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 peek 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.

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.

 

 

Welcome to Original Levity

Repeat after me: beer should be fun and bring people together.

It should be stating the obvious, considering folks have been gathering and drinking beer for centuries. It is truly a social lubricant, as they say. In many ways, the craft beer movement has only helped solidify beer as a drink everyone can enjoy: people who never liked pale mass-produced lagers can try a fruited Belgian lambic or an intensely citric and aromatic New England-style IPA and realize that they’re beer people, after all. They just didn’t know it.

But it seems every movement, as they expand, has that small minority that wants to keep it to themselves. Snobs. And craft beer has ’em, too. Don’t get me wrong: beer is wonderfully complex and diverse and should be respected and appreciated every bit as much as fine food and wine. Snobbery and exclusivity shouldn’t exist in food and wine (there’s a separate conversation to be had about that) — but it’s particularly antithetical to beer, considering its proletarian history.

I’ve always tried to keep this in mind when I write about beer, but occasional reminders are always welcome. I got one the other day, when I was at the grand opening of Red Bison Brewery in Calgary. I was chatting with a group of friends about some of the new breweries in Calgary and Edmonton when a woman sitting with hers at the end of the table (the brewery has communal seating) piped up, “Sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation and it sounds like you’re speaking my language.” We ended up talking about beer for a few a minutes before I went back to my friends and she returned to hers. I’d say it was a welcome intrusion — but it wasn’t an intrusion at all.

My recent encounter at Red Bison was a lot like how I envision this blog: a place where anyone with an abiding interest in craft beer or someone who’s just curious about it can drop in, join the conversation and not feel left out. My training as a journalist taught me to write for a wide audience and that’s my intention here. I also think being inclusive is the beery thing to do.

The values of honesty and transparency I learned as a journalist are also cornerstones of my relationship with you, the audience. My mission, in addition to hopefully entertaining people, is to write knowledgeably and engagingly about craft beer and point people to some good beers along the way. That means being independent. I’ll still have my opinions (what would a blog be without them?), but they won’t be influenced by any business relationships I have with anyone in the beer industry — because there aren’t any. If I’m a fan of a particular beer or brewery, I guarantee you my endorsement hasn’t been paid for. Fancy product shots may excite brewery marketing reps, but I’m not sure they tell a reader anything about whether a beer is good or not.

Before anyone grabs their popcorn waiting for the negative reviews to roll in, something to keep in mind: a byproduct of my independence is that I pay for the vast majority of beer I drink, and I tend to spend my money on beer I already like or on new releases from breweries with a proven (to me) track record. If you want to know more about my approach, check out my about page or my policy on beer samples.

Despite all the journalism talk — which is done, I promise — Original Levity isn’t a news site. Blogger burnout is a common phenomenon and I want to avoid it by starting sustainably: look for quick hits with my thoughts on the latest beer l’ve tried or some pics from a recent brewery visit. Really, that’s actually how blogging started and I think it’s a good place to take it again. That doesn’t mean there won’t be longer-form articles and profiles of Alberta beer folks when time permits or the story warrants it. That also doesn’t mean I won’t get serious if the topic calls for it. I guess Original Levity will be like a lot of conversations had over a beer: friendly, engaging and lively, but occasionally serious. Oh, and there will be hockey. Beer and hockey are a classic pairing and two of my loves. I definitely plan to work in some hockey talk.

Grab a beer and join me, won’t you?