reviews

Hops and Hockey Cards #5: Jim Bedard

Are hockey cards an art form? I certainly think so, to the extent that I started this feature as an homage to the cards I grew up collecting.

Up until now, I’ve focused on notable players depicted on some of the cards in my collection. In the likely event you’re wondering, “Who the hell is Jim Bedard?” I’ve chosen this installment to focus on the card itself: an unexpectedly arty picture of Washington Capitals goalie Jim Bedard from the 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee set.

The 79-80 set is well known, even among non-collectors, because it contains Wayne Gretzky’s rookie card. A rare “gem mint” example of the card fetched $1.29 million US at an auction in December 2020.

Even without Gretzky, the set is one of the most memorable of its era, with blue-bordered cards (a departure from white) and its creative presentation of team names and logos. It was also the year that four surviving clubs from the rival World Hockey Association joined the NHL (and brought Gretzky with them).

Although the set hits a high water mark for design, the photography isn’t much different than any other of the era: action shots for most players, interspersed with the occasional studio picture and a few unintentionally hilarious airbrush jobs on traded players.

Even as a kid, the picture of Bedard caught my eye for being so different — and I’m still intrigued by it. It looks like the photographer snapped Bedard during a stoppage in play down the ice, taking a skate into the corner. Bedard is squarely in the foreground, but the frame has an unusual amount of background in it, including the scoreboard hanging from the roof. The composition is downright artistic, I think.

So much of the commentary about any work of art is what the audience projects upon it, which doesn’t necessarily jibe with what the creator intended. I like the picture of Bedard because I feel like it so neatly captures the archetype of a hockey goalie: the solitary figure at the end of the rink. The most likely reason it was used is because there weren’t many pictures of Bedard to choose from. The thing is, it appears many of the photos in that set were taken at Capitals home games — and Bedard played in 30 matches the previous season, when the photo was likely taken. I have no way of knowing what the photographer had in mind, but I’d like to think that he or she chose it for esthetic reasons rather than necessity.

In a way, trading cards are a form of packaging for athletes, so I chose to pair Bedard’s card with a beer from a brewery that has elevated its packaging to an art form: Collective Arts Brewing in Hamilton, Ontario. Four times a year, the brewery posts an open call for artists interested in submitting their work for feature on a label. It’s a laudable venture to generate exposure for artists made even more laudable by the fact that Collective Arts pays artists for their work and the creators retain ownership of it. Any business that promotes the work of creative professionals while also acknowledging its value with actual remuneration (as opposed to an insulting offer of “exposure” in lieu of payment) is A-OK in my books.

Label art for Jam Up, by Joey Rex of New York, NY. (Courtesy, Collective Arts Brewing)

By focusing on Collective Arts’ packaging, I don’t want to give short shrift to their beer, because I really enjoyed it. I had a seasonal variant of their Jam Up dry-hopped sour made with boysenberry and blackberry. This is no one-dimensional yogurt beer soured by throwing some lactobacillus into the kettle: it gets a considerable amount of tartness from what I can only conclude was a shitload (technical term) of blackberries and boysenberries. The tartness and berry flavour are intense up front — in a good way — but yield and the hops pick up nicely where they left off, adding some bright tropical notes with a bit of passionfruit flavour that brings some moderate tartness of its own. The overall impression is refreshing and there are nice levels of complexity and balance, which don’t always have to be mutually exclusive.

So, that’s the beer. What about Jim Bedard, then?

Bedard’s career may not be the reason I featured his card, but the guy deserves his due. In his first five years as a pro, he played parts of two seasons with the Caps interspersed with long stints in the minor leagues. It’s fair to say he was a journeyman — but by no means is that grounds to diminish his accomplishments: he made it to the NHL and played 73 games at the top level, at a time when the league was much smaller. And if you know anything about the Washington Capitals of that era, you’ll know that he didn’t get much help in terms of defence or offensive production. (Don Cherry, who coached the Colorado Rockies at about the same time, spent years making cheap jokes about the team’s goalie, Hardy Astrom, despite the fact he had a mediocre team playing in front of him and a shitty coach. Neither Astrom, nor Bedard, deserve that kind of disrespect.)

