tangible steps or by admitting they were unsure how to back up their words with action.

A few Alberta breweries, like Edmonton’s Alley Kat Brewing, took part in the Black is Beautiful collaboration started by Weathered Souls Brewing in San Antonio, Texas. Participating breweries released a Black is Beautiful-branded beer and put the proceeds toward local causes that support diversity and inclusion. In Alley Kat’s case, 100 per cent of proceeds went to the University of Alberta Black Students’ Association and Action Dignity.

Something I wasn’t able to explore in the column — and is definitely worth mentioning here — are ways that breweries can take long-term, lasting action to be more inclusive.

A key step breweries can take, Ruyter said, is taking a hard look at their hiring practices. Craft beer has been a notoriously bro-heavy industry, but there are some encouraging signs that things are changing. Ren Navarro, a Toronto-based industry veteran, started Beer. Diversity. in 2018 as a vehicle for helping breweries make craft beer more welcoming to a more diverse audience. Navarro holds diversity and inclusion talks, consults one-on-one with breweries and is designing a toolkit designed to help breweries act on their intentions.

Another way a brewery can make a meaningful contribution to diversity and inclusion, Ruyter said, is by making their taproom a more inviting space to a broader range of people. Offering the taproom to diverse groups and community organizations for holding events (insofar as that’s possible during the pandemic) sends a positive sign to folks they’re welcome to come in for a beer and hang out anytime, said Ruyter.

One thing Ruyter’s exercise of writing to those Calgary breweries illustrates is that today’s consumers increasingly expect companies to have a position on the issues of the day, and they want to ensure that their values align with the businesses they support.

There was a time when being apolitical was considered a wise business decision: Why take a position that might offend some customers? Today, it’s just as likely that not taking a position will attract negative attention: Not speaking up is considered a sign of privilege for people who have the luxury of never having to fight for equality or defend their rights.

When I spoke to Michael Fulton, marketing manager at Alley Kat, he said people at the brewery intuitively knew they had to get involved in the BLM cause. Alley Kat is a longtime supporter of LBGTQ2S+ causes and has an established track record of community involvement, but Fulton admitted the discussion about race was new to them.

Alley Kat’s decision to brew a Black is Beautiful beer was a way of taking its contribution beyond platitudes, to paraphrase Fulton. Longer term, he says Alley Kat is looking at working with Navarro and getting the Beer. Diversity. toolkit when it comes out.

Although Alley Kat paused to consider what it would do, Fulton said there was never much question it would wade into the issue. Echoing the idea that customers today expect companies to do so, the brewery didn’t consider silence a valid option. However, Fulton acknowledged there are also risks to picking a side in these polarized times.

“To be quite frank, we’re OK with that. Be on the other side of that, and you’re not a customer of ours,” he said.

To me, Fulton hit on a key distinction when people complain about companies or public figures “getting political.” I would agree that wading into partisan politics by supporting a particular candidate or party carries a risk of alienating some people. But that’s not the same as a company supporting LGBTQ2S+ causes or Black Lives Matter. Those are issues that touch on questions of fundamental justice — and if a customer is against a company’s support for equality and basic human rights, are they really a customer worth having?

For another person I spoke to, inclusion and involvement in social causes is baked right into her business model. Christina Owczarek is the founder of XhAle Brew Co., whose motto is “Making the world a better place, one pint at a time.”

XhAle wants to embody its stated values of diversity and inclusion by being Alberta’s first cooperatively-owned brewery, a non-hierarchical model that would give everyone a say in decision-making.

Christina Owczarek of XhAle Brew Co. (Photo courtesy XhAle Brew Co.)

Cooperative ownership remains a longer-term goal, but Owczarek is taking steps right now to realize her vision of making XhAle a brewery that is unambiguously — and unapologetically — involved in the issues of the day: XhAle’s first release is wheat ale with peaches called Impeachable, a shot squarely aimed at U.S. President Donald Trump in the days leading up to the Nov. 3 election in the U.S.

