reviews

Coalbanks Porter: black gold from Lethbridge

If there’s an upside to the unseasonably cold weather that has descended upon Alberta, it’s been an opportunity for me to dive back into some darker beer styles I typically put aside for a couple of months.

It’s also been a chance for me to discover Coalbanks Porter from Coulee Brew Co. in Lethbridge. Coulee’s opening, and a few others in southern Alberta, coincided with the time I started working in Edmonton, so I have to admit breweries from that part of the province haven’t caught my attention maybe as much as they should.

That appears to be my loss, at least as far as Coalbanks Porter is concerned. It won gold in its category at the 2018 Canadian Brewing Awards — and as much as competition results aren’t the be-all and end-all (which would make an interesting blog piece in its own right), earning some hardware at a reputable competition overseen by knowledgeable judges is a reasonable indicator of quality.

Coalbanks pours a nearly opaque dark brown, with a thin head and a cocoa-like aroma with a coffee undertone. The flavour follows the same general combination, but there’s a bit more complexity on the palate than on the nose. Coalbanks is sweet at first, but not cloyingly so. It’s more like semi-sweet chocolate. The dark malts bring some roastiness with them, too — but it’s moderate, like a lightly-sugared coffee with some milk. The carbonation is low and Coalbanks is smooth going down.

Although there’s a building dryness as you go, this porter definitely falls on the milder side for the style. It could be a tad fuller-bodied, but it’s a nice comforting sipper for the colder days ahead.

Django: unchained and enjoyable

From the moment I heard about it, I liked the idea behind Ale Architect, one of the latest entries to Edmonton’s craft beer scene.

I’ve always thought of brewing as a combination of creativity and precision, which is why the name appealed to me. While the two principals behind Ale Architect, Mason Pimm and Ryan Stang, are both beer industry veterans, their backgrounds outside the biz reflect that yin and yang of zymurgy: Mason, a partner at Two Sergeants Brewing, is a mechanical engineer while Ryan, who was head brewer at Norsemen Brewing in Camrose, has worked in the design field. (He used his creative chops to give Ale Architect its cool look.)

Mason and Ryan have launched Ale Architect as a contract operation, a move that they believe will allow them to take some risks and make adventurous beers without the significant costs involved in owning a bricks-and-mortar brewery. (At least not initially.)

After a couple of collaborations with other breweries, Ale Architect has come out with the first beer of its own: Django, a Belgian-style witbier (wheat ale) spiced with ginger and Szechuan pepper.

The exotic additions certainly fit the concept that initially piqued my interest in Ale Architect. After trying Django, I’m happy to say I’m a fan of their execution too. For as much as Django is a break from a conventional witbier, it’s as approachable and easy-drinking as a traditional example of the style.

Django pours cloudy and straw-coloured like you’d expect from a witbier, but the aroma quickly hints that you’re in for something different: instead of orange and citrus, there’s a distinct — but not overpowering — whiff of ginger. Ginger is also the first thing to hit the palate, but again, it’s pleasant. The carbonation is light and spritzy and Django finishes dry, with a slight tingle of ginger on the tongue — not unlike how pickled ginger is used to cleanse the palate when eating sushi. The peppercorns are there, too, but I’d say they’re subtle. Witbiers traditionally have mild spiciness and earthiness from additions like coriander; in Django, it’s from peppercorns. When it comes to putting peppercorns in beer, I’d argue less is more: I once had a porter spiced with peppercorns from Hong Kong and they overpowered the beer, basically rendering it an interesting but not entirely pleasant experiment rather than something I’d want to drink even a second time. 

Django, on the other hand, is a refreshing and thirst-quenching beer worthy of repeat enjoyment. If I’m disappointed about anything, it’s that it’s coming out near the end of summer. Here’s hoping there are a few more hot and sunny days to let it shine.

  • I have more about Ale Architect and some other new breweries on the local scene in the September issue of Avenue Edmonton. Read the article here or pick up the magazine at various locations around the city.

 

 

Bench Creek Brewing’s new pilsner is tops

There have been some big changes at Bench Creek Brewing lately — most notably, the introduction of two new beers to its year-round line-up: a Bohemian (Czech-style) pilsner and a Czech amber lager.

The changes are part of a larger rebranding that saw Bench Creek expand the Apex Predator name — used up until now for its popular seasonal double IPA — to a line of year-round releases that includes the two new beers, as well as the existing porter (no longer called Black Spruce), session ale (the former Flint and Steel) and red ale (RIP, Northern Grace). Bench Creek also killed off the Naked Woodsman name for its pale ale and rechristened it Dead Woodsman. White Raven IPA is still White Raven. Got all that?