Bedard went to Finland sometime around 1980 and played an additional 13 seasons before retiring in 1994. Since then, he’s been a goaltending coach for the Detroit Red Wings, the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League and the Dallas Stars’ American Hockey League affiliate in Austin, Texas. It sounds like he’s had a long and productive career in the game and would have a lot of interesting stories to tell. Perhaps over a beer or two.

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.

An auspicious anniversary for The Growlery

A couple of people I know questioned the wisdom of Edmonton’s Growlery Beer Co. celebrating its first anniversary by releasing a barley wine during the summer.

Under normal circumstances, I might agree. But between the cold, rainy weather passing for “summer” in Edmonton so far and the COVID-19 pandemic keeping us housebound, I think it turned out to be an astute choice.

It also helps that the beer is top-notch example of the style — one that wouldn’t be out of place alongside Alley Kat’s Olde Deuteronomy and Brewsters’ Blue Monk, beers that have earned their status as local classics through years of consistent excellence.

The beer inside the can is the main attraction, but let me add a hat-tip to the branding and packaging as well. Growlery co-owners Kevin Danard and Jeff Pollock set up shop on Airport Road with a hope of becoming the neighbourhood brewery for residents of Blatchford, the new community being built on the former site of the City Centre Airport. The name of the beer — YXD — is the old aerodrome’s location identifier and a nice nod to its place in the area’s history, as is the art of the control tower on the can.

The beer poured with an inviting cinnamon and toffee aroma. There was more to it once I dove in: a pleasantly spicy gingerbread taste up front, followed by some dark chocolate and roasted notes at the back end and some mildly earthy hops.

Even though it came out of my beer fridge at an appropriate temperature (I use a repurposed dual-zone wine cooler with a shelf set to 10 C for barley wines, some strong Belgian styles and others), I was surprised by how much more this beer opened up after a while: some nice caramelized sugar aroma and flavour emerged and added another layer of complexity.

At 10.5% ABV, YXD had a slight boozy burn when it warmed up, but it’s smooth and refined for such a young barley wine. As I usually do, I bought a couple more for aging and I’m looking forward to seeing how it tastes in a few years.

YXD is the handiwork of Matt Cockle, who became The Growlery’s brewer in the summer of 2019. The Growlery’s early releases were uneven, frankly, and the company and its original brewer parted ways. Diacetyl, an off-flavour that can give beer a buttery taste, was a persistent problem prior to Cockle’s arrival.

During Cockle’s tenure, The Growlery has produced a line-up that includes an enjoyable and easy-drinking kolsch, as well as a West Coast IPA that ticks all the boxes with piney and citrus hop traits backed by some assertive bitterness.

The pandemic has posed challenges for lot of breweries in Alberta, but public health restrictions that closed brewery taprooms hit The Growlery particularly hard: its business model relied heavily on taproom sales , with no packaged product available in liquor stores.

Like a lot of breweries, The Growlery was able to pivot and began canning beer for retail sale at the end of April. With some solid beers on store shelves and the easing of public health restrictions, hopefully The Growlery’s second year in business will be less turbulent than the first. The signs are certainly pointing toward a brewery that’s headed in the right direction.

Uncharted Citra colours within the lines — but that’s OK

It says a lot about how far Alberta has come when beers that are clean, well-made and tasty start to be considered run-of-the-mill stuff.

On one side, you have a craft beer industry that is maturing and finding its stride, thanks to a wealth of creative, talented and proficient brewers working in Alberta. On the other side, you have a customer base that has grown up alongside the industry and has come to expect adventurous beers that are brewed to a high standard.

It’s a nice place to find ourselves, but I can’t help but wonder if people aren’t getting a little spoiled when a couple people I know recently described beers from Blind Enthusiasm’s Market brewery as “underwhelming.” While the Market’s offerings may be straightforward compared to the complex, mixed-fermentation beers being made at Blind Enthusiasm’s Monolith brewery, the putdown seems more than a little unfair: Blind Enthusiasm won Brewery of the Year at the 2018 Alberta Beer Awards solely on the strength of its Market-produced beers. I’ve always enjoyed the non-traditional touches the Market puts on traditional styles and the beers are, without exception, clean and free of flaws.

