Locked in the Cellar: Last Best A.E. Cross Barley Wine, aged in rye barrels

One aspect of craft beer culture that has always bored me is the fetishization of high-alcohol and extreme beers. There’s a contingent of boozy chuckleheads that will unfailingly rave about any beer as long as it’s strong enough or packed with enough vanilla beans and cocoa nibs, without really considering its drinkability or balance.

The real beauty in big beers like barley wines, if you ask me, is when a brewer can tame all the forceful elements that go into them and the result is something kind of subtle — something worthy of contemplation and repeat enjoyment. A.E. Cross Barley Wine from Last Best Brewing in Calgary is such a beer.

Last Best intended the beer as a tribute to Cross, who was the founder of Calgary Brewing and Malting, as well as one of the Big Four who started the Calgary Stampede in 1912.

The brewery released two iterations of the beer at the end of 2016, both made with locally-sourced barley, wheat and rye. There was an unoaked version and a batch aged in rye whisky barrels.

I opened a bottle of the barrel-aged version and I will say without hesitation that Last Best has produced a fine tribute to the beer’s namesake.

The beer, brewed to 11.8 per cent AVB, poured a slightly hazy ruby brown with a compact off-white head. The head dissipated quickly, but left behind a long-lasting halo around the edges of the glass. A sugary sweet aroma pulled me in, followed by a brief flare of alcohol, spicy rye and a pleasant bit of tobacco.

On the palate, the alcohol came sharply at first, making me wonder if maybe this beer was still a bit on the young side. But I didn’t think that for long at all, because it subsided into a nicely complex mix of toffee, raisins, a hint of rye spiciness and some sticky sweetness in the linger — but not treacly sweet.

The aroma got boozier as the beer warmed up, but the flavour profile went the other way, acquiring more subtlety: some tobacco and a nice warming sensation going down. I’d say most of the barrel qualities in this beer come from the traces of rye left in them, as opposed to any woody traits that were discernible to me.

Overall, this beer has turned out mellow and smooth, except for the boozy flash I mentioned earlier. It’s possible you could age it longer and it might get even better, but it’s really enjoyable right now. If you open a bottle, you won’t be disappointed.

Hops and Hockey Cards #4: Jack Marshall

There’s no live hockey to provide inspiration for the latest installment of Hops and Hockey Cards, but the reason there’s no hockey — the coronavirus pandemic — prompted me to look toward the past, when another pandemic brought the hockey world to a stop.

In the spring of 1919, the Spanish flu pandemic ended the Stanley Cup series between the NHL champion Montreal Canadiens and the Seattle Metropolitans, champs of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. The teams were deadlocked with two wins apiece and a tie between them when several Canadiens players fell ill. The series was called off just a few hours before the deciding game on April 1 and the cup wasn’t awarded to anyone that year. Four days later, Joe Hall of the Canadiens died of pneumonia brought on by the flu.

The Stanley Cup is synonymous with NHL supremacy today, but it was a different story 100 years ago. From 1915 to 1926, champions from the NHL and its forerunner, the National Hockey Association, squared off against teams from rival leagues for the right to claim the cup.

I don’t have any hockey collectables from that period, but I do have a couple of old cards from the years just before that — a time known as the challenge era. Between 1893 and 1914, teams tried to win the Stanley Cup by issuing a challenge to the club that currently held it. With the NHL apparently considering a number of different playoff formats to finish the current season, it seems apropos to harken back to a time when the Stanley Cup was awarded in a much different way than it is today.

If you’ve never read about the challenge era, I highly recommend it. Some of the game’s most colourful lore comes from those years. It was a time when teams from places like Kenora could vie for the cup — and win it. Yes, the Kenora Thistles were on top of the hockey world for two glorious months after winning the cup in a two-game challenge of the Montreal Wanderers in January 1907. The Thistles withstood a challenge from the Brandon Wheat Kings in March 1907, but a week later the Wanderers took back the Stanley Cup by winning a two-game series.

