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.

#ABbeer roadtrip: Blindman Brewing

I’m a big fan of hitting the road to visit the many craft breweries scattered throughout Alberta. Such is my belief in the province’s rural beer bounty, that I devoted an article to the subject in the feature coverage of the Alberta Beer Awards I wrote for the Edmonton and Calgary editions of Avenue magazine earlier this year.

A couple of weeks ago, I was extolling the virtues of small-town breweries during a segment on the Palgary Almanac, a show on Calgary’s campus radio station, CJSW, when it struck me: it had been awhile since I’d visited a brewery outside Calgary or Edmonton.

Because it’s our first year living full-time in Edmonton, my wife Lea and I decided to largely stick around this summer to get to know our new city and its environs. With some time off for the both of us last week, we decided to visit Lacombe and Blindman Brewing.

If you’re a craft beer drinker in Alberta, you’ve likely heard of Blindman and you’re familiar with its beer. But visiting a brewery offers so much more: it’s not only a chance to spend an enjoyable day exploring new places, it’s an opportunity to learn a bit more about the beer you’re drinking and the people who make it. A couple of the owners, Hans Doef and Shane Groendahl, were at the brewery the day we visited and both were happy to take a few minutes from their work to chat about what’s been going on. Now, I’ve met both guys on several occasions and Hans saw me come in, but my experience is you don’t have to be a beer writer to experience this kind of hospitality. I make a point of visiting taprooms anonymously and/or unannounced, as a paying customer, and I’ve received the same kind of warm welcome just about every time. Beer people are passionate about what they do and they’re often eager to talk to people who share that passion.

Berliner weisse (left) and strawberry-basil kombucha. My wife Lea doesn’t drink beer so we always appreciate taprooms that offer a variety of alternatives.

The more obvious attraction, of course, is the beer. While it’s always rewarding to try familiar beers fresh and straight from the source, it’s also an opportunity to try small-batch beers that are either exclusive to the brewery or packaged in limited amounts. During our visit, Blindman’s taproom had all four seasonal variations of Saison Lacombe on tap, as well as a Berliner weisse — a tart, low-alcohol wheat beer that’s a great choice for the summer. Fruit additions are common in Berliners, either by putting it in the beer itself or via a flavoured syrup at serving time. Blindman is offering its Berliner with raspberry and passionfruit flavouring. I opted for passionfruit: it complemented the style’s characteristic tartness and mild acidity (which comes from the addition of lactobacillus bacteria to the wort) but the overall impression was bright and refreshing.

Speaking of summer, Blindman’s taproom has not one, but two, patios for enjoying your beer al fresco: one adjacent to the parking lot out front, and a recently-opened deck accessed from a second-floor mezzanine inside.

Salut, Jean! Y’a tu d’la bière icitte?

Keep an eye on Blindman as it expands its work with sour beers, wild yeast strains and various microbiota that go into making complex and unique beers. The brewery recently bought two oaken foeders used to age cognac, which the guys call Jean and Pierre, after a French cooper named Jean-Pierre who repurposed the vessels for making beer. Blindman is also starting to experiment with a koelschip, a traditional broad, shallow vessel that promotes spontaneous fermentation by allowing wild, airborne yeast strains to inoculate the beer as it cools off. (I have more about Blindman’s koelschip program, as well as other breweries working on sour beers in the August issue of Avenue Edmonton. Read it here, or pick up a copy of the magazine at various locations around the city.)

 

 

A Nightmare you’ll want to enjoy

I’m fortunate to have old friends who enjoy beer almost as much as I do. Although they’re not strictly craft beer drinkers, they’re open-minded about trying new things. When we get together, they usually ask me to make a few recommendations and seem to enjoy it when I talk them through what we’re tasting (or, at the very least, they humour me).

During a recent trip back to Toronto, I brought some beers from Alberta to try — including Neon Nightmare from Outcast Brewing in Calgary, described on the can as a “double dry-hopped New England Double IPA.” I’ll dive into precisely what that means a bit later: Outcast’s brewer, Patrick Schnarr, doesn’t pay much attention to established styles, but suffice to say he has a thing for making hop-forward beers that are intensely aromatic and flavourful. I thought Neon Nightmare would be a good candidate for introducing my pals to sensory evaluation and teaching them to appreciate how qualities like aroma matter, in addition to flavour.