“Clean and free of flaws” should be the expectation these days, but we’re not at the point where we can take it for granted. I recently poured two new releases from an Alberta brewery down the drain because both had a distinct, unpleasant plastic and vinyl flavour to them. There are a few causes, but a frequent one is using chlorinated tap water without treating it. Some people perceive the off-flavour as a smoky trait, but both observations are in the ballpark.

Lest we get too smug about the sophistication of Albertans’ palates, I’ll add that this off-flavour has been showing up in this brewery’s beers for the better part of a year — but that hasn’t stopped the fanboys and fangirls from posting rave reviews on ratings sites. What HazeLuvr69 calls “an interesting spin on the style,” I call a failure.

Anyway, back to the Market: before the pandemic, one of the only places to get its beers was Blind Enthusiasm’s on-site restaurant, Biera — either in-house or via a growler fill to go. When Biera closed due to public health measures, Blind Enthusiasm pivoted and started canning beers from the Market for off-site consumption.

I decided to try a new offering, Uncharted Citra, as opposed to one of their mainstays. Blind Enthusiasm isn’t big on style guidelines, but I’ll go out on a limb and call it a pale ale. They’ve added a bunch of Citra hops late in the boil, a technique that’s intended to increase hop flavour and aroma without dramatically adding bitterness.

The beer poured with a faintly dank aroma and a whiff of the characteristic cat-pee smell that Citra hops can be known for, but the overall effect was subdued and never tipped over into being disagreeable. The Citra hops came forward more in the flavour, bringing a sweet orange taste, like mandarins. The malt had a pleasant and mild crackery quality to it and it provided a good counterbalance to the hop presence. There was a softness to the medium-full mouthfeel and a touch of lingering bitterness on the palate, but it finished crisp and moderately dry.

If that seems like faint praise after building up the Market as much as I have, it’s not meant to be. The resulting beer doesn’t deliver the Citra punch that I wanted and expected — but it’s nicely balanced, it’s free of any identifiable faults and it hit the right spot for a sunny afternoon on my patio.

One thing I’m mindful of, is that the beers brewed at the Market are geared toward pairing with the food at Biera. It’s entirely possible the brewers were going for a more subdued, balanced take than what I had in mind. Since Day 1, Blind Enthusiasm has been zealous about recipe development and has kept tweaking its beers until they feel they’re dialled in. If Blind Enthusiasm took another run at Uncharted Citra with a more assertive hop presence, they may be onto something even better. I’d be eager to try it again, too.

Locked in the Cellar: Last Best A.E. Cross Barley Wine, aged in rye barrels

One aspect of craft beer culture that has always bored me is the fetishization of high-alcohol and extreme beers. There’s a contingent of boozy chuckleheads that will unfailingly rave about any beer as long as it’s strong enough or packed with enough vanilla beans and cocoa nibs, without really considering its drinkability or balance.

The real beauty in big beers like barley wines, if you ask me, is when a brewer can tame all the forceful elements that go into them and the result is something kind of subtle — something worthy of contemplation and repeat enjoyment. A.E. Cross Barley Wine from Last Best Brewing in Calgary is such a beer.

Last Best intended the beer as a tribute to Cross, who was the founder of Calgary Brewing and Malting, as well as one of the Big Four who started the Calgary Stampede in 1912.

The brewery released two iterations of the beer at the end of 2016, both made with locally-sourced barley, wheat and rye. There was an unoaked version and a batch aged in rye whisky barrels.

I opened a bottle of the barrel-aged version and I will say without hesitation that Last Best has produced a fine tribute to the beer’s namesake.

The beer, brewed to 11.8 per cent AVB, poured a slightly hazy ruby brown with a compact off-white head. The head dissipated quickly, but left behind a long-lasting halo around the edges of the glass. A sugary sweet aroma pulled me in, followed by a brief flare of alcohol, spicy rye and a pleasant bit of tobacco.

On the palate, the alcohol came sharply at first, making me wonder if maybe this beer was still a bit on the young side. But I didn’t think that for long at all, because it subsided into a nicely complex mix of toffee, raisins, a hint of rye spiciness and some sticky sweetness in the linger — but not treacly sweet.

The aroma got boozier as the beer warmed up, but the flavour profile went the other way, acquiring more subtlety: some tobacco and a nice warming sensation going down. I’d say most of the barrel qualities in this beer come from the traces of rye left in them, as opposed to any woody traits that were discernible to me.