The challenge era also spawned one of the most improbable stories in any sport, in any era: the Dawson City Nuggets’ challenge of the Ottawa Silver Seven (later Senators) in January 1905. The Nuggets trekked 6,500 km from Dawson City, Yukon to Ottawa to challenge for the cup — a journey that took several weeks by foot, dogsled, train and ship. Alas, the trip is the most memorable part of the story. Ottawa easily defeated the Nuggets, who didn’t have a single top-flight player among them, 9-2 and 23-2.

I’m lucky enough to own a card depicting one of the most successful players of that era: Jack Marshall, who won the Stanley Cup six times with four different teams between 1901 and 1914.

I say “lucky,” because when 12-year-old me paid what I considered a princely sum of $15 for Marshall’s card from the 1911 Imperial Tobacco set, I had no idea of his hall of fame pedigree. And if I had an ounce of foresight back then, I would have bought a lot more $15 tobacco cards instead of boxes and boxes of baseball cards that are basically worthless today.

But I digress.

I was mulling over a beer to pair with this historical foray and decided on King’s English Black Tea Lemon Pale Ale, a current seasonal release from Annex Ale Project. Between the name and the addition of Earl Grey tea in the beer, it all seemed thoroughly British, as Canada still would have been in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

All that aside, the inclusion of tea and lemon bring a level of creativity to beer that wouldn’t have existed a hundred-odd years ago. Annex has done a good job of taking the idea and executing from top to bottom. The lemon is brightly citric & meshes nicely with hops they’ve used. There are distinct bergamot and tea notes, but they don’t overwhelm the base beer, which is a nicely-balanced pale ale.

King’s English finishes grainy, and leaves a firmly beery impression. For all this beer’s modern flourishes, there’s a solid pale ale underneath that wouldn’t be out of place in any era. Enjoy it with a pinky extended, if you’re feeling fancy.

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.


Building a cozy Cabin in Calgary’s Barley Belt

When Cabin Brewing opens its taproom in southeast Calgary’s Barley Belt district later this year, expect to find an American pale ale, a northwest IPA and plenty of hygge.

You expect to find beer at a brewery — but the third offering, hygge, is something different: it’s a Scandinavian word that describes a feeling of comfort and coziness. And that, along with the beer, will be a significant part of Cabin Brewing’s identity.

“You don’t see a lot of breweries naming themselves after the taproom,” says Jonas Hurtig, Cabin’s head brewer and one of three founding partners, along with Haydon Dewes and Darrin Sayers.

“Hygge” wasn’t a word that came up during my recent interview with Jonas and Haydon, but I’d heard about the concept before and it’s what immediately came to mind when Haydon explained the thinking behind the brewery’s name.

“It’s creating that feeling of making your own space and feeling you’re comfortable and switching off. It’s more about the emotional kind of feel,” he says.

The taproom is the metaphorical cabin in the brewery’s name, but it will not be a literal one — and in this part of the world, where log construction and reclaimed barn wood have become a clichéd shorthand for “Western” or “rustic,” I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

“It’s won’t be like walking into a lodge. We like clean, modern design with a cozy touch. It’s going to be comfortable, with a bit of that nostalgic touch,” Haydon says.

“It’s that place you go, with the people you like, to do the things you want to do.”

And if you’re visiting a brewery, you want to drink beer. Atmosphere may be an important selling point to Cabin’s founders, but beer is the main attraction. The Cabin team has put a lot of thought into its approach to beer and brings a wealth of expertise to the venture.

Haydon is likely best known in Alberta beer circles as a regular beer columnist for the Calgary Eyeopener on CBC Radio and as the creator of The Daily Beer, a blog he started in 2015. Like me, Haydon is a former journalist who decided to combine his passion for writing and craft beer after he left a career in newspapers to work in communications. It’s no surprise, then, that we became fast friends and I was a regular contributor for The Daily Beer before I moved to Edmonton. (Alberta’s beer community is relatively small and it’s probably common knowledge that I wrote for The Daily Beer, but consider this my “full disclosure” statement if not.)