After pouring everyone a glass, I had them hold the beer a good arm’s length from their noses and instructed them to inhale. Even at that distance, everyone picked up all kinds of hop aroma: in my case, mango, apricot and tangerine. They concurred that taking a few seconds to smell the beer, and picking up such a pleasant aroma, added to the experience and made the beer more inviting.

While aroma shouldn’t be overlooked, it isn’t everything. Fortunately, Neon Nightmare’s flavour delivers on the aroma’s promise. There’s lots of mango and passionfruit and a bit of piney, resinous hops. It’s all nicely balanced with some soft, biscuity malt. “Double dry-hopped New England Double IPA” isn’t any kind of formal style, but Neon Nightmare fits that description when you break it down. Dry hopping — adding hops during the maturation process — punches up their flavour and aroma, but it doesn’t impart the same level of bitterness that comes from adding hops during the boil. And one of the key distinctions between New England-style IPAs and their old-school northwest counterparts is their low bitterness relative to the older style.

At 7.8 per cent ABV, Neon Nightmare certainly fits the “double” part of double IPA. The alcohol is well-hidden and this beer has the potential to go down dangerously easy if you don’t know any better. (I do, thanks in part to my advanced age.) I have only one stylistic quibble: New England IPAs get a soft mouthfeel from the inclusion of oats in the grain bill, and I found Neon Nightmare’s carbonation a bit prickly for the style. As I said, it’s a quibble.

I’ve known Patrick for a few years, and we shared many a beer prior to him starting Outcast with his wife, Krysten, two years ago. We don’t see each other as often since I moved to Edmonton, but it’s not unusual for us to exchange the occasional text message — usually about a beer we’re currently enjoying.

I wasn’t worried at all about how Patrick would receive a bit of constructive criticism. After all, the industry is relatively small and I know a lot of the people behind the breweries I write about here and elsewhere. As I’ve said, all I can do is be fair and honest.

Oddly enough, I was hesitant about dwelling too much on his reputation for aromatic and hoppy beers. During one of our conversations, I made an offhand remark that he’s good at making beers that are “aromatic AF.”  That’s a little less professional than I like to be when I’m writing, but it seemed fine for a casual conversation — in addition to being totally accurate, considering he recently won silver at the Canadian Brewing Awards in the category for American-style IPAs. I don’t want to give anyone the impression Patrick didn’t accept the compliment graciously, because he did. But he was also quick to remind me that he’s made a couple of stouts, too.

Looking back, I can see why Patrick may have been a bit uneasy with the compliment: it can be a fine line between becoming known for doing something well and getting pigeonholed. In Hollywood, actors who are too good at one thing can end up hopelessly typecast.

So, in the interest of preventing Patrick from becoming the Bob Denver of Alberta beer, I feel duty-bound to mention his next release will be a lager — a first for Outcast.

In the meantime, enjoy Neon Nightmare. It’s aromatic AF.

 

#ABbeer and baseball: a collaboration with Alberta Dugout Stories

I loved baseball, once.

I grew up in Toronto, where I witnessed the birth of the Blue Jays and their progression from a collection of likeable journeymen (Doug Ault, Alan Ashby, Otto Velez) into contenders (1985 AL East champs with George Bell, Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield in the outfield) and finally, World Series champs in 1992 and 1993. I watched Joe Carter’s series-winning walk-off homer in 1993 by myself, at my then-girlfriend’s place on Concord Ave., while she was at work. I couldn’t wait for her to come in the door as the celebrations erupted outside, so I ran onto Bloor Street and high-fived stranger after stranger as I went to meet her at Ossington subway station. I was there for it all, often freezing in the metal bleachers of Exhibition Stadium (the Mistake by the Lake) and then joining the throngs that flocked to see the SkyDome and its retractable roof when the building opened in 1989.

Then came the strike of 1994, when my equally beloved Expos seemed destined for a date with the New York Yankees in the World Series, until a players’ strike scuttled the season. (This was before regular season interleague play, so it was easy to cheer for a National League team without risking divided loyalties.) By the time the strike was over, the Expos had lost many of their stars to free agency and ownership was no longer interested in fielding a contender. The team’s slide in the standings sparked a decline in fan interest that eventually led to the team packing up for Washington, D.C. in 2005.

Between watching the slow death of the Expos and ascendance of surly and thoroughly unlikable giant-headed steroid freaks, I’d had enough. I stopped paying attention to baseball. And that’s why this blog has no baseball equivalent of my Hops and Hockey Cards feature. Baseball simply doesn’t hold the same place in my heart as hockey.

