Avenue Edmonton

Avenue Adjunct: a paean to lagers

Welcome to a new feature: Avenue Adjunct.

In addition to Original Levity, one of the main channels for my beer writing is a regular column in Avenue Edmonton I’ve had for nearly three years. A lot of times, there are interesting things that don’t make it into the final product, either because of space limitations or because they’re a bit too arcane for a general audience.

Avenue Adjunct will be a home for those odds and ends that didn’t make it into my column: a digital domain for additional context, opinions and digressions worth sharing with readers.

It’s a privilege to have the latitude to choose my column topics, but April’s column about lagers was a particular labour of love because I enjoy them so much and feel they often don’t get the respect they deserve.

One of the things about writing for a magazine is that it requires long lead times. When I wrote the lager column in the early days of 2020, COVID-19 was a distant threat and the coronavirus pandemic was not yet upon us.

Beer in the time of COVID: a recent BOIP (Beer Over Internet Protocol) with beer pals. Thanks to Kurt, aka @watershedbrew, for the pic.

When the column came out, my initial thought was that it hasn’t aged well: I’m extolling lagers as the ultimate beer for socializing at a time when it’s absolutely necessary for all of us to keep our distance from each other. If anything, this seems like prime time for cellar beers — an opportunity to wring some enjoyment from our forced confinement by sipping and contemplating the rarities and classics we’ve been holding onto.

That may be so. But it also struck me that the time when we eventually emerge from this and begin reconnecting over a beer will be a time for lagers. It will be a time to raise a glass with friends, take a sip and ask them how they’ve been. And then listen. Then, you might say how you’re doing. Maybe you’re on your second pint by then. The beer is part of the conversation, an element of that shared experience — but the conversation isn’t about the beer.

The best way I’ve heard someone describe this yin and yang of beer came in a conversation between two beer industry friends of mine: Matt Mercer-Slingsby, co-host of Drink this Podcast, and guest Christina Owczarek during an episode of the show recorded in 2019. They posited that there are two kinds of beer. On one side, there are beers that are the moment: big, bold, complex or unique beers that command your attention and demand analysis. On the other side, there are beers that are part of the moment: the beer that makes finishing a tough workout feel even sweeter, the beer you sip beside a crackling campfire, the beer you pull out of the fridge and crack open for a friend who pops by for an impromptu visit.

I have plenty of the former in my cellar — “Holy shit!” beers that I know I’ll enjoy someday. But the beer I’m looking forward to the most is the next one I have with a friend, face-to-face. More than likely that beer will be a lager, and maybe it won’t be memorable in and of itself. But it will be no less beautiful, in its own wonderful way.

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.

Back with a vengeance healthy dose of indolence

If conventional wisdom dictates that blogging exists under a “publish or perish” imperative similar to academia — that you have to keep up a steady stream of content to keep people coming back — then I guess my unplanned five-month hiatus could be viewed as a mortal blow to Original Levity.

Luckily for me, I didn’t start Original Levity for the conventional reasons, like making money via advertising or clicks. While I certainly view the blog as a way of keeping my personal brand out there after leaving daily journalism a few years ago, my main purpose from the beginning was to create an outlet for my beer-related brain droppings outside of regular contributions to publications like Avenue Edmonton.

“Let’s take a relaxed attitude toward blogging and watch the baseball match.”

The simplest explanation for my absence is that life has been busy over the past few months. But on a deeper level, I was wrestling with my motivation and something more existential: I have spent my entire adult life writing for a living. Coming home from work to sit down in front of a screen and write some more was starting to feel, well, a lot like work. And I’ve been struggling with that.

I’ve recently started putting together a couple of new posts, but it didn’t feel right to come back after five months and act like I never went away. While mulling over what to say, I came across a blog post that articulated many of the things I had been feeling, titled The Modern Trap of Turning Hobbies Into Hustles.

Sometimes, being a good writer means stepping aside and recognizing when someone has said something better than you ever could — and that was the case when I read this passage: “It’s OK to love a hobby the same way you’d love a pet; for its ability to enrich your life without any expectation that it will help you pay the rent.”

What that doesn’t mean is that I’ll write for others for free — that’s not a hobby for me: I’m a professional writer, and I’ve earned the right to expect to be paid for my time and effort in the 25-plus years I’ve plied my trade in newspapers, broadcasting and, more recently, magazines.

This blog, on the other hand, is a hobby. I’ll gladly write for free when the person in charge is me. But as the old expression goes, “You get what you pay for.” Absent the prospect of a paycheque (or any need for one) my output will vary accordingly.

Now … if a five-month holiday from posting doesn’t kill a blog, telling people, “Don’t expect anything new here!” surely will. So let me say in no uncertain terms that’s not what I mean. Stick around (or maybe, more accurately, come back), because I have plans.

While I’ve never really cared about clicks, one thing I’ve always wanted with Original Levity is engagement. What the past few months have taught me is that different people engage in different ways. Rather than stubbornly expect everyone who’s interested in what I say about craft beer to come here, I’m going to talk to people where they’re most comfortable hanging out and engaging — whether that’s discussing an interesting beer article I share via Facebook or Twitter, checking out Untappd to see what I’ve been drinking lately, or following my beery travels on Instagram.

By no means does that spell an end to this blog. While I want to use different channels to reach people more frequently, to me this is still a valuable venue for storytelling, reviews and opinion. To that end, I recently visited Alley Kat Brewing here in Edmonton and had the privilege of sampling every vintage of its Olde Deuteronomy barley wine going back to 1995. Watch for that story in the coming weeks.

When I started this blog in April 2018, I invited people to join me for a beer and some interesting conversation. My invitation is just as sincere today: the only difference is, you may find me in a few different places. Please don’t let that throw you. I’m just as thirsty and chatty as I’ve always been.

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.

 

 

#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.)