When it comes to trains, we know reliability is the ultimate virtue — making sure people arrive on time. But what about beer? Even if it’s a train-themed beer, is calling it “reliable” a backhanded compliment when there are so many more effusive things one can say? I hope not, because that’s the conclusion I reached after sampling Ten-Wheeler IPA from Siding 14 Brewing in Ponoka — and I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
For most of us mortals, a stateroom on a luxury train is a bucket list kind of thing. The rest of the time, we’re usually riding in coach and simply content to arrive at our destination with no unpleasant surprises along the way. That’s the experience Ten-Wheeler delivers: it’s a straightforward IPA that ticks most of the stylistic boxes with no identifiable flaws.
Lest I sound like I’m damning with faint praise, I enjoyed Ten-Wheeler and I particularly liked its balance: caramel and biscuity malt that stands up well to a hop profile with nice depth. Citra, Glacier and Columbus hops give the beer some orange-citrus traits backstopped by a piney quality that delivers some satisfying bitterness and a bit of stickiness on the palate.
What surprised me was that the beer had next to no hop aroma. I don’t make this observation lightly: I drank a six-pack over the course of a week and each time I poured a can, I stuck my nose into the glass and inhaled deeply. When the beer warmed up, I smelled it again. Every time, I got a lot of caramel malt, but just a faint whiff of pine.
I debated whether harping on aroma is too nerdy, but I don’t think so. Think back to any meal that you would put on your personal “best of” list: it was likely so memorable because it appealed to the entire range of senses, not just taste. And so it should be with beer, too. Top-flight Alberta IPAs like Bench Creek’s White Raven and Banded Peak’s Southern Aspect deliver a fuller sensory experience — they’re bursting with aroma, in addition to being just plain delicious.
Ten-Wheeler isn’t in that heady company, but it could be within tweaking distance. Siding 14 is on the right track.
It seems unnecessary to say Hops and Hockey Cards is a new feature here at Original Levity, considering just about everything around here is new. It’s maybe more apropos to introduce this as the first installment in what I hope will be a running series bringing together two of my favourite things: beer and hockey.
Although my love of hockey has endured through the years, I don’t have the same affection for today’s game as the old-time hockey I grew up with. While today’s athletes are literally and metaphorically head and shoulders above the players I watched as a kid, I have a hard time bonding emotionally with an NHL that has teams in the desert but none in Quebec City or Hartford. It’s probably not all that unusual for people to draw some of their fondest memories from childhood. In my case, thinking about hockey, that means helmetless players, Fu Manchu moustaches, brown leather goalie pads, Cold War matchups, fly-by-night franchises and blue pucks.
I can remember Saturday nights during my early childhood gathered with my family around the basement TV (an old Zenith model in a wooden cabinet) watching the hockey game. As I got a bit older, I began collecting hockey cards — the old-school kind, printed on low-grade cardboard with a stick of gum in the pack. I’ve held onto my hockey cards, and over the years I’ve replaced dog-eared and wrinkled ones with specimens I’ve bought at collector shows or hunted down on eBay — though the majority of my collection survived childhood in good condition. I never played games with them or put them in my bicycle spokes.
Is bringing together two of my interests, craft beer and vintage hockey cards, a self-indulgent nostalgia trip? Sure, a bit. (But it’s my blog, and I can be self-indulgent if I damn well want to.) But I think there’s a logical connection there, too. Craft beer and hockey cards are art forms in their own right. Both, when done well, are worthy of consideration.
Hops and Hockey Cards, as I see it going forward, could be a reminiscence about a player depicted on a card, an appreciation of a particularly cool card, or both. I realize this may be a obscure concept, so I’ve picked a rather obvious pairing to start the series: Patrick Roy and Arrogant Bastard Ale.
Patrick Roy, the hall of fame goalie and four-time Stanley Cup winner, is an arrogant bastard. His playing days with the Montreal Canadiens ended with a public tantrum after being left between the pipes during a nine-goal run by the Detroit Red Wings in 1995. Then-coach Mario Tremblay did it to humiliate Roy and put his outsize ego in its place, but the goalie’s reaction was unprecedented for a team as rooted in honour and tradition as the Canadiens. When he finally got pulled, Roy mouthed off to club president Ronald Corey, who sat behind the players’ bench, as 18,000 fans in the Montreal Forum and a national TV audience looked on. While walking to his seat at the end of the bench, he stopped and said, “I’ve just played my last game with the Canadiens,” as he went past Corey. The Habs traded Roy to the Colorado Avalanche a few days later, and he went on to win two more cups in Denver. In retirement, Roy had some success as the Avalanche’s coach and VP of hockey operations, but left in a huff with a surprise resignation in 2016. He’s also been accused of domestic violence — though the charges were dropped — and as coach of the junior Quebec Remparts in 2008, he incited his son Jonathan, the team’s goalie, to pummel the opposing netminder during a line brawl.
