COVID-19

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.

Locked in the Cellar: 2015 Muskoka Brewery Winter Beard Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout

The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdown is what prompted me to start sampling beers from my cellar — and more broadly speaking, to re-animate this blog after neglecting it for several months.

It’s amazing what having a surplus of free time and nowhere to go can do for one’s creativity, and it seems I’m not the only one having this revelation. A buddy of mine here in Edmonton, Tofor, said he has been similarly inspired to fire up his blog after an extended hiatus.

When I posted a picture of some of the beers in my cellar a few weeks ago, Tofor remarked he also had an aged bottle of Muskoka Brewery’s Winter Beard Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout. We decided it would be fun to review the beer individually, in our own homes, and post the results on our respective sites. Although we didn’t discuss our findings beforehand, our observations turned out to be pretty similar.

My bottle of Winter Beard is a 2015 vintage that, according to my records, I bought in February 2016. I don’t have any specific tasting notes for a fresh bottle, but I recall enjoying how all the elements hung together and deciding to buy a second bottle for aging.

The aged bottle got off to a promising start, with an attractive tan head and an aroma of cocoa nibs and coffee. There wasn’t any cranberry apparent on the nose.

The flavour started where the nose left off: coffee and roasty malt that bordered on acrid. But the smooth cocoa hinted at in the aroma just wasn’t there. I could taste cranberry but had to reach for it, and the characteristic tartness was gone — it was more solvent-like, like nail polish remover. The body was slightly thin and the small, prickly carbonation felt out of place for the style.

When this beer was fresh, its disparate elements came together and made it an enjoyable sipper. Over time, it’s like those components have pulled apart and are no longer working together. The finish was ashy, not smooth.

The whole thing felt rough around the edges — like time had coarsened those edges instead of smoothing them out. Not all beers improve with age, nor do they keep improving indefinitely. At nearly five years old, it’s likely the fault here is mine, not the beer’s. This beer may still have been on the upside when it was two or three years old.

There’s a sizable minority in the beer community that thinks cellaring is bullshit — that the results aren’t worth the effort and expense put into putting bottles aside. Experiences like this are ammunition for the cellar skeptics, but to me they’re more of a reminder that cellaring is not an exact science.

This is a good argument for buying potential cellar beers in threes: one to enjoy right away, as a “control,” with two set aside for aging. The second beer becomes a bellweather: if it’s still drinking nicely after a couple of years, you can keep aging the third bottle. If it feels like the beer is beginning to go downhill, drink the third bottle sooner rather than later. (Added hint: aging two bottles also gives you more options, like setting one aside for tasting in a multi-year vertical.)

Even though I accept that cellaring is a bit of a gamble, this review and the previous one have been a bit anticlimactic considering the whole point of the exercise is to break up the monotony of physical distancing. I haven’t decided which beer I’ll review next, but I’m going to try to choose something with a more reliable track record for aging. I think that will make things more entertaining all around.

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.

Confirmed: Okanagan Fest of Ale not happening in 2020

Organizers of the Okanagan Fest of Ale announced on March 17 that this year’s event is not going ahead due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The announcement follows an interim step taken March 13 to suspend this year’s festival (originally scheduled for April 17-18), pending a decision to reschedule it for a later date in 2020 or scrub it altogether.

The decision demonstrates that organizers understand that stopping the spread of COVID-19 is the only responsible choice right now. Nevertheless, with the festival set to celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, it must have been made with heavy hearts.

With the festival not happening in 2020, it would have been more accurate for organizers to say the festival is cancelled rather than postponed — but let’s give them a pass. After all, next year’s festival will still be the 25th edition, so in that sense “postponed” is correct: celebrating the anniversary isn’t cancelled, it’s just delayed another year.

In the meantime, what’s happening in the world is bigger than any one person or event. Listen to authorities and take necessary precautions.

More specific to this blog and its audience: Whether you’re in Alberta, B.C. or elsewhere, do what you can to support your local breweries and other places you enjoy. Many taprooms and restaurants have already closed their seating areas, but may be offering takeout and/or delivery. You can also help them ride out the coming weeks by buying a gift card now.

Stay healthy, everyone, and let’s all look out for each other.

BREAKING: Okanagan Fest of Ale suspended due to COVID-19

Organizers of the Okanagan Fest of Ale have announced this year’s event, scheduled to be held April 17-18, has been suspended.

The move is in response to the coronavirus pandemic and is in compliance with a B.C. government directive that bans all public gatherings of more than 250 people in an effort to stop its spread.

The Fest of Ale’s board of directors is scheduled to announce a decision about the fate of this year’s event on Monday, March 16. The board said in a statement that it’s “considering all options” — though presumably, rescheduling or cancelling would seem to be the two most realistic choices.

This year’s event is supposed to be a celebration of the festival’s 25th anniversary. Today’s news is disappointing, but it’s absolutely the right call for organizers to make.