XhAle is also producing a calendar called Balls, Boobs and Beers featuring industry folks in various states of undress, with all proceeds going toward breast cancer research and Movember-affiliated charities for men’s mental health. With the pandemic making it difficult (if not impossible) to stage fundraising events, Owczarek came up with the calendar as another way of supporting those causes.

Another thing that got my attention during my chat with Owczarek was her long-term vision for XhAle.

Communications and public relations pros will often discourage clients from speaking in aspirational terms, lest people hold them to those lofty goals later on. Owczarek, in addition to being a friend, is one of those refreshing souls who has no such filter. I appreciate it as a friend, but the former journalist in me also loves it when people have bold things to say: it makes for interesting copy.

XhAle is contract brewing its first releases, but Owczarek said her ambition is to have a bricks-and-mortar brewery someday — maybe somewhere in rural Alberta that could become a destination where people visit and can camp overnight.

Bring it on, I say. It’s a model that has worked in the States, where some breweries host concerts and have camping on their property. As Owczarek points out, it’s also a way of discouraging drinking and driving, by giving people a fun and affordable place to stay instead of getting back on the road.

It’s just a concept at this point, but Owczarek mentioned the area around Caroline as a potential spot for her rural brewery and campground. Given that part of Alberta’s dark history as a onetime home base for white supremacists and western separatists, I can’t think of a better place to make a such a statement.

An auspicious anniversary for The Growlery

A couple of people I know questioned the wisdom of Edmonton’s Growlery Beer Co. celebrating its first anniversary by releasing a barley wine during the summer.

Under normal circumstances, I might agree. But between the cold, rainy weather passing for “summer” in Edmonton so far and the COVID-19 pandemic keeping us housebound, I think it turned out to be an astute choice.

It also helps that the beer is top-notch example of the style — one that wouldn’t be out of place alongside Alley Kat’s Olde Deuteronomy and Brewsters’ Blue Monk, beers that have earned their status as local classics through years of consistent excellence.

The beer inside the can is the main attraction, but let me add a hat-tip to the branding and packaging as well. Growlery co-owners Kevin Danard and Jeff Pollock set up shop on Airport Road with a hope of becoming the neighbourhood brewery for residents of Blatchford, the new community being built on the former site of the City Centre Airport. The name of the beer — YXD — is the old aerodrome’s location identifier and a nice nod to its place in the area’s history, as is the art of the control tower on the can.

The beer poured with an inviting cinnamon and toffee aroma. There was more to it once I dove in: a pleasantly spicy gingerbread taste up front, followed by some dark chocolate and roasted notes at the back end and some mildly earthy hops.

Even though it came out of my beer fridge at an appropriate temperature (I use a repurposed dual-zone wine cooler with a shelf set to 10 C for barley wines, some strong Belgian styles and others), I was surprised by how much more this beer opened up after a while: some nice caramelized sugar aroma and flavour emerged and added another layer of complexity.

At 10.5% ABV, YXD had a slight boozy burn when it warmed up, but it’s smooth and refined for such a young barley wine. As I usually do, I bought a couple more for aging and I’m looking forward to seeing how it tastes in a few years.

YXD is the handiwork of Matt Cockle, who became The Growlery’s brewer in the summer of 2019. The Growlery’s early releases were uneven, frankly, and the company and its original brewer parted ways. Diacetyl, an off-flavour that can give beer a buttery taste, was a persistent problem prior to Cockle’s arrival.

During Cockle’s tenure, The Growlery has produced a line-up that includes an enjoyable and easy-drinking kolsch, as well as a West Coast IPA that ticks all the boxes with piney and citrus hop traits backed by some assertive bitterness.

The pandemic has posed challenges for lot of breweries in Alberta, but public health restrictions that closed brewery taprooms hit The Growlery particularly hard: its business model relied heavily on taproom sales , with no packaged product available in liquor stores.

Like a lot of breweries, The Growlery was able to pivot and began canning beer for retail sale at the end of April. With some solid beers on store shelves and the easing of public health restrictions, hopefully The Growlery’s second year in business will be less turbulent than the first. The signs are certainly pointing toward a brewery that’s headed in the right direction.