Roy is a thoroughly unlikable character, but his success is undeniable. As a lifelong Habs fan who bleeds bleu, blanc et rouge, I’m grateful for his role in Montreal’s Stanley Cup victories in 1986 and 1993 — neither of which would have happened without him. But he’s a jerk. That’s why I choose his rookie card for this feature: I prefer to remember him as the shy, gangly rookie who came out of nowhere to help the Habs win the cup in 1986.
Like Roy, Arrogant Bastard is a success story — but not necessarily easy to like. When Stone Brewing debuted the beer in 1997, its 7.2 per cent alcohol content and bitterness made it pretty “out there” by the standards of the day. Brewers today are making bigger and weirder beers, but Arrogant Bastard still deserves a place in the annals of craft beer greatness. It’s a complex mix of big caramel malts, a hint of dark chocolate and a drying, bitter finish that grows as you go. There’s no denying it’s a well put together beer, but I’m partial to red and amber ales that are maltier and sweeter as opposed to hoppy ones. I guess you could say I’m caught between acknowledging Arrogant Bastard’s greatness while not necessarily being a fan — a sentiment not unlike my feelings toward “Saint” Patrick Roy.
That’s a wrap on the 23rd Okanagan Fest of Ale. I had the privilege of being part of the nine-member jury that judged 122 beers entered in 12 categories at this year’s festival. Here are the winners we chose:
For the fourth year in a row, I’m looking forward to heading to Penticton to take part in judging at the Okanagan Fest of Ale.
With this year’s edition of the fest getting underway Friday evening, I launched Original Levity a bit late to put it on the radar screen of Albertans who might normally be amenable to spending a weekend drinking beer in the sunny Okanagan. Consider yourselves duly notified of next year’s event. (And maybe by then, Alberta and B.C. will have stopped fighting, too.)
Why should you go? Well, other than the “drinking beer in the sunny Okanagan” part, the festival is an opportunity to sample beers from some great B.C. breweries we don’t see in Alberta – and get a sneak peak of the latest up-and-comers that may be headed our way. In past years, I’ve had my first exposure to beers from Twin Sails, Yellow Dog and Four Winds at the Fest of Ale. It’s also an opportunity to get to know (or get reacquainted) with many B.C. mainstays don’t distribute widely outside their immediate areas, like Victoria’s Moon Under Water and Crannog Ales in Sorrento.
The roster at this year’s festival (the 23rd) includes 69 breweries and cideries pouring nearly 200 different products for people to sample. The number of exhibitors gets bigger every year, but the ticket sales have remained capped at around 5,000, which keeps line-ups at booths fairly manageable and gives brewers and guests more of an opportunity to talk about the beer than you see at larger fests.
The Fest of Ale started as an event meant to kick off the spring tourism season in Penticton and the founders wanted it to complement, rather than draw from, the region’s attractions. The event wraps up at 6 p.m. on Saturday, leaving a good chunk of the weekend for visitors to do other things. If you’re still in beer mode, Penticton has become a destination in its own right on the B.C. Ale Trail with five local breweries. (I hear there’s wine in the Okanagan, too, if you’re into that sort of thing.)
Follow Original Levity on Twitter and Instagram for photos and updates from Penticton throughout the weekend.
Postscript — 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.
Blindman Brewing recently released its first beer aged in one of two oaken foeders it bought from a cognac maker in France — and it did not approach the new venture timidly.
The brewery threw a metaphorical kitchen sink of ingredients into the recipe for Pierre, named in honour of a French barrel maker named Jean-Pierre who repurposed the foeders for making beer. No less than a dozen yeast and bacteria strains went into the beer, along with barley, wheat, rye, oats, coriander, Grains of Paradise and whatever flavours and microbiota have been left behind from years of aging cognac inside the foeders.
The resulting beer is complex — and enjoyable. The two don’t always go hand in hand if all the elements don’t work well together, but here they do.