Haydon is also an award-winning homebrewer and a member of the Cowtown Yeast Wranglers club. Like many accomplished homebrewers, Haydon began wondering if he had what it takes to go pro and start his own brewery.

“The more I met people and got to know about the industry, I thought, ‘This could be pretty cool,'” he says.

Haydon and his wife, Jill, talked it over and began formulating a plan in mid-2016. At one point — maybe from watching legions of other Alberta homebrewers turn pro with varying degrees of success and/or aggravation — they decided it would be a better idea to get some other experienced hands involved. Haydon first approached Jonas Hurtig, a friend and fellow Yeast Wrangler who was brewing professionally at Wild Rose Brewery. Jonas politely declined, saying he was already working on his own brewery venture with someone else.

Undeterred, Haydon approached another Yeast Wrangler buddy, Darrin Sayers, with his idea. Darrin, too, said no. He was planning to open a brewery with somebody else. What were the odds?

Cabin builders: Haydon Dewes, Darrin Sayers and Jonas Hurtig. (Photo courtesy Cabin Brewing.)

Haydon later found out that Jonas and Darrin weren’t involved in separate ventures but were, in fact, going into business with each other. The three of them sat down in the fall of 2016 and talked about joining forces. Things clicked, and Cabin Brewing was formally incorporated on April 1, 2017.

“With these guys, everything felt right. We all liked each other,” Jonas says.

“I really liked the diversity of our skill sets.”

Despite all three partners having solid homebrew chops, Jonas’ experience in a full-scale production brewery made him the logical choice for head brewer. Haydon’s track record in media and communications landed him a role as Cabin’s marketing guru, while Darrin’s skills as a trained mechanic earned him the job of running operations and logistics.

The partners may have a varied skill set, but they have similar taste in beer.

“We’re all big hopheads,” Jonas says.

The two mainstays will come with big hop flavour and aromatics, but Jonas says it won’t come at the expense of balance and drinkability.

“I don’t like when anything is too much in one direction,” he says.

The pale ale is derived from a recipe of Jonas’ that has won more than 30 medals in homebrew competitions.

“It’s an easy-drinking American pale ale with nice aromatics,” says Jonas.

The IPA will be a departure from the current trend toward low-bitterness, citrus- and tropical fruit-forward New England IPAs: a West Coast-style IPA with more pine and citric bitterness and a dry finish. West Coast IPAs may not be all the rage like NEIPAs currently are, but they’ve hardly gone out of style.

And the rest? Cabin will brew a steady stream of rotating releases. “It’ll be, ‘What do we want to brew?'” Jonas says. While that strategy may appeal to their sense of creativity, it’s also smart from a marketing perspective: many craft drinkers are equally whimsical, choosing their beer according to mood, season or meal pairing.

Speaking of food: the taproom will serve snacks, though the concept is still being worked out. The taproom will also be kid-friendly, which makes sense. It’s not much of a cozy cabin if the whole family can’t be together, is it?

When it opens later this year, the taproom will also be the primary place to get Cabin’s beer. Initially, the focus will be on selling from the taproom and a small number of draft accounts around Calgary.

“We want to be careful and treat our accounts well,” says Jonas.

In addition to allowing the brewery to focus on quality, starting small is also a way of keeping expenses in line and remaining nimble in an increasingly crowded marketplace. How to stand out in a city where the number of breweries is closing in on 30 is a question Haydon says he wrestles with “every night.”

“It’s competitive — we know it’s not going to be easy.”

Cabin’s space at 505 36 Ave. S.E. is about half the size of what they were originally looking for, but Haydon says they’re happy with the turn of events. Citing the example of Calgary’s Dandy Brewing, Haydon says small breweries can be mighty, using their small capacity to make a steady stream of creative, small-batch beers.

In 2016, Dandy made an audacious pledge to release 40 different beers that year. Not only did Dandy deliver the promised quantity, the exercise cemented its reputation as one of Alberta’s most adventurous and well-regarded breweries — a brewery that recently expanded with a spacious new taproom and restaurant that opened in April.

As inspirations go, Cabin could hardly have chosen better.