Uncharted Citra colours within the lines — but that’s OK

It says a lot about how far Alberta has come when beers that are clean, well-made and tasty start to be considered run-of-the-mill stuff.

On one side, you have a craft beer industry that is maturing and finding its stride, thanks to a wealth of creative, talented and proficient brewers working in Alberta. On the other side, you have a customer base that has grown up alongside the industry and has come to expect adventurous beers that are brewed to a high standard.

It’s a nice place to find ourselves, but I can’t help but wonder if people aren’t getting a little spoiled when a couple people I know recently described beers from Blind Enthusiasm’s Market brewery as “underwhelming.” While the Market’s offerings may be straightforward compared to the complex, mixed-fermentation beers being made at Blind Enthusiasm’s Monolith brewery, the putdown seems more than a little unfair: Blind Enthusiasm won Brewery of the Year at the 2018 Alberta Beer Awards solely on the strength of its Market-produced beers. I’ve always enjoyed the non-traditional touches the Market puts on traditional styles and the beers are, without exception, clean and free of flaws.

“Clean and free of flaws” should be the expectation these days, but we’re not at the point where we can take it for granted. I recently poured two new releases from an Alberta brewery down the drain because both had a distinct, unpleasant plastic and vinyl flavour to them. There are a few causes, but a frequent one is using chlorinated tap water without treating it. Some people perceive the off-flavour as a smoky trait, but both observations are in the ballpark.

Lest we get too smug about the sophistication of Albertans’ palates, I’ll add that this off-flavour has been showing up in this brewery’s beers for the better part of a year — but that hasn’t stopped the fanboys and fangirls from posting rave reviews on ratings sites. What HazeLuvr69 calls “an interesting spin on the style,” I call a failure.

Anyway, back to the Market: before the pandemic, one of the only places to get its beers was Blind Enthusiasm’s on-site restaurant, Biera — either in-house or via a growler fill to go. When Biera closed due to public health measures, Blind Enthusiasm pivoted and started canning beers from the Market for off-site consumption.

I decided to try a new offering, Uncharted Citra, as opposed to one of their mainstays. Blind Enthusiasm isn’t big on style guidelines, but I’ll go out on a limb and call it a pale ale. They’ve added a bunch of Citra hops late in the boil, a technique that’s intended to increase hop flavour and aroma without dramatically adding bitterness.

The beer poured with a faintly dank aroma and a whiff of the characteristic cat-pee smell that Citra hops can be known for, but the overall effect was subdued and never tipped over into being disagreeable. The Citra hops came forward more in the flavour, bringing a sweet orange taste, like mandarins. The malt had a pleasant and mild crackery quality to it and it provided a good counterbalance to the hop presence. There was a softness to the medium-full mouthfeel and a touch of lingering bitterness on the palate, but it finished crisp and moderately dry.

If that seems like faint praise after building up the Market as much as I have, it’s not meant to be. The resulting beer doesn’t deliver the Citra punch that I wanted and expected — but it’s nicely balanced, it’s free of any identifiable faults and it hit the right spot for a sunny afternoon on my patio.

One thing I’m mindful of, is that the beers brewed at the Market are geared toward pairing with the food at Biera. It’s entirely possible the brewers were going for a more subdued, balanced take than what I had in mind. Since Day 1, Blind Enthusiasm has been zealous about recipe development and has kept tweaking its beers until they feel they’re dialled in. If Blind Enthusiasm took another run at Uncharted Citra with a more assertive hop presence, they may be onto something even better. I’d be eager to try it again, too.

Locked in the Cellar: Last Best A.E. Cross Barley Wine, aged in rye barrels

One aspect of craft beer culture that has always bored me is the fetishization of high-alcohol and extreme beers. There’s a contingent of boozy chuckleheads that will unfailingly rave about any beer as long as it’s strong enough or packed with enough vanilla beans and cocoa nibs, without really considering its drinkability or balance.

The real beauty in big beers like barley wines, if you ask me, is when a brewer can tame all the forceful elements that go into them and the result is something kind of subtle — something worthy of contemplation and repeat enjoyment. A.E. Cross Barley Wine from Last Best Brewing in Calgary is such a beer.