Overall, this beer has turned out mellow and smooth, except for the boozy flash I mentioned earlier. It’s possible you could age it longer and it might get even better, but it’s really enjoyable right now. If you open a bottle, you won’t be disappointed.

Olde Deuteronomy has aged gracefully

For all the emphasis I put on maintaining my independence from the beer industry, there’s no denying that being someone who writes about it comes with access and privileges.

I’ve been honoured to be a part of the judging at the Alberta Beer Awards for the past two years, by dint of having a modest media profile and a decent amount of beer knowledge built up over the past 15 or so years.

I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, that my resumé puts me at the lower end of expertise in a judging room filled with highly-ranked BJCP judges and industry veterans.

This year, a select panel that included a number of BJCP judges from across the country picked the 2018 edition of Alley Kat Brewing’s Olde Deuteronomy barley wine as Best of Show.

Olde Deut is a longtime favourite of many Alberta beer lovers and the Best of Show title is just another accolade in a long list for Alley Kat, whose strong showing at the 2019 Alberta Beer Awards earned it Brewery of the Year honours.

The recent achievements are an affirmation that Alley Kat, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, has kept up with the times and continues to make interesting beers to a high standard.

Olde Deuteronomy’s triumph at the 2020 beer awards is also a testament to the legacy that Alley Kat’s founders, Neil and Lavonne Herbst, have left for the brewery’s new owners, St. Albert businessmen Zane Christensen and Cameron French, who bought the company in February 2020.

So, we have good reason to believe that 2018 was a good year for Olde Deuteronomy. If you’ve ever wondered how some of the dusty old bottles in your cellar are doing, I may be able to help you out.

About a year ago, I had the distinct privilege of being invited to Alley Kat by Neil to do a vertical tasting of nearly every vintage of Olde Deuteronomy going back to 1995 — 13 of them — with him and some of the staff.

(I realize I’ve backed into this seriously cool story like a self-indulgent food blogger writing a 500-word essay about eating their grandma’s grilled cheese sandwiches growing up before disclosing their secret method for making the perfect toastie. I won’t keep you in suspense much longer.)

I took notes that day and I have specific observations below for each year, but the TL;DR version is this: with only one or two exceptions, every vintage is holding up nicely — including the oldest bottles. A couple are excellent.

Before I get on with it, some housekeeping about how the tasting went:

  • Yeah, it was a lot of barley wine, but this wasn’t the proverbial piss-up at a brewery: each bottle was poured into small sample cups and tasted by a group that fluctuated between four or five people, depending on who was coming and going. We took our time, discussed each vintage and had some responsible fun. Nobody drove.
  • I discovered shortly after publishing this piece, thanks to comments from friends, that we were missing bottles from 2009 and 2011.
  • Neil said he stored all the bottles conventionally, in his basement, but they were kept at a pretty constant temperature: about 15C.
  • When we tasted the 2018 vintage last year, the consensus was that it needed to age a little longer. That’s clearly not representative of the beer named Best of Show in February by judges at the Alberta Beer Awards, so my tasting notes for the 2018 vintage are based on a bottle I opened this week.

And now, here’s Olde Deuteronomy year by year:

1995 vintage: Poured virtually flat with no head. Not much visual appeal, but the aroma was an inviting combination of caramelized sugar and sherry-like qualities. The vinous sherry traits showed through in the taste, along with a nice hint of tobacco. “It’s hanging in there,” said Neil.

1996 vintage: Poured with no head, and the body was visibly thinner than a young barley wine. The aroma had vinous qualities, but the flavour was on the spicier side, with hints of clove.

“The ’95 and the ’96 definitely blew me away,” Neil said afterward. (I concur!)

2000-01 “Millennium” vintage: The aroma dropped off quite a bit from the 1996 vintage, but there was nice toffee and caramel present. The flavour was predominantly caramel and burnt sugar but the finish was dry — not a lot of residual sweetness.

2003 vintage: Raisins, spices and fusel alcohol in the aroma. Raisiny flavour, but the finish was a touch solvent-like and distinctly boozy.

2005 vintage: Slight carbonation in the pour, with raisins and sugary plums on the nose. The flavour followed the aroma. The carbonation was noticeable for such an old bottle and played a bit on the palate, but not in a distracting way.

