Edmonton

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.

Getting hot and hefe with Analog Brewing

When we lived in Calgary, my wife Lea and I enjoyed a few getaways to Montana. It was mainly for skiing and other outdoor pursuits in and around Whitefish, but I was always eager for an opportunity to dive into Montana’s rich craft beer culture — particularly in the pre-2013 era before Alberta’s scene took off.

I enjoyed visiting several breweries during our trips to Montana, but I regret never making it to Bowser Brewing in Great Falls before it closed in 2017. A few friends recommended the place, and there was one beer that immediately caught my eye when I visited their website several years ago: a hefeweizen made with jalapeno peppers. With the right execution, I thought it could be an interesting and highly drinkable beer.

Bowser Brewing’s demise prevented me from finding out — until now, that is. I recently discovered Edmonton’s Analog Brewing made a jalapeno hefeweizen called Na’cho Hefe, and I just knew that I had to try it.

From what I can tell, it’s a small-batch release available on tap at the brewery and other select locations. I tracked it down at Little Guy Liquor Store in Sherwood Park, where it was available at the growler bar. After trying the beer over the long weekend, I can say it was worth the drive from downtown Edmonton.

When I first heard about Bowser’s jalapeno hefeweizen, an idea formed in my mind about what the beer should taste like. While I never got to try theirs, Analog’s Na’cho Hefe lived up to my lofty expectations.

You notice jalapeno in Na’cho Hefe right away: it’s in the aroma when you smell it. But so are the elements you expect in a well-made hefeweizen, banana esters and some spicy, earthy cloves. The flavour mainly follows the aroma, but the esters shift a bit from banana on the nose to some bubblegum on the palate as well. The mouthfeel is medium-bodied and just right for the style. The jalapeno is there, but it’s an undertone and provides just a slight spicy tingle. (I took a bit of licence with “Hot and hefe” in the headline, because of its pun value and for the sake of making a Seinfeld reference on that basis. This beer isn’t “hot” at all, so don’t let that deter you.)

Flavouring beer with added ingredients is always a balancing act: First, you have to choose something that will marry well with the base beer. Then, you have to add it in a manner and in a quantity that hits a sweet spot between ensuring people know it’s there, but not so much that it detracts from the drinkability of the beer.

Analog has successfully walked that metaphorical tightrope and made a beer that has a distinct jalapeno flavour, but remains unmistakably a hefeweizen. Most importantly of all, it’s not a one-and-done novelty: I reached for a second glass and enjoyed it as much as the first.

Having said all that, I should acknowledge that I’m more open to experimentation than a lot of beer drinkers. At its worst, beer nerd subculture is insular and isn’t concerned with what a wider audience may want. Fanbois and fangirls often venerate brewers for outlandish things they can do, as opposed to considering whether they should have done it. A beer made with kids’ breakfast cereal may rate as a technical achievement and become a cool conversation piece, but does it have any lasting appeal?

I found Na’cho Hefe plenty drinkable on its own, and I think it has added appeal as a pairing with the right kind of food. I enjoyed it with some barbecue chicken I made for supper, and I bet it would be awesome with (yes) nachos and/or chicken wings, too. I’d love to see Analog make more of this beer, but that’s easy for me to say as someone who isn’t a brewery owner with bills to pay. I’d be happy to see it again, but I also understand if it’s a long time before I do.

Hops and Hockey Cards #3: Al Hamilton

Like a lot of people in Edmonton, I have a problem with the Oilers.

But while the Oilers faithful have been despondent over the team’s on-ice performance for a number of years, I’m a non-fan who got upset at the beginning of this season because of something they did off the ice.

The Oilers aren’t my team, but I’m an avid hockey fan and I’m passionate about the game’s history (if the existence of this running series didn’t make that already apparent). I’m also an insufferable pedant — which is why I can’t abide by the Oilers declaring that the 2018-19 season would be a celebration of the team’s “40th anniversary.”