Last Best intended the beer as a tribute to Cross, who was the founder of Calgary Brewing and Malting, as well as one of the Big Four who started the Calgary Stampede in 1912.

The brewery released two iterations of the beer at the end of 2016, both made with locally-sourced barley, wheat and rye. There was an unoaked version and a batch aged in rye whisky barrels.

I opened a bottle of the barrel-aged version and I will say without hesitation that Last Best has produced a fine tribute to the beer’s namesake.

The beer, brewed to 11.8 per cent AVB, poured a slightly hazy ruby brown with a compact off-white head. The head dissipated quickly, but left behind a long-lasting halo around the edges of the glass. A sugary sweet aroma pulled me in, followed by a brief flare of alcohol, spicy rye and a pleasant bit of tobacco.

On the palate, the alcohol came sharply at first, making me wonder if maybe this beer was still a bit on the young side. But I didn’t think that for long at all, because it subsided into a nicely complex mix of toffee, raisins, a hint of rye spiciness and some sticky sweetness in the linger — but not treacly sweet.

The aroma got boozier as the beer warmed up, but the flavour profile went the other way, acquiring more subtlety: some tobacco and a nice warming sensation going down. I’d say most of the barrel qualities in this beer come from the traces of rye left in them, as opposed to any woody traits that were discernible to me.

Overall, this beer has turned out mellow and smooth, except for the boozy flash I mentioned earlier. It’s possible you could age it longer and it might get even better, but it’s really enjoyable right now. If you open a bottle, you won’t be disappointed.

Olde Deuteronomy has aged gracefully

For all the emphasis I put on maintaining my independence from the beer industry, there’s no denying that being someone who writes about it comes with access and privileges.

I’ve been honoured to be a part of the judging at the Alberta Beer Awards for the past two years, by dint of having a modest media profile and a decent amount of beer knowledge built up over the past 15 or so years.

I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, that my resumé puts me at the lower end of expertise in a judging room filled with highly-ranked BJCP judges and industry veterans.

This year, a select panel that included a number of BJCP judges from across the country picked the 2018 edition of Alley Kat Brewing’s Olde Deuteronomy barley wine as Best of Show.

Olde Deut is a longtime favourite of many Alberta beer lovers and the Best of Show title is just another accolade in a long list for Alley Kat, whose strong showing at the 2019 Alberta Beer Awards earned it Brewery of the Year honours.

The recent achievements are an affirmation that Alley Kat, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, has kept up with the times and continues to make interesting beers to a high standard.

Olde Deuteronomy’s triumph at the 2020 beer awards is also a testament to the legacy that Alley Kat’s founders, Neil and Lavonne Herbst, have left for the brewery’s new owners, St. Albert businessmen Zane Christensen and Cameron French, who bought the company in February 2020.

So, we have good reason to believe that 2018 was a good year for Olde Deuteronomy. If you’ve ever wondered how some of the dusty old bottles in your cellar are doing, I may be able to help you out.

About a year ago, I had the distinct privilege of being invited to Alley Kat by Neil to do a vertical tasting of nearly every vintage of Olde Deuteronomy going back to 1995 — 13 of them — with him and some of the staff.

(I realize I’ve backed into this seriously cool story like a self-indulgent food blogger writing a 500-word essay about eating their grandma’s grilled cheese sandwiches growing up before disclosing their secret method for making the perfect toastie. I won’t keep you in suspense much longer.)

I took notes that day and I have specific observations below for each year, but the TL;DR version is this: with only one or two exceptions, every vintage is holding up nicely — including the oldest bottles. A couple are excellent.

Before I get on with it, some housekeeping about how the tasting went:

  • Yeah, it was a lot of barley wine, but this wasn’t the proverbial piss-up at a brewery: each bottle was poured into small sample cups and tasted by a group that fluctuated between four or five people, depending on who was coming and going. We took our time, discussed each vintage and had some responsible fun. Nobody drove.
  • I discovered shortly after publishing this piece, thanks to comments from friends, that we were missing bottles from 2009 and 2011.
  • Neil said he stored all the bottles conventionally, in his basement, but they were kept at a pretty constant temperature: about 15C.
  • When we tasted the 2018 vintage last year, the consensus was that it needed to age a little longer. That’s clearly not representative of the beer named Best of Show in February by judges at the Alberta Beer Awards, so my tasting notes for the 2018 vintage are based on a bottle I opened this week.