2006 vintage: Poured noticeably darker than the 2005 with a bit of visible carbonation around the edges. The flavour was a bit sour and there was a bit of the wet paper quality that’s a telltale sign of oxidation. “Bad bottling year,” said Neil.

2007 vintage: The aroma checked out — sugary and vinous sherry notes — but it seemed to be suffering from an issue. There was a lingering sourness and a slight pucker in the aftertaste. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it was definitely not to style.

When we talked about it afterward, Neil said that Alley Kat’s original bottling line was at the end of its useful life around this time. Neil suspects the 2006 and 2007 vintages were well-made, but an issue that came later — too much oxygen getting into the bottles during filling — likely affected their aging.

2008 vintage: Vinous, sherry-like aroma. The flavour was earthier and spicier than the nose let on. It finished smooth with next to no alcoholic heat going down. With a new bottling line in the brewery, Olde Deut got back on track in 2008.

2010 vintage: Poured with a thin tan head and aroma of caramelized sugar. The flavour closely matched the aroma: a sugary sweet finish with some lingering heat.

2015 vintage: Fruity esters and raisins in the aroma. The alcohol delivered some noticeable heat going down, but it wasn’t overbearing.

2016 vintage: Poured with strong carbonation and a grainy aroma. The hops had some mildly citric characteristics and the finish was lightly spicy with some cloves. “There’s a little bit of everything going on,” said brewer Chase Gordon.

2017 vintage: Earthy hop aroma, more earthy hops on the palate, along with some caramel malt. I said that it was like a high-alcohol ESB to me. “The hops are surprisingly earthy,” Chase said.

2018 vintage (tasted solo in April 2020): No “pop” when the cap came off and it poured with low carbonation. A small ring of foam formed around the edges and quickly dissipated. Aroma was caramelized sugar, rum, fruitcake and some grapey vinous notes. There was a bit of tobacco as it warmed.

For a barley wine that’s still on the young side, it was smooth and started sweet on the palate. There were nice raisin and plum flavours, accompanied by some earthy hops, before some boozy heat flared up mid-palate. However, it subsided in the finish, leaving some vinous traits in the linger.

There’s already a nice level of complexity and mellowness for a beer that came out at the end of 2018. It’s definitely an enjoyable sipper now — but considering how well nearly every vintage is holding up, you can safely age this one, too.

Alley Kat is rightfully remembered as one of the pioneers of craft beer in Alberta. I don’t think any reasonable person would disagree with that characterization, but memory is malleable: Is it possible nostalgia and the shared experience of discovering craft beer via Alley Kat has burnished that reputation?

I suppose it’s possible, but tasting just about every vintage of Olde Deuteronomy dating back to Alley Kat’s beginnings goes beyond relying on fond memories. It provides pretty persuasive evidence that Alley Kat was doing good things from the start.

Neil and Lavonne Herbst can be proud of everything they built at Alley Kat over the years. Congratulations to them for their most recent honour at the Alberta Beer Awards, and for 25 great years.

And finally, a personal thanks to Neil for inviting me to take part in such a cool experience. It truly was a privilege.

Hops and Hockey Cards #4: Jack Marshall

There’s no live hockey to provide inspiration for the latest installment of Hops and Hockey Cards, but the reason there’s no hockey — the coronavirus pandemic — prompted me to look toward the past, when another pandemic brought the hockey world to a stop.

In the spring of 1919, the Spanish flu pandemic ended the Stanley Cup series between the NHL champion Montreal Canadiens and the Seattle Metropolitans, champs of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. The teams were deadlocked with two wins apiece and a tie between them when several Canadiens players fell ill. The series was called off just a few hours before the deciding game on April 1 and the cup wasn’t awarded to anyone that year. Four days later, Joe Hall of the Canadiens died of pneumonia brought on by the flu.

The Stanley Cup is synonymous with NHL supremacy today, but it was a different story 100 years ago. From 1915 to 1926, champions from the NHL and its forerunner, the National Hockey Association, squared off against teams from rival leagues for the right to claim the cup.

I don’t have any hockey collectables from that period, but I do have a couple of old cards from the years just before that — a time known as the challenge era. Between 1893 and 1914, teams tried to win the Stanley Cup by issuing a challenge to the club that currently held it. With the NHL apparently considering a number of different playoff formats to finish the current season, it seems apropos to harken back to a time when the Stanley Cup was awarded in a much different way than it is today.