Thing is, the Edmonton Oilers go back a lot longer than 40 years: they began their existence in 1972 as one of the founding clubs of the World Hockey Association, a league locked in a bitter rivalry with the NHL for seven seasons. (A league where a kid named Wayne Gretzky made his professional debut as a member of the Indianapolis Racers.)

The NHL won the war of attrition, and its victory allowed it to extract a surrender agreement from the WHA that was strongly in the senior league’s favour. Four teams — the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers (renamed Hartford), Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets — were allowed to join the NHL in 1979. Two other surviving WHA teams, the Birmingham Bulls and Cincinnati Stingers, were paid to go away.

This next point is important, because it sets the stage for the Oilers’ “40th anniversary” nonsense: the NHL considered the addition of the four WHA teams as an expansion, rather than a merger. The most obvious byproduct of this arrangement is it gave the NHL justification to pick clean the WHA teams’ existing rosters by reclaiming players who had jumped leagues and forcing the clubs to rebuild via an expansion draft.

The WHA survivors eventually recovered from the pillaging and went on to contend in the NHL — none better than the Oilers, who began a Stanley Cup dynasty after five years in the league.

One repercussion of the “expansion” deal still being felt to this day is the NHL’s petulant attempt to minimize the WHA’s role in history. WHA statistics are not recognized in players’ career totals, and the surviving teams’ in-house records were wiped from the books. The NHL’s perpetual grudge can be seen at its most absurd on Oilers merch that’s embroidered with the date “EST’D 1979,” leaving no doubt how the league views this year’s milestone.

The Oilers either didn’t have the autonomy, or the good sense, to rise above such bullshittery. An unfortunate victim of this ham-handed process (other than the truth) turns out to be one of the franchise’s most beloved players: Al Hamilton, a defenceman who played for the Oilers during all seven WHA seasons plus a year in the NHL. His number 3 was left off a commemorative patch emblazoned with the club’s retired numbers.

True, the six whose numbers made it onto the patch — Gretzky, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri and Mark Messier — are members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Hamilton isn’t.

Fans noticed the omission, and many didn’t like it. Sure, Hamilton wasn’t a superstar hall-of-famer, but he was considered a leader in the dressing room and he put up some decent numbers, too. You could say he was a stalwart. A mainstay.

Being steady and reliable are admirable qualities — but alas, they can be taken for granted. People can be fickle. That’s certainly true among sports fans, but respected Toronto writer Stephen Beaumont recently noticed the same phenomenon in the beer world: sales of brewery mainstays have been sagging across the board as fans ditch the classic brands that made them interested in craft beer for more exotic and out-there offerings.

The trend inspired Beaumont to declare this month the inaugural “Flagship February,” and thus began a campaign to get beer drinkers to give some love to old mainstays they not have enjoyed in awhile.

It seems only fitting, then, to pay tribute to Hamilton with the mainstay of Edmonton craft beer mainstays: Alley Kat Brewing’s Full Moon Pale Ale.

Alley Kat has branched out into an ever-increasing number of seasonal and one-off beers since opening in 1995. During that time, Alley Kat’s beers have become bigger and more ambitious, like its Dragon series of IPAs. Throughout, Full Moon has endured — though some might remember Alley Kat briefly reformulated it as an IPA in 2015 in an attempt to capitalize on that style’s increasing popularity. (To its credit, when Alley Kat changed Full Moon back to its original recipe in 2016, it didn’t try to erase its first 20 years of existence by claiming it was a new beer.)

Today’s Full Moon holds up. Like a solid and reliable pale ale, Full Moon has balance: biscuity caramel malt that delivers a touch of sweetness, but not too much. The hops deliver grapefruit, orange and pine in noticeable measure, but they’re in good balance with the malt. The overall impression is hoppy, but not overly bitter.

Full Moon is a beer that satisfies, even if it doesn’t shoot the lights out. And on many nights, as in some hockey games, that’s all you need to win.


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.