I’ve heard some grumbling about the name changes being confusing and/or arbitrary, but my own reaction is: “So what?” It’s not that branding isn’t important: woe betide any company that tries to get away with tasteless marketing in this day and age — and rightly so. Nor would it be smart to use names or imagery that make your product seem unappealing, particularly if you’re selling something you want people to eat or drink. “Tailings Pond Stout” is probably not a good name for a beer, no matter how good it is. Considering Bench Creek’s rebranding doesn’t cross either of those lines, what we’re left with is a subjective debate about personal preference. Tomayto, tomahto. The guy who owns Bench Creek, Andrew Kulynych, decided it was time for a change — and that’s, quite literally, his business.

Thanks to that little rant, I’ve gone and buried the lead, which is Apex Predator Bohemian Pilsner is a first-class beer. My many years as a reporter, a job where offering opinions was usually verboten, have left me averse to using absolutes or superlatives so I don’t mean it lightly when I say I think it’s among the best Czech-style pilsners made in Canada, right up there with Steamworks Pilsner from Vancouver.

The problem with a lot of mediocre and subpar pilsners is that many are just golden lagers in disguise, lacking the spicy noble hop punch that sets pilsners apart. Apex Predator is all pilsner, from the minute you open it: it’s an appealing straw colour and pours with a smooth white head. The noble hops are there on the nose, with a spicy and slightly herbal aroma that mingles nicely with some bready malt. The flavour combines the same elements, but it accomplishes that neat trick of being complex and drinkable at the same time. Start with bready malt and a bit of grain husk, followed by some spicy, slightly bitter hops and a touch of honey sweetness. Back to bready malt and moderate bitterness. All in one sip.

Apex Predator finishes crisp and clean like a well-made lager should. It’s tasty, balanced and refreshing — and I mean that as high praise. In an age when barrel-aged, high-alcohol and out-there beers get the lion’s share of attention from fanboys and fangirls it’s easy to take a straightforward quality like drinkability for granted. It’s ironic, if not a little unfair, because beer nerds, of all people, should know how difficult it is to achieve the kind of subtlety and balance that make a great pilsner. Apex Predator has it.

A Nightmare you’ll want to enjoy

I’m fortunate to have old friends who enjoy beer almost as much as I do. Although they’re not strictly craft beer drinkers, they’re open-minded about trying new things. When we get together, they usually ask me to make a few recommendations and seem to enjoy it when I talk them through what we’re tasting (or, at the very least, they humour me).

During a recent trip back to Toronto, I brought some beers from Alberta to try — including Neon Nightmare from Outcast Brewing in Calgary, described on the can as a “double dry-hopped New England Double IPA.” I’ll dive into precisely what that means a bit later: Outcast’s brewer, Patrick Schnarr, doesn’t pay much attention to established styles, but suffice to say he has a thing for making hop-forward beers that are intensely aromatic and flavourful. I thought Neon Nightmare would be a good candidate for introducing my pals to sensory evaluation and teaching them to appreciate how qualities like aroma matter, in addition to flavour.

After pouring everyone a glass, I had them hold the beer a good arm’s length from their noses and instructed them to inhale. Even at that distance, everyone picked up all kinds of hop aroma: in my case, mango, apricot and tangerine. They concurred that taking a few seconds to smell the beer, and picking up such a pleasant aroma, added to the experience and made the beer more inviting.

While aroma shouldn’t be overlooked, it isn’t everything. Fortunately, Neon Nightmare’s flavour delivers on the aroma’s promise. There’s lots of mango and passionfruit and a bit of piney, resinous hops. It’s all nicely balanced with some soft, biscuity malt. “Double dry-hopped New England Double IPA” isn’t any kind of formal style, but Neon Nightmare fits that description when you break it down. Dry hopping — adding hops during the maturation process — punches up their flavour and aroma, but it doesn’t impart the same level of bitterness that comes from adding hops during the boil. And one of the key distinctions between New England-style IPAs and their old-school northwest counterparts is their low bitterness relative to the older style.

At 7.8 per cent ABV, Neon Nightmare certainly fits the “double” part of double IPA. The alcohol is well-hidden and this beer has the potential to go down dangerously easy if you don’t know any better. (I do, thanks in part to my advanced age.) I have only one stylistic quibble: New England IPAs get a soft mouthfeel from the inclusion of oats in the grain bill, and I found Neon Nightmare’s carbonation a bit prickly for the style. As I said, it’s a quibble.

I’ve known Patrick for a few years, and we shared many a beer prior to him starting Outcast with his wife, Krysten, two years ago. We don’t see each other as often since I moved to Edmonton, but it’s not unusual for us to exchange the occasional text message — usually about a beer we’re currently enjoying.

I wasn’t worried at all about how Patrick would receive a bit of constructive criticism. After all, the industry is relatively small and I know a lot of the people behind the breweries I write about here and elsewhere. As I’ve said, all I can do is be fair and honest.