If you’ve never read about the challenge era, I highly recommend it. Some of the game’s most colourful lore comes from those years. It was a time when teams from places like Kenora could vie for the cup — and win it. Yes, the Kenora Thistles were on top of the hockey world for two glorious months after winning the cup in a two-game challenge of the Montreal Wanderers in January 1907. The Thistles withstood a challenge from the Brandon Wheat Kings in March 1907, but a week later the Wanderers took back the Stanley Cup by winning a two-game series.

The challenge era also spawned one of the most improbable stories in any sport, in any era: the Dawson City Nuggets’ challenge of the Ottawa Silver Seven (later Senators) in January 1905. The Nuggets trekked 6,500 km from Dawson City, Yukon to Ottawa to challenge for the cup — a journey that took several weeks by foot, dogsled, train and ship. Alas, the trip is the most memorable part of the story. Ottawa easily defeated the Nuggets, who didn’t have a single top-flight player among them, 9-2 and 23-2.

I’m lucky enough to own a card depicting one of the most successful players of that era: Jack Marshall, who won the Stanley Cup six times with four different teams between 1901 and 1914.

I say “lucky,” because when 12-year-old me paid what I considered a princely sum of $15 for Marshall’s card from the 1911 Imperial Tobacco set, I had no idea of his hall of fame pedigree. And if I had an ounce of foresight back then, I would have bought a lot more $15 tobacco cards instead of boxes and boxes of baseball cards that are basically worthless today.

But I digress.

I was mulling over a beer to pair with this historical foray and decided on King’s English Black Tea Lemon Pale Ale, a current seasonal release from Annex Ale Project. Between the name and the addition of Earl Grey tea in the beer, it all seemed thoroughly British, as Canada still would have been in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

All that aside, the inclusion of tea and lemon bring a level of creativity to beer that wouldn’t have existed a hundred-odd years ago. Annex has done a good job of taking the idea and executing from top to bottom. The lemon is brightly citric & meshes nicely with hops they’ve used. There are distinct bergamot and tea notes, but they don’t overwhelm the base beer, which is a nicely-balanced pale ale.

King’s English finishes grainy, and leaves a firmly beery impression. For all this beer’s modern flourishes, there’s a solid pale ale underneath that wouldn’t be out of place in any era. Enjoy it with a pinky extended, if you’re feeling fancy.

Locked in the Cellar: 2015 Muskoka Brewery Winter Beard Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout

The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdown is what prompted me to start sampling beers from my cellar — and more broadly speaking, to re-animate this site after neglecting it for several months.

It’s amazing what having a surplus of free time and nowhere to go can do for one’s creativity, and it seems I’m not the only one having this revelation. A buddy of mine here in Edmonton, Tofor, said he has been similarly inspired to fire up his blog after an extended hiatus.

When I posted a picture of some of the beers in my cellar a few weeks ago, Tofor remarked he also had an aged bottle of Muskoka Brewery’s Winter Beard Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout. We decided it would be fun to review the beer individually, in our own homes, and post the results on our respective sites. Although we didn’t discuss our findings beforehand, our observations turned out to be pretty similar.

My bottle of Winter Beard is a 2015 vintage that, according to my records, I bought in February 2016. I don’t have any specific tasting notes for a fresh bottle, but I recall enjoying how all the elements hung together and deciding to buy a second bottle for aging.

The aged bottle got off to a promising start, with an attractive tan head and an aroma of cocoa nibs and coffee. There wasn’t any cranberry apparent on the nose.

The flavour started where the nose left off: coffee and roasty malt that bordered on acrid. But the smooth cocoa hinted at in the aroma just wasn’t there. I could taste cranberry but had to reach for it, and the characteristic tartness was gone — it was more solvent-like, like nail polish remover. The body was slightly thin and the small, prickly carbonation felt out of place for the style.

When this beer was fresh, its disparate elements came together and made it an enjoyable sipper. Over time, it’s like those components have pulled apart and are no longer working together. The finish was ashy, not smooth.

The whole thing felt rough around the edges — like time had coarsened those edges instead of smoothing them out. Not all beers improve with age, nor do they keep improving indefinitely. At nearly five years old, it’s likely the fault here is mine, not the beer’s. This beer may still have been on the upside when it was two or three years old.