And now, here’s Olde Deuteronomy year by year:

1995 vintage: Poured virtually flat with no head. Not much visual appeal, but the aroma was an inviting combination of caramelized sugar and sherry-like qualities. The vinous sherry traits showed through in the taste, along with a nice hint of tobacco. “It’s hanging in there,” said Neil.

1996 vintage: Poured with no head, and the body was visibly thinner than a young barley wine. The aroma had vinous qualities, but the flavour was on the spicier side, with hints of clove.

“The ’95 and the ’96 definitely blew me away,” Neil said afterward. (I concur!)

2000-01 “Millennium” vintage: The aroma dropped off quite a bit from the 1996 vintage, but there was nice toffee and caramel present. The flavour was predominantly caramel and burnt sugar but the finish was dry — not a lot of residual sweetness.

2003 vintage: Raisins, spices and fusel alcohol in the aroma. Raisiny flavour, but the finish was a touch solvent-like and distinctly boozy.

2005 vintage: Slight carbonation in the pour, with raisins and sugary plums on the nose. The flavour followed the aroma. The carbonation was noticeable for such an old bottle and played a bit on the palate, but not in a distracting way.

2006 vintage: Poured noticeably darker than the 2005 with a bit of visible carbonation around the edges. The flavour was a bit sour and there was a bit of the wet paper quality that’s a telltale sign of oxidation. “Bad bottling year,” said Neil.

2007 vintage: The aroma checked out — sugary and vinous sherry notes — but it seemed to be suffering from an issue. There was a lingering sourness and a slight pucker in the aftertaste. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it was definitely not to style.

When we talked about it afterward, Neil said that Alley Kat’s original bottling line was at the end of its useful life around this time. Neil suspects the 2006 and 2007 vintages were well-made, but an issue that came later — too much oxygen getting into the bottles during filling — likely affected their aging.

2008 vintage: Vinous, sherry-like aroma. The flavour was earthier and spicier than the nose let on. It finished smooth with next to no alcoholic heat going down. With a new bottling line in the brewery, Olde Deut got back on track in 2008.

2010 vintage: Poured with a thin tan head and aroma of caramelized sugar. The flavour closely matched the aroma: a sugary sweet finish with some lingering heat.

2015 vintage: Fruity esters and raisins in the aroma. The alcohol delivered some noticeable heat going down, but it wasn’t overbearing.

2016 vintage: Poured with strong carbonation and a grainy aroma. The hops had some mildly citric characteristics and the finish was lightly spicy with some cloves. “There’s a little bit of everything going on,” said brewer Chase Gordon.

2017 vintage: Earthy hop aroma, more earthy hops on the palate, along with some caramel malt. I said that it was like a high-alcohol ESB to me. “The hops are surprisingly earthy,” Chase said.

2018 vintage (tasted solo in April 2020): No “pop” when the cap came off and it poured with low carbonation. A small ring of foam formed around the edges and quickly dissipated. Aroma was caramelized sugar, rum, fruitcake and some grapey vinous notes. There was a bit of tobacco as it warmed.

For a barley wine that’s still on the young side, it was smooth and started sweet on the palate. There were nice raisin and plum flavours, accompanied by some earthy hops, before some boozy heat flared up mid-palate. However, it subsided in the finish, leaving some vinous traits in the linger.

There’s already a nice level of complexity and mellowness for a beer that came out at the end of 2018. It’s definitely an enjoyable sipper now — but considering how well nearly every vintage is holding up, you can safely age this one, too.

Alley Kat is rightfully remembered as one of the pioneers of craft beer in Alberta. I don’t think any reasonable person would disagree with that characterization, but memory is malleable: Is it possible nostalgia and the shared experience of discovering craft beer via Alley Kat has burnished that reputation?