Nevertheless, during my 20 years in Alberta, I’ve felt flickers of the old fondness come back. I’ve enjoyed hot summer afternoons at Seaman Stadium, home of the Okotoks Dawgs of the Western Major Baseball League. It’s a charming ballpark where just a few bucks gets you a seat where you can hear the crack of the bat up close and smell the fresh-cut grass on the field.

So, when Alberta Dugout Stories approached me about reviewing the beer available at WMBL parks in Alberta, it was an easy sell. WMBL clubs, like craft breweries, are local ventures that enrich our communities — and many teams serve local beer at home games. There are a few that don’t, but I think it’s important to point out here that these are grassroots organizations doing their best with what they can. It’s not fair to beat up on minor league ball clubs made up of college kids for getting the best possible deal on beer, regardless of who made it.

Q. What’s wrong with this photo?
A. Nothing.

The Edmonton Prospects are one of the WMBL teams that don’t offer craft beer at the ballpark. Although I would have preferred to have one during my recent outing at Re/Max Field, I can tell you that the absence of craft beer had absolutely no negative effect on my enjoyment of the game: it was a mild, sunny evening with a spectacular view of the river valley beyond the left field fence and I had a primo seat on the first base line for the princely sum of $18. It was also the night Okotoks Dawgs head coach Mitch Schmidt lost his mind over an ump’s call and threw a bunch of chairs onto the field after getting tossed out of the game. That, alone, was worth the price of admission.

Head to Alberta Dugout Stories for my rundown of Alberta’s ballpark beer. Better yet: head out to the ballpark before the season is over and watch some pretty entertaining baseball.

 

 

Alberta Craft Beer Guide launches in Ponoka

The makers of the Alberta Craft Beer Guide hit the road on Sunday to launch the Summer 2018 edition at Siding 14 Brewery in Ponoka.

Launch parties have been customary for each new issue of the guide since it debuted in 2016, but they’ve always been held in Calgary or Edmonton. With so many new breweries popping up all over the province – and featured in the guide — editor Erica Francis said the time is right to take the show on the road.

“There’s so much more to Alberta than the two major centres,” she said.

There will be rural events to launch future issues of the guide, but if you live in Calgary or Edmonton, don’t despair: there will continue to be launch parties in the city, too. Blind Enthusiasm Brewing in Edmonton is hosting a launch party for Summer 2018 issue on June 6, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The Summer 2018 edition encourages readers, too, to hit the road. There’s a “Tour-ery Passport” page to collect stamps by visiting breweries around the provinces. Participants can email photos of their stamped passport to the guide to enter a special draw for a beer-related prize package. There’s also a profile of Ribstone Creek Brewery and an article by beer writer and educator David Nuttall on the importance — and benefits — of having local breweries.

The guide is available throughout the province, in places where you find Alberta craft beer.

Building a cozy Cabin in Calgary’s Barley Belt

When Cabin Brewing opens its taproom in southeast Calgary’s Barley Belt district later this year, expect to find an American pale ale, a northwest IPA and plenty of hygge.

You expect to find beer at a brewery — but the third offering, hygge, is something different: it’s a Scandinavian word that describes a feeling of comfort and coziness. And that, along with the beer, will be a significant part of Cabin Brewing’s identity.

“You don’t see a lot of breweries naming themselves after the taproom,” says Jonas Hurtig, Cabin’s head brewer and one of three founding partners, along with Haydon Dewes and Darrin Sayers.

“Hygge” wasn’t a word that came up during my recent interview with Jonas and Haydon, but I’d heard about the concept before and it’s what immediately came to mind when Haydon explained the thinking behind the brewery’s name.

“It’s creating that feeling of making your own space and feeling you’re comfortable and switching off. It’s more about the emotional kind of feel,” he says.

The taproom is the metaphorical cabin in the brewery’s name, but it will not be a literal one — and in this part of the world, where log construction and reclaimed barn wood have become a clichéd shorthand for “Western” or “rustic,” I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

“It’s won’t be like walking into a lodge. We like clean, modern design with a cozy touch. It’s going to be comfortable, with a bit of that nostalgic touch,” Haydon says.

“It’s that place you go, with the people you like, to do the things you want to do.”

And if you’re visiting a brewery, you want to drink beer. Atmosphere may be an important selling point to Cabin’s founders, but beer is the main attraction. The Cabin team has put a lot of thought into its approach to beer and brings a wealth of expertise to the venture.

