IPA

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.


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.

 

‘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.