I suppose it’s possible, but tasting just about every vintage of Olde Deuteronomy dating back to Alley Kat’s beginnings goes beyond relying on fond memories. It provides pretty persuasive evidence that Alley Kat was doing good things from the start.

Neil and Lavonne Herbst can be proud of everything they built at Alley Kat over the years. Congratulations to them for their most recent honour at the Alberta Beer Awards, and for 25 great years.

And finally, a personal thanks to Neil for inviting me to take part in such a cool experience. It truly was a privilege.

Hops and Hockey Cards #4: Jack Marshall

There’s no live hockey to provide inspiration for the latest installment of Hops and Hockey Cards, but the reason there’s no hockey — the coronavirus pandemic — prompted me to look toward the past, when another pandemic brought the hockey world to a stop.

In the spring of 1919, the Spanish flu pandemic ended the Stanley Cup series between the NHL champion Montreal Canadiens and the Seattle Metropolitans, champs of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. The teams were deadlocked with two wins apiece and a tie between them when several Canadiens players fell ill. The series was called off just a few hours before the deciding game on April 1 and the cup wasn’t awarded to anyone that year. Four days later, Joe Hall of the Canadiens died of pneumonia brought on by the flu.

The Stanley Cup is synonymous with NHL supremacy today, but it was a different story 100 years ago. From 1915 to 1926, champions from the NHL and its forerunner, the National Hockey Association, squared off against teams from rival leagues for the right to claim the cup.

I don’t have any hockey collectables from that period, but I do have a couple of old cards from the years just before that — a time known as the challenge era. Between 1893 and 1914, teams tried to win the Stanley Cup by issuing a challenge to the club that currently held it. With the NHL apparently considering a number of different playoff formats to finish the current season, it seems apropos to harken back to a time when the Stanley Cup was awarded in a much different way than it is today.

If you’ve never read about the challenge era, I highly recommend it. Some of the game’s most colourful lore comes from those years. It was a time when teams from places like Kenora could vie for the cup — and win it. Yes, the Kenora Thistles were on top of the hockey world for two glorious months after winning the cup in a two-game challenge of the Montreal Wanderers in January 1907. The Thistles withstood a challenge from the Brandon Wheat Kings in March 1907, but a week later the Wanderers took back the Stanley Cup by winning a two-game series.

The challenge era also spawned one of the most improbable stories in any sport, in any era: the Dawson City Nuggets’ challenge of the Ottawa Silver Seven (later Senators) in January 1905. The Nuggets trekked 6,500 km from Dawson City, Yukon to Ottawa to challenge for the cup — a journey that took several weeks by foot, dogsled, train and ship. Alas, the trip is the most memorable part of the story. Ottawa easily defeated the Nuggets, who didn’t have a single top-flight player among them, 9-2 and 23-2.

I’m lucky enough to own a card depicting one of the most successful players of that era: Jack Marshall, who won the Stanley Cup six times with four different teams between 1901 and 1914.

I say “lucky,” because when 12-year-old me paid what I considered a princely sum of $15 for Marshall’s card from the 1911 Imperial Tobacco set, I had no idea of his hall of fame pedigree. And if I had an ounce of foresight back then, I would have bought a lot more $15 tobacco cards instead of boxes and boxes of baseball cards that are basically worthless today.

But I digress.

I was mulling over a beer to pair with this historical foray and decided on King’s English Black Tea Lemon Pale Ale, a current seasonal release from Annex Ale Project. Between the name and the addition of Earl Grey tea in the beer, it all seemed thoroughly British, as Canada still would have been in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

All that aside, the inclusion of tea and lemon bring a level of creativity to beer that wouldn’t have existed a hundred-odd years ago. Annex has done a good job of taking the idea and executing from top to bottom. The lemon is brightly citric & meshes nicely with hops they’ve used. There are distinct bergamot and tea notes, but they don’t overwhelm the base beer, which is a nicely-balanced pale ale.

King’s English finishes grainy, and leaves a firmly beery impression. For all this beer’s modern flourishes, there’s a solid pale ale underneath that wouldn’t be out of place in any era. Enjoy it with a pinky extended, if you’re feeling fancy.