Haydon is likely best known in Alberta beer circles as a regular beer columnist for the Calgary Eyeopener on CBC Radio and as the creator of The Daily Beer, a blog he started in 2015. Like me, Haydon is a former journalist who decided to combine his passion for writing and craft beer after he left a career in newspapers to work in communications. It’s no surprise, then, that we became fast friends and I was a regular contributor for The Daily Beer before I moved to Edmonton. (Alberta’s beer community is relatively small and it’s probably common knowledge that I wrote for The Daily Beer, but consider this my “full disclosure” statement if not.)

Haydon is also an award-winning homebrewer and a member of the Cowtown Yeast Wranglers club. Like many accomplished homebrewers, Haydon began wondering if he had what it takes to go pro and start his own brewery.

“The more I met people and got to know about the industry, I thought, ‘This could be pretty cool,'” he says.

Haydon and his wife, Jill, talked it over and began formulating a plan in mid-2016. At one point — maybe from watching legions of other Alberta homebrewers turn pro with varying degrees of success and/or aggravation — they decided it would be a better idea to get some other experienced hands involved. Haydon first approached Jonas Hurtig, a friend and fellow Yeast Wrangler who was brewing professionally at Wild Rose Brewery. Jonas politely declined, saying he was already working on his own brewery venture with someone else.

Undeterred, Haydon approached another Yeast Wrangler buddy, Darrin Sayers, with his idea. Darrin, too, said no. He was planning to open a brewery with somebody else. What were the odds?

Cabin builders: Haydon Dewes, Darrin Sayers and Jonas Hurtig. (Photo courtesy Cabin Brewing.)

Haydon later found out that Jonas and Darrin weren’t involved in separate ventures but were, in fact, going into business with each other. The three of them sat down in the fall of 2016 and talked about joining forces. Things clicked, and Cabin Brewing was formally incorporated on April 1, 2017.

“With these guys, everything felt right. We all liked each other,” Jonas says.

“I really liked the diversity of our skill sets.”

Despite all three partners having solid homebrew chops, Jonas’ experience in a full-scale production brewery made him the logical choice for head brewer. Haydon’s track record in media and communications landed him a role as Cabin’s marketing guru, while Darrin’s skills as a trained mechanic earned him the job of running operations and logistics.

The partners may have a varied skill set, but they have similar taste in beer.

“We’re all big hopheads,” Jonas says.

The two mainstays will come with big hop flavour and aromatics, but Jonas says it won’t come at the expense of balance and drinkability.

“I don’t like when anything is too much in one direction,” he says.

The pale ale is derived from a recipe of Jonas’ that has won more than 30 medals in homebrew competitions.

“It’s an easy-drinking American pale ale with nice aromatics,” says Jonas.

The IPA will be a departure from the current trend toward low-bitterness, citrus- and tropical fruit-forward New England IPAs: a West Coast-style IPA with more pine and citric bitterness and a dry finish. West Coast IPAs may not be all the rage like NEIPAs currently are, but they’ve hardly gone out of style.

And the rest? Cabin will brew a steady stream of rotating releases. “It’ll be, ‘What do we want to brew?'” Jonas says. While that strategy may appeal to their sense of creativity, it’s also smart from a marketing perspective: many craft drinkers are equally whimsical, choosing their beer according to mood, season or meal pairing.

Speaking of food: the taproom will serve snacks, though the concept is still being worked out. The taproom will also be kid-friendly, which makes sense. It’s not much of a cozy cabin if the whole family can’t be together, is it?

When it opens later this year, the taproom will also be the primary place to get Cabin’s beer. Initially, the focus will be on selling from the taproom and a small number of draft accounts around Calgary.

“We want to be careful and treat our accounts well,” says Jonas.

In addition to allowing the brewery to focus on quality, starting small is also a way of keeping expenses in line and remaining nimble in an increasingly crowded marketplace. How to stand out in a city where the number of breweries is closing in on 30 is a question Haydon says he wrestles with “every night.”

“It’s competitive — we know it’s not going to be easy.”

Cabin’s space at 505 36 Ave. S.E. is about half the size of what they were originally looking for, but Haydon says they’re happy with the turn of events. Citing the example of Calgary’s Dandy Brewing, Haydon says small breweries can be mighty, using their small capacity to make a steady stream of creative, small-batch beers.