There’s a sizable minority in the beer community that thinks cellaring is bullshit — that the results aren’t worth the effort and expense put into putting bottles aside. Experiences like this are ammunition for the cellar skeptics, but to me they’re more of a reminder that cellaring is not an exact science.

This is a good argument for buying potential cellar beers in threes: one to enjoy right away, as a “control,” with two set aside for aging. The second beer becomes a bellweather: if it’s still drinking nicely after a couple of years, you can keep aging the third bottle. If it feels like the beer is beginning to go downhill, drink the third bottle sooner rather than later. (Added hint: aging two bottles also gives you more options, like setting one aside for tasting in a multi-year vertical.)

Even though I accept that cellaring is a bit of a gamble, this review and the previous one have been a bit anticlimactic considering the whole point of the exercise is to break up the monotony of physical distancing. I haven’t decided which beer I’ll review next, but I’m going to try to choose something with a more reliable track record for aging. I think that will make things more entertaining all around.

Locked in the Cellar: Aventinus side-by-side

A lot of beer lovers end up with large collections of aged bottles saved for special occasions that never seem quite special enough to justify popping them open.

With the coronavirus pandemic keeping most people housebound with a bunch of spare time and nowhere to drive, I would argue that metaphorical rainy day is upon us — though not in the way any of us wanted or imagined. And so, I’ll be cracking open some old bottles and reviewing them in a regular feature I’ve named Locked in the Cellar.

Before we get on with the fatalistic fun, a brief public service announcement: Breweries and liquor stores across Alberta are finding all kinds of ways to keep beer flowing to customers via delivery and pick-up options. My cellar adventure is motivated by boredom and the desire to entertain and connect with fellow beer lovers while we’re all cooped up — not because of any scarcity. If you can, please keep supporting our local breweries and small businesses through the coming days (and potentially months) ahead.

Back to our regularly scheduled program: Last year, I wrote two columns for Avenue Edmonton (here and here) as a sort of “introduction to cellaring” for readers. As I said then, one of the things that makes cellaring so interesting is that unlike wine, aging certain beer styles doesn’t automatically improve them so much as it changes them. Aging a bottle instead of drinking it right away is more a matter of preference, rather than a recommended course of action.

I have plenty of vintage beers in my collection, but I thought it would be fun to begin the series with a head-to-head comparison between fresh and cellared bottles of a beer that’s in regular production to see how aging changes it.

At 8.5 per cent ABV, Aventinus weizenbock is suitable for aging. I pulled a bottle packaged in 2015 from my cellar for comparing with a fresh one.

The fresh bottle

A fresh Aventinus will have a monsterous head if poured too aggressively, so I took my time. Even with the slow pour, a tall beige head with tightly-packed bubbles rose to the top of my weizen glass and used up all the extra room devoted to that purpose.

I swirled the bottle halfway through pouring to distribute the yeast, resulting in a cloudy mahogany beer filling the glass. The aroma was a mix of the expected banana-clove qualities present in wheat beers, along with gingerbread and stone fruit.

Spicy cloves were the first thing to hit my palate, followed by a nice bready flavour from the wheat malt. I perceived gingerbread on my nose, but the sweetness on my palate seemed more like caramel. The fruity esters were more complex than bananas and stone fruits — more like a fruitcake with dark layers containing dried fruits and cherries. The head had nice staying power that lent a creaminess and full body to every sip. There was a definite boozy heat going down, but it was a pleasant warming sensation.

The 2015 bottle

According to the date code on the label, this beer was bottled on July 31, 2015.

I poured the bottle slowly, for reasons explained above. Most of the yeast had accumulated into a sediment on the bottom of the bottle and it stayed there, even though I gave it a swirl. The result was a thin, one-finger head sitting atop a beer that was dark, but clear: mahogany with ruby highlights that were visible when I held it up to the light.

Oxygen gets into older bottles over time, and the resulting oxidation tends to produce sherry-like flavours and aromas. That was the dominant aroma, along with raisin bread and a hint of molasses. Sherry and raisin bread made the biggest impression flavour-wise, but I also felt like the dark malts had become more prominent that turned the breadiness of a fresh Aventinus into something toastier. There was a slightly sharp alcoholic burn, as opposed to the warmth of the fresh bottle — which surprised me a bit. The raisin flavour turned more straight-up grapey in the finish. The carbonation was quite a bit lower than the fresh bottle and the body was noticeably thinner.

