Alberta Beer Awards

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.

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.

Enjoying B.C.’s best at Okanagan Fest of Ale

(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.)

It looks like winter has finally released Alberta from its icy grip, judging by the double-digit temperatures and sunshine across the province last week.

You might think it folly for me to recommend a warmer-weather getaway to B.C. when spring has seemingly arrived in Alberta, but I’ve lived in this province for more than 20 years: I know from experience that April can produce some of the nastiest, snowiest weather of the year — particularly in Calgary. (And frankly, I’m amazed how even longtime Albertans forget this.)

So if you’re craving green grass, budding foliage and some sunshine with your beer, head to Penticton for the 24th edition of the Okanagan Fest of Ale on April 12 and 13.

I’ve had the privilege of being invited to the festival as a competition judge for the past four years and excited to return in a few weeks for a fifth go-round. During my time at the Fest of Ale, I’ve seen the quantity and quality of breweries continue to grow. This year’s festival at the Penticton Trade and Convention Centre will feature an event-high 75 breweries and cideries — 19 of which are attending for the first time.

Alberta’s craft beer industry has grown rapidly over the past few years, and the results of this year’s Alberta Beer Awards demonstrate we have a lot to be proud of here in Wild Rose country. But there’s a great big beery world beyond our borders, and the province next door is the home of Canada’s craft brewing trailblazers as well as some of the country’s most innovative newcomers. While it’s true we’re seeing more B.C. beer than ever in Alberta, the Fest of Ale lineup still includes many breweries that don’t ship to our province. Even among the breweries that do make their way here, the Fest of Ale is a good opportunity to sample limited releases that aren’t available in Alberta.

I may push springtime in the Okanagan as a reason to make the trip to Penticton, but I can’t exactly guarantee the weather will be good. One selling point I do feel 100 per cent confident about, however, is the Fest of Ale’s community vibe.

Line-ups at booths are fairly manageable, which gives brewers and guests more of an opportunity to talk about the beer than you often get at larger fests. And unlike some larger events, many of the booths are staffed by brewers and brewery employees who can talk knowledgeably about the beer they’re pouring, as opposed to hired guns brought in to sling beer and not much else. Being a beer writer from out of province has given me the opportunity to field test this claim a few times: unlike many of the other judges, who are from B.C., most exhibitors don’t know me, so I’m confident the treatment I get closely mirrors the experience for a typical festival goer.

The Fest of Ale began as an event to kick off the spring tourism season in Penticton and boost the local economy. Although there’s no doubt the fest continues to fulfill those roles, it now takes place amid a bigger and more vibrant backdrop than two decades ago. With five local breweries and two more opening soon, Penticton’s dynamic local beer scene earned it a #2 spot on a list of Canada’s best beer towns published by the travel site Expedia.ca. Festival weekend has also come to include a growing list of beer events happening around town, perhaps none more popular than Saturday night’s Murderers Row cask event at the Kettle Valley Station Pub. The event’s Facebook page has more details and a list of the 17 breweries participating this year, as well as ticket info — which is important, because it usually sells out well in advance.

Keep an eye on this site for official judging results on the afternoon of April 13, plus I’ll have photos and updates on Original Levity’s Twitter and Instagram feeds throughout the weekend.