Edifying Edition

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.

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.

Avenue Adjunct: a paean to lagers

Welcome to a new feature: Avenue Adjunct.

In addition to Original Levity, one of the main channels for my beer writing is a regular column in Avenue Edmonton I’ve had for nearly three years. A lot of times, there are interesting things that don’t make it into the final product, either because of space limitations or because they’re a bit too arcane for a general audience.

Avenue Adjunct will be a home for those odds and ends that didn’t make it into my column: a digital domain for additional context, opinions and digressions worth sharing with readers.

It’s a privilege to have the latitude to choose my column topics, but April’s column about lagers was a particular labour of love because I enjoy them so much and feel they often don’t get the respect they deserve.

One of the things about writing for a magazine is that it requires long lead times. When I wrote the lager column in the early days of 2020, COVID-19 was a distant threat and the coronavirus pandemic was not yet upon us.

Beer in the time of COVID: a recent BOIP (Beer Over Internet Protocol) with beer pals. Thanks to Kurt, aka @watershedbrew, for the pic.

When the column came out, my initial thought was that it hasn’t aged well: I’m extolling lagers as the ultimate beer for socializing at a time when it’s absolutely necessary for all of us to keep our distance from each other. If anything, this seems like prime time for cellar beers — an opportunity to wring some enjoyment from our forced confinement by sipping and contemplating the rarities and classics we’ve been holding onto.

That may be so. But it also struck me that the time when we eventually emerge from this and begin reconnecting over a beer will be a time for lagers. It will be a time to raise a glass with friends, take a sip and ask them how they’ve been. And then listen. Then, you might say how you’re doing. Maybe you’re on your second pint by then. The beer is part of the conversation, an element of that shared experience — but the conversation isn’t about the beer.

The best way I’ve heard someone describe this yin and yang of beer came in a conversation between two beer industry friends of mine: Matt Mercer-Slingsby, co-host of Drink this Podcast, and guest Christina Owczarek during an episode of the show recorded in 2019. They posited that there are two kinds of beer. On one side, there are beers that are the moment: big, bold, complex or unique beers that command your attention and demand analysis. On the other side, there are beers that are part of the moment: the beer that makes finishing a tough workout feel even sweeter, the beer you sip beside a crackling campfire, the beer you pull out of the fridge and crack open for a friend who pops by for an impromptu visit.

I have plenty of the former in my cellar — “Holy shit!” beers that I know I’ll enjoy someday. But the beer I’m looking forward to the most is the next one I have with a friend, face-to-face. More than likely that beer will be a lager, and maybe it won’t be memorable in and of itself. But it will be no less beautiful, in its own wonderful way.