opinion

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.

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.

Proud to be #notsponsored

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

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

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

Editor: So what? Nobody remembers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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