places

#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.)

 

 

#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.

Getting set for the Okanagan Fest of Ale

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.