Pierre poured a cloudy gold, with a hint of coriander in the aroma. The initial flavour and sensations on my palate were bright and lemony. This is one of the tamer (and more pleasing, IMO) manifestations of the wild brettanomyces yeast strain and I feel it’s usually a good complement to the traditional saison yeasts that give the style its characteristic tartness and dryness. There’s a mild peppery quality, either from the yeast, the coriander, the Grains of Paradise — or a combination of all of them. The fact it’s impossible to tell where one starts and another ends shows the brewery had a deft hand with all of them. The oats are there for mouthfeel, giving the beer a bit more softness than typical saisons, which are usually highly carbonated and effervescent. If you put nerdy style considerations aside and just consider whether it’s enjoyable or not, I would argue it is.
Just as “complex” doesn’t always mean “good,” complexity in a beer doesn’t mean it’s unapproachable. There’s a building tartness and some moderate acidity as you keep drinking, but Pierre never tips over into full-on, puckering sourness. I struggled for a good 20 minutes trying to put my finger on how to describe it before the answer emerged from one of the recesses of my addled brain: it’s kind of like the SweeTarts candy I remember having as a kid. (And yes, I mean that as a compliment.) For all Pierre’s stylistic flourishes, it finishes like a solid traditional saison should: dry and dusty.
Repeat after me: beer should be fun and bring people together.
It should be stating the obvious, considering folks have been gathering and drinking beer for centuries. It is truly a social lubricant, as they say. In many ways, the craft beer movement has only helped solidify beer as a drink everyone can enjoy: people who never liked pale mass-produced lagers can try a fruited Belgian lambic or an intensely citric and aromatic New England-style IPA and realize that they’re beer people, after all. They just didn’t know it.
But it seems every movement, as they expand, has that small minority that wants to keep it to themselves. Snobs. And craft beer has ’em, too. Don’t get me wrong: beer is wonderfully complex and diverse and should be respected and appreciated every bit as much as fine food and wine. Snobbery and exclusivity shouldn’t exist in food and wine (there’s a separate conversation to be had about that) — but it’s particularly antithetical to beer, considering its proletarian history.
I’ve always tried to keep this in mind when I write about beer, but occasional reminders are always welcome. I got one the other day, when I was at the grand opening of Red Bison Brewery in Calgary. I was chatting with a group of friends about some of the new breweries in Calgary and Edmonton when a woman sitting with hers at the end of the table (the brewery has communal seating) piped up, “Sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation and it sounds like you’re speaking my language.” We ended up talking about beer for a few a minutes before I went back to my friends and she returned to hers. I’d say it was a welcome intrusion — but it wasn’t an intrusion at all.
My recent encounter at Red Bison was a lot like how I envision this blog: a place where anyone with an abiding interest in craft beer or someone who’s just curious about it can drop in, join the conversation and not feel left out. My training as a journalist taught me to write for a wide audience and that’s my intention here. I also think being inclusive is the beery thing to do.
The values of honesty and transparency I learned as a journalist are also cornerstones of my relationship with you, the audience. My mission, in addition to hopefully entertaining people, is to write knowledgeably and engagingly about craft beer and point people to some good beers along the way. That means being independent. I’ll still have my opinions (what would a blog be without them?), but they won’t be influenced by any business relationships I have with anyone in the beer industry — because there aren’t any. If I’m a fan of a particular beer or brewery, I guarantee you my endorsement hasn’t been paid for. Fancy product shots may excite brewery marketing reps, but I’m not sure they tell a reader anything about whether a beer is good or not.
Before anyone grabs their popcorn waiting for the negative reviews to roll in, something to keep in mind: a byproduct of my independence is that I pay for the vast majority of beer I drink, and I tend to spend my money on beer I already like or on new releases from breweries with a proven (to me) track record. If you want to know more about my approach, check out my about page or my policy on beer samples.
Despite all the journalism talk — which is done, I promise — Original Levity isn’t a news site. Blogger burnout is a common phenomenon and I want to avoid it by starting sustainably: look for quick hits with my thoughts on the latest beer l’ve tried or some pics from a recent brewery visit. Really, that’s actually how blogging started and I think it’s a good place to take it again. That doesn’t mean there won’t be longer-form articles and profiles of Alberta beer folks when time permits or the story warrants it. That also doesn’t mean I won’t get serious if the topic calls for it. I guess Original Levity will be like a lot of conversations had over a beer: friendly, engaging and lively, but occasionally serious. Oh, and there will be hockey. Beer and hockey are a classic pairing and two of my loves. I definitely plan to work in some hockey talk.