In 2016, Dandy made an audacious pledge to release 40 different beers that year. Not only did Dandy deliver the promised quantity, the exercise cemented its reputation as one of Alberta’s most adventurous and well-regarded breweries — a brewery that recently expanded with a spacious new taproom and restaurant that opened in April.

As inspirations go, Cabin could hardly have chosen better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hopps* and Hockey Cards #2: Winnipeg Jets

As time ticked down on the last game in the seven-year history of the World Hockey Association (WHA), fans who packed the Winnipeg Arena that night had a lot to celebrate.

Not only were the hometown Jets about to capture the 1979 AVCO Cup with an easy 7-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers, a merger deal between the WHA and rival NHL had been struck. In a few months, the WHA champs would compete in the NHL. The Jets, and Winnipeg, were about to enter the big leagues.

The Jets were probably one of the best teams of the era, in any league. They had won three of the last four AVCO Cups. In 1978, they beat the fearsome Soviet national squad in an exhibition — the first and only club team to ever do so. As impressive as those achievements were, the Jets were untested against the NHL’s best. With Winnipeg, Edmonton, Quebec and Hartford set to join the NHL the following season, the Jets were about to get their chance to prove themselves.

Alas, it was never to be. During the seven-year war between the WHA and the NHL, the rebel league had been able to poach some of hockey’s most talented names. With the WHA on its last legs, the NHL dictated the terms of union — and the price was steep. The NHL allowed its teams to reclaim players from the surviving WHA teams without compensation. The WHA clubs were placed at the end of the draft order and were allowed to protect only two skaters and two goaltenders. The high-flying Jets of the WHA were grounded and struggled for years during their first years in the NHL.

The 1979 dismantling of the Jets was only the first in a a long line of injustices and misfortunes foisted upon fans in Winnipeg. The team eventually got better, thanks to stars like Dale Hawerchuk and Teemu Selanne (aka the Finnish Flash), but they never made it out of their division because one of the greatest teams of all time, the Gretzky-era Edmonton Oilers, always stood in their way. (Ironically, this article quotes legendary Oilers coach-GM Glen Sather saying he modelled his team after the WHA Jets.)

And then, 1996. Fans in Winnipeg got robbed again, when the NHL allowed the team to move to Phoenix. It’s true the Jets were playing in a small, obsolete area in an era when the low Canadian dollar was pummelling even financial powerhouses like the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. But the NHL was quick to pull the plug. As we’ve seen in recent years, the original Jets — now the Arizona Coyotes — have been allowed to struggle indefinitely in their new home, with the NHL actively shielding them from relocation.

Winnipeg got its Jets back through the struggles of another American Sunbelt team, the Atlanta Thrashers, which moved to the Manitoba capital in 2011 after 12 forgettable seasons in the U.S. South. Rather than hailing this righting of a historical wrong, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was petulant while announcing the Jets’ return, threatening fans that the team would suffer the same fate as the original Jets if they didn’t sell out the arena every night.

Seven years later, the patience and loyalty of Jets fans has been rewarded with a thrilling playoff run and a berth in the conference finals against the Vegas Golden Knights — a first-year franchise gifted a head start with favourable expansion terms that the Jets and others never had.

To recognize this momentous occasion and to raise a beer to the long-suffering fans of Winnipeg, I’ve chosen the Jets team checklist from the 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee card set, which marks the team’s entry to the NHL. May this be the year that Winnipeg no longer looks back wistfully at what was lost and what could have been.

I’ve paired the Jets card with White Raven IPA from Bench Creek Brewing. This coppery beauty bursts with orange and mango hop aroma. This is a citrus-forward IPA, for sure, but there’s some old-skool northwest IPA in it, with some pine aroma and flavour. What puts White Raven in the top tier of Alberta IPAs is its complexity and balance. Each sip brings a different combination of citric and tropical flavors that deliver the kind of bitterness you expect from an IPA, followed in perfect proportion with some caramel malt. This is a hoppy beer, not an overly bitter one — and that’s an important distinction.

White Raven is made in a brewery off the beaten track on a rural range road outside of Edson. It’s proof that size doesn’t always matter, that great things can come from small places when people have passion, pride and a commitment to quality. Kind of like a hockey team from Winnipeg.

(* For this installment, I’ve changed “Hops and Hockey Cards” to “Hopps” as a nod to my pal Brett Hopper, who, in addition to being Bench Creek’s southern Alberta sales rep, is also a Winnipeg boy and huge Jets fan. Go Jets go!)