My preference

To me, Aventinus is a good example of a beer that changes with age but doesn’t get definitively better.

There are some desirable qualities in an aged Aventinus, particularly the sherry traits — but to me, the fresh bottle possessed the qualities that make Aventinus, well, Aventinus.

Aventinus is a big, bold beer. A fresh bottle has a large, dense head that’s visually attractive and contributes to a rich, full-bodied mouthfeel. The banana and clove aromas are strong and pull you in. The elements play back and forth on the palate, along with raisins and dark fruit.

The aged Aventinus is pleasant, but I’d say it’s more subtle and not as complex. I have a few two-year-old bottles in my cellar, and I don’t think I’ll wait until they’re five before drinking them.

Getting hot and hefe with Analog Brewing

When we lived in Calgary, my wife Lea and I enjoyed a few getaways to Montana. It was mainly for skiing and other outdoor pursuits in and around Whitefish, but I was always eager for an opportunity to dive into Montana’s rich craft beer culture — particularly in the pre-2013 era before Alberta’s scene took off.

I enjoyed visiting several breweries during our trips to Montana, but I regret never making it to Bowser Brewing in Great Falls before it closed in 2017. A few friends recommended the place, and there was one beer that immediately caught my eye when I visited their website several years ago: a hefeweizen made with jalapeno peppers. With the right execution, I thought it could be an interesting and highly drinkable beer.

Bowser Brewing’s demise prevented me from finding out — until now, that is. I recently discovered Edmonton’s Analog Brewing made a jalapeno hefeweizen called Na’cho Hefe, and I just knew that I had to try it.

From what I can tell, it’s a small-batch release available on tap at the brewery and other select locations. I tracked it down at Little Guy Liquor Store in Sherwood Park, where it was available at the growler bar. After trying the beer over the long weekend, I can say it was worth the drive from downtown Edmonton.

When I first heard about Bowser’s jalapeno hefeweizen, an idea formed in my mind about what the beer should taste like. While I never got to try theirs, Analog’s Na’cho Hefe lived up to my lofty expectations.

You notice jalapeno in Na’cho Hefe right away: it’s in the aroma when you smell it. But so are the elements you expect in a well-made hefeweizen, banana esters and some spicy, earthy cloves. The flavour mainly follows the aroma, but the esters shift a bit from banana on the nose to some bubblegum on the palate as well. The mouthfeel is medium-bodied and just right for the style. The jalapeno is there, but it’s an undertone and provides just a slight spicy tingle. (I took a bit of licence with “Hot and hefe” in the headline, because of its pun value and for the sake of making a Seinfeld reference on that basis. This beer isn’t “hot” at all, so don’t let that deter you.)

Flavouring beer with added ingredients is always a balancing act: First, you have to choose something that will marry well with the base beer. Then, you have to add it in a manner and in a quantity that hits a sweet spot between ensuring people know it’s there, but not so much that it detracts from the drinkability of the beer.

Analog has successfully walked that metaphorical tightrope and made a beer that has a distinct jalapeno flavour, but remains unmistakably a hefeweizen. Most importantly of all, it’s not a one-and-done novelty: I reached for a second glass and enjoyed it as much as the first.

Having said all that, I should acknowledge that I’m more open to experimentation than a lot of beer drinkers. At its worst, beer nerd subculture is insular and isn’t concerned with what a wider audience may want. Fanbois and fangirls often venerate brewers for outlandish things they can do, as opposed to considering whether they should have done it. A beer made with kids’ breakfast cereal may rate as a technical achievement and become a cool conversation piece, but does it have any lasting appeal?

I found Na’cho Hefe plenty drinkable on its own, and I think it has added appeal as a pairing with the right kind of food. I enjoyed it with some barbecue chicken I made for supper, and I bet it would be awesome with (yes) nachos and/or chicken wings, too. I’d love to see Analog make more of this beer, but that’s easy for me to say as someone who isn’t a brewery owner with bills to pay. I’d be happy to see it again, but I also understand if it’s a long time before I do.