lager

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.

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.