Oddly enough, I was hesitant about dwelling too much on his reputation for aromatic and hoppy beers. During one of our conversations, I made an offhand remark that he’s good at making beers that are “aromatic AF.”  That’s a little less professional than I like to be when I’m writing, but it seemed fine for a casual conversation — in addition to being totally accurate, considering he recently won silver at the Canadian Brewing Awards in the category for American-style IPAs. I don’t want to give anyone the impression Patrick didn’t accept the compliment graciously, because he did. But he was also quick to remind me that he’s made a couple of stouts, too.

Looking back, I can see why Patrick may have been a bit uneasy with the compliment: it can be a fine line between becoming known for doing something well and getting pigeonholed. In Hollywood, actors who are too good at one thing can end up hopelessly typecast.

So, in the interest of preventing Patrick from becoming the Bob Denver of Alberta beer, I feel duty-bound to mention his next release will be a lager — a first for Outcast.

In the meantime, enjoy Neon Nightmare. It’s aromatic AF.

 

#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.

 

 

‘All aboard!’ for a decent IPA from Siding 14

When it comes to trains, we know reliability is the ultimate virtue — making sure people arrive on time. But what about beer? Even if it’s a train-themed beer, is calling it “reliable” a backhanded compliment when there are so many more effusive things one can say? I hope not, because that’s the conclusion I reached after sampling Ten-Wheeler IPA from Siding 14 Brewing in Ponoka — and I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

For most of us mortals, a stateroom on a luxury train is a bucket list kind of thing. The rest of the time, we’re usually riding in coach and simply content to arrive at our destination with no unpleasant surprises along the way. That’s the experience Ten-Wheeler delivers: it’s a straightforward IPA that ticks most of the stylistic boxes with no identifiable flaws.

Lest I sound like I’m damning with faint praise, I enjoyed Ten-Wheeler and I particularly liked its balance: caramel and biscuity malt that stands up well to a hop profile with nice depth. Citra, Glacier and Columbus hops give the beer some orange-citrus traits backstopped by a piney quality that delivers some satisfying bitterness and a bit of stickiness on the palate.

What surprised me was that the beer had next to no hop aroma. I don’t make this observation lightly: I drank a six-pack over the course of a week and each time I poured a can, I stuck my nose into the glass and inhaled deeply. When the beer warmed up, I smelled it again. Every time, I got a lot of caramel malt, but just a faint whiff of pine.

I debated whether harping on aroma is too nerdy, but I don’t think so. Think back to any meal that you would put on your personal “best of” list: it was likely so memorable because it appealed to the entire range of senses, not just taste. And so it should be with beer, too. Top-flight Alberta IPAs like Bench Creek’s White Raven and Banded Peak’s Southern Aspect deliver a fuller sensory experience — they’re bursting with aroma, in addition to being just plain delicious.

Ten-Wheeler isn’t in that heady company, but it could be within tweaking distance. Siding 14 is on the right track.

 

 

 

 

A beer named Pierre

Blindman Brewing recently released its first beer aged in one of two oaken foeders it bought from a cognac maker in France  — and it did not approach the new venture timidly.

The brewery threw a metaphorical kitchen sink of ingredients into the recipe for Pierre, named in honour of a French barrel maker named Jean-Pierre who repurposed the foeders for making beer. No less than a dozen yeast and bacteria strains went into the beer, along with barley, wheat, rye, oats, coriander, Grains of Paradise and whatever flavours and microbiota have been left behind from years of aging cognac inside the foeders.

The resulting beer is complex — and enjoyable. The two don’t always go hand in hand if all the elements don’t work well together, but here they do.

Pierre poured a cloudy gold, with a hint of coriander in the aroma. The initial flavour and sensations on my palate were bright and lemony. This is one of the tamer (and more pleasing, IMO) manifestations of the wild brettanomyces yeast strain and I feel it’s usually a good complement to the traditional saison yeasts that give the style its characteristic tartness and dryness. There’s a mild peppery quality, either from the yeast, the coriander, the Grains of Paradise — or a combination of all of them. The fact it’s impossible to tell where one starts and another ends shows the brewery had a deft hand with all of them. The oats are there for mouthfeel, giving the beer a bit more softness than typical saisons, which are usually highly carbonated and effervescent. If you put nerdy style considerations aside and just consider whether it’s enjoyable or not, I would argue it is.

Just as “complex” doesn’t always mean “good,” complexity in a beer doesn’t mean it’s unapproachable. There’s a building tartness and some moderate acidity as you keep drinking, but Pierre never tips over into full-on, puckering sourness. I struggled for a good 20 minutes trying to put my finger on how to describe it before the answer emerged from one of the recesses of my addled brain: it’s kind of like the SweeTarts candy I remember having as a kid. (And yes, I mean that as a compliment.) For all Pierre’s stylistic flourishes, it finishes like a solid traditional saison should: dry and dusty.