Bench Creek Brewing

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.

Hopps* and Hockey Cards #2: Winnipeg Jets

As time ticked down on the last game in the seven-year history of the World Hockey Association (WHA), fans who packed the Winnipeg Arena that night had a lot to celebrate.

Not only were the hometown Jets about to capture the 1979 AVCO Cup with an easy 7-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers, a merger deal between the WHA and rival NHL had been struck. In a few months, the WHA champs would compete in the NHL. The Jets, and Winnipeg, were about to enter the big leagues.

The Jets were probably one of the best teams of the era, in any league. They had won three of the last four AVCO Cups. In 1978, they beat the fearsome Soviet national squad in an exhibition — the first and only club team to ever do so. As impressive as those achievements were, the Jets were untested against the NHL’s best. With Winnipeg, Edmonton, Quebec and Hartford set to join the NHL the following season, the Jets were about to get their chance to prove themselves.

Alas, it was never to be. During the seven-year war between the WHA and the NHL, the rebel league had been able to poach some of hockey’s most talented names. With the WHA on its last legs, the NHL dictated the terms of union — and the price was steep. The NHL allowed its teams to reclaim players from the surviving WHA teams without compensation. The WHA clubs were placed at the end of the draft order and were allowed to protect only two skaters and two goaltenders. The high-flying Jets of the WHA were grounded and struggled for years during their first years in the NHL.

The 1979 dismantling of the Jets was only the first in a a long line of injustices and misfortunes foisted upon fans in Winnipeg. The team eventually got better, thanks to stars like Dale Hawerchuk and Teemu Selanne (aka the Finnish Flash), but they never made it out of their division because one of the greatest teams of all time, the Gretzky-era Edmonton Oilers, always stood in their way. (Ironically, this article quotes legendary Oilers coach-GM Glen Sather saying he modelled his team after the WHA Jets.)

And then, 1996. Fans in Winnipeg got robbed again, when the NHL allowed the team to move to Phoenix. It’s true the Jets were playing in a small, obsolete area in an era when the low Canadian dollar was pummelling even financial powerhouses like the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. But the NHL was quick to pull the plug. As we’ve seen in recent years, the original Jets — now the Arizona Coyotes — have been allowed to struggle indefinitely in their new home, with the NHL actively shielding them from relocation.

Winnipeg got its Jets back through the struggles of another American Sunbelt team, the Atlanta Thrashers, which moved to the Manitoba capital in 2011 after 12 forgettable seasons in the U.S. South. Rather than hailing this righting of a historical wrong, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was petulant while announcing the Jets’ return, threatening fans that the team would suffer the same fate as the original Jets if they didn’t sell out the arena every night.

Seven years later, the patience and loyalty of Jets fans has been rewarded with a thrilling playoff run and a berth in the conference finals against the Vegas Golden Knights — a first-year franchise gifted a head start with favourable expansion terms that the Jets and others never had.

To recognize this momentous occasion and to raise a beer to the long-suffering fans of Winnipeg, I’ve chosen the Jets team checklist from the 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee card set, which marks the team’s entry to the NHL. May this be the year that Winnipeg no longer looks back wistfully at what was lost and what could have been.

I’ve paired the Jets card with White Raven IPA from Bench Creek Brewing. This coppery beauty bursts with orange and mango hop aroma. This is a citrus-forward IPA, for sure, but there’s some old-skool northwest IPA in it, with some pine aroma and flavour. What puts White Raven in the top tier of Alberta IPAs is its complexity and balance. Each sip brings a different combination of citric and tropical flavors that deliver the kind of bitterness you expect from an IPA, followed in perfect proportion with some caramel malt. This is a hoppy beer, not an overly bitter one — and that’s an important distinction.

White Raven is made in a brewery off the beaten track on a rural range road outside of Edson. It’s proof that size doesn’t always matter, that great things can come from small places when people have passion, pride and a commitment to quality. Kind of like a hockey team from Winnipeg.

(* For this installment, I’ve changed “Hops and Hockey Cards” to “Hopps” as a nod to my pal Brett Hopper, who, in addition to being Bench Creek’s southern Alberta sales rep, is also a Winnipeg boy and huge Jets fan. Go Jets go!)

 

‘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.